The Intentional Fallacy and the Meaning of Textual Meaning

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One commits the “intentional fallacy” when one argues like this: “This essay is consistent and one of the reasons I know it is is because the author intended to be consistent when he wrote it.” This is a fallacy because the true criteria for judging consistency do not include the author’s intention to be consistent. He may have failed, in which case his intention is irrelevant in the critic’s assessment of the consistency of his essay.

Now what happens when the “intentional fallacy” is leveled against the conception of textual meaning which equates it with the author’s intention? My argument is that it becomes inapplicable. For it to be applicable the intentionalist would have to state his case like this: “This essay means x and the reason I know it does is because the author intended it to mean x.” This parallels the fallacious statement about consistency above. But there is a fundamental difference: the intentionalist defines textual meaning as an author’s intention to mean, but he does not define textual consistency as an author’s intention to be consistent. For him, consistency is defined solely by determinate standards of logic which all reasonable people share so that the consistency of an essay does not consist in an author’s will to be consistent, but in the nature of the argument itself.

The Meaning of the Author

But meaning is defined by what an author willed to communicate so that the meaning of a text does consist in what an author willed to communicate. Therefore the statement, “This essay means x and the reason I know it does is because the author intended it to mean x” is fallacious only in that it states as a ground what is really a definition. The precise intentionalist would not make this blunder. He knows that the author’s intention is not the ground of meaning in the sense of a means by which one arrives at a text’s meaning; no, the author’s intention is the meaning of a text. When this is clearly seen, namely that the author’s intention is not a previously known entity used to find the meaning of a text, then the “intentional fallacy” becomes inapplicable.

The really important question to pose to the intentionalist (me) is this: is it more fitting and helpful to define textual meaning as authorial intention and to make that the goal of interpretation, than it is to define meaning as how the speech community would construe the text according to publicly accepted linguistic norms and to make that the goal of interpretation? I think it is.

First, let me dispel the idea that I think we can with absolute certainty know what an author willed to convey by his text. We do not have any access to this willed meaning but through the linguistic conventions he has assembled. Therefore, when we aim at re-cognizing what an author willed to convey we arrive at this goal with only greater or lesser probability. This bondage to probability would be true of any other goal of interpretation also.

But now why is it fitting and helpful to define verbal meaning as what an author willed to communicate and to make that our goal?

5 Reasons to Trace the Author's Argument

1. This establishes a determinate, unchanging norm which gives us something objective and concrete to aim at. The alternative is to say that a text can mean all kinds of different things (in which case validity in interpretation vanishes) or that the “understanding of the language community” is the meaning of a text and the norm and goal of interpretation. But there is no such concrete entity as “the understanding of a language community” when it comes to specific texts. There are generally several different constructions of the text’s meaning that could fit the linguistic expectations of a speech community. In short, communities don’t do monolithic meaning. The members of the community share meanings and thus conventions are developed but these conventions always derive their precise meaning from a concrete usage by a particular matter. So if we abandon the will of the author we abandon our only possible determinate, unchanging goal and norm in interpretation and so the establishing of valid interpretations becomes impossible.

2. Usually authors write because they have something they want to convey to another person through verbal symbols. To bring this about he chooses and arranges linguistic conventions shared with the reader in the hopes that the reader will read and understand, i.e. receive what he intended to convey. Now if that is the usual motive for writing, then the appropriate and courteous motive in reading should be, at least, to discover what the author wants to convey. This is none other than to seek his intention. To aim at another goal is to dishonor the author by ignoring why he wrote. Therefore, the intentionalist adopts the common sense, appropriate, courteous goal in interpretation.

3. The importance of aiming to discover an author’s intention becomes very clear when we reflect upon our relation to people in authority and their communication to us. If a person is in authority over us, whether it be an army sergeant or God, our obligation is to obey his will. Therefore when the army sergeant shouts, “Bring the old zapper, Private” you better make it your aim to discover what that sergeant means by “zapper.” This is necessary because you are obliged to obey his will communicated by language.

4. Not only in cases of authority is finding another’s intention the most important goal of interpretation. It is true in any significant interpersonal encounter—like between lovers. For example, if a girl gets a letter from her fiancé which says, “There are certain things about our relationship that have caused me to wonder,” the task of interpretation is surely to discover what the fellow intended by that oblique comment. At least that would be the girl’s hermeneutic position.

5. If the goal of interpretation is not to discover what St. Paul willed to convey but rather what the speech community of his day might have meant by using the same words, then why put special emphasis on Pauline parallels and Pauline usages? If I want to know the meaning of “justified” in Romans 5:1, but my goal is not what Paul intended by it, then I will just as likely search out parallels in Seneca and Josephus and Luke as I will in Romans 3 and 4 or Galatians. Our predilection to look at the author’s own books for clues simply shows that what we are after is his intention.

In view of these considerations I contend that it is more fitting and helpful to view the goal of textual interpretation as discovering what an author willed to convey. And it seems to me altogether in accord with normal usage to label this intention as the “meaning” of the text.