Intentionalism and the Arts

        Why Intentionalism Won’t Go Away


Considering the philosophic intelligence that has set out to discredit it, intentionalism in critical interpretation has shown an uncanny resilience. Beginning perhaps most explicitly with the New Criticism, continuing through the analytic tradition in philosophy, and culminating most recently in deconstructionism, philosophers and literary theorists have kept under sustained attack the notion that authorial intention can provide a guide to interpretation, a criterion of textual meaning, or a standard for the validation of criticism. Yet intentionalist criticism still has avid theoretical defenders and plenty of informal practitioners. The essay that follows, while an exercise in neither such defense nor practice, nevertheless attempts to demonstrate why intentional questions can be expected to be of permanent concern to criticism.

The intentionalism Wimsatt and Beardsley objected to in their famous paper, “The Intentional Fallacy,” had its roots in romanticism.l In many versions, this view has it that the artist is essentially a communicator, one who speaks. His work of art, moreover, possesses a meaning that he alone gives it — indeed, which he alone may truly know. Thus the work of art is a bridge to the mind of the artist, and finding out what it means requires finding out what it means or meant to its creator. The work of art unlocks, as it were, the secrets of the artist’s inner life, and since the artist may be a woman or man of genius, those secrets may be well worth knowing.

Romantic intentionalism embodies several different ideas that, for diverse reasons, have come under periodic scrutiny in the history of philosophy. First, and perhaps most fundamentally, it presupposes that the artist has some clear idea of the meaning of his or her work. However imperfectly the work may have been executed, however wanting in clarity or craft, on this view the artist at least is in the best possible position to understand what it truly means. Again, this original meaning — or originary meaning — can be identified as some sort of inner state of the artistic mind: an intention, a purpose, a project. Perhaps it will additionally include associated images, forms, narrative elements, personalities of characters, emotion, and other imaginative paraphernalia the artist employs. To all of this, the artist is supposed to possess privileged access.

Characterized in this way, romantic intentionalism may seem a bit faded and tattered, but it should not be forgotten that aspects of it have exercised a strong hold on important philosophers of art. Goethe insisted that one cannot know what an artist has achieved without first knowing what he intended to do. Tolstoy accepted it, though he allowed that through a lack of what he termed clarity artistic ideas of ten fail to be communicated, and for him expressive communication was fundamental to the experience of art. And most recently, in championing the cause, E.D. Hirsch, Jr., has provided a target for old New Critics, reborn New Critics, deconstructionists, and other modern anti-intentionalists.2

Hirsch’s intentionalism stands apart from that of someone like Tolstoy because it is not so much a particular conception of art which motivates him to adopt it as it is a strongly held view of criticism. For Hirsch, unless we have a standard of interpretive correctness, criticism loses its status as a cognitive discipline. Without a notion of the author’s meaning as a guide — almost a regulative ideal, it would seem — criticism would be unable to decide between competing interpretations of works of literature (or art). The result, for Hirsch, would be chaos: anybody’s interpretation as good as anybody else’s. Hirsch does not deny, of course, that works of art may mean different things to critics or to audiences in different historical epochs. This is in fact how it is that works of art can have different significances to people. But the meaning of a text is always one and the same thing: it is a meaning that the work had for its maker, the artist or writer.

Detractors of Hirsch’s brand of intentionalism have not always criticized it with the aim of trying to subvert the cognitive status of criticism. Monroe Beardsley is a good example, and he carried on the attack against intentionalism in his later years, particularly in his provocative little book, The Possibility of Criticism.3 He provides in that volume three principal arguments against the idea that the meaning of a literary text must be understood as the meaning that it had to its author. First, that we can read and understand texts that have meaning independent of authorial intention is shown by the fact that computer-generated texts are meaningful, and that texts with significant or interesting typographical errors are meaningful (consider the funny “newsbreaks” The New Yorker used to use to fill an odd column). As he puts it, these texts have meaning, “but nothing was meant by anyone” (p. 19). In the second place, the meaning of a text can change after the author has died (or, by implication, we may suppose, an hour after he or she wrote it). To quote Beardsley again, “And if today’s textual meaning [of a line of poetry] cannot be identified with any authorial meaning, it follows that textual meanings are not the same thing as authorial meanings” (p. 20). Finally, Beardsley argues that because a text can have meanings an author was not aware of, it again follows that textual meanings are not identical with authorial meanings.

