Authorial intent

In literary theory and aesthetics, authorial intent refers to an author's intent as it is encoded in their work.

Literary theory

Long time literary theory has held that the main authority for any piece of writing comes from the author's intent when writing it, in which all other views or interpretations are secondary to the author's intent.

New Criticism

Main article: New Criticism

New Criticism, as espoused by Cleanth Brooks, W. K. Wimsatt, T. S. Eliot, and others, argued that authorial intent is irrelevant to understanding a work of literature. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley argue in their essay "The Intentional Fallacy" 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."[1] The author, they argue, cannot be reconstructed from a writing -- the text is the primary source of meaning, and any details of the author's desires or life are secondary. Wimsatt and Beardsley argue that even details about the work's composition or the author's intended meaning and purpose that might be found in other documents such as journals or letters are "private or idiosyncratic; not a part of the work as a linguistic fact" and are thus secondary to the trained reader’s rigorous engagement with the text itself.[2]

Wimsatt and Beardsley divide the evidence used in making interpretations of poetry (although their analysis can be applied equally well to any type of art) into three categories:

Internal (or public) evidence
Internal evidence refers to what is presented within a given work. This internal evidence includes strong familiarity with the conventions of language and literature: it "is discovered through the semantics and syntax of a poem, through our habitual knowledge of the language, through grammars, dictionaries, and all the literature which is the source of dictionaries, in general through all that makes a language and culture." Analyzing a work of art based on internal evidence will not result in the intentional fallacy.
External (or private) evidence
What is not literally contained in the work itself is external to that work, including all private or public statements that the artist has made about the work of art, whether in conversations, letters, journals, or other sources. Evidence of this type is directly concerned with what the artist may have intended to do even or especially when it is not apparent from the work itself. Analyzing a work of art based on external evidence will likely result in the intentional fallacy.
Intermediate evidence
The third type of evidence, intermediate evidence, includes "private or semiprivate meanings attached to words or topics by an author or by a coterie of which he is a member." Also included are "the history of words" and "the biography of an author, his use of a word, and the associations which the word had for him." Wimsatt and Beardsley argue for the use of intermediate evidence rather than external evidence in the interpretation of a literary work, but they recognize that these two types of evidence "shade into one another so subtly that it is not always easy to draw a line between" the two.

Thus, a text's internal evidence the words themselves and their meanings is open for literary analysis. External evidence anything not contained within the text itself, such as statements made by the poet about the poem that is being interpreted does not belong to literary criticism. Preoccupation with the authorial intent "leads away from the poem." According to Wimsatt and Beardsley, a poem does not belong to its author but rather "is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it. The poem belongs to the public."

Psychoanalytic criticism

In psychoanalytic criticism, the author's biography and unconscious state were seen as part of the text, and therefore the author's intent could be revived from a literary text—although the intent might be an unconscious one.

Cambridge School contextualism

The Cambridge School of contextualist hermeneutics, a position most elaborated by Quentin Skinner, in the first instances distinguishes linguistic meaning from speech-acts: that is to say, things which the performance of an utterance does. Consider the following. Typically, the ceremony of marriage concludes upon the exchange of the utterance "I do". In such a case, to utter "I do" is not merely to report an internal disposition, but to perform an action, namely, to get married. The intended force of "I do" in such a circumstance is only ever retrievable through understanding something about the complex social activity of marriage. Indeed, to understand a speech-act is to understand what conventions are regulating its significance. Since actions are always publicly legible – they are done by the speech itself – this presupposes no knowledge about the author's mental states. The task is always thus: with as much contextual information as possible, can we establish which conventions a text was interacting with, and by inference to the best explanation, what the author's intent was.


Main article: Post-structuralism

In post-structuralism, there are a variety of approaches to authorial intent. For deconstruction, the authorial intent is again irrelevant and unknowable. Furthermore, the critic's will and intention are superior to the author's (cf. Roland Barthes's "The Death of the Author" and his S/Z). In other post-structuralist approaches, authorial intent exists as a psychological phenomenon, and texts endlessly recreate psycho-linguistic battles. For some of the theorists deriving from Jacques Lacan, and in particular theories variously called écriture féminine, gender and sex predetermine the ways that texts will emerge, and the language of textuality itself will present an argument that is potentially counter to the author's conscious intent.

Marxist criticism

For Marxist literary theorists, the author's intent is always a code for a particular set of ideologies in the author's own day. For Marxists (especially those of the Soviet Realism type), authorial intent is manifest in the text and must be placed in a context of liberation and the materialist dialectic. However, Marxist-derived theorists have seen authorial intent in a much more nuanced way. Raymond Williams, for example, posits literary productions always within a context of emerging, resistant, and synthetic ideological positions. The author's intent is recoverable from the text, but there is always encoded within it several separate positions. The author might be arguing consciously for empire, but hidden within that argument will be a response to a counterargument and a presentation of an emerging synthesis. Some members of the reception theory group (Hans Robert Jauss, in particular) have approximated the Marxist view by arguing that the forces of cultural reception reveal the ideological positions of both author and readership.

Reader response

Main article: Reader response

Reader response critics view the authorial intent variously. In general, they have argued that the author's intent itself is immaterial and cannot be fully recovered. However, the author's intent will shape the text and limit the possible interpretations of a work. The reader's impression of the author's intent is a working force in interpretation, but the author's actual intent is not.

Weak intentionalism

Weak intentionalism combines intentionalism with insights from reader response. Mark Bevir in The Logic of the History of Ideas sees meanings as necessarily intentional but suggests that the relevant intentions can be those of readers as well as those of authors. Weak intentionalists privilege intentionality to emphasize that texts do not have meanings in themselves. They believe that meanings are always meanings for people - albeit the relevant people, whether authors or readers.

In textual criticism

Authorial intention is of great practical concern to some textual critics. These are known as intentionalists and are identified with the Bowers-Tanselle school of thought. Their editions have as one of their most important goals the recovery of the author's intentions (generally final intentions). When preparing a work for the press, an editor working along the principles outlined by Fredson Bowers and G. Thomas Tanselle will attempt to construct a text that is close to the author's final intentions. For transcription and typesetting, authorial intentionality can be considered paramount.

An intentionalist editor would constantly investigate the documents for traces of authorial intention. On one hand, it can be argued that the author always intends whatever the author writes and that at different points in time the same author might have very different intentions. On the other hand, an author may in some cases write something he or she did not intend. For example, an intentionalist would consider for emendation the following cases:

In cases such as these where the author is living, they would be questioned by the editor who would then adhere to the intention expressed. In cases where the author is deceased, an intentionalist would attempt to approach authorial intention. The strongest voices countering an emphasis on authorial intent in scholarly editing have been D. F. McKenzie and Jerome McGann, proponents of a model that accounts for the "social text," tracing material transformations and embodiments of works while not privileging one version over another.


  1. Wimsatt, William K. and Monroe C. Beardsley. "The Intentional Fallacy." Sewanee Review, vol. 54 (1946): 468-488. Revised and republished in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry, U of Kentucky P, 1954: 3-18.
  2. Wimsatt, William K. and Monroe C. Beardsley. "The Intentional Fallacy." Sewanee Review, vol. 54 (1946): 468-488. Revised and republished in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry, U of Kentucky P, 1954: 3-18.

Further reading

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