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Objectivity and Interpretation

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 19, Number 1, April 1995
pp. 48-59 | 10.1353/phl.1995.0050

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Philosophy and Literature 19.1 (1995) 48-59

According to Gregory Currie, literary interpretation suffers from a failure of objectivity. He does not claim that the failure is complete, that it is not an objective matter in the least degree which interpretations of a literary work are acceptable, but he does claim that the degree of objectivity is at best small.

I believe that literary interpretation is capable of a high degree of objectivity in the sense Currie specifies as well as in other senses. However, the same standard of objectivity is not properly applied to all interpretations, because there are many different aims or interests with which interpretations are advanced, and the requirements of objectivity on acceptability vary with aim.

Currie's argument for objectivity failure should not be accepted. The most important reason for this is that it is based on a faulty conception of the enterprise of literary interpretation. However, the argument is also questionable on that conception.


Before examining Currie's argument, it is best to be clear about the objectivity in question. Just what has, or lacks objectivity, and what makes it more or less objective? I confess to being less than completely clear about Currie's answer to this question. Let us say that it is judgments that are or are not objective, leaving it open for now which literary judgments are in question in Currie's claim about objectivity failure. Objectivity depends on the possibility of intersubjective agreement or "agreement across points of view" as Currie puts it. Judgments of taste (e.g., "sushi is delicious") are common candidates for judgments that are not objective. We can suppose judgments of leftness are objective because we can all agree with my judgment that the book is to my left even if it is to other people's right and would be to my right were I to reorient myself. Of course, that we can (should?) all agree doesn't mean we always will. For various reasons, not all of which are relevant to objectivity, some may refuse to agree.

According to Currie, objectivity comes in degrees, and nothing said so far indicates how we assign a degree of objectivity to a judgment. Extent of agreement or probability of reaching agreement might be invoked here, but these are not what Currie has in mind. In Currie's view, degree of objectivity depends on the degree to which a judgment needs to be relativized before it is capable of getting agreement. There is something intuitive in this, but it is tricky to spell out the relevant criterion. Suppose the sushi lovers of Osaka can pretty much agree among themselves about what is good sushi. So can the sushi lovers of Kyoto. However, they cannot agree with each other. What is good sushi is relative to different groups of sushi lovers and their different standards, and that seems to make the goodness of some sushi a less objective matter than if there were one overarching standard. On the other hand, judgments of leftness are also capable of receiving agreement only when relativized to an individual and her orientation. Yet that does not undermine their objectivity. Similarly, to use an example of Currie's, judgments of velocity need to be made relative to a frame of reference if they are to receive agreement, but that does not undermine their objectivity. Hence relativizing does not always undermine objectivity. Perhaps the relevant difference is something like this. There is no such thing as leftness not relativized to individual and orientation. There is no such thing as velocity not relativized to frame of reference. But perhaps there is such a thing as being a good F not relativized to group standards. This may not be so with sushi, but perhaps it is with carving knives or with stainless steel. In that case judgments of goodness that are independent of group standards, and hence capable of receiving agreement across groups, are more objective than those that are not. However, if all judgments of goodness are by their nature relative to group standards, the above reasoning suggests that such judgments are just as objective as judgments about velocity. That seems wrong. Hence...

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