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July 30, 2007

Defending Intentionalism

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

Ever since a wonderful graduate seminar with Al Martinich five years ago, I've been an intentionalist about interpretation.  According to intentionalism, the meaning of an utterance or a text is whatever the author intended to communicate by it. This means that the correct way to interpret texts is to figure out what the author was trying to communicate.  Martinich and I hold that this view is correct of utterances and texts of all kinds -- from what you say when ordering at a restaurant, to instruction manuals, to works of literature.

The more conventional opponents of intentionalism are formalists, who believe that the meaning of a text can be determined by the words of the text itself, without recourse to things like the author's intention.  (The New Critics were the paradigmatic formalists.)  There are also exotic views like reader-response theory, according to which the reader or the interpretive community determines what the text means; and deconstructionism, which seems to hold that texts don't have unified meanings.  What I'll try to do here is explain why intentionalism is the best theory of interpretation.  I'm going to direct my attacks mostly at formalism here, because it strikes me as the strongest opponent.

First, a simple example.  Suppose someone tells you, "I went to the bank today."  This could mean either that they went to the side of a river, or that they went to a financial institution.  In some circumstances, there won't be enough context to rule in favor of one interpretation or the other.  (The fact that the person actually went to a financial institution and not the side of a river doesn't make it true that they meant that they went to a financial institution, although it's good evidence for that -- they still might have meant that they went to the riverside, and been lying.  But the reason it is good evidence is that it makes it more probable that they intended to communicate that they went to a financial institution.)  Even if there's not much context, we still want to say that they meant one thing or the other.  It's hard to see what could make it the case that they meant one thing or the other in cases where there isn't a lot of context, unless it's their intention that did it.

I also don't know how a formalist makes sense of our judgments about which literary works are satirical.  If we found something like A Modest Proposal coming from a society that practiced cannibalism, we might be tempted to read it as an earnest suggestion, as the intention to promote cannibalism is one that a cannibal might have.  But our understanding of the sorts of things that literate Irishmen of Jonathan Swift's times were likely to regard as acceptable makes it wildly implausible to ascribe pro-cannibalistic intentions to him.  So we regard his work as satirical. The best way to explain our different responses to Swift's work and to the identical words, written by a cannibal, is to go to our judgments about what the two authors are likely to intend. 

I've aimed both of these examples at the formalists, but they work against reader-response theorists and deconstructionists too.  Even if a reader, or an entire interpretive community, believed that Swift was earnestly proposing cannibalism, they'd be wrong.  And it's hard for me to see any support for the idea that texts don't have unified meanings in these cases -- in Swift's case, we insist on a particular unified meaning -- the satirical one. 

Now I'll deal with a case that's supposed to cause intentionalists trouble.  Amanda posted a while ago about how Ray Bradbury has told us that Fahrenheit 451 isn't about censorship.  According to him, it's "a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature."  I haven't gone back and read the book to see if this actually makes sense, but in any case it's not unheard of for authors to make statements about the true meaning of their works that seem ridiculous.  Does this mean that we were, in fact, all wrong about what their works meant? 

Not necessarily.  The causes of our actions often differ from the way we rationalize them, and in complex cases of communication like the writing of novels, people might not have a good handle on the psychological processes motivating them to write exactly as they do.  So even as the forces within them cause them to focus their writing in a specific fashion and to play up aspects of stories that emotionally resonate with them, they may not be able to give correct descriptions of what's going on inside them.  Perhaps what really drove Bradbury to write the story as he did -- and what he would've felt strangely unsatisfied if he hadn't been able to properly express -- was an appreciation of how bad government censorship of literature was, even though he didn't explicitly realize that this was motivating his portrayals of events and characters.  I'm willing to give a fair amount of credence to first-person reports of one's intention, but even honest people aren't perfect at reporting their intentions in complex cases, so their reports can be overridden if we have enough contrary data. 

Another case, brought to me by English grad students in Dr. Martinich's seminar five years ago, concerned the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud.  They explained to me that some of Rimbaud's poetry seems to leave some aspects of its meaning open for the reader to fill in.  This made reader-response theory seem more plausible to them.  It did concern them, though, that not all interpretations of the poems they described would be correct, even if every reader had them.  For example, Vowels is not a casserole recipe, no matter what a casserole-obsessed interpretive community might say.  There's no good way to fill in the ambiguities in the poem and get there.

