<<

. 35
( 82 .)



>>

to send up racist stereotypes.The reading of Mysterious Island as racist requires that
we are satisfied that our best hypothesis about Verne™s intentions is that in writing
INTENTION HERMENEUTICS SUSPICION 189
AND THE OF


and composing Verne intended the character of Neb to be docile and naive. We
proceed under the supposition that Verne was not being ironic “ that Verne did
not intend us to take his writing to signal that Neb in particular is not and that
African Americans by extension are not docile, naive, childlike, and even some-
what simian. For, of course, had Verne intended irony “ had he intended that the
character be understood to be not docile and so on “ then political criticism of
Mysterious Island of the sort attempted above would be inappropriate.
In a related vein, if we want to criticize Ian Fleming for sexism because he
portrays James Bond as heroic “ not in spite of, but in part because of his treat-
ment of women as sex objects “ then we must take it that it is not the case that
Fleming intends us to regard James Bond as a complex character “ as a compound
of good and bad “ whose badness is in large measure a function of his sexual ruth-
lessness. In order to rebuke Fleming™s sexual politics, we rely on the premise that
Fleming intends to portray Bond simply as some sort of male paragon.Were we to
entertain the notion that Fleming intends the portrayal of Bond to be a mixed
one, with his sexism counting as a negative attribute, there would be, all things
remaining equal, little point in criticism.
Of course, the text or the artwork itself is a primary source for our hypotheses
about what the artist intended in writing or composing. Intentionalism does not
entail that we ransack the artist™s archives for confessions of temporally remote,
psychological episodes.Though biographical and historical information may play
a role in isolating the artist™s purposes, artworks themselves typically provide the
basis for hypothesizing with conviction that, for example,Verne meant Neb to be
sincere rather than sarcastic and that Fleming intends Bond to be a male ideal
rather than a hero also marked by troubling sexual proclivities. Without such
grounds for hypothesizing the relevant intentions and without faith in such
hypotheses, political criticism cannot get off the ground.9
Therefore, appearances notwithstanding, intentionalism is not at odds with the
hermeneutics of suspicion. Rather, it is presupposed by such criticism. Under-
standing a text or an artwork cannot but be informed and guided by our best con-
struals of the artist™s intentions. Intentionalist criticism is logically prior to the
application of a hermeneutics of suspicion. If this relation has been overlooked by
contemporary critics, the reason may be that intentionalism is in fact so very
deeply entrenched in the process of our discovery of significance in artworks that
we may forget our reliance upon it.

V. A E S T H E T I C S A N D C R I T I C I S M

As we prepare to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the American Society for
Aesthetics, many of our colleagues in neighboring disciplines think that a funeral
might be more in order. For them, aesthetics is dead, and Anglo-American philos-
ophy is seen as an obstacle to explaining art.
The point of this essay has been to argue that “ at least on one score “ the
leading tendencies in the philosophy of art and advanced criticism need not be
190 INTERPRETATION INTENTION
AND


irreconcilable. Moreover, though this brief exercise has focused narrowly on only
one controversy, its result, broadly conceived, may have wider import.
There is no reason for the relation between aesthetics and contemporary crit-
icism to deteriorate into shouting matches across a great divide.The aims of much
contemporary criticism are humane and reasonable. The philosophy of art can
serve the purposes of such criticism by clarifying its premises, thereby saving con-
temporary criticism from discarding the baby with the bathwater. Philosophy, that
is, can protect otherwise reputable critical innovations from making the sort of
extravagant commitments that tend to render them vulnerable to easy refutation
and compromise.
One of the earliest projects of Anglo-American aesthetics was meta-criticism.
In circumstances like our own in which new critical methodologies are prolifer-
ating at a geometric rate of expansion, meta-criticism is one aspect of the philos-
ophy of art whose continued practice is both urgent and useful.
At present and into the foreseeable future, a major challenge to aesthetics is to
remain open to what is humane and reasonable in evolving critical discourses.
Though our colleagues in other disciplines often fail to see it, Anglo-American
philosophy has the resources to faciltate many of their most pressing agendas,
including, most significantly, their political agendas. If Anglo-American aesthetics
began in a metacritical moment “ with the popularization of the so-called “inten-
tional fallacy” “ the future of aesthetics still has room for even more metacritical
underworkers as our critical horizons flourish in new and exciting directions.




T H E INTENTIONA L FALLACY:
DEFENDING MYSELF
In “The Intentional Fallacy: Defending Beardsley,”1 George Dickie and Kent
Wilson raise certain objections to my essay “Art, Intention, and Conversation.”2
In my essay, I attempted to defend the intentionalist interpretation of artworks.
I offered a number of arguments against anti-intentionalism, a view that I take
to hold that reference to artistic intentions and the biography of the artist are
never relevant to the interpretation of the meaning of artworks. In a more pos-
itive vein, I also argued that interpretations of artworks should be constrained by
our knowledge of the biography of the historical artist and our best hypotheses
about the artist™s actual intentions concerning the artworks in question.Thus, I
maintain that authorial intentions and biographies are relevant to the interpre-
tation of artworks.

