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Furthermore, White also appears to presuppose that the sole epistemic cate-
gory relevant to the assessment of historical narratives is truth “ either literal truth
construed on the model of some picture theory in which each atomic sentence
corresponds to some past fact (or facts), or to some kind of truth construed in
other terms.White then worries that whatever governs the selective structure of a
narrative may not correspond to anything in the past.Thus, the truth of that struc-
ture must be assessable in other terms, such as metaphorical accuracy.
Now if this diagnosis of White™s presuppositions is correct, it is easy to avoid
his conclusions. First of all, too much is being made of the idea of atomic sen-
tences.57 Narratives are typically written in sentences. But nothing of great
importance should hinge on this. For where the relevant narrative linkages are of
INTERPRETATION, HISTORY, NARRATIVE 155
AND


the nature of relations between background conditions, causes, effects, reasons,
choices, actions, and the like, the text can be reconstructed perspicuously in terms
of propositions that can, in turn, be straightforwardly evaluated with respect to
truth. In some cases, these reconstructions will be a matter of paraphrasing the
individual sentences in such a way as to make the relevant narrative relations
obtaining between them evident. In other cases, the sentences found in the text
will have to be expanded so as to make narrative linkages that are presupposed or
conversationally implied explicit. But paraphrases and expansions of this sort in
nowise mandate some special criteria of truth.
Undoubtedly, White might concede the preceding point, but still maintain
that it does not get at the heart of his misgivings. For even allowing the para-
phrases and expansions adverted to above, he will argue that narratives still add
something and that this added something “ the principles that guide the narrator™s
selections “ is not to be literally found in the past.To the extent that that some-
thing is a matter of linkages like causes and reasons,White™s argument is not com-
pelling. However, he is right to point out that we will assess a given narrative as a
good narrative in terms of criteria over and above the truthfulness of all its propo-
sitions even when suitably expanded and/or paraphrased. Should this drive us
toward regarding narration as fictional and as assessable as metaphor?
I think not. To be an adequate narrative, indeed to be an adequate historical
account of any sort, a candidate needs to do more than merely state the truth
(indeed, an historical account could contain only true statements and yet be
adjudged unacceptable58). It must also meet various standards of objectivity. For
example, a historical narrative should be comprehensive; it should incorporate all
those events that previous research has identified to be germane to the subject that
the historian is seeking to illuminate.59 A narrative of the outbreak of the Ameri-
can revolution that failed to recount the debates over taxation could include only
true, chronologically intelligible statements and still be regarded as an inadequate
standard. Like any other cognitive enterprise, historical narration will be assessed
in terms of rational standards that, though they are endorsed because they appear
to be reliable guides to the truth, are not reducible to the standard of truth.
Obviously, the selective procedures that historians respect in composing their nar-
ratives will be evaluated in terms of all sorts of rational standards, like comprehensive-
ness, that do not correspond to anything found in the past. However, this does not
mean that the selections and deletions in a historical narrative are divorced from lit-
eral questions of truth or falsity. For the selections and deletions are assessed in terms
of those sorts of standards that experience indicates reliably track the truth.
White™s deepest problem seems to be that he believes that truth is the only rel-
evant grounds for the epistemic assessment of historical narratives.And, since nar-
rative selectivity cannot be epistemically assessed without remainder in terms of
truth on his correspondence model, it must be assessed in terms of some other
standard of truth, such as metaphorical truth. But we can dodge this dilemma by
noting that the selections and deletions of a historical narrative are subject to
objective standards, which though not unrelated to ascertaining truth, are not
156 ART, HISTORY, NARRATIVE
AND


reducible to truth. Such standards may be considered our best means for discover-
ing the truth. Desiderata “ like comprehensiveness “ are, so to speak, truth-track-
ing.Thus, in evaluating the selections and deletions the narrative historian makes,
we need not feel that we must embrace some special standard of truth, like
metaphorical truth. Rather, our concern with historical narratives is that they be
true in the ordinary sense of truth and that our assessments of their adequacy in
terms of standards like comprehensiveness are keyed to determining truth. That
principles governing the inclusion of an event in a narrative, like comprehensive-
ness, are not reducible to the standard of truth in no way implies that the narrative
is fictional, nor that it should be understood as some kind of metaphor.This alter-
native only presents itself if one mistakenly circumscribes the options for epistem-
ically evaluating nonfiction narratives in the way White does.60
White believes that the selections and deletions in a historical narrative are to
be explained in terms of literary exigencies. Events are included or excluded with
respect to whether they can function as beginnings, middles, and ends in come-
dies, tragedies, romances, and satires. I doubt that every historical narrative falls or
must fall into one of White™s generic types, and I even doubt that historical nar-
ratives require middles, and ends, in the technical sense of closure. A historical
course of affairs may have a turning point and it may have results, but these need
not be taken to be mere literary artifacts. Similarly, White writes as though the
coherence of a historical narrative is solely a function of a literary imposition. But
events in human life very often appear coherent, unfolding in terms of causes, rea-
sons, complications, and consequences, and elucidating these relations between
actions and their background conditions need not be exercises in fiction.
White and his followers regard historical interpretation as fictional insofar as it
relies on narrative. This follows from their conviction that narrative, as such, is
fictional. However, neither the philosophical considerations nor the empirical theses
advanced in behalf of these views seem persuasive.At the very least, the reduction of
all narrative to the status of fiction seems a desperate and inevitably self-defeating way
in which to grant the literary dimension of historiography its due.
PA RT I I I : I N T E R P R E TAT I O N
AND INTENTION




