The Importance of Discourse Analysis Step 9 Interpretation

Goodwill.  What could possibly encourage people in a fractured and inequitable world to have goodwill?  I, for one, do not know.  Life is hard enough and the fear of suffering and death real enough for many human beings that they cling to the comfort of stories and beliefs they dare not question.  Some of these stories can harm others and even the believers themselves, though they may not realize that in the short run.

I will argue, however, that there is a certain perspective—call it a framework—that is necessary for people of goodwill to have if they are to engage in critical discussions of their own frameworks and those of others in a pluralistic world.  Every one of us has cherished beliefs, ones we really do not want to give up.  These beliefs might be personal, religious, scientific, political, social, or cultural.  We fear that any critical discussion might jeopardize these cherished beliefs and are, thus, reluctant to engage in such discussions in any open and authentic way. 

I well remember in my early years as a generative linguist that questioning core tenets of Noam Chomsky’s evolving grammatical theories was uncomfortable because it positioned you as an outsider, not a member of the “in group,” the wave of the future.  It is not that Chomsky’s theories were wrong.  Rather, the issue is that even cherished scientific theories are not certain and should always be open to challenge, change, and modification.  The pursuit of science, at its best, means being open to such challenge, change, and modification, but sometimes such openness threatens our sense of belonging and being “on the right side of history.”

Religion is the best place to see the power of cherished beliefs—but by no means the only place—and the best place to see that having cherished beliefs by no means requires that we evade critical discussions.  I take as my text here from the work of the Iranian philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush.  Soroush has written a great deal about both science and religion at a time and place where engaging in philosophical debates about civic society, democracy, freedom, goodwill, religion and government could get you detained, tortured, or even killed.  In Iran philosophy mattered and still does in a way that is not true of our U. S. colleges and universities today.  As much as I would not want to be tortured for my philosophical arguments, it would be nice to know that anyone cared that much about “abstract thought” and theories.

Here are some remarks from an edited collection of some of Soroush’s work called Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of Abdolkarim Soroush.  

Religion is sacred and heavenly, but the understanding of religion is human and earthly. That which remains constant is religion [din]; that which undergoes change is religious knowledge and insight [ma `refat-e dini]. … 

We are sharihan [interpreters of religion], not sahri'an [initiators of religion]. We are the enticed, not the infallibles. Let them who deem their words above the mere understanding of the religion beware: their hubris may at long last tempt them to don the mantle of the prophets. The acceptance of the sovereignty of religion is far from putting one's own words in the Prophet's mouth and arrogating his seat to oneself. Rather, it means a sincere attempt to understand his message through repeated consultation with the sacred text and the Tradition. … 

We can have two visions of reason: reason as destination and reason as path. The first sees reason as the source and repository of truths. The second sees it as a critical, dynamic, yet forbearing force that meticulously seeks the truth by negotiating tortuous paths of trial and error. … 

…each culture must disavow certain elements of itself.

However cherished a claim is in a scientific, religious, political, or cultural framework—say, for example, cherished statements in the U.S. constitution—they have to be interpreted.  As we have seen earlier, they have to be given meaning in new situations where we need to think about what are sufficient and good reasons for applying our cherished words in and to them.  All language has semantic meanings (“literal meanings,” exemplars) that need to be situated—that is, given situational meanings—in specific contexts of application and use.

Furthermore, as we have also seen, the interpretation of—and even our belief in—any one claim in a framework is contingent upon our interpretations and the strength of our beliefs in many or all of the other words and claims in our framework.  If, in a critical discussion, we have reason to suspect or doubt our interpretation of a claim in our framework, this need not be an invitation to give up that claim.  Rather it is an invitation to think more deeply about and, perhaps, modify parts of our framework and their interpretations when we are faced with different situations and applications to the world.  It is an invitation to see to what extent our paths to truth as human beings—as humans all of whom are prone to error—might, at certain times and places, converge on a joint journey to a better world and to truth in the sense of respect for the shared world we live in and the “feedback” it gives us to our actions in it.

Soroush calls upon us to distinguish between claims that are “sacred” to us—that are “attractors” for us to what we hope and feel are important “truths”—and our ever present need (and moral responsibility) to be humble enough to realize that we are not prophets, but mere interpreters.  You are not asked to give up any specific claim.  Rather, you are asked to reflect on how well your interpretation of various parts of your framework squares with data (feedback) from our shared human world in open critical competition and collaboration among different frameworks.  That is all that is required for goodwill.  If people do not accept at least this much, then there is nothing left for us to say, quite literally.

Let me call this framework that people of goodwill have and are required to have “the interpreter framework.”  This is one framework that transcends cultures and even conflicts.  It is one framework we all share as human beings if we want to live together—and not die together—on the same planet.  Of course, this framework needs to be interpreted and subject to critical discussions as well, since it is their origin and point.

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