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  • A Fallacy in the Intentional Fallacy
  • James Downey

According to a famous argument by W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, the intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard by which to judge the success of a work of literary art. I wish to focus on the former allegation. The author's intention is not available as a standard by which to judge a work's success, it is argued, because "If the poet succeeded in doing it [the intention], then the poem itself shows what he was trying to do. And if the poet did not succeed, then the poem is not adequate evidence, and the critic must go outside the poem."1

The intent of this reasoning is not entirely clear. It is intended to pose a dilemma for intentionalism, but what is the dilemma supposed to be? What difficulty is there for intentionalism if the poem itself shows what the author's intention was? Perhaps it is supposed to follow that somehow intentionalism would be purposeless. Perhaps the point is Socratic: if the intention is successful, then the reader automatically knows it was intended, so that the intention cannot be sought. Or, perhaps it is the success which cannot be sought. The idea may be that one automatically knows the extent of success precisely to the extent that one recognizes the intention. Perhaps both points are intended.

On the other side of the dilemma, suppose the intention is not successful and the critic "must go outside the poem." Is this supposed to imply that whatever meaning is thereby discovered will not be the poem's meaning? Or, is the idea that being forced to go outside the poem for evidence of its meaning violates some essential goal of intentionalism? [End Page 149]

It is not my main concern, however, to question the implications of the argument's premises. I wish to challenge the basic premise, itself, that if an intention is successful then the work would show that it was the author's intention. I will assume that this means, at least, that the reader would understand a certain intention and know that it was the author's intention, and that the work would provide this knowledge.

Sometimes an author deliberately composes without thematic intentions. I take my example from cinematic art because it is a particularly striking example, and the point clearly holds for other forms of art. Furthermore, the intentional fallacy is usually thought to apply to other forms of art in addition to literary art. So, let us consider the method which Salvador Dalí claims that he and Luis Buñuel used when creating Un Chien Andalou, to put together whatever images came to their mind without any particular intentions directing them. Indeed, Dalí claimed, if there was even a pause between the artists, a mere moment when it seemed as though some directed thought might be beginning to take hold of them, he and Buñuel immediately discarded that idea. They retained only those ideas which arose with no thematic intentions, or intentions as to larger meaning. (We may set aside the fact that there were still formal intentions, such as what images to present, in what order, etc.—although even this can be eliminated to some degree, as when an artist cuts up bits of sound tapes and splices them together willy-nilly, and so forth.) In such a work of art, it is not possible that any such intentions be shown, since there are none.

But there is still a definite intention behind such art, namely, the intention to compose with no thematic intentions. This intention could be successfully shown to an audience through a work, certainly. However, Dalís often intend otherwise (so they say). They may intend not to reveal whether or not there are certain, or even any, thematic intentions (perhaps that is an intentional anti-religious theme in that scene in Un Chien Andalou, after all; we do not know.) Perhaps, even, Dalí does not want us to know whether he wants us not to know. An intention not to reveal might apply to the intention not to reveal. What a grand game...