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TRUE INTERPRETATIONS by Stephen Davies Could conflicting interpretations of a literary work be equally true? Bodi Monroe C. Beardsley and Joseph Margolis assumed fhis to be impossible in their famous debate about the relationship between the multiplicity of interpretations of literary works and the assessment of such interpretations for truth.1 The assumption was implicit in the first premise of the following argument. Although they disagreed about the argument's soundness, they did agree about the truth of this premise. The argument goes like this: (1)No work of literature can be interpreted truly both as p and not-p (nor as both p and q where p and q are contraries). (2)Many a work of literature admits of equally plausible/convincing/ revealing but contradictory or contrary interpretations; so (3)Interpretations of works of literature cannot be assessed for truth (nor can they be assessed for falsity). This argument is an important one for, ifit is accepted, it entails that literary criticism and analysis are not deductively based. The use of deduction in practical (as opposed merely to formal) reasoning is possible only where the premises and conclusion might be assessed for truth. Margolis accepts the soundness of this argument, but Beardsley does not. Both accept that the premises of the argument are true. Because Beardsley believes that the conclusion is false, he believes that the argument must be invalid. (Beardsley thinks that the appropriate con290 Stephen Davies291 elusion to draw is that sometimes we cannot discover which of several conflicting interpretations is the true and correct reading.) Margolis believes that the argument is valid and, hence, that the conclusion is proved. The disagreement between them centers on the role of the second premise in generating the conclusion. Beardsley argues that the only test for "plausibility" or "convincingness " or "revealingness" is truth. How could an interpretation be plausible except by being plausibly true? On the (inadequate) evidence available , two interpretations might be equally plausible, but that is to say that, on the given evidence, their truth is equally probable. This means only that there is no way of settling which of them is true and that, under the condition of ignorance which obtains, we are in no position to judge which of them is true. It does not show that interpretations cannot be assessed for truth, although it does show that the matter of their truth might not be satisfactorily determinable. So, according to Beardsley, the conclusion does not follow from the premises: "I hold that all of the literary interpretations that deserve the name obey [the principle of 'the Intolerability of Incompatibles']. But of course I do not wish to deny that there are cases of ambiguity where no interpretation can be established over its rivals; nor do I wish to deny that there are many cases where we cannot be sure that we have the correct interpretation." 2 Margolis's reply might be developed as follows: where two interpretations are equally consistent with the text, it would make sense to claim that one of them is true and the other false only if there might be some further evidence, as yet unconsidered, which could settle the matter. But, in the case ofmany conflicting and equally plausible interpretations of literary works, all the evidence that there could be is in; there is no further (hidden) evidence to be appealed to. So there is no truth ofthe matter. The judgment that the interpretations are equally plausible is not equivalent to a decision to suspendjudgment for the lack ofdecisive evidence, but, rather, a recognition that all the relevant evidence underdetermines questions of truth. Thus, there can be no right, no true, interpretation and, accordingly, in being tested for revealingness or whatever, interpretations are not being tested for truth. Margolis concludes : The relativistic theory ofinterpretation is sometimes resisted because one wishes to avoid the somewhat unfortunate habit of speaking ofart's being inherendy incomplete or defective and awaiting the interpretive critic's 292Philosophy and Literature contribution in order actually tofinish the work. What is initially defective or incomplete, of course, is our understanding, not the work; but the nature of the defect is such mat, for conceptual reasons, we cannot be...


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pp. 290-297
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