Davies, Ch 5: Interpretation



2.      When is interpretation necessary?

         a.      When something’s meaning is not obvious

         b.      Examples

                  i.      If neighbor says “good morning” no interpretation needed; If sworn enemy says it, interpretation is needed

                  ii.     Speech that is false (and speaker realizes this) or incongruous or vague or ambiguous or not believed by speaker–need interpretation

                           (1)    “I didn’t know you could hang clothes in closets”

3.      Most artworks made for interpretation

         a.      E.g., Narrative art (e.g., stories) often present worlds that are under-described so audiences’ imaginative input is needed to flesh out the story

         b.      Narrative art often made to be ambiguous, enigmatic, multi-layered and otherwise challenging to audience to interpret the story

4.      Davies focuses on interpretations aimed at understanding literary works

         a.      Though interpretation applies to all kinds of art (paintings, sculpture, movies)

         b.      And includes performances of works of art, which are themselves a type of interpretation

5.      Not all acts of understanding are acts of interpretation      

         a.      E.g., Translation is not (typically) interpretation

         b.      Going to the dictionary to learn the meaning of a word is not interpretation



7.      Davies thinks that many artworks have multiple (correct or acceptable) interpretations

         a.      Davies: “For works of art correctly identified, usually the range of plausible interpretations is not unlimited

         b.      This statement suggest

                  i.      Davies doubts that there is ever only one plausible interpretation of an artwork and

                  ii.     Davies thinks that sometimes there may be unlimited plausible interpretations

8.      Davies also thinks interpretations can be better and worse

         a.      Interpretations must correctly identify the work and its basic contents and the interpretation must be answerable to them

                  i.      Also notice the use of “plausible” above, suggesting that some interpretations are not plausible

         b.      Example of mistaken interpretation (or perhaps an attempt at interpretation that fails to identify the poem correctly)

                  i.      18th century poem says “the stars were terrific on the night when Oscar came”

                  ii.     Interpreting the poem as alluding to Hollywood awards and movie actors rather than celestial bodies is a mistaken interpretation

                  iii.    Contextual features of work’s creation are essential to identity/content of art and these rule out Hollywood interpretation

9.      Davies thinks interpretation can be “silly, eccentric, unsuccessful or just plain wrong

         a.      Example of poor interpretation of Harry Potter series

                  i.      The main focus of the J.K Rowling books is an exploration and celebration of Hermione’s (repressed) sexual attraction to Harry

         b.      Example of poor (wrong!) interpretation of David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers

                  i.      The book makes a case that the teenagers fighting in the Iraq war had an unequivocally noble and worthwhile experience

10.    Can incompatible, contradictory (non-combinable) interpretations both be correct/acceptable?


         a.      Combinable: Star Wars is about the seductions of power; it is about father-son love

         b.      Noncombinable?:

                  i.      Star Wars is unequivocally supportive of democracy; it is a clear-cut rejection/critique of democracy

                  ii.     This play (as a whole) is racist; this play (as a whole) is advocates the equality of races.

                  iii.    Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is simply a comedy. It is an insightful commentary on the meaning/meaninglessness of life

11.    Does Davies allow for the correctness/acceptability of incompatible interpretations? (Perhaps) (Not sure)

         a.      Davies: “In art, we expect great works to invite multiple, even contradictory interpretations” p. 119



         a.      Plus a 6th not explicitly identified by Davies

13.    First three are types of intentionalist views of interpretation=artist’s/author’s intention fixes meaning

         a.      How determine artist’s intentions?

                  i.      From work itself; from what author says (though authors aren’t always reliable about their intentions); from external sources such as author’s letters


14.    One: Actual intentionalism (AI): Meaning of work is what author intended

         a.      Goal of interpretation to uncover what artist meant and to make sense of art as a communication from artist

                  i.      Like conversation: Just as we look to the speaker’s intentions to find out what she means in conversation, so too we do this in art