Before examining some implications of these arguments, I should note why Beardsley wishes to adduce them in the first place. That authors have intentions, and that those intentions are found embodied in texts, is something he does not seriously question. In this respect, his attitude remains unchanged from “The Intentional Fallacy,” where he and Wimsatt wrote that “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.” In fact, they define “intention” straightforwardly as “design or plan in the author’s mind.” The terms availability and desirability suggest two conventional lines of argument which have been brought to bear against intentionalism. Authorial intentions are not desirable as a “standard” or “criterion” for assessing a literary text because the text itself will always speak with greater authority than any suppositions or speculations about the author’s purposes. After all, rewarding criticism can in many cases be carried out even when we have little or no idea of an author’s intentions (the interpretation of classical texts, for example); the author’s intended meaning often strikes us as crazy, or at least eccentric (part of the point insisted upon by Socrates in the Ion); and we know that in any event authors are forever changing, adjusting, and altering their plans and designs as they create — authorial intention is not just one coherent thing from beginning to end of the creative process.4

Yet this last observation I take to be different from the previous points. The previous considerations are essentially epistemic: they are concerned with what we can ever know about such things as authorial intentions. In many cases we can know with certainty little or nothing. Moreover, often what we think we know comes in direct conflict with the evidence for meaning which is directly and publicly provided by the text itself and is therefore dispensable. It seems to me that within analytic philosophy, assaults on intentionalist criticism have tended to have this epistemic origin; they are based on the realization that often there is little that we can reliably know about intentions of authors, and in any event such knowledge could never match in weight our immediate and determinate knowledge of the text at hand.

But the assertion that authorial intention is not a stable, identifiable mental state that can be appealed to in interpretation suggests another line of argument different from this epistemic consideration of the uncertainties about intentions. This is the metaphysical attack on intentionalism. It is the line of argument which holds that it is the very concept of an intention itself, some purposing or designing mental state, which is in doubt. This form of attack is most associated with Derrida’s general debunking of the concept of presence, though it has clear analogies in the analytic tradition. In particular, the Wittgensteinian treatment, one might say deconstruction, of “understanding” as a mental state, along with, for example, G.E.M. Anscombe’s and Jack Meiland’s thorough explications of intention, belongs to this tradition.5 I term this form of attack metaphysical, not because it is necessarily tied to some grand philosophic system, but because it is directed to the ontological status of the intentional state itself. The analytic (usually epistemic) school says to intentionalist criticism that we cannot ever know with certainty what authorial intentions are or were; the deconstructionist (usually metaphysical) school says not to worry, there is nothing to be known. (This is part of what is implied by the slogan that there is nothing outside the text.)

Again, on both sides of the English Channel both lines of attack have been put to use. Derrida has mounted epistemic arguments, and Wittgensteinian influence has made metaphysical arguments familiar to writers in the analytic tradition. So, given the widespread acceptance of either or both of these forms of assault on intentionalism, why doesn’t it simply die? Why isn’t it given up as irrelevant to criticism, in the same way that, for example, the intuitive feeling of certainty has long been discarded as a criterion for the validity of empirical knowledge claims?

We can begin to understand why by considering an example. Some years ago I came across the following passage in Robert Redfield’s Primitive World and Its Transformations: “Ruth Bunzel, studying Pueblo potters, found that the Indian woman who was in fact copying the designs of other potters with only the smallest variations was unaware that she copied, condemned copying as wrong, and had a strong conviction that she was in fact inventive and creative.”6 That there was something wrong with this report seemed certain, and subsequent research confirmed this initial reaction. In fact, Bunzel’s interpretation of Hopi pottery decorating practices, which leads her to the astounding conclusion that Hopi potters are suffering from some sort of mass delusion with regard to their own view of their originality, may be based on an instructive misunderstanding of what Indians are up to in decorating pots. Bunzel claims to have noticed that the Indian women copy one another, though they themselves vehemently deny this. She tells us that they suffer from a “sterility of imagination,” that the whole matter is a “very simple and rather amusing” failure to align their ideals of creativity with their actual practices of plagiarism.7 But is this the case? Suppose a Hopi anthropologist were to travel to New York to study the art of piano playing as carried on by some of the more famous practitioners of keyboard performance. He goes to Carnegie Hall one night and hears Ashkenazy play a Schubert sonata; the next night he returns to hear Pollini, who as luck would have it, happens to be performing the very same Schubert work. As he exits the hall, our Hopi social scientist exclaims that despite the enormous claims that are made for the artistic creativity of Mr. Pollini, it is clear that he merely “copied,” with “only the smallest variations,” Ashkenazy’s piano playing of the night before.

