Almost every interpretative university discipline in or adjacent to the Humanities makes routine, unproblematic appeal to intention as an interpretative move. By proscribing intentionalism as an instrument of interpretation, Literary Criticism is the outlier among adjacent and not so adjacent disciplines. The introduction to the special issue “Intention and Interpretation, Now and Then” maps the prime features of the intellectual landscape concerning intention and literary criticism in Anglo-American and French traditions since the late eighteenth century. It then highlights the losses that Literary Criticism incurs by its repudiation of intention as a heuristic tool. Apart from its loss of intellectual esteem by peers, any interpretive practice that refuses to intuit intention also loses significant cognitive and ethical purchase. The nature and magnitude of these losses can be measured in many ways. Articles in this special issue measure these losses by looking to the later medieval period in particular (with contributions also from the early medieval and early modern periods), when intention rose dramatically as a heuristic tool in many discursive fields, notably in criminal law, penitential ethics, and biblical hermeneutics. The contributions also explicate the way a premodern or early modern discourse deploys and sometimes defines intentionalism.

Almost every interpretative university discipline in or adjacent to the Humanities makes routine, unproblematic appeal to intention as an interpretative move. The only exceptions are the following: Literary Criticism, where, in Anglo-American and then French traditions, appeal to intention has been proscribed, for various weak reasons, from at least the middle of the twentieth century; and Constitutional Law, where intentionalism remains, for various deep reasons, an extremely contentious issue.1 Thus in the disciplines of, say, History, Criminal Law, and (buttressing Literary Criticism) Textual Criticism, Semantics, and Translation, delineation of intention is, if by no means the goal of interpretative pursuit, frequently an essential and usually unquestioned stage in that pursuit.2

The differing profile of intention in more or less adjacent disciplines repays attention. We might focus that attention by looking to a discipline apparently distant from the Humanities, that of Design. As I turn to that field, I note the enormous cognitive losses of repudiating intentionalist interpretation, before looking to the serious ethical losses.

Take a pair of thick rubber gloves: their hand-shapes are clearly prepared for a matching pair of human hands of a certain size; the thickness of their rubber is clearly prepared for work of a particular rough or dangerous kind. The gloves, in short, have been designed, and designed to address the world of human bodies engaged in specific tasks where hands are vulnerable. By its design the pair of gloves is, as it were, thoughtfully considerate: it delivers itself to bodies for which it has been fully adjusted in advance. We can't know for sure how the truly astonishing shape and capacity of human hand-pairs themselves came to be, even if evolutionary science can help us to a certain extent. That's a mystery. But the considerate, well-fitting, hand-protecting gloves hold no mystery whatsoever. We claim with nearly complete confidence how they came to have each of their Aristotelian causes: that is, efficient (the designer and maker), material (the stuff of which an object is made), formal (the shape), and final (the purpose).

Accounting for each of those causes, however, prompts us to move beyond the rhetorical sleight of hand whereby we personify the gloves (“The pair of gloves is, as it were, thoughtfully considerate”) to acknowledge one of the real efficient causes: the designer. Was the designer a singular genius, the sole source of authority over said rubber gloves? Obviously not: he or she was working in a very long tradition of firmly defined glove-making genres, and working with the materials—affordable, appropriate, and salable—that were available. There is a set of many, but by no means limitless, competing intentions behind the design of any glove pair: what the manual worker, the rubber maker, the accounts department, and the marketing experts each want to see in the gloves. The designer—perhaps the design team—is the point where these vectors converge before manifesting themselves in the made gloves. But converge they do, producing a possibly hand-protecting, profit-making glove.

