Monday, November 27, 2006

There is Something Outside the Text

Having argued against "the sensible belief that a text means what its author meant", we face a threat of critical imperialism: if our target is not the intention of the artist, why limit our interpretive interest to works of art? Why not interpret the songs of birds as music, politics as theatre, or the marks of waves upon a beach as words?

The most plausible reason, I think, is that our interest in art is an interest in intentional action, even if the intention does not extend to the meaning of the work. Art always belongs to a specific tradition or practice, with which the artist is deliberately – though sometimes perversely – engaged. The intention of the artist is relevant, primarily, to the form of the work; its meanings are fixed in turn by the conventions of the form, to which artist and audience defer. It is not up to the composer whether a passage of music is bleak or courageous; nor are the facts of motive and theme in fiction immediately responsive to the author's will.

The autonomy of artistic meaning, and its dependence on form, can be seen most readily in contrived examples, like Robert Graves' recasting of "The Solitary Reaper" in "Wordsworth by Cable":

If you are inclined to object that the words have also changed, compare the recent setting of Phil Rizzuto's baseball commentary as free verse:

Challenge to Youth
I tell you what I would change:
That NO BALK to second base.
You know,
You can do anything to second base.
Yeah, I never did like that.
What would you change?
It is not a consequence of this account that the artist's intention is never directly relevant. Is the ending of the Shostakovich Fifth ironic, "as if someone were beating you with a stick, and saying 'Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing'"? That depends, in part, on whether Volkov's Testimony (in which those words are attributed to Shostakovich) is true or false.

The more pervasive effect of the generic approach is to suggest that questions of interpretation are always historical, and thus to vindicate critical interest in the artist and her context. There is no sharp distinction between the interpretation of art – a certain kind of cultural artifact – and the understanding of culture in general.

The study of criticism can therefore take two different forms: it may be the philosophy of history – not confined to artists and their work – or it may be the history of painting, or the novel, or the string quartet. There is a sense in which Socrates was right to doubt that interpretation is an art, that the rhapsodist has a single expertise. If the philosophy of criticism is meant to investigate, a priori, the principles of meaning and interpretation that apply to art, as such, it follows that there is no such thing.

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.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Action Theory

A passage from Ian McEwan's immaculate novel, Atonement:
She raised one hand and flexed its fingers and wondered, as she had sometimes before, how this thing, this machine for gripping, this fleshy spider on the end of her arm, came to be hers, entirely at her command. Or did it have some little life of its own? She bent her finger and straightened it. The mystery was in the instant before it moved, the dividing moment between not moving and moving, when her intention took effect. It was like a wave breaking. If she could only find herself at the crest, she thought, she might find the secret of herself, that part of her that was really in charge. She brought her forefinger close to her face and stared at it, urging it to move. It remained still because she was pretending, she was not entirely serious, and because willing it to move, or being about to move it, was the not the same as actually moving it. And when she did crook it finally, the action seemed to start in the finger itself, not in some part of her mind. When did it know to move, when did she know to move it? There was no catching herself out. It was either-or. There was no stitching, no seam, and yet she knew that behind the smooth continuous fabric was the real self – was it her soul? – which took the decision to cease pretending, and gave the final command.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Comfort of Strangers

Philosophy written in English is overwhelmingly analytic philosophy, and the techniques and predilections of analytic philosophy are not only unhistorical but anti-historical, and hostile to textual commentary.
This passage appears in the introduction to the book that I discussed last time, and it serves to set the tone. It's us versus them: the antiquarians against the philistines.

Why should analytic philosophers study the history of philosophy? It is alarming that, in a volume about the importance of contextual history, not a single contributor gives serious attention to the meaning of "analytic philosophy", to the development of the tradition, how its origins relate to the present composition of Anglophone philosophy departments, how the alleged hostility to historical study emerged, and why it survives.

The most frequent defence of history in philosophy is independent of the peculiarities of the "analytic" style. According to many, the study of past thinkers can help to upset received opinions, to show them as local or contingent, to demonstrate other ways of conceiving an issue or of conceiving philosophy itself, and so to raise new questions. In short: "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

It would be a mistake to object that these benefits are merely instrumental, since the question is precisely about the usefulness of history to the practice of philosophy. But they may disappoint the advocate of history. They depict her project as a causal means to philosophical insight – not as partly constitutive of philosophy done well.

Can more than this be said for the history of philosophy? Maybe so. In attempting to say it, or part of it, I'll return to a question left hanging in the previous post, about the employment of anachronism in properly antiquarian accounts of past philosophers.

Consider the mildly Wittgensteinian view that philosophical puzzles sometimes arise through conceptual confusion, as when we conflate two different things, or see two when there is only one. Such confusions, as human phenomena, must have histories. It follows, then, that philosophy can be done historically, at least when certain conditions are met.

What is more, when we undertake to tell the history of confusion, it may be impossible to avoid anachronism, to refuse "criteria of description and classification not available to the agent himself". This fact is familiar in the history of science, where the story of Newton notoriously contends with his failure to distinguish invariant and relativistic mass. There is no way to translate his words without inadequacy, and no way to explain his conflation in terms he would have been willing to accept.

Something similar is true, I think, of practical reason in early modern thought. The British moralists of the eighteenth century were sufficiently muddled that we have to do for them what historians of science do for Newton. Since Wollaston and Clarke did not distinguish practical from theoretical reason, at least not with any clarity, no simple translation of their claims will work. In order to make sense of what they wrote, we have to rely on an array of "distinctions and classifications" that were, precisely, unavailable to them. It is in this context that we should place Hume's infamous refusal to speak of "reason" in ethics: not as a rejection of practical reason in the proper sense, but as an attempt at linguistic hygiene prompted by the confusions of his peers.

If this is right, the history of philosophy cannot be philosophically innocent. Whenever we are obliged to describe and disentangle the confusions of the past, we will be forced to rely on the philosophical equivalent of Einstein's theory of relativity: on theories and distinctions that our subjects knew nothing about. When philosophy is done historically – at least in one way – it answers to a form of history that can only be philosophical.