[Milton-L] Should an Author's Intentions Matter?

Harold Skulsky hskulsky at smith.edu
Sat Apr 4 18:07:25 EDT 2015

*Your March debate on intentionalism got my writing itch going, but I was
chained to a mountain of undergraduate papers, and had to postpone the
scratching. My contribution comes late, possibly too late to be of use, but
here it is for what it's worth.*

*The question before the house is "Should an author's intentions matter?" *

*Unfortunately, as it stands, the question isn't serious; not serious, that
is, unless the earnest pursuit of a wild goose is a serious pursuit. A
serious question bears its seriousness on its face by being precise--at
least precise enough to contain the germ of its own answer; the more
precise we make a question (as mathematians like to tell us), the closer it
gets to being the answer.  To the question before the house, by contrast,
counter-questions are answer enough and, for ordinary purposes, more than
such questions deserve. The relevant counter-questions: "The author's
intentions to do what?" "Matter how and to whom?" *

*In what follows, I will take these in order, following my rule for
seriousness by trying to fill in "what" in the former case, and "how," and
"whom" in the latter.*

*Consider the two components of the most familiar and popular solution for
the unknown in "author's intention to do what?": *

 *(1) convey a particular meaning to the author's target audience *

* (2) induce a particular response to (1) in the author's target audience*

*To invoke the usual jargon, (1) covers both the locutionary meaning and
the illocutionary force of the text, (2) covers the perlocutionary force of
the text. In what follows I will take it as given that a text is a kind of
speech act, delivered in circumstances relevant to its meaning and force.
Needless to say, I reserve the right to reply to challengers of this

*Speakers and authors are known to waffle, for a variety of reasons. So
intention (1) and intention (2) each turns out to need further unpacking: *

*(1a) convey an unambiguous literal text meaning to the author's target

*(1b) convey an unambiguous figurative text meaning to the author's target

*(1c) convey an ambiguous text meaning to the author's target audience, an
ambiguity subject to a resolution (if any) that meets the culturally
defined test for viability*

*(1d) convey an ambiguous text meaning to the author's target audience, an
ambiguity subject to an open-ended set of resolutions *

*(2a) induce a particular response to an unambiguous literal text meaning*

*(2b) induce a particular response to an unambiguous figurative text

*(2c) induce an optional response to an ambiguous text meaning, an
ambiguity subject to the resolution (if any) that meets the culturally
defined test for viability*

*(2d) induce an optional response to an ambiguous text meaning, an
ambiguity subject to open-ended set of resolutions *

*At this stage, two expressions in John Leonard's otherwise clear and
plausible summary of Wimsatt's anti-intentionalism (a negative answer to
the question before the house) invite an objection that can't be passed
over in silence if I'm to have a decent chance of filling in the "what" in
"author's intention to do what?" (I have no time to check whether the
original invites the same objection). John's summary: "**Either the
intention had been fulfilled in the text, in which case there was no need
to look beyond the text to an intention that was right there in the text,
or it had not, in which case there was no need to look beyond the text to
an intention that had never materialized" (emphasis mine). The objection:
it's hard to see what it would be for an author to succeed in fulfilling
his intention to communicate a meaning via his text--the upshot of my
gap-filling exercise above--if he's supposed to fulfill it by causing the
intention (a mental state of his)  to "materialize" or show up "right there
in the text"--that is, by literally inserting the intention in the text
along with the intended meaning. It seems both clearer and more plausible
(if less striking) to avoid metaphor, and say that the author realizes his
intention just by managing to say what he means--that is, by using words
that express his intended meaning. In a word, the intention fulfilled in
the text is nowhere to be found "right there in the text" (except by
courtesy of a metaphor); for those who need to know the author's intention
in its own right and for its own sake, whether fulfilled or not, there will
indeed, pace Wimsatt, be "a need to look beyond the text." *

*A text, like any other utterance, complies with the meaning rules and
syntax rules of a language, as well as with so-called pragmatic meaning
rules that take the audience from ambiguities to a resolution, if available
(see 1(c)); or that take the audience from literal anomaly to figurative
coherence. There's no mystery about how text meaning arises. Rule
compliance (intentional or inadvertent) is how--compliance with mutually
agreed-on rules of communication. Compliance with rules (rules of rhetoric
this time) also lets an author succeed in fulfilling the second class of
intentions (2a-d above)--intentions to elicit particular responses to
intended meaning. *

