Paper: Caught in the Grip of Interpretation

Caught in the Grip of Interpretation: A prescription for the correction of arrogant eyes through art and science.

By Marnina Norys

Abstract: In this paper I explain and expand upon Marilyn Frye’s description of the loving eye, or as Iris Murdoch calls it, loving attention. On Murdoch’s account, I shall note, loving attention requires we relinquish our prejudices and patiently attend to the world so that reality might emerge in consciousness. I shall suggest, however, that if, as certain research suggests, experience is organised prior to consciousness, then a more dynamic and active approach is called for in order to view others in a way that is just and which respects their status as persons. Although Frye’s account of loving attention does seem to call for more activity, I hope to offer a more detailed description of the nature of that activity. In the end I shall aim to show that ideally, this process involves both the creativity of an artist and the healthy scepticism of a scientist.

-Note, this paper was presented The Midwest Division of the Society for Women in Philosophy annual meeting, University of Illinois (Chicago, Illinois), November 14, 2005.


Born to two alcoholic parents, S, a native baby, was extremely premature, had foetal alcohol syndrome and would be in the neonate intensive care unit for the long haul. One of the nurses caring for S knew that babies who spend long periods in hospitals sometimes develop autistic-like symptoms including reduced eye contact and difficulties socialising, and that these symptoms are thought to be due to a lack of bonding with caregivers. This nurse, moreover, noticed two significant details. First, the baby was not getting the cuddles and attention she required, neither from her largely absent parents nor from the other nurses in the ICU. Secondly, S was unkempt; her clothes were drab, old and stained. The nurse’s solution was to put S in an especially cute colourful little dress and to brighten up the baby’s bassinette with a few toys. “Soon no one could pass by her without saying hello,” noted the nurse, adding that the child soon became the sweetheart of the nursery.[1]

Various explanations might account for the nurses’ change in attitude. Perhaps the bright clothing and toys merely drew the eyes of other staff members to the baby causing them to attend to her more closely. Another possibility, however, was that the nurse managed to get her co-workers to see baby S in a new way. It is difficult to speculate how the other workers saw S before her wardrobe change, how racial prejudices might have figured into their perceptions or the apparent lack of concern shown by S’s own parents. We might conjecture, however, that these factors caused the nurses to see S as something of a hopeless case or merely as an ailing infant rather than as a little person and a member of a community.[2] What the dress and toys may have done, then, is to flout any expectations that might stem from taking such a view, causing others to reconceptualise S and to change their behaviour accordingly.

In other words, it is possible that the nurses came to focus on S with a “loving eye,” which involves seeing past one’s own prejudices in order to achieve a richer and fuller understanding of another person. In this paper I will explain and expand upon Marilyn Frye’s description of the loving eye, or as Iris Murdoch calls it, loving attention. On Murdoch’s account, I shall note, loving attention seems to require that we reign in our imagination, control our prejudices and patiently attend to the world so that reality might emerge in consciousness. I shall suggest, however, that if, as certain research suggests, experience is organised prior to consciousness, then a less controlled but more active approach is called for in order to view others in a way that is just and which respects their status as persons. Although, Frye’s account of loving attention does seem to call for more activity, I hope to offer a more detailed description of the nature of that activity. In the end I shall aim to show that ideally, this process involves both the creativity of an artist and the healthy scepticism of a scientist.

To understand why loving attention, or seeing others justly is important, we might return to the scenario described above. Had the nurses continued to see S as something less than a person they may very well have continued to neglect her. This lack of attention, in turn, may have hindered the child’s affective development and her ability to form bonds with others. Arguably this last capacity is an important part of what it is to be a person. Hence, not conceiving of S as a person may have effectively stunted the development of her personhood.[3] This, observation, moreover, brings us to an argument that Marilyn Frye gives showing the importance of working to achieve a fair view of others. For, Frye notes, our gaze may actually cause others to behave in a way that confirms our expectations, which is nicely illustrated with the case of S.[4] Due to the potential for harm, it is thus important to see others fairly.

