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Some avowals are what Dorit Bar-On calls “Reportive Avowals”; they express the avower’s mental state directly, but nevertheless have propositional content. I argue that some poems are Reportive Avowals (“PARAs”). They are tools for expressing strong but conflicting emotions; poems by Emily Dickinson are examples. Wittgenstein was right about intentions not being clearly separable from their expressions. The intentions of a poet in writing a poem cannot be neatly separated from the poem. Therefore, understanding a PARA requires understanding the poet’s intentions. Writing and reading PARAs can enhance our understanding of what it means to avow.

In this article, I focus on the way one can avow emotions and beliefs in poetry, with an emphasis on emotional expression. I want to show how the so-called Neo-Expressivism concerning self-attributions and avowals can help us understand the nature of emotional expression in poetry. The emphasis is on the way people use poems as vehicles for avowals of emotion and the way that emotions can shine through poems even though the poets did not intend to show those emotions. In order to show that this is possible I shall give a short defense of a moderate, Wittgensteinian intentionalism and interpretative pluralism with respect to the understanding of literary works.


What is an avowal? The Israeli philosopher Dorit Bar-On says that avowals have traditionally been understood as “ordinary present-tense self-ascriptions of occurrent states of mind.”1 She is the leading [End Page 375] proponent of Neo-Expressivism concerning avowals. In her view, Neo-Expressivism should be discriminated from that which she calls “Simple Expressivism.” Both Simple Expressivism and Neo-Expressivism are off-shoots of Wittgenstein’s analysis of such mental expressions as “pain.” Like their Austrian master, proponents of both brands of expressivism focus on the similarity between self-attributions and other modes of self-expression, such as the shouting of “ouch!” These expressions are devoid of propositional content; they do not possess any truth values. According to Bar-On, the Simple Expressivist maintains that self-attributions, which seem to be propositional—such as “I am sad,” “I am in pain,” and “I want that”—also lack propositional content. They only express mental states, in much the same manner that shouting “hooray!” expresses joy and blushing expresses embarrassment.

Bar-On says that some theorists interpret Wittgenstein as holding a Simple Expressivist view, but adds that nobody has explicitly endorsed Simple Expressivism. She and her associate Douglas C. Long see matters differently from the way the Simple Expressivists (if they do exist!) do.2 The twosome point out that Simple Expressivism cannot account for the apparent validity of the following reasoning:

  1. 1. If I am in pain, then someone is in pain.

  2. 2. I am in pain.

  3. 3. Someone is in pain.

If the avowal “I am in pain” has no truth conditions, then no true proposition can follow from it. Yet, apparently, it can. Therefore, Bar-On postulates the existence of semantic continuity between avowals and reports; if I avow that I am in pain, then it is true that Mr. Snævarr is in pain. There is a semantic continuity between the avowal and the description of my condition from a third-person perspective.

Further, expressions are in one sense acts; in another sense they are products of acts. Some of these products are meaningful, having a semantic dimension; Bar-On calls them “s-expressions,” while expressive acts are “a-expressions.” By a-expressing my pain in screaming “I am in pain!” I make a product, which is s-expressive; the sentence uttered is obviously meaningful.

Bar-On and her associates argue in favor of at least an important part of our self-attributions being avowals, or, more precisely, avowals with a difference because they have propositional content. Self-attributions in avowals are produced neither by observation nor by reflection; they are [End Page 376] not reason based. They are immune to errors of misidentification and misascription. This means that, when avowing, I cannot fail to identify myself as the “I” that avows, and I cannot fail to ascribe to myself the mental condition I am actually avowing. This points in the direction of avowals not being based on observations or reflection; observations and reflection are typically fallible, in contrast to self-attributions. When I issue an avowal, avowing myself to be in the mental state M, I do not have any reason for believing that someone is in M independent from my thinking that I am in M. Likewise, I have no other reason for thinking that I am in some mental state or another that is independent of simply thinking that I am in M.