In fact, there is considerable evidence to bear out the view that Ruth Bunzel misunderstands Hopi pottery decoration practices in a way that is very close to our fictional Hopi anthropologist. It may well be that inventing entirely new designs is simply not what counts as “being original” in painting pots, but rather the inventive use of designs and motifs already in, as it were, the established decorative repertoire. In this sense, painting a pot may be more like performing from a score than it is like composing a new work, either in music or in pottery decoration.

Now if I am right with regard to this example, take note of what it does not illustrate: it is not as though Bunzel has failed, for example, to understand the meaning of some particular symbol in pottery design; nor is it as though she has mistaken, perhaps, a pot used in one sort of ceremony for a pot used in another. Rather, it is that she has at some deeper level misunderstood the whole point of pot decoration, by failing to grasp what counts as originality. And if she misunderstands in this fundamental way what the Hopi are engaged in, misunderstands their purposes in trying to achieve originality in decorating pots, then careful attention to the details of their behavior will, far from tending to show how they are being misinterpreted, show only how closely they “really are” copying one another. ( Just as tape recordings of Ashkenazy and Pollini would only have served to confirm to the Hopi social scientist that Pollini “really was” copying the other pianist.)

What kind of mistake did she make? Apparently she misconstrued the practice in question at so primitive a level that continuing research based on the mistake could not work to overturn it. To the contrary, it could only work further to confirm it: By misconstruing in this way something taken for granted by the potters, she has miscategorized their activity. And it is this assignment of the practice to the wrong category of activity which poses the most interesting questions in connection with artistic or authorial intention.

In every respect, Beardsley has seemed to want to exclude appeals to intention as relevant to criticism as it ought to be conducted. Equally insistent have been theorists such as Hirsch or Betti in claiming that authorial intentions are the central criterion for interpretive validity. But the case of the Pueblo potters suggests a third, perhaps intermediate position. For once a categorial framework for understanding has been established (using intentionalist criteria), it might be argued that only then can criticism be undertaken (using nonintentionalist criteria). Some theorists might claim that this would be less a matter of granting a privileged status to the intentions of artists and more one of understanding the proper conventions within which the art object must be understood. Yet such a purely conventionalist view cannot be the whole story, for there may be cases in which there is simply no recourse in identifying the “proper” conventions other than to appeal to intentionalist evidence. In literature, this is not just a question of voice, of persona, of fictional narrator or implied author: it may also require a determination of what an actual historical author meant to do in creating a text. For conventions are, after all, used by authors and artists.

Anthropological examples, such as those provided by Bunzel’s discussion of Hopi potters, are particularly illuminating because in ethnographic contexts we are much less tempted to apply ready-made conventions than we are in, say, reading nineteenth-century novels. Such contexts deny us the comfort of relying on a standard repertoire of familiar genres. We are more likely to be forced to ask in such situations, What are these people up to? Having grasped that, we may come to understand a convention well enough to dispense with intentional appeals in ordinary interpretive moments; but this does not entail. the irrelevance of intentions — it is only by virtue of having established so much familiarity with intentions that we can afford to disregard them and talk only of conventions. Intentions are thus not ignored by appeals to conventions; such appeals presuppose them.

Irony is revealing in this connection because here again intentions appear to constitute a bedrock without which valid interpretation is impossible. Consider Strauss’s only work for piano and orchestra, his Berleske, written in 1885. The innocent listener who supposes the piece to be a straight attempt to compose a one-movement piano concerto will no doubt find it in. many ways attractive and rewarding. But the meaning, for example, of Strauss’s mad double-octave passages, which evaporate at the top of the keyboard (rather than leading into big cadences), or the long runs that go nowhere, will elude such a listener. In this instance the composer has helpfully provided a title that gives a hint that the work is intended as a sendup of the romantic virtuoso piano concerto. But authors are not always so helpful; and in any event, whether they are is immaterial so far as the purely conceptual question is concerned.

In this dispute between Beardsley and various intentionalist theorists, I have long felt Beardsley’s arguments to be the more persuasive. But they do not address the crucial question of assignment of a work to its genre. Certainly once a categorial framework for critical understanding has been established, then, pace Hirsch, the artist’s own view cannot be taken as privileged, but I would persist that intentions cannot be irrelevant to establishing that framework. Beardsley denies this with specific reference to irony: he says that if a poem is to be taken as ironic, then the “alleged irony” must be supported by analysis of the text. But in understanding a piece of ironic writing, it is not always enough simply to attend to the text, as though it can always be relied upon to supply internal clues to its ironic status. On the contrary, it may presuppose an understanding between author and reader which is excluded from the text precisely in being taken for granted, presupposed by both sides.

