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The Problems of Living in an Interpreted World

posItIve suggestions I have made: but I think it symptomatic of
our state that we don’t have lots of ideas – and activities going about this. Maybe not everyone in sympathy with the
general idea of radical philosophy feels these needs. When
talk about new modes of communicating, this must include more
or less regular meetings, preferably, though not ~nly in small
groups, where the separation between our lives as persons and
as radicals, and our lives as academic philosophers can be
overcome, at least to an extent. Lastly, a suggestion that
one of the most important areas in which we can intervene
philosophically and politically at this point is that of education and the philosophy of education, at present, despite
recent good work by Dave Adelstein and Keith Paton (The Great
Brain Robbery), dominated by a reactionary ideology emanatIng
largely from the London Institute of Education.


Thus the structure of philosophy departments reproduces
the fragmentation of understanding which seems to be an essential
feature of capitalist society. How, while remaining within the
academy can we avoid being agents of this and other forms of
oppression? How can we ourselves avoid being screwed up by the
false positions and compromises we are forced into (exams,
lectures, posing as authorities, being subject to authorities)?

Can we get our own heads (and lives) straight while we are
subject to its domination, to the disruption it imposes on our
own thinking? Should we get out, trying to contribute to the
‘,building up of radical culture and thought outside the academy,
living in a more integrated, revolutionary manner? Perhaps
‘radical philosophy’ will help to make the academy more liveable,
by placing politics where it should be, at the centre of consciousness, not as a special, peripheral subject: but is this

ADDENDUM: A Note about “the Theory of Knowledge”


Perhaps, in some way, ‘the problem of knowledge’, and
that of political practice, are one.


Philosophy departments customarily allot separate courses
to epistemology and to moral philosophy. This seems to enshrine
a fact value distinction into the very structure of the degree.

(In one course we discuss knowledge, in another values.)



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One of the central questions of ‘epistemology’ concerns
the conditions under which it is possible to acquire knowledge
(or in Winch’s words, how the mind can have contact with
reality). But the knowledge about which this question is asked
is usually knowledge of facts about the ‘material world’. If
the question is understood to include knowledge about oneself,
about one’s society and one’s relationships with others, then
the Marxist contention that capitalism is intrinsically a
mystifying social formation in which people are systematically
prevented from seeing the truth about their lives and their
society (and its Freudian, etc. analogues) immediately becomes
relevant. The question about knowledge has to be dealt with in
the context of the question: what kind of society and social
relations would enable a non-mystified view of reality, would
replace illusion with knowledge? This transfers the focus of
the question from the individual mind to the type of society
which makes knowledge possible and accessible. It also raises
the question of how this knowledge enters the mind, and the
relationship between the person and his knowledge; thus it
would involve issues about non-oppressive forms of education,
an education which liberates people’s capacities to discover
and to do things for themselves and with others, which enables
them to understand their society. It is a feature of the
capitalist system that it cannot allow this to happen, that its
nature and operation is obscure to those who work and live
under it.




Colia MacCabe

The rationalistic world view (a view which incidentally is,
think, the predominant one for us here and now, and which
daily approaches its timely end) changes the focus from the
comunally shared world of the tribe to the world individually
experiences. That this view can be historically linked with an
increasing division of labour is something which should become
clear during the course of my argument. Here the emphasis
changes from a world which finds its continuity running through
itself to a world which finds its continuity in the world of
self which perceives the world as out there and which objectifies
this world so that it finds its being independently of the
perceiving self. This factifying of the world is accompanied by
a negatIon of other areas of experience in which the facticity
of the world is not so marked, such as dreams, hallucinations
and other similar phenomena. In particular, the area of the
world which becomes highly problematic is other people.

Experienced both as physical facts of the world and also at
another level as beings with direct contact with the conscious
perceiving self, other minds become problematic. Thus in the
rationalist world we find the world split into two, on the one
hand, the world of self, and on the other, the world of fact,
and caught uneasily between the two, other minds and those
experiences of our own body which we cannot characterize as
self or not-self.

The following paper was read to the Cambridge Philosophy
Festival on March lOth, 1972 (see Cambridge Report). It is
intended to raise problems rather than to offer final answers.

The last section of the paper (“Discussion”) was added after
the Cambridge meeting and deals with some of the points raised
in the discussion there.

