Robert Stecker:  Interpretation

In Berys Gaut and Dominic Lopes, The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (2001) 


This document is a summary of Stecker. My personal comments are in red. These comments have been added to help students understand Stecker's arguments.

Fact: Some works of art require interpretation. In Blake's poem "The Sick Rose," the rose seems to symbolize a human person. The rose is made ill by an invisible worm. What, in human life, is this illness? What exactly does the worm stand for?  

What is the alternative to interpretation? Not interpreting? Treating works of art as meaningless constructions? In a famous essay, "Against Interpretation" (1964), Susan Sontag recommends exactly that! Sontag: "The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means." Sontag recommends concentrating on "the sensory experience of the work of art," in short, on the aesthetic experience it offers. But if what you're reading right now is a paragraph of English, how can you approach it as a mere aesthetic experience and still do it justice? You can't! Its meanings are part of what it is. And the same is true for Blake's poem, "The Sick Rose." And if it's true of a poem, why not a painting, a sculpture, a piece of music? 

Problem: Is it THE aim of interpretation that we find the artist’s intentions in producing the work? Have we correctly interpreted "The Sick Rose" when we see what Blake intended? Is there anything more that we want when we interpret it?

Three issues:   (page 243)

  1. The Proper Aim Issue 
    Is there a single proper aim of interpretation? Or several?
  2. The Monism/Pluralism Issue 
    Is the ideal case that in which interpretation produces several interpretations, or that in which we locate a single correct interpretation?
  3. Work Meaning Issue 
    Should interpretation aim at find the meaning of the work of art?

If maximizing enjoyable aesthetic experience is the proper aim of interacting with art (as Sontag seems to recommend), or even a proper aim (one among several), then pluralism seems correct about the proper aim issue (page 243).  There will be some interpretations that will not aim at capturing the artist’s actual intentions (page 244), and we will also embrace pluralism about the second of our three issues (page 245). 

To be fair to Sontag, a close reading of her essay suggest she is a pluralist and is trying to correct the balance between the aims of interpreting content and having a vivid aesthetic experience. But with SOME art, she thinks interpretation is not a proper aim: "Abstract painting is the attempt to have, in the ordinary sense, no content; since there is no content, there can be no interpretation."

The Work Meaning Issue 

Key concepts: utterance & utterance meaning (page 246)

Of the many things that a particular use of language COULD mean, “the meaning” is the utterance meaning it does have, which is what it means when said by that speaker on that occasion. The same sentence, said by different people on different occasions, will mean very different things. But this does not show that on each occasion that sentence has multiple meanings. Treated as a distinct utterance, each occasion of use (each utterance) will have some but not all of the sentence's possible meanings. Usually, each utterance has one and only one utterance meaning.

Why do we want to distinguish the utterance from the words uttered, and by analogy, the utterance of Blake in "The Sick Rose" from the words he's written? Stecker offers examples to illustrate the difference between SENTENCE MEANING and UTTERANCE MEANING. Here is one of my own: I come into a room from outside and say to you, "It's raining." Given the conventions of English, I have reported that it is raining right now. That's what the SENTENCE means. But suppose that earlier in the day, we discussed the weather report, which warned of rain, and you bet me ten dollars that it wouldn't rain today. In this context, when I say to you, "It's raining," I am communicating to you that I have won the bet. Pay up! The SENTENCE does not always have this meaning, but it does when said this time. My SAYING it is the utterance, and the utterance has a meaning that the sentence alone does not have. 

If there is anything to be identified as THE meaning of my sentence reporting the rain, it's my point that you've lost the bet. So my meaning is the utterance meaning, not the sentence meaning. 

If this is true of simple sentences, why not for other communications, like poems and films?

Stecker advocates applying the model of utterance meaning to works of art. Where we have THE utterance meaning, we will have THE work meaning for a work of art

Sentence meaning does not fully determine utterance meaning, and artistic conventions do not fully determine utterance meaning for works of art. There is no convention or rule that gets us "You lost the bet, so pay up" from the sentence "It's raining." Similarly, there is no convention that explains the meaning of Mona Lisa's smile.

(If existing conventions completely determine meaning, how can we ever say anything new? To be new, we must depart from conventions (in some cases, we will be establishing new conventions, as when Duchamp first exhibited the works known as readymades.)