I don't know if they eventually accepted it, but they were intrigued by my way of reconciling their interpretive practice with intentionalism.  Suppose Rimbaud intended aspects of the meaning of his poems to be filled in by his readers, so that it would mean different things depending on who was reading it.  And suppose the readers took seriously the project of operating within the space generated by Rimbaud's intentions and did not try to turn the poems into casserole recipes.  Then the meaning of his poems would be generated by something akin to an act of joint authorship.  When two people's intentions are in harmony, they can jointly generate the meaning of a text, and to my English department friends, this seemed to be at least a plausible story about how one reads Rimbaud. 

I should say a last word about the practice of reappropriating texts.  In taking ahold of a text -- perhaps a play or a novel -- and giving it a meaning that you know the author didn't intend, either in your own mind or in some work you create based on it, you cease to be an interpreter and start being a kind of author.  This can be good or bad, depending on how good an author you are, but the important point is that the responsibility for the things you intended but the original author didn't goes to you.  If you take it upon yourself to turn Vowels into a casserole recipe, don't blame Rimbaud if it the casserole doesn't taste good.  But if it does, most of the credit belongs to you, and not to Rimbaud. 

July 30, 2007 | Permalink


I can think of exactly one situation in which it is significant to have a determinate answer as to what a text really "means." In a legal context, texts can have only one meaning, because cases can only be decided for one party (or can only proscribe one answer about what actions are and are not directed). But I have no idea why we can't avoid all of this by saying: the author meant X, the text can be read to mean Y, and a significant number of readers have understood it, or chosen to understand it, to mean Z.

I also think I disagree that formalism is a more serious opponent than reader-response theories. Depending on how far back we want to look into the forces that structure the author's decision to write one thing rather than another, we can always find intentions of which he or she was not aware. Again, the legal context illustrates the point. 99.99999999% of statutory or constitutional interpretation asks what the drafters "meant" to say about a problem they absolutely, positively, did not contemplate. Yes we can say that the authors had an intention, but that resolves precious few controversies. More often, we mean by "mean" "would mean".

That was fun.

Posted by: RW | Jul 30, 2007 3:28:00 AM

This isn't something I ever paid much attention to, so I don't know much about the particulars. The first question that comes to mind relates to part of what RW said. What is this idea of "the meaning"? "Meaning" is a word, like other words, and as such it can mean various things, according to use. You must mean something rather particular by "meaning" to be able to say one way people think about meaning is the correct one. I'm more inclined, apart from some particular matter in which a particular kind of meaning is the only one relevant or that works, to say with RW that there are various kinds of meaning a text has, each with its own importance.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 30, 2007 4:31:13 AM

The best way to explain our different responses to Swift's work and to the identical words, written by a cannibal, is to go to our judgments about what the two authors are likely to intend.

Ah, that's too easy. What about Swift's Argument Against Abolishing Christianity and his A Project for the Advancement of Religion? Both produced within a year. The former is obviously ironic. The latter is still the subject of critical dispute -- look at the JSTOR and MUSE references for conflicting views. Strict intentionalism is just as much a killer of irony, satire, pastiche, etc. as pure strict formalism.

(David Nokes' A Hypocrite Reversed is an interesting study of just how tricky Swift's prose can be.)

On the general point, there are a couple of tacks. First of all, authors' discussions of intent are least problematic when they disclaim all responsibility. Second, all discussions of intent are subject to formal (or pseudo-formal, or non-intentionalist) analysis. That's to say, we can't talk about intent without diving into the wonderful, slippery world of language, and no discussions of intent are cognates with the works under discussion.

I like Susanna Clarke's discussion of this at Crooked Timber:

For me it’s not so much that authors don’t always know best. It’s more, “Sorry guys, I’m not actually the author.” The author couldn’t come. The author has left the building. She left when the book was finished. I’m just the person who remains now she is gone. I may be able to help you because I seem to have a pile of her memories over here—also lots of her notes and stuff. But, while some of the memories are crystal sharp, others are fuzzy and quite a lot are missing. Ditto the notes and stuff. As for what she intended by writing this or that, in many cases she wouldn’t have been able to answer anyway. She never gave it any thought. I’ll do my best to reconstruct what I can. In fact I shall pretend I’m her, by saying “I” and “me”. The point is that if at any point you feel that I am contradicting her (the author), then believe her and not me. She’s the cleverer of the two of us.

