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the most plausible author of the text, according to the interpretive protocols of
hypothetical intentionalism, in order to explain why the text has the features it
has.This author-construction, the postulated author “ a sort of theoretical entity
“ is the object of criticism, not the actual writer who composed the text. But it
is difficult to see how this theoretical construct could really explain the features
of a text, since this theoretical construct could not have causally influenced the
text in any way.11
Of course, if the postulated author is to be understood as some kind of theo-
retical entity or construction, then it is important to remember that theoretical
entities in science are designed to approximate real processes, not hypothetical
processes.That is, they are hypotheses about actual processes, not hypotheses about
hypothetical processes “ otherwise, they would not possess genuine explanatory
power. And, given this, in science we ultimately prefer the truth to postulations
that are merely well warranted. Similarly, with respect to interpretation, parity of
reasoning would suggest that this is why true characterizations of authorial
processes should trump postulated authorial processes.
So far we have been exploring the modest actual intentionalist™s reservations
about hypothetical intentionalism. But now let us return to the hypothetical
intentionalist™s objections to modest actual intentionalism.As you may recall, they
are two in number.The first charges that modest actual intentionalism has no way
to deal with the fact that sometimes authors fail to realize their intentions through
their texts. But though this may be an apt criticism of extreme forms of actual
intentionalism, it is not a fair criticism of modest actual intentionalism.
For the modest actual intentionalist acknowledges that authors may fail to
realize their intentions; this occurs when the authors fail to produce texts that
support their intentions. Where the author wrote “green,” but intended “black,”
the modest actual intentionalist will not say the text means black, since for the
modest actual intentionalist meaning is not simply a function of what the author
intended, but must also be supported by what the text says.
The second objection that the hypothetical intentionalist makes concerning
modest actual intentionalism is doubly important, since it not only raises a poten-
tial problem for modest actual intentionalism but, in addition, suggests a way of
deflecting many of the reservations that we have already expressed about hypo-
thetical intentionalism. Many of our criticisms have been based on the observa-
tion that the methodology of hypothetical intentionalism seems on a continuum
with the methodology of everyday interpretation and, consequently, that the
hypothetical intentionalist, like the ordinary interpreter, should prefer the discov-
ery of the author™s actual intention (where that is consistent with the text) over
our best-warranted hypothesis about it (i.e., should the author™s intention and the
one isolated by the hypothetical intentionalist diverge).
But the hypothetical intentionalist responds that this is not the case, since the
aims of literary interpretation are different in crucial ways from the aims of every-
day interpretation. Thus, the modest actual intentionalist is wrong when he
advances his cause by invoking a continuum between ordinary interpretation, on
THE DEBATE HYPOTHETICAL ACTUAL INTENTIONALISM 207
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the one hand, and literary and artistic interpretation, on the other hand; and
wrong again when he says an interpreter should prefer statements of genuine
authorial intention to the best hypotheses of authorial intent. For given the nature
of our literary practices “ given their special interests “ the hypothetical inten-
tionalist claims that well-warranted hypotheses, derived without the benefit of
authorial avowals, are, in fact, what we really care about with respect to literary
communication.
For example, Jerrold Levinson writes:
I agree that when an author proffers a text as literature to a literary audi-
ence, just as when he or she speaks to others in the ordinary setting, the
author is entering a public language game, a communicative arena, but I
suggest that it is one with different aims and understandings from those
that apply in normal, one-on-one, or even many-on-many, conversational
settings. Although in informative discourse we rightly look for intended
meaning first, foremost and hindmost, in literary art we are licensed, if I am
right, to consider what meanings the verbal text before us, viewed in con-
text, could be being used to convey, and then to form, if we can, in accord
with the practice of literary communication to which both author and
reader have implicitly subscribed, our best hypothesis of what it is being
used to convey, ultimately identifying that with the meaning of the work.
