Academic journal article Style

Giving Intention Its Due?

Academic journal article Style

Giving Intention Its Due?

Article excerpt

When my son was about four or five, he and I were driving through Cape Town together. He suddenly exclaimed from the rear seat: "Dad! I can't stop reading the signs!" Andrew had discovered the grip of intentionality. What is striking about this discovery is his frustration at its resistance to his volition. He had passed from an age of illiterate innocence to the thrill of a new experience in which no matter how hard he tried--how much of his will he imposed upon the world--he could not stop the marks on the passing signs from resolving themselves into words. Only some of these words meant anything to him. He could recognise the name of our road ("Silverlea") and the one on the corner ("Orient"), but I doubt that he knew what they mean. Others, like "Hilltop" or "Main," may have signified something in his childish lexicon. Reading for him was divided between the involuntary capacity to see some marks as signifying phenomena, though he didn't know what they signified, and others as signifiers of something he did recognise.

Intentionality and the Will

Why tell this anecdote in relation to Shakespeare and intention? Because it facilitates the exploration of a minimal concept of intentionality in its relation to the phenomenology of writing and reading. First, Andrew found that reading is an intentional but also an involuntary act. The street signs required the intentionality of Andrew's directed perception to be read--for mere marks to be resolved into words--but he could not decide to read or not read them at will. His cry of frustration arose from the discovery that, no matter how much he willed it to be otherwise, he could not choose not to read. Second, the words that imposed themselves upon him did not reflect in any but the remotest sense any specific person's intentions, although they embodied intentionality. They were not the manifestation of anything that went on in anyone's mind. nor could their meanings be fixed or determined by any discernible person's intention.

The story thus highlights two curious aspects of intentionality in relation to volition. Both are somewhat counter-intuitive. If the intentionality of the reading process was not the product of Andrew's control as a reader, neither was the intentionality of the writing process the product of any particular writer's will. It is difficult to isolate any single agency in this multiple process or event of writing. Whereas intentionality is manifest in Andrew's encounter with the street signs, it cannot be reduced to a voluntary or intentional act. This is paradoxical only in the light of the inclination to conflate the concept of "intentionality," as an unconscious production of meaning or signification, with "intention" as a voluntary, conscious process or event initiated by a free, controlling mind. It ceases to be puzzling when we delimit the notion of intentionality by reserving it for the possibility of the event whereby marks are rendered significant or meaningful. Pace a strong intentionalist like E. D. Hirsch, who claims that a text can have meaning only as a consequence of its originator's will, Andrew's experience shows that if we are to give a proper account of the conditions of possibility of intentionality (a.k.a. meaning), we need to account for the possibility of this meaning as something that is not necessarily voluntary. As Jacques Derrida argues in his notorious disagreement with John Searle, if it is possible for reading to be involuntary, then, even if this were to happen only once, any account of intentionality needs to account for this as an essential possibility.

One could, of course, argue that the naming of streets and the putting up of street signs are intentional acts: someone intended the streets of Cape Town to bear names; someone gave instructions to have signs made bearing those names; someone made those signs; and someone put them up. Without human beings--indeed, without human consciousness and agency--none of this would have happened. …

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