Wimsatt and Beardsley on the Intentional Fallacy
In The Verbal Icon (1954), William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley describe two other fallacies which are encountered in the study of literature.
The "Intentional Fallacy" is the mistake of attempting to understand the author's intentions when interpreting a literary work. Such an approach is fallacious because the meaning of a work should be contained solely within the work itself, and attempts to understand the author's intention violate the autonomy of the work.
The "Affective Fallacy" is the mistake of equating a work with its emotional effects upon an audience. The new critics believed that a text should not have to be understood relative to the responses of its readers; its merit (and meaning) must be inherent.
Terms for the critical methods they opposed in this essay are romantic criticism, biographical criticism, and genetic criticism (AKA "source-hunting"). They allege that these methods begin "by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological causes of the poem and in biography and relativism" (from the introduction to "The Affective Fallacy").
Judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine. One demands that it work. Poetry is a feat of style by which a complex of meaning is handled all at once. Poetry succeeds because all or most of what is said or implied is relevant; what is irrelevant has been excluded, like lumps from pudding and 'bugs' from machinery. In this respect poetry differs from practical messages, which are successful if and only if we correctly infer the intention. They are more abstract than poetry.
The poem is not the critic's own and not the author's (it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it). The poem belongs to the public. It is embodied in language [and] is an object of public knowledge.
. . . the way of objective criticism of works of art . . . enables us to distinguish between a skilful murder and a skilful poem. A skilful murder is an example which Coomaraswamy uses, and in his system the difference between murder and the poem is simply a 'moral' one, not an 'artistic' one, since each if carried out according to plan is 'artistically successful. We maintain that [asking "whether the work of art' ought ever to have been undertaken at all and so whether it is worth preserving'"] is an inquiry of more worth than [asking "whether the artist achieved his intentions"], and since [the former] and not [the latter] is capable of distinguishing poetry from murder, the name 'artistic criticism' is properly given to [the former].
Criticism is "the public art of evaluating poems" and requires "terms of objectification"--"The evaluation of the work remains public; the work is measured against something outside the author."
. . . author psychology can be historical too, and then we have literary biography, a legitimate and attractive study in itself . . . Yet there is danger of confusing personal and poetic studies; and there is the fault of writing the personal as if it were the poetic.
There is a difference between internal and external evidence for the meaning of a poem. [Public internal evidence of the meaning of the poem] is discovered through the semantics and syntax of a poem, through our habitual knowledge of the language, through grammars, dictionaries, and all the literature which is the source of dictionaries, in general, through all that makes a language and culture; while what is . . . external is private or idiosyncratic; not a part of the work as a linguistic fact: it consists of revelations (in journals, for example, or letters or reported conversations) about how or why the poet wrote the poem.