Saturday, November 01, 2014

A pragmatic consideration of the intentional fallacy

The assignment: a four-to-six paragraph essay on The Fall of the House of Usher. A student asks if she can refer to Poe's life to help her discuss the representation of women in the story. At first, I thought I would just say "intentional fallacy" and give her some background on the issue, but then I started thinking about things in more pragmatic terms. So here's what I wrote to her:

One way to think about this is in terms of how you would present such an argument. In this case, you have about five paragraphs, with about three of them being body paragraphs. Suppose one of your body paragraphs is about the biographical point. Then you have two paragraphs to discuss the story. If the discussion of the story is convincing without the biographical paragraph, then you can toss out the biographical paragraph and have another paragraph about the story. If the discussion of the story is NOT convincing without the biographical paragraph, then you have a weak, two-paragraph discussion of the story ... (There are also less pragmatic, more theoretical reasons to be careful about the author's biography when doing a scholarly study of a work of literature. These theoretical issues are usually summed up in the expression "intentional fallacy.")

1 comment:

Joseph Hutchison said...

This is a great solution, but it begs the question of whether or not the intentional fallacy is in fact a fallacy ("a misleading or unsound argument"). If invoked in a narrow way, it certainly is; on the other hand, entirely detaching the work from the author's intention, as postmodernism prefers to do, is equally fallacious: it leads to the foolish idea that "it means whatever you think it means,"which essentially puts Alfred Kazin's reading of The Catcher in the Rye on the same level as Mark David Chapman's. As Lear puts it, "That way madness lies."