Meaning, no less than intention, matters. But to the extent it isn’t all or above all what interpretation, indeed appreciation, of an artwork aims at, or is in any event of a different, less linguistic order than those in search of it tend to suppose, then, their intentions notwithstanding, in a relevant sense both intentionalism and the do-or-die debate about it might not be all that any more than where it’s at.
This is what we might say about Philosophical Instigations, a collection of slips of paper in the nachlass of an important philosopher, Wittstein, that were taken to be paragraphs he wrote as expressions of a new philosophical theory, but which in fact were his collection of student in-class responses to the repeated assignment, “Write something short and interesting about language.”
In these terms, the account of the making of this photograph is a description of the more or less necessary historical conditions from which it (and many others) arose. These conditions did not determine the image, rather they made the image possible, and they made it possible in terms very different from those that made other artifacts possible. Every artifact has arisen and arises from such a concrete set of possibilities, and all of these sets of possibilities have their own histories.
…if we’re thinking like Mark Johnson, we can simply add these examples to our bucket of evidence that the human mind is structured by our bodily orientation in space, and hence so is our art. Put that way, the difference between having an account of the meaning of the work and having an account of its causes is not only easy to see, but, I would argue, an easy strike against the kinds of neuro approaches I’ve been describing thus far.
Cognitive scientists have found out quite a lot about the psychology of intention. We humans are intentional to our core. Do we come into the world trailing clouds of glory? Maybe. But we definitely come trailing clouds of concepts. Far from experiencing the world as “one great blooming, buzzing confusion,” babies start detecting patterns only a few hours after birth. They segment, they process, they subdivide. They prefer their native language to a foreign tongue. They know about object solidity and object permanence. And by the age of roughly a year old, they have a fully developed Cartesian worldview, seeing objects and agents as distinct. Why should this matter to literary theorists? (Is the baby father to the man?) After all, by the time they go to graduate school, babies have long since become immune to the brute lure of intentionality. They have laid down complex pathways on their innate concepts. They reason counterfactually, wreath their ideas in the flowers of prosody, willingly suspend their disbelief, and wrinkle their brows in ironic suspicion. And by the time they are middle aged and have come to appreciate that the world is, in fact, a great blooming, buzzing confusion, their infant categories are…
Poet and critic Paul Valéry held two strong and conflicting views of literary meaning. On the one hand, he affirmed his “verses have whatever meaning is given them.” And in a phrase that entered into the post-modern literary canon, he declared “Once a work is published its author’s interpretation of it has no more validity than anyone else’s.” On the other hand, he suggested that “One is led to a form by a desire to leave the smallest possible share to the reader.” Valéry’s career can be divided along these lines of anti-intentionality and intentionality. My larger claim is to show the primacy, or perhaps the invention of a dominant mode of twentieth- and twenty-first century thought.