Other writers, however, such as Lawrence Blum note that there is something good about being sensitive to morally salient details about other people even if these perceptions do not result in action.[5] Blum also looks to the work of Murdoch, who argues that a great deal of important work can go on below the surface, as it were; and this is work done at the level of thought, rather than at the level of publicly observable behaviour. Murdoch, in addressing a behaviourist turn in moral philosophy, aims to show that there are cognitive activities worthy of moral evaluation, even if these do not affect our overt actions. Her well-known example of this involves M, a mother-in-law, and D, M’s daughter-in-law. In this scenario we see that M privately harbours negative attitudes towards D, while her public treatment of D is nothing shy of commendable. Months pass, and D has either died or moved away for good. In the interval M, realising that she may be biased, reassesses her attitude towards D and comes to see her daughter-in-law in a new light. A young woman who previously seemed “vulgar,” “undignified,” “noisy” and “juvenile” re-emerges in M’s mind as one who is “refreshingly simple,” “spontaneous,” “gay,” and “delightfully youthful.”[6] It would appear that M here has done something worthy of praise, and in Murdoch’s view, that was to come to focus loving attention on D.

Before examining what it means to Murdoch to effect loving attention, it will be worthwhile to briefly draw out some points of Frye’s description of an arrogant eye, as her description of this other way of seeing nicely illustrates how our interests can shape our perceptions of others. In writing about the arrogant eye Frye aims to describe the perspective of one who characteristically represents the objects of perception as existing strictly for one’s own use and benefit.[7] Adopting this perspective is, for example, to represent animals as meat and women as helpers designed to further men’s ends. [8] Aspects of objects that do not fit with this sort of characterisation, moreover, probably only warrant attention if these hinder men’s wants, and as such, will only be viewed as defects in need of correction.[9]

Frye, moreover, suggests that the well-entrenched supposition among Western philosophers and scientists that the universe is intelligible as well as the value placed on simplicity for theories, are both entailed by this arrogant way of perceiving.[10] Frye argues, “if the world exists for man, it must be usably intelligible, which means it must be simple enough to understand.”[11] Frye here, has directed our attention to what is probably an important quality of an arrogant gaze, which is the failure to be open to the possibility that certain complexities may outstrip our capacity to understand them. This last point is something that I shall return to, and expand upon later.

It is worth noting first, however, that in general our interests and past experiences tend to affect the way we see the world. A person who has recently bought a new car will suddenly begin noticing like models on the highway. Meanwhile for teenagers preoccupied with dating each other, forty-something’s are largely invisible. As Blum notes, moreover, people’s deeper on-going concerns can often make them sensitive to features of given situations that others fail to notice.[12] For example, someone who has been the victim of racism will probably be better at seeing instances of prejudice and sensitive to the consequences for the injured party than someone lacking similar concerns or experience.[13]

It is also the case that in general our starting assumptions or theories can affect the way we see phenomena and will determine what features are salient and which are not. For instance there is a significant difference in what we will tend to notice if we adopt what Daniel Dennett calls the intention stance, where the objects of perception are understood as being motivated by beliefs and desires, as compared to what we typically see from the physical stance, where the world is construed as matter in motion.[14] For instance, we might imagine a person leaning in to pick up a cup of coffee. From the intentional stance, we might notice where the person’s eyes are directed, or perhaps the expression on her face meanwhile, from the physical stance we would be more apt to notice the way the arm moves, the trajectory it takes or the way it moves in the joints. That is, our framework will serve to select out qualities that we attend to, and select against others.

Given the sundry set factors that can shape the way we perceive, it is becoming obvious that having filters that obscure our perceptions of others is a relatively ubiquitous trait. However, although I am offering a more general account of a way of perceiving others to be remedied, the term arrogant eye remains an apt description. For, the form of perception I have in mind involves the failure to consider whether our interpretations of others may be mistaken, or to even consider whether our purposes in construing others in a certain way do not depart from a desire to achieve a better understanding of them.[15] We have seen, however, that there are good reasons to remain open to the possibility that when we see others we are not merely grasping objective phenomena. Moreover, as noted, the belief that the universe is simple enough for us to understand is largely an article of faith, and this probably applies just as well to the sum of reality as it does to individual human beings. Given that the neurons in a bit of grey matter the size of a match head are interconnected in about a billion different ways, describing the brain as “the most complicated object in the universe,” as Gerald Edelman does, may not be too far off the mark.[16] Because of this complexity, it may be that the intentional stance, which the vast majority of us rely upon to understand one another, provides only a rough sketch of the processes that determine other people’s behaviour.[17] Thus, countering an arrogant gaze involves a certain amount of humility. Not only does this begin by accepting that our interpretations may gloss over relevant data, but it also involves admitting that some things may simply lie beyond our ken.

