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The Inevitability of Misinterpretation

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When I teach U.S. Constitutional Law I like to begin the semester with Plato’s Phaedrus. It may seem an odd choice, as my students are usually taken by surprise when we start reading a book that begins with what appears to be the seduction of a young boy by an older man, but once we get into the latter third of the dialogue things come together. Phaedrus exposes us to the deficiencies of the written word. And since the U.S. Constitution is written, it is the perfect lead-in to a discussion about the best way to interpret the Constitution and whether a correct interpretation is even possible.

Of course, anyone who has made their writing public doesn’t need Plato to tell them the written word is prone to misinterpretation. What Plato does provide is insight into why misinterpretation of the written word is inevitable and why, in many cases, it is neither the writer’s nor the reader’s fault. Of course this doesn’t excuse poor writing or lazy reading, but it does make allowances for misinterpretation; for the written word is a fundamentally flawed form of communication if the goal of communication is the transmission of truth.

Simplifying Plato’s argument means I will necessarily weaken and misrepresent it, but copying and pasting the dialogue won’t do much good either. For the current discussion, the lines most important in the Phaedrus are 257c-279c. In these lines we see Socrates present Phaedrus with the myth of Theuth and Thamus to discuss the deficiencies of writing. Writing, according to Socrates, does not recognize the variability of the audience and allows for anyone to read and interpret what has been written. The problem with this is that not all audiences are the same, so to treat them as though they are is unjust.

To get on the path to justice each person needs something unique. Different people need different things to direct them. The written word cannot treat individuals as individuals but can only treat them all the same. This means the same text will have a different effect upon each person. What a person brings with him to the text – his baggage, presuppositions, needs, etc. – will determine how he reads the text and what he takes away from it.

Because the written word cannot defend itself against misinterpretation or lazy reading, each person who reads it thinks he or she has gotten it right, even if he or she has not. But there is nothing the written document can do to stop it. Once read, the text is no longer the author’s, for each reader has given it his or her own meaning. The author who is aware of this misreading may try to correct it with a follow-up, but if one written text has been misread –or poorly written – adding another to the mix doesn’t seem like a solution from Socrates’ point of view. The problem of misreading is exacerbated when the reader has more will than wit and the author lacks the humility to change his or her method of communication to meet the needs of the reader, or is unable to meet the reader on his or her own terms.

Seeing the implication this has for lawmaking and constitutionalism is quite easy. A law, once written, leaves itself open to interpretation by citizens, administrators, judges, and lawmakers. Each person tries to understand what the law means or construe it to meet his or her needs. But, there is no way the written word can defend itself against misinterpretations, so if there is disagreement, there is no unbiased arbiter, unless the person who wrote the law is available. In the U.S. we have surrogates for the lawgiver: congressional records, notes, essays, etc.; but as time passes, and interpretations mount up, it becomes less clear what the original intention of the author(s) was. This is why it is humorous when someone thinks they know the right way to read the Constitution, or anything really, as if all those who have offered up alternative interpretations were mere paeans compared to the intellectual giant who is the current interpreter.

But the question of reading and interpretation opens itself up to the even more fundamental question that everyone must be asked: How do you know when you are right? Most interpreters, even those who disagree, have some sort of evidence and logical progression on their side, so to simply default to empirical evidence or reason appears to be in error. I don’t even begin to have an answer to this question, which is why I encourage humility, the belief in one’s ability to be wrong, the lack of certainty, to state one’s conclusions as conditional rather than absolute.

As for lawmaking and constitutional interpretation, I don’t hold out much hope as long as it is done on a large scale and in written form. I believe the answer for why can be found most persuasively in Plato, and my view of Platonic lawmaking is developed more fully elsewhere. But, I would encourage anyone interested in the topic to read Plato’s Phaedrus, Minos, and Statesman and the interpretations of those dialogues by Seth Benardete.

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About Kyle Scott

  • troll

    …sheeit Kyle – it’s a pretty general problem worse even than you let on…in fact I’m not sure that on re-reading I don’t misinterpret what I wrote myself 10 minutes earlier

  • roger nowosielski

    Kyle fails to appreciate the virtues of (mis)readings, not to mention the riches inherent in a good text.

    Seems to me he would be a vociferous proponent of artificial languages and may have missed his calling. Mathematics or logic would be his real cup of tea.

  • Igor

    Good subject, good article.

    Of course, even knowing the truth of words with great accuracy it is difficult to gain an interpretation. And having an interpretation, what is it’s significance? Should we hold to that interpretation, no matter how antiquated and disputed?

    One might turn from constitutional law to some more definitive discipline, say physics, which is alluringly free of the taint of human pollution. After all, physics is the product of god or nature (and it doesn’t depend on which is your particular favorite) and so should be constrained by SOMETHING that is beyond the flawed influence of mere man.

    But even in physics we find trails of ambiguity. The very ability to perceive the Real World beyond our chemical minds is in question. After all, we ONLY know what is relayed to us by the nerves and synapses of our gummy, squishy, infirm bodies.

    But surely logic will save us, and perhaps light the road to truth. After all, logic is pure abstraction, and easy to test with machines. And we can make those machines as accurate as we require (in a Cauchy sense) merely by expending redundancy.

    Ah, but then the requirements of redundancy lead to ever increasing overhead so that the original signal becomes overshadowed by burden.

    Pretty soon we stub our toes (or nose) on Goedel and can no longer say that we can prove consistency in a countably denumerable number of steps!

    Oh crap!

    Finally, we have to decide something reasonable, something human scale. We do not rank with the gods.

  • Les Slater

    It seems there are two questions to consider here. One is current interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and its amendments. The other is the mechanics of communication.

    On the first it is best to look at historical context, the forces in contention and their relative strengths and their perceived needs.

    As far as the mechanics, that is very interesting and a subject that I have spent considerable time studying. I do write and speak publicly and weigh carefully what I say and how I say it. I do not expect universal understanding or agreement.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Kyle –

    Great article – and it sums up nicely my own experience on religious blogs. Ask people from three different (“Christian”) religions about what a particular verse means, and you’re certain to get three different answers. And in each case, the person is absolutely sure that his or her interpretation is the correct one. The same obviously goes for the Muslims as well – hence the Sunni/Shi’a schism.

    Of course, when it comes to the Bible, it’s understood that my interpretation was always the correct one and everyone else’s was obviously wrong or only partially correct. And that’s going to lead some who read this comment to wonder if I’m really joking when I say that, more’s the pity!