Let us begin by trying to define three different attitudes
to the world; the mythological, the rational and the fictive. In
the mythological world there is no distinction of kind between
the experiences of self, the experience of other human beings,
and the experience of the external world. Indeed, the world is
not even seen as external in this way. All three categories are
underpinned by and articulated along methods of explanation in
which the governing power is placed outside in a fourth category
– that of the gods – which it is impossible to disentangle from
the rest but which is their ultimate support. The experience of
self in this world is not necessarily seen as an experiential
continuum in terms of which the rest of the world is defined but
rather the experiences of the self find their discontinuities
reconciled in the continuum of the world ratified by the gods.

Indeed these discontinuities are not even seen as such in a
continuous common world. The world of dreams, the common sense
world of ordinary waking life and the world of mystical or druginduced states require no existential ordering in the life of
the self, their ordering is guaranteed in the life of the tribe.



Before I attempt to describe the third attitude to the
world I would like to make clear what I am doing in offering
these descriptions. I do not think I am describing fully the
world view of any particular culture at any particular moment
in its history. Rather these are theoretical descriptions
which will, I hope, prove their usefulness in the inquiry I am

undertaking. I am trying to show how the rationalist view
down and gives way to the fictive view, but obviously
no one society or one individual has a totally monolithic
viewpoint which can be summarised in a few lines.

obviously, it does seem to me that the rationalist viewpoint
does depict a general view held and lived by a large number
of people in our society. However, if one were to apply these
categories to the complex situation of our actual society, one
would immediately have to begin to alter and modify them. Thus
in our present society aspects of the mythological view persist
for the majority of the population;
the ‘gods’ who support the
reality of their world are the rationalist experts of the ruling


When it comes to describing the fictive attitude to the
world I encounter great difficulty in the fact that, even now,
it only begins to be thought and experience~ Here the world
is, for the first time, seen as produced by and producer of the
actions of human beings. The world, the reality of ordinary
everyday experience, is seen as the result of the community’s
activity in the world and this activity can still not yet be
grasped clearly and transparently by us while economic origins
constantly lose themselves in the world of money. In this view,
the body is reintegrated as founding source of expression,
which source is always canalised and structured by that language
offered by history which both determined and is determined by
our experience. In the fictive view, that dialogue between
phenomenology and history, between the individual body and the
society in which it finds itself, might become comprehensible
on the stage of a language endlessly responsive to the general
needs of a body in the world and the individual passage of each
body through the world.

Having established these categories I first want to look
at the progress of natural science within that space guaranteed
for it by the rationalist view of the world and to point to that
area where it first becomes problematic, where as it reaches its
own limits it turns back on itself to destroy the space of its
own possibility. As man divorces the world from himself and
factifies it, he finds himself face to face with a brute reality
whose laws he attempts to understand. For the reality to be
thus experienced, language must absent itself and become simply
a transparent window on the real which is given unproblematically
just as it is. On this view, science becomes the activity of
finding out how things are, or perhaps it would be more just to
say that science becomes the passivity of finding out how things
are. The human body becomes merely a passive receiver of the
neutral data which mind interprets. Thus one achieves an
empiricist history of science in which advance is seen merely
as the gathering of more facts which are subsumed again under a
more general theory. In recent years, this theory has come
under heavy fire from historians and philosophers of science.

Basically there has been a growing awareness that the theory one
adopts to interpret the world determines the facts that one will
discover in the world. Language is no longer seen as a transparent window on the world but rather a constitutive factor in
the world. In particular, the idea that because one is using
the same expression (let us say, “mass” as it is used in
Einsteinian or Newtonian physics, or “memory” as it is used
in neuro-physiology and ordinary language) one is guaranteed to
be meaning the same thing, is increasingly seen as an article of
faiths, as unreliable and as mystifying as the belief that money
has real value.

Rather, as money finds its use in that space
where commodities confront and are exchanged for one another,
so meaning finds its reality (its use) in the interplay of
expressions. Or as somebody once remarked, the meaning of a
word is its use in a language-game. The defining self and the
defined world begin to lose their independent reality at that
point where language is discovered to define both. If one is
dubious of the validity of this argument (and it is essential
to admit that the immediate and pressing claims of the physical
world constitute a powerful intuitive argument against it), it
is necessary to turn to that area where the facticity of the world
becomes obviously problematic – the world of the human sciences.