The phenomenon I am describing can be explained in terms of the hermeneutic circle. Accounts of the hermeneutic circle usually have it that one comes to understand a text by an increasing grasp of the reciprocal relation between parts and whole. One develops, or maybe just guesses at, a conception of the whole meaning and then proceeds to interpret individual elements of it in line with this hypothesis about the nature of the whole. This procedure need not be viewed as vacuous or trivially self validating, because one can revise or correct a misapprehension about either a part of the text or the whole of the text in light of the ways that it fails to cohere with the rest of one’s interpretation. However, the point to note is that there is no guarantee that some false hypothesis about the nature of the whole, once formed, will be overturned by an examination of the parts. To the contrary, the hypothesis may entail an intepretation of the meaning of the parts which continues indefinitely to support the hypothesis. Thus with examples of misinterpretation I have so far mentioned — supposing that the point of Pueblo pottery decoration is the creation of new designs or imagining Strauss’s Berleske to be a serious attempt to add to the literature of the romantic piano concerto — we are faced with a situation that can be characterized as stepping into the wrong circle. The lesson here for the theory of interpretation is that once you have stepped into the wrong hermeneutic circle, there may come to light no obvious evidence to help you overcome your mistake. In such situations, reliance on external evidence, including evidence of intentions, is inevitable.

Conventionalism is usually presented as the required alternative to the view being presented here. It holds that it is not knowledge of intentions which makes possible ironic readings of texts, but familiarity with literary conventions, including those used in irony. And skillful ironists do indeed often supply their readers with conventional clues to their ironic intent. But the ways of the ironist are many and varied, and there is no guarantee that any particular text will contain suitable clues that will let the reader in. Exclusion, in fact, may be part of the author’s design. David Kaufer has discussed irony in terms of “audience bifurcation,” a strategy with which an ironist divides his potential audience into confederates with whom he shares his irony and victims against whom he uses it.8 This useful distinction suggests that there may be instances in which an author shares irony with his confederates while leaving his victims innocent. Many ironists, from Swift to Art Buchwald, have laced their texts with cues indicating how they are to be taken, but it is also possible for the ironist to refrain from doing this in order not to let his victims in on the joke. In such cases, irony is a particular use of conventions, rather than the use of particular (i.e., ironic) conventions.

Victims may include members of the author’s audience, another author, or, implicitly, another author’s audience. Wayne Booth has provided a delicious example of such victimization in David Hume’s account of Charles I awaiting execution: “While everything around him bore a hostile aspect, he reposed himself with confidence in the arms of that Being, who penetrates and sustains all nature, and whose severities, if received with piety and resignation, he regarded as the surest pledge of unexhausted favour.”9 How do we know that this sentence is heavily ironic? Not by any cues, hints, or conventions, nor by anything in the context of its appearance. Rather, it is against the background of Hume’s whole life and philosophy that we understand it. Enjoyment of it can only be derivedby treating it as an intentional act of the historical David Hume.

The idea of an author victimizing a reader, of leading a reader down the garden path, inviting him to step into the wrong hermeneutic circle, as much necessitates that there be a real historical author as it requires a real historical reader to step into it. Some eighteenth-century readers would have heaved a sigh at Hume’s description of Charles I: they are his intended victims, and those who enjoy the thought are his confederates. But the relish that might be received from the passage depends on its having been written by an actual historical figure, David Hume.

In this connection, some recent treatments of the question of intentionality in literary interpretation have in my view fallen short of the mark. Alexander Nehamas and Roger Scruton have both written essays that to all appearances set out to find some legitimate place for intentionalist criticism. And both end by almost, but not quite, embracing the notion that reference to a historical author is necessary to criticism. Nehamas allow that texts must be understood as the products of human agents, but then takes back what he seems to have granted when he says that “just as the author is not identical with a text’s fictional narrator, so he is also distinct from its historical writer. The author is postulated as the agent whose actions account for the text’s features; he is a character, a hypothesis which is accepted provisionally, guides interpretation, and is in turn modified in its light. The author, unlike the writer, is not a text’s efficient cause but, so to speak, its formal cause, manifested in though not identical with it.10

This is a case of wanting to have the methodological advantages conferred by affirming the critical relevance of authorship without incurring the problems, epistemic but probably also metaphysical, of having to identify actual historical authors and, their intentions. A similar strategy can be detected in Scruton’s essay, “Public Text and Common Reader.” Scruton is opposed to currents in contemporary philosophy which would advance the idea that “anything goes” in aesthetic interpretation. He distinguishes the meaning of a text from the fortuitous associations it may have for a reader or critic — the former in the text, the latter not — and then goes on to say that “part of what enables us to make this distinction lies in a ‘sense of intention’ with which every work of art is imbued.”11 Scruton does not take this as implying that a work of art must mean what the author intended, though he does think that any meaning imputed to the work must be one that the author might have entertained. And his point, consistent as it is with Kant’s dictum of the work of art as possessing purposiveness without purpose, is well taken. But it does not cover every case, for it is not merely a felt sense of intention which is at issue in some instances of irony, but rather the recognition that the reader, text, and (actual, historical) author stand in a particular relation. Especially in cases that victimize some individual or group, a postulated, fictive, or implied author is insufficient to provide anything more than a postulated, fictive, or implied irony. Yet real irony of this sort exists and is found in literature.