Therefore we can reject the view that work meanings are determined by existing conventions (e.g., linguistic and artistic conventions). Conventions are important, but CONTEXT makes a difference, too (page 247).

How does this relate back to intentions? Won't they supplement conventions in a way that makes an important difference? Yes, but what one intends to say may not be what is actually said on a specific occasion, and the same should be true with works of art.

Suppose that I intend to say "It's raining" but instead I say "It's snowing." My intention was to let you know that I won the bet we made, but my words fail to communicate my intention. Similarly, an artist might intend to communicate something but will mess up in the execution of the work.

Therefore we can reject the view that meaning is to be equated with artistic intentions.

What’s left if we’ve eliminated actual intentionalism and conventionalism? 

Hypothetical Intentionalism: work meaning is what the work’s audience is most justified in finding in the work, which may be independent of the artist’s actual intentions.

Hypothetical intentionalism is often defended by pointing out that if the combination of context and conventions do not jointly tell us which of several possible interpretations is the correct one, then interpretation requires hypothesizing possible utterance meanings, and the correct meaning must be the best hypothesis. We should treat the work as saying whatever it is most reasonable to treat it as saying after we've positioned it against the relevant context and conventions. But this "best guess" will sometimes conflict with the intentions of the artist, so the artist's ACTUAL intentions are not always captured by the best interpretation. 

This position suggest that there is always a BEST interpretation. But information is gained and lost. The best reading at one time will differ from the best reading at another. We have a better idea of what Duchamp was up to with "Fountain" than did its audience in 1917, when he first entered it into an art show. We can see its relationships to Duchamp's subsequent works, and can see it in light of the then-emerging Dada movement. Do we say that its work meaning is different today? Or do we say that since our hypothesis is better, audiences in 1917 did not have an adequate hypothesis in 1917?

It's not just a matter of later interpretations being better. The best interpretation NOW may not be the best interpretation of a work. Consider Shakespeare's play, King Lear, and the fool's line to Lear's daughter, Goneril, late in the play, "Cry you mercy, I took you for a joint-stool." Why a joint-stool? Why not a lump of cheese, or a barrel of wine? This choice may have meant something interesting to audiences in the 16th century, giving the line a significance that we cannot grasp. THEIR best interpretation may be quite different from OUR best interpretation. But that leads us to conclude that the work meaning TODAY differs from the work meaning when the play was written. If you agree that Shakespeare's audience was better situated to grasp this line than we are, then it seems that the work meaning has changed. Yet it has changed without our knowing what, exactly, it has changed from! Shakespeare specialists may have some good guess about what the line means, but have a meaning that differs both from Shakespeare's actual intentions and from the reading given to it by English speakers of the 16th century. But do we want to accept that this part of the work meaning IS its meaning today? Would we be better off saying that we don't have part of the work meaning? But isn't hypothetical intentionalism supposed to avoid just this sort of conclusion?

If we assume that the work meaning should not change from century to century, we might supplement hypothetical intentionalism with the qualification that the work meaning is what the work's BEST audience is most justified in finding in the work. But this leads to a seemingly endless problem of how to decide what counts as the ideal audience. It seems too easy to have works of art for which almost no one will be in a position to give the best interpretation, defeating the point of identifying work meaning with the best hypothesis.

The Unified View: work meaning is a function of BOTH actual intentions and existing conventions at the time the work was created. The work meaning is not equated with actual intentions, preserving the insight that some works do not "say" what the artist intended to say. The artist's choices may be inconsistent with successful presentation of those intentions, given the conventions in place for the kind of art that it is.

While  Hypothetical Intentionalism and The Unified View will usually arrive at the same interpretation, there are cases where versions of the former will be justified in assigning a meaning while the latter must say that we don’t know the utterance meaning (e.g., at a later time the audience is ignorant of existing conventions of the time the work was created).

Shakespeare had some reason in choosing "joint-stool" instead of "barrel of wine," and if we cannot figure out his actual intentions here, we just do not know the work meaning at this point in the play. If we want to admit that interpretation should be situated against the backdrop of context and artistic conventions, but also want to admit that the best informed audiences won't always know what the work meaning is, then the unified view appears to be the best available theory of what counts as work meaning.


Last updated January 24, 2004