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In defence of critical pluralism.

Philosophical aesthetics has been dominated by arguments over the nature of our interpretative engagement with artworks. Typically, the dispute concerns whether there is only one legitimate or ideal interpretation, critical monism, or whether we may interpret a work in different ways, critical pluralism. It has recently been suggested that critical monism and critical pluralism are, in principle, compatible.(1) In essence, I aim to show that any theory of interpretation which hopes to prove adequate must be a refined version of ordinary, everyday interpretative practice. Thus I agree that critical pluralism, significantly conceived, is both sound and incompatible with critical monism.


In modern aesthetics there has been a dramatic expansion in the range of works, critical studies, and philosophical arguments concerned with interpreting art. On the whole these have been critical investigations into the significance of multifarious interpretations of particular artworks or an engagement with the interpretative process itself.(2) However, the presuppositions involved entail commitments to particular conceptual and normative claims and as such have been a primary focus of philosophical aesthetics. In the last couple of decades two fundamentally opposed camps have emerged. On the one hand, critical monists hold that the aim of interpretation is, in a significant sense, restricted to discovering the one true meaning of an artwork.(3) One could hold this for very different reasons: one might assume that a work's meaning is determined by authorial intent or that if a work's formal features are to mean anything at all they must license only one correct interpretation. Conversely, critical pluralists hold that, necessarily, there are a number of legitimate possible interpretations of any given artwork and, moreover, that they are not themselves reducible to one underlying interpretation or ordered set of compatible interpretations.(4) Again, one might think this for different reasons: for example, an object's meaning may be thought to depend upon the critical theory brought to bear, art's inherent ambiguity or the socio-cultural differences in values and interests of the many interpreters.

Critical pluralism initially appears to hold greater intuitive appeal, if only because it captures the nature of our pre-reflective interpretative practice. That is. over different times, performances and individuals, we commonly do entertain divergent interpretations in relation to the same artwork. The philosophical dialectic in the last twenty years has proceeded via the delivery of counter-objections to and subsequent reformulations in various guises of the two opposed positions: yet, it would seem, no knock-down blow has been delivered. More significantly, the debate always returns to the notion that the apparent diversity of interpretation must be explicable by one underlying, single, comprehensive interpretation. Unfortunately, critical clarity has not been helped by the fact that critical analysis has tended to focus upon arguments for or against particular pluralist or monist theories. Recently, however, in classic dialectical fashion, Robert Stecker has argued that critical monism and critical pluralism are, in principle at least, wholly compatible.(5) However, I will argue that critical pluralism, significantly conceived, can only be incompatible with critical monism.


Critical pluralists hold that artworks, at least potentially, afford a plurality of possible correct interpretations open to interpreters in their engagement with them qua art. Furthermore, the plurality of possible interpretations cannot be ranked in relation to one another, where they may clash, according to some further higher order interpretation or interpretative principle. This is not to deny that in various circumstances we can recognize that a given interpretative principle may apply. After all, the interpretative principle of taking first or third person authorial statements as honest or authoritative should obviously apply in cases such as Middlemarch or Tom Jones. The pluralist presumption is, rather, that in certain instances we should not prioritize a certain interpretation. Hence it may be open to us to apply, say, Freudian insights in order to understand the fundamental motivations of the characters represented in a particular work. For example, in applying Freudian psychology to works such as Henry James' The Turn of the Screw we may come to distrust the state of affairs as represented to us by the narrator internal to the work. When engaging with a particular artwork, decisions about which particular interpretation to favour rest upon judgements as to what is appropriate given the particular genre, style, characterization and particularities of the work. Such judgements not only involve the application of interpretative principles but depend upon how the spectator disambiguates aspects of the work which are irreducible to a given interpretation.

