Georgi Gerjikov

Français: Conflit des interpretations

Deutsch: Konflikt der Interpretationen

Русский: Конфликт интерпретаций

Italiano: Conflitto delle interpretazioni

Español: Conflicto de las interpretaciones

Origin of the term

The concept “conflict of interpretations” was used by Paul Ricoeur as a title of his collections of studies on the compatibility of different interpretative methods [Les conflit des interpretations, 1960].


Ricoeur worked in the field of hermeneutics and tried to combine different methods of text interpretations and other cultural phenomena. He admits that trends such as psychoanalysis, Marxism and structuralism are based on too different premises and follow too different internal logics to be combined in a single whole – i. e., it is inevitable that there will be conflicts among them (Рикьор [3]). But Ricoeur does not reach the extreme conclusion that their approaches are completely incompatible – a conclusion that authors such as Thomas Kuhn draw with regard to natural scientific paradigms and that is often reproduced with regard to other disciplines. Instead, Ricoeur speaks of “planting” a given method on the “branch” of another one (ibid.: 10) and of a dialectic among separate interpretative approaches that preserves their differences but provides a more unified understanding of the existing (ibid.: 31). The concept of dialectic here seems a key one; elsewhere in the same book Ricoeur compares dialectics to arbitrary eclecticism that unlike it can be a caricature (ibid.: 178).

The texts in the Conflict of Interpretations, however, concern rather specific topics and do not offer a detailedly worked-out comprehensive methodology for achieving a dialectic among different interpretative approaches. Readers are left to themselves to decide what could that methodology be on the basis of Ricoeur’s more voluminous works. (For example, in The Living Metaphor Ricoeur applies different research approaches to metaphor depending on its various roles – poetic, discursive and ontological (Ricouer [2]). It appears, overall, that dialectics differs from eclecticism in that the separate aspects of existence are approached with different interpretative methods rather than trying to fuse them into a single method with which to treat the whole of the object. This reminds of the difference between the classical philosophical understanding of knowledge and Nietzsche’s perspectivism – in the first case one tries to find the “essence” of a given object through the elimination of “contingent” points of view that we have of the object (and thus, according to Nietzsche we end up with a bare abstraction), whereas in the second case knowledge is extended by superimposing various points of view, which gives the complexity of the studied object its due (Nietzsche [1]).


The attempts at combining various interpretative methods continue in the projects of some continental thinkers such as Habermas, who, however, register their absence in most French and German theoreticians while explicitly pointing to Ricoeur as a valuable exception. (Хабермас [4]). The Conflict of Interpretations was published in English a year after its French publication, but at the time authors such as Paul de Man were popularizing Derrida’s deconstruction in the literature departments of American universities (Simms [6]: 128 ff.), and the analytic tradition remained dominant in the philosophical community. As a result, deconstruction and the analytic philosophy’s opposition to it overshadowed Ricoeur’s approach both in the English-speaking world (ibid.) and in continental Europe, where German philosophy was influenced by the analytic tradition and engaged in bitter disputes with French post-structuralist experiments (Хабермас [4]).

Nevertheless, there are humanities scholars who have noticed the benefits of using an approach such as Ricoeur’s for finding a golden mean between the extremes of relativism, according to which all interpretations of a given text or phenomenon are justified and absolutism, that recognizes the validity of only one interpretation. Following Ricoeur, Paul Armstrong (Armstrong [5]) indicates three criteria for sifting out legitimate interpretations where more than one seem justified: inclusivity (the inclusion of all elements of a given text in its interpretation rather than only a selection of those that support it the most); intersubjectivity (the capacity of an interpretation to convince other people apart from its author); and efficacy (being led to new findings as a consequence of the offered interpretation).

A similar list of criteria (liable to expansion, of course) can turn out to be extremely valuable in the current discursive context of “post-truth”, regularly giving rise to irreconcilable social and political conflicts of interpretations. The list can be used to refute the most extreme and insane opinions, mostly those that explicitly take themselves to be completely incompatible with suggested alternative views and that proclaim the supporters of the alternatives (be they a minority or majority) to be malevolent or misled enemies.

How to Cite:

Gerjikov, Georgi (2021) Conflict of interpretations, in Thesaurus. Sofia University Dictionary of Philosophy. Online edition. Sofia: St. Kliment Ohridski University Press, 2021, ISSN 2815-2832.