Long time literary theory has held that the main authority for any piece of writing comes from the author's intent when writing it. All other views or interpretations are secondary to the author's intent.
New Criticism, as espoused by Cleanth Brooks, W. K. Wimsatt, T. S. Eliot, and others, argued that authorial intent is irrelevant to understanding a work of literature. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley wrote in their essay The Intentional Fallacy: "the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art." The author, they argue, cannot be reconstructed from a writing - the text is the only source of meaning, and any details of the author's desires or life are purely extraneous. Such thinking essentially states that the author's intended meaning and purpose for the exposition are fundamentally unnecessary to the reader’s interpretation. This view is extremely useful in a postmodern relativistic framework as it successfully makes the reader or the consumer of the story the only authority on its meaning as opposed to the author or creator of the work. The unfortunate side effect is that this view strips the artist of all value; it implies that only the product of their creation is of any importance.
Wimsatt and Beardsley divide the evidence used in making interpretations of literary texts (although their analysis can be applied equally well to any type of art) into three categories:
- Internal evidence
- Internal evidence is the actual details present inside a given work is the first type of evidence. The apparent content of a work is the internal evidence, including any historical knowledge and past expertise or experience with the kind of art being interpreted that is required to understand what that work is: its forms and traditions. The form of epic poetry, the meter, quotations etc. are internal to the work. This information is internal to the type (or genre) of art that is being examined, and includes those things physically present in the work itself. Analysis of an artwork based on internal evidence never presents an intentional fallacy.
- External evidence
- What is not literally contained in the work itself is external to that work, including all statements the artist made privately or published in journals about the work, or in conversations, letters, and similar sources. External evidence is concerned with claims about why the artist made the work: reasons external to the fact of the work in itself. Evidence of this type is directly concerned with what the artist may have intended to do even or especially when it is not apparent from the work itself.
- Contextual evidence
- The third type of evidence (as defined by New Criticism) concerns any meanings produced from a particular work's relationship to other art made by the same artist—including its exhibition (where, when and by whom). The use of biographical information in a discussion of an artwork does not necessarily indicate an intentional fallacy. The meaning of an artist's work may be affected by the particulars of who does the work (identity) without necessarily that interpretation as an intentional fallacy.[clarification needed]
Thus, a text's internal evidence — the words themselves, and their meanings — is open for literary analysis. External evidence — anything not contained within the text itself, such as information about the poet's life — belongs to literary biography, not the postmodern view literary criticism.[clarification needed] Preoccupation with the author "leads away from the poem." According to the opinion of New Criticism, a poem does not belong to its author, but rather "it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it. The poem belongs to the public," thus preying on the popular idea in modernity that access to information and intellectual property is a right that the founder (in this case, the author) cannot claim to possess. Contextual evidence often presents the greatest potential for mistaken intentional conclusions and interpretation. Analysis using this type of evidence can easily become more concerned with external evidence than the internal content of the work; a proper balance should be desired. However, contextual evidence can be extremely useful to the laymen as a large portion of the intended meaning can be determined only when one understands the contextual information that is inherently assumed to be within the readers understanding. One cannot read a work of classic literature and transpose modern cultural practices into it and expect the work to remain the same work.
In psychoanalytic criticism, the author's biography and unconscious state were seen as part of the text, and therefore the author's intent could be revived from a literary text—although the intent might be an unconscious one.
Cambridge School contextualism
The Cambridge School of contextualist hermeneutics, a position most elaborated by Quentin Skinner, in the first instances distinguishes linguistic meaning from speech-acts: that is to say, things which the performance of an utterance does. Consider the following. Typically, the ceremony of marriage concludes upon the exchange of the utterance "I do". In such a case, to utter "I do" is not merely to report an internal disposition, but to perform an action, namely, to get married. The intended force of "I do" in such a circumstance is only ever retrievable through understanding something about the complex social activity of marriage. Indeed, to understand a speech-act is to understand what conventions are regulating its significance. Since actions are always publicly legible – they are done by the speech itself – this presupposes no knowledge about the author's mental states. The task is always thus: with as much contextual information as possible, can we establish which conventions a text was interacting with, and by inference to the best explanation, what the author's intent was.
