The Intentional Fallacy: it doesn’t matter what the author intended

First: we can never know what the author intended. Even if we ask the author in person, we cannot know whether the answer we hear is sincere, or truthful. It gets worse: the author himself cannot know with certainty what impelled him to write this or that. Why did I eat oatmeal for breakfast? I could offer you lots of reasons, but in the end I have no idea what impelled me to eat oatmeal.

Second: it doesn’t matter. Literary biographers are interested in a writer’s life; literary critics are interested in a writer’s work.

E.M. Forster makes this point by distinguishing ironically between the real work—reading literature—and the associated activity of “studying” literature, which he calls “only a serious form of gossip”:

  • The personality of a writer does become important after we have read his book and begin to study it. . . . We can ask ourselves questions about it such as ‘What is the author’s name?’ ‘Where did he live?’ ‘Was he married?’ and ‘Which was his favourite flower?’ Then we are no longer reading the book, we are studying it and making it subserve our desire for information. ‘Study’ has a very solemn sound. ‘I am studying Dante’ sounds much more than ‘I am reading Dante.’ It is really much less. Study is only a serious form of gossip. It teaches us everything about the book except the central thing, and between that and us it raises a circular barrier which only the wings of the spirit can cross. The study of science, history, etc., is necessary and proper, for they are subjects that belong to the domain of information, but a creative subject like literature—to study that is excessively dangerous, and should never be attempted by the immature.
    • —E.M. Forster, ‘Anonymity: An Enquiry’, from his collection, Two Cheers for Democracy.

So we can all indulge in literary gossip, and we all can enjoy it. Tolstoy the man is as interesting, in his own way, as his novels. But we should not confuse literary gossip with literary criticism.

Because, in the end, it doesn’t matter what the author intended. All that matters is what the author actually produced. Mark Twain may have intended nothing more than a sequel to Tom Sawyer; whatever his intentions, however, he produced Huckleberry Finn, and as readers that’s all we care about.

2 thoughts on “The Intentional Fallacy: it doesn’t matter what the author intended”

  1. Hey Eric,

    Ah, the intentional fallacy. But we automatically consider intentions, don’t we? My view is that a more realistic response is Umberto Eco’s “hypothetical intentionality.” In other words, of course we cant know the real intentions, the author perhaps doesn’t know. It is a great flaw of literary history to presume to better know intentions than a reading of a text since the best structuralists/narrative theorists are essentially looking at elements of presentation that allow us to see “intentions.” How do we know Austen’s intentions at the beginning of P and P were meant to be ironic? Because we can read it. If she didn’t intend to be, she made a mistake which is why we won’t play games with actual intentions but can certainly play with hypothetical intentions (and naturally do).


  2. Hi Brian,

    Thanks for chiming in.

    I think Eco means by “hypothetical intentionality” much the same thing that I mean when I say that literature does not send messages, but instead raises questions. At university level and beyond we can have fun with all of that, but at the secondary-school level where I work, students literally and earnestly search for the hidden messages and the author’s intention, and believe this search to be the essence of literary study. So it’s an ongoing battle to try to erase these simplistic, reductionist ideas from students’ minds so that they can look freshly at a text and respond to it.

    I have written about these issues elsewhere, perhaps with more clarity; you can have a look here and see what you think.

    How is life in Bombay?



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