How Well Can We Know What an Author Meant?

(Written April, 1993)

In interpreting a text, is there a limited range of valid “variant” readings, outside of which are only invalid “misreadings”? If so, how can a reader determine which meanings are allowable variants and which are impermissible misreadings?

The answer to that question hinges on the answer to some more general questions. Is a text’s meaning determined by its author? If so, how sure can a reader be of correctly determining what the author meant? Or is the meaning of a text determined only by the language used to construct it, the author being irrelevant?

The stakes are high for answering these questions. As M.H. Abrams writes, “without that confidence that we can use language to say what we mean and can interpret language so as to determine what was meant, there is no rationale for the dialogue in which we are now engaged” (p. 438).

Some theorists hold that readers can determine the meaning of a text without reference to the author of the text. I.A. Richards writes, “The meaning of a line of Shakespeare is, for linguistics, to be conceived… in terms of its relations to other utterances, actual or possible, in English…. an appeal to some hypothetical event in Shakespeare’s mind… is not… propitious procedure” (Sebok p. 245). According to Richards, a reader can determine the difference between an acceptable variant reading and a misreading-”which of the various meanings was present” (p. 247) in a text-by seeking “what most fully takes into account the situation the utterance is meeting and the integrity of the language” (p. 251). In other words, look at the extratextual context of the text as a whole and at the relationships between the individual words. What each word can mean is constrained by the other words and by what that word has meant in the past and in other texts. The relationships within the language and knowledge of the context of the writing are our only resource for interpretation since we can not know with certainty what was on the author’s mind.

While a procedure such as Richards advocates can narrow down the range of possible meanings of the text to some extent, is it sufficient to identify a misreading? Or are additional restrictions on meaning required? Can a text even be language-have meaning-apart from the intent of its author? Those who answer “yes” must believe “that marks and noises can be language ‘even though nobody ever meant anything’ by them” (p. 469), point out Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels. That view must even allow the possibility of texts that have no author, but nevertheless have meaning. When the wind howling through a house sounds like the word “who,” is language (with meaning that can be interpreted by a listener) being produced?

Knapp and Michaels, as summarized by Richard Rorty, say otherwise. “Marks which are shaped like a sentence of English do not count as language unless the marks are backed up by an intention-unless they are inscribed by somebody who meant something by them” (p. 460). They propose as an illustration a hypothetical set of markings, produced by random wave motion, that happen to have the form of an English poem. There is no author, and thus no intent; is there still meaning, and is misreading possible?

Those who pursue meaning apart from intent end up in the camp with deconstructionists such as Jacques Derrida and Hillis Miller. Derrida begins with only the physical marks on the page-ignoring the author-and concludes by proposing (as described by Abrams) “that we deliver ourselves over to a free participation in the infinite free-play of signification opened out by the signs in a text” (p. 431). There is not just one meaning to each text; there are an infinite number. While others may agree with that statement, Derrida goes a step further by claiming that only the marks on the page constrain the meaning of the text. Not even the syntax of the sentences can narrow down the range of possible meanings for their constituent words.

So how should the reader choose among the infinite number of meanings? Richard Rorty suggests that interpreters “treat everything as a matter of a choice of context and nothing as a matter of intrinsic properties” (p. 461). If there is no intrinsic meaning to a text (given to it by its author), then “why not just put in a context, describe the advantages of having done so, and forget the question of whether one has got at either its ‘meaning’ or ‘the author’s intention’?” (p. 461) Rorty seems unconcerned about which particular meaning the reader arrives at, a curiously cavalier attitude to take toward textual interpretation. Can we do no better in choosing between the possible meanings allowed by Richards’ textual analysis?

Hillis Miller, a follower of Derrida, describes the implication of Derrida’s approach: in the absence of the author’s intention, it is impossible for the reader to choose between the meanings. They are all equally likely. M.H. Abrams writes of Miller’s view, “Any word within a given text… can thus be claimed to signify any and all of the diverse things it has signified in the varied forms that the signifier has assumed through its recorded history…. [It is] stripped of any norms for selecting some of these and rejecting others” (p. 433). He quotes Miller: “Any reading can be shown to be a misreading on evidence drawn from the text itself” (p. 433). Every reading is a misreading because every meaning is possible for every word and many of those meanings are incompatible with each other. 

But if every reading is a misreading, language loses its primary function-communication. It becomes a pointless, useless game in the reader’s mind. Miller, again quoted by Abrams, writes, “reading is never the objective identifying of a sense but the importation of meaning into a text which has no meaning “in itself'” (pp. 427-428). It is true that a text has no meaning “in itself,” in that the meaning is not physically present in the text. If it were, people would not be debating how to interpret texts, for the meaning of a text would be unambiguous. If, as Miller claims, the meaning is only created in the reader’s mind, discarding the possibility of discovering the author’s intent, the reader must allow all possible meanings. The result, as summarized by Abrams, is that “no text, in part or whole, can mean anything in particular, and that we can never say just what anyone means by anything he writes” (p. 434). 

