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Against Intention Alone

August 8, 2009

Okay, so in trying to fly between Scylla and Charybdis on the matter of author’s intention, I’ve stirred up a lot of trouble for myself. Here are the poles I’d like to fall between:

  1. The meaning of a text is what the author intended it to mean
  2. author’s intention is irrelevant; texts can mean whatever we want them to mean

I hold neither of these views. However, because I opposed #1 some people seemed to assume that I held #2, or assumed that I’m forced into #2 by rejecting #1. I’d like to show why that’s not the case.

Words and sentences get their meaning or significance in relationship to a framework of understanding. Take the word “religion,” for instance. If I said the word “religion” in 16th century Europe, listeners would have plugged that word into a framework of understanding with other concepts like: piety, Catholicism vs. Protestantism, Christian world vs. pagan world, body vs. soul, earthly life vs. eternal life, persuasion vs. the sword, and so on. If I said the word religion in America today, the frameworks of understanding listeners might plug the word into are probably much more diverse, and would include things like: religion vs. science, religion vs. atheism, tolerance, the sacred, spiritual but not religious, dogmatism, morality, true religion vs. fanatical or extremist religion, organized religion, and so on.

Now, if a present day reader picked up a 16th century text about religion, she will probably plug the word “religion” into her own framework of understanding, and what the text means for her will be dependent on that.

It seems to me that in such a case we could rightly distinguish between what the text means for her and what the text could have meant for someone in the 16th century. The author’s intention (and the 16th century framework of understanding) do not exhaust the meaning of this text.

This does not mean that the text can mean whatever a present day reader wants it to mean. In fact, the meaning of this text for our imagined reader may be what she doesn’t want it to mean. It can’t mean whatever she wants it to mean because the framework of understanding she plugs the word into was not created by her—she inherited it and it is largely out of her control. So we’re not talking about individually subjective meanings of a text; we’re talking about the meaning of a text in relation to a framework of understanding that is by no means individual.

In addition, we can distinguish between what the text means for her (and anyone else who shares her framework of understanding) and what she attributes to the author. So, if she says “the text means X,” that’s different from saying “the author meant X.” She could be right about the first but wrong about the second.

So this doesn’t mean “anything goes.” On the contrary, interpretations can be wrong in a number of ways.

  1. if a reader attributes a meaning to an author which could not have been the case, she can be wrong
  2. if a reader wrongly pairs up a word with a framework of understanding, she can be wrong

Consider the American constitution. The Supreme Court makes new meanings out of it all the time. The authors of the constitution could never have intended the interpretation of the constitution put forth in Roe v. Wade. That interpretation utilized a framework of understanding that was unavailable to the authors of the constitution.

Now, I could say that the concept of privacy in Roe v. Wade was intended by the authors of the constitution. But that would be false. However, if I said that that’s what the constitution means now, I would be right. If I said that the first ammendment means that the federal government should control all religious institutions, that would be wrong—neither the framework of understanding utilized by the authors of the constitution nor any subsequent framework of understanding can be put together with the words in the first ammendment to turn out that meaning.

As soon as you take the view that words don’t have meanings in and of themselves, but only in relationship to frameworks of understanding (which seems indisputable to me), then fixing a meaning in relationship to an author’s intention doesn’t make any sense. The meaning for the author cannot lie merely in the author’s intention. Even for an author, meaning is necessarily related to a framework of understanding outside of herself. Talking about meaning merely in terms of an author’s intention is like talking about me as a husband without reference to my spouse: I am a husband only in relationship to my spouse, and if you take her away, I’m no longer a husband; I become something else. But pointing out that my identity is relative to other individuals doesn’t mean that I can be whatever I want. Similarly, pointing out that meaning comes into being only in relationship between words and a framework of understanding doesn’t mean that we can make those words mean anything we want.

Derrida himself writes,

Since the deconstructionist (which is to say, isn’t it, the skeptic-relativist-nihilist!) is supposed to not to believe in truth, stability, or the unity of meaning, in intention or “meaning-to-say,” how can he demand of us that we read him with pertinence, precision, rigor? How can he demand that his own text be interpreted correctly? How can he accuse anyone else of having misunderstood, simplified, deformed it, etc.? In other words, how can he discuss, and discuss the reading of what he writes? The answer is simple enough: this definition of the deconstrictionist is false (that’s right: false, not true) and feeble; it supposes a bad (that’s right: bad, not good) and feeble reading of numerous texts, first of all mine, which therefore must finally be read or reread.

