Davies, Ch 5: Interpretation
See study questions at end



2.       When interpretation necessary?

          a.       When a thing’s meaning is not obvious

3.       Examples

          a.       If neighbor says “good morning” no interpretation needed

                    i.        If sworn enemy says it, interpretation is needed

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

                    i.        “I didn’t know you could hang clothes in closets”


4.       Most artworks made for interpretation

          a.       E.g., Narrative art (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


5.       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 (a different sort of interpretation)


6.       Not all acts of understanding are acts of interpretation

          a.       See question 5.3    

          b.       E.g., translation is not (typically) interpretation

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



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

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

          b.       Does Davies allow for the acceptability of incompatible interpretations?

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

          a.       Examples:

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

          c.       Noncombinable?:

                    i.        Star Wars is supportive of democracy; it is a rejection/critique of democracy.

                    ii.        This play is racist; this play is advocates the equality of races.


10.     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

          b.       Example of mistaken interpretation:

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

                    ii.       Poem can’t be interpreted as alluding to Hollywood awards and movie actors rather than celestial bodies

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

          c.       Interpretation can be silly, eccentric, unsuccessful or just plain wrong

                    i.        Examples of poor interpretations of Harry Potter series

                              (1)     A main focus of the Rowling’s books is Hermione’s sexual attraction to Harry Potter


11.     FIVE THEORIES OF INTERPRETATION (plus a 6th not explicitly identified by Davies)

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

          a.       How determine artists intentions?

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

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

          a.       Goal of interpretation to uncover what artist meant

                    i.        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 is determined by speaker’s intention

          b.       Goal of interpretation is to make sense of art as communication from artist

          c.       Main problem: Existence of unrealized intentions

                    i.        “For some works 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 intolerant racist. The character is not loveable (despite what author intended)

                              (2)     Bad jokes (are intended to be funny, but are not)

                              (3)     Jules Verne racism example: (According to Robert Stecker) 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

                    iii.      Ignores distinction what is in fact said and what is meant

                              (1)     E.g., Say fly in your suit; meant fly in your soup

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

          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.       This 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??)

                    ii.       Why limit it in this way? I guess to make sure its an author’s intention view

          d.       Can art have meanings beyond what artist intended?

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

                    ii.       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

                              (1)     J.K. Rowling says Dumbledore was gay https://observer.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,,2196020,00.html

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

15.     Three: Hypothetical intentionalism (HI): Work’s meaning determined by intentions the audience is best justified in attributing to a (possible) author (whether or not she actually had those intentions)

          a.       Goal of interpretation to arrive by imaginative hypothesizing of 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

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

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


16.     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.       If 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

17.     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


18.     Next two (three) views reject intentionalism

19.     Once created, artworks are autonomous and separate from their authors

          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

          d.       How choose between them?

                    i.        If privilege the ones that present the work in most artistically rewarding light, we get value maximization

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

          a.       Davies might claim this focuses on the text, not the artwork itself


21.     Four: Value maximization (VM): Interpretation should aim to maximize work’s artistic value (instead of a communication from artist)

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

          b.       Objection: Goal of interpretation is (should be) to understand art (including its weaknesses); most coherent interpretation of work might make it poorer quality

                    i.        Piece incompetent or satire? An incompetent and formulaic piece could be interpreted as a great satire about incompetent and formulaic art, but should reject this, as treats mistakes as if sophisticated


22.     Five: Meaning constructivism (MC): Meanings are affected by the present context; art is altered through accretion of new meanings; interpretations create new artworks

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

          b.       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

          c.       E.g., question 5.7: Mona Lisa means something different today than it did in Leonardo’s time? Content of the work has changed?

          d.       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

                    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)

                    v.       Difference between work’s significance and its meaning

                                           (1)         Significance: How we think about a work and relate the work to values and ideas that lie beyond it

                                           (2)         Meaning: something a work possesses in virtue of its semantic, symbolic, or other properties

                                           (3)         Significance is what we make of meaning when we consider that meaning in light of things that matter to us



24.     An interpretation that fails fit with the work’s content and identity, is not an interpretation of that work.

25.     Distinguish between two roles artists intention can play

          a.       In fixing the content and identity and type/category of art

          b.       In fixing its meaning.

          c.       Intentionalism is about the second

26.     Actual motives of critics for interpretation

          a.       Move away from artist’s work and consider possible meanings (What the work could have been about...)

          b.       Taking up the text and using if for one’s own purposes

          c.       What artist meant or what could have been meant

          d.       Or max works value and the appreciative rewards we get

          e.       How it could be understood irrespective of how reflects work’s merit

          f.       Drawing lessons from life from it

          g.       Situating work with respect to theories (Marx/Freud) or social movements

27.     Primary interpretation aims at appreciating the historically situated work that is the artist’s product

          a.       Any other goals of interpretation are secondary

          b.       Primary because (somehow) making art presupposes this (p. 131)

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

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

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

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

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

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

9.         Identify the theories of interpretation that sees the goal of interpretation as being to: (1) understand the work as a communication from the author to the audience; (2) achieve the appreciative satisfactions art can bring.

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

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