In theories of literary criticism, what is the intentional fallacy as discussed by Monroe Beardsley and William K. Wimsatt, Jr.?

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Stephen Holliday eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The term intentional fallacy came out of a group of literary critics sometimes called New Critics (also, the Chicago School of Critics) who argued that we cannot understand or evaluate a work of literature by trying to understand an author's intention in writing a particular work. In Wimsatt's The Verbal Icon, for example, he said

. . . the poem is not the critic's own and not the author's . . . the poem is subject to the same scrutiny as a statement in linguistics or in the general science of psychology or morals."

To put this in another way, New Critics believe that a work of literature, even if an author has discussed his intent in writing a work, is completely independent of an author's intent and, more important, trying to understand the intent is a waste of time.

The great English novelist D. H. Lawrence once said, "Never trust the artist.  Trust the tale" (Studies in Classic Literature), which is another way of denying the concept of intention.  The writer may have an intention when writing, but whether that intention is effectively expressed in a work of literature is questionable.  The critics job, therefore, is to find out only what is in the work of art itself and not to be concerned about things like intention or anything else (history, current events).  A New Critic would tell you that the only thing you need to do to understand a work of literature is what is in the work itself--there is nothing outside the work that helps you to understand a work of literature.

New critics argue that rather than trying to understand intention the critic should concentrate on the internal elements of a work--things like characterization, narrative technique, plot, and metaphorical language, among others.  Looking outside the work to intention or history or current events is both mis-leading and unnecessary because the work itself contains everything you need to know in order to understand it.

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