Thinking about fiction

A blog about fiction and imagination, from a philosopher


"If one loves stories, then one would naturally love the story of the story" Lorrie Moore

The dogma of anti-intentionalism

The dogma of anti-intentionalism

When I was a student doing French literature in the 1990's, every now and again a tutor would refer to the 'intentional fallacy', implying by their dismissive tone that everybody who understood anything about literature knew not to commit it. In effect they were dismissing the idea that the meaning of a novel or story has anything to do with the intentions of the author who produced it.

This used to annoy me a bit, partly because it generally annoyed me when literature scholars acted as if tendentious theoretical positions were established empirical facts to be believed on trust, unthinkingly; and partly because I was fairly sure that at least in one respect - the plot and what happened in it - the meaning of a story did have something to do with the intentions of its author; or at least, this wasn't a completely stupid thing to think. But my hesitant attempts to raise this as a possibility were usually met with muttering of intimidatingly opaque stuff about how linguistic meaning was never static but endlessly deferred, how the author was a mere function of discourse rather than a historical personage, and other (to me) impenetrable tenets of the post-structuralism and deconstructionism still in vogue in literature departments at the time.

When I started to do Philosophy of Art as a graduate student, things didn't get much better. For one, I discovered that the co-originator of the phrase 'Intentional Fallacy' was a philosopher, Monroe Beardsley,  via a spectacularly unconvincing article of the same name co-authored with the literary theorist W.K. Wimsatt. I also discovered that nearly all philosophers, whether working in the European tradition influenced by post-structuralism, or the Anglo-American 'analytic' tradition influenced by Frege and Russell, thought that thorough-going intentionalism about the meaning of fictional texts in any respect was a non-starter. 

Since then I've spent a bit of time writing a book which defends, among other things, 'extreme' intentionalism about one particular kind of meaning: plot (or as philosophers call it, 'fictional truth'). From time to time in coming posts, I'll run through some of the ways in which traditional objections to intentionalism of this kind fail, and some positive reasons to think it works. In the meantime, though, I'll outline the question to which intentionalism is the answer, according to me.

That question is, put simply: what determines what gets 'in' to the plot of a novel or story? The answer can’t simply be: the words of the text, taken at face value. For, in some novels and stories, the plot seems to contain elements not directly mentioned by the words of the text. For instance, in Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, the identity of the murderer is obliquely indicated but never explicitly identified. And, arguably anyway, in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, the character Rhoda is a lesbian, though Woolf never says so outright.

In a different sort of case, the words of the text contain what looks like a mistake, and so can’t straightforwardly be taken as a good direct guide to plot elements. For instance, in Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, he apparently mistakenly describes a conversation as taking place between the character Flora and and ‘her sister Flora’. Presumably it doesn’t follow that Flora was literally talking to herself.

Intentionalism about plot explains why (perhaps) Rhoda counts as a lesbian in The Waves, and why Flora definitely doesn’t count as talking to herself in Swann’s Way. Put simply, it says that the plot elements, or fictional truths within a work, are determined by what the author of that work intended the reader to imagine as being the case. Plot interpretation involves attempting to recover these intentions, or should do. Though we can’t be completely sure, because current evidence is mixed, Woolf perhaps intended readers to imagine that Rhoda was a lesbian; and Proust almost definitely intended us to imagine that Flora was talking to her sister Celine, and not to herself.

Fairly obviously, in a broad sense, novels and stories ‘ask’ us to imagine certain things as being true. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie asks us to imagine that Jean Brodie is a Scottish school teacher who sympathises with Mussolini. The Lord of the Rings trilogy asks us to imagine that Frodo Baggins is a hobbit in pursuit of a ring. Beloved asks us to imagine that Sethe is a slave who has killed her daughter and who seems to be haunted by her. Properly speaking, what a novel ‘asks’ us to imagine as being the case is, according to me, equivalent to what its author intends us to imagine; and this set of intentions is what determines the plot elements, including both those which are obvious from the words of the text, and those which take a bit of working out to recover.

This is the ‘extreme’ intentionalism I want to defend, and as I say, many philosophers and literary theorists think it unpalatable.  Even so, we can note at least that it is surely a lot more palatable than undifferentiated intentionalism about 'literary meaning'. There are lots of kinds of literary meaning which, I'll readily admit, need have nothing to do with an author's intentions, one way or the other: for instance, what a text reminds us of politically, historically, psychoanalytically; the unconscious influences it displays; its expressive, aesthetic or poetic power, and so forth. Critics have rightly dismissed intentionalism about these things, but this doesn't mean that intentionalism generally is a goner. There remains room for an intentionalism directed towards plot, or so I will be arguing.

Image credit: Winslow Homer (1896) Maine Coast. Metropolitan Museum.

Into the void

Into the void