5. The Intentions of the Artist
Despite his many books and articles, Beardsley is probably best known for his very first article in aesthetics. In “The Intentional Fallacy,” a paper co-written with William K. Wimsatt and published in 1946 (and widely re-printed, e.g., in Joseph Margolis, ed., Philosophy Looks at the Arts, 3rd edition, 1987), he argued against the neo-Romantic view that a work of art means what the artist says it means, or what he intends it to mean. More precisely, the issue can put in terms of the relation between
The artist intended x to mean p in work w
x means p in work w.
According to E.D. Hirsch, (1) entails (2), at least if w is a literary work, because the meaning of ‘x’ simply is what the writer meant or intended by ‘x.’ Knowing the artist's intention is thus knowing the work's meaning. That's one end of the spectrum on the relation between (1) and (2).
Beardsley sits at the other end. He holds that the intentions of the artist aren't relevant to the interpretation of a work of art at all. (1) not only doesn't entail (2); in and of itself, it provides no direct evidential support for (2). An artist's intentions have nothing to do with what a work means.
Beardsley was in fact more than consistent on the issue of the intentional fallacy; he also held that
The artist intended w to have descriptive property p
provides no direct evidential support for
W has descriptive property p,
The artist intended w to have evaluative property e
provides no direct evidential support for
W has evaluative property e.
An artist's intentions are utterly irrelevant to the descriptive, interpretive, and evaluative properties of his work.
And in addition to “The Intentional Fallacy,” there's also “The Affective Fallacy.” In a paper bearing that name, and also co-written with William Wimsatt, Beardsley argues that a person's affective responses to a work of art are irrelevant to its descriptive, interpretive, and evaluative properties.
Beardsley's arguments against intentionalism in interpretation are of a variety of sorts. In “The Intentional Fallacy,” he says that the intentions of the artist are neither “available nor desirable” (p. 367), with this meaning that such intentions aren't always available and are never desirable. Since we frequently can and do correctly interpret a work of art with little or no knowledge about the artist, the fact that the artist's intentions aren't always available is enough to show that Hirsch's position is wrong.
“Judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine,” according to Beardsley. “One demands that it work. It is only because an artifact works that we infer the intention of the artificer …. A poem can be only through its meaning … yet it is, simply is, in the sense that we have no excuse for inquiring what part is intended or meant” (p. 368). In other words, a poem or other work of art is independent of its creator, just as any other artifact—a pudding or a washing machine—is. A pudding consists of milk, eggs, and other ingredients, a washing machine of a metal drum, rubber gaskets, and other parts, and a poem of words. In all three cases, the parts exist and are what they are independently of the artificers, and the artifacts are to be judged—and interpreted—on the basis of their properties. There's no need to bring in the artificer.
In Aesthetics, the attack is a little different. “We must distinguish between the aesthetic object and the intention in the mind of its creator,” Beardsley says, and the irrelevance of the latter to interpretation can be shown if we consider a certain sculpture, “a large, twisted, cruller-shaped object of polished teak, mounted at an oblique angle to the floor.” The creator of the sculpture intends it to “symbolize … Human Destiny.” Try as we might, however, we “see in it no such symbolic meaning.” The philosophical question then is, “Should we say that we have simply missed the symbolism, but that it must be there, since what a statue symbolizes is precisely what its maker makes it symbolize? Or should we say, in the spirit of Alice confronting the extreme semantic conventionalism [intentionalism] of Humpty Dumpty, that the question is whether that object can be made to mean Human Destiny?” Obviously the latter, Beardsley thinks, for the former entails that “anyone can make anything symbolize anything just by saying it does, for another sculptor could copy the same object and label it ‘Spirit of Palm Beach, 1938’” (Aesthetics, pp. 18–19, 21).
In addition to sculpture, the irrelevance of the author to the meaning of his text is also argued for by Beardsley, though only partly by counterexample. “Suppose someone utters a sentence,” he says. “We can [then] ask two questions: (1) What does the speaker mean? (2) What does the sentence mean?” Although answers to the two questions usually coincide, they can diverge; people can mean one thing and say another. The reason that's possible is that “what a sentence means depends not on the whim of the individual, and his mental vagaries, but upon public conventions of usage that are tied up with habit patterns in the whole speaking community.” Sentence meaning—that is, textual meaning—is thus one thing, and is anchored in “the whole speaking community,” while speaker meaning—what the author meant—is quite another, and is anchored in his own, quite possibly idiosyncratic intentions. Thus an author can be wrong about what his own work means. A.E. Housman, for example, was probably wrong in claiming that his poem “1887” wasn't ironic (pp. 25–26).
