Title: History and the Interpretation of Texts
Author: Terence Ball
Publication: Gaus, Gerald F., and Chandran Kukathas, eds. (2004) Handbook of Political Theory. London: Sage Publications
A student of political theory needs to have read, reread and reflected upon the many works that comprise the subject’s canon. There is not one but a diversity of ways in which these works may be read, interpreted and understood.
The Indispensability of Interpretation
Humans have always interpreted events, omens, and — with the coming of the written word — texts. Students of political theory read and adjudicate between rival interpretations of political texts.
As a subject perennially fascinated with its classic texts, political theory requires an interpretation of not just the words but also the meaning of these classic texts. Such an interpretation is necessary to understand the utterances made long ago in different contexts and also to make them familiar and accessible.
Interpretation does not preclude misunderstandings that may arise from wrong interpretations nor does it imply the existence of a neutral standpoint from which to analyse a text. What it does affirm is the simple fact that there can be no understanding without interpretation.
‘Schools’ of Interpretation
The Marxian approach considers the legitimisation and perpetuation of class differences as the point and purpose of any mainstream ideology. Conventional ideas obscure the damning reality of class inequalities and paint false pictures of society’s fairness and justness.
The task of textual interpretation then is to expose the tawdry reality hidden behind the rosy façade. The goal is to unravel the fabric of illusion woven by the mainstream point of view and reveal the true hidden socio-economic reality.
B. Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (1962) is an important Marxian interpretation that paints Locke as an extraordinarily clever propagandist for capitalism. Macpherson sees Locke’s discussion of private property in the Second Treatise — where he proclaims property as that part of nature which one mixes with one’s own labour — as a justification of the institution of private property.
Marxists see all theories as ideological masks. How and why their own must be exempted is not explained (or explainable). Marxian interpretations also tend to be formulaic and deterministic seeing ideological trickery every which where.
The rise of fascism and communism prompted investigation into the philosophical roots of modern totalitarianism. The roots, once one starts looking, appears to be present everywhere. Plato’s philosopher king, Machiavelli’s ruthless prince, Hobbes’s all-powerful sovereign and Rousseau’s all-wise legislator all seem to be precursors to totalitarian rulers of the 20th century.
A prominent representative of this perspective is Sir Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies (1945). He interprets Hegel’s remark ‘what is rational is actual and what is actual is rational’ in Philosophy of Right as justifying everything that exists as reasonable and good. Hegel is seen as giving his philosophical blessing to the proto-totalitarian Prussian state.
A closer look, however, reveals Popper’s misinterpretation. In his works, Hegel contrasts the German word wirklich (which translates as ‘actual’ and means ‘realised potential’) with the word reell (translated as ‘real’ and referring to ‘potential’). Hegel’s remark is not the sinister totalitarian injunction that Popper makes it out to be.
The lesson to be learned from misreadings such as this is the critical importance of philosophical (in the considered case, conceptual and linguistic) contexts and the pitfalls of selective quoting and stitching in order to fit a preset thesis.
This approach owes its existence to Sigmund Freud who argued that our actions are driven by desires and fears we may not be consciously aware of. One can supply, the approach believes, psychoanalytic interpretations to all sorts of texts including those of political theory. This treatment has been given to thinkers like Machiavelli, Burke, Luther and Gandhi.
A prominent example of this approach, however, is Bruce Mazlish’s James and John Stuart Mill (1975). Mill’s On Liberty is cast as a personal appeal and a declaration of independence from his father who was exceedingly strict. Mill might not have consciously intended it but his unconscious desires shaped his work. He also had an illicit affair with a married woman named Harriet. Given that his mother’s name was also Harriet, this coincidence fits strikingly with what is known in psychoanalytic theory as the Oedipus complex. Unsurprisingly, Mazlish makes the most of it.
Psychoanalytic interpretations, though occasionally insightful, are speculative, impressionistic and non-falsifiable. The approach also drives attention away from the text and onto the author which is hardly the proper method for any attempt at textual interpretation.
This perspective puts gender issues at the forefront and uses that vantage point to look at political theory. The general conclusion has been that, to use Susan Okin’s observation, “the great tradition of political philosophy consists…of writings by men, for men, and about men”. This neglect has led to Feminist rereadings and reappraisals of the classic works.
The approach began in the 1960’s with an earnest search for heroines and heroes who championed the cause of women. Figures like Mary Wollstonecraft, Emma Goldman and even men like Bentham, Mill and Engels were singled out for attention and homage.
A second, angrier and arguably more accurate, phase followed which sought to expose the misogyny in the works of the greats of political theory including the ones who had in the first phase been venerated. The social contract was branded as a fraternal contract and the welfare state, as a patriarchal institution.
The third phase attacked the hitherto civic virtues of men — hunger for power, competitiveness, rationality. It turned the public/private distinction on its head and proclaimed the superiority of the private realm of the family to the public realm of politics.
Feminist critics have called for an active and engaged civic feminism. Such engagement should, however, come after embarking on a nuanced textual analysis and interpretation of western political tradition which is yet to come by.
This approach derives from the work of Leo Strauss who tried to locate the eternal truth of politics in the works of Plato and other ancient and preliberal era thinkers. These vigorous works were contrasted with the listless ruminations of modern liberal thinkers. Strauss bemoaned the weakening of normative foundations in the face of the violent winds of fanaticism. His experiences as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany puts his thought into context.
Having pointed out the crisis, Strauss and his followers attempted to trace the origins and diagnose the maladies of liberalism, relativism, historicism and scientism. Solutions were to be found by carefully rereading and deciphering the real meaning in the texts of the preliberal era.
The Straussian approach involved seeing through the exoteric disguise intended for the public and decoding the esoteric doctrine embedded between and hidden behind the lines.
This approach relies on some sort of insider’s knowledge which is available only to the initiated who in turn dismiss the uninitiated as hopelessly ignorant. Also, it just assumes that the esoteric doctrine does not correspond to the exoteric doctrine.
Postmodernism emerges out of the failures of grand narratives. It is a diffuse perspective shared by many different, even disparate, thinkers. Postmodernism stresses the incoherent and incomprehensible nature of the world and resists any attempt to find continuity and unity in the human condition. It also dismisses the idea of progress as merely an advance in one group’s power to dominate the others.
One version of this approach emerging from Foucault examines the ways in which human beings are normalised, i.e. made willing participants in their own subjugation. It involves rereading texts from the perspective of the present and then realigning and relocating them according to new axes so as to reveal who contributed to the subjugation (Hobbes and Rousseau) and who resisted it (Nietzsche).
Another version made popular by Derrida aims to deconstruct or expose and criticize the arbitrariness of claims to truth. What is proclaimed as truth, including texts, is merely a representation which isn’t any truer or better than another. As such, all interpretations are necessarily indeterminate.
The insistence on the indeterminacy of interpretations is an extremely pessimistic stance that does not advance our knowledge. But more dangerously, it legitimises or, at least, is unable to recognise propaganda and falsehood making it morally and epistemologically unsatisfactory.
Cambridge New ‘History’
The Cambridge ‘new historians’ see textual interpretation as uncovering the historically variable problems to which particular philosophers proposed particular answers and deny that there are eternal problems. Understanding meaning requires that we understand the problem being addressed.
Peter Laslett, in his introduction to Locke’s Two Treatises, shows that the volume had been written nearly a decade earlier than what was known. This paved the way for subsequent reinterpretations of Locke. This method of historical investigation has been forcefully promoted. Textbook approaches have been dismissed as insufficiently historical.
For the Cambridge historians, political theory is a form of political action. It is intended to warn, persuade, criticize, frighten, etc. Political theorists have always engaged in propaganda and persuasion. Textual interpretation is a matter of restoring texts to the historical contexts and understanding the question(s) to which the texts were offered as answers.
Conclusion: Pluralistic and Problem-Driven Interpretation
Any single method won’t suffice to get the answers we seek. A plurality of approaches which will not encumber us in the range of questions we can ask is preferable. In adopting this pluralistic approach, intellectual, political and linguistic contexts have to be kept in mind. Also to be remembered is the fact that texts take a life of their own once they are published. To concentrate solely on what the author intended in a particular text to the neglect of what other thinkers had to say about said text would not be helpful always.
Interpretative queries are problem-driven. Often, we turn to texts to clear doubts. These doubts may arise from anywhere but their interpretative solutions must be justified by stringent scholarly criteria. Interpretation triangulates between the text and two or more interpretations of it. And through reinterpretations and reappraisals, the classic works may be kept alive.