Subproject 7

The Epistemology of the Humanities

Project leader: prof. dr. René van Woudenberg
Project member: Wout Bisschop, MA


Interpretation is ubiquitous in everyday life and academia. We interpret newspapers, e-mails, laws, holy books, empirical data, art works, etc. Often, our interpretations have epistemic goals, in the sense that we interpret in order to obtain knowledge, understanding, or rational and justified beliefs. Such epistemic goals of interpretation are crucial to the theoretical underpinnings of many important (academic) activities and decisions. If reading Dante is as subjective an event as hand-reading, we would lack a principled reason to teach the first but not the latter at a university. If a judge in Arnhem interprets the law in a way radically different from his colleague in Amsterdam, this would thoroughly undermine trust in our rule of law.

Yet how is it possible to obtain such epistemic goals in interpretation if the truism holds that our worldviews, personal experiences, background beliefs and prejudices figure prominently in the formation of interpretive beliefs? Doesn’t that make interpretation a thoroughly subjective affair? This and other challenges to the epistemic status of our interpretations and interpretive methods directly affect the epistemic status of academic disciplines to which interpretation is key, like philosophy, history, theology and literary theory, but perhaps also (parts of) the natural sciences.

The purpose of this project is to develop an analytical epistemology of interpretation.

Contemporary epistemology and philosophy of science has paid scant attention to basic questions like: ‘What is ‘an interpretation of a text’?’, ‘What does a text have when it has meaning?’, ‘What is the relation between an object of interpretation and its interpretation?’, ‘When are we justified in thinking that a particular interpretation of a text is correct?’, ‘Can an interpretation provide us with knowledge or justified beliefs, or is are interpretive beliefs of a radically different kind?’. Much work is done, however, on like the analysis of knowledge, theories of the justification of beliefs, and testimony. Our methodological purpose is to make this work relevant to these and other questions about interpretation.

Our systematic examination of the nature, aim(s) and standards of interpretation starts with conceptual analysis of the notoriously ambiguous terms ‘interpretation’ and ‘meaning’. This conceptual clarification, secondly, serves to address questions and challenges regarding the justification or validity of interpretive beliefs. This, thirdly, enables a comparison of the epistemic status of interpretative beliefs compared to beliefs resulting from established scientific practices.