The implication of this is that self-identification and ascription of mental states in avowals are not recognitional judgments. Such judgments are reason based, but avowals apparently are not. It would be misleading to say that I have a direct epistemic access to the mental states that I avow; avowals are not epistemically based at all. This explains the particular security of avowals, their immunity to error. Avowals express our mental states as if coming directly from these states; they are epistemically direct. The sincere avower is speaking her mind. Bar-On talks about “transparency to the subject’s condition”; a sincere avowal, so to speak, manifests the mental condition the subject (the avower) is in.

As one might guess, the propositional moment of the avowal comes into the picture in the dimension of s-expression. If I blush, my blush expresses my embarrassment but it does not have any propositional content. If I say “this ice cream is chocolate flavored,” I am obviously putting forth a proposition, but its content is epistemically indirect. However, if I am sincere in exclaiming “I want to eat that ice cream,” then I am both directly expressing my desire for the ice cream and putting forth a proposition.

Natural expressions display desires directly; a baby displays a desire for a teddy bear by reaching out to it. In the course of her socialization, the baby learns to replace these expressions with avowals in the proper sense, such as “I want the teddy.” An avowal proper is a spontaneous expression of a mental state that is neither mediated by a judgment nor accompanied by an explicit intention to inform others that one is in that state. Such an avowal can be produced in silent thought; we can make avowals proper by thinking to ourselves thoughts like “I hope this ends soon.” Alternatively, we may make avowals proper by behaving in certain ways, for instance by kissing the photo of our beloved in the solitude of our lodgings or by screaming in anger while living in [End Page 377] isolation. Avowals proper do not have to have a communicative point, in contrast to nonevidential Reportive Avowals. To inform others about our occurrent mental states is the business of such Reportive Avowals; we can put avowals proper to reportive use. In this regard, they may look like ordinary reports made from a third-person perspective. Yet they do not only report about a condition but also articulate it, express it.

Now, from this exposition of Neo-Expressivism, one might get the impression that Bar-On thinks that a sincere avowal cannot fail. In fact, she does not exclude the possibility of expressive failures, such as when someone screams “it hurts” while anticipating pain but not actually feeling it, mistaking fear of pain for the pain itself (SMM, pp. 323–24).


Neo-Expressivism is not above criticism. It has some problems related to intentional avowals. Take the avowal of love as an example. John is being completely sincere when he avows his love for Jane. Still, he never caresses her, cheats on her regularly, and beats her whenever she shows any interest in another man. So one might ask whether John has not mistaken sexual attraction, coupled with a need to dominate, for love. His behavior indicates that something is wrong with his avowal, unless he uses the expression “love” in a very idiosyncratic manner.

Nonetheless, there is also a moment of expressivity in intentional avowals. John can hardly be mistaken about thinking or feeling that he is in love. The fact that he can hardly be mistaken about this conforms to the Neo-Expressivist model.

When making intentional avowals, we can be mistaken about the nature of the mental state that we are avowing. John was wrong about the intentional object of his emotion. Avowing that one is in a mental state is not a recognitional judgment, but avowing what the state is can be a question of a fallible judgment. Sensations like pain have no intentional objects, but love has. Avowing pain sincerely is usually speaking one’s mind directly without passing any judgment. However, avowing love contains both moments of directness and the passing of fallible judgments; witness John’s false judgment.

In cases where we sincerely attribute simple desires and feelings to ourselves, we seem to make the attributions very swiftly, without any need to take stand on the status of whatever beliefs we might hold. Further, such avowals tend to have roots in nonverbal expressions that can nevertheless be verbalized. Call this kind of avowal a “pure” [End Page 378] Expressive Avowal (EA). Sincere avowals of desire, thirst, hunger, or pain are pure EAs. Intentional avowals that include avowing strong sensations and complex emotions like love can be called “impure” EAs; the intentional object makes them impure. Avowals of strong desires and intense emotions are impure EAs. They have intentional objects, but involve avowing strongly felt sensations. Thus, avowing finding someone erotically attractive involves both an intentional object and a strongly felt sensation. The same holds for the sorrow, avowed by a parent, grieving over a lost child. It holds for all kinds of avowals, including intentional ones, that they have a moment of expressivity owing to the fact that the sincere avower cannot doubt that he thinks/feels that he is in the mental state he avows.

