Intentionalism Defended

Intentionalism is the view that the meaning of a text is just what the author meant by it. In the following, I am going to lay out a case for it given by E. D. Hirsch, perhaps its most well known recent proponent.

First, a distinction: According to Hirsch, there is a difference between the meaning of a text and its significance. He writes,

Meaning is that which is represented by a text; it is what the author meant by his use of a particular sign sequence; it is what the signs represent. Significance, on the other hand, names a relationship between that meaning and a person, or a conception, or a situation, or indeed anything imaginable.” (Hirsch) 

If a song is written about the personal experiences of its composer, there is nothing to prevent it from being used as the soundtrack to a movie. Its composer may even adjust what she wants to say by it over time. A song can ‘take on a life of its own,’ being used in various ways by various people for various purposes. None of those subsequent uses are what determine the meaning of the song. Hirsch’s project is not about a text’s relationship with its readers or even its author. It is about its actual meaning of the text – the thing we want to discover when we read it.

Another way to put it is: the effects of the text are not the meanings of the text. For example, the study of a text’s development over time is not a study of its meaning, as Hirsch is using the term. It is a study of its significance. Similarly, the study of the transmission of ancient texts is, according to Hirsch, a study of their significance not their meaning.

Before considering Hirsch’s argument for his view, it is worth pausing to consider what it is for a text to be interpreted. In a very basic sense, texts are composed of words, sentences, and groups of sentences. Hence, interpreting a text is a matter of grasping the meaning of them. However, it cannot merely be a matter of knowing all the meanings of all the parts. There is an additional activity that must take place at the textual level. Hirsch writes,

“The submeanings of a text are not blocks which can be brought together additively. Since verbal … meaning is a structure of component meanings, interpretation has not done its job when it simply enumerates what the component meanings are. The interpreter must also determine their probable structure and particularly their structure of emphases.

To get at Hirsch’s point, we might think of the principle of compositionality, which holds that the meaning of a sentence is determined by the meaning of its parts together with its structure (Frege). Analogously, the meaning of a text is determined by the meaning of its parts together with its structure. 

There is an important difference, however, as a text’s structure includes the emphases the author is making. It is not merely the collection of a set of sentences. The interpreter is tasked with interpreting the meaning of a string of sentences and then developing a hierarchy of importance. Some sentences are more important than others.

Interpretation is a complex psychological process in which the interpreter (i) ‘keeps in mind’ those sentences closer in proximity and higher up the hierarchy, (ii) elaborates by adding propositions inferred from the text, and (iii) creates summary propositions of larger parts of the text. The process is limited by the capacity of interpreters to memorize propositions, hierarchies, inferences, and summary propositions (Walter Kintsch and Tuen Van Deijk, “Toward a Model of Text Comprehension and Production”).

Once an interpreter has done her work, she will arrive at an interpretation of the text. If she has succeeded, she will arrive at the correct interpretation of the text. For Hirsch, a correct interpretation is a valid interpretationEach interpretation is bivalent, they admit only two values – valid and invalid. As Hirsch writes,

“Relative emphasis is not only crucial to meaning…, it is also highly restrictive; it excludes alternatives. It may be asserted as a general rule that whenever a reader confronts two interpretations which impose different emphases on similar meaning components, at least one of the interpretations must be wrong.” (Hirsch, 21)

In sum, a valid interpretation of a text is an interpretation that correctly identifies the structure of its component sentences (and the words that comprise its sentences). Intentionalism is the view that what makes an interpretation correct is that the interpreter arrives at the meaning that the author intended.

Now to the argument.

Hirsch writes to oppose semantic autonomy (SA), the view that “textual meaning is independent of the author’s control,” that “poetry is impersonal, objective, and autonomous; that it leads an afterlife of its own, totally cut off from its author” (11). SA was developed as reaction to the nineteenth century’s romanticized idea of the author. Proponents of SA thought that it was impossible to know what the author meant. One just cannot climb inside the authors head no matter how detailed one’s biography of him might be. Hence, texts are to be understood autonomously. The meaning they possess has nothing to do with the author.

The gist of the argument is as follows: If the author doesn’t determine the meaning of a text, there can be no valid interpretation of the text. But there can be a valid interpretation of the text. Hence, the author determines its meaning:

“once the author had been ruthlessly banished as the determiner of his text’s meaning, it very gradually appeared that no adequate principle existed for judging the validity of an interpretation.” (12-13)

In order to understand the argument we should ask what is meant by the ‘adequate principle.’ It cannot be a methodological principle (how we discover the meaning). Rather, it must be a principle without which there could not be a judgement about the validity of an interpretation. Hirsch’s point is that it is a necessary condition on the correctness of an interpretation that there must be a fixed meaning and that the only one who can fix the meaning is the author.