Let us take a particular example of a human science, the
psycho-analysis of Sigmund Freud. Now in the following discussion
I want to make clear a distinction between Freud’s writings on
the psyche and his actual practice of analysis, and I would also
like ~o make it clear that I am not talking about the theory or
practice of modern day analysis. A rationalist view of Freudian
theory, a view taken by Freud himself, goes as follows. There
are these objects in the world – human beings – who suffer from
various complaints. These specific complaints are caused by
varieus difficulties of development encountered by the human
being. The only way to discover these difficulties and their
source is through what this object tells you. And with this you,
with the insertion of Freud into human situations, the pure
facticity of his theory begins to collapse. At once, simply
intuitively, the question of objectivity arises, for now the
object is also subject, the dispassionate observer of human
situations is now in a human situation. Indeed, Freud can be
seen as placing himself in a privileged position outside that
area in which the patient’s troubles arise, and yet it is only
within that area that Freud can begin to address himself to the
problems and solve them. In fact, and this is absolutely central
to Freud, Freud and the patient must talk, but it is difficult on
this account to see at what point their languages could meet. For1O
there is a radical division between the language of Freud and

the language of the patl.ent. The patl.ent’s language, determl.nea by
his experience, offers a false view of the world in which various
elements of his experience are ignored: Freud’s language, on the
other hand, can cover the whole of experience. But, and this is
crucial, one of the most significant things we learn from Freud
is that the dialectical process of language and experience demands
that although experience determines language, language also
determines experience. In other words, Freud has to regard his
language of theory as special, as somehow able to escape outside
the normal play which constitutes any person’s idea of the truth.

In fact to get outside this theoretical vicious circle, Freud
cheats on two levels. He has to regard himself, as a source of
unconstituted truth, while at the same time the business of
analysis is to reveal to the patient the constitution of his truth,
indeed to investigate the process of this constitution. Certainly,
Freud investigated the process of the constitution of his own
truth but this investigation was one carried out by himself on
himself. And here the theoretical sleight of hand can be seen
as occurring with the adoption of the scientific attitude and,
crucially, a scientific language which guarantees its own truth
independently of any human speaking or writing it. Thus if one
puts it on a personal level, one can say that in order to generate
this objective science of psycho-analysis, Freud has got to make
himself the only truly objective man who can arrive at the truth
of his own situation. But perhaps the more vital level is the
way in which one language guarantees its own production. Every
language, be it-ordinary, literary or mythical, is susceptible
to interpretation in terms of the workings of the psyche except
for the language of science, which founds and finds itself
independently of these workings of the psyche.

Perhaps I can make this point, which I’feel is still
extremely obscure, more tellingly by considering the method in
which Freud constructs his own theories. Presumably a good
empiricist studying some particular set of objects in the
world will attempt to discover as many examples of the
relations of these sets of objects as possible, and to interpret the phenomena in such a way that he has a theory that
explains them. As I have already shown, this view of the
collection of facts and creation of theories confronts its
own impossibility when one realises that one’s perceptions
are, as it were, language dependent and this theory dependent.

How much more obvious then is the impossibility of an empirical
human science, when to a large part one is observing language
with language. This is particularly clear when one realizes
that Freud does not have a theory which he imposes on the
language of the patient, but rather that the theory is constructed with the language of the patient. Freud’s own work
was continually changing and incorporating the results of new
analyses, not in the way that the chemist may incorporate a
new experiment into a theory; rather, the language of the
patient and the language of Freud would meet and construct a
new language. Here the most startling example would be the
theoretical development of the concept of the super-ego, a
phrase taken in the original German (Uber Ich) from a patient
statement that he felt a dog sitting on top of him.

But if Freud’s own account of what he was doing can be
found incoherent, and if his practice can be shown to be not
the imposition of an interpretation but the construction of
one, what becomes of Freudian theory? What indeed becomes of
any theory which depicts the real in a language which determines the real?

This problem, which arises only at the end
of the physical sciences, arises right at the beginning of the
human ones because of the endlessly different ways in which
people describe their fellow men contrasted with the relative
unanimity with which they regard physical objects. What if we
see each theory merely as a technique of interpretation a
particular way of analysing the world? But here the problem
simply reduplicates itself – what is the status of these
techniques of interpretation, what code do they break down to
reveal what reality? As each language offers yet fUr~her
interpretations, the circle is never closed but spirals
inexorably and terrifyingly towards infinity. As Michel
Foucault puts it – “There is never an interpretandum which is
not already an interpretans, so m~ch so in fact that it is
solely by an act that one can only call violent that elucidation
can build itself on interpretation.”
And indeed with Freud
one can see this pro~lem all too clearly. He does not discover
particular traumas”‘definite wounds, but rather the symptoms
already find their’~lace in an interpretative framework.

