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A correct interpretation of Hamlet?

April 12, 2008

How about this then!

I do believe that there is a "correct" interpretation of Hamlet, and also that we can select among interpretations and find the interpretation that is closer to the truth than its competitors. Of course, however, even if we someday find the "correct" interpretation, we have no way of knowing that we have found it. It is, I'm afraid, our fate to be able to find the truth, sometimes, but unfortunately always to be less than certain that we have found it.

I have been looking for some time for a simple quote which summarises the poverty of taking too strong a critical rationalist perspective and I finally got it this morning courtesy of my eternal protagonist and more recently friend Joe Firestone in a response to a series of intelligent posts (i.e. I in the main agree with him) from Michael Olsson on the ActKM listserv.

To set the context, some time ago Michael introduced the ideas of Brenda Dervin (who I consider the major figure on sense-making and whom I am proud to count as a friend) and Joe has been fighting back. All this as part of a major flurry of activity on the listserv which has ranged from the serious and deep to some incoherent drivel from a deeply disturbed modeler. In some ways this is a continuation of the debate over Bouillabaisse as it raises the issue of context in understanding what it means to know something and the application of knowledge.

Now in Joe's statement we see both a false assumption and an unnecessary contortion of reason. Part of this is an over dependence on language and the meaning of language. Lakomski makes the point well when she says:

The model of the human mind has been assumed to be akin that of a symbol processor, a computer like engine that allows us to manipulate successfully a range of symbols of which language is deemed the most significant. This view of the human mind is very limiting because it assumes that what we know, and are able to know, is expressible in symbolic form only.

So what is the false assumption in the idea that there is a correct interpretation of Hamlet? Well Joe is assuming that the text of Hamlet exists in isolation from its performance (which would include a reading) and fails to consider the nature of a play (or other work of art) just as other people have failed to appreciate the role of recipes in the production of Bouillabaisse. Let me look at three personal example to make my point:

  • It is possible for me to say that the Cardiff Blues beat the Llanelli Scarlets last night by 35 points to 26. This statement can be verified by reference to an authoritative source or by gathering the evidence of 10,000 spectators of whom I was one. I can move on to say that this was one of the best matches of the season and provide evidence. Eight tries were scored, the lead changed several times, we saw wonderful examples of both creative and power play etc. If you understand Rugby then I can probably establish the validity of that statement beyond reasonably doubt. The reason is that we share the context. However there is another whole level of meaning in matches between Llanelli and Cardiff that you probably have to grow up with to understand. As the social context increases then the concept of knowledge is increasingly a result of social processes ad co-evolutionary interactions over time. So Joe, who comes from a barbarian country which abandoned rugby in favour of a silly stop-start game with too much padding, can know the 35-26 score, but he cannot know what it means to beat those blankity blanks dressed up in red.
  • In just over a weeks time I will go to two performances of operas by Harrison Birtwistle. His newest composition The Minotaur and a coupe of days later, his first Punch and Judy with a forty year period between which has seen wonderful and innovative compositions such as the wonderfully dramatic Gawain and the incredible intellectual challenge of Mask of Orpheus: please someone somewhere perform this again. Now I will experience Punch and Judy differently as a result of having seen The Minotaur two days before. The fact that I am one of the very view people to have seen a performance of The Mask of Orpheus will change by perception of both.
  • Eating bouillabaisse on the harbor front in Marseille with my daughter during the World Cup last year was an experience, with a level of meaning that could not be provided if someone pulled out a recipe book and cooked the meal for me in a flat in Sydney.

A very large part of what we know, and how we know it is fluid, evolutionary and context dependent. To constantly talk about validation in the sense of symbol manipulation is to impoverish human knowledge. Of course this does not mean that we cannot be objective. My experience of rugby and opera has subjective elements, but parts of it are also objective. But that is a blog for later in the week.

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