But let's go beyond literary works -- though the question of why we might call some works literary and give them a wider berth is probably worth some thought.

A hypothetical: you see a sign which says 'PUBIC HEALTH WARNING'. You presume that the intention was to write 'PUBLIC HEALTH WARNING'. Why do you presume that? Because of your experience as a reader, not because of some special knowledge of the author's intent. If you had never seen a 'PUBLIC HEALTH WARNING' before, you'd be forgiven for assuming that the intent of the 'PUBIC HEALTH WARNING' was to draw attention to...well, what it says.

(As a child, until perhaps the age of 9 or 10, I thought that signs reading 'TO LET' marked the locations of public conveniences.)

Anyway, RW's on the mark: textual 'intention' is just a way of describing a particular interpretative model which has little to do with how, for instance, we set the alarm with the intention of waking at a certain time.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Jul 30, 2007 4:42:04 AM

Strict intentionalism is just as much a killer of irony, satire, pastiche, etc. as pure strict formalism.

I don't think so. Admittedly, figuring out when something is satire is going to be difficult in some cases, and intentionalism won't solve all your problems. I'm just claiming that the formalist can't get anywhere on these problems, because he can't ask questions like, "is it really plausible that Swift would intend to communicate a pro-cannibalism message?"

It's important to remember here that the intentionalist always has more resources than the formalist. The formalist is saying, 'hey, I can make sense of the meaning of texts without referring to authorial intent!' And if that worked out, it'd be pretty impressive. But what the satire cases and the 'bank' case show is that you can't do this stuff without evaluating the plausibility of various possible intentions.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jul 30, 2007 7:11:40 AM

What RW said. In some contexts, ascertaining the "true" meaning of a text (broadly understood) is very important. In others it's valuable to find other meanings. There are rich ambiguities in Shakespeare, for instance, that for all we know may have nothing to do with his intent and everything to do with typesetters' errors. Yet our enjoyment of the plays is increased through a reader-response interpretation. How can you say that is the "wrong" way to go about enjoying Shakespeare, even if it's not the "correct" way?

"if a reader, or an entire interpretive community, believed that Swift was earnestly proposing cannibalism, they'd be wrong. "

That's begging the question, surely. You're assuming that the point is to figure out what Swift was earnestly proposing. Again - if that's what you want to do, then an intentional approach is surely correct. If you're reading the text for some other purpose, then another approach could be valid.

You also seem to be excluding the possibility that these approaches can be complementary. To take the Swift example, you can take into account Swift's intentions, but find meanings above and beyond them as well. This is particularly true in The Tale Of A Tub, where his intention is at times highly ambiguous, and yet there is a fascinating interplay between his presumed intentions and a plain reading of the text. A strictly intentional approach is more or less impossible, because the contradictions pile up too high. Yet to ignore his intentions entirely would be to miss out on a great part of the text's appeal.

Finally, it's very hard to reconcile strict intentionalism with the traditional understanding of genius, here expressed by Hazlitt: "The definition of genius is that it acts unconsciously; and those who have produced immortal works, have done so without knowing how or why. The greatest power operates unseen. "

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Jul 30, 2007 7:17:40 AM

"I'm just claiming that the formalist can't get anywhere on these problems, because he can't ask questions like, "is it really plausible that Swift would intend to communicate a pro-cannibalism message?""

I don't mean to defend formalism as an exclusive hermeneutic approach, but I don't think that's quite true. A formalist could ask: "Would someone sincerely attempting to communicate a pro-cannibalism message use the words/prose style/essay structure that Swift used?"

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Jul 30, 2007 7:21:52 AM

I can think of exactly one situation in which it is significant to have a determinate answer as to what a text really "means."

This seems entirely bizarre to me. You can't really have a conversation without assigning determinate meanings to what's coming out of the other person's mouth, and responding accordingly to what they're saying.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jul 30, 2007 7:43:44 AM

You can't really have a conversation without assigning determinate meanings to what's coming out of the other person's mouth, and responding accordingly to what they're saying.