What distinguishes our forming that hypothesis in regard to a literary
work, as opposed to a piece of conversation, is that we do so for its own
sake, the contextually embedded vehicle of meaning in literature being
indispensable, not something to be bypassed in favor of more direct access
to personal meaning when or if that is available.12
That is, literary communication is a different language game than ordinary con-
versation, and whereas actual authorial intentions are preferred over the best
hypotheses thereof in the latter, in the former we are only interested in the most
plausible attribution of authorial intention. Why? Well, that™s the nature of the
game. (One wonders, however, why the debate over intentionalism is so intense if
the rules of the game are supposedly so clear-cut).
Here the hypothetical intentionalist seems to me to be making some
extremely substantial empirical claims about the nature of our literary practices.
And I, at least, am not convinced that the evidence will bear out these claims. Lit-
erary reviewers give every appearance that they are concerned with the author™s
actual intention, not just the best-warranted hypothesis thereof. For instance,
when Peter Kurth asserts,“Writing is an act of the will, she [Chu Tien-Wien] says
“ and, in the end, will is the only trick we have left in our bags,” I take him to be
claiming that this is what she actually meant, not that this is the best available
hypothesis.13 That at least is what he says. If he is questioned about it, I conjecture
that Kurth would predict that Chu Tien-Wien would assent to his interpretation,
and that he would be willing to revise it if she said she had something else in mind
(so long as the text supported it).
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The hypothetical intentionalist cannot say that Kurth prefers hypothesized
intentions over actual intentions on the grounds that Kurth has not consulted the
author, relying only on text and context for his interpretation, since that is gener-
ally the way of identifying actual intentions. Moreover, his writing, like the writ-
ing of the vast majority of reviewers, gives no indication that he is making an
assertion about the postulated author or the most plausible hypothesis about
authorial intention; rather, he appears to be making a clear-cut assertion about
actual authorial intent, one that he probably thinks could be verified.
Likewise, when ordinary readers discuss the meaning of novels, they too
appear to be making assertions of actual authorial intent.They, like the reviewers,
seem to be unaware of the implicit rules of literary communication as alleged to
hold sway by the hypothetical intentionalist. But if most are not playing by such
“implicit rules,” perhaps there are no such rules.
The hypothetical intentionalist may respond that at best I have offered a
hypothesis about the behavior of reviewers or ordinary readers. In effect, I have
just moved the battle lines back a little “ from a debate about authorial intention
to a debate about the intentions of literary reviewers and ordinary readers. How-
ever, since the rules of ordinary conversation should apply to the pronouncements
of literary reviewers and other readers, we should perhaps be willing to poll them
about whether they intend to be speaking about hypothesized authors or inten-
tions, or are aiming at and prefer actual intentions.
Of course, among academic critics there are theoretical positions, like New
Criticism and poststructuralism, that eschew the pursuit of actual authorial inten-
tions. But the New Critics and poststructuralists should offer no comfort to hypo-
thetical intentionalists, since they are anti-intentionalists, not hypothetical
intentionalists. Nor does it seem to me that our best evidence for the nature of
our literary practices should be critics with robust theories of the practice. That
they practice their own methods consistently does not demonstrate that they
serve as models of the practice, especially since their methodologies, outside the
circle of the converted, are generally regarded as revisionist.
Furthermore, even within the precincts of academic interpretation it is not clear
that the hypothetical intentionalist™s implicit social contract reigns. Recent debates
about the interpretation of the work of Willa Cather rage over the actual Willa
Cather, not some postulated author, and over what she actually, albeit unconsciously,
intended. One side claims that she expressed conflicted lesbian desires, solidarity with
women, and rebelliousness against the Nebraskan patriarchy.14 The other side rejects
this on biographical grounds.15 Both sides show every evidence that they are talking
about the real Willa Cather, not a theoretical entity. Furthermore, both sides appeal to
paraphrases of Cather™s private correspondence.16
Moreover, as this example reminds us, much criticism today, as well as much
criticism from yesteryear, involves a moral and/or a political dimension. Authors
are praised and blamed for the ethical import of their work. But surely if this
moral criticism is serious, it must be directed at the actual author, not the postu-
lated author, and at what she said, not what she could be taken to have said. And
THE DEBATE HYPOTHETICAL ACTUAL INTENTIONALISM 209
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since much literary and artistic interpretation comes in tandem with moral evalu-
ation, it is hard to believe that our literary practices, as a matter of fact, always
value mere hypotheses about intent over determinations of actual intent, when
actual intent can be confirmed.
