Adam Blatner, M.D.

Posted April 4, 2008

In fields that have to do with mind, more than in the hard sciences, there is a major expansion of the influence of various points of view. Fields such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, economics, politics, communications studies, and so forth all are embedded in matrices of viewpoints. These viewpoints include such variables as factuality, mythic or poetic allusions, moral judgments, ethical issues, aesthetic impressions, passion, relevance, humor, irony, paradox, usefulness, relationship to other phenomena either via precursors or associated influences in that era, abstract principles, particular stories of individuals, spiritual resonances, and so forth. Mixing these together, it becomes more apparent why interpretations can differ tremendously regarding the same event or subject.

Add to this the growing awareness that each individual embodies in his or her life a particular blending of interests, temperament, ability, personal history, and other elements that, in this combination, and in the particulars of each variable, result in true uniqueness. In turn, individuals perceive and interpret experience through the filters of these variables. One person might see a war mainly as an opportunity for the composition of military music, another might view the happenings as confirmation of a religious belief, while a third experiences it as confirming of a psychotic delusional system.

An art is a matrix of skills, experiences, larger schools of thought or style, personal creativity, and again, many other variables. One can be blind to an art—much as a young child who is just getting the idea of making marks; or, dimly sensitive—the child begins to notice aesthetic values in her drawings. And, just as a child learns about art or music, so too can people learn to interpret their lives.

Our school system for the most part has been oriented to the idea of transmitting information, some of which is mere opinion, tradition, style, belief, and so forth. This is presented as truth, the way things are, reality, to be accepted blandly. In contrast, much of what we learn about could conceivably be re-considered, looked at from different frames of reference, interpreted in ways that might be at odds with those in authority or power. Is this kind of subversiveness good or bad?

In spite of the fact that the modern world has arisen, often with great conflict, out of the matrix of the premodern world by being subversive of traditional and established systems of thought, belief, government, science, medicine, and so forth, there remain many cultural institutions and people in power who would prefer that others not question the merit or justice of the present power elite. Creative thinking, independent thinking, critical thinking is given lip service, but there are relatively few opportunities to exercise these faculties, and fewer people in intermediate authority who can give realistic feedback rather than foolish censorship when questioning spirits finally do speak up.

Hermeneutics needs to be practiced, developed, and argued. There are no final interpretations, because there are always a few or even many who offer opposite ideas, and can present their rationale plausibly. There are others who come up with alternatives that may not have occurred to  either the proponent of the thesis or the exponent of the antithesis.

There are better and worse interpretations, but the criteria for what makes something better or worse is also debatable. Should the criterion be intellectual rigor, conceptual clarity, simplicity, elegance, usefulness, foundation in tradition, authority, or hard-fact-evidence? Sometimes criteria such as aesthetic satisfaction might fit, or even the crass idea of what will the masses buy. (Applied to politics, the question becomes that of which candidate is more elect-able?)

With these considerations, what about a culture that promotes the cultivation of this art, not through selling one “right” type of interpretation, but of teaching about the game of what will be most effective, what can persuade others (rhetoric), and what are the criteria for judging the relevance and power of a given approach to interpretation. Even within an approach, once there is some at least provisional agreement, it will be apparent that there are better and worse ways of doing the activity.


This slang word expresses the mental equivalent of the slouch, a communication to others that the topic at hand is too boring, inconsequential, stupid, and worthless, irrelevant to the interests of the person making this evaluation. Notice the assumption here: That which I find to be dumb—that which seems dumb to me—is of course actually dumb. It seems to me that this is no mere personal judgment, nor a reflection of my own limited consciousness. It’s difficult for any person, and subjective consciousness, to appreciate larger and more inclusive types of consciousness. (“A pickpocket at a conference of saints would only see their pockets.”)

The point here is that some folks hardly exercise skill, preferring instead to let mental habit carry the mixed illusion of consciousness while in fact being rather dulled, mindless, uncritical. I like to make the point that a great deal of life is lived in this middle state, and while sometimes it is harmless, it can also be if not actively destructive then at least non-constructive. There are times for relaxation and mindlessness aside from sleep, but it’s better if one chooses consciously when and where that letting go of discernment should happen. The trouble arises when people do not or cannot intentionally choose which state to be in, engaged and discerning or mindless. The latter can disguise itself so that it can pass for the former, at least in the mind of the individual himself.


If one cannot determine which is the right kind of interpretation, how does one evaluate one’s progress? The first thing is even to ask that question, to ask whether how one is evaluating a given situation is appropriate for that situation. Often we evaluate or interpret the meaning of a situation according to standards that don’t apply. This is due to our having developed habits of thought or an orientation to a given worldview, perhaps mixed with relative ignorance of alternative viewpoints. (Many people’s role repertoires are relatively narrow, which is what we mean by provincialism in contrast to sophistication.)

The word itself is a tool: To know that one is interpreting already interposes a question: What I am thinking may not be the actual way things are, but rather reflect my own mental filters. Are they being used well, skillfully, with wisdom? Even to call oneself into question advances the skill of interpretation. It means we are at least thinking about the situation, and even thinking about the way we are thinking about the situation.