The Impression-Interpretation Dichotomy
I have been cursorily reading the book titled “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius (and translated by Gregory Hays), the well known philosopher-king of the Roman Empire, and one of the concepts that struck me was the impression-interpretation dichotomy and how we are told to exercise strict control over our faculty of perception so as to guard against misconceived notions.
In particular, I have found my thoughts straying towards this instructive passage on various occasions:
” … At every instant the objects and events in the world around us bombard us with impressions. as they do so they produce a phantasia, a mental impression. From this the mind generates a perception (hypolepsis), which might best be compared to a print made from a photographic negative. Ideally this print will be an accurate and faithful reproduction of the original. But it may not be. It may be blurred, or it may include shadow images that distort or obscure the original.
… For example, my impression that my house has just burned own is simply that – an impression or report conveyed to me by my senses about an event in the outside world. By contrast, my perception that my house has burned down and I have thereby suffered a terrible tragedy includes not only an impression, but also an interpretation imposed upon that initial impression by my powers of [perception]. It is by no means the only possible interpretation, and I am not obliged to accept it. I may be a good deal better off if I decline to do so. It is, in other words, not objects and events but the interpretations we place on them that are the problem. Our duty is therefore to exercise stringent control over the faculty of perception, with the aim of protecting our mind from error.”
Truth Is Relative: Why We Need To Consider Multiple Interpretations
One of the things you quickly discover as a lawyer is that the bifurcation of events and matters into the so-called “black and white” is often an impossible exercise. Rather, “truth” is relative and is, perhaps, more accurately depicted as shades of grey, which darken and lighten according to the interpretations that are imposed on it. This is nothing surprising, of course. After all, it is a truism of modern living that life is often more complex, nuanced and multi-faceted than we could ever imagine.
But the thing that never fails to intrigue me (and is somewhat indicative of my childhood interest in psychology) is how our life experiences inform the way we interpret (or fail to interpret) matters or events. It is commonly said that we perceive life through bespoke lenses, which are constantly being adjusted based on new knowledge and experiences acquired. Another way of looking at it is to imagine our knowledge and experiences as a container through which objects and events in the world are poured into, thereby invariably pre-shaping (this usage calls to mind the book and concept titled “Pre-suasion” by Robert Cialdini) the way these objects and events are perceived. I suppose that is why questions such as the following arise on various occasions: Why is it that some people are predisposed towards certain way of thinking? In what ways would nature and nurture have influenced a person’s particular mindset? Is it reasonable to infer that a person’s actions are guided by certain impressions or interpretations?
In this regard, my personal and professional interests appear to be aligned, for matters involving trade mark registration and prosecution often require lawyers to place ourselves in the shoes of the imaginary “relevant consumer” for a particular class of goods or services when providing legal advice. For instance, in assessing whether consumers are likely to be confused when faced with two similar-looking marks, it would be relevant, for instance, to consider the price and nature of the product in question. This is because consumers are more likely to pay greater attention to the marks as applied to the products when such products are expensive or health-related, thereby reducing the likelihood of them being confused. While this is one valid interpretation, it is, however, vulnerable to attack by other relevant countervailing considerations. For instance, price may be a neutral factor if the nature of the expensive product is such that consumers are indifferent to the mark and are more concerned about other attributes such as quality and style e.g. floor tiles.
In the same vein, something I read this morning from “The Signal and the Noise” by Nate Silver resonated – that is, “the hedgehog and the fox” classification. I found the explanation provided in the book rather illuminating:
“Hedgehogs… believe in Big Ideas – in governing principles about the world that behave as though they were physical laws and undergird virtually every interaction in society. Think Karl Marx and class struggle, or Sigmund Freud and the unconscious. Or Malcolm Gladwell and the “tipping point”.
Foxes… believe in a plethora of little ideas and in taking a multitude of approaches towards a problem. They tend to be more tolerant of nuance, uncertainty, complexity, and dissenting opinion.”
Adapting the classification into the context of the impression-interpretation dichotomy, hedgehogs believe that impressions can be unified under a singular interpretation whereas foxes believe that impressions always birth varying interpretations.
In fact, I am of the view that it is a necessary but insufficient condition to aspire towards a foxy mindset in this regard. After all, escaping the rigidity of pigeonholing everything under a unified worldview only to fall prey to ill-conceived interpretations may not be ideal.
The Path of Greatest Resistance
The range and number of interpretations one might conceive of a certain impression are, after all, dependent on the capacity and capability of the individual mind. But what holds true for all individuals is that the interpretations that we think up can be situated along a spectrum spanning from the interpretation of least resistance to that of the greatest resistance.
I believe we are all familiar with the mind’s tendency to linger on matters that upset us and I think that holds true for interpretations as well. A random Google search on “negative thinking” explained that “[n]egative thinking is a survival strategy that causes us to look for what is wrong so that we can protect ourselves against danger…” As a brief aside, while negative thinking could be a form of the mind’s defensive mechanism, I’d say that it is a rather brittle and dubious defence that is prone to create further errors in thinking. For instance, negative thinking often results in self-fulfilling prophesies.
Unsurprisingly, those in the legal profession may be particularly susceptible to such a tendency given how we are trained to consider the worst case scenario as a starting point. In this regard, one might say that the interpretation with least resistance would almost always lead our minds down the neutral pathways of negativity. Conversely, the path of greatest resistance would be the most positive interpretation of a particular impression.
Since everything I’ve recently read and thought about has neatly fallen into place, I’d take this opportunity to remind myself of two things: first, always resist the temptation to compartmentalise objects and events under a singular unified theory (my idealistic mind is particularly susceptible to this); and second, always consider the path of greatest resistance when it comes to interpreting impressions.