Hirsch presents a number of arguments for his view, each one playing a part in its overall defense.

According to the agent argument, for any word sequence, there are an array of possible meanings. If no one chooses a meaning, a word sequence cannot actually mean one of its possible meanings. Hence, if a word sequence has an actual meaning, someone must choose to mean something by it:  

“meaning is an affair of consciousness not of words. Almost any word sequence can, under the conventions of language legitimately represent more than one complex of meaning. A word sequence means nothing in particular until somebody either means something by it or understands something from it. There is no magic land of meanings outside of human consciousness.” (13)

How many meanings can a word sequence possess? It is hard to say, but the principle involved is that, logically, we can use any word sequence to say anything. Words are not essentially connected to concepts and beliefs etc. They are connected to those things by the intentional activity of an agent who communicates using them. 

Further, even once the conventions of a particular linguistic community have been set, there are a range of possible meanings for any given word sequence. If there were not, we wouldn’t disagree over which interpretation is the correct one. Hence, if there is a correct interpretation, there must be some conscious decision to make a possible meaning the actual one.

According to the singularity argument, if an author chooses a meaning, he will choose only one. A meaning, according to Hirsch, is determinate if and only if it is self-identical. If there is no such thing, Hirsch argues, then we couldn’t ‘share’ meanings with one another. He writes,

“if meaning were not reproducible, it could not be actualized by someone else and therefore could not be understood or interpreted. Determinacy on the other hand is a quality of meaning required in order that there be something to reproduce. Determinacy is a necessary attribute of any shareable meaning, since an indeterminacy cannot be shared: if a meaning were indeterminate, it would have no boundaries, no self-identity, and therefore could have no identity with a meaning entertained by someone else.”

Suppose that there is not a determined meaning. Hirsch argues that if there is no determinate meaning in a text, there is nothing to reproduce. To reproduce a text is to put it in your own words, to explain its meaning. But if there is nothing to reproduce, then no one could reproduce it. If so, then no one else could understand it (it couldn’t be shared). Sharing is an activity that can only occur if there is something to share. Indeterminacy renders the activity impossible.

For the argument to go through it must be the case that for every text, there is one actual meaning. At the time of writing, an author means to say something and that thing is one thing.

Addressing the issue of singularity would take us too far afield for an already long post, but an enlightening argument for the view has been provided by David Novitz. Novitz argues for the singular meaning view based on what he calls the ‘singularity constraint.’ According to the constraint, there is only one way the world can be at any given time. Given this plausible assumption, Novitz argues that there can only be one right interpretation of a work (read my exposition of the argument here).

Hirsch has so far argues that for a text to have a correct meaning, it must have been chosen by a conscious agent, and, in order to share that meaning, it must be determinate, an identifiable single thing. In his decision argument, Hirsch contends that in order for an interpretation to be more probable it must be an actual meaning (rather than merely possible). Since, proponents of SA also believe that some interpretations are more probable than others, they should concede that the meaning must have been fixed by its author:

“no mere sequence of words can represent an actual verbal meaning with reference to public norms alone … Under the public norms of language alone no … adjudications can occur, since the array of possibilities presents a face of blank indifference. The array of possibilities only begins to become a more selective system of probabilities when, instead of confronting merely a word sequence, we also posit a speaker who very likely means something. Then and only then does the most usual sense of the word sequence become the most probable … sense.” (17-18)

Hirsch argues that either a text has (a determinate) meaning in virtue of its sequence, or a ‘determining will.’ It cannot have a meaning in virtue of its sequence. Hence, it has a meaning caused by a determining will

Why could a text not have a determinate meaning in virtue of its sequence? To fill out his argument we might begin by restating a part of the first argument. That is, for any word sequence, there are an array of possible meanings. A this point, an array of possibilities won’t render anything probable. That is because, it is an analytic truth that if one of the possible meanings is more probable than another, it is more likely to be correct than another. It follows that if one of the possible meanings is the correct meaning, it must be the actual meaning. 

So, the trouble for the proponent of SA is providing some means for a possible meaning to become actual. Either it is actual because it is chosen by an agent or the word sequence can make a meaning. But no word sequence can make a choice. Hence, a word sequence cannot have a meaning in virtue of its sequence. 

Now the question becomes: who is the agent? There are only two possible answers: the author or the reader.

Now, both the semantic autonomist and the internationalist are opposed to the latter option. Readers don’t get to be the meaning-fixers of texts. Consequently, the only option available is to consider the intentions of the author as the final authority.

There are a number of fairly powerful objections to Hirsch’s view. Here are a few I found difficult but not impossible to overcome.

The Intentional Fallacy

According to a famous objection, the view commits the ‘intentional fallacy’ (Wimsatt and Beardsley, 1946). One must discover a sufficient biography of an author to understand any of his texts. But we don’t need a comprehensive biography of an author to understand his texts. Hence, the intentions of the author are not what fix the meaning of the text.

