The Intentional Fallacy: Summary & Concept

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Gentry
'The Intentional Fallacy,' a 20th century article that proposes that a work of art's meaning is not tied to the intention of its creator, is one that has greatly shaped contemporary criticism. Learn more through a summary of its components, a comprehensive lesson, and a quiz.

The Intentional Fallacy Overview

Art critics, students, and patrons of the arts alike have speculated on Leonardo da Vinci's painting, the Mona Lisa and his intentions for it. Some say he intended to capture her smile; others say he intended to catch her in keeping a secret; still, others speculate that he wanted to depict the intentions of a woman's soul.

Mona Lisa

However, without jumping into a time machine and interviewing da Vinci himself, how are we to know his intentions? Moreover, is this a valid line of reasoning for evaluating a work of art? Does the meaning of a work of art and our estimation of its value even come from the artist's intentions?

In the mid-20th century, in what would become both a philosophical and literary groundbreaking criticism, William K. Wimsatt Jr. and Monroe C. Beardsley published The Intentional Fallacy. In it, they counter the contemporary assumption that the original creator's intention for a work was equal to the meaning and merit of the work. This raised serious questions in the critical realm about intentionality, autobiography, cultural context, and the fixed or unfixed nature of meaning.

In the article, Wimsatt and Beardsley write,'...the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art, and it seems to us that this is a principle which goes deep into some differences in the history of critical attitudes.'

They further argue that a criticism is largely shaped by the critic's definition and nuance of intentionality - how and why the mind purposes to do or create something. Let's further examine how the authors explain the connection between intention and meaning/value in the next section.

The Ins and Outs of the Article

In the descriptions Wimsatt and Beardsley present in the article, they propose the following:

First, a writer or artist's intention cannot be the standard or criterion to judge the merit of the work. For example, if a 5-year old drew a picture of a cat, but I thought it looked more like a horse, I can't judge the picture on the 5-year old's intention for it to be a cat.


The second idea, since one cannot understand intention at the moment of the work's creation, one has only the work itself to testify to its success and merit. When we visit an art museum, we don't have the opportunity to ask Van Gogh about his original concept or intention for Starry Night. We must only interpret what we see in the moment of viewing the painting.

Third, a written work has meaning because of its words, and its success or failure to communicate hinges on its perceived relevance. Since we always read to better understand ourselves and the world, we look at art to see how it relates to our lives. If we read The Great Gatsby today and then again in twenty years, the words will still be the same, but we may judge it differently because of different life experiences.

The next idea is that written works, specifically poems, assume a dramatic speaker, so we need to attribute the happenings within the work and their meaning to that speaker and not the author. For example, when we read a Robert Frost poem, we don't assume Frost is the character or person in the poem. Even if the writer uses 'I,' it doesn't necessarily mean it's autobiographical.

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