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.

1 comment:

  1. One of the most devastating commentaries on the Dover trial is in the book Monkey Girl. It's especially effective because it is so fair to ID proponents.