Implied-author theories of criticism tend to accompany psychologized theories of literary response, theories that try to sidestep difficulties of the reference of the literary work, the existence of the historical author, and the relation of the work to its traditions by concentrating attention on the reader’s response. Even Gadamerian hermeneutics is not immune from milder forms of such subjectivist tendencies in stressing that the best or most adequate interpretation of a work of art is the one according to which the work is seen as the richest, the most rewarding, the most profound. This is a tempting view, and if it could be demonstrated with finality it would place in doubt the kind of intentionalism I have been arguing for here. A version of the argument (one not necessarily derived from Gadamer) is found in Laurent Stern’s article “On Interpreting.” According to Stern, “If there is agreement on the canonical status of a text [i.e., if it can be agreed upon that a text is a work of art], then among two competing interpretations that may equally fit the text, the one which assigns greater value and significance to the text will be preferred.”12 Stern makes this claim in the context of a discussion of irony, a discussion that attempts to discredit the idea that ironic works are decisive in supporting the need for appeals to authorial intentions in textual interpretation. Thus Stern tells us that Defoe’s “Shortest Way with the Dissenters” admits of two interpretations, literal and ironic, but it is much better understood as a piece of irony, even without any external evidence. Similarly, “A Modest Proposal” ought to be considered ironic because it is a more valuable text read in that way and would be difficult to understand at all taken literally.

I have nothing to disagree with in Stern’s account of these two examples; but the question remains whether they can be marshaled in support of a general rejection of the need for intentional reference in identifying cases of irony. That they do not support this form of anti-intentionalism, and that therefore it-is not the case that the best interpretation is inevitably the one under which the work of art is seen to possess the greatest significance or value, can be shown by considering cases of bad art, something like Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull. There is no doubt that Bach intended this little book (one may think of it as a very long greeting card) to be a serious work of literature with important messages for the human spirit. But in fact it would have had greater value and significance had he meant it as a sendup of inspirational literature. It would have been better as a lampoon: one could laugh with it, instead of at it. Yet even if it is seen in the best light and taken as ironic, we cannot do so if we have sufficient evidence that Bach did not intend it to be so taken. The closest Stern comes to considering this question is to remark that “The Shortest Way” would be merely “a historical document of some marginal interest” were we to take it literally. But if it were meant to be taken straight, we could not take it ironically and thus endow the work with an illusory significance and value.

It is not up to interpreters arbitrarily to impose conventions in order to produce an interpretation according to which the work seems best: this would be to stretch charity beyond the limit. In considering the poetic achievements of such notables as William McGonagall (sometimes called “The World’s Worst Poet”) and Julia A. Moore (more affectionately known as the “Sweet Singer of Michigan”), Stephen Leacock coined the term supercomic. Merely comic poets, such as Ogden Nash, produce work that belongs to an entirely different category of expression from the supercomic. To attain the status of the supercomic a poet must write stunningly bad verse and do so with great earnestness. It is a category that depends for its very existence on an author’s having intentions of a certain sort, specifically not ironic. As it is, there are no conventions at all peculiar to supercomic verse: seriousness of purpose and sublime ineptitude are its only requirements.

Like the previously discussed cases of stepping into the wrong hermeneutic circle, whether a text can be taken as ironic entails questions about what it makes sense to say about a work of literary art. And there remains at least one more area where there is a relevance to authorial intention with respect to the limits of critical sense: anachronism. In his defense of “the authority of the text,” Beardsley cites some lines written in the eighteenth century: “Yet, by immense benignity inclin’d / To spread about him that primeval job / Which fill’d himself, he rais’d his plastic arm.” “Plastic” has not completely lost the meaning it had for the poet, Mark Akenside, in 1744, but it has gained an additional meaning since then. “Consequently,” Beardsley says, “the line in which it occurs has...acquired a new meaning.... Of course, we can inquire into both meanings, if we will; but these are two distinct inquiries. And if today’s textual meaning of the line cannot be identified with any authorial meaning, it follows that textual meanings are not the same thing as authorial meaning.”13