Such a view may seem overly pessimistic to some, and may seem to suggest that we can never truly see another for who they are. My purpose here, however is not to instil a crippling sense of doubt, but is rather to convey the need for a dose of healthy scepticism.[18] I do, moreover, assume that we can achieve an increasingly better understanding of others, but that this may involve more effort than some might be led to suppose. In order to determine how we might do this, it will be useful to return to Murdoch’s description of the loving gaze.[19]

According to Murdoch, in altering her conception of D, M has been active in way that has facilitated a change of perspective. What M has managed to do is to fix loving or just attention on D. As Murdoch admits, however, it is difficult to characterise exactly what sort of activity M might be engaged in except to say that “M looks at D, she attends to D, she focuses her attention. M is engaged in an internal struggle” [20] This struggle it seems is to end the “siege of the individual by concepts” wherein evaluative concepts such as “vulgar” tend to draw our attention to certain characteristic patterns of behaviour, locking the object of sight into that framework.

Attention, argues Murdoch is the effort to counteract “states of illusion” that are but “convincingly coherent, but false pictures of the world.”[21] To counteract such misconstruals Murdoch stresses the need to patiently attend to others and characterises the act of will required for this as “obedience to reality.”[22] Murdoch argues that “as moral agents we have to try to see justly, to overcome prejudice, to avoid temptation, to control and curb imagination, to direct reflection.” According to her, will influences belief by effecting a “sustained attention to reality.”[23] It would appear then, that seeing justly calls for a steady, concentrated gaze and the reigning in of our prejudices and imagination and this, we might presume, is what allows a true picture of reality to emerge in consciousness. Reality, moreover, Murdoch asserts “can be understood as that which is revealed by the patient eye of love,” which, she adds, is something most ordinary people will understand. “M knows what she is doing when she tries to be just to D, and we know what she is doing too.”[24]

Given the circularity of Murdoch’s claims, I for one, confess ignorance as to what Murdoch sees M to be doing here. Murdoch has defined a loving gaze as attention to reality, meanwhile we are to take reality as that which is revealed by a loving gaze. Hence, exactly the sort of features M is thought to be taking in as well as the nature of the activity she engages in both remain somewhat obscure. Truthfully, however, much of my confusion stems from not understanding why we should assume that patient attention to others will necessarily reveal their true nature. A related concern is that I am not sure exactly what it means to overcome prejudices that colour our sight. The metaphor of seeing past our biases naturally presents itself at this juncture, which seems to suggest that biases are similar to distorting lenses that we need only remove from our eyes in order to see clearly. I am uncertain, however, how to cash out this analogy at the level of cognition, or precisely what steps we might take to see past our biases.

There is a certain theory about cognition and perception fuels my worries here. Namely, I am entertaining the possibility that seeing and interpreting are one and the same act, which casts doubt on the claim that patient attention alone is sufficient to reveal reality. For, if seeing is interpretation, then it is not clear how we might control our biases given that these may precede the act of conscious awareness of phenomena. To illustrate why I see this to be a live possibility we might examine certain common optical illusions such as the Muller-Lyer diagram (see appendix, figure 1). In this picture the line on the bottom appears shorter than the line on the top, even though the two lines are the same length. Knowing that our eyes are deceiving us due to some sort of cognitive bias, is not enough to correct our vision and no amount of attention, however patient, will alter what we see.

What I take this to demonstrate is that even basic forms of perception involve interpretations that affect what we see. Lower-level cognitive processes already act on visual inputs, that in turn, determine our conscious experience of phenomena. In fact, after extensive research involving optical illusions neuropsychologist, Richard Gregory goes so far as to say that “the senses do not give us a picture of the world directly; rather they provide evidence for the checking of hypotheses about what lies before us. Indeed we may say that the perception of an object is a hypothesis.” In other words, as popular science writer Tor Nørretranders puts it, “we do not see the data in front of our eyes; we see an interpretation.”[25],[26]  If interpretation colours perception at the lowest level of perception, moreover, then it is not obvious why we should presume that more complex acts of perception, such as seeing that certain concepts apply, differ significantly.

