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Intention,interpretation & literary theory,a first look
How are we to go about evaluating the meaning of a work of art, which in our case is a subset, namely a literary work? In the middle of the 20th century literary criticism was very dependent on the concept of author intention, the notion that the meaning of a literary work was found in the author's view of it, either when it was written or later. This view suggested that authorial intent is paramount in the interpretation of a work's meaning.

This concept was challenged by a revolutionary paper published in 1946 by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley entitled “The Intentional Fallacy”. The notion behind this essay was that the meaning of the work was not necessarily what was in the writer's mind at the time of writing, or later, but was more to do with what the readers of a work see it as. This argument was advanced by American New Criticism amongst others.

The tenets of "The Intentional Fallacy" have been questioned by a number of people. For example Hirsch has suggested that the only source of meaning in a work of literature is the author. His argument seems to be that words cannot mean anything unless they are clarified by reference to their author. Critics and presumably readers can only be viewed as helpers in bringing meaning gto the words of a text. This version of events suggests that the way into the writer's mind, and into the meanings that he wished to purvey, is through his or her written text. For Hirsch the notion of Intentionalism imposes a sort of discipline on criticism. The author's intention (or presumed intention, for these are things that are in his or her head) gives a pattern to the critical exercise. it enables it to continue because it has a structure. For Hirsch the notion that someone's interpretation of a piece of writing has just the same weight as someone elses is a recipe for chaos.

Monroe Bardsley in his book The Possibility of Criticism gives us a number of reasons why it is unnecessary and maybe unwise to look for the meaning of a text in the meaning that the author gives it. First Bardsley suggests that we can find meaning in computer generated texts, and in texts with typographical errors. Bardsley states that these texts have meaning 'but nothing was meant by anyone'. Secondly Bardsley argues that the meaning of a text can change after the author has died, or maybe even after a week or a month or a year has elapsed. Thirdly Bardsley argues that a text can have a meaning that the author was completely unaware of. Now clearly, as Beardsley acknowledges, authors have aims and intentions in writing books. But, as Beardsley and Wilmott point out in 'The Intentional Fallacy' “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.”. If we are to consider the reader as the prime focus of our discussions, and let's face it this surely cannot be denied, then Beardsley and Wilmott's critique has great force. The search for meaning in a text might indeed be different for everyone. In fact it is difficult to imagine that it would ever be exactly the same. So the meaning of the text is formed in the white hot interface between the reader and the text.

So the intentions of authors cannot be seen as some sort of standard or normal method for considering the meaning of literary texts because it is the text itself, and the task of reading it, that is speaks with authority. The intentions of authors can only be a sort of speculation about what was in the author's mind. As Wittgenstein has pointed out with reference to language in general, meaning is created in the social context of the language. The same must be true for meaning in considering literary texts. For meaning can only be formed in the readers mind as he interprets a text. We cannot know for certain what was in the author's mind but we do have the text sitting there in front of us.

There is of course a much broader and wider version of the intentionalist case. This version, enunciated inter alia by Noel Carroll, holds that there is a 'moderate actual intentionalism' for which a correct interpretation of the writing is the meaning of the text which squares with the acxtual author's intention. Intentions of the author are important if they have support in the actual text of the writing. Therefore it would seem that in moderate actual intentionalism a sort of consensus is formed between the perceived meaning of the text and how that squares with the author's intentions.

There is of course a more nuanced view of intentionalism. which suggests that the meaning of a fiction work is the product of a number of factors, one important one being the authors intentions. Noel Carroll suggests that what he calls modest actual intentionalism tries to square the author's intentions with the perceived meaning of the text. So where the text seems to offer support to author intentthis is taken as the definitive meaning. there are conflicting meanings to the text the ones that square with the authors are taken as the more important ones

But there is a fallacy at the centre of intentionalism and that is that the so called author intention cannot be the criterion for interpretation since it requires interpretation itself. Also W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley claim that intentionalism misreads the object of literary criticism since it focuses on causes and not on the work itself. Also, and a very powerful argument is that we understand the meaning of a text only in relation to our own situation i.e. in the light of its own significance. Meaning exists within a context (historical, values, learning etc) and this is author meaning too. For example, Georia Warnke considers the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. She draws attention to the relationship between Jim and Huck. There has been a revolution in attitudes to sexuality and tolerance since this book was written, and where readers of 100 or more years ago would be hard put to to consider anything but a 'wholesome' non physical relationship between Jim and Huck, many of today's readers would be struck by a number of passages in the book which could certainly suggest a different sexual story.