The conclusion must be that even though Neo-Expressionism has its limitations, expressivity is a factor in all avowals, and that there are avowals that conform perfectly to the Neo-Expressivist model, i.e., pure Expressive Avowals.


I shall examine poems as means for communication; not only about that which the poet intends to communicate but also about the way emotions and intentions can shine through poems without those expressions being necessarily intended by the poet. Moreover, I shall explore how the reader receives the message put forth in the poem, intentionally or not. I shall focus on the way poetry avows emotions, and try to show how Neo-Expressivism can help us to understand the nature of these kinds of poetic avowals. In order to do so I must consider the concept of intention, because avowing is an act and there is no act without an intention. In addition, knowing the intentions of the poet can be of importance when it comes to understanding poems in general, not only those that contain avowals.

As is well known, emotions are often expressed in confessional and expressive poetry. Neo-Expressivism might help us to get a good grip on this kind of poetry, thanks to the idea that avowals can have propositional content. After all, most poems cannot help but be meaningful, at the same time as common sense tells us that a poet can avow his occurrent state of mind in a poem. Furthermore, it hardly makes sense to say that a poet can be completely mistaken about what he wants to express in a poem or at least about what he thinks he wants to express in it. So when addressing avowals in poetry, I am not only focusing on [End Page 379] the product of the avowal but also the act. And talking about the act means talking about emotions felt, which seek expression. In short: I am not only talking about the way we understand poems but also about the way they are created.

I shall not define the word “intention” but only point out that some theorists understand it as referring to some kind of blueprint in the mind, hidden from view (call this “the blueprint view”).3 On this view, intentions are desires to bring about X, in addition to beliefs about X, and the means to bring X about. Those who are inspired by Wittgenstein argue that intentions are woven into our actions, utterances, and their products. Call this “the Neo-Wittgensteinian view,” a view I share. The Wittgensteinians say that the blueprint view implies that there is no logical connection between intentions and their products, whether acts or texts. But in their view, this is wrong. It does not make sense to call A “an act” unless A is regarded as intentional. If the doctor uses a small hammer to test my reflexes and I kick him as a result, we would not call the kicking “an act.” If I kick him because I am angry with him because the bill is too high, then I have performed an act, the act of kicking deliberately.

Let us assume that you say that you have the intention to avow your love to Ms. X, but you do not do anything about it even though you have ample chance to do so, and no other obligations or stronger desires to do anything else. If you were not lying, you might ask yourself whether you really did want to avow your love to Ms. X, even though you sort of believed you did. Maybe you just half-believe that you want to do so, toy with the idea of such an avowal without really wanting it (maybe this points in the direction of your being wrong about your emotions, that you are not really in love with Ms. X). There is no act without intention and no intention without an act or an attempt to act, given the possibility. There is a conceptual link between intentions and acts; not necessarily in the sense of two different concepts, that of intention and that of act, being thus linked. Rather these two allegedly different concepts are in reality not different concepts but two subconcepts of the same concept. Call it “act-intention.”

Georg Henrik von Wright regarded intentions as the inner aspects of acts.4 They can also be regarded as properties of acts, as Stuart Hampshire maintained. An intention is that which makes A an act and not a natural event. Further it is the quality of A that makes it an act of a particular person, something that truly belongs to him or her.5 These two views do not contradict each other but show two aspects of one [End Page 380] concept, act-intention: the inner aspect and the property aspect. Given this one-concept view, the relationship between acts and intentions is a bit like the relationship of the whole and its parts. We cannot say that the parts cause the whole or vice versa; likewise it does not make sense to talk about intentions as causes. Intentions and acts are two sides of the same coin.