A RT, INTEN T I O N , CONVERSATION
AND


I

In the normal course of affairs, when confronted with an utterance, our standard
cognitive goal is to figure out what the speaker intends to say. And, on one very
plausible theory of language, the meaning of an utterance is explicated in terms of
the speaker™s intention to reveal to an auditor that the speaker intends the auditor
to respond in a certain way.1 That is, the meaning of a particular language token is
explained by means of certain of a speaker™s intentions.
Likewise, in interpreting or explaining nonverbal behavior, we typically advert
to the agent™s intentions.This is not to say that we may not be concerned with the
unintended consequences of an action; but even in order to explain unintended
consequences, one will need a conception of the agent™s intentions. Nor is this
reliance on intention something that is relevant only to living people; historians
spend a great deal of their professional activity attempting to establish what his-
torical agents intended by their words and their deeds, with the aim of rendering
the past intelligible. Furthermore, we generally presume that they can succeed in
their attempts even with respect to authors and agents who lived long ago and
about whom the documentary record is scant.
Nevertheless, though it seems natural to interpret words and actions in terms
of authorial intention, arguments of many sorts have been advanced for nearly
fifty years to deny the relevance of authorial intention to the interpretation of
works of art in general and to works of literature in particular. Call this anti-inten-
tionalism. Whereas ordinarily we interpret for intentions, anti-intentionalism
maintains that art and literature either cannot or should not be treated in this way,
Likewise, where characteristically we may use what we know of a person “ her
biography, if you will “ to supply clues to, or, at least, constraints on our hypothe-
ses about her meanings,2 many theorists of art and literature regard reference to an
author™s biography as either illegitimate or superfluous.
The realm of art and literature, on the anti-intentionalist view, is or should be
sufficiently different from other domains of human intercourse so that the differ-

From: Intention and Interpretation, ed. by Gary Iseminger (Philadelphia: Temple University Press,
1992), 97“131.

1 57
158 INTERPRETATION INTENTION
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ence mandates a different form of interpretation, one in which authorial intent is
irrelevant. In this essay, I scrutinize some of the grounds for drawing distinctions
between art and life that advance the thought that authorial intent is irrelevant;
and, in contrast, I also try to suggest some hitherto neglected continuities between
art and life that might motivate a concern for authorial intention in the interpre-
tation of art and literature.