In The Possibility of Criticism, three arguments are offered against intentionalism, which is again taken to be the view that the meaning of a work of art is what the artist intends it to mean. The first is that “some texts that have been formed without the agency of an author, and hence without authorial meaning, nevertheless have a meaning and can be interpreted” (p. 18). What Beardsley has in mind is the kind of verbal mistake made at a publishing house, or by a computer in scanning a document. He cites the sentence “Jensen argued like a man filled with righteous indigestion” as an example of a text that can be read and interpreted, yet no agency, a fortiori no author's intention, stands behind it. “Indignation” became “indigestion” at the printer's, by mechanical error.
The second argument is that “the meaning of a text can change after its author has died. But the author cannot change his meaning after he has died. Therefore, textual meaning is not identical to the authorial meaning.” Bolstering this argument is the fact that “the OED furnishes abundant evidence that individual words and idioms acquire new meanings and lose old meanings as time passes; these changes can in turn produce changes of the meaning in sentences in which the words appear.” As an example, Beardsley cites a line from a poem written in 1744, “He raised his plastic arm,” and notes that “plastic arm” has “acquired a new meaning in the twentieth century.” Thus the line “in which it occurs has also acquired a new meaning” (p. 19).
The third argument is the familiar one that “a text can have meanings that its author is not aware of. Therefore, it can have meanings that its author did not intend. Therefore, textual meaning is not identical to authorial meaning” (p. 20).
More than this, what's really needed to decide whether there's an intentional fallacy is a theory of meaning. A theory of meaning is a theory of what it is for w (some object, in the broad sense of the term) to mean p. Beardsley was always aware of the need for a theory of meaning, and in Aesthetics he proposed one, a complicated theory which he later rejected. A few years later, however, he embraced a speech-act theory based on the work of William Alston, and used it to defend the intentional fallacy in his final paper on the topic.
Alston believes that the meaning of a sentence is the sentence's speech act potential, its potential for performing all of the various speech acts it can be used to perform. In effect, this is to take the slogan “Meaning is use” very seriously, and to cash in “use” in terms of the performance of speech acts. Sentence meaning is primary on this theory, and word meaning secondary and derivative, since it's defined in terms of a word's contribution to the speech act potential of the sentences into which it can figure. Beardsley thought this theory correct and used it to argue that the intentional fallacy is indeed a fallacy.
In “Intentions and Interpretations” (The Aesthetic Point of View), he claims that in composing a poem the poet doesn't perform a speech act, but rather represents the performance of a speech act or acts. When Wordsworth writes,
Milton! Thous shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee—
his words are ostensibly addressed to a long-dead poet, but to perform an illocutionary, any illocutionary action, a person must believe that he can or will “secure uptake,” that is, secure understanding of his sentence and the speech act performed. Wordsworth, however, knew that Milton was long dead, and had no such belief. He thus didn't perform the illocutionary act of addressing Milton, or stating that England needs him. He does represent the performance of those illocutionary acts, though. What poets and other authors of literary works do, Beardsley thinks, is represent the performance of illocutionary acts, not perform illocutionary acts themselves.
Beardsley's complete argument is basically:
The meaning of a sentence ‘S’ is its total illocutionary act potential, that is, its capacity to perform the speech acts, I, J, and K.
The performance of speech acts I, J, K in using ‘S’ does not require the corresponding intentions to perform speech acts I, J, and K in using ‘S.’
Thus, the meaning of ‘S’ is independent of the intentions of the speaker to perform the speech acts that constitute, as potentially performable acts, the meaning of ‘S.’
Differently put, the meaning of ‘S’ is logically independent of the speaker's intention to mean what ‘S’ does in fact mean.
Therefore, a speaker's intention that sentence ‘S’ mean p is logically irrelevant to whether it does mean p.
But even if (4) were false, and the meaning, M, of a non-literary sentence—a sentence not in a work of literature—were partly a function of the speaker's intention that it mean M, the same wouldn't be true of a literary sentence.
The proof of (6) is that
An author does not perform illocutionary acts, I, J, and K in uttering (writing, dictating, signing, etc.) ‘S.’
Rather, he represents the performance of illocutionary acts I, J, and K in uttering ‘S.’
Representing an illocutionary act involves renouncing, withholding, or suspending the performance of that act.
Thus, representing the performance of I, J, and K doesn't require the intention to perform I, J, and K.
Consequently, even if (4) were false as far as non-literary sentences were concerned, it would be true as far as literary sentences were concerned, for the meaning of ‘S’ is logically independent of the speaker's intention to mean what ‘S’ in fact does mean.