Right, but that doesn't mean you'll always be right. There is, in fact, an inevitable, structural gap. In many cases, another person's intention is unknowable, because as you acknowledge in your post, subjective intention and desire are not self-transparent.

The problem with intentionalism is that in the end, it just turns into a type of formalism - or whatever other non-intentionalist school you want to follow. Once you acknowledge the opacity of the writing or speaking subject, you have to move to formalist analysis to grasp the meaning of a text.

Basically, I think it's patently obvious that Derrida whupped Searle around the room in the SEC debate. my guess is you disagree.

Posted by: DivGuy | Jul 30, 2007 8:25:35 AM

The problem with intentionalism is really Zen koanish---if a writer writes a text and no one reads it, does it have meaning? No. Communication is a two-way street.

Don't diss the ambiguities of casserole recipes, either. Recipes are actually a good example of how communication is a process as dependent on the audience for meaning as the author. I cook, a lot, and pretty much never do I take a recipe at face value. Some instructions are more valuable than others to various readers. If you are on a diet, you cut back on the oil in a recipe. If you are trying to impress a large group, you double the recipe. If you don't like a certain ingredient or don't have it on hand, you make substitutions. Once you get good at cooking (or reading), you can really fly, digging in past the strict text and start looking behind the scenes for how it all fits together. When I get a recipe for catfish tacos, for instance, I look at a few other and then often make my own kind of tacos, a blending of the recipes I saw. Someone who looked at 3 different recipes would come to a different conclusion.

Authorial intent in recipes is hard to pin down. An intentionalist would probably say you could get the intent from the ingredients and instructions listed. But most recipe writers are cooks, and as such are constantly inventive, riffing, modifying, and putting recipes in context. Someone who really cooks probably has a different interpretation of authorial intent from someone who is a beginner---a beginner takes the intent to be "Follow this recipe". An experienced cook understands the intent to be "Use as a guideline". A professional treats the recipe as inspiration.

The important thing is these various adjustments of interpretation of authorial intent exist even if the author himself is a crazy prima donna and doesn't like anyone using his recipes except how beginners are supposed to take them, as explicit instructions. If I riff on a recipe of such a chef, whether I know he's like that or not, it's not like my use of the recipe is less valid than a newbie who follows it to the letter.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Jul 30, 2007 8:26:16 AM

Oh, and that a lot of people make recipes that are not edible when they're first learning to riff is not really evidence against the validity of more open interpretations of recipes.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Jul 30, 2007 8:27:37 AM


How can you possibly not agree with the deconstructionist claim, as you summarize it, that texts don't have unified meanings? I thought that was just obvious.

As Amanda points out, the same recipe communicates differently to different cooks. And that's the only way it can work, as a recipe.

It's not necessary, in most situations, to work out the differences internal to a text, but that doesn't mean they aren't there. Do you think that Shakespeare scholars have been wasting their time debating Hamlet because there's a unified meaning that's been found?

Or take something I know better, say the first epistle to the Corinthians. 11.5: "any woman who prays or prophecies with her head unveiled disgraces her head." 14.34-35: "As in all the assemblies of the saints, women should be silent in the assemblies."

As prophecy was by definition a public act, performed in the ekklesia, did Paul allow women to prophecy or not? You can argue both ways, and theologians have for years. The text is simply discontinuous with itself. Paul's intentions are irrecoverable. The attempt to make the text say only one thing deriving from one intention has been, historically, the favored method of conservative readers who take 14.35 and argue for women's subordination. The "plain meaning" of a text, once you start reading as closely as Christians do with hte Bible, becomes an obvious chimera, and more complex and more robust strategies are necessary. Binding oneself to intentionalism produces, at best, thin and unconvincing readings.

Posted by: DivGuy | Jul 30, 2007 9:01:03 AM

Some points jotted down quickly because I have to start doing the work I'm paid for:

In its ordinary use, language serves to convey information from the mind of the speaker to the mind of the hearer. This is mutually understood by the speaker and the hearer and both consider to speech act to have succeeded if they believe the hearer ends up knowing what the speaker intended to communicate. This seems incontrovertible.

