The “Intentional Fallacy” and other things that get in the way…

We have to start videoing what happens in our office. We had a three way conversation yesterday that will be impossible to replicate, but I will try to capture the essence.

I was having a conversation with a colleague in our office. We were thinking through some assignments and plans for a class we teach together and got talking about the text (in this case, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon). We teach an IB English course, and we were talking about how the new framework for the course focuses us and the students on the idea of ‘authorial techniques’- the things writer do on the page to create effects.

DocZ pointed out that we were encouraging students to engage in what is called the ‘intentional fallacy.’ The Intentional Fallacy is the idea, generally fostered by the New Critical school, that making claims about what an author intended in a work, absent specific evidence (say, an interview with the author, or a letter they wrote that explains their intentions) is logically unsupportable. In other words, all we can say is what the text does, and then what effect that has, but we can’t say that the author intended that effect.

As a literary scholar, I totally agree. But in the midst of this conversation, I realized that we were engaging in exactly that sort of literary analysis geekdom that Z and I had been counseling against the previous weekend. It’s not that teaching students about the intentional fallacy is bad, I think it’s great. We tend, however, to make stuff like this the center of the conversation. And this is the sort of thing that I think tends to distance non-specialists (like our students) from literature and having meaningful engagement with the text.

Thinking about the intentional fallacy distances us from the text. It makes our thinking clinical and abstract. Really engaging literature should not be clinical and abstract. Song of Solomon is a book, created by a person. That person made choices in how the story was constructed. Those choices have consequences that manifest as reactions on our part as readers.

Because we, and our students, are actually people, it is easier to think about the text as a human created artifact, one that perhaps is imbued with intent, though that intent might be tough to know. Writers write for REASONS. They do what they do because they think it will further their causes.

And don’t think I am immune to long complex discussions about the philosophy of art (that is what we are talking about here). I am not, to say the least. But in the classroom, maybe I need to quit spouting off about things like the intentional fallacy with quite the volume I may have once used. It is the sort of thing I can address later, quietly. The first and most important question has to be “what does this text MEAN?” To you, to me, to us. How is it affecting us? And why?

Addendum: As this post was sitting in the can, waiting for me to finish it, the issue of intentional fallacy came up in class discussion. It is so hard to stop talking about this stuff. Things like this are the ‘secret handshakes’ of the literary analysis club, and I can’t help falling victim to my own training. So we discussed it in class, and I offered some strategies for writing about the text without falling prey to the intentional fallacy, but I was painfully aware of how spending time on this in class weighted the discussion in a way that I didn’t like.

We weren’t talking about meaning, we were talking about how to jump through hoops, hoops that have little bearing on the lived lives of our students. If any other English teachers are reading this, please chime in below. I’d love to hear about how you handle this specific issue, and what other things we do that might be classified the same way.


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4 Responses to The “Intentional Fallacy” and other things that get in the way…

  1. Liz says:

    I like what you say about how “spending time on this in class weighted the discussion in a way I didn’t like.” I worked with my college writing students on rhetorical analysis recently, and part of the goal of the assignment was to help them say something about what the rhetoric of a piece — it’s diction, lexical features, grammar, organization, argument, use of examples …and on and on — tell us about the discourse community, the audience, the author. And I had so many students get frustrated by their worry over the intentional fallacy. And I struggled so much with how to get them around this — with how to help them talk about what the author was doing in his/her rhetorical moment without making erronious claims about the author’s intentions. I rested on slight moves in rhetoric, but when it comes right down to it, this is a complicated dance, and one that I welcome further discussion about (about which I welcome further discussion?… and ugh, I hate that I just qualified that). I wonder how it is that some, who are scholars within the discipline, can see the difference between the fallacy and the careful dance around it? More research and speculation needed on this topic, for sure…

    Keep writing, keep thinking, PG. You help me to do the same.

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