An interpreter, I take it, is one whose business it is to disclose or unfold meaning. In the commonest use of the word he is one who translates for us what is expressed in a language which we do not understand. The hieroglyphics of Egypt were for long a sealed book until the Rosetta stone afforded a clue to their interpretation. When a passage in some old author is obscure we call in a scholar to interpret its meaning for us. 'Although in this case we partially understand the passage, we feel that more remains behind: some touch of insight, some delicate turn of thought, which needs an illuminating ray of deeper penetration to reveal and make clear to our duller perception a value which we have failed to grasp. Here then we have not only meaning for the intellect, but worth for our aesthetic appreciation of beauty in thought or expression. To the man of artistic temperament, the truest and best interpretation is that which discloses with the greatest richness and subtlety the fundamental harmonies of the subject with which it deals. Thus in the realm of music the worthy interpreter is the executant who can most adequately bring home to us the wealth of majestic or tender feeling which a Beethoven or a Brahms has bequeathed to the world; and in the dramatic sphere the interpretative skill of the actor is seen in his power of revealing hidden depths of pathos or of humour in the character whose part he plays. But there is yet another aspect of the interpreter's office the end or purpose of the communication. Of old, dreams were regarded as messages sent to warn or to incite to action; and we read that "Pharaoh told his dreams, but there was none that could interpret them unto him." Here is the message; but for what purpose is it sent?
These elementary considerations serve to disclose the threefold character of interpretation in relation to the affairs of human life: first, in terms of meaning within the sphere of knowledge; secondly, in terms of aesthetic appeal within the sphere of emotion; thirdly, in terms of end within the sphere of purpose.
We shall probably all agree that the interpretation of nature is the disclosing or unfolding of its hidden meaning. But meaning in what sense? For the artist as such and the man of science as such, and again the theologian as such, the emphasis will differ. To the artist the aesthetic appeal will predominate; to the man of science the appeal will be primarily intellectual; to the theologian the central note is that of purpose or design. I think we may say that for the average man of general culture, an interpretation of nature which combines all three elements is alone satisfying.
We often have occasion to notice how the average man of general culture, not specially versed in the methods of science, accepts the explanations of, let us say, the biologist with a characteristic teleological bias. He will cordially agree that no adequate interpretation of the colours, markings, and forms of certain insects could be reached until the advantage of protective resemblance, or of mimicry, had been established. But press him to give some expansion to his view of the matter, and you will probably find that he will explain protective resemblance in terms of purpose. He will say that it is developed so as to enable the insect to remain hidden from the birds or other animals which would prey upon it. That, from his predominantly teleological point of view, is the end for which protective resemblance has been developed. In strictness, however, the scientific explanation of protective resemblance is given in reference, not to its teleological end, but to its mode of origin. Here is an insect which exhibits such resemblance, say, to a leaf or stick. How did it originate? It exists because the insect inherits the form and markings of its parents, which, through the possession of such form and markings, remained hidden and thus survived, while others, more conspicuous to their captors, were destroyed and left no offspring. The resemblance is interpreted as the result of certain foregoing circumstances and conditions. The insect escapes because it has such form and markings; it was not given protective resemblance in order that it might escape. This retrospective outlook towards antecedent conditions is characteristic of the scientific attitude, the prospective attitude being that of expectation of what will be the sequel to present conditions. Thus the geologist interprets scenery, not as that the purpose of which is to appeal to our sense of beauty or grandeur, but in terms of foregoing denudation. He explains the mode of origin of narrow or spacious valleys, of craggy heights or rounded hills, of bay and promontory, headland and fiord, as the result of the fretting of streams, the persistent influence of rain, the effects of frost, the dash of sea waves, or the grinding action of glaciers on rocks of differing hardness or resisting power. The botanist explains the gorgeous tints of autumn as an incident in the waning vitality of the forest trees when the warmth of summer gives place to the chill of early winter frosts. Each interprets the phenomena in terms of those circumstances and conditions to which he applies the term causation.
To say that the man in the street is uninfluenced by the scientific interpretation of nature which leads onward to naturalism would be to say that he is out of touch with the tendencies of his age. This is just what he is not, as I conceive him. He is a very chameleon in his sensitiveness to varied intellectual, aesthetic, and religious or quasi-religious influences. But just for this very reason he does not take his colour from science alone. And I do not think I am far wrong in assuming that the interpretation of nature which most strongly appeals to him is one that combines the three modes I have distinguished. In support of this view I would adduce as unbiased evidence the testimony of the publisher who puts on the market a pretty constant supply of that kind of literature of which the man in the street will show his appreciation by purchase.