For critical monists, however, the core features of an artwork which structure our engagement with it are immutably fixed. The pre-reflective diversity of interpretations is thus held to be merely apparent. The thought is that a fully worked out interpretation will explain interpretative diversity in terms of a fundamental monistic structure. Stecker's compatibilist claim arises, he argues, because a monistic core structure may itself allow for a number of distinct possible interpretations. Thus, for example, any legitimate interpretation of the Mona Lisa must minimally recognize that it depicts a woman. However, it is open to the spectator, quite legitimately, to imagine that she is either smiling demurely or coldly tight lipped.(6) Indeed on different occasions we might value seeing the Mona Lisa under these distinct aspects. Thus, Stecker suggests, we should be monist about the correct interpretation of certain central features of a work and pluralist about aspects which flesh them out. Furthermore, Stecker can also capture the single interpretative framework in a way which includes the specification of the possible alternatives open to the viewer in her engagement with the artwork. If sound, the compatibilist argument would certainly constitute a radical step forward in our philosophical understanding of interpretation and, furthermore, would explain why we should not expect a knock-out blow from either camp: for, presumably, both monism and pluralism contain crucial insights which can only be appropriately recognized by subsuming them under the compatibilist's more comprehensive picture.

However, through examining the compatibilist argument, we will see that such a picture inevitably fails to allow for the nature of art's ambiguity and thus the way interpreters may disambiguate artworks. For different interpretations may quite legitimately result from the fact that, in our engagement with an artwork, we may bring to bear radically different presumptions and values. Given the nature of our constructive engagement with artworks it follows that certain interpretations, and thus evaluations, are not only distinct and relative but cannot be subsumed under one comprehensive monistic interpretation. The differing presumptions brought to bear in our engagement with an artwork may not merely effect how we may legitimately construe indeterminate aspects of the artwork. Rather, they may alter the very nature of the indeterminacy involved. The fundamental features of an artwork are, in part, determined by the fundamental presumptions individual spectators or cultures bring to bear and the way the evolution of artistic conventions and art as a practice itself changes and develops.


One way the monist attempts to account for our seemingly diverse interpretative practices is by distinguishing between correctness and significance.(7) To assess an interpretation for correctness is to examine whether it is true or not. Our interpretations, or claims made within them, can be assessed as true or false in terms of artistic intentions, the relevant art historical background, artistic conventions, norms and wider beliefs operative or presumed in relation to the artwork's production. Hence, it is sometimes claimed, to appreciate an artwork properly we should get ourselves in the mind-set of those for whom the work was made.(8) For example, when interpreting Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus, it is clearly relevant to the novel's main theme, the aspirations of science to assume the status and power of the divine creation of life, to consider the Prometheus story. Most people would consider Shelley's work informed by the Prometheus of Greek legend, who steals fire from the gods to console and save mankind. Prometheus's revolt against the gods, driven by a desire to benefit humankind, and his fateful destiny all resonate with Shelley's Frankenstein. A few might consider Mary Shelley's story in relation to Ovid's Metamorphoses, where Prometheus creates and manipulates men into life rather than just saving them, and in relation to Percy Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, where the resonant tone is of a different key: celebrating a quasi-religious election to the saviourhood of mankind. Although the tone and emphasis of such differently informed interpretations may be distinct, they may all be correct in some respect. According to the monist all such correct interpretations can, when properly construed, be conjoined into a single true interpretation.(9) Hence the different aspects outlined are not, strictly speaking, different interpretations but partial aids and guides to the correct interpretation.

Different interpretations may all be true in so far as they go, but if they make no reference to other relevant aspects, they are necessarily partial. Such partial interpretations may be combined into one single comprehensive interpretation. That is, Mary Shelley combines certain aspects, [n.sup.1] ... [n.sup.3], of the three versions of the Prometheus story. If we failed to realize this then our interpretation might be correct in so far as it goes, but, to the extent it remains incomplete, it certainly could not constitute the correct interpretation. The plurality of correct interpretations of a work are thus the result of partial interpretations which are subsumable under a minimal, perhaps as yet to be discovered, coherent and comprehensive interpretation.(10)

