The Intentional Fallacy

The Intentional Fallacy

The intentional fallacy is a term in literary studies that refers to a basic and potentially profound problem with analyzing a text according to an author’s intentions. 

This idea is closely associated with the main thrust of New Criticism, which posits that a text needs to be considered on in terms of what makes it onto the page. Intentions, historical context, and anything else, for New Criticism, shouldn’t play a role in our analysis of a text. The concept of the intentional fallacy offers one rationale for this mode of reading.

Specifically, the intentional fallacy suggests that analyzing a text with an author’s intentions in mind is fallacious (false or leading to false conclusions) because usually we can’t really know what an author’s intentions were in writing any given text. 

Rationale #1

We may not have enough information on the author’s intentions to arrive at any reasonable basis for analysis along those lines. This is the case with Shakespeare. We can read his plays and his poetry and guess at what he wanted to accomplish with each text, but we can’t truly know what he had in mind – he never told anyone. 

Rationale #2

The author’s honest intentions may not have been fully borne out in the work.

It is entirely possible that a writer sits down with a plan to write a book about father-son relationships, then ends up with a book about grief and loss instead. Writers do not always have a complete story in mind when they begin a project. Stories can change during the writing process, which means initial intentions do not always carry through to the end. 

So, if we know that a writer intended for a book to be about father-son relationships, that doesn’t necessarily help us to accurately analyze and interpret the actual book. 

Rationale #3

The author may not be fully aware of his or her own intentions. The author may be lying. The author may be oversimplifying. 

This is not necessarily a case of dishonesty or deception. After completing a book or bringing a play to the stage, the writer may be asked to explain his or her intentions. Those intentions may be complicated. If the writer is interviewed, he or she may offer a partial explanation of the intentions behind the work. That explanation can be helpful to us as readers analyzing the text, but it may leave out other ideas that would be equally (or more) helpful. 

More problematically, a writer might concoct post facto intentions for a work. After finishing the book, the writer might look back at it and offer his or her own analysis and present this analysis as if it were the intention all along. This is a little like setting out to make a hamburger but – after some trouble getting the patties to stick together – you end up with tacos instead. You can say that you meant to make tacos all along, but did you? Did you really? 

We can say that for most tasks we will end up with a product that entirely matches our intentions. But making art is not like making hamburgers, at least not in this specific sense. To some extent, art is about surprise. Art is about revelation. The artist figures things out during the process of creation. 

There is a flip-side to this, of course. Writers do have intentions. Those intentions are sometimes fully formed when the writer sits down to type the first word of the work. It is definitely possible for a writer to work unwaveringly toward an intended goal – especially an experienced, professional, and highly self-aware writer like Arthur Miller. 

The idea behind intentional fallacy would ask us, however, how do we know for sure that the writer behind any given text had a complete awareness of his or her intentions at the outset and enough command of the craft to have fully materialized those intentions to the final product? 

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