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Intentional fallacy

Related: false - intention

Thus, a text's internal evidence the words themselves, and their meanings is fair game for literary analysis. External evidence anything not contained within the text itself, such as information about the poet's life, the paratext as Genette would say belongs to literary biography, not literary criticism.


Intentional fallacy is a literary term that asserts that the meaning intended by the author of a literary work is not the only, and perhaps not the most important, meaning of the piece. The term was first used by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley in their essay The Intentional Fallacy. The notion of author's intention has become central to modern literary criticism, and the explanation of intentional fallacy is an important part of what is known as the New Criticism. Thus this term means "a fallacy about intention" and not "committing a fallacy on purpose". Their view is similar to the one made famous by Roland Barthes in his essay 'The Death of the Author'.

When writing, an author must call upon both their understanding of the language in which they write and their personal experiences about reality to create a work. Even the most escapist fantasy must appeal to some shared understanding in the reader to be intelligible at all. A reader must also call upon their understanding of language and personal experiences in order to decode meaning in a work.

A literary work may thus be looked at as an attempt by an author to communicate to a reader via a shared language and shared experiences with the reader. Without a common ground, communication is laboured or impossible.

There will always be some differences between author and reader, however. The author and the reader will inevitably have had different personal experiences, and therefore hold different beliefs and opinions about what different aspects of reality mean, and their relative importances. Because of these differences, the meaning taken by a reader is always only approximately the meaning intended by the author, and also only approximately the meaning taken by other readers.

Further complicating communication is that both the author and the reader may be unaware of peculiarities in their understanding of reality, and these peculiarities may colour either the work as written or the meaning taken by the reader in ways unconscious to either.

For example, a work written during the immediate Post-World War II era may exhibit commonly-held views of the time, such as prejudices concerning Germans or Japanese. A modern reader might disagree with these prejudices, and see newfound meaning in reviewing how these prejudices color the work. The incorrect notion that the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings novels is a metaphor for the atomic bomb, even though the author did not intend so, is an example of the reader using their prejudices to misinterpret a work.

Modern literary critics argue that this newfound meaning is not merely a curious quirk, but a valuable means of gaining insight into a work. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intentional_fallacy [Jan 2006]

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