Are we interested in the personal intentions of the glove designer(s) as we try to understand the gloves? Might we, say, take into account the fact that the glove designer had just taken a mortgage and badly needed to secure a longer contract? Probably not, and not only because there will be many such personal intentions in any single designer, most of which will be irrelevant to the finished shape of the glove. Our interest is in understanding the gloves; our concern is, therefore, the intimate relation of designer-intentions and the made product. We will take personal intentions into account only so long as they inflect the design of the gloves.3

Will we allow our intuition of the designer's original intention to determine our entire account of the meaning of the gloves? Obviously not. Let's suppose that the gloves unexpectedly became a fashion accessory some years after their appearance. Having been used in a different way, the meaning of the gloves changed. The gloves entered the current of history and assumed different meanings as they did so. Original intention by no means exhausts the meaning of the object. Further, if I may be permitted a quick glance from our gloves to law-producing canonical texts, insistence on original intention as the only valid meaning frequently imprisons subjects of such documents (e.g., the Bible, the Constitution of the United States) in a very different past. Such insistence, indeed, frequently produces violence.4

Will we complacently assume that any intentionalist reading is an accurate reading? Glove making occurs within a matrix of competing discourses (plumbing, say, and fashion, not to speak of sports). We will need to know within which of these discursive fields the maker was working before we can claim plausibly to have understood the meaning of the gloves. If discursive uncertainty applies to glove making, it does so with much greater frequency and levels of uncertainty in matters of language. The relation between a linguistic utterance and its meaning is very frequently uncertain; we must understand the discourse to which the utterance belongs (what literary critics would call genre) and the principles that govern that discourse before we can understand any particular utterance. Cicero (d. 44 BCE) astutely pointed out that we admire the law not on account of the law's words, “which are but faint and feeble indications of intention” [tenues et obscurae notae . . . voluntatis], but because of the advantage of the principles which they [i.e., the words of the law] embody.”5 We need to understand that the utterance is made within the field of law, and we will need to understand the principles that generate the laws before we can divine the likely intention of a particular legal utterance.6

We might come away from this uncontentious description wondering just how practitioners in any discipline could not appeal to intention and continue to be taken seriously by readers outside the discipline. Accounting for the formal cause (the shape of the gloves) brings us to the (multiple) efficient causes of the glove; and once we arrive there, we're in history: When did the efficient causes live? Where? What was the institutional organization and structure in which they worked? By what international structures was the rubber produced and transported?

Design intentions are compacted in the shape of humanly made artifacts; every such artifact is therefore susceptible of this interpretative treatment. An account of the glove pair without reference to those compacted, implicit intentions would be wholly unpersuasive, not least because it would idly waste an extraordinary cognitive opportunity: intention is the surest, most reliable way we have to enter the minds of designers far distant or long dead, let alone the designer working next door. Make a plausible hypothesis about the designer's intention for an artifact, and you attempt to connect with the predicament, the aspiration, and the achievement of the designer(s). We also try to connect with the designer's world—the availability and affordability to the designer of materials and technologies, for example, or the competitor glove makers. Intention is the animating center of key aspects (not the only aspects) of historical understanding. Intentionalism will not aim to conclude with a dull platitude of the kind, “So we see that the designer's intention was to produce a hand-protecting, profit-making pair of gloves,” no. But use intentionalism as a heuristic to understand design predicaments and aspirations, and one learns a great deal.

If these truisms about glove-making are, as I believe they are, true for every single humanly made artifact, our disciplinary array has one outstanding, anti-intentionalist exception to it. Pick the odd element out in the following list: gloves, shirts, desks, coffee cups, religious statues in churches, poems. If you're a paid-up and professional literary critic in the Anglo-American tradition, this is an easy question, with only one answer: poems (the statues in a church are designed with function in mind; they are artifacts). Poems (a term I'll use as shorthand for works of literature) are, as the etymology of the word poetry reminds us, made things. Like pairs of gloves, poems are delivered into a world of users, and the poems have fine-tuned attention to the cognitive capacities of those users (readers in this case): every aspect of a poem's form, whether it be structure, verse form, syntax, or tropes, is chosen so as to engage the already-existing capacities of its imagined reader.7 For particular historical reasons, however, poems and literary works are generally, to the Anglo-American literary critic at least, the exception to the rule of artifacts thoughtfully designed to address the world into which they are delivered. Despite the fact that poems “reach out” (from Latin in-tendere) to readers, poems do not, so our profession remains persuaded, have intentions worth attending to.

