Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Intention: What Did He Know, and When Did He Know It?

I'm a bit surprised by how interested in authorial intentionality people are; I posted "Intentionally Omitted" primarily to clarify what Drout, Hodges and I were dancing around for the One Ringers. The comments have been interesting, especially as a window into how minds work when they are grappling with intentionality.

I wanted to address the issues raised by Chris of Nihil Fit in one of his comments. Chris wrote:

Although it may be the case that it is difficult to determine the author's intent, it does not follow that such a project is impossible, nor does it follow that the author's intent is irrelevant (a strong claim probably not intended by Nokes). Can't we infer something about intent from examining the original context/audience?

First off, let's give Chris points for cleverness in questioning what I "intended" in my post -- he made me laugh harder than anyone else that day. I do think, however, that the intent of the author is almost irrelevant -- i.e., it can tell us a few things about meaning, but those things are not extraordinarily important (more about this in a bit).

I find that, in general, epistemological concerns often result in unwarranted skepticism and even worse, metaphysical conclusions. [...] Just because we can't have Cartesian certainty about a matter doesn't mean there is no truth about that matter. We should apporach each work on a case-by-sace basis, asking what we can discern about intent, rather than embracing a paradigm that dismisses such concerns altogether.

My first post primarily dealt with epistemology and intention (for those of you playing at home, epistemology is the theory or study of knowledge -- basically how we know things). Chris is right to protest that Cartesian uncertainty tells us little about whether or not a matter is true (plus, as a medievalist, I'm not particularly beholden to de Cartes anyway).

Let's grant, though, Cartesian certainty. Let's say that scientists at MIT have come up with an Intention-o-meter (patent pending) that is able to detect and measure authorial intention to an exactness of four decimal points. We have absolute Cartesian, epistemological certainty, right?

Well, not really, because our Intention-o-meter (patent still pending) only tells us what the author intended -- it does not follow that the author's intention determines meaning for a text. In other words, even if I know EXACTLY why the author of Gilgamesh decided to make him 2/3 god and 1/3 man instead of some other fraction, it probably doesn't affect the meaning of the text significantly. I take from it the idea that Gilgamesh was more god than man, regardless.

Let me give you another example. The other day one of my colleagues was telling the tale of a freshman essay he received, describing a child afflicted with "Attention Defecate Disorder" [sic].
Now, I can state with reasonable certainty that the author intended to write "Attention Deficit Disorder," and simply made an error. OK, so why did I laugh why my colleague told me? Why did you laugh when you read it?

Because we recognize that meaning is not held in the author's intentions. The meaning of the text is that the child has some sort of bizarre disorder, perhaps an inordinate interest in scatology. If we challenge the writer, she's probably argue, "Yes, but what I meant to say was...", conflating the idea of meaning with intention. If meaning were actually held in intention, though, the phrase "Attention Defecate Disorder" wouldn't be funny; it would just be a spelling error. We laugh because intention and meaning are radically disconnected.

Of course, intention is not always completely irrelevant. I assume my colleague wrote a wry comment next to the error and proceeded as if the paper had expressed the idea correctly. Manuscript study relies often on figuring out scribal intentions by using errors in the copying of texts to determine a manuscript's geneology. Still, when we edit a text we often correct it -- the very act of correction implying that the meaning of the text can be disconnected from the author's intention.

Rather than belabor the point any further, let me simply offer an example of two very similar texts: Frankenstein and Dracula (the books, not movies). Frankenstein works best when Shelley know exactly what she is doing; Dracula works best when Stoker loses control of what he is doing and lets his anxieties take over.


  1. I cannot add to this discussion from an academic perspective, but from a poetic one. The 'kiss of death' for poetic education is when misguided teachers drone on and on about what the poet intended in a poem.

    Even if the poet leaves us his or her exact concious intensions in a treatise on a particular poem, I contend that the information is irrelevant.