Intentions do not dwell in a shadowy realm of the mind but are logically tied to actual or potential acts in virtue of being their inner aspects and properties. Intentionality shows itself in the way people and even animals behave; I do not form the conscious intention of taking a given step when I am walking in a certain direction, but my walking is nonetheless intentional. Seeing that I am walking in determined fashion toward a certain location means understanding that I have the intention of reaching that location, unless I suddenly change course. In a similar fashion, intentionality shows itself in texts, including poems. Writing is an act, and therefore there must be logical ties between some of the intentions an author has had in writing a given text and the act itself. There cannot be a gap between the author’s intentions and his act of writing. Colin Lyas points out that we cannot describe X as a work of art, in contrast to X just being a natural object, unless we suppose an intentional agency being involved in the creation of X.6 Further, a text has a purposive structure just like the act of walking. This structure embodies some of the intentions of the text’s author, just like my walking embodies some of my intentions in getting somewhere. The intentions that are of the greatest importance for the understanding of my act are to a large extent those that are embodied in my walking. In a similar fashion, the intentions that are most important for the understanding of a text are largely those that are evident in the text itself.

Wittgenstein himself says, “An intention is embedded in its situation, in human customs and institutions. If the technique of the game of chess did not exist, I could not intend to play a game of chess.”7 Intentions are institutional, and as such are embedded in forms of life. The institutions are constituted by practices, conventions, and rules. Let us look at an example of the roles of rules in intention: I see a person who is standing on a sidewalk, looking at the cars on the street and waving his hand. Then a taxi stops and the person enters it and the taxi drives away. I can be pretty sure that the person in question waved his hand in order to get a taxi; we have an informal rule in our society that such waving can be used to signal a desire to get a taxi.8 A necessary condition for my understanding his action is that I know the rule in question. A [End Page 381] necessary condition for understanding a Japanese haiku poem is knowing the rules that constitute such poems.

I now turn to the institutions. The institutions constitute social roles, say the role of the art critic or taxpayer, and a person can have one set of intentions qua art critic, another qua taxpayer. A person living fifty thousand years ago could not have formed the intention of writing a poem, since the art of writing, and the institutions in which it is embedded, did not exist. He or she could not have formed the intention of creating a pure work of art, since that intention is made possible by certain informal institutions (of art) and forms of life that did not exist fifty thousand years ago. So understanding a poem requires knowing what intentions could have been formed within the relevant institutions and forms of life by the bearers of the relevant social roles. It does not make any sense to regard a Stone Age poem as being suffused with artistic intentions, and a modernist poem as being soaked through with the intentions of enhancing the hunt for saber-toothed cats. The social role of the artist did not exist in the Stone Age, and the Stone Age social role of the shaman has no place in the institutions of modern art. When we look for intentionality in poetry, we have to look for the institutional intentions of the bearers of the relevant social roles. Knowing them is the key to understanding the intentions that individual authors have had in writing their poems.

What about texts that have not been intentionally created—for example, automatic writing and the writing of computers? In order to perform writing automatically you must form the intention of doing so. Moreover, computer programs are made by people who have certain intentions in making them, and the programs are created to simulate intentional writing. Furthermore, understanding automatic texts and computer texts requires intentional acts of grasping and interpreting texts. Those acts in turn are made possible by institutions, social roles, and forms of life. The paradigmatic case of a text is a text that is somehow intentional; take the intentionality away and the texts stops being meaningful. Meaning is not created by intentions alone; conventions, contexts, and the points of view of the readers also contribute.

Now, someone might ask whether intentional interpretations of literary artworks really are prerequisite for understanding such artworks. However suffused with intentionality, they can be regarded as independent objects, independent of the particular intentions the authors had, the critic might say. For instance, a text can contain a logical contradiction, not intended by the author, but which changes the whole aesthetical [End Page 382] function of the text. The answer is that we must, at least in some cases, invoke actual intentions of the author in order to understand works of imaginative literature or parts of them. Lyas has a good point when he says that certain forms of parody and irony can only be appreciated if one knows what kind of imitation is being undertaken. Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal cannot be understood unless one assumes that the author had parodic intentions (“WI,” p. 143).