Yet, how many readers would have any interest whatever in an interpretation of the poem which took “plastic” in this case to refer to that polymer material found everywhere these days? It is not that such an anachronistic interpretation is out of line with Akenside’s intentions so much as it does not accord with any possible intention he might have had. An article by Jack Meiland presents the intentionalism question in a way that is useful in understanding this issue. In his own defense of the anti-intentionalist position, Meiland argues that criticism ought to concern itself with the possible meanings of texts, rather than with authorial intentions. He cites remarks by Gerald Graff opposed to this view saying that actuality is more important and more interesting than possibility, hence we ought to focus critical attention on the actual meanings of a text for its author, rather than the text’s merely possible meanings. Between these two positions it is fairly obvious that there is a third, which has been overlooked. Meiland may be right in making possible meanings more significant to criticism than actual (authorial) meanings, but he is wrong to suggest that criticism might concern itself purely with possible textual meanings (“word sequence” meanings, he calls them), while completely ignoring authorial intention. The reason is that such a program would allow outrageously anachronistic readings of texts. Meiland says that “in the case of a word sequence there cannot be a privileged meaning.”14 But even a criticism that refused to make privileged the author’s intention as determining textual meaning would.nevertheless leave something privileged: not a single authorial meaning, but rather all the possible meanings the author could have had. In this way, criticism maintains a link to authorial intention — not necessarily to any actual intention but as a minimum qualification to possible authorial intentions. This has the negative effect of ruling out interpretations that, though possible according to one set of conventions or another, would have been nonsensical or otherwise unintelligible to the author.

This consideration adequately accounts for Akenside’s use of “plastic” and can be made clearer by applying it to another, more famous example. In the “Jerusalem” lyric of Milton, William Blake asks, “And was Jerusalem builded here / Among these dark Satanic mills?” and critics have since in their turn asked, What does “mills” mean? Harold Bloom, among others, tells us that contrary to appearances these mills have “nothing to do with industrialism”15 perhaps they refer in some way to the wheels of Newtonian science. I would not wish to settle the issue, except to this extent: even if biographical scholarship tells us that Blake did not mean to refer to industrial mills, we must still ask if that was something he could have meant, or if such an interpretation would be anachronistic or otherwise unintelligible to Blake. A trip to the OED does reveal in this case that Blake could indeed have intended a reference to industrial mills, so Bloom is perhaps a bit hasty in writing the meaning off. But the principle that links the text to its author still holds: we will allow in court only the meanings that the words might possibly have had for Blake, not the meanings they might possibly have for anybody, anytime. (This is not, of course, to say that the lines cannot make significant commentary on modern conditions Blake could not know about; but the application of a poem to later conditions is not anachronistic in the sense being discussed.)

Again, the predictable challenge will come from conventionalists claiming that it is enough to know the conventions of the time which were available to an author, the purely personal or psychological aspects of the words for the author being generally beyond the interests of criticism, though not of biography. But I do not think it will ever be possible to separate criticism and biography in so tidy a manner as is required by conventionalism and its textualist variants — the intricacies of Blake interpretation demonstrate this as clearly as any example. Granted, to be sure, that the meanings of texts are hardly exhausted by what they meant to their authors, it remains nevertheless that, since words and texts are used by authors for myriad purposes, their intentions will never be found generally irrelevant to some of the interesting and legitimate things that critics may sometimes wish to say about some texts.

Note well that this does not amount to trying to legislate some permanent and predetermined place for authorial intention in the edifice of criticism. For it seems to me that progress on this question has been blocked by just that attitude. Criticism is no more an edifice than literature is a multinational corporation. The contexts of critical practice are as varied as those of literature itself, and I do not foresee the day when the place of authorial intention within it (or without it) will be determined once and for all. This is the essential fault of such works as Hirsch’s Validity in Interpretation and Peter Juhl’s Interpretation: An Essay in the Philosophy of Literary Criticism,16 and from the other side of the dispute it shows itself in Roland Barthes’s programmatic essay “The Death of the Author.” Barthes says, “It is language which speaks, not the author,” an interest in whom is “the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology” and, even perhaps more unforgivably, “positivism.” Writing is the “destruction of every voice, of every point of origin,” and once the author is out of the way, criticism’s “claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile.” “We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.” The image of the author as God, with the critic presumably as priest, “suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author... beneath the work: when the author has been found, the text is ‘explained’ — victory to the critic.”17

By presenting such a wildly overdrawn caricature of “criticism,” Barthes ipso facto provides a caricature of his own version of textualism. “Criticism” is not the methodologically unified pattern of practice that Barthes describes (any more than “philosophy” is the coherent body of received opinion, something like Catholicism, that Derrida habitually talks about). Barthes does share, despite himself, at least one thing in common with the positivism he so detests: a yearning for some final, determinate place for the concept of the author in — or banished from — criticism.