How can we account for this apparently astonishing disciplinary readiness to abandon the cognitive affordances of the poem as made object? Are poems really so ontologically different from gloves? Are they so ontologically different from functional statues in a church? If we are prepared to deepen our understanding of nonliterary artifacts by intuiting designer's intentions, why should we not do the same for works of literature? The pressure of the question rises dramatically once we contemplate the magnitude of the losses of not attempting intuitions of that kind.

The obvious reason for this exceptionality might be the case that poems have, since the eighteenth century, been categorized and cognized differently from practical artifacts. Unlike the artifacts designed for specific purposes such as our pair of gloves, it could be argued that the poem is often not especially considerate, since it might be deliberately difficult to access; it poses the question of its use and purpose in ways not characteristic of the gloves. The poem, in short, is not an “artifact,” not an object crafted for a specific and practical function. It's a work of art, and works of art, it might be argued, are (or have at any rate been understood to be since the eighteenth century) ontologically different from artifacts. Artifacts might have demonstrable intentions, but works of art stand ontologically apart by activating our attention in a wholly unique way, or by reference to the ineffable genius of their maker. They have, in Kant's words, “Zweckmässigkeit ohne Zweck” [a purposeless purpose].8

I now briefly isolate three influential historical moments when the work of art has been dislocated from the matrix of its production in order to set it in an ontological category of its own. In each case, intentionalism has been repudiated.

The first such moment is Kant's Critique of Judgment (1790), formulated after more than two centuries of agonized Protestant hostility to visual religious artifacts. After two hundred years of iconoclasm, the discourse of Aesthetics faced the challenge of evangelical disgust at the enslaving, idolatry-inducing Catholic image. Kant set himself, in silent dialogue with that disgust, to formulate an account of the experience of “Art” that activated the receiver's independence and freedom, instead of activating the spiritual slavery of idolatry. The Kantian experience of Art was, as a result, without “interest” in the object of its attention. That free apprehension, which amounts to the recognition of beauty, is thereby focused on the form, not the content, of the image. Kant defines taste as contemplative, or “indifferent to the existence of the object”; contemplation of the object is “posited merely in the form of the object for reflection in general, and hence not in a sensation of the object, nor with reference to any concept that might involve some intention or other.”9

Because we consider only the form, not the rational truth content or intention of the admired object, the range of objects that are now capable of producing beauty is infinite, from the Catholic image to the beauties of Nature. We are now permitted to contemplate an infinitely wider range of objects than would have been permitted by the evangelical iconoclast, but we are simultaneously protected from the enslaving intentions of those objects. The discipline of Aesthetics and its subject, Art, emerges only by severing the work of Art from the contexts that define every other artifact.

From its most sophisticated formulation, then, Aesthetics was enabled precisely by positing that the relation of the work of Art and the world that produced it was indeed ontologically singular. The work was effectively extracted, if not severed, from its origins and from its intentions. This move enabled a great deal, by readmitting artistic traditions previously hostile to each other (e.g., Protestant and Catholic art works and Protestant and Catholic works of literature) into the field of a newly defined discipline; but it also disabled the full force of the work of Art.10

In the mid-twentieth century, the Anglo-American tradition of literary criticism offered an especially influential reprise of this severance of the artistic object from the mind of its maker. Wimsatt and Beardsley's essay “The Intentional Fallacy” (1946) cemented the durable conviction that intentionalism was a philosophical error. Their thesis is frequently rehearsed when the question of intention arises: “We argue[ ] that the design or intention of an author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of the work of literary art.”11 There are two related claims here: (1) it's a logical fallacy to posit intention; and (2) intention is not desirable as a touchstone for judging “the success of a work of art.”

