Wednesday, June 11, 2008


The word "intention" can mean a number of things. Its etymology suggests a "stretching towards", perhaps a "reaching out". In phenomenology, "intentionality" is the "directedness" of consciousness towards its object. We talk about intentions as our reasons for doing something, e.g., "I intended no harm". But even in that sense we could also say, "I didn't mean to do it." So our intentions are in an important sense related to what we mean. "I didn't intend it as an insult." "I didn't mean it that way."

The "intentional fallacy" in literary criticism consists of answering questions about what a particular text says by telling us what its author meant. As a limit to literary interpretation, I think the intentional fallacy is a perfectly good rule (a "don't" of literary criticism). But when you are writing, there are good reason to insist on your intentions.

Granted, it is not enough to want-to-say something. You have to ask yourself whether your readers can reasonably infer your meaning from the prose you set before them, and it is all too easy to commit the intentional fallacy when reading and editing your own work. If you are writing in a second language, as many of my authors do, this can be especially difficult.

That's where editors, peer-reviewers, colleagues, and friends offer a useful service. They can tell you what they think you mean with the words you have written. Keep in mind that they are people too, and theirs is not the only possible interpretation of your work. But if you have received several very different interpretations from different readers, don't let that be a sign that all readings are arbitrarily related to your intentions. It probably means that your text is too open to the imposition of the reader's opinions.

A text should restrict the space of possible interpretations. I find it easier to edit a text that is obviously motivated by its author's sincere desire to say something very specific, even if is written in very broken English, than to edit even a grammatically flawless text that isn't trying to say anything in particular.

This is obviously also true of writing. I find it much easier to write when I am definitely trying to say something. It allows me to ask, first, "What am I trying to say?" and, second, "How could this be misunderstood?" (In a sense, the second question is, "What would my readers prefer I had said?") You then write words down to accomplish the former and avoid the latter. This is the space in which you "stretch out" your text; it is also the space between your reader and your object, i.e., the space between the possiblity of being misunderstood and what you want to say.


Presskorn said...

"A text should restrict the space of possible interpretations." - Nice one-liner... The problem and especially within academic writing, I suppose, is that we sometimes have a strategic interest, if not a "strategic intention", in multipling the space of possible interpretations. Or at least we think we do... We think we have an interest in being uninformative.

Vagueness minimizes information.

Thomas Basbøll said...

I think it is perfectly legitimate to use a text to open a space for multiple interpretations of a particular phenomenon. That is on thing academic writing is for.

But my point here is that this means writing a text that restricts the space of interpretation of the particular words and sentences you write.

If you want to offer a new space for the interpretation of, say, modern leadership practices, you want to write a text that open the phenomenon of leadership to interpretation. You don't want to write a text that is itself open to any all readings, including reading that don't really have anything to do with leadership.

Unfortunately, there may be an objective interest in vagueness in some corners of academia. We all have our favourite examples of influential writers whose influence seems to be based largely on the ability of readers to use them for whatever they like. Steve Fuller has rightly identified the importance of "strategic opacity" in the circulation of knowledge, i.e., the ability of many different researchers to endorse the same text for different reasons.

I would still say that such strategies depend on restricting the space of interpretation for words and sentences. It is because two, or three, or five, constituencies, not hundreds of them, can approve of your conclusions that you will be published and cited.

Presskorn said...

Yes, you're perfectly right. Even though you might have a strategic interest in making a proposition/sentence/word undecidedable between 2 or several interpretations - in order to "open" a phenomenon, to charm a specific group of readers or what not - you never have an interest in making it undecidable between an unlimited number of interpretations.

Anonymous said...

Vagueness can also be a means to an end. I love the way Niklas Luhmann explains why his texts are so cryptic and difficult. He said that academic books and lectures should always contain certain degree of nonsense so that they wouldn't be understood too fast, or misunderstood, so to say. So, being unclear is a way of avoiding of becoming an orthodoxy. Clever, huh? ;)

Thomas Basbøll said...

Ah yes, but intentionally difficult texts also prove my point. If you want to make your text difficult to read, you really have to restrict the range of possible interpretations. All the fast and easy readings must be excluded. Moreover, all "nonsensical" statements mean exactly one (and the same) thing: nothing. That's a very restricted space of meaning.

Anonymous said...

I got your point, thomas, and think you're right. However, I'm not very familiar with Fuller. Where could I find his writings about "strategic opacity" etc?

Thomas Basbøll said...

It's in chapter 7 of his 1993 book Philosophy, Rhetoric and the End of Knowledge (p. 244). There's a 2004 second edition of that book, but I don't have it in my office. It's about halfway into the section called "Managing the Unmanageable".