My own recommendations are rather less grandiose. We must recognize that sometimes part of our interest in literary texts may be in how they have been made and used by authors in the historical traditions and contexts of their genesis. To acknowledge this would not be to deify the author or to refuse to see the extent to which traditions, and indeed language itself, help to “make” texts. It would not be to identify a putative sole meaning of a text with an author’s intention; even less should it imagine that texts could ever have single, determinate meanings. But it might, contra Beardsley, find a legitimate place for authorial intention in criticism, and it might, contra Barthes, set limits on what we find worthwhile talking about in criticism. Not that these limits should be feared as oppressive, since they will doubtless turn out to be the odes already tacitly followed: I know of no critic yet ready to recommend unself conscious anachronism in the reading of seventeenth-century poetry. Whimsy, jeu if you wish, might occasionally enable an amusing or illuminating remark about Akenside’s use of “plastic” in relation to the modern sense of the word as “polymer.” But simply and ignorantly to read his “plastic” as our “polymer” doesn’t go: and if it doesn’t, then there never was a textualism in which “anything goes.”

The other limits involved in what criticism allows that it make sense to say — assigning a work to a category, most conspicuously with regard to its possibly ironic aspects — will also observe boundaries in place. A systematic treatment of these limits would have to take full cognizance of the epistemic constraints on intentionalism stressed by the analytic philosophical tradition, as well as the metaphysical attack on authorial presence mounted by deconstructionism. But just as Hume’s critique of causality did not prevent him from playing billiards, and Derrida’s deconstruction of presence does not keep him from being absent from, present at, or sleeping through seminars, so I think criticism will find itself better informed but not radically altered by the incorporation of these insights. Despite the many uncertainties, such a New Intentionalism would ask that we take into account — to the extent that we find it intelligent or enlightening — the author’s view of her or his own work, including how that stands against the rest of literary or human history. In a remarkable passage calling for a typology of forms of iteration used in performative utterances, Derrida strikes an uncharacteristically reasonable chord: “In this typology, the category of intention will not disappear; it will have its place, but from this place it will no longer be able to govern the entire scene and the entire system of utterances.”18 Not even in Austin was it ever able to govern the, entire system — but that is another matter. It is time for a systematic examination and restoration of the concept of intention in criticism.l9

1. William K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy,” Sewanee Review 54 (1946): 568-88.

2. E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), and The Aims of Interpretation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).

3. Monroe C. Beardsley, The Possibility of Criticism (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970), esp. chap. 2.

4. A good summary of the objections to intentionalism can be found in William R. Schroeder, “A Teachable Theory of Interpretation,” in Theory in the Classroom, ed. Cary Nelson (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1986), pp. 9-44.

5. G. E. M. Anscombe, Intention (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1957); Jack Meiland, The Nature of Intention (London: Methuen, 1970).

6; Robert Redfield, The Primitive World and Its Transformations (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1953), p. 12 (italics added). I am indebted to Jenifer Onstott Ring for having first brought this book to my attention.

7. Ruth Bunzel, The Pueblo Potter: A Study of the Creative Imagination in Primitive Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1929), pp. 51-54. I have discussed this and other aspects of Bunzel’s monograph in “To Understand It on lts Own Terms,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 35 (1974): 246-56, and esp. in “Art, Behavior, and the Anthropologists,” Current Anthropology 18 (1977): 387-407.

8. David Kaufer, “Irony and Rhetorical Strategy,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 10 (1977): 90-110. Kaufer refuses fully to endorse the confederate/victim distinction because the reader may understand irony without considering himself as either.

9. Wayne C. Booth, A Rhetoric of Irony (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), pp. 3-4. The quotation is from the History of England. Booth’s book has become a standard treatment of the topic of irony.

10. Alexander Nehamas, “The Postulated Author: Critical Monism as a Regulative Ideal,” Critical Inguiry 8 (1981): 133-49. The quotation, given correctly here from Nehamas’s typescript, was published erroneously (p. 145) with “thought” instead of “though” in the last clause.

