I recently read a review of a book in which the following sentence stood out:
There are no accidents.
At first, I understood this as a two-part claim:
- Everything is an intentional act of a governing intelligence.
- This intelligence arranges everything for our sake.
However, does the original sentence support this interpretation? How did I read so much into it?
(1) results from a view that categorizes events as either accidental or intentional. These are mutually exclusive so denying one implies the other.
(2) results from my experience with religious people who often believe the divine works for their welfare on earth.
In short, I interpreted this sentence through the lens of concepts, and these concepts were a function of my culture.
How would I interpret this sentence if I was in a different culture — one that did not believe in free will (intention)? Well, such a culture would not divide events into accidental or intentional. Therefore, denying accidents would not imply an assertion of intentions, but simply the rejection of a wrong concept. It would be like me denying that a tree dropped its limb by accident — of course it wasn’t an accident, for to say that would imply that it had the capability of doing it intentionally.
Interestingly enough, these two opposing views agree that there are no accidents, while interpreting that sentence in entirely different ways. They may agree to the sentence, without agreeing to the message.
What is the message? Well, if one wanted to deny the accident/intention duality, wouldn’t one directly do so, rather than simply denying one pole of the duality? Further, this sentence was part of a spiritual book; since people often fear chance, suggesting a ubiquitous, concerned intelligence is one way to soothe the anxiety. Whether or not this was the author’s intent, it should drive home how even trying to understand the author’s intention plays a role in understanding a message, and understanding that intention is also part of the cultural context — the fears, hopes and so on in common currency in a given place and time.
Let’s take this further. Imagine 1,000 years from now, someone reads the same sentence — there are no accidents. Imagine this person is in a culture that…
- Embraces determinism and therefore rejects the accident/intention duality
- Rejects religion
- Is so secure that they no longer suffer anxiety
How would she read that there are no accidents? Could she even understand the author’s possible goal in asserting such a thing? Perhaps if she studied the cultural context in which that sentence occurred, sure. However, without it, how much could she understand?
Furthermore, it’s possible that the use of accident is so novel that it stands out and side-tracks her. She can mistake the utterance for putting forth a doctrine of accident/intention. She may think she has to believe in this duality in order to practice the message of the book. She could even question the book’s validity based on her belief that it’s asserting an outdated worldview.
However, since accident/intention is a recognized concept in the original author’s culture, the author could simply have used that as a conceptual framework, without reflecting on it. For that matter, the author may not have believed in the duality, but expressed the thought in terms the audience would likely understand.
We deal with this today. We have many sources from ancient times, sources from cultures far removed in time and space. We can read many of these texts, but what do we understand if we don’t take their (and our) culture into account? Two examples follow.
First, Buddhism. Buddhism has a great deal to say about human happiness. However, Buddhists texts also talk about things like Karma and Rebirth. Upon encountering these terms, people often debate them, reject them outright, or even reject Buddhist teachings entirely. However, if Karma and Rebirth were simply accepted cultural beliefs at the time, then Buddhism isn’t asserting them, but just using them as explanatory frameworks relevant to the intended audience at that time. The real message is what these explanatory frameworks point to.
Second, the ancient Greek philosophical school of Pyrrhonism. Pyrrhonism’s position was often phrased as suspend belief on philosophical matters to achieve profound serenity. To the modern ear this may seem curious; why would suspending judgment on philosophy be relevant? Well, this reaction is the result of our modern view of philosophy, which regards it as an academic subject that’s divorced from daily life. Yet in ancient times, philosophy was about how one lived and viewed the world. With that in mind, the Pyrrhonist teaching is radically transformed.
This means a deep translation is called for. Not translating the words or phrases, but the message. This in turn requires understanding the cultural context. For instance, supernatural references, hyperbole, repetition and honorifics should be understood in terms of their purpose, then expressing the same purpose in ways meaningful to modern ears. This in turn requires not treating these texts as sacred, as such a view resits changing these texts. Rather, one must take these texts seriously enough to want to know what they say (rather than how), while engaging in a healthy dose of iconoclasm that allows a ruthless purge of irrelevant cultural accretions that stand in the way of the message.
If there’s a relevant message in the text, it will be revealed by this process. If not, then there was nothing of value there in the first place.