*But for current purposes rules of rhetoric will have to take care of
themselves, and so will the legion of doubts from experts like W.V. Quine
and Hilary Putnam and Donald Davidson (let alone dilettantes like Derrida
and Fish) about whether the idea of linguistic meaning, and the distinction
between literal and figurative meaning, are coherent. On to the question
before the house, "Should an author's intentions matter?" **Is it in our
moral or practical interest to make sure of what authors mean, even if our
usual M.O., for many good reasons, is to go by what they say? *

*As I warned earlier, I'm taking it as given that a text is a kind of
speech act, delivered in circumstances relevant to its meaning and force. **On
this view, works of literature are constituted by their actual meaning and
force in the system of communication in which they are
written--constituted, that is, by what authors succeed in saying, whether
or not they meant to say it. So far Wimsatt is right; for purposes of
interpreting and appreciating literary texts, abortive authorial intentions
(including pentimenti) don't matter. *

*But to a man with a hammer, every problem is a nail; Wimsatt the literary
critic and  theorist, to repeat, is wrong to take it for granted that there
is never a need to look beyond a text, even a literary text, for evidence
of what the author meant but failed to say. Sometimes we are duty bound to
give decisive weight to what some authors--commanding officers, Framers of
the Constitution--ascertainably meant but failed to say. And sometimes we
have no choice but to rely on the urgently needed advice or commands of
people--surgeons, doctors, income tax consultants--who are more likely than
we are to know the right thing to do. In such cases, what authors meant by
what they failed to say will matter to somebody who needs to look beyond
the text, and whose need may not unimaginably rise to a question of life or

On Sat, Mar 21, 2015 at 4:02 PM, Hugh Richmond <hmr at berkeley.edu> wrote:

>  I had thought that hunt for heretics subscribing to the Intentionalist
> Fallacy terminated in the last century with the discrediting of Freud’s
> theories. The either/or argument about meaningful/meaningless text in
> itself assumes we can master any text without assistance. However,
> anonymous texts, without explicit clues to an author’s intentions have
> always proved difficult to understand and appreciate, witness Beowulf and
> Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The author’s character and intent are
> always useful if not necessarily absolute factors in interpretation.
> The idea that readers’ anachronistic interpretations pre-empt authorial
> intentions is convincingly ridiculed by the other critic, Zoë Heller, on
> the same NYT Review page (March 10, 2015), since it permits
> misrepresentations like the willful belief that Satan is the hero of
> Paradise Lost – which merely shows how naive the Romantics were in falling
> prey to the false attractions Milton skillfully (and surely deliberately)
> attributed to his devil, without their grasping of his larger goal of
> showing how modern human sensibility was achieved by transcending that
> error. The true hero of PL is Eve who surpasses Satan in sharing his
> initiatives in resenting subordination then extricating herself from their
> disastrous effects on her marriage by prefiguring the self-sacrifice of the
> Son.
>  Personally, in connection with the idea of authorial unintended,
> unconscious  achievement, I find that the Subconscious as a creative
> resource is an undemonstrable myth, though I do believe in repression,
> intuition, and instinct – all of which are definable parts of human
> awareness that are readily accessible to honest inquiry. If conscious
> intentions were meaningless human activity would be chaotic and
> interpretation unlimited, which of course explains the ridiculousness of a
> lot of modern affective criticism including much of Presentism. All that is
> required for efficient motive analysis is competent self-awareness, the
> attaining of which Milton carefully explores in Paradise Regained and
> Samson Agonistes. Self -projection into the interpretation of a text merely
> avoids the instructional potential of literary study of recognizing
> alternative awareness to one’s own, which is its prime justification.
> Incidentally Dante’s Fourfold Way shows that medieval allegory was totally
> intentional at all levels, witness the efficient structure of the Divine
> Comedy and Botticelli’s Spring, in all levels of meaning.With best wishes,
> Hugh Richmond
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