The problem of (mis)interpretation, and creativity in philosophy

Have you ever been reading a book, not understanding what was going on, then you come up with what you think is a correct interpretation, then it turns out to be wrong anyways? I have done this more times than I have read books in my life. I have also on many occasions not realized that my interpretation was wrong. I misinterpreted the book, without knowing it. This happens all of the time in philosophy, and despite what it seems, is not a problem. Misinterpretation is most likely a good thing for you, especially if you know how to use it well. It is a hammer or a wrench in an aesthetic toolbox.

Imagine you are trying to read a difficult work of philosophy filled with long uninterpretable unsmooth snakelike sentences that crawl at a snail’s pace. You are getting nowhere, but are energized and enthusiastic to learn the mysterious ways of the old philosophers. Suddenly you discover the truth in a eureka moment, and all of the meaning of life briefly connects with your life. You see what the philosopher is saying. The philosopher is putting an idea into words and you received the idea through the fog! You can see how the idea must be difficult to talk about, or maybe you think that the philosopher should have been clearer.

Later on reading the same book, the philosopher in clearer prose contradicts your mad moment of meaning. Now, you have no idea what they said. You feel hopeless and lost, because suddenly the wonderful idea you thought the philosopher said is contradicted. Your posthumous parasocial relationship with said dead philosopher forces you to abandon the interpretation, because you respect the philosopher’s genius.

Don’t feel woe! This philosopher is an idiot, or maybe they are actually genius, but anyways, they don’t matter at all! You were reading a book and you came up with an idea on your own inspired by projecting your feelings onto some writing. Maybe interpreting the philosopher has value in its own right, but you are not doing that. Therefore, you are an original creative thinker. You are a philosopher in your own right, and you have created a new concept, which is like a collage of ideas.

There is a fantastic essay by Eve Tuck called Breaking Up With Deleuze. In it she talks about her relationship with the dead French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. She describes her issue of attributing her own original thoughts to Deleuze’s writings. She describes how Deleuze’s idiosyncratic language, which is simultaneously both literal and figurative, took over her use of language and thinking for a while. She uses the metaphor of breaking a relationship with Deleuze. This is an example of this sort of useful misinterpretation, or philosophical clinamen.

The human brain is not meant to simply interpret information accurately like a computer, it also creates new information, and sorts out bad information.

Famous Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek says in numerous places that all great philosophy is a series of misinterpretations and misreadings. He even admits to misinterpreting Jacques Lacan in one discussion with Graham Harman. This is because the human mind is capable of creation beyond old ideas. Reading old ideas can be inspiring because it allows for reflection and comparison. It can be easy to find a new philosophy in the midst of an old one, by clearing some wild path of thinking that the old master had not explored in the hiking-forest of concepts. Maybe the old fool was blinded by their own pretty prosaic ponderings or the lack of time and memory to see revolutionary thought’s potential. Besides, a book that took every tangent imaginable would be a worse read, though these old philosophers often take tangents to satisfy their whims and fancies.

This whole phenomenon of good misinterpretation is common, because philosophy is an artform, not a social science.

Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead says that there are two forms of philosophy. There is critical philosophy, which attempts to find certain knowledge, and is afraid of being wrong. Then there is creative philosophy which risks being wrong giving it the ability to find new ideas that could be right. Both Whitehead and myself prefer the second sort.

Creative philosophy is better, because critical philosophy is going nowhere. Almost everyone in philosophy today agrees that Rene Decartes’s plan to base knowledge in absolutely certain foundations was over ambitious, impossible, and unnecessary. But many philosophers want certainty anyways, they just wish to be arbitrary with where they put their certainty. Critical philosophers tend to be obsessed with certainty, and tend to give up on the task of philosophy as a whole. So many philosophers are willing to hand the entirety of metaphysics, or philosophy of mind, over to physicists and neuroscientists who don’t know what they're getting into. A philosophical treatment of the human mind would not say “there is no mind” but would instead defend the existence of the mind, while admitting to not understanding the mind’s true nature. Philosopher’s can never pull away the curtain to reveal the wizard, only scientists and religions do that. Philosophers are doing something else, something more general, and aesthetically oriented.

Whitehead believes that philosophy is a creative exercise in general principles. I would also add concept creation as a central focus of philosophy. Historically many new sciences have emerged initially as branches of philosophy. Physics, psychology, economics, social sciences, ect. Philosophers create concepts in an attempt to be general, and this failing generality results in a specialized field of study that can be further developed. These failed philosophies are thus not failures elsewhere.

Philosophical ideas are often extreme and wildly speculative. This is not a scandal. This is the natural order of things, because philosophy is made to explore concepts without regard for knowledge. Graham Harman says that “philosophy is not a form of knowledge” which is in line with Plato’s famous “Philosophy is the love of wisdom” a quote that admits a relationship to knowledge without being knowledge.

Philosophers generate concepts that have never been articulated before, but still feel like they are a part of everyday experience in a deja vu sort of way. This is because philosophical concepts have to do with descriptions of all that exists, and naturally are based in the essentials of experience. In a similar way someone may find a phrase in a book which inspires an idea which was not originally in the author’s mind. This is creativity at work, not misreading.

Graham Harman suggests that philosophy is more akin to art than science, this is a cautious position that does not fully make philosophy art. I would go even further and say that philosophy is an artform that concerns the creation of general concepts, or concepts that can be used to explain all experience. There are problems with this definition of philosophy, namely that philosophical concepts are evaluated based on whether or not they are true, whereas paintings and novels can be fantastical. My rebuttal is that philosophy is in fact not entirely based on truth value. In the same sense that some art speaks deep truths of the soul, some philosophies are good at explaining experience. But some philosophies are studied because they are novel and exciting.

Think of Parmenedes’s deceptively clever denial of motion, and of the daring Idealism of Berkeley. Berkeley’s famous “Esse est percipi” could not be true, most people reject it on the basis that they feel like reality is real, even if they can’t explain why. When I first encountered philosophy I was drawn to any philosophy which could find a way to deny the existence of something supposedly universal. All of these positions are discussed to a certain extent, even though they are probably inaccurate to generalizations of experience.

In general daring thinking is better in philosophy, so I seek to stretch philosophy to be more daring. An artistic creative philosophy which lacks connection to reality can still have a positive impact, in the sense that other thinkers will need to be able to explain why it is wrong.

Philosophers should be more free to abandon their philosophical projects. Many philosophers think of their system of philosophy as if it was a child in need of perfection. Philosophers ought to be more like Spartans and abandon their kids in the woods. Most of them are flawed anyways, so a long standing defense of a poor system is a mistake. If you abandon the perfect idea someone else will pick it up, maybe a century, or millennia later.

Often philosophers will phrase original discoveries as being readings of older philosophers, or will make clear declarations of concepts long ago thought up in esoteric tomes of forgotten metaphysics and claim them as their own. Both of these are fine in moderation, but I would recommend that philosophers lean towards the self-proclamation of originality. If someone regards themselves as merely a reader of old men’s books then they are condemning themselves to tired chilly scholarship and endless cultish history. This would be demoralizing. Originality is valued in other artforms as a chief virtue, so why not philosophy?