The first claim misunderstands the nature of intention. To be sure, intentionalist interpretation is circular, by positing an intention on the basis of evidence that is then used to interpret that same evidence. But a certain circularity is inherent to the practice of interpretation. When we interpret, we necessarily work within a hermeneutic circle, by which we interpret the parts by the whole and whole by the parts.12 Intention is, perforce, forever “unavailable,” since it stands behind and outside the work; it can be intuited only from the work. Appeal to any explicitly stated intention as definitive will trigger an infinite regress, by prompting the question of what intention triggered the statement of intention. Intention is never “available.” To posit an intention is to activate the ineluctable mystery of personhood, whereby the forever elusive spirit sounds through (per-sonat) the utterances and products of that spirit.13

The second claim posits that intention is useless in a judgment regarding the “success” of a work of art. The weakness of this claim consists primarily in its bland assumption that a reader's prime interest lies in judgment of the “success” of a work. Such judgment now probably appears very faintly, if at all, on the radar of most scholarly readers; what many of us want rather to do is to understand a text. As our glove example demonstrated, we can't understand much without appeal to intention. The richer the rewards of understanding a text, we might concede, the greater the “success” of the work. Such success, however, requires no distinct moment of judgment; it's implicit in our appreciation derived from understanding, and by the fact that we place such a work on syllabi. The premise that the goal of criticism is to judge the “success” of a work delimits attention between the object and reader, but truncates that cognitive attention by prohibiting appeal to the design of the work. The focus on “success” operates within the narrowed field of attention to works of art defined in the late eighteenth century.14

Who knows? Perhaps the Wimsatt and Beardsley claims about intention would have sunk along with New Criticism more generally had it not been for a fresh influx of antiauthorial buoyancy in the late 1960s. Roland Barthes's “Death of the Author” (1968) simultaneously both enlarged the philosophical attack on authorship and intentionalism and shifted the political valency of such an attack from right to left.15 After Barthes, promotion of intentionalism was somehow an expression of the ancien régime, a way of repressing readerly liberty in the name of singular, oppressive sources of power (i.e., authors).16 So far we have sketched the cognitive losses of repudiating intention; Barthes's essay points also to ethical losses.

Barthes, like Kant and Wimsatt and Beardsley, begins from the ontological singularity of the work of Art, but he extends the philosophical dissolution of authorship by appeal to a liberating, revolutionary posthumanism. Greater forces than mere individual agents, or bourgeois subjects, speak through texts. Posthumanism personifies a variety of agential systems that subsume authors.17 Barthes's own agential system is, slightly bafflingly to me, I confess, what he calls “Écriture,” or Writing. Writing subsumes authors.

Barthes's metaphor for this neutralization of authorship is death, which signals the deadly seriousness (in an otherwise playful writer) with which the question of authorship is held. Barthes's word death in fact doesn't seem willing to register the real extremity of his position, since it is more the case that Barthes is executing the author, rather than simply observing him or her pass away. A genteel snub won't do here—what's required is nothing short of revolutionary violence.18

Barthes describes the author's death in a variety of ways, with quite different implications for how it actually happens. He begins with a philosophical point, which suggests that writing is a kind of voluntary suicide: “dès qu'un fait est raconté, à des fins intransitives, et non plus pour agir directement sur le réel, c'est-à-dire finalement hors de toute function autre que l'exercise même du symbole, la voix perd son origine, l'auteur entre dans sa propre mort, l’écriture commence” (61) [As soon as a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, that is to say, finally outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself, . . . the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins (142)]. This scenario, in which the author conveniently does the work of dying, soon gives way to another, in which the author clearly requires a certain help in putting himself to death: in his discussion of linguistics, Barthes says that this science “vient de fournir à la destruction de l'Auteur un instrument analytique précieux, en montrant que l’énonciation dans son entier est un processus vide. . . . le langage connait un ‘sujet,’ non une ‘personne’ ” (63) [has recently provided the destruction of the Author with a valuable analytical tool by showing that the whole of the enunciation is an empty process. . . . language knows a “subject,” not a “person” (145)]. This sentence leaves it unclear as to who is to wield the precious “instrument” for “destroying” the author, but the fact that a tool is required suggests that the author's death is to be something more than passive, painless suicide.

After a few accounts of the funeral festivities (“Having buried the author . . . ” [146]; “Once the author is removed . . . ” [147]), discussion of the author's death is underwritten not by the language of suicide, but rather by the language of revolutionary execution: Barthes says that “literature,” by refusing to assign a secret, ultimate meaning, “libère une activité que l'on pourrait appeler contre théologique, proprement révolutionnaire, car réfuser d'arrêter le sens, c'est finalement refuser Dieu et ses hypostases, la raison, la science, la loi” (66) [liberates an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary, since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases—reason, science, law (147)]. The final sentence is a rallying call to the guillotine: “nous savons que, pour rendre à l’écriture son avenir, il faut en renverser le mythe: la naissance du lecteur doit se payer de la mort de l'Auteur” (67) [we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author (148)].

Barthes published this essay in 1968; the Ayatollah Khomeini, who himself later also developed an interest in the death of authors, was briefly in exile in France in late 1978.19 That the Ayatollah was reading Barthes at the time is of course unlikely, despite the common interest. This admittedly rather jaundiced way of putting the matter may seem facetious; having considered the cognitive losses of repudiating intention, however, we should pause to meditate on the no less enormous ethical losses of such repudiation.

Great and not so great authors throughout at least the last two and a half thousand years have frequently been under sentence of death or imprisonment by political régimes, both revolutionary and reactionary. One thinks of Ovid, Boethius, Thomas Usk, Thomas More, Anne Askew, Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard Earl of Surrey, John Bunyan, and James Naylor, to name a tiny few; the full list is very long and contains many twentieth-century and contemporary names, including Salman Rushdie. Having lived under the fatwa of the Ayatollah Khomeini since 1989, Rushdie was the victim of attempted murder on August 18, 2022.

In our own time, Trumpistas may not have actually killed authors; yet even so, they celebrate the forever-constructed nature of truth, regardless of intention. This permits their self-interested exploitation of the power of readers, dismissing anything contrary to their interests as “fake news.” Most of us will regard this truth wreckage as ethically repugnant, but literary scholarship has, perhaps naively, been promoting rather the same thing since the “liberation” of the reader in 1968. It thereby finds itself strangely adjacent to the textual practices of wholly repugnant regimes. We need not have waited for Trumpian truth wreckage to cut its destructive path through Western polities. Given the daily extension of that destructive path, however, this is a convenient moment to reflect on the ethical stakes of unbridled readerly power prepared metaphorically or actually to effect the death of the author.

The ethical damage inflicted by refusing to intuit intention is a huge topic.20 Suffice it to cite Shakespeare's Touchstone: “When a man's verses cannot be understood, nor a man's good wit seconded with the forward child Understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.”21 Intentionalist interpretation in Criminal Law renders action in the world susceptible of just treatment by recognizing the intention of the actor; intentionalist interpretation of everyday utterance is a no less salient act of just recognition. To inhabit a world without intentionalist interpretation would be to be struck more dead than a great reckoning in a little room. Every action that produces the same result will be judged identical, regardless of the agent's intention.

Confronted with the injustice of ignoring intention, we might decide that interpretation of all utterance should be governed by distributive justice. We thereby respect and give voice to the different sources of expressiveness in made objects and in communicative acts. If this is true for the ethics of interpreting any communicative utterance, it is especially true for literary language, which is by definition indirect and so forever prompting us to decide how to move from what is said to what is meant by what is said. Whereas, say, legislative language strives to be as unambiguously literalist as possible, literary language, by contrast, routinely relies on the tropes of, say, allegory, irony, metaphor, and synecdoche.22 Legal hermeneutics might (in my view fruitlessly) attempt to exclude intention from the judicial interpretation of legislative language, but there is no escape from deciphering the intention of literary language.23 The tropes listed above are all forms of allegory (saying one thing and meaning another); we can only pass from what the text says to what it might mean by an intentionalist reading.24

In sum, we lose so much by repudiating intention: cognitively, we block ourselves from the compacted histories embedded in artifacts; ethically, we potentially align ourselves with the operations of self-interested power. Why, however, should a journal devoted to medieval and early modern studies devote an issue to the question of intention and interpretation? Intention, and interpretation by informed intuition of intentional agency, is historically grounded in many key discourses, especially legal, penitential, and hermeneutic. Intuition of intention as a heuristic tool was, to be sure, a fundamental element of classical legal and literary practice.25 In Western Europe, however, across the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it rose dramatically again in both legal and penitential discourse, and in biblical hermeneutics especially. The later medieval period turns out to be a decisive period in the history of intentionalism.

