Davies, Ch 5: Interpretation


1.       When interpretation necessary?

          a.       When a things’ meaning is not obvious

2.       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”


3.       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


4.       Davies focuses on interpretations aimed at understanding literary works, though interpretation applies to all kinds of art (paintings, sculpture, movies)

          a.       And includes performances of works of art (a different sort of interpretation)


5.       See question 5.3

6.       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 (perhaps even some that are incompatible?)

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

8.       Can incompatible (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.


9.       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, movie actors (rather than celestial bodies)

                    iii.      Because 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?

                              (1)     Story about Hermine Granger's sexual attraction to Harry Potter



          a.       Kinds of intentionalists (intention fixes meaning)

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

                              (1)     Goal of interpretation to uncover what artist meant

                              (2)     Goal of interpretation is to make sense of art as communication from artist

                              (3)     Main problem: existence of unrealized intentions

                                         (a)     Case where author fails to realize her intention: 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)

                                         (b)     Other examples: bad joke, fly, Jules Verne racism

                                         (c)     Ignores distinction what is in fact said and what is meant

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

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

                              (2)     Objection: Inadequate if art has meanings far beyond what artist intended: What if deep lessons for life in the work but artist did not intend them?

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

                              (1)     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)

                              (2)     E.g., J.K. Rowling says Dumbledore was gay, but it could be that the work she produced does not justify this interpretation

                              (3)     Objection: Davies claims this is really not an “intentionalist” view because “a hypothetical intention is no more an intention that a false friend is a friend”

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

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

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

                    iii.      HI really value max? (No) Henry James example.

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

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

                    ii.       Davies objection: Interpretations (like descriptions) don’t alter what they interpret; the artwork and its meaning are not changed by interpretation; a new interpretation of an artwork does not create a new artwork or change its meaning; What changes is the artwork’s significance (what we make of its meaning given our values and concerns)



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

          a.       Actual intentions of work’s author determine the work’s meaning

          b.       Literary artworks are to be interpreted as communications from the author

          c.       So just as we look to the speaker’s intentions to find out what she means in conversation, so too we do this in art

          d.       Example: Meet you at the bank ( Does this mean the riverbank or a financial institution? Depends on speaker’s intentions)

12.     Objection to AI: It ignores unrealized intentions

          a.       If author failed to achieve in the work what she intended, the work does not mean what she intended.

                    i.        What author produced is such that there is no way it could plausibly support the meaning she intends

          b.       Examples

                    i.        If a comedian tries to make a funny joke but fails in this intention, we should not interpret the joke as a funny one, even though that is his intention

                    ii.       E.g., If I say "there is a fly in your suit" (when I mean, there is a fly in your soup), my intention is not realized by my utterance and the meaning of that utterance is not fixed by my intention (but rather by its conventional meaning)

                    iii.      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

                              (1)     Actual non-racist intention was not realized (assuming that Verne intended was not only to opposed slavery but to also oppose racism)


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

                    i.        (View held by Carroll and Iseminger)

          b.       This view can allow that work has meanings beyond those determined by author’s intentions, as long as these are not at odds with what is intended and would not be rejected by author

14.     Possibly problematic examples for AI (and MAI)

          a.       Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (question 5.5)

                    i.        Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is widely taken to be about the meaning/meaninglessness of life.

                    ii.       Beckett claims he intended to write only a comedy (and it is funny)

                    iii.      AI and MAI would have to say that it is only a comedy?

                    iv.      If reason to think Becket was lying, could go with serious interpretation, otherwise say only a comedy

          b.       Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” (see below)


15.     Davies says intentionalists can allow that

          a.       Authors often don’t know own intentions (before their intentions clarified in work or even after work competed)

          b.       Works sometimes do not accurately reflects what was intended

                    i.        Obvious that something has gone badly wrong in a work and that what resulted could not have been intended


16.     Hypothetical intentionalism: Work’s meaning determined by intentions the audience is best justified in attributing to the author

                    i.        Nehamas, Levinson and Robinson

          b.       Whether or not these intentions are the ones she actually had

          c.       Audience works out intentions of a postulated author and interprets the work on this basis


17.     AI/MAI and HI differ in cases were work allows two contrasting interpretations, one is clearly superior to the other, yet author asserts the inferior one was intended

          a.       AI/MAI must abandon superior interpretation and go with what author says

                    i.        AI/MAI now judges work to be poor

          b.       HI sticks with the superior reading on grounds that this is more plausible and thus the one most justified in hypothesizing to have been intended

                    i.        HI continues to judge work as superior


18.     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

                    i.        This becomes a view close to Value Maximization criterion

          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


19.     Davies thinks HI is not really a version of intentionalism

          a.       Mistake to think that HI more concerned with intentions than with artistic value

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

          c.       Hypothetical intentions are no more intentions that false friends are friends


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

          a.       Goal of interpretation is not to understand a work as a communication from an author

          b.       We appreciate and interpret art in order to achieve the “appreciative satisfactions” art can bring

                    i.        This is best achieved by value max.


21.     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

          b.       But 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.       We should privilege the ones that present the work in most artistically rewarding light

          e.       A kind of conventionalism/constructivism?


22.     Objection to Value Max

          a.       We are (should be) more interested in understanding artworks, including recognizing their faults and inadequacies, than in maximizing their merit

          b.       There might be much more likely interpretations–one better supported by the evidence in the work--that make the work poorer in quality


23.     Meaning constructivism (MC)

                    i.        Joseph Margolis and Michael Krausz

          b.       Artwork is altered through accretion of new meanings and associations

          c.       Interpretation is most relevant/fruitful when moves beyond art’s historically context

          d.       Authors are dead and readers can create meaning via acts of interpretation

          e.       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.


24.     Davies rejects meaning constructivism

          a.       Interpretations create new interpretations not a new works

          b.       Art does not change identity over time

          c.       Objects of interpretation (artworks) are unaffected by being interpreted

                    i.        Interpretation, like pointing to and describing something, leaves a thing unchanged

          d.       Significance of artworks can alter greatly over time, but this does not change the meanings and other features responsible for their identity

25.     Difference between work’s significance and its meaning

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

          b.       Meaning: something a work possesses in virtue of its semantic, symbolic, or other properties

          c.       Significance is what we make of meaning when we consider that meaning in light of things that matter to us