It may be true that readers are often satisfied with well-warranted hypotheses
of intention, but that is only because their default assumption is that these inter-
pretations are successful. There is no reason to suppose that they will not revise
their thinking if they learn, perhaps through the discovery of notebooks, that the
best-warranted hypothesis (one that rejects recourse to things like notebooks)
failed to identify the relevant authorial intention correctly.
Suppose, for example, that we learn, through the discovery of heretofore hid-
den personal correspondence, that Jonathan Swift really despised the Irish and
that, in addition, he had a secret passion for the taste of human flesh. Suppose, as
well, he reports the pleasure he has derived from tricking do-gooders into
applauding his sincere proposal about eating Irish children as irony. Finally, sup-
pose that this evidence is so compelling that it overturns all the other evidence
about Swift™s opinions found in his publicly available biography. Would we con-
tinue to treat his “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of the Poor
People of Ireland from Being a Burden to their Parents or Country, and for Mak-
ing Them Beneficial to the Public” as an example of irony?
I suspect not “ partly due to the fact that our imputations of irony to the essay
in the first place were primarily based on our beliefs about his actual biography
(which we would now understand in a new light) and partly due to the fact that
we would not wish to commend Swift for his opposition to prejudice if it turns
out that he is really, rather, an example of that very prejudice. But if this conjecture
is correct, then that suggests, with respect to our actual practices of literary inter-
pretation, that we do not always value well-warranted hypotheses about authorial
intentions over actually establishable intentions.
Indeed, there may be occasions when audiences expressly desire reports of
authorial intention in order to solve their interpretive quandaries. I remember
that after the film Stand by Me was released in 1986, a question arose among film
buffs over the meaning of the last few frames of the film.According to the fiction,
the film was being narrated to us by a writer composing his story of a traumatic
childhood event on a personal computer. After the story was told, he turned off
the machine, but without saving what he had written. This film was made at a
time when knowledge about computers was not widespread among film viewers.
But some film buffs were informed, and this raised an interpretive query.
Did the fictional narrator™s failure to save his text mean that, having worked
through his memory, he was now prepared to let it go? That is, was it that, hav-
ing exorcised the trauma, the writing had served its purpose and could be
aborted? Or did the scene end that way simply because the producers of the
image did not know enough about the operation of personal computers to
realize what they might be fictionally portraying? Here I think that concerned
viewers were not interested in what could have been meant by the scene, but by
210 INTERPRETATION INTENTION
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what was meant. After all, they did not wish to applaud the subtlety of the
scene that the exorcism interpretation might merit, if in fact the fictional nar-
rator™s gesture was just the result of a mistake. That would be as ridiculous as
crediting a slip of the tongue as a bon mot. Certainly what film buffs wanted,
but to my knowledge never got, was a sincere authorial avowal (confession?) of
what was intended by the shot.
Dissolving this interpretive ambiguity can, in principle, be solved satisfactorily
by the modest actual intentionalist, who is willing to weigh cautiously statements
of authorial intention, but not by the hypothetical intentionalist, who brackets
such information from the interpreter™s purview.