This is a grim prospect for those who had hoped to communicate something through writing. Abrams writes in an opposing view: “Language, unlike the physical world, is a cultural institution that developed expressly in order to mean something and to convey what is meant to members of a community who have learned how to use and interpret language” (p. 432). Of Miller’s claims, he adds, “Such criticism has nothing whatever to do with our common experience of the uniqueness, the rich variety and the passionate human concerns in works of literature, philosophy, or criticism” (p. 435). In fact, as Abrams points out, Miller is not true to the consequences of his proposals when he writes, for in expressing his views, he appears to be assuming that he is clearly communicating a message that his audience will understand. Knapp and Michaels argue that regardless of the theories people may put forth, in practice they “all think language is intentional, and they all think their beliefs are true” (p. 472).

If some determination of the author’s intent is necessary for a text to have meaning and thus to communicate, how can a reader determine that intent? How accurately must he do so in order to avoid a misreading? How accurately is it possible to determine the intent? 

An author does have a definite meaning in mind when composing a text. Therefore, there is an objective reference for our interpretations. As Knapp and Michaels write, “A text means what its author intended it to mean whether or not other authors on other occasions use the same marks (or noises) to say the same thing” (p. 469). The problem for the reader is to determine, as closely as needed for the occasion, what the author’s intention is. To use an illustration from Knapp and Michaels, of two people yelling, “Fire!”, one might be commanding a firing squad and the other calling the fire department (p. 469). Another example is the use of irony. If one is to respond appropriately to a message, one must be able to know what the author of the message means.

Stanley Fish takes issue with claims that it is possible to know objectively what an author meant in a text. He rejects the notion of objective truth because “there are no unmediated facts nor any neutral perception” (p. 443). That is the case because everything we learn is filtered through our beliefs, which” are not what you think about but what you think with” (p. 443). Fish extends this probably uncontroversial claim into a claim that objective truth (about anything) does not exist, or does not exist for any practical purpose: “This does not mean that a notion like ‘truth’ ceases to be operative, only that it will always have reference to a moment in the history of inquiry rather than to some God or material objectivity or invariant calculus that underwrites all our inquiries” (p. 439). We must be content with whatever perception of truth our beliefs and surroundings allow us to have. In Fish’s view, a reader can not know what an author meant, only what the reader’s beliefs allow. All knowledge is performance; competence, as theorized by Noam Chomsky, does not exist. 

But Fish errs in making the knowledge of objective truth an all-or-nothing proposition. His purpose is to show that the creation of theories of competence, such as Chomsky has attempted for linguistics, is “impossible” because all knowledge is derived from context-our beliefs. A perfect understanding of a person’s competence at interpreting language or literature may well be impossible to arrive at. But can not one interpretation of a text be nearer to, or farther from, what the author meant than another? If we can not have a perfect and complete theory, can we learn nothing from an incomplete one that explains many empirical observations? 

Perfect and exhaustive understanding of the meaning intended by the author is not necessary. In practice, it appears that (in Abrams’ words) “competent readers” can understand “closely enough for the purpose at hand, what the author meant” (p. 426). There is some latitude in interpretation. While the author might have had additional shades of meaning in mind, knowing an approximation is good enough for most purposes. Most people would agree that this claim holds true for everyday conversation. Why not also for literary texts? 

Fish states that his opponents have “the hope that our claims to knowledge can be ‘justified on the basis of some objective method of assessing such claims’ [quoting Keith Lehrer] rather than on the basis of the individual beliefs that have been derived from the accidents of education and experience” (p. 439). Although we filter all of our knowledge through our education and experience, and thus our beliefs, it is possible for our beliefs to be proven wrong (inconsistent with observation) and to change. We learn how to interpret literature as part of a social process. As Abrams puts it, “By interaction with more competent users and by our own developing experience with language, we come to recognize and correct our mistakes in speaking or understanding” (p. 429). This view is similar to Richards’ textual and contextual analyses. Readers can correct misreadings by examining other texts and by interacting with other readers.

Not being the text’s author, we can never be completely sure what his objective intention is. But if we are to have true communication, and the marks that represent language are to signify anything definite, we must concern ourselves with determining it. As Knapp and Michaels write, “Controversy arises only when there is a disagreement about what some particular author meant on some particular occasion” (p. 467).

Although perfect communication is impossible, it is possible and necessary for a reader to come reasonably close to understanding what a text’s author meant. Without reference to the author’s intent, meaningful communication is impossible and we are forced into Derrida’s bleak and pointless void of indecision. Any reading that competent readers consider likely to be one intended by the text’s author is an acceptable variant. Any reading that they can not plausibly consider an intended meaning of the author must be a misreading.


Abrams, M.H. “The Deconstructive Angel” Critical Inquiry, Spring 1977, 425-438.
Fish, Stanley. “Consequences.” Critical Inquiry, March 1985,433-458. 
Hirsch, Jr., E.D. “Against Theory?” Critical Inquiry, June 1983,743-747. 
Knapp, Steven, and Walter Benn Michaels. “A Reply to Richard Rorty: What Is Pragmatism?” Critical Inquiry, March 1985,467-473. 
Rorty, Richard. “Philosophy without Principles.” Critical Inquiry, March 1985, 459-465.
Thomas A. Sebok, ed. Style in Language. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1960. 


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