Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

The Intentional Fallacy

The intentional fallacy is the idea that a reader cannot evaluate a literary work properly by trying to assume the author’s intentions in their writing. Authors William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley explore this idea in their 1946 article “The Intentional Fallacy.” They originally discuss the concept in terms of poetry; however, it can be applied to all forms of art. For example, if a painter were to paint what they intended to be a scene from the countryside with no hidden meaning, the people who are viewing the painting cannot make assumptions about what the painting means based on the painter’s original intent. Another point worth noting is the use of the word “intentional” itself. To do something “intentionally” implies that one has specific ideas about how and why they will complete that task.

Author’s Intent

Author’s intent refers to the author’s ideas about how their work should be perceived and evaluated. When someone asks what an author meant about something in a work of art, they are asking about the author’s intent. Author’s intent can easily be misunderstood by an audience. An example is an author composing a piece about the dangers of smoking. Their intent is to persuade their audience to abstain from cigarettes, but the tone used comes across as comical to their readers. While their intent is to persuade readers not to smoke, the readers perceive the writing as entertaining and are therefore amused by the piece. In this example, the author’s original intentions are not expressed.

Authorial Definition

Authorial definition is the concept that an author is the only one who can truly define the meaning of their work. Additionally, anyone who attempts to evaluate the work through a lens other than the authorial definition is incorrect in their perception of the work. This concept is controversial for many reasons. Firstly, there is always plenty of room for an audience to misinterpret what an author actually means in their writing, such as not understanding an author’s use of irony or misinterpreting their tone. Additionally, this concept fails to consider that an author may not fully understand why they created their work in the first place. Even if they do fully understand, it is impossible for their audience to ever truly understand what they went through in order to create their work. This is because their audience does not have the author’s exact experiences. In this way, the authorial definition can be a faulty lens through which to examine an author’s work.

Wimsatt and Beardsley’s “The Intentional Fallacy”: Summary

“The Intentional Fallacy” is an article authored and published in 1946 by William K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley. Its premise is that readers cannot and should not attempt to evaluate an author’s work through the author’s intentions when reading literature, specifically poetry. Wimsatt and Beardsley begin with five propositions to introduce readers to this concept. The first proposition states that poetry does not come into existence by accident, but by an author’s intention. The second claims that readers have no way of obtaining a reliable answer to the question of what an author meant by their poem because if the author succeeded in their writing, the poem itself is the answer. The third claims that poetry has meaning through the fact that it exists in the first place, and it needs no meaning outside of simply being. The fourth states that readers can find personal meaning in relating to a poem, but readers should now attribute their personal feelings about a poem to what the author intended for the poem. Finally, the fifth proposition explains that if an author is able to revise their work and better achieve their original intention, this means that what they thought was their original intention was not truly their original intention.

Wimsatt and Beardsley further explain that poetry succeeds because all irrelevant information has been filtered out, leaving only what is most important. They claim that a poem’s meaning is always personal to its author, so readers may be able to relate to universal concepts and experiences that inspire the poetry, but they will never fully know the specific experience of the author who created the poetry. This means that by default, they cannot know the author’s intent. If an author is able to revise their work to better achieve their original intent, it simply means that their original intention was not their true intention.

Wimsatt and Beardsley go on to state that poetry belongs to neither the author nor the reader once the author has written it. They claim that the concepts in the poetry are subject to public criticism and that the author has no ownership of those concepts outside of the actual poem itself. In this way, they defend their argument that an author’s original intentions cannot and should not be considered when readers are evaluating the author’s work.

Proposals of “The Intentional Fallacy”

The main points of “The Intentional Fallacy” follow.

  • Readers cannot and should not evaluate an author’s intentions when reading their work. Readers cannot fully know what an author’s intentions are, and authors themselves may not even fully understand their own intentions.
  • It is impossible for readers to fully understand an author’s intentions. Readers have not lived the experiences of the author and therefore can never fully know what inspired the author’s work.
  • An author’s work is meant to be read by a wide audience of people; it is not meant for one specific person. This means the work will address universal concepts and topics, but it does not mean that any two readers will have the same experiences surrounding those concepts and topics.
  • The success of a literary work is tied to how relevant the audience finds the work to their own lives. This means that individuals have to interpret for themselves what a work means to them.
  • In the end, the intention of a literary work should be based on what the work means to the speaker of the work, not the author. The intention is abstract and open to interpretation by the reader or speaker.

“The Intentional Fallacy”: Criticism

The concept of the intentional fallacy has greatly influenced the process of criticism in the arts. It introduced a way of thinking about art and literature that decenters the creator’s intentions for their art and suggests that each person should interpret for themself what a work of art means. Wimsatt and Beardsley agreed with these ideas, and they asserted that once an author has created and published a work, it belongs to the public. This means that the author’s intention no longer matters when the public perceives and evaluates the work in question. “The Intentional Fallacy” also paved the way for many other literary theories. For example, a few years after “The Intentional Fallacy” came the concept of the death of the author, which Roland Barthes introduced in his 1967 essay by the same name. The death of the author is a theory closely linked to the intentional fallacy. It proposes that no author can create anything that is truly original, anything an author writes is a result of that author compiling pre-existing words and concepts, and authors cannot decide the true meaning of their own writing.

Lesson Summary

The intentional fallacy, or the idea that a reader cannot evaluate a literary work properly by trying to assume the author’s intentions in their writing, has produced incredible effects on the process of criticism in the arts. The intentional fallacy concept was first introduced in the article “The Intentional Fallacy” by authors William K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley in the mid-20th century. Wimsatt and Beardsley claim that author’s intent, or the author’s ideas about how their work should be perceived and evaluated, cannot be considered when evaluating their work. This is because no one can ever truly know an author’s original intent, so Wimsatt and Beardsley assert that published work belongs to the public, and that it is the responsibility of the individual to determine what an author’s work means to them. An important point to note is that intent or “intentionality” refers to the reasons and ways someone has to do or make something.

This ties in with the mistake of the intentional fallacy, which is assuming that one can know an author’s intent and use the author’s intent to evaluate their work. Wimsatt and Beardsley propose that the existence of a work of literature itself is the only way readers can interpret an artist’s intention, and a work’s “success” depends on how relevant it is to the reader. Finally, authorial definition, or the concept that an author is the only one who can truly define the meaning of their work, came about as another result of “The Intentional Fallacy.” Authorial definition as a concept is highly contested because no one can ever truly know what an author means, including the author themself, since intention is an abstract concept. Instead, the intention of a literary work should be understood through the lens of how the reader or speaker of the work interprets it.

Join the conversation