Monday, 14 December 2015

On Authorial Intent

I wrote a brief post this morning on intent in Lonergan and Meyer, about which my friend Justin Schwartz (Ph.D. student at Regis College in Toronto, the Mecca of Lonergan studies) had kind words, suggesting that I place what I wrote here, in this venue. So, that's what I'm doing.

To quote myself, with a few modifications:
If intention is something located entirely in the writer's head then knowing an author's intention is very difficult if not impossible. Meyer's argument, derived from Lonergan, is that intention is not located entirely in the writer's head. If writing is ordinarily a communicative act then we can in principle determine what the writer intended to communicate. This is no different in principle from what we do when we read an email or talk to a friend: one communicates, the other seeks to understand what is being communicated. Now, of course, one must attend to the qualifier "in principle." There are all sort of things that can lead us to misconstrue the writer's intention. The writer might not have adequately communicated her or his intention. We might not have the requisite capacity for understanding the intention. But ultimately that is all that Meyer means by "intention": what the writer meant to communicate. He will give this "intended sense" primacy (his word), but that I think must be understood in a strictly temporal sense: i.e. reading for intention is the first thing for which a reader should aim, but not necessarily the final thing.
 Thus endeth what I wrote on FB. I will add the following.

Let us consider a thought experiment, in which you argue that intention, as defined above, is impossible to know. If that were the case you would not be able to know how intention is defined above. You would not even be able to know that I aimed to communicate about intention above. But if you cannot know how intention is defined above then you could not argue that intention, as defined above, is impossible to know. In short, the moment that you respond to my argument you implicitly concede the very thing against which you argue explicitly. On the supposition that no one would proceed in such a self-reversing fashion I presume that this thought experiment can remain entirely in the realm of hypothesis.

4 comments:

  1. This is great Jonathan thank you. I suppose the difficulty for historical scholarship is that the shared life that you and I might have which helps in understanding your intention (such as in your description above) is difficult if not impossible to fully ascertain for an ancient document.

    On another level I might understand what you're saying in your definition but I dont necessarily know what the full motivation behind it is (granted the paragraphs around provide exegetical commentary on it which narrows the locus of meaning). But we don't have the apostle Paul saying "you are justified by faith" (of course in this context I'm talking about this for that reason).

    So do you think authorial intention is possible with ancient documents?

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is great Jonathan thank you. I suppose the difficulty for historical scholarship is that the shared life that you and I might have which helps in understanding your intention (such as in your description above) is difficult if not impossible to fully ascertain for an ancient document.

    On another level I might understand what you're saying in your definition but I dont necessarily know what the full motivation behind it is (granted the paragraphs around provide exegetical commentary on it which narrows the locus of meaning). But we don't have the apostle Paul saying "you are justified by faith" (of course in this context I'm talking about this for that reason).

    So do you think authorial intention is possible with ancient documents?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi, Isaac. Thank you for your comment. I have to admit, it's less than clear to me why we couldn't define authorial intention when reading ancient documents. Sure, it might be more difficult in terms of the ancient world, but we've spent literally centuries developing means to bridge the gap between us and them: philology, archaeology, etc., etc. I am not at all certain why a person, adequately trained in the requisite skills, could not go about this work. Can you thinking of anything epistemic that would constitute such a barrier?

      Delete
    2. Jonathan, I appreciate this discussion and I am in fundamental agreement with our sense of the ability to determine even an ancient author's intention. It seems to me that since Stanley Fish and the literature on Communities of Interpretation, commensurate with a lack of trust in "who writes" history, the ability to determine authorial intent has been challenged. I would agree that "at some level" it is rather straight forward to determine the context in which understanding can be determined. The challenge is in the reader to accept they share "sufficient context" to actually allow for a shared paradigm. We have a culture which has cast such dispursions on ancient writings that the work reguired to re-establish shared context is resisted.

      There is so much to talk about here.....

      Delete