                           (1)    Speaker says: “Meet you at the bank” correct interpretation (side of river or financial institution) is determined by speaker’s intention

         b.      Main problem: Existence of unrealized intentions

                  i.      “For some works, it is obvious something gone badly wrong and the result could not have been intended”

                  ii.     Examples where author fails to realize her intention:

                           (1)    Author intends to portray a character as virtuous (e.g., likeable and kind), but describes him as an savage wife beater. The character is not loveable (despite what author intended)

                           (2)    Bad jokes are intended to be funny, but are not; correct interpretation of joke is not that it is funny, despite the author’s intention

                           (3)    Jules Verne racism example: Jules Verne's novel Mysterious Island intentionally and explicitly opposed slavery, but also unintentionally but no less actually expresses a residual racism by representing a former slave (Neb) as a superstitions, docile, naive, and childlike individual with an affinity to a domesticated monkey (example from Robert Stecker)

                                    (a)    Novel is racist despite author’s intention

                  iii.    Distinction between what is meant and what is in fact said

                           (1)    E.g., Say “there is a fly in your suit” but what I meant was “there is a fly in your soup”

                                    (a)    Correct interpretation of that utterance is “there is a fly in your clothing”

                           (2)    So artist might mean one thing by her artwork and it might actually say something else.


15.    Two: Moderate actual intentionalism (MAI): Author’s intention determines work’s meaning (partially), but only if intention is carried through successfully (realized in the work)

         a.      Goal of interpretation is to uncover what artist meant (assuming intention successfully realized in work)

         b.      Work’s meaning includes all that is successfully intended by author, but perhaps not only that

         c.      View can allow that work has meanings beyond those determined by author’s intentions

                  i.      (As long as these are not at odds with what is intended and would not be rejected by author??)

16.    Can art have meanings beyond what artist intended?

         a.      What if deep lessons for life in the work but artist did not intend them?

         b.      What if the best interpretation of the writing in Harry Potter was that Dumbledore was gay? And that the author (J.K. Rowling) had no intentions either way about his sexual preferences; a case where the meaning of the work goes beyond the artist’s intentions

                  i.      In fact, J.K. Rowling thinks of Dumbledore as gay

                  ii.     Might Rowling be wrong about whether he was gay?

                  iii.    Gellert Grindelwald

17.    Davies says intentionalists can allow that authors often don’t know their own intentions (before their intentions clarified in work or even after work competed)


18.    Three: Hypothetical intentionalism (HI): Work’s meaning determined by intentions the audience is best justified in attributing to a (possible) author

         a.      Whether or not the actual author actually had those intentions

         b.      Goal of interpretation to arrive by imaginative hypothesizing at what might have been intended and meant by a postulated author (even if author did not in fact intend it)

                  i.      Goal of interpretation is to learn what someone like the artist might have meant

         c.      What is hypothesized is unaffected by facts about the author’s actual intentions

         d.      Objection: Davies claims the theory is as much concerned with artistic value as with intentions


19.    Example where AI/MAI and HI differ: Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw

         a.      Two interpretations

                  i.      A simple ghost story in which ghosts threaten the children the governess is looking after

                  ii.     Ghosts figments of governess’ imagination and book is not a moral fable about protection of innocence from evil but instead a tale about psychological disintegration

         b.      2nd is superior as deals with more complex and provocative theme

         c.      But James claimed he intended no more than a ghost story

         d.      AI/MAI accepts James view only a ghost story

         e.      HI interprets it as the more interesting psychological story because assumes the author is highly skilled, and so this is the one most likely intended (we can assume the author would have intended her work to be better rather than worse)

                  i.      This view seems close to value maximization

                  ii.     Except it does not appeal directly to this, but to the intentions of a skilled artist/author

         f.      If HI interprets it as the psychological story because this better fits with the novel (is more justified by the story), then it does not reduce to value maximization