Nonetheless, it is worth noting that we do seem to have more flexibility when we apply more complex concepts, such as descriptions of behaviour, than we do when we look at the Muller-Lyer diagram. That is, the perception of the Muller-Lyer diagram seems more mechanical and fixed than when we see that a person is behaving cruelly. A cruel act can be reconstrued as kind, while snobbishness can be seen as shyness, anger or fear or distraction, which suggests that we have more control over what we see in these instances. Just what the nature of this control is, however, is uncertain. Given that even basic perception involves interpretation, there is room to doubt whether these perceptual shifts involve relinquishing illusions to grasp reality. Rather this may be a matter of letting go of one interpretation in favour of another.

Discussing the perceptual shifts that occur when we look at ambiguous figures, moreover, should make this last claim clearer (see appendix, figures 2-4). The Necker cube, for instance, is more complex that the Muller-Lyer diagram and may be interpreted in two different ways (notice how hard it is to simply see a network of flat lines). The rightmost square is seen as jutting out towards the viewer or we may see it as pointing away from us. That we can see this in two different ways, however, fails to show that both perceptions are not interpretations that, we might imagine further, have been selected for prior to the act of conscious perception.

Again, however, it does seem that the way we perceive others is still more flexible than the way we perceive ambiguous figures. In my view, what happens when we see shapes and figures in the clouds or a clear night sky is probably most like what happens when we aim to characterise other people. Part of the reason I see a similarity in these two types of activities is that in both cases the objects of sight are sufficiently complex so as to allow various patterns to be discerned. The night sky, for example, is populated with numerous points over which it possible to superimpose any number of images, while the features that may carry significance when we study the behaviour of others are equally plentiful.[27] This, I would suggest is what accounts for the flexibility of interpretation in both sorts of perception. Due to the multiplicity of parts possessed by each type of percept, there are numerous ways to parse up the data set.

Another similarity that may hold is that the act of patient attention simply reveals another interpretation of the phenomena rather than the truth of the matter. A static set of clouds that supports the image of a horse can suddenly reveal a dragon then a castle, while a set of behaviours that support the concept ‘snobbishness’ can be seen as a sign of shyness and then as distraction. Moreover, similar to the earlier cases of optical illusions, it may be that whether we are idly watching the clouds roll by or observing another person’s character, what we see is determined prior to consciousness. It may be that the calling up of an image stored in memory determines what features we focus on or what we see.[28] Assessments of other people’s character, similarly, may involve bringing forth some prototype that determines what aspects of their behaviour stand out to us.

What I mean by a prototype is a schema or a set of features characteristic of some type. People do talk as though there are certain ‘types’ of people, meanwhile popular culture is rife with stock personalities such as the nerd, the shy girl, the dumb blonde and the strong silent type to name but a few. Alongside these more encompassing descriptions we also have thick descriptions such as kind, generous, vengeful and deceitful that may also cause us to selectively attend to a limited set of variables. Typecasting people for the purposes of explanation and prediction may seem to be a crude way of understanding others, however, it may also represent a powerful and cognitively economical way of navigating the complex web of social relations that, for the most part, constitute our lives. A quick assessment of another person can enable us to roughly predict other characteristics they are likely to have and how they are liable to behave, which in some instances will be of critical importance.[29]

Given this rough theory of cognition, moreover, it is evident that creativity might help us achieve a better understanding of others, which is a point I will expand upon by looking at some of Martha Nussbaum’s work. Nussbaum raises an interesting point when she writes about the utility of literature in moral thought. One example she discusses is William James’ novel The Golden Bowl where James has a father drawing a favourable comparison between his daughter and a sea creature. This creature is described as “consciously floating and shining in a warm summer sea … buoyant among dangers, in which fear of folly, or sinking otherwise than in play, was impossible.”  The father here seems to be employing his imagination in an effort to conceive of and appreciate his daughter’s passion for her lover Amerigo.[30] The creative component of loving perception, then, may be the activity of employing new and interesting analogies through which to examine other people’s behaviour.

