Intentionalism and the Arts

    Intentist interview with Professor Paisley Livingston


Professor Paisley Livingston is Chair Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Humanities at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.  Among his publications is 'Art and Intention'


There is a long history of debates over the role of intention in discerning a work's meaning. How do you see the debate today?


As in many areas of enquiry, especially in philosophy, we are far from having anything like widespread agreement on basic questions about the meaning and interpretation of works of art. Yet I believe that there has nonetheless been great progress on these questions over the last few decades. This progress has consisted, first of all, in a great deal of clarity about the nature of the questions, the kinds of answers that have been proposed, and the sorts of considerations that are generally offered in support of these answers. More importantly, perhaps, is another kind of progress, which has been a matter of informed parties abandoning the most extreme views and exploring and defending answers that accommodate those examples and insights that both intentionalists and anti-intentionalists have bound compelling.

In Art and Intention, you state that there can be intended meanings that go unrealized in the work.  Does that shift the emphasis of interpretation solely onto the work, therefore making the role of intentions in interpreting a work redundant? If the intention fails, is the work meaningless, or does it carry a different meaning?


Answering these and related questions is impossible until we achieve some clarity about our assumptions concerning the ‘object’ of interpretation in two senses: what is the point or goal of the interpretation, and what is the interpretation an interpretation of. With regard to the first sense of ‘object’, people can think up and communicate and interpretation of a work of art for a lot of different reasons. They may want to show off and prove how creatively (or transgressively) they can talk about a work of art. Or they may want to say things that describe the actual meanings of the work as part of an attempt to appreciate that work’s value as a work of art. With regard to the latter sense of ‘object’ in ‘the object of the interpretation’, it is just a start, for example, to say that the object of interpretation is simply the work of art. A work of art is something someone has made or done in a certain context. A work of art often, but not always, includes an associated artifact that may be a physical, localizable object, or an abstract type of thing having one or more physical instantiations (just as the word ‘chat’ in English can have multiple instances). Now if a work isn’t just a bare artifact, but an artifact made by someone in a context, to interpret a work appropriately as a work of art, it is necessary to have some understanding of the relevant contextual factors, including some of the relevant actions and intentions of the artist. So at that point one cannot distinguish sharply between ‘the work’ and the intentional activities that were involved in its creation. There isn’t a ‘bare object’, separate from the context of creation, to be talked about productively—if, that is, the object or goal of the interpretation is appreciation.


Concerning the question regarding failed intentions and the meaning of the work, obviously if there is a work that has been accomplished, the artist could not have failed to realize all of his or her intentions. Yet an artifact that has been executed in a clumsy way may not mesh with or be congruent with some of the artist’s semantic intentions. Perhaps the artist has some very specific attitudes to express but ended up not fashioning a picture, sculpture, or other artistic item the features of which mesh with that intention. In such a case, I’d say the work does not have the intended meaning. It may carry other, unintended meanings. There is no reason to think that ALL of a work’s meanings have to be intended, just as it is the anti-intentionalist fallacy to think that ALL of a work’s meanings are unintended (and hence that intention is irrelevant).

Can an intender decide that the work be uncommunicable to a certain audience? (For example, a spy's coded message is designed to obscure meaning as much as it is to communicate.)


There are plenty of historical examples where an artist (or group of collaborating artists) stage a performance or present an artifact for two different publics. The artist may have some intentions that are pertinent to both of these publics, but can also have other intentions that specific to only one public, while operating with other, incompatible semantic intentions, for a second public. This is quite commonplace in the popular cinema today, where a film that is at one level obviously a well-crafted children’s film will carry a number of jokes and allusions that only adults are intended to understand and appreciate.

If a work's intention is realized if it communicates the intention, does this mean that  a person who fails to communicate in fluent French to a Spanish speaker , simply utters meaningless sounds?


As Wayne A. Davis points out, someone can meaningfully curse in a language that no one around him can understand. The absence of people who have the right sort of linguistic competence does not render such a person’s utterance meaningless. It would be better to think of the intention as the intention to express something in a specific language, and that intention can be successfully realized even if no actual audience ever understands the utterance correctly. If by ‘communication’ we mean person X getting person Y to understand X’s intended message correctly, then we don’t want to make communication a necessary condition of the successful expression of meaning in a work. Of course works that express attitudes eloquently are likely to communicate well. But logically the two events are not equivalent: an artist could make a work that expresses her meaning perfectly well, but because there was a fire or some other accident, the work was destroyed before it actually communicated anything to anyone.


You advocate a position that you call ‘partial intentionalism’. What, finally, are the tenets of this position?


Well, here we go with a concise list:


Intention is an executive attitude towards a plan regarding the intending party’s own future action(s). Intentions sometimes motivate and orient intentional actions, some of which successfully realize the intended results.


Works are utterances; their content, including implicit content, is partially determined by successfully realized intentions. Some work meaning is unintended. Intentions are successfully realized just in case they mesh sufficiently with the artistic structure or display (e.g. a text, object, or audio-visual display). Meshing is a relation of coherence and ‘congruence’ between the content of the intention and the art object’s internal rhetorical or semantic patterns, such as contrast, parallelism, exemplification.


The otherwise useful distinction between categorical and semantic intentions does not map neatly onto a distinction between (a) acceptable and unacceptable evidence in interpretations, or (b) intentions that can and cannot be constitutive of work meaning.


Key components of authorship include: decision-making authority exercised in the production of an artistic object or display; uncoerced, intentional expression of attitudes or content; taking of responsibility for the work. A general theory of authorship should respect the distinctions between: (1) individual authorship, (2) individual authorship plus contributions from others, where the author has decision-making authority and full responsibility; (3) joint authorship amongst two or more persons working as equals; (4) as in (3), plus contributions from others without decision-making authority; (5) uncoordinated art-making activity by more than one party, without authorship


5. An obvious and seemingly telling objection to all of this is quite simple: intentions as well as the activities of bygone artists are pretty nebulous and sometimes simply impossible to know. Yet a canvas is a physical object present in a gallery, available for our immediate response. Aren’t you yoking us to a hopeless project?


In some cases the goal of historically contextualized art appreciation it is indeed hopeless and out of reach so there is no question of anyone’s being yoked to it. If there is insufficient evidence about the artist’s context and intentions, we can just refrain from making assertions about the work’s intended meanings, or more conjectures, framed as such, about what the intentions might have been. It is crucial to recall, however, that in many other cases that is not the situation at all. We do have evidence and we can try to get more. Even when the artists are still living and available for conversation, there are still evidential problems, but as before, the possibility of error shouldn’t make us change our basic strategy. In all empirical inquiry there is an element of risk, and we must find a level of risk-aversion that is appropriate to the situation. What we do not need is a theory of interpretation that tells us not to use evidence that is in fact available because sometimes the evidence is not fully reliable or sometimes it is not available.


Professor Paisley Livingston, on behalf of the Intentists, thank you for your time.