The intentional fallacy and affective fallacy

To fully appreciate the concept of intentional fallacy and affective fallacy, first of all we have to understand the concept of New Criticism and the form of criticism it substituted i.e. biographical-historical criticism.

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Biographical-historical criticism had influenced artistic and literary studies in the 19th and the first part of the 20th century. At that time, it was a familiar method to interpret an artistic work by examining the author’s biography and times to find out the authorial intention, i.e the intended meaning of the author. The author’s books, biographies, and autobiographies were taken as an evidence of author’s intention as were diaries, letters and books. In biographical-historical Criticism, the biographical and historical context of the text was interpreted rather than the text itself.

At that time critics interpreted a work of art as an adjunct to history, as an interpretation of the “spirit of age” in which it was authored, not as an independent work of art worthy of reading for its own sake. But New Critics emphasized more on the poem than everything else. “The text itself” is the slogan of New Critics. The author’s biography and time period in which he or she lived are surely of interest to the literary historian, New Critics asserted, but they do not contribute any details to literary critics that can be utilized to interpret the text itself. 

The intentional fallacy:

First of all, New Critics indicated, true information of the writer’s intended meaning is generally unavailable. Most of the time the text is much more deep, rich and perplexing than the writer thought. And most of the time the meaning of the text is clearly distinct from the meaning the writer wished it to have. So even if we know the intention of the author, we will not know anything about the text. That’s why New Critics used the term “intentional fallacy” to point out the mistaken assumption that the intention of the writer is the same as the meaning of the text. The author might have an intention while writing, but whether that intention is successfully revealed or manifested in a work of art is questionable. Thus the critics task is to discover only what is in the text itself and not to be worried about things such as intention or biographies or letters etc. Examining outside the text is both unnecessary and fallacious because the text itself encompasses everything we need to know in order to comprehend it. 

The affective fallacy:

Just as we cannot know the meaning of a text by knowing the intention of the author, in the same way we cannot know the meaning of the literary text by simply interpreting the reader’s personal response to it. Readers’ emotions and views about a literary text may be generated by some particular personal connection from past occurrences rather than by the literary text. For example, a person may explain Hamlet’s mother based only on his feelings and emotions about his own mother and can assume that he had properly explained the character. Such a judgment would be an illustration of what New Critics termed “affective fallacy”.


In the end, Wimsatt and Beardsley ask for more of a formalist mode of criticism that looks to evaluate the value of a work of art through an analysis of artistic qualities. Though the intention of the author and the reader’s response is most of the time mentioned in New Critical interpretation of a literary text, neither one is the center of investigation. There is only one way by which we can find out whether the author’s intention or a readers’ interpretation of a literary text truly put forward the meaning of a text and that is by scrupulously studying or “close reading” of all the evidence provided by the text itself: symbols, metaphors, rhyme, meter and so forth. 

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