The 'principle of charity' has been considered of great importance especially in scholarly communication. It is not very clear, nonetheless, how the principle can be implemented, even in simple context of studying philosophy and writing philosophy:

When reading this or that paper, how can one know she does not misinterpret the author's statements, especially in cases when the author does not write in an analytic style? When we read somebody's text we read it always based on our own intellectual-context, and thus necessarily we understand what we read through such personal perspective. So, however we would understand this or that text, it would always be sort of an interpretation which might not fare well with the author's intentions.

Are there nevertheless any rules of thumb by which to increase chance that when reading this or that philosophical text we do not unknowingly twist it to fit our intellectual-associations and background-knowledge?

Another related question: it is recommended by the principle of charity to ascribe as much a rationality as possible to author's statements - but what if an author displays irrationality intentionally?

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    It is an excellent exercise in reason to think one's way into another's position and historical context, knowing that this can never be fully accomplished. It is equally beneficial to bear in mind that not only will your own views change they "ought" to change if you are learning. And as a student, the "principle of charity" might also be dubbed the "principle of self-preservation." We are all eager to dispute and disprove. But when you find yourself, for example, pointing out "where Aristotle went wrong" you might want to step back and think a bit more. Feb 17, 2016 at 20:38
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    @NelsonAlexander, thank you very much for this comment. Feb 17, 2016 at 21:48

1 Answer 1


You are right that reading means interpreting, and we can never be sure that we did not misinterpret the author's intentions. But it is as with any human endeavor, we are fallible. The principle of charity only asks that we take the author's perspective seriously and in good faith. Seriousness includes researching historical and cultural background of the author, the chain of transmission of the text, tracing changes in the meaning of words if the text is old or translation(s) are involved, by looking at their use in contemporary or similarly minded sources for example.

Good faith does not necessarily mean that we presume the author to be rational, but that we presume that the author has something (thoughts, feelings, etc.) (s)he wishes to express, that limitations of language do not always permit to express it straightforwardly or unequivocally, and that we are ourselves rational, and generous, in discerning what that might be. This includes looking at specific passages in the global context of the work rather than narrowly, allowing for omissions and awkward phrasing, filling in of arguments in ways that make them the strongest possible, while still being consistent with the text, etc.

The methodology of text interpretation is called hermeneutics, and although it is more of an art than science there is a long tradition behind it, with rich accumulated experience, which provides more specific heuristics for more specific contexts.


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