Intentionalism and the Arts

Intentism Interview with Professor Peter Lamarque

Professor Peter Lamarque many thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to be interviewed by the arts movement Intentism.

  1. From an exegetical perspective, is the whole hermeneutical debate concerning whether intentions  are relevant to a work’s meaning just a question as to whether meaning is:

 a) what you want to express   or

 b) what you communicate?

In other words, is the debate ultimately not a theory concerning aesthetics, psychology,  or literary theory, but philosophy (and even anthropology)- how have we understood meaning?


The first thing to note is that “what you want to express” and “what you communicate” are not incompatible. Communication is successful to the extent that what a speaker wants to express is successfully conveyed. But meaning is not always about either communication or expression. We can ask what those spots mean, or those statistics (falling inflation), or those earth tremors without supposing that any person wants to communicate or express something by them. Even where language is concerned the procedures for determining meaning can be different. We determine what a remark in a conversation means and what a word in the language means in different ways (ask the speaker, look in a dictionary). And no doubt if we are analyzing a political speech, a philosophical argument, or a Wallace Stevens poem we should not assume that some single mode of interpretation applies to all.

When it comes to the arts we should be wary of supposing that “meaning” is always the same—or always determined in the same way—whether it be poetry, painting, film, music, or the novel that concerns us. The medium seems to make a difference to the kind of meaning sought. Nor should we assume that there is always something that answers to the description “the meaning of the work”, not only because there might be more than one meaning, but because in many cases it is simply misleading to postulate a meaning for the whole as against a meaning for specific parts. The basic mistake is to suppose that interpretation is always and only concerned with the recovery of meaning.




  1. Barthes in his seminal paper The Death of the Author says,’ The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.’

Leaving the contentious definition of a text being multiple ‘quotations’ aside, if, as it seems reasonable, our texts are ‘influenced’ by multiple conscious and unconscious sources, do we have no reliable measure to determine whether the text is authored by the writer alone?


Barthes is absolutely right that words in any language are thick with inherited connotations, allusions, evaluations, and hidden histories. These can often be released and played on, not least in poetry where readers are on the look-out for resonances and “intertextuality”. He is also right that these can sometime intrude even where a writer or speaker has no idea of them or no intention to invoke them. We can easily be caught out by, for example, innuendos, double entrendres, or puns that are unintended and of which we are ignorant. Does that mean that we lose control completely of what we say or write? Clearly not. Politicians as well as poets, philosophers as well as law-makers, choose their words carefully to express what they want to express. Barthes is wrong to think that texts always involve just undifferentiated writing (écriture) whereby everything they can mean they do mean. Texts for the most part are produced for a purpose in a context. The value of a context is as much in eliminating meaning as releasing meaning.


  1. If, as various partial intentionalists (such as Paisley Livingston) believe, the author’s intention is only relevant if it has been successfully ‘realized’ in the work, who determines this? Is it not, the reader and therefore Barthes’ reader, or Fish’s ‘interpretative communities’ that ultimately determine meaning?


Barthes is somewhat disingenuous in claiming to proclaim the “birth of the reader” after the “death of the author” as it turns out that what he has in mind as the “reader” is not the likes of you and me but some entirely abstracted entity “without history, without biography, without psychology”, who, per impossibile, holds in mind the near infinite multiplicity of an entire language and culture. This “reader” is unconstrained by context, practices, norms of interpretation, or historical groundedness, so is of little help in negotiating all the judgments that matter, relevance or irrelevance, insight or distraction, in a subtle, creative, and informed reading of any literary work. It is the particular information we have about the (admittedly often hugely complex) circumstances surrounding a work’s production, not mere generalities about the language itself, that will yield the most rewarding readings.




  1. Structuralism’s insistence on the arbitrary nature of signs has come under great fire as there are words that have universal patterns (onomatopoeic words etc), sounds that invoke universal responses ( major, minor etc) and colours that neurologically trigger the same responses.  Does this mean that meaning rests not on the intention of the author, not on the reader, or even a community, but in whatever public universal qualities are in the work?


The universal appeal of some of the greatest works of art is unlikely to be explained, entirely or even to a great extent, by matters such as onomatopoeia, emotion-provoking sounds, or responses to colour. These themselves will mostly turn out to be culture-relative. If there is something genuinely universal about art it is likely to lie in universal “themes”, which engage humans in all cultures at all times if only because they are so fundamental to what it is to be human: themes like birth and death, hope and despair, love and betrayal, jealousy and revenge, fear and pity. The greatest artists offer us powerful visions of these themes, in stories, in drama, in song, in dance that can resonate with all of us just in virtue of our common humanity. Of course the particular genres and styles and media through which the themes are explored will be rooted in specific cultures. But something deep and shared can occasionally transcend these different manifestations.




  1. Derrida famously said ‘There is nothing outside the text’ and neither is there a ‘transcendental signifier.’  Surely, every extrinsic (whether further work from the author’s oeuvre, or interviews, or an appeal to genre etc etc) is a further work that needs to be interpreted by the same sources ad infinitum. Therefore, are we not in an impasse, a hermeneutical circle?


Of course there is much dispute about what Derrida meant. One possible interpretation is to see it as a statement of intertextuality, or the idea that texts ultimately refer only to other texts not to some extra-textual “world”. There could be stronger or weaker versions of this. A moderate version might simply want to emphasize that literary works refer (or “allude”) to other literary works as much as they do to an objective or scientific world. Thus the first crucial step in understanding a poem is to locate it in a poetic tradition. A stronger version says that there are only texts. So any explanation we seek for a text must appeal to another text, including what an author states about the text. This invites the question whether some texts, on this view, have more authority than others. And it introduces the kind of considerations about verification that come up in relation to the “coherence theory” of truth. But in general there seems no good reason to hold that the world consists only of texts (a kind of linguistic idealism). It is helpful, at the least, to acknowledge a robust causal relation between, say, a text (or work), an author and a reader. This is not reducible to a relation between texts.


Professor  Peter Lamarque, on behalf of the Intentist movement- many thanks for your time and answers.