The intentional fallacy is described in Wimsatt and Beardsley's essay "The Intentional Fallacy". What exactly is the intentional fallacy? Is the concept still used in academia?

  • 1
    What do you mean by "is it still relevant today?" Do you mean to ask whether the term is still used as Wimsatt defined it? – Shokhet Feb 22 '17 at 14:26

The Intentional Fallacy is the fallacy of defining the meaning of a work using the author's intentions:

The author intended their work to mean this, and so it means this.

However, this has problems:

  1. How does one know the author's intentions?
  2. What if the author failed in conveying their intentions?

Quoting Wimsatt and Beardsley:

If the poet succeeded in doing it, then the poem itself shows what he was trying to do. And if the poet did not succeed, then the poem is not adequate evidence, and the critic must go outside the poem‑for evidence of an intention that did not become effective in the poem.

So, either the intention to convey a particular meaning is evident in the work, and therefore it already means that, or the work doesn't convey that intention, making it irrelevant.

This itself could be a fallacy: Does the author even have intentions? - as James Downey argues:

Sometimes an author deliberately composes without thematic intentions. ... So, let us consider the method which Salvador Dalí claims that he and Luis Buñuel used when creating Un Chien Andalou, to put together whatever images came to their mind without any particular intentions directing them. ... In such a work of art, it is not possible that any such intentions be shown, since there are none.

But there is still a definite intention behind such art, namely, the intention to compose with no thematic intentions. This intention could be successfully shown to an audience through a work, certainly. However, Dalís often intend otherwise (so they say). They may intend not to reveal whether or not there are certain, or even any, thematic intentions (perhaps that is an intentional anti-religious theme in that scene in Un Chien Andalou, after all; we do not know.) Perhaps, even, Dalí does not want us to know whether he wants us not to know. An intention not to reveal might apply to the intention not to reveal. What a grand game...

Related trope: The curtains are blue.

Human language is imperfect, and humans as well. The author may have tried to communicate and idea, yet they may have an imperfect command of the language, or of the art of story-telling, or may have used devices which undermined their intentions.

Is it still relevant today?

It is still relevant today, and it shall remain relevant: As time passes, language changes, the context changes, and it becomes more and more difficult to divine authorial intent. An author's creation often far outlives the author. Works are read without any knowledge of the author or the circumstances in which the work was created, and acquire a meaning of their own in the minds of the reader. This meaning cannot be dismissed because the author seemed to have intended another meaning.

  • I'm not quite following. Both the other answer and your first sentence say that the fallacy is the mistake of deriving the text's meaning from the author's intention. But then your entire first section is about deriving the author's intention from the text (i.e. the other way round). In the last paragraph you talk about deriving the meaning without relying on the intentions again. Is the fallacy meant to be bidirectional or not? I feel like the answer(s) would be clearer if both directions of inference would be considered explicitly. – Martin Ender Feb 22 '17 at 12:13
  • @MartinEnder the problem lies in the original argument by W&B: if the intended meaning was conveyed, then it is apparent from the text that the author had an intention to convey that meaning. So, one could divine the author's intentions from the text. However, it may not be possible to do so. Does that help? – muru Feb 22 '17 at 12:47

The intentional fallacy is a misnomer in that the fallacy is not committed intentionally, but rather it relates to intentions. The intentional fallacy is the fallacy of using authors' intentions in interpreting literary works as opposed to interpreting the texts itself. Yes, it is very much relevant today as has been shown on this site. Most people still do not understand the differentiation between an authors' intentions and the interpretations of their work and those that do often ridicule it. As for whether it is important in modern literary theory, it is still important because nothing had changed to make it more acceptable to analyze intentions as opposed to meaning.

It is a fallacy because it is often unknown to those who commit it, but it is based on a flawed premise.


  1. The Intentional Fallacy by W.K. Wimsatt, Jr. and Monroe C. Beardsley
  2. Encyclopedia Britannica
  • I'm not sure "misnomer" is the right word. The usage of "intentional" is correct, just not unambiguous. – Kimball Feb 22 '17 at 20:01
  • @Kimball Edited to answer. – Benjamin Feb 22 '17 at 20:24

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy