At the beginning, we considered an economics text sitting on the desk in front of you. Making sense of that text appeared to be a straightforward problem of reading carefully. By now, however, you may wonder what sense, or how many senses, you can make of the text! The problems that we have considered challenge any interpretation you may attempt, be it the construction of a general position along Stiglerian lines, a rational reconstruction, or a historical reconstruction. In conclusion, then, perhaps it is appropriate to summarize and emphasize the positive aspects of the issues we have considered.

First, as interpreters, we cannot escape the concerns of the times in which we live. We live in the present, and our historical interests are often animated by our present-day concerns. But the interpreter does have a choice as to whether she will interpret the text from the perspective of the present. Where the interpreter's interest is in bringing an historical author's work into dialogue with current economics, Stigler's principle of scientific exegesis is an appropriate guide. However, there is a thin line between rationally reconstructing the author's work in a way that enables the interpreter to identify its relation to modern thought and adopting the judgmental voice of Whig history. The latter should be avoided when the former is undertaken.

Secondly, whether the interpreter seeks to reconstruct the contemporary meaning of a text (rational reconstruction) or a historical meaning (historical reconstruction), less is more. The creation of a general statement of the author's position inevitably leads the interpreter to create a mythology; an abstraction from the author's work that will be upheld by appeal to some texts, but almost certainly falsified by others. Careful exegesis of specific texts, considering the range of meanings that they might have, the context in which they were created, and the purposes to which the author (or past interpreter) may have put them, will serve the interpreter well. Ironically, perhaps, abstract general positions turn out to be thinner representations of an author's work than either the contemporary rendering provided by a good rational reconstructions or the richly textured accounts that emerge from a good historical reconstruction.

Finally, the act of interpretation is a humbling experience. When we recognize the contingencies that shape the texts that we interpret, we also realize that our own ideas are limited by the context in which we live. And when the past speaks to us, we learn that others thought well - sometimes even better than we do.


The author wishes to thank Bruce Janz and Anthony Waterman for conversations that enriched the views expressed here.


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