Iseminger on Meaning and Intentions
In Stecker and Gracyk, Aesthetics Today (2010)
A TEXT is a sequence of words that can be repeated more than once. (It is a type with multiple tokens.) The term might be extended to any sequence of symbols, such as a movie or piece of music.
A poem might have a fixed text without having a determinate (i.e., non-ambiguous) meaning. (A text has an ambiguous meaning if, as presented, it supports two or more conflicting interpretations.)
Such cases present us with two options: The poem has no determinate meaning, or something beyond the text must determine the meaning.
On the principle that THE TEXT IS NOT THE POEM, we should adopt the view that textual ambiguity is removed by seeing that the poem. If we see that two interpretations are compatible with a TEXT, the question of which it means would be literal nonsense if we were asking about the TEXT (for the correct answer must be both!). Since we CAN ask which of two interpretations is the correct one, then there must be a distinction between the text and the poem.
The poem is the text as generated by a particular person, together with that person's intentions for it. This claim is an ontological claim. (It is a claim about what kind of thing we are dealing with, and the conditions of its existence.)
We certainly don't want to say that the meanings of all poems are indeterminate -- for example, when Hopkins's "Henry Purcell" offers two CONTRADICTORY readings, at least one of them should be false. (If you can't agree to that point, then you really do have an "anything goes" theory of interpretation and meaning.. However, faced with "The Star Spangled Banner," we certainly don't want to say that we can't even tell that it does not at any point refer to the composer Henry Purcell!)
Because the poem is the poem that it is through the efforts of the writer, we should allow that the writer's intentions are the determining basis of its true meaning when the text cannot settle the matter. If we can't "find out" those intentions, we cannot find out the meaning. (This does not mean we can trust what people later say about their earlier intentions.)
The LANGUAGE gives a context that limits what can be meant by a particular text, and the author's context gives us many clues to intention.
This view is NOT the view that the poem means whatever the author intended. The LANGUAGE makes some interpretations incompatible with the particular text. (My point about "The Star Spangled Banner.")
Last updated March 1, 2011 ~ All text © 2011 Theodore Gracyk