Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Defending Intentionalism

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.


Brandon said...

Wait, I thought you were a Kripke fan! Meaning is not in the head, etc. etc. Not so much?

Neil Sinhababu said...

The funny thing is, I was a Kripke opponent until I realized that semantic externalism and intentionalism are compatible.

Paul said...

I loved your essay even though it sucks as an introduction to astrophysics.

Seriously, great essay and great blog!

Brock said...

I was thinking about this yesterday on my bike ride home, and I've decided your thesis, "The meaning of an utterance or a text is whatever the author intended to communicate by it", can't be right, because it renders sentences in fiction meaningless.

"In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit."

Tolkien did not intend to communicate anything by that sentence. To communicate is to impart information (or misinformation), i.e. to induce in the listener/reader a belief, whether true or false. But unless the reader has mistaken The Hobbit for a work of history, no belief will be induced in the reader by that sentence.

(I follow Kendall Walton in thinking that what is induced is a pretense of belief, i.e. "make-believe", which isn't belief at all.)

Intention to communicate may determine whether a work is history or fiction, but it does not determine the literal meaning of the sentence, which is independent of its pragmatic use.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Thanks, Paul!

Brock, I wouldn't say that beliefs are the only thing that can be communicated. I'm not a noncognitivist about the semantics of moral judgments, but I wouldn't want to so easily rule out the idea that non-cognitive states like desires and emotions can be expressed in language. And if desires and emotions can be expressed, why not whatever mental state the mental state of engaging in fiction is?

I'd think that we want the kind of mental state to be communicated to be in the semantics rather than the pragmatics.

brock said...

I'd think that we want the kind of mental state to be communicated to be in the semantics rather than the pragmatics.

But then the very same sentence would have two different literal meanings, depending on whether it occurred in fiction or non-fiction.

Suppose I wrote a work of historical fiction, containing the sentence "On the morning before he crossed the Rubicon, Julius Caesar had three eggs for breakfast."

And suppose that a historian, having discovered ancient documents detailing Caesar's day-to-day eating habits, writes the very same string of English words in a history book.

Do we want to say that the two sentences have different literal meanings?

(If I had my copy of Davidson's Truth, Language, and History, I'd put a quote from "Locating Literary Language" here.)

Neil Sinhababu said...

Do we want to say that the two sentences have different literal meanings?

I think so. Suppose a historian writes "The US won World War II." Then suppose a alternative-history novelist writes "The US didn't win World War II." I think it'd be a mistake to regard this as a genuine case of disagreement. They are, in some sense, talking past each other. And that suggests that the meanings are different.

Anonymous said...

I don't see an argument here that the intended meaning and the actual meaning coincide in all cases; only a list of examples in which they do coincide. Can you give a more abstract argument for intentionalism?

And speaking of examples, I'd like to hear what you think about statements like "There exist infinitely many prime numbers," which I believe to be both meaningful and accurate even though it completely lacks an intended meaning. (For instance, because it lacks an author.) Do you disagree ("as an intentionalist")?


Neil Sinhababu said...

Off the top of my head, I can't think of any arguments at the level of generality you're looking for, jenny. What I'm trying to show is that intentionalism agrees with our intuitive judgments about how to interpret texts in many (hopefully all) cases, while opposing theories have difficulty in even simple cases like the bank example. Assuming that our underlying intuitions about how to interpret texts in a number of concrete cases are reliable, this method should be a good one.

Why doesn't "there are infinitely many prime numbers" have an author? You're saying it, right? Certainly nobody made the prime numbers, but you made the statement about the prime numbers.

Anonymous said...

All right, fair enough.

I did say "'there exist infinitely many prime numbers'", but I don't think I'm the one responsible for its meaning. I don't think Euclid is responsible for its meaning either. Certainly he's not the cause of it being true; are you saying he's the cause of it being meaningful?

I can put it this way: does intentionalism entail anything interesting or surprising about the nature of not only statements but facts?


Neil Sinhababu said...

If Euclid made the statement, its meaning arose from his communicative intentions. If you make the statement again, not intending to quote Euclid but just saying it, its meaning arises from your intentions. If you're quoting Euclid, the meaning of the statement arises from his intentions -- quoting is the linguistic convention that allows us to do this. (In general, different instances of the same sentence draw their meanings from the intentions of the different speakers.)

If the letters had just appeared on their own through some natural process, without anybody trying to communicate anything, they wouldn't have any meaning. It's the fact that someone tried to mean something by them that makes them meaningful.

As a theory in the philosophy of language, intentionalism concerns itself with the linguistic part of the world. The facts that it concerns itself with are the facts about statements.

Flinger said...

I'ts still not clear to me why we can't say that every text may have both an intended and a formal (or received) meaning

Neil Sinhababu said...

We can say something like that. But eventually it may come out that only one of those two meanings is useful for our purposes.

When someone asks you "What does this mean?" and you're the first to interpret the text, what answer are you supposed to give? And if the formal meaning includes a racist slur, while the intended meaning is entirely innocuous because the author was entirely unaware of the racist connotations of some term, should we regard the work as a piece of racist literature? In the bank case, the formal meaning can end up being such a mess that we may not find it useful at all.