In post-structuralism, there are a variety of approaches to authorial intent. For deconstruction, the authorial intent is again irrelevant and unknowable. Furthermore, the critic's will and intention are superior to the author's (cf. Roland Barthes's "The Death of the Author" and his S/Z). In other post-structuralist approaches, authorial intent exists as a psychological phenomenon, and texts endlessly recreate psycho-linguistic battles. For some of the theorists deriving from Jacques Lacan, and in particular theories variously called écriture féminine, gender and sex predetermine the ways that texts will emerge, and the language of textuality itself will present an argument that is potentially counter to the author's conscious intent.
For Marxist literary theorists, the author's intent is always a code for a particular set of ideologies in the author's own day. For Marxists (especially those of the Soviet Realism type), authorial intent is manifest in the text and must be placed in a context of liberation and the materialist dialectic. However, Marxist-derived theorists have seen authorial intent in a much more nuanced way. Raymond Williams, for example, posits literary productions always within a context of emerging, resistant, and synthetic ideological positions. The author's intent is recoverable from the text, but there is always encoded within it several separate positions. The author might be arguing consciously for empire, but hidden within that argument will be a response to a counterargument and a presentation of an emerging synthesis. Some members of the reception theory group (Hans Robert Jauss, in particular) have approximated the Marxist view by arguing that the forces of cultural reception reveal the ideological positions of both author and readership.
Reader Response critics view the authorial intent variously. In general, they have argued that the author's intent itself is immaterial and cannot be fully recovered. However, the author's intent will shape the text and limit the possible interpretations of a work. The reader's impression of the author's intent is a working force in interpretation, but the author's actual intent is not.
Weak intentionalism combines intentionalism with insights from reader response. Mark Bevir in The Logic of the History of Ideas sees meanings as necessarily intentional but suggests that the relevant intentions can be those of readers as well as those of authors. Weak intentionalists privilege intentionality to emphasize that texts do not have meanings in themselves. They believe that meanings are always meanings for people - albeit the relevant people, whether authors or readers.
In textual criticism
Authorial intention is of great practical concern to some textual critics. These are known as intentionalists and are identified with the Bowers-Tanselle school of thought. Their editions have as one of their most important goals the recovery of the author's intentions (generally final intentions). When preparing a work for the press, an editor working along the principles outlined by Fredson Bowers and G. Thomas Tanselle will attempt to construct a text that is close to the author's final intentions. For transcription and typesetting, authorial intentionality can be considered paramount.
An intentionalist editor would constantly investigate the documents for traces of authorial intention. On one hand, it can be argued that the author always intends whatever the author writes and that at different points in time the same author might have very different intentions. On the other hand, an author may in some cases write something he or she did not intend. For example, an intentionalist would consider for emendation the following cases:
- The authorial manuscript misspells a word: an error in intention, it is usually assumed. Editorial procedures for works available in no 'authorized editions' (and even those are not always exempt) often specify correcting such errors.
- The authorial manuscript presents what appears to be a misformat of the text: a sentence has been left in run-on form. It is assumed that the author might have regretted not beginning a new paragraph, etc.: but he or she did not see this problem until afterwards, until rereading.
- The authorial manuscript presents a factual error.
In cases such as these where the author is living, they would be questioned by the editor who would then adhere to the intention expressed. In cases where the author is deceased, an intentionalist would attempt to approach authorial intention. The strongest voices countering an emphasis on authorial intent in scholarly editing have been D. F. McKenzie and Jerome McGann, proponents of a model that accounts for the "social text," tracing material transformations and embodiments of works while not privileging one version over another.
- Hix, H. L. (1990). Morte d'Author: An Autopsy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 978-0877227342.
- Devlin, Daniel (2005). Late Modern. Susak Press. ISBN 978-1905659005.
- Burke, Seán (2010). The Death and Return of the Author: Criticism and Subjectivity in Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida (3 ed.). Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 978-0748637119.
- Talamo, Roberto (2013). Intenzione e iniziativa (1 ed.). Progedit. ISBN 978-8861941878.