He is right to insist that one can be completely wrong about what he means because there is a big difference between reading him in relationship to his framework of understanding and reading him in relationship to an alternate framework—the latter activity may yeild a meaning, and even a true meaning, but not necessarily his meaning.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 8, 2009 12:47 pm

    I think you build a straw man argument. I am not of the view that words have meaning independently of a social context – what you call a framework of understanding. However, these frameworks of understanding are not themselves unintelligible.

    You bring up the word religion: how its meaning has changed between the 16th Century and today. Indubitably you are correct – but that is not to say that we cannot know what the ‘frameworks of understanding’ active in the 16th Century were, allowing us to decode, if you like, precisely what someone of a given status might have meant when they used the word. Indeed frameworks of understanding are only themselves intelligible if placed on a material footing: i.e. just as social space itself obeys certain rules, so must they.

    But this is only tangentially at issue. Insofar as we can decode frameworks of understanding – especially of an author, which I submit is eminently possible and increases with the volume of written material – we can determine what an author meant when he said X. This is the ‘correct’ meaning. We can read details of material circumstance from the work, we can assess authorial motives and intent. We can also measure this against our own material circumstance and intentions – but the two are different.

    Having the latter and expecting the former to correlate is simply bad methodology.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    August 8, 2009 12:56 pm

    Dave, I think we are almost entirely in agreement. I agree 100% with what you say in your second paragraph. Where I disagree is where you say “This is the ‘correct’ meaning.” You seem to agree with me that we can distinguish between what something meant for an author and what something meant for a later audience, but then you go on to say the first is the real meaning or the correct meaning. That’s where we part ways, it seems. I don’t see any usefulness in tacking on that last bit.

    In addition, not only do I think it isn’t useful, I think it is wrong, especially when we get to things like the meaning of the constitution. What the constitution means for us today IS NOT what it meant for the racist guys who wrote it a couple of centuries back. The first amendment, for them, meant that the federal government couldn’t have a state church, but that states COULD have a state church. And that’s what it meant for decades. But it clearly DOES NOT mean that now.

  3. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    August 8, 2009 1:04 pm

    Also, look at memes like “All your base are belong to us.” (Google it if you’re unfamiliar—I especially recommend the youtube video.) Once they begin to circulate, they take on a life of their own. If I cite that phrase today, you can’t understand what I mean by appealing to the author’s intention—you have to fit it to an alternate framework of understanding. In addition, it seems silly to me to say that present quotations of the phrase are “wrong” because they aren’t using the phrase the way the author’s intended.

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    August 8, 2009 1:12 pm

    “[W]e can distinguish between what something meant for an author and what something meant for a later audience, but then you go on to say the first is the real meaning or the correct meaning. That’s where we part ways, it seems. I don’t see any usefulness in tacking on that last bit.”

    You seem on the verge of saying this is a semantic point – you consider it ‘not useful’ to use the word ‘real’ in relation to meaning in this way.

    Which almost invites the rejoinder, isn’t the ‘usefulness’ in preventing people (or ‘not encouraging people’) to misunderstand deconstructionists as skeptical-nihilist-relativists?

    You also say “What the constitution means for us today IS NOT what it meant for the racist guys”

    And here it almost seems like there’s just an equivocation at work. ‘What the constitution means for us today’ seems like something similar to ‘what the word ‘gay’ means for us today’ or ‘what the ice caps mean for us today’, i.e. it’s a sense of ‘means’ that doesn’t imply a second person who ‘said’ the ice caps, it’s just a matter of our projection or intepretation of things. And that’s a good and respectable way of using the word ‘means’, and of talking about ‘what the constitution means’.

    But the constitution also happens to be a written document, i.e. a communication, basically the preserved form of a communicative act performed by the authors. Insofar as the point of understanding this action is to understand those people, it makes sense to say that full and correct understanding means understanding the intentions of the authors.

    Is it possible that these two things you distinguish – what it ‘meant’ when written and what it ‘means’ to us now, are just different ways of using the word ‘means’?

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    August 8, 2009 1:57 pm

    Alderson, I don’t really have a systematic reply to your comments, so I’ll just respond to some specific things.

