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Susan L. Feagin INCOMPATIBLE INTERPRETATIONS OF ART ? Art can be baffling, especially these days, but writers in aesthetics tend to make it more mysterious than it actually is. One recent example of obfuscation is the claim that since inconsistent interpretations can all be true of a single work of art, art obeys a "different logic" from the laws obeyed by the more mundane objects of ordinary discourse. To admit inconsistent interpretations is to admit that works of art can be truly described in inconsistent ways, so the view runs, and this is contrary to what are ordinarily fundamental rules of reason. Art begins to look very mysterious indeed, and we start to look around for a peculiar ontological status to correspond to its peculiar logic.1 Can it possibly be true that anything, even a work of art, fails to obey the law of non-contradiction? If it failed to obey this law, what logical laws would it obey? How could one say anything with any assurance about a work of art? Recent discussions of how to deal with incompatible interpretations, rather than resolving this problem, have seen it as confronting contemporary aesthetics with yet another dilemma. Some say that, like incompatible descriptions of anything, inconsistent interpretations of a work of art cannot all be true and hence we must reject all interpretations but one. Others say that it is logically permissible to accept incompatible interpretations of a given work, but that this shows that interpretations cannot be true or false (since then we wouldbe defying the law of non-contradiction), but must have a weaker logical status, such as relevant, permissible, acceptable, or probable. The problem is set, the lines are drawn, and the contestants have taken up sides. The dilemma is a clear one: either we confine ourselves to one interpretation, disallowing anything that conflicts with it, preserving the truth of interpretations but avoiding selfcontradiction , or we develop a new "logical status" for interpretative remarks — plausible, relevant, probable, rather than true or false — which allows us to admit conflicting interpretations as having an equally acceptable status. The dilemma persists, moreover, because each side has its weaknesses: alternative analyses of a work show us its richness and potential for exploration from Philosophy and Literature Vol. 6 Nos. 1 and 2 Pp. 133-146 0190-0031/82/0061-0133 © 1982 by The Johns Hopkins University Press 134Philosophy and Literature many different perspectives which seem relevant to our appreciation of the work, but descriptions of the interpretation as "probable" or "plausible" seem appropriate only if one's interests are allied to a search for truth. John Wisdom once wrote that if you want to see your way out of a dilemma, deny what is assumed to be true on both sides. In doing this, ofcourse, one may appear to be flying in the face of common sense, at least until the rationale for the denial has been exhumed. I wish here to deny what is assumed by both parties to this dispute: that interpretations of works of art do, in fact, contradict or conflict with one another. The rhetorical force of this position is unfortunately diminished by its necessary restriction to interpretations of a given variety, to be discussed below. The kinds of interpretations I consider most clearly apply to literature, so, even though I sometimes say "art," I should be construed as referring most centrally to the literary arts. The view should be extended to the visual arts as well, and perhaps (though not so clearly) to music, but to do so would require a more extended discussion of how the kinds of interpretations I discuss here apply to those arts, which would obscure the main points about the nature of interpretation that I wish to pursue. There are those, of course, who say interpretations do not conflict with each other because they are not true or false, but have some "weaker" logical status, such as plausible, or relevant. I too am uneasy about calling interpretations true or false, but not because of any qualms about consistency, and hence it is not because of this that I wish to alter how we describe their logical status. It seems to me...


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