Having said this, I must add that I do not doubt that sometimes we can focus on a literary work of art as something that is, for all intents and purposes, devoid of authorial intentions. The non-Wittgensteinian intentionalist Noël Carroll does not exclude the possibility of cases where ignoring authorial intention can be the most fruitful way of understanding literary artworks. He quite correctly says that there might be cases where such an anti-intentionalist approach is the most aesthetically satisfying. Still, we bring other interests to literary texts besides the aesthetic one; Carroll talks about “conversational interests.” We want to have virtual conversations with artists, establish a sort of community with them. In addition, conversing with people means trying to find out what they mean with their utterances. Therefore, we look for what the authors meant with utterances when we have virtual conversations with them.9

The problem here is the question of who the author is. Is she primarily a function of the social role of an author or the real individual, whatever that may be? The Solomonic judgment is that possible conversational games come into play where the reader converses with the author, while regarding him/her as a function of the role of the author. There are other games where the “real” individual is in focus, and a host of games that consist of conversations with mixtures of the two. We can also have other conversational interests, for example, in having virtual conversations with characters such as Hamlet, and with the implied authors of literary artworks. This makes good sense on the Wittgensteinian view; literature is a part of our practices and forms of life. It does not exist in a platonic dimension, separated from our concerns and interests, including our interest in conversations. We focus on literary artworks in various, legitimate ways. There cannot be such a thing as the only possible, absolutely true, understanding of them. We play various interpretative games; no such thing as the correct game exists. We can conclude by saying that there are legitimate, interpretative games where the interpreter engages in a virtual conversation with the writer and tries to guess the intentions he has consciously expressed in his literary artworks. And there are also interpretative games where we [End Page 383] focus on the intentionality that shines through the work, even though the author was not aware of it. Moreover, there are interpretative games where we pay attention to the virtual intentions and avowals of implied authors, speaking voices, and fictional characters.

Which brings me back to avowals. Avowing something means expressing something intentionally, having the intention of making an avowal and acting accordingly. We cannot draw a sharp dividing line between an avowal and its expression, just as we cannot draw such a line between intentions and acts. There is a difference between authentic and inauthentic avowals, between real and feigned intentions. In our daily lives, discriminating between authentic and inauthentic avowals is of paramount importance; we need to know whether we can trust other people. However, on the blueprint view, we cannot exclude the possibility of everyone being a liar and every avowal insincere. On this view, we might all be deluded by the Demon of Avowals, a being that lures us into thinking that there are sincere avowals while in reality, there are no such things. Then again, the neo-Wittgensteinians have a different (and correct) view: avowals and intentions do not originate in an invisible dimension of the mind but are embedded in actions and utterances such that the content of an avowal cannot be separated neatly from its public expression (given this, the demon argument loses whatever force it has). This means that in poetry we can to a large extent determine the sincerity of purported avowals just by looking at poems themselves.

Given what I have said about intentions, we do not have any compelling reasons to believe that there must be a gulf between the avowals of ordinary lives and those that are put forth in poetry. We sometimes need to evaluate the authenticity of avowals in our daily lives. When we are playing the interpretative game of conversing with the poet, and in that process interpret poems that contain avowals, we certainly need to focus on their authenticity. We know for a fact that people write poems in order to avow their innermost feelings; they use poems as Reportive Avowals. I see no prima facie reason to think that they are always deluding themselves about this. Further, it is hardly more difficult to find out whether or not a poet has expressed a sincere avowal in a poem than ascertaining whether a person is being sincere in making a verbal or behavioral avowal.

Take for instance the following sentence from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “I think that the river is a strong brown god— . . .”10 If the “I” in this sentence denotes the poet himself, and not some fictional speaking voice of the poem, then we can guess that this is not a sincere avowal. As is [End Page 384] well known, Eliot was a devout Christian, so he hardly believed in river gods. Now, remember what I said about the variety of conversational interests. We can be interested in a conversation with the speaking voice of the poem, the one that avows a belief in river gods. A good poet can write as if making sincere avowals, just like good actor can act as if making such avowals. The poet’s speaking voices are like the roles of actors, as can be seen in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott. The lady avows that she is half-sick of shadows.11 This avowal by the fictional character sounds convincing in light of the poem as a whole. Such avowals of poets and actors can be called “virtual avowals.” “Real” avowals I call “actual avowals.”

I shall be playing a kind of conversational, interpretive game in this article; conversing mainly with an actual poet, Emily Dickinson, partly with her possibly (virtual) implied authors/speaking voices. I will be looking for both actual and virtual intentions and avowals expressed in her poems. I will of course not draw a sharp, dividing line between the poems on one hand, the intentions and avowals on the other hand. The avowals are largely embedded in their poetic expression.