We invited submissions from late medievalists and early modernists in a range of disciplines (biblical hermeneutics, penitential theology, semantics, legislative practice, criminal law, textual criticism and literature especially) that elucidate some of the ways in which intentionalism rose in profile in the premodern and early modern centuries.

The essays presented here fall into two basic categories: (1) essays that explicate the way a premodern or, in one case, early modern discourse deploys and sometimes defines intentionalism (i.e., essays by Durdel, Kamali, Minnis, and Pasnau); and (2) essays that scrutinize the sedulous yet often unpersuasive and contorted repudiation of intention in nineteenth-, and then twentieth- and twenty-first-century legal and literary scholarship (i.e., essays by Jurasinski, Sobecki, and von Contzen). The upshot of all these essays is multiple and rich.

Three essays (by Kamali, Minnis, and Pasnau) reveal, either centrally or incidentally, how the world of human action was positively transformed in various branches of twelfth- and thirteenth-century theory (i.e., law, hermeneutics, semantics) by ethical appeal to intention: the same act can be interpreted in opposite ways according to how the intention of the agent is understood. Some essays (e.g., Kamali and Pasnau) stress that elucidation of intention, even with a body of circumstantiae to hand, can never claim to arrive at certain knowledge, even if the desire to arrive at the likely truth of intention urges close examination of the circumstances of an act.

Two essays (by Minnis and Sobecki), address a key element in liberal and in some posthumanist repudiations of intentionalist interpretation: that authorship is multiple. For Minnis the issue bears upon the tension between the divine and human authors of scriptural texts. For Sobecki the “authors” are rather closer to the artifact of the manuscript, understanding of which demands knowledge of a force field of intentions that might include those of the source text, author, translator, compiler, commentator, scribe, or patron. These accurate observations about multiple authorship need, so argue these essays, in no way neutralize intentionalist interpretation. On the contrary, the duplex causa efficiens of biblical textuality and the resulting tension between the human and the divine author offer a rich parallel, up to a point, with many posthumanist accounts of authorship. They also offer a parallel with the multiple sources of intention palpable in any premodern manuscript.

Two essays stand chronologically outside the later medieval centuries (Jurasinski and Durdel). Jurasinski finds in scholarship on Old English legislative history a connection between disappearing author and legislator, in which scholarly Romantic determination to hear the voice of the people effaces the specific, deliberative intent of Old English legal codes. Postmodern displacement of intention from human authors onto personifications of larger collective forces has a powerful nineteenth-century precedent. Durdel reveals how intentionalism was a cardinal ethical and philological goal in early modern English translation practice.

Two essays (Sobecki and von Contzen) effectively take up a point trenchantly made by Robert Pasnau, that interpretation without reference to intention is effectively impossible; they ask scholars to “come clean” and recognize what they in fact do. Both Sobecki and von Contzen not only diagnose strained scholarly efforts at avoiding the unavoidable (i.e., authorial intention), but administer interventionist cures that will permit digestion of intentions, both codicological (Sobecki) and authorial (von Contzen).

One article (Minnis) moves arguments about the hermeneutics of intentionalism toward the adjacent discourse of American Constitutional Law, a field in which intentionalism is associated with the political Right. How much undertow that association creates for liberal literary scholars, particularly in the United States, is impossible to calculate, but it is valuable to have the potential relation in view when trying to understand the hostility to intention, and especially to originalism, in the literary academy. Such adjacency also illuminates the fact that a thoughtful pursuit of intentionalism is wholly consonant with strenuous resistance to originalism.



For two opposed positions with regard to the interpretation of the American Constitution, see Antonin Scalia, Brian A. Garner, and Frank H. Easterbrook, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts (St. Paul, Minn.: Thomson/West, 2012), a defense of textualism; and William K. Eskridge, Interpreting Law: A Primer on How to Read Statutes and the Constitution (St. Paul, Minn.: Foundation Press, 2016), a defense of a pragmatic reading of the American Constitution. See also Elizabeth Papp Kamali, “The Audacity of Judging Mind in Medieval England,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 53, no. 3 (2023): 493–518, note 39.