However, intentionalists like Hirsch say that one can know what the author intended by examining the text. It is no part of the internationalist view that we must have an extensive biography of the text to know what an author meant to say. The central claim of the internationalist is not about how we find out the intentions of an author, but that the necessary condition for a text to have a correct interpretation is that the meaning is fixed by the author at the time of writing. Hence, the objection fails.

The Misspeaking Problem (Sherri Irvin “Authors, Intentions and Literary Meaning”).

According to Sherri Irvin, intentionalism has some unattractive consequences. One such consequence is that for any text, its meaning is just what the author meant. But many texts contain malapropisms (malapropism = def. occurs when there is a “divergence between intended meaning and utterance meaning” (Irvin, 116)).

Irvin asks us to suppose actual intentionalism is true and suppose that an author miswrites ‘cauliflower’ instead of ‘broccoli’ by mistake. If an author writes ‘cauliflower’ when he means to write ‘broccoli,’ and the meaning of the text is determined by his intentions, then ‘cauliflower’ means broccoli. But this is absurd. Hence, the meaning of the text is not determined by the author’s intentions. 

Another example: An author writes ‘righteous indigestion’ when he meant righteous indignation. Since the meaning of the text is determined by the author’s intention, ‘indigestion’ just means indignation. But we wouldn’t say this about any other activity. For example, if a pole vaulter failed to pole vault over the pole, we would not count it as a success despite the fact that the vaulter intended to get over the pole. He isn’t successful merely because he intended to be successful. 

The most plausible strategy for the intentionalist to take is to argue that there is nothing absurd about ‘cauliflower’ being used to mean broccoli. It is a mistake, but it is not absurd. The mistake has to do with a failure to accord one’s choices with conventions. But that does not entail that the speaker has failed to mean anything by his choice of words. Fixing a meaning does not entail that everyone else knows what you mean. 

There is nothing weird about using a word to mean something but failing to abide by convention (misspeaking). It would be weird if there was some essential connection between the word and its sense. In that case, there would be a failure not only to communicate, but to mean what one says. The word cauliflower succeeds to communicate because of its conventional use to mean (the sense of the term) a species of brassica vegetable with white edible inflorescence meristem. But that doesn’t entail that the author’s intentions don’t fix the meaning of the words he uses.

Suppose an author has an inside joke with a friend. They always get their broccoli mixed up with their cauliflower. For fun, the author talks incidentally about a cauliflower knowing that his friend will know he is really talking about broccoli. The author has misspoken intentionally. What would the intended meaning be? Surely, it would be broccoli not cauliflower. The author doesn’t much care that only one of the thousands of people who read the book knows that he did not mean cauliflower. He just wants to make his friend laugh. Nonetheless, the meaning of the use of the word is broccoli not cauliflower. 

The Misunderstanding Problem

The distinction between intending to say something and intending to be understood by someone plays a role in another objection from Irvin. The misunderstanding problem occurs when there is a divergence between the intended meaning and the conventional meaning. A work is presented to the public with the assumption that it can be understood. An intention can only be discovered by studying the behavior of an agent. However, interpreting behavior correctly is only possible if the conventions of the author are the same as the conventions of the reader. But it is not always the case that the two conventions align. Hence, a text could be misunderstood and thereby fail to achieve its main purpose. 

The problem suggests that works can remain uninterpretable if the conventions of authors and readers diverge. Perhaps so (anyone for James Joyce?). But, again, this doesn’t go to show intentionalism is false. Some people use their words better than others. Nonetheless, if a sentence has a meaning, it is fixed by the intentions of the speaker/author. 

I can fix a meaning and fail to communicate. The two are perfectly compatible. There are lots of things that I can succeed in doing without achieving their desired purpose. I can succeed in driving a long way without finding my destination. I can succeed in striking my opponent without taking him out of the game. Hence, I can succeed in fixing the meaning of a sentence without the reader having the foggiest idea what I’m on about. Trust me, I am a philosopher. This happens a lot. 

There might be a worry at this point. Can an author have such freedom? Are authors able to fix their meanings to anything at all and still get to be in charge of which interpretation is correct? Perhaps the worry will be stilled by the response to the next objection.

Berys Gaut presents a dilemma for the intentionalist (Berys Gaut, “Interpreting the Arts: The Patchwork Theory”). He supposes that in some recorded cases the best interpretation of a text conflicts with the author’s statement about the meaning of the text. In such scenarios, should we believe our conclusions from the text or the author? Here is one example he gives:

“Edmund Wilson initially claimed that Henry James intended The Turn of the Screw to be read as having an unreliable narrator. He later discovered on reading James’ notebooks that this was false. Wilson then argued that James must have unconsciously intended the narrator to be unreliable … Yet the evidence Wilson offers for this claim is unpersuasive … the novella can be read as having an unreliable narrator, since such an assumption explains features of the work which are otherwise inexplicable, or not so plausibly explained. In other words, ascriptions to works of properties such as having an unreliable narrator can be grounded on internal features of the work without having to suppose that all such properties were intended.” (Gaut, 600)

Gaut presumes that in such a circumstance, the internationalist must go with the author’s statement about his or her intentions. But doing so leaves the interpreter having to ignore the evidence from the text that leads her in the opposite direction.