Flinger said...

Why can't we say in those cases that the intended meaning was to say something other than racism, and the formal meaning yields no consistent result?

The problem with formal meanings, of course, is that we have to agree on the interpretive rules first. Results from the legal field have been poor.


Anonymous said...

So initially you seem to state that it is intention that defines the meaning of "I went to the bank today" but then you argue that it is Bradbury's unconscious meaning that we should interpret for Fahrenheit 451. What if the intention of the person who went to a bank of some sort is to obfuscate? In fact, what if unconsciously the person utters a sentence to convey one meaning while consciously relying on a different interpretation of that same sentence? Can one be considered more valid than the other within the same conflicted mind? And who is to say even if the overwhelming majority of people interpret the book to mean B instead of A that it dictates his intent? What if he's just really bad at articulating his "true" meaning or intent? Intentionalism seems to oversimplify the complexity of human interaction, which is fine if one only seeks a particular way to view and explore the world rather than as an actual accurate description.
Also, I don't know that I wholly buy your reference to joint authorship. Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that the originating author's work is an object and that anyone who reinterprets it is the photographer - using various lenses and points of view to personally contextualize the object?

flaunting ignorance

Anonymous said...

Perhaps your "bank" experiment fails to provide a clear example. Because the sentence is ambiquous, under either intentionalism or formalism, more information is needed. Certainly the speaker/author may intend a specific meaning, but does it have ANY meaning if the primary purpose of the statement is to convey a specific meaning which is not conveyed?

Further, as someone else previously wrote, the distinction falls apart when one ventures from fact to fiction. Once we delve into the world of fiction, indeed, ability to interpret is important, yet less essential. Why? In fiction, often the author intends to communicate common experiences. However, authors often communicate personal experiences which can not be fully interpreted as the author originally intended, but can be interpreted in a unique way by each interpretor.

Intent to communicate something not intelligible is akin to verbal masterbation, and certainly falls outside the perameters of YOUR intent to discuss intentionalism.

Most importantly, if the speaker/author intends to convey a fact, the "truth" if you interpret as such, then the speaker/author's intent becomes evident or fails for vagueness. Such is the case with your "bank" example. It fails for vagueness. Thus we all find ourselves pondering what the speaker/author "intended."

Neil Sinhababu said...

What if the intention of the person who went to a bank of some sort is to obfuscate?

The sort of intention that matters to intentionalists is what the author/speaker was intending to communicate. So if the speaker was sincerely trying to communicate both meanings simultaneously to his audience, the statement could have both meanings. As I said when I posted this at Ezra's blog, when intention gets weird, meaning gets weird. This isn't a problem for intentionalism, but rather a sign that the theory is correct.

One constraint on intentions of any kind is that rational agents can't intend to achieve goal G by performing action A, if they know that A won't help them achieve G. So you can't just say nonsense and have it mean something -- you have to be able to sincerely believe that your speech-act helps your audience understand you.

As for the point about different lenses -- if the reader is using his own background in an attempt to connect with the author's intention, then the photographic analogy is apt. But if the reader knowingly photoshops in his own intentions about what the work should say, he's gone beyond interpretation and taken on an authorial role.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Looking over that, I don't know if the point was clear. In any case, I don't think intentionalism oversimplifies anything. It lets the complexity of human communicative intentions give rise to the complexity of meaning. (And when communicative intentions are simple, as sometimes happens, meaning is simple too.)

Andreas said...

I don't think it's necessarily the case that the intentional meaning is more important than the formal meaning.

Take, for instance, Fahrenheit 451. Your belief, if I'm not mistaken, is that Ray Bradbury is merely incorrect about the intentional meaning of the text. But it seems self-evident that this can be resolved by believing that the formal meaning is more important.

-- ACS

Patrick said...

Your final paragraph doesn't work. It provides a means by which an intentionalist can acknowledge the existence of reappropriation, which permits the intentionalist to maintain his or her beliefs without contradiction. But it doesn't demonstrate that the intentionalist framework is superior to any other framework.

And ultimately that's the problem. Meaning isn't a coherent *thing* out there that we can examine and evaluate and conclude that it exists due to intentionalism. These things are matters of what framework we go into things. Intentionalism might be great for figuring out what your friend means when he tells you about his day. But its less helpful when interpreting, say, a law written by a hundred different people, voted on by several hundred more who were influenced by thousands more beyond them, then interpreted and kept as law by many generations as its popularly accepted meaning ebbs and flows with the changing of culture and popular mores. You could certainly come up with a framework for evaluating that situation from an intentionalist perspective, much like you can create a geocentric model of the universe. There's just no reason to do so when we have other frameworks that are more useful for this context.

Arun said...

I am not good at drawing - which means what gets put down on paper does not match the vision in my head, what I intended.

I imagine a similar problem holds with writing.

Further, when something is penned, it is written in a context. Like it or not my mind is influenced by the massacre of Sikhs at Oak Creek, the Olympics, the economic turmoil, etc., etc. to uncover the meaning of anything significant that I write, you may have to reconstruct the context, which may be impossible for you in a few years (or even inaccessible - how do you know it is an incipient migraine that is making me grumpy, and I do not intend to come off as a misanthrope?)