Even the simplest speech act requires the hearer to guess at the meaning of the speaker. Did the speaker say "I am" or "Iamb"? If she says "Give it to me", who is the intended giver and what is "it"?

This being so, the ordinary interpretation of speech is a game of pure coordination (google "Thomas Schelling" and "game of pure coordination"). The speaker and hearer will succeed or fail jointly. This fact shapes the structure of language itself (google "something about anything" and "David Houghton" -- this was my dissertation). Assuming the correctness of that dissertation, that the grammatical structure of language reflects its use in a game of pure coordination is further evidence that conveying intention is the common use of language.

But this is language in its ordinary use. Everyone in this comments thread -- I have not read all the comments, so this is an impression -- is talking about extraordinary uses of language, namely literature. This is like making claims about the fundamental properties of cars by considering only cases in which they've been used as the foundation of bridges or to decorate restaurant walls.

The problem with intentionalism isn't that it's wrong, but that it's hard to gather evidence to support it. The mind of the speaker is less accessible than the words. Even if the speaker is there to introspect, introspection is hard. And introspection only provides more speech, now about mental states, which are still more nebulous in interpretation than the original words. Again, though, this is not evidence that intentionalism is wrong, just that it is hard to convince someone that it is right. But this is just as much a problem with any other theory. And saying that intentionalism describes the ordinary use of language does not say that there is only one use of language or that the ordinary conventions cannot be subverted or exploited in unusual ways. You can build bridges out of cars. Maybe such a bridge would be particularly interesting precisely because this is an extraordinary use of cars.

Posted by: David Houghton | Jul 30, 2007 9:37:05 AM

The problem with intentionalism isn't that it's wrong, but that it's hard to gather evidence to support it. The mind of the speaker is less accessible than the words.

This is the problem. It's not that the mind is "less accessible", it's that it cannot be fully accessible. The human subject is simply not transparent. For the most part, our cultural cues allow for necessary transparency, but that transparency is always coordinated through a "game of coordination" whose rules one may know better or worse, and in which one may be more or less skilled, and whose rules can be exploited for different reasons.

Really, no one's arguing that I should deconstruct my partner's decision to go to work at 6 am. That would be a waste of resources.

But when what's said actually matters - if we're dealing with literature, or a speech, or a scriptural text, then I need more complex tools than intentionalism.

Posted by: DivGuy | Jul 30, 2007 9:57:10 AM

DivGuy has it right I think (although this may smack of Broderish centrism) you need a variety of tools.

You actually admit this Neil when you wander into the territory of the "subconscious meaning of the author" because that is just the point where strict intentionalism has already been violated.

When you start to "interpret" "author intentions" in this manner, you're falling back on what might be termed "social response" rather than "reader response" but you are nevertheless stepping outside intentionalism.

Posted by: Meh | Jul 30, 2007 10:09:13 AM

, because it strikes me as the strongest opponent.

Did you intend us to understand that formalism is to your mind the best and most rigorous opponent of intentionalism, or simply the most popular?

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Jul 30, 2007 10:19:08 AM

-As one of the unwashed and the not terribly-informed;
I have to say that..helped. Some of those terms pretty opaque for us.

-Reminded me a bit of all the examinations over what kind of Supreme Court Justice one or the other is.
So I was surprised to have missed the 'Literalist' word.

-And thought I recalled that Bradbury had had some sort of political epiphany and
did a sort of ex post facto recant/reconstitution... thing. (Or not?)

Posted by: has_te | Jul 30, 2007 10:26:56 AM

has_te last point raises another problem with strict intentionalism: authors change their minds or simply lie about the meaning of their works. Are we to believe everything an author says about what's in mind? Beckett insisted that Godot was not intended to be God. Are we supposed to rule that interpretation of the play out of bounds? Because he didn't.

As a writer of fiction myself I know I often ask friends to read long pieces and discuss with me what they find. I do this not only to verify that they're receiving my intended meanings but also to discover other meanings that I may actually want to exploit.

Intentionalism also tends to do okay with strict satire but make an absolute hash of other forms of irony.