There is a subclass of the class of poems that is entirely or largely personal/confessional/expressive, and that subclass should be defined in terms of Reportive Avowals. A poem where the poet confesses that she was in love with somebody ten years ago would not count as a member of this subclass. This emotion from the past is not an occurrent one.

I use the expression “poems that are Reportive Avowals” (PARA) for poems that belong to this subclass. They are confessional poems, where the speaking voice typically uses a first-person singular pronoun (“I”) to express (or seeming to express) an occurrent feeling or desire. The concept of PARA comprises two elements: the pure avowal and the reportive. I distinguish between actual and virtual PARAs; the first one avows actual emotions, and the second one the virtual emotions of speaking voices or implied authors. The poet can make a virtual PARA either consciously or unintentionally.

Let us look at an example of a PARA, Emily Dickinson’s poem “Longing”: [End Page 385]

I envy seas whereon he rides,   I envy spokes of wheels Of chariots that him convey,   I envy speechless hills

That gaze upon his journey;

In the third stanza, Dickinson says:

I envy nests of sparrows That dot his distant eaves

In the fifth stanza, she writes:

I envy light that wakes him12

Now, is Dickinson avowing an occurrent feeling in this poem? Given that intentions cannot be neatly separated from their expressions, the poem itself must count when it comes to deciding whether the poet had the intention of making a sincere avowal. When I see a person walk in a determined fashion toward a location, I cannot prove that he has the intention of reaching the location. It suffices to point toward him and say, “Do you not see that he has the intention of going toward this place?” The same holds for poetry; reading “Longing” shows the intention of avowing an occurrent feeling. I might be wrong about the man walking; perhaps he was feigning an intention, and suddenly makes a turn away from the location. I also might be wrong about the poem; maybe the poet was not entirely truthful or she was describing nonoccurent feelings. However, expressing and avowing emotions has, since the Romantic age, been regarded as part of the role of the author; Dickinson must have been familiar with the rules of that role. Knowing more about Dickinson, and what thoughts she had when writing the poem, certainly would help in determining whether the poem is an actual PARA.

The problem is that not much is known about her private life. However, she is thought to have harbored romantic feelings toward some gentlemen and even to have had a romantic liaison or two.13 She only published a handful of poems during her lifetime, although she sent poems, enclosed in letters, to friends (ED, pp. 87–88). Nevertheless, most of her poems were like parts of her private diary, and therefore, she likely expressed her sincere feelings in at least some of them. She [End Page 386] had no need to hide her emotions if no one except herself were to read the poems. “Longing” sounds like a genuine avowal; the speaking voice in it seems to be Dickinson herself—so we have good reasons to classify the poem as an actual PARA. It almost goes without saying that the emotion avowed is longing. However, “envy” functions metaphorically; the speaking voice of the poem can hardly maintain seriously that it envies seas or wheels.

“Longing” can hardly have been meant ironically; Dickinson’s poems seldom seem to be ironical. Take the poem “Consecration”: finding any irony in it would be a strenuous task. “Consecration” is a short poem; here it is in its entirety:

Proud of my broken heart since thou didst break it,   Proud of the pain I did not feel till thee, Proud of my night since thou with moons dost slake it,   Not to partake thy passion, my humility.14

Even though the pronoun “I” is not used, we can see that it is implied: “I am proud of my broken heart,” “pain,” etc. Therefore, it can be called a PARA. The pride that is being avowed in the poem is no ordinary pride but a pride mixed with sorrow and pain. “Pride” as used in this poem can be understood metaphorically, just like “envy” in “Longing.” Dickinson is avowing a strange kind of pride in feeling strongly about someone. She seems to be saying that it is better to have been painfully in love once than never to have felt love. The loved one illuminates (“slakes”) her nights with moons, so the love felt does not only plunge her into darkness but also into this moonlight.