It does seem, moreover, that one of the great advantages of finding new analogies is that these bring out certain features, making them seem more salient than they might have seemed before. For instance, when Hannah Arendt conceives of Adolph Eichmann as a bureaucrat, aspects of his personality that were not as obvious spring to the fore, such as his mindless adherence to rules and obedience to authority.[31] Such features, however, would be less salient if, on the other hand, we were to describe Eichmann as a psychopath or as some kind of demon. Finding new analogues for familiar forms, however, is an active and creative process and may require an attitude of playful exploration described by Maria Lugones when she discusses “world traveling.”[32] On this view then, seeing clearly, contrary to Murdoch, does not start with curbing our unruly imaginations so as to take in reality. What is required instead is that we free our imaginations and work a little, in so far as a creative process may be described as work, at devising new ways of seeing old faces.

Some might complain, however, that not all people are sufficiently creative to engage in the sort of process described. However, as Nussbaum shows in arguing for the value of literature for morality, there are those such as Joyce who are more alert than perhaps most others, and more sensitive to significant details in their social environment. A good artist is also capable of devising new, creative ways of seeing, and fortunately for us, these individuals are willing to communicate to us what they see through their work. Hence, even if we lack the ability to construct innovative conceptual schemes, we do have the opportunity to mine the visions of others as expressed in film and novels, to acquire new concepts so that these might begin to emerge in our own percepts.[33]

There is reason to believe, however, that being open to alternative ways of constructing others is not all that is required to see others justly. If, as Gregory argues, seeing is a hypothesis, then there is no guarantee that generating alternative interpretations will provide us with a picture that conforms to reality. What might get us closer to reality, however, is, interestingly enough, to take a page from Karl Popper work in the philosophy of science. In Popper’s view scientists ought to favour hypotheses that can be falsified. [34] Falsification occurs when through experimentation, one actively seeks to disconfirm predictions generated by a given theory.[35] For, it is one thing to look for evidence that confirms a given way of seeing, and this, I would suggest comes naturally to most people. However, it is another thing to actively seek out information that will disconfirm a given hypothesis.

As with scientific theories, many of the descriptions we might use to describe and explain the behaviour of others also allow us to make predictions. Trivially, a greedy person will not share her candy bar but a generous person will. One way to understand Murdoch’s claim about being obedient to reality, then, is as a recommendation that we accept when our hypotheses have been disconfirmed by the evidence.[36] This, moreover will require us to be attentive to the way we are seeing others, what predictions stem from this way of seeing, and whether these predictions are born out by the evidence.[37] This description of the activity required for loving attention, is not unlike Frye’s conception that requires self-knowledge on the part of observers and that “one must look at the thing. One must look and listen and check and question.”[38]

Finally, Frye and Murdoch both emphasise the need for generosity in loving attention, which, I agree is important and is consistent with the framework I have been developing. Probably, times when we should most actively seek to falsify our hypotheses, are when these represent negative evaluations of another person.[39] The reason for this is that in all likelihood such interpretations will conflict with the manner in which the person in question views herself. For, it does seem true that most people would say that deep down inside, they are good, morally upright, people. In so far as we may use less morally loaded terms, suffice it to say that D would most probably hesitate to use the term ‘vulgar’ to describe herself. Hence, when we are perceiving another in a negative light, there is a good chance that a competing hypothesis exists and it has been developed by a reasonable person who is much closer to the data than we are. Hence to be generous is to give their own interpretations of themselves a fair trial.

Respecting people’s natural complexity, as one of the “most complicated object[s] in the universe,” assuming that they, like us, aim to be worthy of a favourable assessment and respecting their rational ability to interpret their own behaviour virtually dictates that we actively test our hypotheses against their own. This means that we need to ask questions, learn how they perceive themselves and what they value. It is to experiment and actively interact with the data in order to determine what interpretation fits best. Presuming that there is no good reason for this, moreover, gets at the heart of what it is to perceive arrogantly. For in essence it is to imagine that we can know the deeper mysteries of nature, that others do not strive, as we do, towards value or that one’s ability to see people for who they truly are surpasses their own. While it is possible that each of these propositions are true, there seems to be no good reason for holding that any represent a solid starting assumption.










[1] The nurse in question, I confess, is my mother, and this is one of her favourite stories.

[2] Or person-to-be, depending on one’s theory.

[3] As it turns out, three years later a pediatrician reported that S was doing well and had seen normal social development.

[4] Frye, Marilyn. (1983) “In and out of Harms Way.” in Arrogance and Love.” The Politics of Reality Trumansburg,N.Y.: Crossing Press, p. 67-69.

