Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Why Intentionalism Is So Popular, Part 1

Yesterday, I explained why intentionalism is obviously a fallacy. But if intentionalism is so obviously a fallacy, why do so many otherwise intelligent people believe in it?

Why, for example, do so many people want so fervently to know what was in an author's head when (s)he wrote a novel, or poem, or other literary work? There are roughly two reasons that I can think of. This post is about the first.

In short, most people do not care about the text at all. They care about the human emotional connection they feel to the author. The novel, or poem, or whatever, is not really an independent object, with its own life, but rather a vehicle for the author's magical transcendent essence, in the same way that a french fry is less a potato than a starchy matrix convenient for delivering grease and salt.

Why this indifference? Because in most other contexts where people use language, they don't care about the text either.

If somebody says "I love you", then you do not care about the words, whose denotation is trivially obvious (i.e., that the speaker feels a powerful and deep-seated sense of caring/desire/etc. towards you). Rather, you care about the exact contours of the feeling causing that person to say that. If, at the moment those words are uttered, the only thought in the speaker's head is "I really want to get into your pants" or "I just feel obligated to say this because you said 'I love you' ten seconds ago" then the words themselves make no difference to your life.

And as this example illuminates, in most utterances, people use language so carelessly or deceptively that one would have to be a fool to care about the meanings of words. Instead, one must treat words as a scrap of evidence, among many other scraps, to apply towards the divination of the speaker's thoughts.

This deliberate disregard for the meanings of words is instrumental: in order to survive in a world full of other human beings, one must develop and practice this skill constantly. Naturally, having grown so used to piercing through the vaporous veil of language to the bloody guts of intention, people instinctively apply the same heuristic to literary works. In doing so, they confuse literary interpretation --- the task of evaluating the meanings of texts --- with participation in a human relationship --- which often relies on ignoring the meanings of texts where the meanings do not correspond to an authentic intention.

In other words, people who fret about intention are mistakenly treating a literary text as a kind of speech act other than it is. This is an error akin to confusing an imperative ("Take that hill, solder!") with an interrogative ("Take that hill, soldier?").

Next time: How formal semantics helps answer certain initially puzzling questions about non-intentionalist theories of meaning.

Post script: One initially seductive rejoinder to this line of reasoning is that if someone says, "I love you", but means "I just want to get in your pants", then in fact the meaning of the words "I love you" in this context is "I just want to get in your pants". That is, in such cases, the speaker is not ignoring the meaning of words so much as redefining the words, at least for the duration of this speech act.

This argument is bogus, because such a framework for understanding meaning makes notions like lie, malapropism, sarcasm, etc., impossible (or vastly more convoluted).

We all share a clear intuition that there exists a distinction between the meaning of an utterance as it would be understood by a competent speaker, and the authentic mind-state of the person making that utterance. If I write, "George W. Bush is the Pepsodent of the United States", then it's pretty clear that the meaning of that sentence is that George W. Bush is a dental product, even though I may have meant that he is the chief executive of the federal government. And that is why a competent editor or English teacher might inform me that I should replace the word "Pepsodent" with "President". If we consider intention and meaning to be identical, then the grounds for this correction disappears.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Intentionalism is obviously a fallacy

Oh, Mr. Werewolf, how you disappoint me.

Imagine that you get a job as a semaphore operator: one of those people who runs around on the runway signaling airplanes with batons. One day, you send the signal for "turn right" when you mean "turn left". The airplane turns right, and as a result, crashes into the terminal. Dozens of people are killed and hundreds injured.

The port authorities conduct an inquiry. Multiple witnesses, from the pilot to the airport control tower to semaphore operator on the next runway over, testify that you signaled the semaphore for "turn right". There is even video evidence that you signaled "turn right."

"But --- but --- I'm the author of the signal! And what I meant is to turn left!"

"Holy shit," says the interrogator, "how stupid are you? It doesn't matter what you meant. What matters is what you signaled. Your arms signaled turn right; the sticks signaled turn right; the visual image telegraphed by your action was to turn right."

You are summarily fired.

Language is a communicative medium --- a system of signals. The meaning of an utterance is not determined by the intent of the author, but by the meaning that the interpretive community applies to the relevant system of signals. Ink on paper has an objective existence outside of the author's head, just as a semaphore signal does, and the patterns of ink on paper acquire meaning in the context of an interpretive community (viz., English speakers, or whatever) independently of any vaporous and transient firing of neurons in their originator's head.

This is not a postmodernist idea. It is not even a modernist idea. It is trivial common sense. To claim otherwise is to support Humpty Dumpty's contention, in Alice in Wonderland, that "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean --- neither more nor less." If you believe in the intentionalist fallacy, you deserve to be one of the people who dies when the airplane crashes into the terminal.

Tune in next time for the explanation for why so many otherwise intelligent and reasonable people think that, for example, a novelist's intention towards his or her work has any special authority.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Rudy Giuliani is a liar

So, my friends know of my longstanding animosity towards John McCain. But McCain's career is thankfully fading, so it's time to start dumping on the other Republican candidates, who deserve it just as much.

Not that anything at TPM needs my linkage, but I hereby reaffirm the truth that Rudy Giuliani speaks in a nonstop stream of lies.

Even more egregious than the lie about tax cuts, which takes up the bulk of the TPM post, is the recent lie that Democrats "refuse to admit the existence of Islamic terrorism". Right, Rudy, the millions of Democrats in New York City don't believe in the existence of Islamic terrorism. It's pretty easy to say such things from a diner in Texas. I dare you to stand on a soapbox in Times Square and repeat that sentence.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

I told him I knew _____ when I was young at summer camp

Attention conservation notice: I post this primarily to elevate the PageRank of the blog post linked herein.

So, when I was an awkward young man (ha! was?!... I suppose I'm less young than I used to be) I went to NJ Governor's School of the Arts (i.e., Art Nerd Camp) in creative writing.

This week DK, a friend whom I met there, sends me her pictures of Kal Penn, a.k.a. Kumar, who was there that same year.

I must have met him once or twice, but my memories of that time are dim; I barely remember all the writers, let alone the theater kids. Still, I can safely say that if my guidance counselor had not urged me to apply to Art Nerd Camp that year, my life would have been very different. Let nobody say that guidance counselors do no good in the world.

On a slightly related note, when I was at POPL 2006 in Charleston, SC, I took a break one night from revising my workshop talk slides to grab a burrito at a local chain. The girl behind the cash register told me I look just like that guy from Harold and Kumar. Granted, I was not wearing my stylin' headgear, but even without it I think the resemblance is, shall we say, distant at best. The conclusion I drew was that they don't get too many of them Orientals in these parts.