II

Historically speaking, anti-intentionalism, under the title of “the intentional fal-
lacy,”3 arose in a context in which biographical criticism flourished “ that is, the
interpretation of such things as novels as allegories of their authors™ lives. Authors
were geniuses whose remarkable personalities we came to know and appreciate all
the more by treating their fictions as oblique biographies.4 Undoubtedly, this sort
of criticism promoted distorted interpretations “ as any intentionalist would
agree, insofar as it is not likely that Kafka intended to speak of his father in writ-
ing The Metamorphosis. But in banishing all reference to authorial intention, to
authorial reports of intention, and to the author™s biography,5 anti-intentionalism
was an exercise in overkill.That is, in performing the useful service of disposing of
what might be better called “the biographer™s fallacy,” anti-intentionalists
embraced a number of philosophical commitments that went far beyond their
own purposes, as well as beyond plausibility.
Indeed, anti-intentionalism is often promoted as a means for rejecting critical
practices that most of us would agree are misguided. It is generally unclear, how-
ever, whether one has to go all the way to anti-intentionalism in order to avoid
the errors in question.
For example, anti-intentionalism was advocated as a principle that could dis-
pense with taking outlandish authorial pronouncements seriously. Monroe Beard-
sley writes “if a sculptor tells us that his statue was intended to be smooth and
blue, but our senses tell us it is rough and pink, we go by our senses.”6 This exam-
ple is meant to serve as an “intuition-pump”;7 if we agree that a sculptor cannot
make a pink statue blue by reporting that it was his intention to make a blue
sculpture, then it must be the case that we regard such intentions “ and such
reports of intention “ as irrelevant.
This solution to the case is too hasty, however, and the example need not force
the intentionalist into anti-intentionalism. For with cases in which the authorial
pronouncement is so arbitrary, we may discount it, not because we think that
authorial intentions are irrelevant, but because we think that the report is insin-
cere.That is, we do not believe that the sculptor in Beardsley™s example really had
the intention of making a blue statue by painting it pink.
Intentions are constituted, in part, of beliefs, on Beardsley™s own view,8 and we
can resist attributing the belief to an artist that one makes something blue by
painting it pink. We need not resort to the hypothesis of anti-intentionalism in
such a case, but can instead suspect that the artist was putting us on, perhaps for
ART, INTENTION, CONVERSATION 159
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the purpose of notoriety. That is, competent language users, especially trained
artists, are presumed to know the difference between blue and pink. Flouting this
distinction leads to the suspicion of irony.
For an actual literary example of the sort of problem that Beardsley has in
mind, we could consider Andrew Greeley™s sensational novel Ascent into Hell. Like
many of Greeley™s works, this story is a titillating tale of Catholic priests and sex, a
kind of soft-core pornography, spiced with religious taboos. Greeley, however, has
a note preceding the text of the novel entitled “Passover,” in which he offers a
symbolic reading of that ceremony, thereby perhaps insinuating that we should
take the text of Ascent into Hell as an allegory of Passover.
Needless to say, it is difficult to regard the sexual escapades in the book as a
serious Passover allegory. But the intentionalist is not forced to accept Greeley™s
implied intention at face value. One can simply, on the basis of the novel, note
that Greeley could not genuinely have the belief that it could be read as that
allegory, nor would he have written the text as he did if he had the desire “
another component of intentions on Beardsley™s view9 “ to render a modern-
day Passover theme. In fact, one may hypothesize that Greeley included the red
herring about Passover in order to reassure his Catholic readership that his
book was not irreligious.
But, in any event, the intentionalist can reject the “Passover” interpretation of
Ascent to Hell in the face of Greeley™s implied intentions by denying that it is plausi-
ble to accept the authenticity of Greeley™s ostensible intent. Thus, the problem of
aberrant authorial pronouncements need not drive us toward anti-intentionalism.10
Another frequent intuition-pump, employed in early arguments against inten-
tionalism, argues that commending poems insofar as they realize authorial inten-
tions is usually circular. For in many (most?) instances, including those of
Shakespeare and Homer, we have no evidence of authorial intention other than
their poems. Consequently, if we commend such a poem on the basis of its real-
ization of intentions, and our sole evidence for that intention is the poem itself,
then our commendation is tantamount to the assertion that the poem succeeds
because it is the way it is because it is the way it is.
We cannot, in these instances, have grounds for discerning failed authorial
intentions because the way the artwork is provides our only access to the inten-
tion. If it appears muddled, then that is evidence that the artist intended it to be
muddled and, therefore, that it succeeded in realizing his intention.That is, com-
mending works of art for realizing authorial intentions when the way work is is
our only evidence of intentions threatens to force us to the counterintuitive con-
clusion that all works of art are commendable.11
The unwarranted presupposition here, of course, is that the artwork cannot
provide evidence of failed intentions. In the introduction to his The Structure of
Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn writes at one point that “having been weaned
on these distinctions [the “context of discovery” versus “context of justification”]
and others like them, I could scarcely be more aware of their import and force.”12
Clearly, any alert reader will note that Kuhn has said the opposite of what he
160 INTERPRETATION INTENTION
AND


meant to say. He intended to communicate that he had been nurtured on these dis-
tinctions, and not that he had been weaned on them.13
The text itself, in terms of the entire direction of what is being said, makes evi-
dent what Kuhn has in mind. Also, we know that the confusion over the dictio-
nary meaning of weaned, like the meanings of such words as fulsome and sleek, is
quite common among contemporary English speakers; so it is easy to recognize
that Kuhn should not have written what he, in fact, wrote, given his intentions.
From the text itself and our knowledge of language usage, we can infer that the
sentence failed to realize Kuhn™s intentions and that, from his own viewpoint, it is
not a great sentence. And, similarly, with artworks “ given their genre, their style,
their historical context, and their overall aesthetic direction “ one can say by look-
ing at a given work that the author™s intention has misfired, whether or not we go
on to commend or criticize it.
Undoubtedly, as the preceding discussion indicates, one of the deepest com-
mitments of early anti-intentionalism was the notion that authorial intention is
somehow outside the artwork and that attempts to invoke it on the basis of the art-
work itself are epistemologically suspect. Underlying this view is a conception of
authorial intentions as private, episodic mental events that are logically indepen-
dent of the artworks they give rise to in the way that Humean causes are logically
independent of effects.What we have access to, in general, for purposes of evalua-
tion and interpretation is the work itself. The authorial intention is an external
cause of the artwork of dubious availability.
However, this view of authorial intention gradually came to be challenged by
another view “ call it the neo-Wittgensteinian view14 “ according to which an
intention is thought to be a purpose, manifest in the artwork, that regulates the
way the artwork is.Authorial intention, then, is discoverable by the inspection and
contemplation of the work itself.15 Indeed, the artwork is criterial to attributions
of intention.
Searching for authorial intention is, consequently, not a matter of going out-
side the artwork, looking for some independent, private, mental episode or cause
that is logically remote from the meaning or value of the work.The intention is
evident in the work itself, and, insofar as the intention is identified as the purpo-

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