THE INTENTIONAL FALLACY
From The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry
. W.K. Wimsatt, Jr., and
Monroe C. Beardsley. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1954.
THE CLAIM of the author's "intention" upon the critic's judgment has been
challenged in a number of recent discussions, notably in the debate entitled
between Professors Lewis and Tillyard. But it seems doubtful if
this claim and most of its romantic corollaries are as yet subject to any widespread
questioning. The present writers, in a short article entitled "Intention" for a
of literary criticism, raised the issue but were unable to pursue its
implications at any length. We argued that 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. It is a principle which accepted or
rejected points to the polar opposites of classical "imitation" and romantic
expression. It entails many specific truths about inspiration, authenticity, biography,
literary history and scholarship, and about some trends of contemporary poetry,
especially its allusiveness. There is hardly a problem of literary criticism in which
the critic's approach will not be qualified by his view of "intention."
"Intention," as we shall use the term, corresponds to what
he intended in
which more or less explicitly has had wide acceptance. "In order to judge the poet's
performance, we must know what
he intended." Intention
is design or plan in the
author's mind. Intention has obvious affinities for the author's attitude toward his
work, the way he felt, what made him write.
We begin our discussion with a series of propositions summarized and abstracted to a
degree where they seem to us axiomatic.
1. A poem does not come into existence by accident. The words of a poem, as
Professor Stoll has remarked, come out of a head, not out of a bat. Yet to insist on the
designing intellect as a cause of a poem is not to grant the design or intention as a
which the critic is to judge the worth of the poet's performance.
2. One must ask how a critic expects to get an answer to the question about intention.
How is he to find out what the poet tried to do? If the poet succeeded in doing it, then
the poem itself shows what he was trying to do. And if the poet did not succeed, then
the poem is not adequate evidence, and the critic must go outside the poem-for
evidence of an intention that did not become effective in the poem. "Only one caveat
must be borne in mind," says an eminent intentionalist
in a moment when his theory
repudiates itself; "the poet's aim must be judged at the moment of the creative act,
that is to say, by the art of the poem itself."
3. Judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine. One demands that it work.
It is only because an artifact works that we infer the intention of an artificer. "A poem