[5] Blum, Lawrence. (1994) “Moral Perception.” In Moral Perception and Particularity.Cambridge:CambridgeUniversity Press.

[6] Murdoch, Iris. (1964) “The Idea of Perfection.” In The Sovereignty of Good.London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. p. 22

[7] This sort of perspective, notes Frye, is how a might man might see if he accepts the Biblical construal of the universe as being created for his use.

[8] Frye, 67

[9] Ibid, 69

[10] If we have two theories A and B with identical explanatory scopes but we find that A has fewer axioms and is thus less complicated, many people would probably show a preference for A over B..

[11] Ibid, 71

[12] Blum, 173.

[13] Interestingly, someone who has only recently become deeply concerned with issues such as racism or sexism may be prone to see it everywhere. This is similar to a phenomena described by instructors of abnormal psychology wherein students begin to see many the disorders they come across in their own behaviour.

[14] According to Dennett the intentional stance is a rational calculus we employ to explain predict behaviour. This stance involves interpreting other people’s actions in terms of beliefs and desires which direct the behaviour of a rational goal-directed system. See: Dennett, Daniel (1987)The Intentional Stance. Mass: MIT Press.

[15] This is not to suggest, however, that we will always have sinister, or even overly selfish motives for construing others in some circumscribed fashion. In fact, the presumption that we understand others and can predict their behaviour may be a necessary component of well-being. Anyone who has spent time with an mercurial or volatile person will understand the sometimes intolerable levels of anxiety and insecurity that come from existing within such an unpredictable environment. Hence, it may be possible that at least sometimes, our characterisations of others merely represent a type of coping mechanism or a way of assuring ourselves that we understand our environment.

[16] Edelman, Gerald (1984). Bright Air, Brilliant Fire.Chicago:University ofChicago Press.  p. 16.

[17] Research has shown that when subjects are asked to describe the activity of geometrical shapes on a screen, the vast majority will ascribe intentionality to various figures to explain the behaviour. See: Baron, Cohen, Simon (1995). Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind Mass: MIT Press. p. 36.

[18] It should be noted that realising there are aspects of a person that lie beyond our ken is, in a sense, to achieve a deeper understanding of them.

[19] Frye calls this the loving eye and Murdoch calls it loving attention.

[20] Murdoch, 22

[21] Ibid, 36.

[22] Ibid, 41

[23] Ibid, 39

[24] Ibid, 39.

[25] This view of perception is highly contentious and many writers favour some form of direct perception. See Michael Tye, The Ten Problems of Consciousness. Mass: MIT Press; and (2000) Content, Color and Consciousness.Massachusetts: MIT Press. I admit, however, optical illusions provide me with compelling evidence that seeing is interpretation.

[26] I should note that on p. 29  Murdoch suggests that all universals, including moral concepts are concrete. If she is here referring to Hegel’s notion of concrete universals “that are required for particulars to be apprehended in the first place,” (see Audi, Robert. (1999) The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy.New York:CambridgeUniversity Press. p. 269), then her view may not be so far from mine. A point of contention, however, might be that I do not necessarily take the resulting percepts to be reflections of reality and that these shall require further testing in order to determine the proximity of these descriptions to the truth.

[27] For instance the flick of an eye, a quick intake of breathe or a droplet of sweat on her brow.

[28] The claim that we use stored images is not uncontentious and there are people such as Daniel Dennett and Z. Pylyshyn who believe that vision is best characterised as a process involving abstract descriptions rather than pictorial elements. However, I tend to agree with the likes of  S. M. Kosslyn and  Steven Pinker, who argue that imagistic mental representations seem to best account for certain types of experimental data. See: Glasgow, Janice and Dimitri Papadias (2000) “Computational Imagery.”  In Ed. Thagard, Paul. Mind Reading. Mass: MIT Press. pp. 157 – 206.

[29] What might evoke these types is a good question and probably warrants further research. One possibility is that given types or characteristics are associated with particular affective responses. The experience of a certain emotion during an interaction could conceivably be what calls up the concept that in turn organizes our experience of that person. Sometimes, moreover, our characterizations may represent a way of justifying a negative emotional reaction or a response of which we are not especially proud. For instance an experience of disgust or anger might cause us to unfairly construe another in an way that merits our reaction.