Concerning History, see Quentin Skinner, “Motives, Intentions, and the Interpretation of Texts,” in On Literary Intention: Critical Essays, ed. David Newton-de Molina (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1976), 210–21, first published in New Literary History 3, no. 2 (1972): 393–408. Concerning Criminal Law, see, for example, Bebhinn Donnelly-Lazarov, “Intention in Criminal Law: The Challenge from Non-Observational Knowledge,” Ratio Juris 30, no. 4 (2017): 451–70: “Intention is at the heart of criminal law” (451). The case of Textual Criticism is of course controversial. For a classic statement of the centrality of intentionalism as a textual critical tool, see G. Thomas Tanselle, “The Editorial Problem of Final Authorial Intention,” Studies in Bibliography 29 (1976): 167–211. For a counter view, see Jerome J. McGann, A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983). Concerning Semantics, see, for example, the subfield known as Pragmatics: Stephen C. Levinson, Pragmatics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983). For a brilliant forerunner of Pragmatics in Semantics, see H. P. Grice, “Logic and Conversation,” in Speech Acts, ed. Peter Cole and Jerry L. Morgan (New York: Academic Press, 1975), first published in part in H. P. Grice, “Utterer's Meaning and Intentions,” Philosophical Review 78, no. 2 (1969): 147–77. Translation theory is a huge field, but even if this is restricted to medieval formulations of such theory, authorial intention remains central to the project. Medieval translation theory embraces many factors that inflect translation, such as the authority of the source text, the liberties of the translator through inventio, the capacities of the translator's language, and the capacities of the audience. But the fundamentals of any such theory are turned to illumination of authorial meaning, or “sentence,” driven by the ethical model of the fidus interpres, even taking the complexity of that ethical model into account. For essays that emphasize different possibilities within the medieval translator's fundamental commitment to transmit authorial “sentence,” see Rita Copeland, “From Antiquity to the Middle Ages I: The Place of Translation and the Value of Hermeneutics,” in her Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and Translation in the Middle Ages: Academic Traditions and Vernacular Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 37–62; and Nicholas Watson, “Medieval Translation in Theory,” in The Oxford History of Literary Translation in English, Volume 1: To 1550, ed. Roger Ellis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 71–92.


See further the introduction to Bertram F. Malle, Louis J. Moses, and Dare A. Baldwin, Intentions and Intentionality: Foundations of Social Cognition (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001), 1–24, citing John Searle: “If I am going for a walk to Hyde Park, there are any number of things that are happening in the course of my walk, but their descriptions do not describe my intentional actions, because in acting, what I am doing depends in large part on what I think I am doing” (10). This book argues forcefully for the centrality of intentionality in social cognition more generally: “Intentionality is a foundation for social cognition in several ways” (1).


For Reformation biblical originalism of this violence-producing kind, see James Simpson, Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism and Its Reformation Opponents (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 184–221. For the early development of textual originalism with regard to the U.S. Constitution, see Jonathan Gienapp, The Second Creation: Fixing the American Constitution in the Founding Era (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2018), 1–8, 287–79. I am grateful to Deidre Lynch for this reference.


Cicero, De inventione, 2.48.141, ed. H. M. Hubbell (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1949), 309.


For the interpretative necessity of understanding the discursive field, which often amounts to the institutional protocols and commitments within which a text works, see Simpson, Burning to Read, 222–59.


See, for example, Anne Ferry, By Design: Intention in Poetry (Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2008).


Emmanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, 1.11, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Publishing, 1987; first published in German, 1790), 51.


Kant, Critique of Judgment, 1.11, trans. Pluhar, 51. For Kant's severance of taste from truth, see Joel Weinsheimer, Eighteenth-Century Hermeneutics: Philosophy of Interpretation in England from Locke to Burke (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993), 199.