Posted by: Antid Oto | Jul 30, 2007 10:43:43 AM

I worry, Neil, about your casual transition between literal semantic interpretation of a sentence such as "I went to the bank today" and the more complex interpretation of Swift's satire in "A Modest Proposal."

The latter is certainly dependent on the former, in that one could not grasp the satire of "A Modest Proposal" without grasping the literal semantic content of the words, but I see no reason to think that the method for one would be the same as the for the other.

Intention, to be sure, plays a role at all levels of interpretation, but I doubt that it plays the same role at every levels. After all, one doesn't need to know a liar's intent to deceive in order to understand the literal semantic content of the lie. (If one did, lies would never be successful!)

Formalism, it seems, comes closest to correctness at the level of the literal, where appeal to intention is needed only to resolve ambiguity, and deal with phenomena such as malapropism. When it comes to interpreting satire or metaphor, intent plays a much bigger role.

Posted by: Brock | Jul 30, 2007 10:51:35 AM

Snipped from the end of a longer blog post in response to this post:

The fact is that no matter how many of us agree on any given meaning for any given text, there may be one among us who disagrees. It would be fallacious to assume he or she was wrong based on our superior numbers. And it would also be fallacious to assume that there is no merit to the argument of this minority of one simply because we could not see it. The limits of human understanding and perception mean that we can never be certain of anything. This is inconvenient and irritating, so we tend to ignore it. Indeed we generally should ignore it — in most practical decisions, it’s more important to actually make a decision than to understand our shortcomings, and it would be irresponsible to go on worrying forever about the niggling little things like the imperfection of our perceptions. We cannot worry this way about war and peace. We must commit ourselves to imperfect doctrines, courses of action, and systems of morality.

But fiction is essential precisely because it is so totally unimportant that we can allow ourselves true humility in its use. We need not pretend to understand anything. We need not impose a meaning where there can be none, even if there is much stronger evidence for one view than another. Ultimately we will all make our commitments, of course. We will choose our ideologies and we will decide for what what Superman fights. But we need not commit absolutely in matters of fiction. We need not ever decide that this is the One True Meaning. We need not give the authority to do so to authors, critics, readers, or anybody else. The argument is the point, and the total uncertainty. Fiction is the playground of perfect humility, and so it should ever remain.

Posted by: Mike Meginnis | Jul 30, 2007 10:52:46 AM

"has_te last point raises another problem with strict intentionalism: authors change their minds or simply lie about the meaning of their works. "

See also: Bob Dylan.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Jul 30, 2007 10:54:15 AM

False dichotomy! A reader doesn't need to choose between formalism and intentionalism - there are a ton of theories of interpretation out there. I've always been a fan of the idea of readership communities. This allows that different communities of readers will interpret texts in different ways (something I think is self-evidently true), and doesn't invalidate differing interpretations of the text. Intentionalism doesn't allow for an ironic reading of a text that was meant to be serious, but this does. And it acknowledges that meaning is formed by a communication between two people, not on its own.

Plus, I think trying to determine the intention of an author in literary texts is often a fools errand. That's a much longer comment, but basically, intention is only transparent in works meant to communicate certain ideas clearly, and that's pretty rarely the case in literature.

Posted by: Henry | Jul 30, 2007 11:00:15 AM

Henry raises a good point, that there are some false barriers being constructed here. Like DivGuy, I'm more comfortable in the realm of Biblical criticism than other texts. When we approach a scriptural text, we try to discover the author's intent, and the meaning as understood by the original hearers/readers, and the reactions of the interpretive community from that point until the present day. Then we're able to actually start talking about what the text might mean.

While not everyone is able to articulate it, this is the process that everyone goes through with any significant text, be it the Bhagavad Gita, the US Constitution or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Certainly we can't claim that Jefferson, et. al, intended for women and non-white races to vote, yet their words have been used to justify their inclusion as full citizens in this republic.

Human societies have always functioned under the assumption that while authorial intent is important, it's hardly definitive. Indeed, this is where Neil ends up, once all his qualifications are taken into account.

Or take something I know better, say the first epistle to the Corinthians. 11.5: "any woman who prays or prophecies with her head unveiled disgraces her head." 14.34-35: "As in all the assemblies of the saints, women should be silent in the assemblies."

