Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Charity and Disagreement

A common misconception takes interpretative charity to be an inability to say anything contrary about someone's thoughts or actions... a sort of well-meaning but naive refusal to engage in argument because a nicer and more well-meaning interlocutor could always be plausibly imagined.  The idea is that the overly-charitable interpreter nuances a person's position to death so that even the worst crimes and falsehoods could be justified in the name of standing aloof from uncivil polemic.

On the contrary, nothing about interpretative charity prevents strong disagreement, despite any conventional wisdom otherwise from the blogosphere.  The basic idea of interpretative charity is this: I interpret a thinker under the assumption that they have every intention of being coherent and reasonable in what they say, and that as a result of this intention there's probably a good bit of coherence and reasonableness that can actually be granted to them before simply dismissing their thought as so much nonsense.  In a very mundane sort of way, we all depend upon charity to get along with everyday communication.  We fill in gaps and make implicit distinctions explicit whenever we talk with someone, simply because we're charitable enough to assume that they have basic communicative abilities and intend these sorts of things in the first place.  Interpretative charity simply assumes the same about higher levels of discourse... that if a thought is compelling or meaningful for someone else, there's probably some level of coherence and reasonableness that would at least make it reproducible and recognizable in my own thinking (if not always equally compelling).

Alain Badiou articulates something like this in The Century, taking matters straight to the classic test case of Nazism:
"Allow me to raise what nowadays is a provocative, or even forbidden, question: What was the thought of the Nazis?  What did the Nazis think?  There is a way of always leading everything back to what the Nazis did (they undertook the extermination of the European Jews in gas chambers) that completely precludes any access to what they thought, or imagined they were thinking, in doing what they did.  But refusing to think through what the Nazis themselves thought also prevents us from thinking through what they did, and consequently forbids the formulation of any real politics that would prohibit the return of their actions.  As long as Nazi thinking is not itself thought through it will continue to dwell among us, unthought and therefore indestructible." (3-4)
[side note: an interesting flip-side to the Nazi example is Badiou's caution against anti-political moralizing conclusions on p. 53, following his discussion of political violence]

Something like that strikes me as similar to what is meant by a charitable stance... simply a prior assumption of thinkability (and one might add in most cases, of significant coherence and reasonableness)... but it certainly doesn't prevent harsh critique.  Quite the opposite, any harsh critique only really hits its mark to the extent that charity has carried the preparatory interpretation as far as it will go.

While I don't see any need to link other conversations, this post originated out of continued frustration with the idea, held by a few folks, that I can be something of an etiquette obsessed contributor to theological conversations on blogs, unwilling to ever just go out and offer a straightforward criticism.  This may be the case... for the most part I don't see the draw of spending one's time arguing with others over a screen... but any such avoidance of criticism shouldn't be associated with interpretative charity.  The two are quite different practices.  Conflating them will just lead to making charity less appealing to theologians and theology an even more useless exercise than it has already become in some cases.

For an example of one of my own attempts at interpretive charity done for primarily critical purposes,  I'd recommend reading my 2009 article, "'Fullness of the Spirit' and 'Fullness of Catholicity' in Ecclesial Communion", in IJST.  The argument I make against the CDF and the sitting pope simply couldn't have been made without taking most of the paper to follow through certain arguments on the basis of their own most reasonable terms.  That is, without prioritizing interpretative charity some critiques actually remain unavailable.


  1. As a fellow advocate of nuance and charity towards all (not that I always live up to this), I appreciate this post. I posted lately about the alarming (to me) dismissiveness inherent in the accusations of "bullshitting" I read on occasion. (I am thinking of some online philosophical debates, but the same could be said of theology, or science-&-religion, or etc etc). I take accusations of BS to mean something like "you don't even mean what you are saying; you are just trying to look deep/score points/confuse the gullible/etc." A similar point could be made (at the risk of over-simplification) about other "uncharitable" readings: they take issue with ostensible motives for speaking rather than the arguments themselves.

    To be clear-- I don't think motives are irrelevant. I think everyone should ask themselves why they argue a certain way, and it's perfectly within-bounds to ask one's interlocutor the same thing. But I don't see how this can be the centerpiece of an exchange if we are to really have a conversation as opposed to, say, an arraignment.

    I especially like your concluding (italicized) observation. And I think I follow you in distinguishing between interpretive charity and (what I'll call) civility. I might want to say these are a little more entwined than you do here, but I'll have to think about that.

  2. And I think I follow you in distinguishing between interpretive charity and (what I'll call) civility. I might want to say these are a little more entwined than you do here, but I'll have to think about that.

    One of the main reasons why I distinguished between them so sharply is that many of the recent theology blog conversations about this issue have made legitimate points against a sort of timid inability to be disagreeable.

    I do think that "civility" should be a habit and that criticism itself need not be so emphasized as it is in most political or otherwise public discourse. I also agree that this is probably somewhat connected with the interpretive principle of charity... certainly they both often have the same goals and similar practical characteristics. But I didn't want the point about interpretive charity (which is really pretty mundane) to be clouded by too much association with "agreeableness" or "civility". Insofar as I partially agree with some of the critiques of civility, and in any case I don't think taking up the banner for civility would get very far at the moment, I wanted to isolate charity for present purposes.

  3. Evan,

    This entire post is bullshit. Maybe you should just grow a pair and say what you REALLY MEAN!!!!

    Yours in sarcasm,


  4. If this is only directed some recent blog conversations you've been having, then it makes perfect sense. But if you mean it to have broader relevance, then I'd start quibbling, because in areas I work in, interpretive charity is a problem: people use "charity" to avoid attributing positions to people that the "charitable" interpreters finds implausible, and this results in lousy, anachronistic readings.

    Some of this stems from Davidson's (I think somewhat dubious) notion of charity, but even apart from his particular take on the concept, it gets used with some regularity in the stuff I read to make someone fit into the thought-world of the charitable author.

    I'm sure you would find this a problem, too, so I imagine we're just reading different people, since you don't seem affected by this. Maybe philosophers have this problem more than theologians.

  5. I'd agree with you here, Sam... I was speaking of a more basic notion of charity (although even granting someone a certain amount of charity on their own terms runs that same sort of... Let's call it "paternalistic" risk of the interpreter assuming they know what's best). Here is a good blog post on that very problem. Sometimes I think this sort of charity-so-called can yield very interesting and worthwhile ideas... I'm fine with a bunch of pseudo-Augustines, Hegels, etc. running around. The difficulty, of course, comes when the pseudo- isn't acknowledged, or even actively denied.