From: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 55,3 (Summer 1997), 305“9.
THE INTENTIONAL FALLACY: DEFENDING MYSELF 191

A number of my arguments, both positive and negative, depend upon a
rough analogy with ordinary conversations. I rely on the claim that in such
conversations we typically aim at understanding the intentions of our inter-
locutors. I further argue that I see no principled reasons to suppose that things
stand differently with our “conversations” with artworks. Dickie and Wilson
challenge this supposition by arguing that I have misconstrued the nature of
ordinary conversations. Specifically, in their terminology, they maintain that
typically in conversations we are concerned with understanding the meaning
of the speaker™s utterance and not the speaker™s intended meaning. On their
view, we are only concerned with the speaker™s intended meaning in extraordi-
nary cases where some puzzle arises about the speaker™s intended meaning.
But, in the main, we are not involved in making conjectures about the speaker™s
intended meaning.Thus, they conclude that any advantage for intentionalist art
interpretation that I hope to derive from a view of our conversational interest
in the intended meaning of speakers is flawed from the outset due to my mis-
conception of conversations.
In what follows, I will respond to the charges of Dickie and Wilson in three
ways. First, I will compare the scope of their anti-intentionalism with my inten-
tionalism in the hope of showing that even if they are right concerning the nar-
row linguistic phenomena about which they theorize, their findings are largely
irrelevant to the larger issues in the intentionalist/anti-intentionalist debate in aes-
thetics. Second, I will try to demonstrate that my argument about the intentional-
ist interpretation of artworks can go through even if we grant them what they say
about conversations. And lastly, I will defend my conception of conversations
against their denial that in the course of ordinary discourse we are involved in
ascertaining the intended meanings of other speakers.

I. A QUESTION OF SCOPE

Dickie and Wilson draw a distinction between different ways in which the inten-
tional fallacy can be construed.The broader interpretation of the intentional fal-
lacy concerns whether an artist™s intention is ever relevant to the meaning of the
artwork; the narrower interpretation concerns whether the meaning an artist
intended is identical with the meaning of the artwork. Their major effort is
devoted to refuting the narrower version of the fallacy, which can also be called
the “identity thesis.” Furthermore, they claim that the debate over the identity
thesis has replaced the issues associated with the broader interpretation of the
intentional fallacy.
Since my view, as they acknowledge, pertains to the broader interpretation,
their objections to the identity thesis do not cut against my account. That is
why they raise special considerations against my position. However, before
turning to those objections, I would like to question whether Dickie and Wil-
son are correct in their assertion that nowadays the debate really concerns the
identity thesis.
192 INTERPRETATION INTENTION
AND


The identity thesis is a conjecture about the meaning of words and word
sequences, such as sentences. People like Dickie and Wilson maintain that it is
a bad theory of linguistic meaning. But as I understand the intentional fallacy,
it is not simply a debate about linguistic meaning, though linguistic meaning is
the favorite intuition pump of anti-intentionalists. Rather, the intentional fal-
lacy is a general theory of artistic interpretation, one that precludes the invoca-
tion of artistic intention whether the artwork in question is linguistic or
nonlinguistic.
Monroe Beardsley, whom Dickie and Wilson are ostensibly defending, would
appear to agree with me on this point, since he has noted transgressions of the fallacy
in nonlinguistic art forms.3 Perhaps even Dickie and Wilson might concede this
point, since on occasion they also use the language of “the meaning of the artwork.”4
But if we are talking about the meaning of artworks across the board, then the
intentional fallacy does not reduce without remainder to the denial of the identity
thesis, since in that case it would only concern one dimension of literary meaning,
namely linguistic meaning, whereas the intentional fallacy is generally thought to
apply to artistic interpretation of nonlinguistic arts “ arts other than literature “
and to nonlinguistic features of artworks “ such as characterization and plotting “
whose meaning, unlike the meaning of a word or a phrase, is not reducible to lin-
guistic meaning.
Dickie and Wilson concede that their conception of the intentional fallacy is
narrow. But they are perhaps unaware of how narrow it is, since meaning across
the arts is not reducible to linguistic meaning. Thus, even at its very best, their
denial of the identity thesis does not get them a comprehensive version of anti-
intentionalism with respect to the interpretation of artworks. Even if they were
correct about the identity thesis, it would only warrant anti-intentionalism with
respect to one kind of artistic interpretation “ namely the literary interpretation
of words and word sequences.
Against the identity thesis, Dickie and Wilson argue that linguistic conventions
rather than speaker intentions determine the meaning of utterances. But even if
they are right about this issue in the philosophy of language, this argument cannot
be extrapolated very widely across the arts. For many art forms “ most art forms?
“ do not possess anything analogous to linguistic conventions.Therefore, in inter-
preting them, we cannot be relying on linguistic conventions. For example, in the
Bournonville ballet La Sylphide, a particular step, the rond de jambe en l™ air, occurs
several times.When the sylph executes it, it is about airiness; when Effie does it, it
is about precision. The rond de jambe en l™ air, a common step in ballet, does not
have a conventional meaning.When we reflect about the meaning of the step in
its various occurrences, there are no conventional balletic meanings available for
us to invoke. Rather, it seems far more likely that as we reflect on the steps in
question, we consider what the choreographer and the dancer intend to convey
by means of them.
Similarly, in Man with a Movie Camera, when the filmmaker Dziga Vertov
intercuts shots of the activities of a Soviet cameraman with shots of the activities
THE INTENTIONAL FALLACY: DEFENDING MYSELF 193