[30] Nussbaum, Martha. (1985) “Finely Aware and Richly Responsible’: Moral Attention and the Moral Task of Literature.” The Journal of Philosophy. Vol. 82. No. 10, p. 519.

[31] Discussed in Vetlesen, Arne Johan. (1994) Perception, Empathy and Judgment.Pennsylvania:PennsylvaniaUniversity Press.  pp. 85 – 99.

[32] See Lugones, Maria, “Playfulness, “World” –Travelling and Loving Perception.” Hypatia Vol 2, No. 2 (1987) 3 – 19. In her discussion, Lugones illustrates her understanding of playfulness with a ‘game’ that involves breaking up rocks to see what is inside (a game that, interestingly enough, is one of my favourites and which has occupied me for hours at a time). To me this game exemplifies patient exploration, while Lugones notes that it also shows us an activity that is non-competitive, nor is it structured by rules. Players meanwhile show a willingness to be surprised and to appear a fool. This last quality is probably important if we are to seek out new and interesting analogues to explain people’s behaviour as some may simply seem silly. If we are self-conscious, we may not even consider these seemingly more preposterous ‘hypotheses.’

[33] The metaphor of seeing images in clouds is once again relevant to this point. Sometimes when we look at the sky all we can see are plain old clouds. What we need is someone who is feeling more imaginative to point out the centaur or the hippopotamus that we are missing.

[34] Popper, Karl (1963) Conjectures and Refutations.London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. pp. 33 – 39.

[35] This recommendation might have consequences that are farther ranging than one might suppose given that it calls into doubt the value of concepts such as ‘vulgar,’ This is because it is unclear what predictions necessarily flow from the application of such a term since virtually any ensuing behaviour might fall within the purview of the concept. One cannot help but wonder, moreover, whether this concept is not unlike the description ‘sexy’ wherein an observer’s own affective response carries significant weight in determining whether the concept applies.

[36] It is not always an easy task, however, to say when we should relinquish a hypothesis because it does not jive with the facts. In science, often certain background conditions in an experiment will be checked before the hypothesis is jettisoned. For instance, if bacteria that required to oxygen to grow appeared in a sealed container, it is likely that the scientists might first assume that the container was not sealed before assuming that they were wrong about the conditions they presumed necessary for life. Similarly, if a supposedly greedy person gave us a piece of her candy bar, her disliking the candy might provides us with a good explanation such that we need not jettison our overall interpretation. If, however, we are continually coming across these anomalous events, there is more room to argue that we are caught in the grip of an inadequate theory.

[37] It should be noted that not all philosophers agree that a theory that makes good predictions necessarily gets us closer to reality (see: Van Frassen, Bas (1980) The Scientific Image Oxford: Claredon Press. p. 12.) while there is room to doubt whether theories that generate accurate predictions latch onto to the way things are, this method does seem to be as good as it gets.

[38] Frye, p.75.

[39] This is not to suggest that sometimes we mistakenly construe others as those who can do no wrong and should probably strive to correct such a perspective. However, given the harm that can flow from negative perceptions, it is probably most important to be sensitive to these.

1 thought on “Paper: Caught in the Grip of Interpretation”

  1. When you take things personally, you feel offended and disrespected. Your reaction is either to defend yourself or submit passively. Either way you take someone’s criticism and view it as literal, personal and serious. You make something big out of some behavior that is so little. You want to correct them and prove them wrong. You want to maintain your innocent and try with all of your might to defend your beliefs, which only serves to heighten the conflict. You have the need to be right and this makes everyone else wrong unless they agree with you, my way or the highway. However, you are human as well. Thus, whatever you feel or do is also just a projection of your own emotional memories and past relationships.

    Even when a situation seems personal, even if your closest family or friends insults you directly to your face, it has nothing to do with you. What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give are about their own minds. Their point of view comes from their own emotional memories and learning experiences that have shaped them into the person they are today. If someone gives you an opinion and says, “Hey you look fat,” don’t take it personally, because the truth is that all humans are dealing with their own feelings, beliefs and opinions. That person’s remark is for them, not for you. Their words are serving their own selfish purposes and have nothing to do with you and they have nothing to do with reality. They are human and don’t know any better then you about the objective nature of life. They have views on things that match their tastes. They have their own preferences. They don’t really know what is best and have no standing on telling you how things “ought or should” be.

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