Intentionalism and the Arts

 Intentist interview with Professor William Irwin 1   

Professor William Irwin is Professor of Philosophy, Kings College, Pennsylvania.

He has authored amongst others Intentionalist Interpretation: A Philosophical Explanation and Defense (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, December 1999).

You have authored 'Intentionalist Interpretation: A Philosophical Explanation andDefense.' Let me ask you why you consider the intentionalist debate so important at this time?

Intentionalism is the common-sense view and approach to interpretation. Authors and artists attempt to communicate through their work, and audiences need to grasp their intentions for communication to succeed. Most people outside academia and the arts have a hard time understanding why I would need to write a book on the subject. But of course those of us in academia and the arts know that commonsense is under attack. Postmodernism has produced fashionable views that hold the author is dead and authorial intention can simply be ignored in interpretation. This has the consequence of undermining the legitimacy of art. We no longer need great art, just great interpretations. Of course, this is nonsense, but it is pervasive nonsense that calls for a response.

The relationship between intention and meaning has often be debated through the literary figure Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass. In one incident when Alice cannot comprehend the meaning of Humpty's expressions, he answers that when he uses a word it means what he intends it to mean. This has been called Humpty-Dumpty-ism and many philosophers consider Humpty's claim to be impossible. Professor William Irwin, you are known to hold a different view. Would you explain it to us?

Many philosophers take Humpty Dumpty to be a reductio ad absurdum. “You can’t just make a word mean anything you want,” they say. But upon reflection, it’s not clear why you can’t. Intention is bounded by belief. You can’t just believe anything with a snap of the fingers, but anything you can believe you can intend. As long as I believe (as Humpty Dumpty says he does) that “glory” means “a nice knock-down argument,” then it does. We do this all the time with malapropisms when learning a language or sometimes even in our native tongue. And sometimes we do this when coining a new word. I don’t know if Humpty Dumpty was sincere or just kidding around, but Lewis Carroll endorsed a view very close to Humpty Dumpty’s. (See Lewis Carroll, Symbolic Logic and The Game of Logic, “I maintain that any writer of a book is fully authorized in attaching any meaning he likes to any word or phrase he intends to use” p. 166.)

In 'Intentionalist Interpretation: A Philosophical Explanation and Defense.' you propose the term urinterpretation which is based on the author construct, and urauthor which includes several elements traditionally seen as separate from the author. Can you help us to understand a little more of this new normative approach?

We never have direct access to another person’s mind and intentions. Instead we form a concept of that person and infer intentions based on that concept. The author construct is just the person you conceive of the author as being. We do this all the time in conversing with someone. In order to fully understand what our conversation partner intends we rely on the concept we have of that person. Likewise when we’rereading we rely on some picture or concept of who the author is to guide us in understanding his/her intention. The idea of the urauthor is that with this concept we should strive to come as close to the fact as we can. We don’t base the author construct on our whims or pleasures but on fact, going back to the origin (“ur”)—going back to who the author really is and what he really intends. As a concept, the urauthor includes not just likely intentions but biographical information, language use, and historical context. The only reason we should be interested in the way a word is used, a detail about an author’s life, or the political climate of his time is as a clue to his likely intentions.  Urinterpretation, then, is simply the strict intentionalist approach that I advocate. We should interpret with a concept of the author (an urauthor) that comes as close as possible to the real author and his intentions. I call this a normative approach because it sets up an ethical norm. Namely, we are obliged to interpret an author in accord with his intentions in just the way we are obliged to interpret a conversation partner in accord with his intentions. To do otherwise is dishonest.

Professor William Irwin, on behalf of the Intentists, thank you for your time.