The relation of the discourse of eighteenth-century Aesthetics and iconoclasm is treated at greater length in James Simpson, Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 116–58.


W. K. Wimsatt and M. C. Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy,” in Wimsatt, The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1954; first published 1946), 1–13, at 1. For a wide-ranging set of critiques of the Wimsatt and Beardsley essay, see Intention Interpretation, ed. Gary Iseminger (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992).


That interpretation is necessarily a circular process is an old point, first stated as such by Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834); see, for example, Schleiermacher, “Hermeneutics and Criticism” and Other Writings, trans. and ed. Andrew Bowie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 109, 231–32.


See further James Simpson, “Faith and Hermeneutics: Pragmatism versus Pragmatism,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 33, no. 2 (2003): 215–39.


For an astute critique of the New Critical repudiation of intention in the practice of literary interpretation, see E. D. Hirsch, Jr., The Aims of Interpretation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976). See also John Farrell, The Varieties of Authorial Intention: Literary Theory beyond the Intentional Fallacy (Cham, Switz.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 40–46.


Roland Barthes, “La mort de 1’auteur,” Manteia 5 (1968): 12–17. The original text can be found in Roland Barthes, Essais critiques IV: Le bruissement de la langue (Paris: Seuil, 1984), 61–67, from which all citations in this essay are drawn. Further page numbers are cited in the body of the text. The translation into English of this essay by Stephen Heath, in Image—Music—Text (London: Fontana, 1977), 142–48, is reproduced in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, ed. David Lodge (Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1988), 167–72. The translated citations and page references are from Heath, Image—Music—Text, cited parenthetically in the text. Barthes's text is often, but erroneously, paired with the almost contemporary essay of Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?,” in The Essential Works of Foucault, 1954–1984, ed. J. D. Faubion, 3 vols. (New York: New Press, 1997–2000; first published 1969), 2:205–22. Foucault does not demolish so much as redefine many different kinds of author and the authorship function.


See especially Seán Burke, The Death and Return of the Author: Criticism and Subjectivity in Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998), including 1–7 for the exemplary case of the former Nazi sympathizer Paul De Man; and Farrell, Varieties of Authorial Intention, 5–6.


Thus (for shorthand) “Theory” posited various agential forces beyond and subsuming human authorship: deep anthropological structures (Structuralism), the textual community of readers (Reader-response Criticism), discursive formations (Foucauldian analysis), the unconscious (psychoanalytic criticism), and the differential instability of signifying systems themselves (Deconstruction). A point less often made is that these antihumanist positions are themselves intentionalist. The only difference with the humanist position—and it's a very small one theoretically—is that the author is no longer a human, but rather an abstract stand-in such as History, Power, or Language, each of which is invested with its own interests and purposive motives. See Simpson, “Faith and Hermeneutics,” 228.


The following three paragraphs are drawn from James Simpson, “Killing Authors: Skelton's Dreadful Bouge of Court,” in Form and Reform: Reading the Fifteenth Century, ed. Kathleen Tonry and Shannon Gayk (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2011), 180–96, at 184–85.


See “Ruhollah Khomeini,” Wikipedia, last edited March 29, 2023, at


See further Simpson, “Faith and Hermeneutics.”


William Shakespeare, As You Like It, in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, 3rd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2016), 3.3.10–13.


Knapp and Michaels argue that, because we simply cannot read without appeal to intention, then such appeal can add nothing to what we already inevitably do. Their argument is correct with regard to the inevitability of reading as an intentionalist activity; it is wholly unpersuasive with regard to the uselessness of appealing to intention, since a trope, for example, is inherently ambiguous; we must choose between different possible intentions. See Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels, “Against Theory,” Critical Inquiry 8, no. 4 (1982): 723–42, at 723–31.


For an example by Lord Reid in 1975, see P. F. Smith and S. H. Bailey, The Modern English Legal System (London: Sweet and Maxwell, 1984), 240; discussed in Simpson, “Faith and Hermeneutics,” 221.


See further Simpson, “Faith and Hermeneutics.”


See, for example, Kathy Eden, Poetic and Legal Fiction in the Aristotelian Tradition (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986), 25–61.

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