Tolhurst on Intentions & Interpretation

In Stecker and Gracyk, Aesthetics Today (2010) 

This document is a summary of Tolhurst. 
My personal comments are in red. 

Tolhurst challenges Monroe Beardsley's view that authorial intentions are irrelevant to art interpretation. (Beardsley's view is basically the same as Daniel Nathan's view.)

KEY IDEA: The same text can have two different meanings without ambiguity. (This argument is different from Gary Iseminger's argument because Iseminger focused on resolving ambiguity.)

KEY EXAMPLE: Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal"

Swift wrote an IRONIC text. Someone else could write the same words without being ironic. Let's call that author "Sw*ft." Therefore there is some difference between Swift's text and Sw*ft's text, but the difference is not in the text. It must have something to do with the particular context of production -- who wrote it must matter.

WARNING: Tolhurst is using the term "text" to mean this-word-sequence-as-written-by-this-person. This is not how Iseminger used the term. Iseminger used "text" to mean the word sequence, and used "poem" (or "essay," or whatever is relevant) to mean the-text-as-written-by-this-person. So if you compare Tolhurst and Iseminger, you must make an allowance for this difference in terminology. Where Iseminger says that the text is not the poem, Tolhurst would say that the word sequence is not the text.

Justification of Tolhurt's position:

  • Each word sequence in a language has a literal meaning in that language -- its word sequence meaning.

  • Each speaker intends to mean something in selecting a word sequence -- the utterer's meaning on that occasion of communication.

  • But the same word non-ambiguous sequence can mean different things on different occasions (e.g., the case of ironic and non-ironic productions of the same word sequence.)

  • Therefore the utterance meaning of the text (the word sequence on the particular occasion) is not the word-sequence meaning.

  • However, the utterance meaning is not the utterer's meaning, either. (This move rejects the position of E.D. Hirsch.) The meaning of an utterance can diverge from what the utterer meant to say.

  • Therefore utterance meaning differs from both word-sequence meaning and utterer's meaning.

In ordinary communication, what fixes the utterance meaning?

Proposal: Utterance meaning must be the intention that the intended audience is justified in attributing to the author. (There will still be cases where the justified hypothesis will give the utterance a meaning that was not really intended. These cases will involve text-production so inept that the intended audience cannot properly guess at the utterer's real intentions.)

Application: Swift's intended audience will be different from Sw*ft's, and each audience will hypothesize differently about the point of the communication. But, in the vast majority of cases, there is no need to consider highly personal details about the author -- the intended audience will seldom know very much about the author.


                        Last updated March 8, 2011 ~ All text 2011 Theodore Gracyk