    There are several reasons for this. One--our unconscious mind is sneaky. It seems to find a way to express itself regardless of what we *think* we intend. I often review my own old writing and find themes and issues in them I know I didn't 'intend' to include. Two--the important question (at least in poetry and perhaps in other literature as well) to ask is not what the poet indended, but what the reader understands. Poetry is at its heart an act of construction that takes place between poet and reader.

    best regards,

  2. I think a century or two of literary scholarship has passed me by. I'm just not as familiar as I could be with the arguments for such a position. Consequently, I don't find your responses entirely satisfying or persuasive. All that follows from your counter examples (including Cohen's) is that there are some cases where intent is obscured or insignificant.

    I would disagree with the ADD example. What makes that funny is the contrast between what she wrote and what she intended. It would be funny in an entirely different way if she intended to write "defecate," assuming the context would also be different (otherwise it wouldn't make sense). I understand, though, that the sentence didn't mean what the author intended it to mean.

    This discussion raises a question for me. Do you draw a distinction between literary/artistic intent and ordinary, everyday communication intent? Certainly intent is critical in the latter case. I'm sure you can explain how they are different.

  3. Chris,

    You wrote:

    "All that follows from your counter examples (including Cohen's) is that there are some cases where intent is obscured or insignificant."

    Can you name any important literary work in which intent (as you define it in an earlier comment, "intent when this work was written") is not obscured but is significant?

    I can't think of a single one.

  4. Professor,

    I am not certain as to whether you are advocating some sort of variation of "reader response" theory or a defence of serious textual study. (This is not to say that reader response isn't serious, but Fish's example of the book list as poem is a bit ridiculous in my opinion.)

    I say this because your initial comments regarding authorial intention seem to include the possiblity of subconscious intentions, which I find to be a perfectly valid observation. One does, after all, often write arguments that one didn't initially intend, but later find are in fact one's own opinions. From personal experience, I have written a number of papers where the arguments I have made in support of a thesis (which were later quoted to me approvingly by professors) were things I thought astute, but had no memory of consciously drafting. This is even after my normal writing routine (with papers not blogs) of draft, read, rewrite, synthesis, edit.

    I think your almost too brief comments regarding Frankenstein vs. Dracula bring to the fore an interesting example, but I also think that the subjects themselves lead to the resulting analysis.

    What I mean by this is that while both works deal with horror, that personal dread caused by the unknown, they stem from different sources. Frankenstein is an expression of fear regarding the rational and scientific, something that is best critiqued or understood from a controlled methodology. Dracula contains some criticism of the scientific, but it is largely fear of the supernatural which need the author to draw more from the subconscious dread. Not to mention the nature of Dracula's narrative structure requiring the author to "let go" merely to be plausible.

    All that being said...as a student of philosophy (who is writing to a "modern" medievalist -- I say this because your study of rhetoric is more modern than classic, at least in application, though who obviously values both modern and classical methodology), I find that both what the author actually wrote, and not just what I think he or she wrote, is of primary importance in studying the argument of a text. What the author intended is significant primarily for a critique of the argument. Unless, of course, one is trying to determine what purpose Cicero might have in using young men who died in the Civil Wars of Rome in his dialogues regarding just ends. Authors choose characters consciously and we do the argument of the work a disservice if we ignore the intentionality of such choices.

    All that being said, many make too much of every choice an author makes. New Critics obsessed about the meaning of the "Light" in Gatsby while ignoring that the only book Gatsby read was the Autobiography of Ben Franklin. I don't know if the light had meaning for the author, but I know that the Autobiography has meaning for the text.

    Needless to say, I always enjoy your discussions regarding scholarship as you write so that the layperson can understand the often arcane arguments in which English professors can find themselves.

  5. I may simply be out of my league here, but I'll give it a shot. If by "obscured" we mean "somewhat difficult to determine," then it is a relatively quotidian claim. If, however, we mean that intent is nearly impossible to discern, then I think that is too strong a claim. Every sentence seems pregnant with intent. How could it be otherwise? Isn't that simply a necessary feature of communication? My understanding of literature may just be naive.

