Intentional Fallacy Musing

The Great Intentional Fallacy Compromise:
Insight into the Intentional Fallacy and its Paradoxical Success
By: Derek Hobson

Given that films are now, more or less, the novels of the 21st century, the intentional fallacy comes into question as to whether or not it is a fallacy.

The intentional fallacy was first introduced in the 1950s by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsly. The idea behind it is, to speculate/claim that you know what the author’s intent was is fallacious and ultimately does not determine the meaning of the text… but it does, doesn’t it?

As time goes on, I’m beginning to believe that this was just a way for people to praise a work of art, but maintain distance from the author. In the same way that someone who loves Mel Gibson’s directorial work and acting career may choose to say that the art stands alone, and Gibson’s influence is not necessary.

Especially with movies where it is very much a collaborative effort, it appears as though there’d be no need to invoke an intentional fallacy, but that’s counterintuitive since technically the director’s job is to give a direction/tone/thematic element to the piece. The director’s intent is all that matters. That’s why if the film doesn’t work, s/he’s the first to blame and rightfully so.

Before delineating into literature entirely, let’s look at films with Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov as a launch pad.

Pale Fire consists of a long poem written by a fictional author with commentary by a fictitious character. It has been argued and debated what makes Pale Fire a success? Do people find enjoyment from the poem on its own? Or is it the critic and his explanation of each line that gives the text worth? In which case, shouldn’t the critic in the text be further analyzed as a surrogate for Nabokov?

Regardless of anyone’s personal feelings about the text, Nabokov succeeds. If you hate the criticism on the text, then Nabokov’s intent—could be argued—that that was the point by making you hate the critic’s interpretation and art should be respected on its own. Similarly, if you enjoy the criticism over the poem, Nabokov still succeeds because that means the point is to know the author and therefore the author’s intent is that you should learn what the author’s intent was/is.

The irony of course is that, concerning the intentional fallacy, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.

In most cases however, ruling out the intentional fallacy is what determines the difference between literature and… bookstore fiction. Paperback fiction is people writing for writings sake—art for art’s sake; if you can call it that. It’s writing without purpose, just mindless—soulless—escapism. It’s exciting event followed by exciting event. Literature is writing with purpose.

Yet I’d regard The Hunger Games as a series that leans closer to literature than something like Harry Potter. With the former, it at least has social stratification and can serve as a template for the famine debate and violence/murder as a game show in a modern society. Harry Potter however is entirely irrelevant. I’m sure it’s a rollicking good time, but it doesn’t speak depths or levels into humanity.

(Feel free to call me wrong on either account, I’ve read neither, but I’ve seen the first movie of both).

Then you have Lord of the Rings and Narnia which both are regarded as literature. At the very least, both are considered purposeful. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis have both spoken about their works as a testament of something—religion, race, desire/passion, etc.

And what of Franz Kafka? He had a clear intent and purpose, but it’s subverted. Kafka never intended to have his works read. After his death, his friend went against Kafka’s wishes and published them. So what the f*** does that mean for author’s intent?! It’s not like Rushdie who might want to avoid publishing for fear of persecution—not that he does—but Kafka actually asked for his work not to be published. Is it because these are the thoughts he didn’t mean/wish to have?

Of course, briefly let me go over something because people may ask why not write non-fiction if the author wishes to provide a purpose.

In the vein of Rushdie, many people were slaughtered for speaking their minds. Regardless of your feelings towards an Ayn Rand, she provided a philosophy through fiction as it was the best medium to tell it. Many authors rely on fiction for purposeful ambiguity. A President can be named “Aboma,” and they’re the first Native American President, but so long as it’s not directly pointing a finger at one prez, the book increases in longevity because it applies to multiple Presidents or rulers. Additionally, there’s the added defense against people who accuse you of writing about, say “Obama.” So in many cases it acts as a shield.

Yet if the idea is to combine a bunch of leaders with similar stories or scandals, then you’ll want to combine them all.

In short, fiction is used purposefully.

So let’s look at films and their commentary—which are basically extensions of Pale Fire.

I’m not sure what others’ perspective on this is, but I watch/listen to the film commentary for 1 of 3 reasons:

  1. Procrastination. Without wanting to input another DVD, I’ll start the commentary track.
  2. The movie was good! I want to know the technical aspects and the director’s insight. More than anything, I want to talk about the movie as an expert on the material and know why I appreciate it so much.
  3. The movie was awful! I want to know why it was so bad and what the director’s intent was.

