Intentional Fallacy

In literary criticism there are many schools of thought on how to interpret and analyze texts. New Criticism, a school of literary thinking that began in the early 1900’s, emphasis a “close reading” of literary texts. New Critical scholars will stress the importance of the text itself, andwriter eschew all external elements, especially the biography of the author, that might interfere with close readings. One of the major contributions of New Criticism to literary scholarship as a whole is the notion of the “intentional fallacy.”

Intentionally fallacy refers to the practice of critics futilely determining to discover the “intentions” of the author through the text. This, New Critics say, is a fallacious endeavor. We can never know for sure what an author had in mind for his or her text, and texts are not necessarily an expression of the author’s mind. As Terry Eagleton writes in his book Literary Theory, to attempt to offer statements regarding the author or the authors emotional state via the author’s text “reduces all literature to a covert form of autobiography: we are not reading literary works as literary works, simply as second-hand ways of getting to know somebody” (41).

Unfortunately for us, not many journalists or political pundits know about intentional fallacy. If they did, we wouldn’t see so many jackasses proposing that the writing instructors at Virginia Tech should have known that Cho Seung-Hui was a nutty-nutbag from reading his ultra-violent plays “Richard McBeef” and “Mr. Brownstone.” Sure, those plays might have been good indicators, but as intentional fallacy teaches us, the writings of an author cannot be used to determine the author’s intended meaning for his or her writings, or to determine the psyche of the author.

Apparently the creative writing instructor at Cary-Grove High School in Cary, Illinois had never heard of intentional fallacy, either. If the instructor had, perhaps Allen Lee, an 18 year-old straight-A student, wouldn’t have been arrested for writing a “disturbing” paper for a creative writing assignment. In the assignment, the students were told to express themselves emotionally, and despite the fact that Lee’s essay didn’t threaten anyone, the police in Cary, Illinois, arrested Lee and charged him with a misdemeanor, which could carry a $1,500 fine.

Everyone needs to clam down about writing students. There are some totally demented and disturbing texts out there in library-land that were written by well-adjusted and sweet authors. Not every author that writes disturbing material is destined to shoot up a school. As a teacher, I would have found Cho’s practice of signing his name as a question mark, his refusal to speak, and his instances of stalking female students far more disturbing than his writing.

Categories: Teaching, Writing | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Intentional Fallacy

  1. Flood

    Yeah, but all his papers were “process” papers.

  2. Well, then that’s different. I mean, if a student turned in an informative paper titled “How-to Systematically Kill Everyone In This Room,” then I might ignore intentional fallacy and stab him with my pen. Repeatedly. In the eyes.

  3. Flood

    But there is something to say that our writing does reflect the writer. Not that a dark work means that the person writing is dark, yet there is something inside them that allows them to conceive of that darkness. We all know people who couldn’t imagine some of the sick things that go through the rest of our minds. I think that that reflects upon us all.

    Otherwise I agree with what you saying. We leap to conclusions in our society and try to make rule/laws without ever considering the ramifications e.i. gun control, the patriot act, etc.

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