    As for significance, how about the Bible?

  6. Chris,

    I'm not really sure how to take your implicit claim to know the mind of God. Given the nature of your site, I'll assume it was a joke or slip of the keyboard.

    Aside from theological questions about whether Man can know the intent of God at the time of composition of the Bible, you've actually stumbled onto one of the other practical problems of intent with this comment:

    "Every sentence seems pregnant with intent. How could it be otherwise? Isn't that simply a necessary feature of communication?"

    Here you have actually moved AWAY from intent, not toward it, by creating a very tight circle of evidence. You are simultaneously attempting to claim to know the meaning of the text from the author's intent, and the author's intent from the meaning of the text.

    When you begin to look at the text itself, you move away from authorial intention into a whole realm of other theoretical approaches (the most famous of which is New Criticism, which hasn't been new for many decades).

    Perhaps the problem is that you are thinking specifically about the Bible, which is a text that most read for the express purpose of figuring out the Author's intent in our extremely limited capacity.

    By the way, we do have a couple of places in the Bible where the Author informs us of intention directly (though, since we have it through the text, some might argue this too cannot be intentionalism), the most famous of which is Jesus's explanation of what He meant by the Parable of the Sower (Matt 13:18-23).

  7. Anonymous10:17 AM

    What I have actually said has a quality of having meaning - however, whatever I meant to say cannot ever have meaning (i.e. it is fully impossible that the 'intention quality', if one is said to exist, of what I have said, will have meaning)

    It makes sense to me anyway......

  8. I must concede to a superior opponent. It's clear I don't understand the issues at stake here. I've picked up a few tidbits from your posts, but perhaps you could recommend a book on the sbject.

    I intended to highlight the Bible as a work in which the author's intent is significant without suggesting anything about how accessible that intent is. From re-reading your comment, however, I see you wanted an example of both.

    One last thing -- surely you must at least admit the irony of your comment: "I'm not really sure how to take your implicit claim to know the mind of God. Given the nature of your site, I'll assume it was a joke or slip of the keyboard." (emphasis mine) Does it matter what I intended?

  9. Chris,

    I didn't know we were opponents -- I should have brought out the dueling pistols.

    In answer to your question, "does it matter what I intended?" -- for the meaning of the sentence, no ... but for the state of your soul, it might have been!

    Anyway, as a student of the Bible interested in the Author, you would probably be more interested in textual scholarship than intentionalism. Textual scholarship deals with issues of the material text, such as trying to determine from existing scrolls/manuscripts what the original said, dealing with issues of translation, making editorial decisions, etc.

    When I see the concerns you've raised about intention, they lead me to believe that the main reason you are still interested in intention as an approach is that you haven't been properly introduced to textual scholarship. It's right up your alley. The standard introductory text is D.C. Greetham's *Textual Scholarship: An Introduction*, though you might find it too technical.

    A lot of modernists like Jerome McGann's *A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism* too, which you may find more accessible. I'm not a big fan of McGann, but if Greetham is too foreboding he might be easier.

  10. We're friendly opponents, no pistols needed. I have a very elementary grasp of textual schorlarship/criticism. I find these important, but interpretation of the text is my primary concern.

    Are you familiar with E.D. Hirsch? I understand that he defends authorial intent as an important element in interpretation. How is he viewed by the literary world?

    Honestly, I am troubled by this issue. As a Christian (I hope this doesn't disqualify me as an intellectual), I'm not sure that I can harmonize the kind of relativism that results from your methodology with the idea of objective truth. There is no question in my mind that authorial intent is the preeminent consideration in biblical interpretation, but I don't want to simply sequester the Bible off as a special case.

    I'm sorry to drag out this discussion -- perhaps I'll post something on my site. I sincerely appreciate your comments and have found them quite helpful. I'll have to put those books on my wish list.