The critical monist can go on to emphasize that true or correct interpretations must, however, be distinguished from the wider category of acceptable interpretations. For the criteria of acceptability for significant interpretations need not be reducible to truth. Hence truth may be a necessary and sufficient condition for a correct interpretation, but only one of a cluster of conditions for interpretative acceptability: other criteria might include the recognition of a work's aesthetic value, enhancing a work's relevance to an interpreter's contemporaries or promoting its imaginative value. Thus, for example, though a production of Hamlet set in Gorbachov's Russia of 1991 cannot meaningfully be considered a correct interpretation of Shakespeare's Hamlet, it may be considered acceptable. For although the contemporary Russian production retains the essential story it achieves a certain kind of significance by engaging with more obviously contemporary Russian worries, interests, attitudes and ways of carrying on than an Elizabethan production would. Thus correctness is not, strictly speaking, a necessary condition of interpretative acceptability. The point of interpreting is to render the work intelligible or valuable, hence we tend to treat the value maximizing interpretation of the work as if it were the one intended by its maker.(11) Given that different people and cultures may have significantly different attitudes, interests and values, the same work may license a multifarious number of incompatible but acceptable interpretations. Thus the compatibilist account of critical monism matches up to our current critical practices, which are inherently pluralist, and even allows that the different critical approaches brought to bear may result in the proliferation of apparently incompatible interpretations. However, not all the possibly significant interpretations will be compatible and thus subsumable under one overall, comprehensive interpretation. Rather, only the correct ones are. Thus critical monism appears to be compatible with and, moreover, explain critical pluralism. Presumably, according to critical monism, critical pluralists either fail to recognize, falsely, the possibility of correct interpretations or confuse correctness with interpretative significance.


However, critical monism remains fundamentally inadequate to the indeterminancy distinctive of art. In order to imaginatively engage with an artwork the viewer must bring to bear his own understanding, assumptions and associations.(12) Hence it is generally true that our interpretations depend upon our background theories, interests and values. But in the case of physics or biology we think it illegitimate to conclude that there are different correct interpretations of the world. Take the remarkable case of the seventeenth-century discovery of spermatozoa, which was studied, reported and illustrated using the newly developed microscope.(13) What they 'saw' were tiny distinct homunculi: each sperm was perceived to contain a tiny fully formed man within whom there were presumably other homunculi ad infinitum. Obviously the scientists' theories, interests and conceptual categories were driving their perception of this new phenomena. Yet we do not hold that the phenomena of the world are thus open to a plurality of interpretations. Rather, we recognize that facts about the nature of the object determine which of the multifarious ways we may perceive an object is correct. There is a truth of the matter. Thus how we perceive an object to be may come apart from how the object actually is.

However, it is precisely a certain kind of indeterminacy which distinguishes artworks in this respect from the world. Consider works which frame or possess, internal to their structure, obvious pools of ambiguity. In the case of the Mona Lisa it is open to us to disambiguate her expression in various possible ways: its meaning is open to different possible senses. In attributing one of the more precise possibilities to the Mona Lisa's expression we aim to explore the implications for our visual and imaginative interests. Given the work's inherent ambiguity, conjoined with the individually variant interests we may bring to a work, it would seem that interpretative pluralism must hold.

Of course certain descriptions are obviously true: for example, that Thigh was the captain of the Bounty or that the Mona Lisa depicts a woman. But the nature of the events, characters' motives, actions or allegories represented are often far from clear. Consider Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. A reader who values psycho-analytic explanation may look for an imaginative experience which itself reveals the complexities and unfolding force of sexual motivations and the unconscious.(14) Conversely, another reader may set no store by psycho-analytic explanations at all. Thus, lacking an interest in and positive evaluation of psycho-analytic understanding, he takes the narrator's claims at face value, as, incidentally, James himself intended.

An example of a less theoretically driven divergence in interpretation might be Jacob's Ladder. All the cinematic cues and events portrayed are consistent with two distinct interpretations. One can imagine quite consistently that the Vietnam soldiers were subjected to deceptive and disastrous experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs to enhance their fighting capacity. Conversely, one could imagine that all the events portrayed were in fact the hallucination of a man dying in the battlefield in Vietnam. Each interpretation differs not only as to the significance of certain events portrayed, but differs as to core features of what is happening at the most basic level. Of course, at least in their own terms, both interpretations are comprehensive, simple and coherent. Which one constitutes a better interpretation thus depends upon the presumptions and imaginative understanding one brings to bear upon the film in the first place. Thus, if one brought to bear a Beckett-like understanding of the futility of human existence, meaning and knowledge, one would prefer the second interpretation. However, if one brought to bear an understanding of and concern for life as purposive, one would tend toward the former interpretation.

