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All Interpretation, All the Time

One of the insights of hermeneutics is that human beings are doing interpretation all the time.

It’s why we can fit in to the “real world” around us. We “read” things correctly, we know what things mean when they present themselves to us in familiar contexts, and know how to respond to them properly. And then we do respond properly. That’s what we mean by “fitting in.”

This human all too human trait of ours has a number of consequences.

One of them is that we forget, much of the time, that we are interpreting things that actually require interpretation, instead of just seeing things “the way they are.”

Here’s Ian Bogost’s reminder:

About a century ago, the Soviet formalist filmmaker Lev Kuleshov conducted a series of experiments with filmic montage. In the most famous one, he edited a short film consisting of short clips of various subjects: an actor’s expressionless face, a bowl of soup, a woman on a couch, a girl in a coffin. The same clips edited into different sequences produced different interpretive results in the viewer. The deadpan face of the actor appeared to take on different emotions depending on which image preceded or followed it—he appeared dolorous, for example, when seeming to “look at” the dead girl in the coffin. This effect of filmic editing has been called the Kuleshov effect, and it’s had an enormous influence on filmmakers including Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and Francis Ford Coppola. It also forms the backbone of reality television, in which meaning is almost entirely produced in the editing room.

It’s embedded in an interesting, though sobering, article about recent viral videos – and what we might want to remember about our ineluctable human task of interpreting the world around us.

All the time.


view of clouds against a blue sky

6 responses to “All Interpretation, All the Time”

  1. So … is our defense of over-interpreting simply to know that our interpretation is, in fact, our interpretation? We must know our own biases to be able to overcome our own biases?

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    • Well … idk, I think there are other good defenses, like checking out sources, and finding out about other possible perspectives, and avoiding jumping to conclusions on the basis of single reports, and other fairly standard practices associated with “critical thinking.” But I think recognizing that we have cognitive biases and noticing that we always have some limited perspective on things are two good players to have on the defensive line.

      I’m honestly not sure we can ever “overcome” some of our own biases. And I’ll admit, I have some biases that I don’t even try to overcome any more; I’ve decided they’re good ones. [Of course, I could be mistaken … but someone would have to work really hard to convince me of that at this point.] But becoming aware that we have them would have to be a first step in that direction, surely.

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      • Thanks Heather. Good to think about. “Overcome” was not a good word. I think we need to be aware so we can know when we’re applying them and make a better effort to listen to another perspective other than our own. Perhaps we don’t, or even shouldn’t, completely overcome them. But we can, perhaps, set them aside long enough to give ourselves an opportunity to learn, perhaps even change our mind.

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      • I’d agree with that. And sometimes, I think, it’s encountering people’s different viewpoints that alerts us to our own biases, limited perspectives, etc. So being willing to encounter those other viewpoints is vital.

        Liked by 1 person

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