We tend to use metaphors, similes, analogies, and other poetic devices when avowing emotions in ordinary life. One reason is the nature of emotional concepts. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson correctly point out that emotional concepts are usually difficult to define. We often cannot make a clear-cut separation between being in love with someone and just being fond of that someone. Nonetheless, we get a better grip on certain aspects of love by calling it, metaphorically, “a journey.”15 Thus, we avow our feeling that a relationship is over by saying, “I feel that our journey is coming to an end.” We avow feeling offended by saying, for instance, “her words cut like a knife,” thereby using a simile. We need to liken our emotions to something more tangible, in this case the feeling of corporeal pain. The “mineness” of subjective feelings makes them hard to convey to others, so we tend to liken them to intersubjectively [End Page 387] accessible objects, like journeys. Thus, we need to be somewhat poetical when avowing emotions in our workaday world, using such poetic devices as metaphors and similes. Therefore it is not by chance that we often use poems to avow our emotions.

Dickinson certainly did so in “Longing,” using envy metaphorically. The feelings expressed were of such a strong, mysterious nature that she had to use metaphors to express them. Her poetic avowal is an EA, an impure one since it involves an intentional object: her pride in certain emotions toward another person. Such avowals are ineffable in the sense of being largely beyond the logical space of reasons. Further, one cannot know what an EA is solely by analyzing the concept of Expressive Avowals or by observing people making EAs. One has to experience this kind of avowing or to be able to imagine what it is like. A PARA can help us imagine what it is for another person to make EAs or what it means in general to make EAs. And, of course, a poet might learn a lot about the act side of EAs by contemplating the way he or she writes real PARAs (an EA has both an act side and an intention side; witness act-intention). The process of writing such poems can be a learning experience; it can help us become aware of the process of making EAs.

This holds both for the writing of actual and virtual PARAs; writing virtual ones can help the poet imagine what is for others to make EAs. We can also contemplate the process of expressing emotions through an actual PARA; this contemplation gives us the necesssary distance to the act side of the avowal. At the same time, writing a virtual PARA might help us obtain this distance; we avow emotion on behalf of others and can therefore see them as from afar. Avowing emotions on behalf of someone else in a virtual PARA might also strengthen our ability to imagine how other people feel. The combination of writing the PARA and contemplating it afterwards can increase our understanding of the act side; we understand it by combining an inside and outside perspective on it.

Both writing and reading PARAs can help us understand what it means to attribute strong emotions or desires to oneself by avowing. The expressive part of the poetic avowal is connected to the act side of the avowal; it can give us a glimpse of the epistemic directness of this self-attribution. It can show us how people experience this directness. We can obviously avow by just making a sound, screaming “ow!” when in pain and so on. In similar fashion, we can make avowals with the aid of rhythm; for example, venting anger by banging a drum in a metrical manner. The epistemic directness manifests itself in the drumming [End Page 388] and facial expressions of the drummer. Rhythm in poetry can do the same job, that is, manifest the epistemic directness. Dickinson creates a dramatic rhythm in both of the poems quoted here. By rhythmically repeating “I envy” in “Longing,” or “Proud” in “Consecration,” the reader gets the impression of the poet (or some implied voice) shouting again and again, just like a person who sincerely avows intense joy or pain by shouting, again and again, “hooray!” or “ouch!”—the repetition underlining the importance or urgency of the emotion avowed. In Dickinson’s case, she seems to be shouting “hooray!” and “ouch!” simultaneously and repeatedly.

The receiver of a PARA (the reader) can immerse himself in the rhythm and, in virtue of this immersion, get a better grip on the epistemic directness of the PARA. (Try reading Dickinson’s poems aloud a couple of times and stress the rhythm.) The rhythm helps to put him in the same or similar mood as the avower of the emotions avowed in the PARA, thus making him feel the epistemic directness of the poem’s emotional expression.

The semantic side of the poetic avowal is connected to its product side; this part can show us the nature of experiencing the emotions avowed. It does so by estrangement created by, for instance, original, fresh metaphors. Think of Dickinson’s metaphor in lines such as, “Proud of my night since thou with moons dost slake it.” The estrangement helps us see the emotions and desires as from a distance; we see it as a whole and this helps us to get a better grip on the nature of this emotion. Through the metaphor of the moonlit night, we see the strange, dialectical tension involved in the avowed painful, but blissful, love. We can understand the physical basis of such love by analyzing the functions of small bits of matter, but understanding what it means to be in love in this painful/blissful fashion requires grasping the emotion holistically. There is no such thing as experiencing or imaging atom-like elements of the mental state of being painfully/blissfully in love.