But ambiguity in art does not merely arise from pools which are framed and foregrounded as such by the internal structure of the work. Ambiguity also arises from the different possible contexts and interests within which a work may be produced, exhibited and engaged with. Consider, for example, J. B. Priestly's An Inspector Calls. It was written at the end of World War II expressly to enlist support for the Labour Party. The main interpretative theme of the play, as it was then produced, was that if everyone pulled together for the common good then British post-war society could achieve an unparalleled equality, fairness and classlessness. For thirty years or more this was considered to be the correct interpretation and the play was considered a prime exemplar of naturalistic drama. Yet several years ago Stephen Daldry produced a highly expressionistic version of the same play which was quite at odds with the previously dominant interpretation. Daldry's use of distorted scale, shadow and perspective, with the dominating houses of the landed gentry perceived only from outside, made manifest the distinct interpretation that even when exposed privilege, class, and inequality remain endemic to British society.

Of course, we do not think it acceptable or legitimate to reconstrue natural phenomena merely because our interests have changed. Hence to dismiss the evidence for evolution just because one has undergone a religious conversion would constitute wilful self-deception. But the difference is that whether the evolutionary story is true or not is a matter wholly independent of what our interests, values and assumptions are. But, as with the Russian production of Hamlet, a work's meaning may take on senses distinct from previous interpretations due to the different contexts, institutions, and socio-cultural assumptions invoked in the production.

Essentially the basic thought is that the spectator's relation to the artwork is analogous to the director's relation to a play. This is not to conflate performance, which is the instantiation of a given work, with the distinct sense of critical interpretation at issue here. For a play's performance is driven by the director's critical interpretation of the play which should be both consistent with the structure laid out in the script and produces a rewarding, coherent, comprehensive experience for the spectator. But the performance itself is guided by the directorial interpretation. Similarly, but at a distinct level, the spectator's role is to disambiguate and thus interpret an artwork's meaning in such a way that it produces an imaginatively valuable experience and speaks to her own interests and values. Hence there may be interpretations of the same work which diverge over both the significance of certain events and over how under-determined aspects of the work are to be imagined. Different interpretations tend to place different emphases upon distinct passages or features of the work. Legitimate interpretations must be those which are the simplest, most coherent, comprehensive, non-contradictory and plausible interpretations of the artwork. That is, the criteria for interpretative acceptability are value dependent. If our background assumptions are relevantly different then what constitutes coherence, comprehensiveness, plausibility and makes sense of the work's value will vary. Given art's indeterminacy there can be no further questions, as there are regarding the world, as to whether the most rewarding interpretation in the light of one's interests, and consistent with the phenomena concerned, is true or not.

Now critical monism can allow for differences which are wholly consistent with the possibility of an overarching explanation; an absolute interpretation which includes any two or more partial readings, in the light of which they would no longer be seen to be contradictory. However, divergences over how indeterminancies are disambiguated, arising from bringing relevantly different associations and understandings to bear, cannot wholly admit of such an overarching interpretation. Even assuming different understandings agree about the salient features of a work, the insights of feminist, Freudian, Marxist or Leaviste interpretations of D. H. Lawrence, for example, cannot all be incorporated into one minimal absolute interpretation. Thus one may not even be able to argue as to whether the women in The Fox are both lesbians, or perhaps not even come to an agreement as to whether the question is relevant or not. The spectator's constructive imaginative engagement does not just supervene upon and grip onto the fundamental structure prescribed and wholly determined by the artwork. That is, our spectatorial imaginative engagement does not merely flesh out the artist's work. For our imaginative engagement necessarily brings to bear our own understandings, private and public, which enable us to engage with the work in the first place.

Fundamentally different understandings brought to bear may lead to differences in what is to be imagined. Of course, mere difference does not entail divergence. The presumed understandings brought to bear must be relevantly different, before what are taken to be the centrally relevant features or underdetermined aspects of the artwork may radically differ. Thus there may be a multiplicity of legitimate interpretations, depending upon the different relevant assumptions that may be brought to bear upon a work and cohere with it. It is important to realize that I am not using incompatibility in the sense that the interpretations contradict one another. Indeed, interpretations which are divergent in this more radical sense are, strictly speaking, compatible. This is because, effectively, the validity of the interpretations are relativized to the background assumptions brought to bear. Thus the psycho-analytic interpretation and the Jamesian one are not even rivals. There is no common standard by which we can compare them, thus they cannot meaningfully disagree with each other. Therefore, there can be no contradiction.