Fantasies come forth:with their charge of anxiety, that 1s to
say a nucleus which ‘i-s already interpreted. Freud does ground
his work in a scientific discourse, a plane of finality which
admits no further interpretation, a network of words which
cannot be put into psycho-analytic play, a plane that ceases
to be self-reflexive, a plane that gives us the real.

We wish to move beyond this fixing, this finality, and
yet to resist the temptation to enter a world of idealism in
which the concrete finality of the world is lost among the
chitter-chatter of intellectuals. I want to offer here a
suggestion as to the theoretical framework within which this
might be accomplished, while at the same time having grave
epistemological doubts about the whole process which will emerge
in the course of the suggesting. We have reached a position
where the presuppositions of science seem to break down and the
objective world eludes for ever our grasp. Does this mean a
fall into total relativism, a wandering in the idealised worlds

of the individual imagination? To combat this tendency it is
essential to focus our attention where attention is always
inevitably recalled – namely, the body.

Is it enough to regard
the reality of the world as conveyed to us by our bodies, is it
here that we will find this certainty so crucially absent from
our theoretical reflections? The answer is of cou,se both yes
and no, because as we turn towards this unmediated experience
which will provide the final realism we find rising to meet us
that residue of history which has relativised our thoughts on
science, namely language. Here language is seen not simply as
verbal, but as that complicated articulation by which we
experience the world and thus also our bodies.

But it is a
mistake to think that this language covers completely, as it
were, the experiences of the body. There is always that marginal play provided by those experiences before the learning
of the mother tongue, that marginal play which in dreams, if
nowhere else, reminds us of other possibilities. But if an
attention to what might be called the unreadable text of
ourselves is part of what must be done, we must also concentrate
on the readable text, the world we know,and investigate the
processes of its production. For it does not arrive ex nihilo,
but is the result of people working in common in a world about
which they must talk to each other. The difficulty we face is
the uncovering of that area behind our backs where we construct
our own world, with the additional problem that that investigation is conditioned by the world we inhabit. At the moment
the determination of our bodies in the world, the activity with
which we confront and enter into the world, is a determination
decided by the modes of production in our society, those areas
in which we must place ourselves in order to live. It is when
we realise the crucial factor in this organisation and its
changes is the profit motive, and its dependence on surplus
value, on the exploitation of man by man, and that this crucial
factor is always being hidden because its realisation spells the
end of the present organisation, that we can begin to see the
way in which the body and history may enter into a productive
dialogue; in a situation in which the world will no longer be
seen as alien and external to ourselves but the product of our
communal activity in it.

Finally, it is not simply an accident that there are
societies which do have a language for hallucination and others
which do not. The ultimate way in which a language is created
is through the activities that occupy people in the world.

a society such as ours, where the emphasis in the methods of
production is on standardised working days which require men to
perform particularly specialised tasks in a highly competent
manner, there is a tendency to ignore various areas of
experience which might detract from theĀ· ability to perform
these tasks and which are not shareable within the common
‘~ctivities of the community.

On the other hand, in societies
where the division of labour has not progressed so far, and
where tasks are not so specialised, these areas of experience
may not detract from the society’s ability to survive. Indeed,
they may be an essential part of the shared world that the
society inhabits. Thus c) may also be true.

What I have attempted to do in my paper is to show the way in
which a), b) and c) are linked in a living process.

Another objection was that, whereas the aim of the paper
was to describe various processes, the language which I used
was a static and spatial one instead of a dynamic and temporal
one. With this objection I am totally in agreement, but I have
yet to discover a way of writing which escapes this objection.

Indeed one of the aims of the paper is a plea for exactly that
kind of writing.

Linked to this objection was an objection to the monolithic
way in which I used such terms as “language” and “experience”.

In particular, I made no use of the notion of “contradiction”
in my paper. I think that this too is a fair point. Language
is not the monolithic whOle I suggested here, and experience is
likewise a set of different activities. My defence of the paper
would rest on the particular position in which it was written,
and the need to at least introduce what seems to me to be new

There were several objections to my use of the idea of
pre-linguistic experience of the body. Objectors felt that
was either trying to get out of the relativistic spiral by
positing an absolute body, or that I was talking in such vague
terillS that no-one could see what I meant. First, the unreadable
text of the body is not ;lleant to provide an absolute reference
to ground our knowledge and actions. Secondly, it is not very
clear because I do not think one can say very much about it
beyond pointing to its existence. The reason I feel it to be
important is because of the particular society we live in,
where our ‘reality’ is constantly being naturalised so that ~t
is given as unquestionable. It seems to me that the unreadable
text of ourselves is that part of us which provides various
‘strange’ experiences which tend to refuse this naturalisation.