At this point, the hypothetical intentionalist is likely to remind us of a complica-
tion in his theory, heretofore unmentioned, that might enable him to deal with the
Stand by Me case. When the hypothetical intentionalist endorses a hypothesis of
authorial intention, he considers not only the epistemically best hypothesis available
under his interpretive protocols, but also the aesthetically best hypothesis “ that is,
the interpretation, where there is room for competing interpretations, that makes
the work a better work.17 Applied to Stand by Me, this might dispose the hypothet-
ical intentionalist to say that the exorcism interpretation is the best interpretation,
even if we know the author™s actual intention was otherwise (say, through personal
communication), because it makes the film a better film aesthetically.
Unfortunately, I do not see that the hypothetical intentionalist gives us any
grounds for accepting his aesthetic criterion for interpretation. It is not a straight-
forward extension of interpretive principles of charity. If the aims of the practice
of literary communication rule that makers always be given the benefit of the
doubt in cases like Stand by Me, what exactly are those aims? I confess that they
elude me. Rather, it seems to me that the art world is a place where people are
praised for their control of their materials. They are not applauded when, unin-
tentionally, their work gets out of control.
I suspect that most viewers would be loath to commend the producers of
Stand by Me if it turned out that they just didn™t know what they were doing. But
if we discovered, perhaps by asking them, that they did make the relevant scene
with the exorcism interpretation in mind, the modest actual intentionalist would
be happy, as I imagine most viewers would be, to appreciate their expressive
finesse.Yet if you find the modest actual intentionalist™s recommended handling of
the Stand by Me case intuitively acceptable, that supplies further evidence that our
practices of interpretation are not adverse, in principle, to consulting authorial
intentions in order to answer hermeneutic questions “ even if that entails going
beyond the information the hypothetical intentionalist endorses “ to the point of
consulting artists and authors by means of interviews or through an examination
of their journals, correspondence, and the like.
The hypothetical intentionalist conjectures that our practices of literary commu-
nication are satisfied by the best-warranted hypotheses of actual authorial intention
based on publicly available sources but violated by recourse to authorial confidences
derived from interviews, private correspondence, the author™s unpublished journals,
THE DEBATE HYPOTHETICAL ACTUAL INTENTIONALISM 211
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diaries, and so on. His primary reason for this seems to be that in addressing a public,
the artist enters an implicit contract with that public, guaranteeing that they should
be able to understand the work without doing research into the author™s private life.
It is probably good advice to authors who aspire to a general public to behave this
way, but it dubiously represents an implicit contract that underwrites all literary com-
munication. Literary communication is more unruly than the stipulated regulations
the hypothetical intentionalist imputes to it.
Some authors trade in secret meanings, reserved for a specialized audience “
indeed, meanings that are intended to exclude outsiders.This practice lies deep in
our hermeneutical tradition. In the New Testament Gospel according to Mark,18
when discussing the parable of the sower, Jesus tells his apostles that his parables
are designed so that outsiders will not understand them; the only ones who are
intended to understand them are the apostles, those to whom Jesus goes on in the
text to reveal the true meaning of the parable.Thus, here we find an ur-practice of
literary communication where the correct interpretation is explicitly not the best-
warranted hypothesis of Christ™s actual intention, but the authorial intention dis-
closed to a chosen audience by the utterer, in this case Jesus.19
The use of secret meanings targeted for specially informed audiences did not
stop with Jesus. Rabelais is said to have employed it in Gargantua,20 and modern
poets, like Stefan George, have attempted personally to cultivate elite visionary
followers for whom their poems carry secret meanings. In the case of occulted
meanings, it seems obvious that authorial intention “ where it is supportable by
the text “ should provide the bottom line for interpretation. And since the com-
munication of such secret meanings is part of literary history, the hypothetical
intentionalist™s protestations about implicit rules of publicity in literary interpreta-
tion appear exaggerated.
Perhaps the hypothetical intentionalist will say that in cases like this the reader
should not be concerned with the author™s intended meaning of the text, but
should stick to her guns with the publicly, “democratically” available meaning of
the text. But such encouragement is useless; if people are really interested in a text,

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