If meaning cannot be anchored in the author’s intention is there anything to prevent the proliferation of interpretations without limit? The question suggests one reason for the revival of Intentionalism: ‘For, once the author had been ruthlessly banished as the determiner of his text’s meaning, it very gradually appeared that no adequate principle existed for judging the validity of an interpretation’(E.D. Hirsch, ‘In Defence of the Author’ in Neill and Ridley)
Levinson (J. Levinson, ‘Interpretation and Intention in Literature’ in Lamarque and Olsen) usefully distinguishes 4 different models of the meaning embodied in literary texts:
1 Word sequence meaning (the meaning of the sentences construed according to the semantic and syntactic rules operative at the time of utterance)
2 Utterer’s meaning (what the speaker or writer intends to convey by the words she speaks or writes)
3 Utterance meaning (what is actually conveyed to a suitable hearer or reader)
4 Ludic meaning (e.g. theory-led interpretation: psychoanalytical, Marxist, deconstruction.)
Actual Intentionalism holds that the meaning of a work is utterer’s meaning.
Hypothetical Intentionalism opts for utterance meaning:
The utterance meaning of a work is the intended meaning that an appropriate reader would be most justified in attributing to the author.
An appropriate reader is one who is familiar with the literary tradition to which the work belongs, the social/historical context of its creation, other work by the author and so forth.
The meaning of the work is identified, not as what the author intended to convey, but as the appropriate reader’s best hypothesis as to what she intended.
What the appropriate reader can take into account:
1 (Common to both intentionalisms and to moderate autonomism) The public language, with all the associations and connotations of the particular time and place. The reader makes herself as far as possible contemporary with the author, linguistically. (Extreme autonomism rejects even this).
2 In addition, according to Hypothetical Intentionalism:
‘The author’s ancillary theoretical pronouncements; the rest of the author’s corpus; the work of those of the author’s contemporaries of whom he was aware; the social movements or political developments of the time that had a demonstrable impact on the author; and the author’s participation in or identification with artistic movements’. (Levinson s. XI, p 215)
This is the ‘author-specific’ context. Example: Arthur Miller’s The Crucible can properly be interpreted as about the McCarthyite witchhunt of the 50s, whether he actually intended it to be so understood or not.
What the appropriate reader may not take into account: author’s explicit statements about what she intended to convey in a particular work; private sources of information, in diaries, letters etc.
How the author-reader relation differs from the speaker-hearer relation in ordinary discourse: in conversation each speaker is likely to be interested in the utterer’s meaning of what others say; one has the opportunity to ask for clarification. Misunderstanding may remain, the meaning taken by the hearer may mistake the meaning intended by the speaker; in which case it is the intended (utterer’s) meaning that is the actual meaning, though recognised only by the speaker. In the case of a literary work on the other hand utterer’s meaning, even if known, does not necessarily trump utterance meaning: the actual meaning is not necessarily the meaning the author intended to convey.
The fundamental idea: a literary work should have a degree of autonomy – it shouldn’t need to have the author touring round with it to explain what he intended to say by it. But it is a saying, a conscious linguistic act performed in a particular context. It is part of the implicit contract between author and public that the work, taken in its author-specific context, adequately conveys all the meaning he is entitled to expect the reader to understand.
It is this idea that explains why Hypothetical Intentionalism resists taking account of author’s declared intentions.
Autonomism was motivated by the New Criticism’s wish to dismiss speculative biographical interpretations of literature. It was not the aim of Wimsatt and Beardsley to licence freedom of interpretation, but to confine it to scrutiny of the work itself. In practice it conferred authority on the critic, equipped with his sophisticated tools of analysis. What if equally well-equipped critics disagreed in their interpretation? What principle could be invoked to distinguish between faithful and fanciful readings? Hypothetical Intentionalism restores constraints on interpretation.
The ‘death of the author’
Barthes declared the author dead in 1968 (in Neill and Ridley,
It is possible to distinguish several different ideas in Barthes’ short essay:
• A historical thesis: to regard the text as the product of a single mind is a modern one, resulting from the growth of individualism.
• Rejection of criticism viewed as the attempt to diagnose the psychological processes leading to the creation of the work, penetrating the text to find the personality behind it. So the death of the author is also the death of the critic.
• Beneath these points there is a more fundamental one: the death of the author is the release of the text as a tissue of signs that have indefinitely many potential meanings that cannot be confined to the writer’s meanings. Any text consists of linguistic items that have been through many mouths, have accrued many meanings. Which of these meanings will be realised or activated depends on the reader. The death of the author is the birth of the reader.
For Barthes the absence of constraints on interpretation is welcome. The fact that interpretation becomes a free for all is not, as it is for intentionalists (and for autonomists of the Wimsatt/Beardsley stamp) a consequence to be avoided).
The problem we are left with is whether there are good grounds for preferring one conception of interpretation to the other. It seems that we can choose to allow interpretation to be constrained by the search for utterance meaning, or equally we can choose to allow the imagination to play with the text, creating rather than finding meaning.
Just one suggestion: the author may have something to say which is interesting, profound, enlightening, richly and exhilaratingly comic, or penetrating in its exploration of human tragedy. One will not access these kinds of significance if one treats the text as a mere frame for weaving ones own, possibly trivial, web of meaning.
Note on the readings: in ‘Intention and Interpretation: A Fallacy Revived’ (in Lamarque and Olsen) Beardsley sticks to his guns, and uses some new ammunition. He contends that works of literature are properly to be understood as representational, so that views or sentiments expressed in a work are to be attributed, not to the author, but to the ‘implied author’. Also in this essay he refers to a version of Hypothetical Intentionalism and offers a criticism of it. Whether that criticism applies to Levinson is doubtful: his version is in an important respect different from the version criticised by Beardsley.