Literature, madness, dreams, hallucinations – all these seem to
me to have this element which always resists final naturalisation.

As our society is dependent on ensuring our acceptance of the
socially given real, it attempts at all times to discount the
unreadable text, to make everything readable and thus ‘naturally’

real. It is for this reason that at least to point to the
existence of this ‘strangeness’ is essential.

And here finally I can start to address myself to that
problem which is the title of this paper. “We can no longer
feel at home in this interpreted world” writes Rilke, and thus
capture that alienation which is so strong a feature of our
twentieth century society. But this interpreted world is a
world interpreted for us by the methods of production to
guarantee their own continuation, an interpretation which depends
at all costs on a dehumanizing of the real so that it appears
immutable and indifferent to our own actions within it. A
rationalist world, in the sense defined, a world which is
always other. To make the world our own we must on every
level reveal that process by which the socially accepted real
is naturalized and the reasons for it. We must, as Burroughs
so insistently demands, retake the reality studios. If it be
objected that this analysis will fall prey to the epistemological
objections already raised, then it must be pointed out that they
will be avoided by always insisting that these analyses are
grounded in the position of our bodies in history and will
never seek to conceal that fact. And they will be proved,
not on the grounds of pseudo-objective discussion about the
world, but in a physical practice within it. For it is here,
in that area where the materiality of the world is most evident,
that all sciences find their justification. We must escape from
a language which constantly reifies the world independent of
human activity in it, and begin to write our sciences, both
natural and human, in a reflexive way which always reveals
from which body they came and where they will be proved.

Finally,a criticism made against this paper was that it was
too difficult, unnecessarily unclear and consciously hindered
communication. The first point to make about this is that I
hope these points do not apply quite so strongly to the written
as to the spoken version. Philosophical papers are always much
harder to listen to than to read.

But even if these criticisms still stand for the written
version, I feel that they raise problems which are not easy to
solve. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that this paper is
difficult and unclear. Well for most philosophy students it may
be, but for students of English or the social sciences I would
wager that it is much clearer than the average article in a
‘respectable’ philosophical magazine. Clarity is always relatiVe,
it is not an absolute. Let us presume even further~ let us presume that this paper is difficult and unclear for everybody.

Well so, to take a few examples, are Harx’s “Capital”,
Nietzsche’s “Zarathustra” or Wittgenstein’s “Investigations”.

I am not suggesting that this article is a great work, but it
grows out of works which I think are great but are extremely
difficult and unclear. As was pointed out in the introduction,
it is not a work of originality but an attempt to introduce
some thoughts which I have had on reading Nietsche, Foucault,
Derrida and Barthes. It is in fact much ‘simpler’ than the
work of these people. If it was made completely ‘simple’ it
would not, I fear, be of any interest, it would simply be a
repetition of philosophy already being done in England.

Philosophy does not consist of a form ‘clear’ or ‘unclear’,
and a content, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Rather, ‘form’ and ‘content’

are inextricably linked, and the problem is to judge whether an
article or a book provides a theoretical advance or not. What
the criteria are for deciding this question is a problem which
I think all radical philosophers should think about, lest we
slip back into that sanctification of ordinary language which
has for so long impoverished thinking in Britain.

In the discussion that followed various points were
raised, of which I have taken those that seemed the most
important to me.

One person made the following point. “In your paper you
claim that a) language determines experience b) experience
determines language and c)the modes of production in a society
determine language. a) is silly, b) is false, c) is incoherent,
and, taken together, they are contradictory.”
The best way to
answer this is to take an example which shows the truth of all
three. Let us take an experience like hallucination. In some
societies hallucination is an accepted mode of experience and
there is a language for talking about this experience, a mode of
articulating it, often in relation to religious beliefs. In our
society hallucination is not an accepted mode of experience and
there is no language in which to articulate it. Therefore someone who is hallucinating will attempt to ignore this experience,
to shut it off by the language we do have, such as “I feel
unwell”, “I feel tired” etc. This shows the way in which a) can
be true.

At the same time, our language is not so monolithic that
it can always ignore such experiences. Sometimes the force of
the experience, let us say a particularly strong and insistent
hallucination, will force us to re-order our language so that
such an experience can be articulated. An example of one way in
which this might be done is the language and view of the world
in William Blake’s poetry. Thus the truth of b) can be seen.


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