“What is Interpretation Theory?”

“Hi, I’m Rachel. I’m an art history major with an interpretation theory minor,” says Rachel.

“What is interpretation theory?” says literally everyone, ever.

My answer is vague but true: interpretation theory studies all the theories related to all modes of interpretation. But don’t worry, I’ll explain further…

It studies hermeneutics, which are particular modes of interpretation. In the classes, which are hosted within various departments and cross-listed as interpretation theory, we study multiple hermeneutics in relation to the subject of the class. We learn to look at a subject from every angle as an attempt to completely understand it, and we focus on critical reading and analysis. Swarthmore’s website says the aim of the interpretation theory minor is to teach students how to “understand the world through the constructs of its interpretive propositions.”

During my pass/fail semester freshman year, I decided to take the Classical Mythology in the Classics department, cross-listed with interpretation theory. I had no idea what Classics or interpretation theory were at that point because my high school did not have those subjects. But, since I didn’t have to worry about getting an A+, I decided to be adventurous. In this class, we analyzed Roman and Greek myths in the texts by Seneca, Ovid, Homer, and others, and learned the different ways of analyzing myths. We can read a myth like a story and do a literary analysis that looks at theme, settings, plot, etc. We can also do a feminist interpretation of a myth, and look solely at gender roles, patriarchy, misogyny, etc.  We can also do a structuralist interpretation of a myth, which reads a myth as if it were a language; rather than analyzing the content, structuralists analyze the composition. (I’m not going to lie, this method did confuse me a bit.)


Interpretation in this class was so interesting to me. I decided to keep taking classes that are cross-listed as interpretation theory. In my literature class, Russian Fairy Tales, I learned how to do a Jungian analysis to interpret fairy tales. It is a psychoanalytical approach that analyzes fairy tales as if they were dreams. In my anthropology class, Comparative Perspectives on the Body, the body as a symbol carries different meanings depending on the society. For example, in some countries, its favorable for women to have pale, porcelain skin. They may wear long sleeves, long pants, and use umbrellas in the summer. In other countries, some women risk the threat of skin cancer to be tan.


Interpretation is everywhere! We interpret music, statistics, laws, scientific/quantitative data, etc. We even interpret languages, which is why Swarthmore translation classes are also listed as interpretation theory. It’s extremely interdisciplinary, and I feel like it emphasizes liberal arts and therefore fits Swarthmore perfectly.

I especially love how well it pairs with my major, Art History. The class Cracking Visual Codes blended interpretation and art beautifully. One of the most interesting questions we asked in class was “How much does a person need to know about a piece of art to understand and appreciate it?” Some people believe art is readily understandable, or that people can fully appreciate art by just looking at it. Others believe the opposite; that art is better appreciated if people know the background or context of a piece. Many other interpretive issues with art have to do with style. For example, Jackson Pollock was an abstract expressionist painter famous for his splatter drip painting techniques. Abstract expressionists used art as an outlet for expression and believed that the unconscious is an important factor of making art. Because of this, many art historians would argue for a psychoanalytical approach to Pollock’s art. But, does this mean that a formal interpretation, that looks at elements of composition, is less useful?

Lavender Mist - Jackson Pollock
Number 1 (Lavender Mist) – Jackson Pollock, 1950

Interpretation theory doesn’t stop at just interpreting subjects. It goes further and looks at interpretation as a whole. In some of my classes, we’ve asked questions like: what are the popular modes of approaching specific things and why are these preferred? What are the advantages and disadvantages for types of interpretations? Can this subject be misinterpreted? What does it mean for something to be misinterpreted? What happens when different interpretations of the same subject contradict each other?

As I believe a good interpreter should do, I must leave you with a disclaimer: this blog post is simply my interpretation of the interpretation theory minor at Swarthmore.

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