The advantages of a pluralist account of interpretation should be obvious. First, it fits in nicely with our actual common-sense interpretative practice. For our interpretations of artworks typically do diverge over time, individuals and cultures. Secondly, critical pluralism can properly account for just why it is that artworks, at least good ones, are inexhaustible. Engaging with artworks is an open-ended activity precisely because one may come back to a work time and time again and, through shifts in one's interpretation, be rewarded by subtly distinct experiences. Moreover, the interpretative activity itself is valued precisely because a work's indeterminancies may be disambiguated in relation to distinct contexts, institutions and forms of life. The point of interpretation is to imaginatively vivify the work's meaning in relation to our interests and concerns. Hence interpretation is, in a significance sense, forward looking.

Once the spectator's particular, constructive contribution is admitted it cannot be wholly restricted to pools of ambiguity autonomously framed by the artwork itself. Our imaginative engagement does not merely reveal a work's correct core structure. Rather, the very nature of the work's core structure may itself depend upon the assumptions and imaginative understandings we bring to bear upon it. Thus, where the pools of ambiguity in a work collect depends not just upon the structure of the work itself but also upon the spectator. Of course, it does not follow from this that one cannot misinterpret an artwork. We may hold both that different understandings may legitimize different interpretations and, nonetheless, that a work may prescribe us to imagine something. The possibility of misinterpretation remains.


Critical monists, of course, will argue that their position remains adequate to the line of thought just outlined. First, even assuming artworks are significantly indeterminate in a way reality is not, critical monists would claim we can still achieve one overall, comprehensive interpretation. After all, if differing interpretations' acceptability depend upon the relevant beliefs underlying a particular disambiguating interpretation then the distinct interpretations are not, strictly speaking, incompatible. Hence, as we saw in the case of Jacob's Ladder, we can specify the possible interpretations and the relevant beliefs which render them so. Of course, a single comprehensive interpretation may well be more complex than we typically presume such an overarching interpretation should be. This flows from the fact that each possible acceptable interpretation would have to be specified, in part, in relation to the relevant beliefs, prejudices and understandings which render it acceptable. Nonetheless, a single comprehensive interpretation, which includes the disjunctive specification of alternative mutually incompatible construals, remains, at least in principle, possible.

However, even were it to remain a theoretical possibility, such a single interpretation would be so infinitely complex as to be singularly useless. Yet, I take it, the point of critical monism is to assert that a single interpretation is the correct one and as such should be grasped in order to constrain our interpretative activities. But if the single interpretation is so complex as to be beyond human reach, then the point and purpose of critical monism is surely rendered otiose. The theoretical possibility is thus maintained at the expense of evacuating it of all practical significance. More significantly, however, such a single interpretation cannot be a theoretical possibility precisely because it cannot determinately capture all the interpretative possibilities open to the spectator. Given that the interpretative possibilities are multiply ambiguous and hence partly determined by the beliefs and presumptions brought to bear, the interpretative possibilities must remain under-specified and thus inherently open. Hence they cannot be comprehensively captured by any one single interpretation.

A second move open to critical monists is to claim that though interpretative pluralism promotes valuable experiences with artworks, it does not follow that all the multiple disambiguations of a work's meanings are legitimate. After all, it does not necessarily follow from the fact that different people bring different understandings to bear upon an artwork, that any resulting interpretation is acceptable. The different assumptions brought to bear may themselves be of socio-cultural interest. But the fact that they are brought to bear cannot, of itself, legitimize their application. Rather, we should seek to demarcate what the legitimate understanding is that we can bring to bear in order to detect the work's meaning.

The basic point is that we cannot do just anything to the work in order to cultivate audience interest: for example, assessing Crime and Punishment on the basis of its book cover. For our value enhancing interpretations must still be of the work in question, and thus, for example, still fundamentally constrained and prescribed by the work's essential narrative and themes. Of course, it may well be that misinterpretations of a work are more cognitively interesting than correct interpretations. Nonetheless, imaginative interest does not, of itself, legitimize an interpretation as correct. Hence, in relation to James' The Turn of the Screw, we should ask whether a Freudian understanding of humanity is itself warranted. If, as some would suggest, Freudianism is an absurdly reductionist model for understanding human actions, then it cannot be acceptable to bring it to bear upon our interpretation of James' story. Of course, someone might contest such an evaluation of Freudianism. They may think that it can be shown, or at least remains an open matter, as to the adequacy of Freudianism to human understanding and motivation. However, even if true, the fundamental point remains.

Now one possible retort to these claims might assert that what is true of the human world is itself radically relative to the form of self-understanding we possess or the model we bring to bear upon it.(15) However, one need not be committed to such an implausibly strong claim to see that the critical monist's response is flawed. That is, one may accept that Freudianism is itself inadequate as a wholesale explanation in understanding human actions and yet hold that a Freudian interpretation of The Turn of the Screw may be as legitimate as the Jamesian one. The value of our interpretative engagement with artworks is not just a matter of truth. After all, an interpretation may be, comparatively speaking, more adequate to our human world but less valuable than another possible interpretation, because, for example, the latter may afford more vivid imaginings, a novel perspective, extends or initiates new artistic conventions and so on. Consider the same point in relation to our evaluations of philosophical works. Typically we value philosophical works not just because we think the arguments suggested are warranted. Cognitive value is not co-extensive with truth narrowly construed. Rather, amongst other things, we also value originality, philosophical insight and dexterity.

In the case of The Turn of the Screw, though we may not believe actual human motivation is fundamentally Freudian, it may prove of great imaginative interest and value to entertain the possibility in relation to this particular story. Hence, not only may the narrative tension be enhanced and our imaginings rendered more complex, the imaginative understanding promoted, though not fundamentally true of all human action, may yet cultivate insight into particular, contingent human motivations. Thus one may be able to see more clearly how, in our world, particular roles and relationships may be driven by sexual imperatives and the lust for or denial of power and potency. Therefore the Freudian interpretation, though engaging with imaginative possibilities which do not generally hold true of our world, may yet, indirectly, promote insight into particular cases or motivations which are sexual in nature. The enhancement of the work's imaginative complexity in this way legitimizes this particular interpretation.

Thus the indeterminacy of art allows interpretative pluralism to flourish within constraints. Hence sophisticated pluralists can allow for better and worse or legitimate and illegitimate interpretations. After all, as with the Crime and Punishment example, an interpretation may fail to cohere with or explain much of what we may descriptively assert as true of the artwork. An interpretation is an attempt to make sense of an artwork's materials, formal elements, expressive aspects, cognitive content, narrative and the various interrelationships therein. As such the interpretation is necessarily constrained by the way the work is structured. Thus, at a relatively low level of description, we can say that any interpretation of the Mona Lisa must appropriately recognize that a woman is depicted. If this is the right descriptive claim then it is unalterably true and not open to dispute: hence it is not an interpretative matter.(16) Rather, as Annette Barnes has pointed out, interpretative questions arise only where there can be legitimate puzzlement.(17) We cannot merely look harder to see if the Mona Lisa is really smiling and thus aim for the one correct description. There is no truth of the matter: we may interpret her as smiling serenely or pouting sullenly.

An interpretation, as distinct from a mere description, may possess the semantic mark of the truth but is not, strictly speaking, either true or false but more or less acceptable. Thus, unsurprisingly, there may be many acceptable ways of disambiguating what is descriptively true of a particular work. Whether an interpretation is acceptable depends upon whether the interpretation proffered is consistent with the appropriate low-level descriptions of the work, whether it renders the artist's intentionally guided actions and the nature of the work before us intelligible and, lastly, whether it honours the point of the interpretative practice in engaging and promoting the work's imaginative value. For the point of art's indeterminacies, and thus the spectator's disambiguating role, is to promote imaginatively fruitful ways of engaging with the work concerned and to enhance insight into our human condition. For the acceptability of an interpretation, where we go beyond mere description, depends upon the coherent imaginative value proffered to us in engaging with the artwork concerned under a particular interpretation. If it is imaginatively superficial or impoverishing, though consistent with the description of the work concerned, it is an unacceptable interpretation.

What constitutes acceptability and what is itself of value in part depends upon the very presumptions we bring to bear in our engagement with the artwork. This is not to make the far too quick move of saying all truth is itself relative to the form of understanding brought to bear. However, as suggested, warrantability, at least in interpreting art, is not reducible just to questions of truth. An interpretation may be warranted if it enhances imaginative cognitive value in other ways. The indeterminacies of art are open to disambiguation on the part of the spectator in multifarious ways. The point of interpretation is to provide an imaginatively rich experience which affords pleasure, interest and insight to the socially situated individual. Hence art, and the activity of interpretation, is a form of imaginative conversation which gives rise to many different voices rather than a critical contest in which there is one winner and many losers. All of which would suggest, pace critical monists, that a certain kind of interpretative pluralism is unavoidable.(18)


(1) Robert Stecker, `Art Interpretation', Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 52, No. 2 (1994), pp. 193-206. See also Stecker's contrast of his own position with that of Joseph Margolis in his `Relativism about Interpretation', Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 53, No. 1 (1995), pp. 14-18.

(2) The past twenty years alone have seen a radical proliferation in the number of critical works concerned with particular artworks, from Shakespeare's Hamlet to Franz Kafka's The Trial, and the kinds of interpretative theories brought to bear upon them, from formalism and feminism to deconstruction and reader- response criticism.

(3) Critical monists range from the traditionalist E. D. Hirsch Jr, Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale U.P., 1967) to the more radical Alexander Nehamas, `The Postulated Author: Critical Monism as a Regulative Ideal', Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 1 (1981), pp. 133-49, and his `Writer, Text, Work, Author' in A. J. Cascardi (ed.), Literature and the Question of Philosophy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U.P., 1987), pp. 265-91.

(4) Critical pluralists, for whom there are a multiplicity of interpretative criteria, include Annette Barnes' On Interpretation (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), Wayne C. Booth, The Company We Keep (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), Stanley Fish, Is There A Text In This Class? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U.P., 1980), and Joseph Margolis, The Truth About Relativism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991).

(5) Robert Stecker, `Art Interpretation', Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 52, No. 2 (1994), pp. 193-206

(6) See E. H. Gombrich, The Story of Art, 14th edn (Oxford: Phaidon, 1984), pp. 227-9, where he talks of Leonardo's deliberate use of sfumato to allow the spectator's imagination to play.

(7) Although Stecker distinguishes between correctness and significance as far as I know this kind of distinction was first invoked by E. D. Hirsch in his Validity in Interpretation (Y. U. P., 1976).

(8) See Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Raly (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1972), especially the claims in Chapter 2, Section 3, pp. 36-40, for a sustained attempt to do just that, and Anthony Savile's The Test of Time (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1982), p. 64, for a similar claim.

(9) See Robert Stecker, `Art Interpretation', Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 52, No. 2 (1994), p. 200, and E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (Yale U.P., 1976).

(10) Simon Blackburn, Spreading the Word (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1984), pp. 199-201, presumes, falsely I am inclined to think, that this is the lesson to be derived from Hume's essay `Of the Standard of Taste'.

(11) See Alexander Nehamas, `The Postulated Author: Critical Monism as a Regulative Ideal', Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 1 (1981), pp. 133-49.

(12) See E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion (Oxford: Phaidon, 1977), Ch. IX, pp. 250-254. for arguments against the notion of an innocent eye, and R. L. Gregory, Eye and Brain, 3rd edn (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1990). Gregory argues that the visual system seeks to organize our sensate experience into a meaningful whole by constructing and testing hypotheses, based on probability, against the thus apparent structure of the world.

(13) Cited in Peter Fuller's Beyond the Crisis in Art (London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative Society, 1981), Chapter IV, p. 222.

(14) See G. Willen (ed.), A Casebook on Henry James's The Turn of the Screw and Other Tales, 2nd edn. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1969), which includes. amongst other interpretations, Edmund Wilson's `The Ambiguity of Henry James', pp. 115-53.

(15) See, for example, Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1989).

(16) Interestingly enough there is a line of interpretation which holds that `she' may, in fact, be Leonardo's male lover. Hence even such apparently fundamental givens may be open to dispute and may thus be interpretation laden.

(17) See Annette Barnes, On Interpretation (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988).

(18) An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Rocky Mountain Division of the American Society for Aesthetics, Sante Fe, July 1995, and the Annual Conference of the American Society for Aesthetics, St Louis, November 1995. I would like to thank all those present for their comments and, in particular, Leon Surette, Berys Gaut, Peter Lamarque and Robert Stecker.

Matthew Kieran, Department of Philosophy, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT, UK.
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Author:Kieran, Matthew
Publication:The British Journal of Aesthetics
Date:Jul 1, 1996
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