Of course, DivGuy, what you haven't discussed is the problem of just what Paul actually produced and what was attributed to him by later hands that were rather less convinced of the nearness of the Eschaton. Er, not Atrios, folks.

Posted by: Stephen | Jul 30, 2007 11:26:37 AM

I don't really have a dog in the textual interpretation fight, but it seems to me that the more correct intentionalism is, the more useless it becomes.

Given that the intentions of an author are opaque--sometimes to the author themselves--using them as a tool to find meaning in a text seems bass ackwards.

I would tend to think that the process goes the other way. A text and it's meaning are used to understand the intentions of the author. I mean, really, how are we going to understand an author's intentions without first understanding some sort of communication about those intentions? And if understanding that communication requires knowing the intentions, well, you're just pretty much screwed.

Posted by: TW Andrews | Jul 30, 2007 11:41:17 AM

The problem with the Bradburry example is that his recent statements about the book's meaning contradict everything he has said and written about it in the last fifty years. See the Coda section at the end of every edition for the last thirty years. He says straight up: this is a book about how censorship is bad.

Now, are we supposed to ditch 50 years of critical author-reader dialog just because the author, late in life and after a severe stroke, decides that his most famous work is about something entirely tangential to the point everyone has agreed upon for decades? It would seem that at some point the author's intent become secondary to the shared author-reader dialog and that eventually is superseded even by a larger cultural agreement about the nature of a codified piece of art.

Posted by: Keith | Jul 30, 2007 12:17:21 PM

The contention between various schools of literary theory put me in mind of the tale of the three blind men and the elephant. One grabs its trunk, another presses against it side, the third grabs a leg. They then proceed to argue as to whether the elephant resembles a snake, a wall, or a tree.

The problem isn't that any of them are completely wrong. The difficulty lies in the fact that none of them are entirely correct. They are all subject to the limits of their perception. So it is with literary theory and literature itself.

Frankly, I don't think any of the contending theories is sufficient in and of itself. So I'm afflicted with and extreme lack of patience when some bright eyed convert to this or that theoretical construct comes on as though they have uncovered the rosetta stone of all literarture.

Intentionalism has problems because it isn't certain that an author's intention can be "known" in any final sense. We can't even be certain that the author has a clear grasp of their own intention, given the existence of subconscious motivation and neurosis.

Formalism difficulty lies in the fact that it seeks to avoid the question of intention altogether by arguing for fixed meanings in language itself. Unfortunately it's quite clear that language isn't fixed, either in form or meaning. Like all other human social constructions, it exist in constant state of shift and flux. Tell a British woman to move her fanny, for example, and you're liable to be coshed.

Reader response is less a theory than it is an observation. Obviously the individual reader brings their own set of assumptions, prejudices and indiosyncracies to any given text. I had an instructor who was the first person I'd ever met that styled themselves as a "Christian Libertarian". She was doing her thesis on "Christian Love in the Works of Shakespeare" She took a scriptural view of Shakespeare, whereas my view was that he was a blood and thunder author looking to nick pennies that would otherwise have gone to bear baiting. I don't think either of us was entirely wrong. More important though, neither of us was entirely right. There's the rub. When all "meanings" are equally valid, we cease to be talking about "meaning" in a unitary sense at all.

The Deconstructionist school is the most problematic of all. It takes what is essentially an analytical tool for teasing out embedded, subconscious meanings in texts and attempts to inflate into a comprehesive theory of, well, whatever the particular obsession of the critic happens to be. As Neil gently hints with his note on appropriation, Deconstruction ends up substituting the intention of the critic for the intention of the author.

For myself, I take the view that literature is something of a chimera. In as much as it attempts capture the experience of life in words, it must of neccessity be as multifaceted, contradictory and ambiguious as life itself. Life is a cascade of sensation and association that we seek to mediate by conceptualization. Literature, at its best, cannot achieve absolute clarity except, perhaps, in terms of expression. Meaning in such literature must remain both allusive and elusive, if for no other reason than to engage the imagination of the reader.

Meaning in literature constitutes a mystery because meaning in life is a mystery as well. I think the wise critic will adhere to no particular school but employ the various tools they provide as needed.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Jul 30, 2007 12:52:42 PM

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