The Intentional Fallacy and Social Systems

The Encyclopedia Britannica offers the following definition of intentional fallacy:

Intentional fallacyterm used in 20th-century literary criticism to describe the problem inherent in trying to judge a work of art by assuming the intent or purpose of the artist who created it.

Introduced by W.K. Wimsatt, Jr., and Monroe C. Beardsley in The Verbal Icon (1954), the approach was a reaction to the popular belief that to know what the author intended—what he had in mind at the time of writing—was to know the correct interpretation of the work. Although a seductive topic for conjecture and frequently a valid appraisal of a work of art, the intentional fallacy forces the literary critic to assume the role of cultural historian or that of a psychologist who must define the growth of a particular artist’s vision in terms of his mental and physical state at the time of his creative act.

This is a pretty good description of how utterance and communication differ. Once an utterance is made and understood within a system, the speaker or writer loses control over the meaning, and the utterance can never be taken back; it’s irreversible.

An utterance is the statement spoken or written or in some other way expressed. We can also use the word signifier. But an utterance must be understood in order to have any meaning, and the meaning does not have to be the intended meaning. This is crucial. As long as something is understand, at least to the point that communication can continue, then the utterance has done its job. Understanding and misunderstanding are the same in this case. There is no moral valuation that places understanding above misunderstanding.

Luhmann defines communication as the synthesis of information, utterance, and understanding. Understanding marks a difference between information and utterance. Communication does not have any goal of greater clarity or the reduction of confusion. As long as communication continues, it doesn’t matter if psychic systems experience understanding or misunderstanding. In fact, it is misunderstanding that tends to lead to more communication, as speakers attempt to clear up the misunderstanding or change another person’s mind.

In communication, ego and alter  are both needed. Even if a psychic system is communicating with itself and words are never spoken aloud, the system has to split itself into ego and alter. Together, ego and alter achieve communication. This is a system operation, not the act of a person or communicator. Communication is an event, not an act.


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