Why Interpret Me?
In a widely-used simple approximation, the world of thinking and writing is a world of specific arguments. Readers collect their opinions by combining the arguments of those they read/hear with arguments that they think of for themselves. In this approximation, the only reason to interpret a writer/speaker is to figure out what exactly are his or her arguments.
When people read an obscure writer, and primarily for their arguments, such readers do in fact only bother to interpret argument details. But for more prominent intellectuals, I see readers doing a lot more interpretation. For example, readers often eagerly interpret writers as making claims that they did not directly make and that are not directly relevant to understanding their explicit arguments. Especially re overall positive or negative attitudes towards people or topics, such as sexism or racism.
When I recently asked scholars who study Adam Smith what was their most controversial issue, they said it is whether Smith was on the left or right politically. (Though our left-right distinction didn’t exist then.) For very prominent thinkers like Smith, many spend their whole careers try to “interpret” each one as a set of integrated positions on a wide range of issues. Even for marginal thinkers like myself, people often ask what is the “Hansonian” position on issues where I have not spoken.
These behaviors suggests that readers are not just combining specific arguments they hear with arguments they think for themselves. Many instead try to use a specific human thinker to create a distilled thinking persona, a persona from which they can extract a much wider range of opinions than they can from that human.
A persona seem to be valued more than the actual detailed thinking of its source human, and in the long run such personas tend to have most of the influence on the world associated with that human’s name. For example, if I end up being more influential than I expect, most of my influence would likely be via a Hanson persona who has much simpler and easier to predict opinions than do I, on far more topics than do I.
Note that the historians who spend their lives studying a famous human thinker usually take pains to distinguish his or her persona from his or her real thought, and they are primarily focused on elaborating that real thinking. Except that such historians usually try hard to find the most consistent, coherent, and insightful versions possible of that person’s thought, versions the most consistent with our current opinions, even if that isn’t very plausibly what that person actually thought. So such historians are actually focused on constructing a different kind of persona, one different both from the real person and from their historically-influential persona.
So why do we value personas more than actual thinkers? Personas seem to be some sort of shortcut to generating prestigious opinions. Somehow, we can use personas to quickly create opinions somewhat related to what that human thought, but via a process that doesn’t need to engage most of the messy details involved in their arguments. The prestige of this persona then allows us to feel confident in considering or supporting such opinions in the face of possible criticism.
How does all this work? I just don’t know. Do you?
(This post inspired by a yet-to-be-posted MindsAlmostMeeting podcast with Agnes Callard and Arnold Brooks.)
Added 14Aug: The comments on this post seem unusually good. Guess I should ask open-ended questions more often.