Chloe Hogg on Wimsatt and Beardsley's "Intentional Fallacy"

Attention to intention leads to no good criticism, according to Wimsatt and Beardsley's article "The Intentional Fallacy." The piece argues against what the authors see as the traditional reliance upon authorial intention as a standard for critical judgment of poetry, which may be extended here to include literature as a whole. Rather than looking to the author as an "oracle" of truth and knowledge on his/her own work, rather than establishing and upholding a necessarily arbitrary evaluation of authorial intention as the measure for a literary work's degree of "success," Wimsatt and Beardsley locate the critic's role in an analysis of the inner workings of the literary piece. Once made, the poem assumes primary importance over its maker as literary artifact, not to be reduced to the status of simple expression of a writer's psychological state or biographical clue. Out with the author, the article seems to say, in with the critic/public as supreme authority and final word on the merits of literary production.

Without directly invoking "science" as did Eichenbaum in his explanation of the Formalist method, Wimsatt and Beardsley implicitly fault "intentionalists" for an unscientific approach to literature that indulges in arbitrary and unfruitful speculation on authorial intentions while losing sight of the object at hand, the poem. Intentionality is seen as an impossible quest: "How is [the critic] to find out what the poet tried to do?" (p.1015) Even in cases where the author is alive and willing to answer questions regarding his/her work, Wimsatt and Beardsley find no critical satisfaction in recourse to the unscientific, subjective pronouncements of this "oracle." By looking to intention as the answer, critics fail to recognize that the judgment of literature involves not answers but the ongoing, informed process of critical inquiry.

In taking on intentionality, the authors attack an approach to literature rooted both in common sense and critical tradition. From Goethe to the present day, Wimsatt and Beardsley argue, critics have wrongly valued the externals factors, that which is "not part of the work as a linguistic fact" (p.1018), i.e. the author's intentions, motivations, or the circumstances of production, over internal evidence, defined as the language of the poem and the general body of knowledge of language and literature. In asserting the primacy of these internal factors, the authors establish the poem, or any literary work, as self-sufficient, autonomous, not subject to the author but an object of scientific inquiry in its own right. Such an insistence on the literary work and its proper qualities of literary-ness bring to mind again the aims of the Formalist method, which posits as the "central problem of the history of literature...the problem of evolution without personality -- the study of literature as a self-formed phenomenon" (p.845, Eichenbaum).

Wimsatt and Beardsley debunk ideas of a private, omniscient authorial authority, defining the evaluation of works of art as belonging to the public space. "The poem belongs to the public," they write, "It is embodied in language, the peculiar possession of the public, and it is about the human being, an object of public knowledge."(p.1016) Such claims, however, may overshoot the goal of demystification to veer into simplification. One might take issue with the idea of literature "belonging" to anything outside of literature itself: is not the public, are not we possessed by the idea of literature, subject to the influence of literature (and language), as much as we may be said to possess it? Furthermore, Wimsatt and Beardsley in presenting the poem as an object sufficient unto itself, draw the boundaries more clearly than they perhaps are. Rather than identifying external, internal and intermediate zones of meaning, the authors might speak of the negotiation of meaning that goes on between the literary work and its audience. The fact that negotiations of meaning must pass through language further complicates matters. Indeed, this would support Wimsatt and Beardsley's argument, as any intentionality would inevitably be distorted, distanced as expressed in language. Finally, the authors do not seem to address the case of authorial intention as inscribed in the literary work (through, for example, textual models of writing or reception). And what of the intentionality of literary production itself, engaged in the "dialectical self-creation of new forms"? (p.844, Eichenbaum)

Send a comment to Chloe Hogg.