Now some directors don’t provide commentary at all (see Christopher Nolan). In essence, isn’t it decided then? He chose to rule in favor of the intentional fallacy? To hell with what he thinks, the movie stands alone as an art piece. See his take on the ending of Inception

“There can’t be anything in the film that tells you one way or another because then the ambiguity at the end of the film would just be a mistake,” he says. “It would represent a failure of the film to communicate something. But it’s not a mistake. I put that cut there at the end, imposing an ambiguity from outside the film. That always felt the right ending to me.”

Interview with Entertainment Weekly (12.02.2010)

The top falls; the top doesn’t fall. Nolan says it doesn’t matter sorta like the ending to The Sopranos.

Ruling in favor of the intentional fallacy means that art is what you make it. However, that brings out the cynic as you can have as many clashing opinions as you want, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. You’re both right. In the end, it’s what it means to you, which means it has no meaning.

But then, when you have someone like Federico Fellini or Woody Allen, there’s a clear intent on the director’s behalf, despite their silence on the subject matter. And isn’t it the staple of a quality filmmaker to have a particular style, message, or thematic element through everything that they do? Don’t you have an impression of what to expect from Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarentino?

Then there’s George Lucas who clearly had no idea what he created, as evidenced by Star Wars: Episode I-III, and yet peoples’ interpretation of Star Wars is what led to The Empire Strikes Back, countless games, ideologies, books, etc.

Notice how the surplus of lightsabers fade as you move to the right.

In a way, Lucas’ prequels were a way to invalidate everyone else’s interpretation. Am I a die-hard Star Wars fan? Hardly. I enjoy the adventures of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo and I enjoy Empire, so the prequels have nothing to do with me. But this is a great example of the intentional fallacy.

Lucas had full control over the prequels and the third film. Those are wholly his. That’s what the series is to him. That’s his declaration that everyone else had/has it wrong… but Star Wars (IV-VI) is still viewed by millions as a monolithic achievement in cinema.

Obviously, Lucas gets far too much credit for the initial Star Wars trilogy as was put into contestation when he released the prequels.

So who is responsible for the original Star Wars? Clearly it couldn’t be Lucas since it contradicts the films’ mythology. Shouldn’t someone step forward though and take credit? Gary Kurtz should take more credit. But he’s humble and makes it feel as one, big collaboration, in which case, it has rightfully earned its station in the hall of fame.

I wonder what a television series would look like if one writer/director was in charge of each character as opposed to each episode. Sort of like how fighting video games have different departments for different character models.

With movies however, we also have “Behind the Scenes,” “Interviews,” and “Documentaries.” I’d like to see Nolan make a sequel-ish to Inception where it’s actually a documentary of making Inception, but I suppose that’s what Charlie Kaufman is for.

Why bother with the intentional fallacy at all if it varies ad nauseum between artists? Because artists are rare.

It’s the difference between a musical band that writes its own songs and a pop star who buys them. Most people, musicians, filmmakers, etc. are out there to make money. That is the intent. I try not to support these. But my flaw as a movie-goer is that sometimes the marketing professionals of the world win and I’m led to believe that I’m seeing something with a purpose, when really it’s for money (see Brave).

This is where literature comes to the forefront again, because you can fake it. People may be reading a novel wrong for years. That doesn’t necessarily matter if the morals it teaches are good and certainly there’s a line of books that take seemingly potentially irrelevant things and apply philosophy to them (see image).

But the success or failure of the writer is their intent. If you listen to a movie commentary and they say, “This shot should evoke…” but it doesn’t, then they failed. If you say the same thing about a novel, but it doesn’t, then it failed. Is it possible for fiction to be so dense that everyone can pull something out of it?


I purport that the intentional fallacy can be removed and still have multiple interpretations.

There’s a barrage of novels dedicated to narrating authors lives as artists (see Joyce, Fitzgerald, Proust, etc.).

I don’t believe these authors did have an explicit intent. I think, in the Bloomian theory of apophrades that the writers themselves were already thinking ahead that they will be read in the future and therefore, references they make will be cited. In that way, they choose their ancestors because they’re crafting their own citations, but not treating them like source material only supplementary.

In a way, the writers are asking the readers of the future to decide their fates for them (the writers). They think of their lives in novel form. When a character does “X,” they want the readers to determine “why,” to provide their lives with meaning because they are the character. In this regard, there are countless interpretations, but all are according to the author’s intent.

This is why Fitzgerald feared The Great Gatsby not selling. Not because he needed the money or the heart of Zelda, but if it didn’t spark his legacy, then his life—which he documented in fiction—would not have meaning because people wouldn’t be reading it for years to come.

In essence then, every text is a a choose-your-own-adventure story, and we write the writers–which, let’s face it, we basically do anyway.

After all, all forms of literary criticism are reader-response, but with the pretense of another form of literary criticism. The other forms of criticism are simply there to add credibility to an opinion.

For more articles, check out Derek Hobson’s Article Archive


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