    On “usefulness”: what’s useful to me is not mystifying or masking the fact that the meaning of words, phrases, sentences, books, constitutions, etc. is produced in relationship, not in isolation. To say that the correct meaning of something lies in an author’s intention seems to me to foreground all the wrong stuff. Russell McCutcheon analyzes in one of his books how John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” was used at a Ronald Reagan rally (I think; I may not remember these details precisely). The song was intended by Mellencamp as a critique of America, but it was being used at the rally to generate positive sentiments toward America and Reagan. McCutcheon notes that the people who commented that this was not what the song “really meant” were missing about 99% of what was going on. In such a situation, we’re not “getting it” if we focus narrowly on the author’s intention; that sort of emphasis is not “useful” in these cases.

    “But the constitution also happens to be a written document, i.e. a communication …. Insofar as the point of understanding this action is to understand those people, it makes sense to say that full and correct understanding means understanding the intentions of the authors.”

    But that’s the problem, the Supreme Court’s “point” is not necessarily to understand original intent. They may have completely alien purposes. And for us to chide them for not understanding original intent probably means that we’ve misunderstood what they’re doing. In addition, I insist that “the full and correct understanding” of “all your base are belong to us” is not contained in the intentions of the authors.

    “Is it possible that these two things you distinguish – what it ‘meant’ when written and what it ‘means’ to us now, are just different ways of using the word ‘means’?”

    I don’t think so. When I say we can determine what an author meant, I mean that we can put together a set of words with a particular framework of understanding. When I say we can determine how later audiences receive a text, I mean that we can put together a set of words with a particular framework of understanding. It’s the same thing. The gap between a text and a reading of the meaning of the text exists between the text and the author just as it exists between the text and later readers.

    Derrida puts it this way: “the writer writes in a language and in a logic whose proper system, laws, and life his discourse by definition cannot dominate absolutely. He uses them only by letting himself … be governed by the system. And the reading must always aim at a certain relationship, unperceived by the author, between what he commands and what he does not command of the patterns of language that he uses. … To produce this signifying structure obviously cannot consist of reproducing … the conscious, voluntary, intentional relationship that the writer institutes in his exchanges with the history to which he belongs thanks to the element of language.”

    This doesn’t mean that intention is irrelevant, just that intention is not the sine qua non.

    Again, that gap between a text and frameworks of understanding exists whether we are talking about our reading or an author’s self understanding. So, when I say “what the text meant for the author” and “what the text meant for this later audience” I’m describing exactly the same interpretive relation. So I don’t think these are different ways of using the word “means.”

  6. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    August 8, 2009 2:38 pm

    “the Supreme Court’s “point” is not necessarily to understand original intent”
    This seems like a fact about politics, not language. The Supreme court’s point depends on the political fact of what supreme courts are for.

    “McCutcheon notes that the people who commented that this was not what the song “really meant” were missing about 99% of what was going on.”
    Similarly, they may have been missing 99% of what was going on at that rally. But if they were studying “Mellencamp and his works” they’d be onto something important.

    ““the full and correct understanding” of “all your base are belong to us” is not contained in the intentions of the authors.”
    Well, “all your base are belong to us” is a sentence-type, which can be uttered/written by millions of different people on millions of different occasions. You’re right that it would be wrong to say that the use which all of those millions make of it can’t be understood by looking at one person’s intentions. So we treat this not as a communication but as a bit of communicative equipment, a piece of the culture sitting there for us to find.

    But the original ‘utterance’ of that phrase was a sentence-token, and it seems to me that this requires us to understand what the intention behind it was (in this case, in a sense, none, it being an unintentionally comic mis-translation). The author’s intention isn’t the be-all-and-end-all (so I’m in between 1. and 2. as well) but it’s central in a way that other people’s interpretations aren’t.

    “what’s useful to me is not mystifying or masking the fact that the meaning of words, phrases, sentences, books, constitutions, etc. is produced in relationship, not in isolation.”
    See, I’d turn this around. The ‘meaning’ of a communication is produced in a three-term relationship, based on the intentions of the person speaking, the interpretations of the hearer, and the cultural background thing you were talking about.

    However, the meaning of things that aren’t communicative, or of things taken not as communications but just as something that is there, is produced in a two-term relationship, based on the interpretations of the hearer, and the cultural background.

    When you/deconstructionists/whoever say that “what the text meant for the author” and “what the text meant for this later audience” [involve] exactly the same interpretive relation”, you’re mystifying and masking this fact, by suggesting that the author ‘encounters’ their words the same way we do, and has to interpret them the same way we do.

  7. larry c wilson permalink
    August 8, 2009 6:34 pm

    As I understand your quote from Derrida, I see he is trying to “have his cake and eat it too.”

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