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In Defense of the Author’s Intention

August 7, 2009

I think it is right that we should abandon the idea that an author’s intention is the key to undertanding the meaning of her text. However, I don’t think that intention should be forgotten altogether.

An author’s intention has something to do with reading satire, for instance. This is a no-brainer, right? I can’t imagine any interpretation that posits something as satire making sense if it makes no reference to the author’s intentions.

How can we make an author’s intention relevant without making it central? It seems we can distinguish between all of the following:

  • how an author intended her immediate and future audiences to understand her work
  • how an immediate audience would have understood her work
  • how later audiences understood her work

So, for instance, I don’t think it is absurd to talk about what Paul intended in one of his letters, although what his letter “means” for audiences other than himself may be independent of that.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. bradcorban permalink
    August 7, 2009 2:06 pm

    Here here! I like the distinctions.

    (trying to catch up on blog-reading after many weeks this summer without the internet…)

  2. August 7, 2009 3:34 pm

    Undeniably ‘meaning’ is socially constructed to some extent – conditioned by the values and practices of the reader and his or her age of the world. But intention can and must transcend that to some extent if we’re not merely to become post-modernist opportunists, depredating upon the resources of the past.

  3. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    August 7, 2009 3:44 pm

    Dave, I have no intention of trying to defend what you pejoratively call “post-modern opportunism,” but if we latched onto intention and rendered it essential to interpretation, I think we would have trouble understanding unintended double entendres and “slips of the tongue.” People often say things they don’t “intend” to say.

    Scholars who study the history of the interpretation of a text can easily see how a particular community’s interpretation may have nothing at all to do with the “original intention” of the author, which is why I think we need to make a distinction between what it meant for the author and what it means for that later community.

    But to go on to insist that what the author intended is what it REALLY means seems weird to me. Would that add anything to our understanding of what’s going on? That is, would there be any pragmatic value to that sort of caveat about the true meaning of the text?

  4. larry c wilson permalink
    August 7, 2009 5:12 pm

    For Deconstructionists the author’s intention is of no importance whatever. Of course this means that whatever your interpretation is it is correct. It makes no sense for Deconstructionists to attempt to communicate because their intention in communicating is of no importance.

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    August 7, 2009 5:15 pm

    Larry, who are these deconstructionists you are talking about? I’ve read about 30 of Jacques Derrida’s books, and although he is usually taken to be the founder of deconstruction, I’ve never seen him say anything of the sort.

  6. larry c wilson permalink
    August 7, 2009 10:06 pm

    I’m an historian rather than an anthropologist or philosopher and so I have obtained my knowledge of Derrida and his followers and popularizers through third and fourth hand sources. If I’ve misrepresented him then I’ve been attacked on false premises by those who misunderstood him.

    However, from what you said in your original post, my conception can hardly be completely wrong. Unless I misread your intention.

    Come to think of it…why would your reading of 30 books by him mean that you understood anything he meant to say?

  7. August 8, 2009 1:38 am

    See, now you’ve gone on to a different issue MfM. Is what the author meant essential to understanding what different individuals or groups have taken from his work? No. But that’s not what we’re talking about. Is what the author meant to say essential to understanding his text? Yes. Because that’s a tautology: his text is largely what he meant to say, so long as we slot each word and phrase into its historical context.

    The example of a group or individual who takes from an article something totally detached from its original meaning is guilty of exactly the sort of pejorative I rendered in the previous comment. Groups can argue over the meaning of the text, and in the fiirst instance the winner will be socially determined – but that doesn’t mean they are actually right. Nor does it mean we can’t know who is right.

    One of the most ambiguous writers I have ever studied is Aristophanes. Writing satire, as you note, his intentions are important. But we don’t know his intentions – and the satire can be read in multiple ways as a result. Was he a democrat, making fun of the aristocratic betters of the Athenian mob? Was he an aristocrat highlighting the ridiculous excesses of the democracy through plays that on the surface attack aristocrats? Both readings are possible, for we have no idea what his intentions were – the satire is that good.

    But rest assured, if ever we discovered supplementary documents, the way we use Aristophanes’ comedies would change as a result of what his intentions were. I imagine similar things are true of almost every important historical document from the Bible to the Communist Manifesto. Where is the importance, in all this, you ask. Well, for those very scholars you mention of course. So many of them have built up arguments based on these texts – and those arguments would require re-evaluation.

    If we found a document with the same credibility as the Gospels, in which Jesus says “All homosexuals will burn” or something in Aramaic idiomatic speech to the same effect, it would have a calamitous effect on the work of liberal theologians since the 19th century. Whatever one may say about not treating the Bible as a series of truth propositions, but as a way of understanding how certain people felt about God, the son of God unambiguously saying that homosexuality is evil would merit some attention.

    Now scale it down a bit. Some people argue that Paul meant that men should be temporal head of the family, even while respecting his wife. Arguments ensue as to what Paul’s intention really was, because lots of people believe that Paul’s intention was to lay down to the early Christian communities ways of doing things now and forever – and that we should obey the instructions carried by the epistles.

    Even as an atheist, I think they are correct in that interpretation: Paul and Jesus had no idea that there would be an Earth two thousand years later – but the letters of Paul are written as definitive commands. That was his intention. His intention is important because Christians believe it important (even while having competing interpretations of it), and because it gives us a clue as to the correct way to treat the epistles.

  8. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    August 8, 2009 11:59 am

    Larry and Dave: I’ve made a second post about this that I hope gets at your objections. If not, fire at me again!

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