Intentism. An elegant solution to the hermeneutical question: where is the locale of meaning to be found?

What is Intentism?

Intentism, as an art movement, is the exploration of the relationship between artistic intention and the meaning of a work, largely through a celebration of the creative process. Intentism, as a philosophy is an epistemological theory of hermeneutics which defines ‘all meaning as the imperfect outworking of artistic or authorial intention’. 

Intentism provides an elegant solution to the hermeneutical question of where meaning is found. 

Introduction 

The word ‘hermeneutics’ probably comes from Hermes the messenger of the Greek gods and in its simplest for it is the study of the methodology of the interpretation of messages, encompassing all expressions of art and communication, but historically with a focus on the text. Western Pre-Enlightenment study of hermeneutics focused primarily on the bible and the question of where meaning was found was resolved through the study of genres and meaning was mediated through church dogma. The key academic debates concerned issues of translation and discerning between history and allegory. The Englightenment and Reformation led to a shift of focus back to the text: Calvin emphasised scriptura sui ipsius interpres, using intratextual cross referencing to mediate meaning, and brevitas et facilitas, a method which seeks the simplest interpretation, a exegetical version of Occam’s razor.

  1. The paradox of the hermeneutical circle

In order to understand the paradox of the hermeneutical circle we must first consider the contribution of Schleiermacher to the field of hermeneutics. Before Schleiermacher, hermeneutics was a regional discipline focusing on the peculiarities of different genres such as law, poetry, and narratives. Schleiermacher set out to articulate a general theory of hermeneutics with universal principles of interpretation which could be applied to all texts. At the heart of his general theory was the ‘hermeneutical circle’, the principle that textual meaning is found in the interplay between units of language, such as words or phrases, and its context. Words are understood within the context of sentences and sentences understood through the words they are comprised of. Likewise, sentences are understood within the whole text and the whole text understood through the sentences: “understanding is a movement of mediation between part and whole, singularity and generality” (Klemm, 1986). For Schleiechermacher, authorial intention and meaning were intrinsically linked. “By appraising the relationship between the external form and inner meaning one could arrive at a comprehensive understanding of the original intention of the speaker or author” (D’Angeli, p17).  The hermeneutical circle lent itself particularly well to the visual arts, where the parts and the whole can be seen at the same time, yet there is a paradox at the heart of the theory. If the parts and the whole rely on each other for their meaning, then neither can be understood without prior understanding of the other. The meaning of a word cannot be understood without the meaning of the sentence it is found in, which itself cannot be understood without an understanding of the meaning of the words. So we are faced with a paradox that we need to understand the meaning of a word prior to understanding the meaning of a word. Shleiermacher attempted to resolve this in the concept of constant reappraisal in a ‘shuttlecock’ movement between the parts and the whole as meaning is incrementally revealed. It is for this reason that Osborne coined the phrase, ‘the hermeneutical spiral’. The hermeneutical circle is especially problematic when addressing narrative nature of many art forms. How can there be interplay between the parts and the whole in literature when the whole is not revealed until the text has been fully read?

  • The problem of self-revelatory hermeneutics

Heidegger’s solution to these theoretical problems was to take hermeneutics away from understanding the meaning of the text to understanding the ‘being’ of the reader in the world. Texts were no longer windows to other worlds but mirrors to self-revelation. Gadamer extended this shift further so that text were no longer windows to other worlds but mirrors to self-revelation. Hermeneutics became the ontological study of how we interpret our experiences in order to form our self-identity, and art in general and texts in particular were no longer the primary consideration. The author and their intentions no longer mattered.  Gadamerian hermeneutics has dominated theories of interpretation with a few notable exceptions. Paul Ricoeur, for example, brought the centrality of the text back into hermeneutics and authorial intention: “to understand an author better than he understood himself is to unfold the revelatory power implicit in his discourse”(Ricoeur, 1981 p191). Ricoeur perceived hermeneutics as the study of how to resolve the tension between the ‘the intention of saying something and the verbal vehicle which has elements of both collectively accepted use of language and idiosyncrasies unique to each voice ‘features of singularity’ (Ricoeur 1977). Despite the work of Ricoeur and others, Heidegger and Gadamer had guided modern hermeneutics into becoming an essentially introspective discipline.  

  • The problem of the gagging of the author

Modern theory of the interpretation of art and literature is heavily influenced by the 1967 essay by Roland Barthes called “The Death of the Author”. Essentially, he argued for a disconnect between the meaning of the artwork and the intentions of the author. According to Barthes, a text’s meaning is to be discovered solely within the relationship between the reader and text, any authorial intentions are irrelevant. This theory has gained wide acceptance largely because it follows the post-modern scepticism of objective truth and seemed like a natural extension of the enlightenment’s focus on the individual as interpreter, which began as the freedom of the individual to validly interpret the bible differently from the church authority, and then extended throughout the arts.  In fact, Barthes refers to liberating the text from interpretative tyranny, by which he means the tyranny of the authorial interpretation of their text being the only valid meaning. He may well have borrowed this concept from Auerbach, who, in Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Modern Literature (1957) refers to the bible’s claim to truth as being tyrannical, an autocracy where there is no place individualised truth.  For Barthes, the central problem of considering the authorial intent is that the author’s voice can never be disentangled from the voice of narrators and characters, nor should we bother to try since the text is ‘a tissue of citations’ and, borrowing from the poet Mallarme, “it is language which speaks”.  Yet, Barthes has a greater enemy to kill than the author; ultimately he has set his sights on theocide: according to him, “by refusing to assign to the text (and to the world as text) a ‘secret’, that is, an ultimate meaning, (his theory) ‘liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases—reason, science, law.”

Barthes ‘death of the author’ theory creates more questions than it resolves and is inherently self-contradictory. Evidently Barthes was aware that the rejection of the author is the rejection of objective meaning and with that, objective reason and logic. His essay uses orthodox reasoning techniques to argue categorically for the rejection of reason.  He establishes principles to argue against principles (laws). The ‘revolutionary’ alternative that he offers is a field of hermeneutics where objective interpretative principles and techniques have been replaced with subjective individual experiences of the text. We are left with the question: how can a message from one mind to another be communicated effectively in Barthes’ hermeneutical world where all subjective interpretations are equally valid? By ‘killing’ the author, surely Barthes has killed the message with the messenger. 

One wonders whether Barthes wanted his theory to be robustly challenged because he uses a play on words for the title, “Morte de l’auteur” which sounds very similar to “Morte D’Arthur”, the famous novel by Sir Thomas Mallory. How can a theory that takes meaning away from authorial intent acknowledge anything other than a coincidence here?

The intentist solution

The central problem with all these theories is that they locate meaning within the interaction between the text and the reader; to varying degrees, they postulate that the intended meaning of an author is incommunicable. Intentism recognises this as the ‘gagging of the author’, a perspective which denies the author a voice. Intentist theory acknowledges that authorial intended meaning is elusive but does not seek to resolve that by making it irrelevant. Intentism defines the meaning of a communicative act as only to be found in the intentions of the communicator, as they are expressed imperfectly through the act itself. Intentism draws on being-with, an underdeveloped concept of Heidegger’s, which he defined as a ‘special hermeneutic of empathy’. The text can act as a mirror which reveals the ‘being-with’ shared humanity between the author and the reader, and in doing so facilitates an empathy between the author and the reader which allows for the potential to communicate something of the intended meaning.  

Intentist and artist Luciano Pelosi

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