of all sorts of other Soviet workers, we interpret these juxtapositions as promoting
the assertion that the Soviet cameraman is a worker, just like any other. However,
this interpretation cannot rely upon the conventional meaning of juxtaposition in
the cinema. Juxtaposition has no conventional meaning in film. Instead, in order
to understand the shot chain, we ask ourselves what point Vertov intends to
impart by means of these juxtapositions. Moreover, examples of this sort, where
interpretation cannot fall back upon anything remotely like conventional linguis-
tic meanings, can be endlessly duplicated across the nonlinguistic arts.5
Indeed, even in literature, it is implausible to think that all of our interpre-
tive questions revolve around conventional linguistic meaning. In Salman
Rushdie™s Satanic Verses, there are two major characters, both of them Indian,
both of them actors “ that is, people who take on different roles. And through-
out the novel they undergo astounding metaphysical transformations as well. A
central question in interpreting Satanic Verses is why Rushdie constructed char-
acters such as these “ that is, what is their point? One interpretation “ one that
could be supported by other works by Rushdie, such as The Moor™s Last Sigh “
might be that Rushdie is illustrating the postmodernist conception of personal
identity as unstable.
But be that as it may, such an interpretation cannot rely on invoking con-
ventional linguistic meaning, since there are no conventions that correlate such
characters with theses about the instability of personal identity. Rather, in
interpreting the symbolic significance of these characters, we are asking our-
selves about what Rushdie intends to communicate by means of them. More-
over, a great many interpretive questions about literature are of this sort.What
is the significance of Dickens™s employment of two narrators in Bleak House?
What does the circular plot structure in the play La Ronde portend? These
questions cannot be answered by reference to conventions, because there are
no conventional meanings in the relevant neighborhoods. Instead, we proceed
by conjecturing what the authors intend us to understand by means of these
essentially nonlinguistic devices.
Thus, the anti-intentionalism that rests on a denial of the acceptability of
the identity thesis for linguistic meaning is not a comprehensive form of aes-
thetic anti-intentionalism. For a great many questions of artistic interpretation,
such as the ones I have adduced, the form of anti-intentionalism Dickie and
Wilson defend is, at best, strictly irrelevant. Inasmuch as the debate about
intentionalism has been about and continues to pertain to a comprehensive
theory of artistic interpretation, Dickie and Wilson have failed to reinstate the
intentional fallacy across the arts. Moreover, if anti-intentionalism is under-
stood as the universal, negative proposition that art interpretation must never
advert to artistic intentions, then it is a mistake to think that the denial of the
identity thesis is a satisfactory defense of anti-intentionalism tout court. And,
furthermore, if what we seek is a more comprehensive approach to art inter-
pretation, other options, such as my own, may be more attractive than the sort
of anti-intentionalism that Dickie and Wilson appear to champion.
194 INTERPRETATION INTENTION
AND



I I . T H E N AT U R E O F I N T E R P R E TAT I O N

In “Art, Intention, and Conversation,” I argued that in everyday conversations our
goal is to understand what our fellow speakers intend by their words, and I further
argued that there are no pressing philosophical considerations that would lead us
to think that things stand otherwise with respect to artistic communication.
Dickie and Wilson reject this on the grounds that I have misunderstood what goes
on in ordinary conversations. They argue that in the standard case, we are con-
cerned with the meaning of the speaker™s utterance, not the speaker™s intended
meaning. They concede that in certain cases of utterance failures “ which may
occur, for example, when a speaker misspeaks “ and in other unusual circum-
stances, we may be concerned with the speaker™s intended meaning, but they
argue that these constitute the exception, rather than the rule. Furthermore, they
contend that my case is built on focusing on cases of misspeaking, and that this not
only misrepresents that which typically goes on in conversations, but also that it is
a rather bizarre basis on which to build a conception of our response to artworks.
Though I do not believe that I have misconstrued the nature of conversation,
in this section I will, for the purposes of argument, grant Dickie and Wilson™s alle-
gations in order to show that even if I had made the error they suggest about con-
versations, my overall position about the interpretation of artworks would remain
intact, given what they say about conversations.
The first thing to note about Dickie and Wilson™s argument is that it does con-
cede that sometimes we do have the conversational goal of understanding the
speaker™s intended meaning. Thus, they do appear to allow for some measure of
intentionalism in conversations, even if they regard it as the exception rather than
the rule. Therefore, their anti-intentionalism with respect to conversations is not
universal. Consequently, there may be some cases where my analogy between
conversations and artworks obtains.The question is, how many cases?
In examining my argument, Dickie and Wilson note that I use cases where
authors misspeak themselves in order to advance my case. And they appear to agree

<<

. 35
( 82 .)



>>