11. Roger Scruton, “Public Text and Common Reader,” in The Aesthetic Understanding (London: Methuen, 1983), p. 30.

12. Laurent Stern, “On Interpreting,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 39 (1980): 124..

13. The Possibility of Criticism, pp. 19-20.

14. Jack W. Meiland, “The Meanings of a Text,” British Journal of Aesthetics 21(1981): 199 (italics in original).

15. Harold Bloom, Blake’s Apocalypse (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1963), p. 335

16. P. D. Juhl, Interpretation: An Essay in the Philosophy of Literary Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980). Martin Warner has written a most insightful review of this book for Philosophy and Literature 6 (1982): 172-79.

17. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image/Music/Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill & Wang, 1977), pp. 142-48.

18. Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context,” in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 326.

19. My thoughts on these issues have been enriched by discussions with Neil Flax, Jack Meiland, David Novitz, Edward Sayles, and Denis Walker.


A.J. Cascardi's Introduction to the above:

Within the domain of literary theory, and of aesthetics more generally, idealism may be thought to govern that view according to which the work of art is regarded as the product of human action; idealist criticism accordingly is the attempt to locate the proper categories for the description of action in, or in relation to, the work of art. While idealism in its Hegelian form has come under serious attack from a number of angles, there has more recently been an effort among literary theorists to purify, through critique, those insights of idealism central to the humanistic idea of literature. Charles Altieri’s exploration of the concept of expression in the present volume is one such case, as is the essay by Martha Nussbaum, in which Henry James’s capacity for the articulate “rendering” of the world is taken as exemplary of the moral task of imaginative literature. We shall again see an engagement with generally idealist notions in the work of Alexander Nehamas, who begins from a discussion of Foucault and proceeds toward a reformulation of the concepts of “writer,” “text,” “work,” and “author.”

The present essay on the concept of intentionalism may be regarded as part of the purification of the idealist tradition mentioned above, in among other ways by extending its consideration to include the judgments, evaluations, and cognitive determinations of the literary-critical act. Denis Dutton in essence completes Nussbaum’s insights into the qualitative differences between literature and criticism with a series of arguments that demonstrate the continuity of these two forms of writing: the concept of literature as human action which is central to idealism is largely determined by what it makes sense to say, by way of criticism, about a particular text. Contrary to the arguments of Wimsatt and Beardsley, who may be regarded as pillars of the traditional humanistic approach to literature (largely through its manifestation in the form of the New Criticism), Dutton proposes that the concept of intention is ineradicable from any approach to literary theory. Its centrality is indeed suggested by its resilience in the face of attacks not only by the New Criticism but by structuralism and deconstruction as well.

Beginning from certain romantic postulates, Dutton nevertheless finds that the concept of intention at work in existing literary theory needs substantial revision. These are especially the notions that romanticism shares with philosophical idealism, and which would hold that the artist enjoys a privilege of access to the meaning of his or her work and that this meaning may be identified with an “inner state” of the artist’s mind. At the same time, Dutton considers several lines of attack against the notion of intention tout court: the ordinary-language philosophy of Wittgenstein, developed with respect to the concept of intention by G.E.M. Anscombe, and the deconstruction of intention by Derrida.

Drawing on the notion of “categorial frameworks,” Dutton constructs a position that he characterizes as intermediate between romantic intentionalism and the various “deconstructions” of intention named above. Only once a categorial framework for understanding has been established (and the framework would of necessity have to reflect an awareness of intention) can criticism using nonintentionalist criteria be undertaken. This is a position akin to, but not identical with, standard conventionalism. According to that view, the first task of criticism would be to make plain the rules within which the artwork must be understood; yet, Dutton argues, the “purely conventionalist view cannot be the whole story, for there may be cases in which there is simply no recourse in identifying the ‘proper’ conventions other than to appeal to intentionalist evidence. In literature, this... may... require a determination of what an actual historical author meant to do in creating a text. For conventions are, after all, used by authors and artists.”

The notion of intentionalism outlined by Dutton thus also allows for a clarification of some of the difficulties faced by hermeneutic theories of meaning. button’s claim is that the concept of intention, or of something very much like it, is necessary in criticism precisely because of the circularity of the hermeneutic circle: there is nothing within the circle itself capable of indicating whether a given interpretation is within the bounds set by the work-as-act; indeed, the most striking examples of misinterpretation (e.g., missed or mistaken ironies, anachronism) may be characterized as “stepping into the wrong [hermeneutic] circle.” And, as button goes on to say, “once you have stepped into the wrong hermeneutic circle, there may come to light no obvious evidence to help you overcome your mistake. In such situations, reliance on external evidence, including evidence of intentions, is inevitable.” In this way, the concept of intention, not unlike that of the author, may be regarded as irreducibly relevant for the concept of criticism, guiding us in determining what it might make sense to say about a given work of art.