Isn’t That Just Your Interpretation?

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  • Isn’t That Just Your Interpretation?

    by Paul Copan

    Few things are more frustrating than carefully presenting reasons for the meaning of a text-- biblical or otherwise-- only to be casually dismissed with “That’s just your interpretation!” Whether Scripture, history, literature, or politics is under scrutiny, we witness people reducing meaning to personal interpretation or perspective. Who hasn’t heard the Friedrich Nietzsche’s line, “There are no facts-- only interpretations”?

    But isn’t that statement presumed by the speaker to be a fact, not an interpretation? Many claim that conclusions about abortion are just matters of “interpretation” or “perspective,” but they give the impression that if you disagree with them, you’re wrong. To deny objectivity is to assume something is objectively true for all people: “Everything is a matter of interpretation, whether or not you agree with my statement.” We have only two alternatives: triviality (“It’s all perspective, including mine”-- so why believe it?) or incoherence (“Everything’s a matter of perspective, except mine”-- making a person an exception to his own rule).

    Most people appeal to “interpretation” because they don’t like another alternative. “Interpretation” is often a smokescreen for pursuing one’s own agenda or autonomy. To better discern whether this is so, we can ask. “Do you mean that you don’t like my interpretation or that you have good reasons for disagreeing with it?” Other questions worth asking are these: “Can a perspective ever be correct?” “Are some things not a matter of perspective (such as a flat earth versus a round earth)? “How can you know that your interpretation and my interpretation are actually different?”

    Even if we don’t always get things right, we can discern that some perspectives better approximate the truth than others. We generally trust the Wall Street Journal over tabloids, even though good newspapers may be wrong at points. The fact that we can recognize that some interpretation are more plausible than others (and thus are more likely true) indicates that not everything is a matter of interpretation. Therefore, we must be willing to give reasons for the most plausible position. After all, if everything is perspective, how can we distinguish between reasonable and wacky ideas?

    Despite our limitations, we still cannot escape objectivity. To deny its possibility is to affirm its actuality. Even the “perspectivist” believes that those disagreeing with him are objectively wrong.
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