Intentionalism and the Arts

  Intentist interview with Professor Jerrold Levinson


Professor Jerrold Levinson is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is author of numerous books including Contemplating Art, and The Pleasures of Aesthetics: Philosophical Essays.

Thanks so much for your kindness in allowing us to interview you.
You have stressed the distinction between categorial intentions (how the work is to be fundamentally conceived or approached), and semantic intentions (the artist's intentions to mean something by a text or artefact).

Firstly, is this distinction always so clear?
Might the categorial intention be formed by a multitude of individual semantic intentions?
Indeed, the distinction is not always so clear, partly because some genres are in part defined by their meanings. But that said, I don't see how an array of semantic intentions could ever amount to a categorial intention all by themselves, as they are intentions of a different form or different order.

Secondly, you appear to put more confidence in an artist's categorial intentions than semantic intentions in regards determining a work's meaning,
but surely both can fail?

True, a categorial intention can fail, but only where the artist is confused about the nature or features of the category he has in mind or intentionally aims at. For example, if he intends his string of words or notes to be taken as a sculpture, or his pile of bricks as a symphony. Whereas semantic intentions fail much more often, works just not meaning what their creators intended (wanted, planned, hoped) they would mean, due simply to lack of skill or luck, or a recalcitrant medium or material.
Thirdly, how do we know what the categorial intentions were? You suggest that they can only be decisive if the text allows it to be taken that way. Yet this gives the final say to the work. Isn't this the intentional Fallacy, in different garb?
Categorial intentions, as I conceive them, are real mental states of the artist, and thus we may not always know what they are. We need to rely on artist avowals, ancillary statements, catalog indications, placard information, titles in which categories are specified, etcetera. Alternately one might only acknowledge publicly manifested categorial intentions as work-constitutive. (Something like that line is taken by Sherri Irvin, in a BJA article of a few years ago, where she refers to such intentions as "artists' sanctions".) 
Professor Jerrold Levinson, on behalf of The Intentists, thank you for your time