Typically, the interplay between immersion and estrangement enhances our understanding of emotions, which are avowed in PARAs. We can immerse ourselves in Dickinson’s poems and through this immersion try to feel the emotions avowed in the way she does. At the same time, the metaphors of the poems give us a certain distance from the emotions. The PARAs provide us with food for thought concerning these emotions in a way that can enhance our understanding of them.

Even though I think that Dickinson’s poems are actual PARAs, I do not exclude the possibility that they are virtual PARAs, either intentional [End Page 389] or unintentional. The poet might have been making virtual avowals on behalf of some fictional, speaking voices. Doing so has been common since the Romantic age; witness Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott. If “Longing” is a virtual PARA, then Dickinson has succeeded in making the avowals sound real, even though it might not even have been her intention to write an actual PARA. The aforementioned aptness of her metaphors, and the intensity of the poem, not least thanks to its rhythm, make it sound authentic.


We have seen that there is a large grain of truth in Neo-Expressivism with regard to avowals, even though Neo-Expressivism has problems explaining the nature of intentional avowals. Nonetheless, all avowals have a moment of expressivity, and that fact speaks for Neo-Expressivism. Further, there is an important class of avowals that I term “Expressive Avowals” (EAs). I have also argued in favor of a moderate, Wittgensteinian intentionalism concerning the understanding of literary works. Knowing a poet’s intention to avow a certain emotion in a poem can be an important clue for understanding the poem. Various legitimate, interpretive games can be played; in some of them we focus on actual intentions of the author, in others on his virtual intentions.

Neo-Expressivism can help us conceptualize certain kinds of personal, confessional, and expressive poems: those which I call PARAs, poems that are Reportive Avowals. PARAs can be either actual or virtual; they can be either intentional or unintentional. They help us to avow some of our most deeply felt emotions and aid our understanding of emotions felt by other people. They have cognitive value, aiding our understanding of the nature of avowals and emotions.

Stefán Snævarr
Norway Innland University of Applied Sciences


1. Dorit Bar-On, Speaking My Mind: Expression and Self-Knowledge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004), p. 131; hereafter abbreviated SMM.

2. Dorit Bar-On and Douglas Long, “Avowals and First-Person Privilege,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 62 (2001): 311–35. For a more thorough treatment of these issues, see SMM, esp. pp. 226–339. [End Page 390]

3. For instance, Monroe Beardsley and William Wimsatt, “The Intentional Fallacy,” in The Philosophy of Art: Readings Ancient and Modern, ed. Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1995), pp. 374–85.

4. Georg Henrik von Wright, Explanation and Understanding (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971), pp. 86–87.

5. Stuart Hampshire, Thought and Action (London: Chatto and Windus, 1959), p. 69.

6. Colin Lyas, “Wittgensteinian Intentions,” in Intention and Interpretation, ed. Gary Iseminger (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), pp. 132–51 (141); hereafter abbreviated “WI.”

7. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1958), p. 108 (§337).

8. For this example, see P. R. Bhat, “Intentions in Wittgenstein,” Indian Philosophical Quarterly 20, no. 3 (July 1993): 279–308.

9. Noël Carroll, “Art, Intention, and Conversation,” in Iseminger, Intention and Interpretation, pp. 97–131.

10. T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets (1944; repr., London: Faber and Faber, 2001), p. 23.

11. Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Lady of Shalott.

12. Emily Dickinson, “Longing,” in The Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson, The Wordsworth Poetry Library (Ware: Wordsworth, 1994), p. 80.

13. On her personal life, see for instance Connie Ann Kirk, Emily Dickinson: A Biography (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2004); hereafter abbreviated ED.

14. Emily Dickinson, “Consecration,” in Dickinson, Selected Poems, p. 62.

15. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 85, 115. [End Page 391]

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