From the Editor: Overinterpretation Is Key

Spring 2021

By Stan Izen

The interests of truth require a diversity of opinions—John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty”

I am rereading British psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips’ essay “Against Self-Criticism” in his book Forbidden Pleasures; as usual when I reread Phillips, I understand his argument more clearly. In discussing the superego, Phillips cites Freud: “All genuinely creative writings are the product of more than a single impulse in the poet’s mind, and are open to more than a single interpretation.” Phillips continues:
Indeed, the implication is—and here is Freud’s ongoing suspicion, or ambivalence, about psychoanalysis—that the more persuasive, the more compelling, the more authoritative the interpretation is, the less credible it is, or should be.

And further:
Authority wants to replace the world with itself. Overinterpretation (not too much interpretation, but “seeing something from different aspects as the product of multiple impulses”) means not being stopped in your tracks by what you are most persuaded by; it means assuming that to believe one interpretation is to radically misunderstand the object one is interpreting, and interpretation itself.

Phillips reminds us that George Santayana wrote, “Emerson was distinguished not by what he knew but by the number of ways he had of knowing it.” I agree with Phillips when he says that “you can only understand anything that overinterpreting it; by seeing it from different aspects as the product of multiple impulses.”

I think that Freud’s ideas about overinterpretation, as expounded by Phillips, can have profound implications for the way many of us teach K-12 school. First, we must caution our students not to look for “the answer.” This approach has the dual value of esteeming many of the explanations our students may come up with and, at the same time, lessening the teacher’s role as an authority. Second, overinterpretation requires learners to dig deeper, not to stop with what they believe to be a correct understanding, to know that there are likely other senses still to be discovered. Third, it encourages skepticism—always a good thing—stressing that “the more authoritative the interpretation is, the less credible it is, or should be.”

For many educators fielding a multitude of interpretations in class discussions and diminishing the importance of having to arrive at one right answer may be a real challenge. Students, too, will probably want to reach certainty at first, finding ambiguity unsettling, but most, I believe, will soon come to value the richer understanding of concepts and ideas that overinterpretation brings.


Welcome to our Spring 2021 issue, our EQ vs. IQ issue—many articles, many different ways to incorporate EQ in our teaching, and many good reasons for doing so! And, as a special bonus, we are reprising a Q & A Independent Teacher had several years ago with Daniel Goleman, acclaimed author of Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. As always, we are eager to hear from our readers. Send comments and questions to [email protected].
Stan Izen

Stan Izen is the editor of Independent Teacher Magazine.