So the use by Hirsch et al of normative&methodological approaches seems to ignore that fact that learning, meaning, significance etc takes place with a background of educational, historical, political, social and plain experience that not only cannot be ignored, but, it could be argued, is the most important part of the equation. Hirsch sees meaning and significance as separate entities. Gadamer sees meaning and significance not as distinct entities, but as a part of the whole. We understand the meaning of a text through the veil of its significance (and significance is the individual's current situation in time, social interaction, historical progress etc). From the above account this seems the most complete and fruitful way to proceed.

Intention,interpretation & literary theory,a first look
Reply to Les Jones
The question is whether there is a clear-cut answer to something as vague as a "work of art". Scientific works, in favorable circumstances, "punish" those who misinterpret reality. The same can be said of theocratic regimes, from the Inquisition to (certain) modern states. Please do not think only of "rogue" or undemocratic states. Even in democratic societies the pressure to comply to social expectations is very high. Maybe less controversial is the role of institutions like Supreme Courts whose responsibility it is to judge of the constitutionality of laws (the intentions of the legislators or forefathers). When it comes to works of art, punishment for not complying to certain values may be completely inexistent, and so the choices are more diverse. With this freedom does not come more responsibility. On the contrary, the observer/reader can do what he wants and give to the work of art the meaning that suits him more, and not necessarily the object. Also, even the author himself can change his opinion concerning the meaning of what he has created in the past. Why therefore deny it to others?

Intention,interpretation & literary theory,a first look
Reply to Les Jones

Hi Les

It might be useful to start by asking what one means by the “meaning” of a work of art. There’s a story, possibly apocryphal but nevertheless instructive, of a dancer to whom someone said after she had finished dancing: “That was wonderful, but what did it mean?” She answered: “If I could tell you that, why would I have needed to dance?”

What is the meaning of Mozart’s 22nd piano concerto? Of Sibelius’s 4th Symphony? Of the cave paintings at Lascaux? Of Kandinsky’s and Mondrian’s abstracts? And so on. Even the apparently simpler case of literature is not really simple at all. What is the meaning of Crime and Punishment? (It’s bad to murder people?) Of Kafka’s The Trial? Hamlet? (People should make up their minds?)  King Lear? (Children shouldn’t be ungrateful?)  .

There is a tendency, especially among rather plodding thinkers like Beardsley (unsurprisingly favoured by the “analytic” school of aesthetics) to treat literature as if it were simply a series of propositions – a sort of philosophy in disguise. A very questionable view.


Intention,interpretation & literary theory,a first look
Reply to Derek Allan
Thanks Derek and Hachem for the thoughtful and perceptive comments. I'm working on 'A Second Look at Intention etc' and am indebted to you both for your contributions. It is of course extremely interesting to consider my own intentions in submitting these papers and trying to analyse your take on what was written. Thanks again.

Intention,interpretation & literary theory,a first look
Reply to Les Jones
By intent, do you mean a motivation due to conscious thought? There is widespread belief (and scientific demonstrations) that much useful brain processing is done unconsciously so this must be considered in your context of intent. The contrasts of logical and intuitive thinking.A problem with art is that artists often cannot/do not communicate the meaning of their efforts and therefore fail to provide an easy basis for judgement of their efforts ( in contrast to science). It is therefore easy to dismiss such art as baseless, rather seeing it as an expression of and clues to intellectual processes that we barely acknowledge, let alone understand.

Intention,interpretation & literary theory,a first look
Reply to John Hodgson
HI John

RE: "A problem with art is that artists often cannot/do not communicate the meaning of their efforts and therefore fail to provide an easy basis for judgement of their efforts ( in contrast to science)

Pls excuse me butting in.

Your comment seems to assume that the nature of art can be understood by comparing it to science.

A scientific paper contains a series of propositions. One either understands them or one doesn't.

Sibelius’s 4th Symphony is one of my favorites. But if you ask me its "meaning", I have nothing to say.