20.    Next two (three) views reject intentionalism; the are “non-intentionalist” views of interpretation

21.    Once created, artworks are autonomous and separate from their authors; authors’ intentions do not fix meaning

         a.      Interested in interpretation works will bear, not solely ones that were or might have been intended by artist

         b.      Any interpretation (whether based on intentions or not) is legitimate if compatible with work and its contents

         c.      Many interpretations are likely to be legitimate


22.    Four: Value maximization (VM): Interpretation should aim to maximize work’s artistic value

         a.      Goal of interpretation to maximize the rewards of appreciation (consistent with respecting the identity and content of work)

                  i.      Goal is not to interpret the art as a communication from artist

         b.      Objection: Goal of interpretation should be to understand art (including its weaknesses)

                  i.      Most coherent interpretation of work might make it poorer quality

                  ii.     Artwork incompetent or satire about incompetent art?

                           (1)    An incompetent and formulaic piece could be interpreted as a great satire about incompetent and formulaic art–and this would maximize its value, but should reject this, as treats mistakes as if sophisticated

                  iii.    “Interpretations must not simply be consistent with an artwork but true to it”


23.    Five: Meaning constructivism (MC): Meaning of arwork created by interpretations; interpretations create new artworks

         a.      Meanings are affected by the present context and interpretation

                  i.      Rejects Davies idea artwork’s identify fixed at point of creation

         b.      Art is altered through accretion of new meanings via interpretation

         c.      “Authors are dead and readers can create meaning via acts of interpretation”

         d.      “If critic is to interpret work for present must address not its former incarnation but its contemporary one and this has been shaped over time through critical receptions and other social changes”

                  i.      E.g., question 5.7: Mona Lisa means something different today than it did in Leonardo’s time? Because of its fame and contemporary importance, has content of the work changed?

         e.      Davies objection (rejects meaning constructivism)

                  i.      Interpretations (like descriptions or pointing at things) don’t alter what they interpret

                  ii.     The artwork and its meaning are not changed by interpretation

                           (1)    Davies has argued that artworks don’t change identify over time, but fixed by context of their creation (his “ontological contextualism”)

                  iii.    A new interpretation (like a performance of a musical artwork) can be creative, but they create a new interpretation, they do not make the original work become a new artwork

                  iv.    *****What changes is the artwork’s significance (=what we make of its meaning given our values and concerns), not its meaning or content

24.    Six: Best fit view: Privileges the interpretation(s) that seems to best fit the text/artwork, independent of artist’s intentions or maximizing artistic value or reading in significance for audiences

Study questions Davies, Ch 5: Interpretation


 1.      According to Davies, when is interpretation necessary? Answer this question by giving examples of when it is and is not needed.

 2.      Does Davies think there are better or worse interpretations of artworks? Does he think some interpretations of art are plain wrong? Does he think there is one correct interpretation of an artwork and any other interpretation is incorrect? What do you think about these questions? Give an example of a clearly unacceptable interpretation of a work of art.

 3.      Give an example of two interpretations of a work that are combinable (compatible); now give examples of two interpretations that are not.

 4.      Identify the five theories of interpretation that Davies discusses and, using examples, explain the differences between them.

 5.      What is actual intentionalism? What are unrealized intentions? (Give an example.) How are the two related?

 6.      Using an example, explain a plausible objection to actual intentionalism.

 7.      What are the two alternatives to intentionalism in art interpretation (that is, alternatives to the idea that the author’s intentions fix the meaning of the work of art)?

 8.      What is the “value maximization” theory of interpretation? Explain it using an example. What is one objection to this view?

 9.      What is the “meaning constructivism” theory of interpretation? Explain it using an example. Does Davies accept this view? Why or why not?       

 10.    Identify the theories of interpretation that think the goal of interpretation is to: (1) understand the work as a communication from the artist to the audience; (2) achieve the appreciative satisfactions art can bring.

 11.    Explain Davies distinction between a work’s significance and its meaning. How does this help him support his view that all properties of an artwork crucial to its identity/content are fixed when it is created?

 12.    Explain the implications (and problems) of using intentionalism to interpret the U.S. Constitution. Is value maximization more plausible?