Nathan on Intentions & Interpretation

In Stecker and Gracyk, Aesthetics Today (2010) 

This document is a summary of Daniel O. Nathan. 
My personal comments are in red. 

Nathan's account is based on the technical idea of a second-order intention. (The mind has the interesting power to think about something, and then to think about thinking about it. This second kind of thinking is second-order thinking.) A second-order intention will be an intention about an intention.

Recognition of second-order intentions has important consequences for intentionalism, the thesis that an author's intentions play some role in determining what a communication means.

Extreme intentionalism holds that the meaning of any artwork is equivalent to whatever the artist intended it to mean.

Moderate intentionalism holds that the meaning of an ambiguous artwork is decided by the artist's intentions about it.

For intentionalism to be useful, we must consider "specific and and idiosyncratic facts" about the historical author. These facts will be in addition to facts about communication norms at the time of the work's creation.

Intentionalist views are often supported by thinking about ordinary communication. If someone says "intimate domain" when talking about the government's right to take land, we do not take the person literally. We assume that they intended to say "eminent domain." Since we care about what speakers intend to say, we should care what artists intend to say. (The key idea is caputred, many think, by Paul Grice's formula concerning meaning as intention.)

HOWEVER, THIS IS A MISTAKEN CONCLUSION ABOUT ARTISTS. We know that this inference is a mistake because of what we know about artists' general interests.

Here's the problem: Creation of an artifact or public thing reveals the intention to create something independent from oneself, and thus independent of the need to refer to one's intentions. If I create object U to convey content p, I must intend that U communicates p, so that anything not conveyed by U is not necessary.

The underlying intention behind public communication is the intention that one's other intentions not be consulted. This is a second-order intention.

Only failed communication could have us take up the question of what was specifically intended.

 Two implications:

The artwork is autonomous (independent of the author). That is why authors can find unexpected things revealed in their work, and why authors sometimes go back and revise (because it doesn't mean what they wanted it to mean.)

Artworks are "framed," both literally and figuratively. Framing establishes artificial space (a virtual world of relationships). Extend this idea: through construction and framing, artists call attention to relationships other than those present in their source material. Asking about the author's intentions is going to make those relationships less universal in their significance -- to ask what a poet meant by a line is to ask for its significance in the life of that poet. Most art then becomes completely uninteresting to those of us who have no interest in the personal life of the artist.

The second-order intention is compatible with the idea that a work of art can mean many things, and this result is more desirable than limiting a work's meaning by linking it back to the author's limited intentions.


                        Last updated March 6, 2011 ~ All text 2011 Theodore Gracyk