Monday, November 20, 2006

Naïve Interpretation

In the philosophy of criticism, the intentionalist holds "the sensible belief that a text means what its author meant". Resisting for a moment the temptations of self-reference – the difficulty of saying more precisely what the intentionalist means by this – we face the immediate objection that his view is false. When I use a word or a phrase or a sentence of English, it does not mean "just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less." The meaning of my utterances, and of the texts that I produce, is not entirely up to me.

According to a common diagnosis, the intentionalist fails to understand the Gricean distinctions between speaker meaning, sentence meaning and what is said. What is expressed by an utterance on a given occasion is conventional and depends on the intentions of the speaker only to a limited degree. Only of a fraction of this, in turn, is relevant to the sentences of poetry or fiction: a fictional demonstrative or quantifier-domain is tied to the intentions of the character or narrator, not the author.

It seems to follow that the interpreter can virtually ignore the historical author and what he meant, turning instead to the fixed, conventional, autonomous meaning of the words that he wrote down.

The preceding paragraphs are meant to give a relatively orthodox account of one path through familiar terrain. It is a trail that leads into a morass. Many of the questions we ask as critics are not directly concerned with the meaning of a sentence or a stanza, but with motivation, theme, mood, voice. Even if we grant the autonomy of linguistic meaning, we need to know how the answers to these further questions are fixed.

Thus we are led to place inordinate weight on the meanings of words – as in "The Intentional Fallacy", where the tradition is shoved into the dictionary. Or to extravagant forms of interpretive charity – as when the author becomes a postulate, a hypothetical agent whose actions would give as much significance to the features of the text as it is possible for them to bear. Or to a form of critical pluralism, on which there are simply games we play with texts. Or finally, to proclamations of the death of the Author, who takes the Critic along with him in a suicide pact. No wonder some have been inspired to resurrect intentionalism or to make it more sophisticated.

The point has been made here before, if not at length, that there is something peculiar about this whole debate: it treats the philosophy of criticism as part of the philosophy of language. The inclusion is made explicit in Monroe Beardsley's bracing and humorous book, The Possibility of Criticism:
What does the literary interpreter do? He tells us what a literary work means. And whatever else it is, a literary work is first of all a text, a piece of language. So what the interpreter reveals is the meaning of the text.
From the fact that we are interested in meaning and that our object is a text it may follow that we are interested in the meaning of a text, but not that we are interested in a kind of meaning specific to texts. Questions about interpretation and the intention of the artist are not confined to linguistic art: we can ask, for instance, whether the Sibelius Violin Concerto is, or is not, desolate and bleak, and what Sibelius intended it to be. Texts are just one object of interpretation, in the more expansive sense that applies to paintings and performances. It is not obvious, a priori, that the interpretations of texts will be fixed by the meanings of the words and sentences they contain.

The problem with intentionalism is therefore not that it gives a wrong account of linguistic meaning, which is not the sole or principal object of criticism; nor simply that there is room for artistic failure; but that an artist's intention will often be about the meaning of her work. It is no use explaining what it means for the Violin Concerto to be bleak by asking whether Sibelius intended it to be, since the content of that intention is precisely what we do not know. The fundamental error of the intentionalist is to think that it is easier to understand what artists mean to be doing than what they do.


Blogger "Q" the Enchanter said...

This is a characteristically lovely post. I'll add one bit. The question "What do you mean?" as applied to the work of an artist often simply assumes facts not in evidence. With respect to song lyrics that have a representational cast, for instance, I might not mean anything at all by a particular line. I might have been merely playing with words and syntax to get a particular sound, without any intent to convey meaning or elicit a circumscribed aesthetic reaction in others.

Most often, of course, I do *mean* something by a bit of lyrical utterance, and mean my meaning to be transferable or reconstructable. But even then, I'm perfectly happy if a listener can walk away from a lyric I wrote with a richer interpretation of it than the interpretation that was bewitching me when I wrote it. (We'd both be better off: the listener with a richer aesthetic experience; I with an inflated reputation as a lyricist.) Such meaning isn't "up to me," and I wouldn't want it to be.

4:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The intentionalist is going to have quite a difficulty with any novel that presents the voice of another storyteller, or gives some authority to a particular character, for example by quoting their diary.

Of course modern fiction uses a lot of these devices, but this simply makes apparent possibilites that are latent in the novel since it began. Simply quoting a character's words gives them some degree of credence - for example, in the early chapters of Jane Eyre, that dreadful prig of a schoolgirl who is reading Rasselus gets some platform for her opinions about what christian morality entails - views which are never explicitly rebutted, as I remember. But we can take it that Charlotte, or whichever one of the Brontes wrote that stuff down, didn't agree with it.

The trouble is that the word "meaning" is such a uselessly elastic one, it's as bad as "design". It can mean purpose or intention, but it can also mean the literal meaning of the words presented. An author can present all kinds of viewpoints, yet intend the reader to at least recognise his rejection of them. There is no single sense of "meaning" that covers all of this; there is the literal meaning of what is written, and there is (separately) the intention of the work itself. And an author can simply fail, either in presenting the viewpoint, or in expressing a rejection of it. "Committed christian" writers are not much good at dealing with atheist characters. They tend to end up with predestined automata, and the critique rebounds (implicitly) on the wrong target. [JN]

11:29 AM  
Anonymous James said...

Hello, I'm new. I just thought that I'd mention two things. First, I enjoyed the post: you write well. Second, I'm surprised that Derrida is nowhere to be found on this website (that I can see at any rate). If you haven't read him yet I think you'd really enjoy "Afterword: Toward an Ethics of Discussion" which is a reply to John Searle and other formalist types in Limited, Inc. His reading of Kafka's "Before the Law" is also particularly worth a look on the more "literary" side of things. Anyway, good stuff. Merci.

12:02 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Thanks for the constructive comments, which cheered me up at the end of a bad day.

I have read bits of Derrida, including Limited, Inc., but I'm wary of writing about him, in part because I find his work so difficult, and in part because it inspires unusually passionate debate!

12:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you scroll down near the end of this you can find another philosopher expressing some strong opinions about Derrida.

10:03 AM  
Anonymous Iconoclast said...

Derrida, like Deleuze, is not worth losing much time on. They are not intellectualy challenging or difficult, in the sense that Wittgenstein's extreme stlylistic 'austerity' is: they are just incoherent and pompous pseudo-philosophers, who seldomly hit at something truly profound.

1:01 PM  

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