This past Saturday I delivered a TEDx talk here at SUNY Geneseo and I wanted to post the written transcript for those who couldn’t be there. I will only post the first third on here and then leave the rest as a comment on the blog post so that I don’t take up three feet of screen space. Reading time should be about fifteen minutes. The takeaway from the talk is that interpretation matters, but interpretation is not subjective.
“Good afternoon my name is Kyle Navratil and I am currently an undergraduate student here at SUNY Geneseo and let me just say, I love language. That’s what I study in the English Department, from writing poetry to analyzing the most influential literary texts in all of human history. I cant help but love words and believe that they have power. Not just as objects themselves but for the ideas that they convey. And I want to talk to you about what I believe to be the most important word, the word with which we understand all other words: Hermeneutics.
For those of you who do not know immediately what this word means, there is a bit of irony in this, because every single one of you that is able to interpret and understand the words that I am saying right now is actually engaging in hermeneutics, because hermeneutics is interpretation, specifically the interpretation of language. And as we talk about our visions for the future, I believe that at the very heart of this discussion is hermeneutics and the concept of interpretation.
Hermeneutics is typically associated with religious traditions as many of the world’s major religions are inextricably found in literary texts. The Bible, the Quran, the Vedas. Entire world-views are contained within these books, and the practice of rigorously analyzing and discerning the meaning of a text is called exegesis. Lawyers engage in a similar practice when interpreting legislature.
Yet the language is not the only thing that we interpret, it is merely the means we use to convey our interpretations of the world. Whether through scientific empiricism, divine inspiration, or simply asking a friend’s advice on a difficult situation, we are constantly forming interpretive frameworks that help us best understand the world and our experience within it. These are our personal hermeneutic models, and they exist beyond language. And it is through these interpretative frameworks that we vision cast into the future.
Let’s be honest, we don’t all have the same interpretation. Think of religious schisms and political controversy, both protestants and Catholics have the same Bible. Sunni and Shia have the same Quran, and Democrats and Republicans have the same constitution and you and your friend were looking at the same situation. It is not the texts, but our interpretations that vary.
And I want to say something that at first may seem a little controversial: some interpretations are better than others. Or, said inversely, some interpretations are just plain wrong.
In language, this is self evident. For instance if I say that you’re pulling my leg, are you actually pulling my leg? If I’m speaking in terms of an idiom, then no. And to interpret my words envisioning someone actually pulling on my leg would be wrong. Yet I think that misinterpretation goes beyond the semantics of language into our understanding of the future and the world as well.
Let me just tell you quick story. “