So, should Wilson have believed James? Although it appears that the internationalist must reply in the affirmative, it is not actually so. The author’s own statement of his previous intention is not as reliable as the evidence from the text. An author could be lying, forgotten what he meant, or attempting to modify or overturn his original meaning. 

In contrast, the text provides good evidence for Wilson that James intended the narrator to be read as unreliable. Wilson ought to go with the evidence from the text not the author’s statements.

Although the reply is sufficient to defend the internationalist view from the objection, it raises a further worry related to the previous objection. In the reply to the previous objection it appears that an author gets to say whatever he wants using whatever language he wants. But in the reply to the present objection, we are told to trust our interpretations of the text over any statement an author makes later. How do we reconcile this apparent conflict?

The key to understanding how to reconcile the author’s capacity to fix meanings with an interpreter’s trust in the evidence the text provides is to understanding how a linguistic intention is formed. Intentions of the linguistic type are embedded in a conventional context. To form an intention to say something, one is dependent upon the conventions of the language in which one says it. A very insightful comment is made about this by Wittgenstein (I got the quote from John Feinberg, “Truth: The Relationship of Theories of Truth to Hermeneutics”):

“But didn’t I already intend the whole construction of the sentence … at its beginning? So surely it already existed in my mind before I said it out loud!—If it was in my mind, still it would not normally be there in some different word order. But here we are constructing a misleading picture of ‘intending’, that is, of the use of this word. An intention is embedded in its situation, in human customs and institutions. If the technique of the game of chess did not exist, I could not intend to play a game of chess. In so far as I do intend the construction of a sentence in advance, that is made possible by the fact that I can speak the language in question.” (L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, S 337)

If the author’s intentions are dependent on linguistic conventions, the evidence for what he meant is in the text. An author doesn’t just face a list of words and phrases to use in creating his work. He has previously acquired a natural language and even does much of he internal thought in that language. When he forms an intention, he does not do so first and only then picks out whatever linguistic entities that take his fancy. Rather, he has his intention in his language. Having written down what he wants to say he can present it for interpretation. Hence, the text is what provides evidence for an interpretation. None of this overturns Hirsch’s basic point. Words alone don’t possess meaning until they are used to say something.

The latter objection brings up an important point about method. How can we go about figuring out what the author meant by saying what he did? Well, since an author forms his intentions in a linguistic community with certain linguistic conventions, we ought to find out about that community and their conventions. We need at least knowledge of history and knowledge of the grammar of the language. We have good reason to apply a historical and grammatical hermeneutic.

Let me know turn to a couple of objections from Monroe Beardsley (Monroe Beardsley “The Authority of the Text”).

In his first objection, Beardsley asks to consider a text without an author. Surely such a text would have a range of meanings some of which are better than others. But then having a correct meaning doesn’t require an author. Beardsley writes,

“Some texts that have been formed without the agency of an author, and hence, without authorial meaning, nevertheless have a meaning and can be interpreted” (25).

It may the case that there are texts without authors (the most impressive example is text produced by computers). However, is it the case that text produced without authors have determinate meanings? It is not clear. A determinate meaning is the correct meaning. If no meaning has been determined by an author, then there is no correct meaning. One may interpret a computer’s poetry any way one likes. It’s not as if one could interpret an authoress text incorrectly. As Hirsch has been trying to suggest, there is no other way a text could have a correct actual meaning if it is not fixed by a conscious agent. Hence, any text that has no author has not correct interpretation.

Another of Beardsely’s objections suggests that the meanings for texts can change over time, even beyond the death of the author. At least those changes cannot be as a result of the intentions of the author. Hence, intentionalism is false. He writes,

“The meaning of a text can change after its author has died. But the author cannot change his meaning after he has died. Therefore, the textual meaning is not identical to the authorial meaning” (26). 

The argument assumes that the determined meanings of texts can be changed. But that is false – to change the meaning of a text, one is misinterpreting the text (or perhaps creating a new one). This is even true when an author changes his or her own interpretation of something she previously wrote. She is either misinterpreting her work or creating a different work. She is not changing the meaning of the work as she originally wrote it. As we recall from our earlier discussion, the significance of a text even to its author is not the same as the meaning of a text. A text has the meaning it has in virtue of what the author meant to say at the time of writing.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *