Saturday, 28 July 2018

It's A Matter For Interpretation

Blind Men and the Elephant
A Poem by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

It was six men of Indostan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach'd the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -"Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear,
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"

The Third approach'd the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," -quoth he- "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee:
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," -quoth he,-
"'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said- "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!"

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," -quoth he,- "the Elephant
Is very like a rope!"
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!


So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean;
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Saxe’s poem, Blind Men and the Elephant, clearly illustrates humanity’s finite understanding and limitations.

Our understanding is an interpretation of an experience that’s formed with the aid of senses and ability of the human mind, which in turn is limited by mental horizons bounded within given traditions and supported by presuppositions.

All books, written documents, science, history, laws, cultural artifacts, performances, events, spoken communication and music require interpretation first by the author and then subsequently by the reader-audience.

Such a long chain of interpretation and re-interpretations of earlier interpretations leads inevitably to multiple understandings. And possibly it leads to misunderstandings.

The technical term for the study on interpretation as a human understanding is “Hermeneutics”.

“Hermeneutics as the methodology of interpretation can provide guidance for solving problems of interpretation of human actions, texts and other meaningful material….

Throughout its historical development hermeneutics has dealt with specific problems of interpretation, arising within specific disciplines like jurisprudence, theology and literature….

…general problems of interpretation are treated by the discipline of hermeneutics and to identify some important procedures leading to their efficacious solution—always keeping in mind that these procedures, like all epistemological procedures, are bound to remain fallible.” (C. Mantzavinos in

You may say that the problems of the world are a consequence of differing interpretations of what the best world should be.

I shall highlight two obvious cases as examples.

- Problems of Religious Hermeneutics, Pluralism and Epistemology

Rudolf Otto regrads human religious experience of the Ineffable Holy Other as a Mystery.

“He describes it as a mystery (Latin: mysterium) that is at once terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating (fascinans). Otto felt that the numinous was most strongly present in the Old and New Testaments, but that it was also present in all other religions.”

Since finite humans can never “know” God as an Absolute In-It-Self, apart from mediating senses, all theologies must be constricted human interpretations confined within a history, culture and tradition.

Hence it is not surprising to find in every religion a cacophonic mixture of historical ‘facts’ and myths.

This is evident in the many religions that originated from their respective social traditions and cultures.

Thus the history of religions attributes to ‘God’ different anthropomorphic names and ‘Incarnations’ such as Heavenly Father, Jesus, Buddha, Kuan Yin, Shiva, Tao, etc.

A problem arises when one religion asserts itself as uniquely true and all other competing religions as false.

It’s common to hear Christians claim Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection stories as unique and truly factual. However, we also find similar claims in Mahayana Buddhism in the deification of Gautama Buddha and his Three Bodies.

Why accepts one theology as factual and another as mythological? Isn’t this being prejudicial?

Karl Bath aptly remarks, “There is a notion that complete impartiality is the most fitting and indeed the normal disposition for true exegesis, because it guarantees a complete absence of prejudice. For a short time, around 1910, this idea threatened to achieve almost canonical status in Protestant theology. But now we can quite calmly describe it as merely comical.” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2: The Doctrine of the Word of God)

How then shall we interpret these divergent stories of religious experience?

Remember, they’re traditions.

We need to be openly critical of our prejudices that are entrenched in our traditions and in everyday actions. Only after we’ve recognized our prejudices can we learn anew.

“It is the tyranny of hidden prejudices that makes us deaf to what speaks to us in tradition.” (Hans-Georg Gadamer, ‘Truth and Method’)

As John Paul II said, “Those who devote themselves to the study of Sacred Scripture should always remember that the various hermeneutical approaches have their own philosophical underpinnings, which need to be carefully evaluated before they are applied to the sacred texts.” (Fides et Ratio: On the Relationship Between Faith and Reason)

- Problems relating to Legal Pluralism

We expect laws to be universally applicable that’s based on clear logic and common sense.

However, we don’t find this to be so. Laws are being interpreted according to social and political interests.

For instance, laws of various countries differ on LGBT’s social and civil status. Citizens’ rights are defined according to different assumptions about relation between majority’s morals and minority’s right to differ and live alternative lifestyles.

Another example is in some countries’ adoption of strict laws that prohibit pornography. However, not every country adopts the same legal stance.

Each country interprets its laws according to its culturally defined presuppositions.

Let us take heed of William James’ observation, psychologist and author of ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’,

“For pluralism, all that we are required to admit as the constitution of reality is what we ourselves find empirically realized in every minimum of finite life.

Briefly it is this, that nothing real is absolutely simple, that every smallest bit of experience is a multum in parvo plurally related, that each relation is one aspect, character, or function, way of its being taken, or way of its taking something else.”

Further Readings

Antonin Scalia, Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, 2012

Paul Ricoeur, The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics, 1969

Ayon Maharaj, "God Is Infinite, and the Paths to God Are Infinite": A Reconstruction and Defense of Sri Ramakrishna's Vij├▒ana-Based Model of Religious Pluralism

Jacqueline Marina, Schleiermacher on the outpourings of the inner fire: experiential expressivism and religious pluralism (

Religions in the Holy Land: Conflicts of Interpretation

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962

"Kuhn made several notable claims concerning the progress of scientific knowledge: that scientific fields undergo periodic "paradigm shifts" rather than solely progressing in a linear and continuous way, and that these paradigm shifts open up new approaches to understanding what scientists would never have considered valid before; and that the notion of scientific truth, at any given moment, cannot be established solely by objective criteria but is defined by a consensus of a scientific community. Competing paradigms are frequently incommensurable; that is, they are competing and irreconcilable accounts of reality. Thus, our comprehension of science can never rely wholly upon "objectivity" alone. Science must account for subjective perspectives as well, since all objective conclusions are ultimately founded upon the subjective conditioning/worldview of its researchers and participants." -Wikipedia

Valerie Kerruish, Jurisprudence as Ideology, 1991
In the introduction, she writes:

"Workers, women, gays and people of colour have had a hard time with the common law
of England, at home and on export, and these injustices continue. Yet, he would have it, this is not law’s fault. Law is innocent. Law, far from being complicit in social practices
which are destructive of human wellbeing, is, of all social institutions, the one which embodies the ideals and procedures of and for that well-being.

The claim of law’s innocence is ideological. It is made within interpretations of our ways of life which give law a particular nature, purpose and value.

These interpretations claim their own truth and prescribe their own values in adversarial argument against other
ideas of law. They imagine their own most persuasive case and pursue it against those who tell a different story.

Their arguments are paradigms of the lawyer’s in-court skills;
and they prosecute those whose beliefs undermine them with the assurance of one who knows that guilt must be punished if innocence is to survive."