Intentional Heuristic Essay, Research Paper
To accurately discern what does and does not happen in fictional stories, one must develop a kind of “story competence,” which Livingston describes in “What’s the Story?” Story competence relies on making judgements based on reasoning about characters’ motives and authors’ intentions. Only the latter is of concern here, which Livingston refers to as the “intentional heuristic:” a moderate form of intentionalism.
The intentional heuristic is an aid used to determine which beliefs an author intended his or her audience to accept in order for the story to be understood. This differs from the rationality heuristic, which Livingston also illustrates, in that it does not only describe the causal actions of characters, but delves into the direct state of mind of the author. However, not all of the author’s beliefs should be taken into consideration when reading a story. Only those beliefs the author ‘effectively intended’ the reader to utilize are of importance (Livingston 347) .
According to Livingston, “effective intentions are not necessarily conscious, nor are they a matter of an author’s future-directed musing about what he or she may eventually write” (347) . Instead, Livingston specifies, effective intentions are those that posses meaning for specific actions, and only those which offer explanation to plans or goals of the author (347) . It is not an exhaustive list of the author’s personal beliefs or biographical information that matters, but rather only those few that are imbedded into the story itself. The reader must therefore identify those beliefs the author wants him or her to adopt, and make-believe while reading and making sense of the story (Livingston 348) .
Sorting through all the possible beliefs of an author may be problematic, and may also be a reason why many are exclusive readers to a certain author or specific genre. In both cases, the reader is able to extract some external information from knowledge of an author’s previous work or from other works that incorporate similar ideas. This is an effective way of deciding which beliefs the author wants to be adopted, by making relations between a present story and ones previously written. It may also be helpful to know the time and place the story was written. Sometimes present-day knowledge can contradict the content of stories written in the past. It is thus pertinent that one keeps the story’s context at the fore front of thought when trying to extract the underlying content.
The use of an author’s intentions as key to understanding the meaning or value of a literary work is referred to as intentionalism. Livingston uses the term ‘absolutist intenionalism’ and defines it simply as “all meaning is speaker’s meaning” (348) . However, Livingston states that his intention is to defend only a moderate version. Therefore only some of the “aesthetically relevant meanings” (348) are notable.
To take for example, Saint-Exupery’s Night Flight, the hero looks down from his plane at the house lights of the village below emerging from darkness one by one. He compares them to the light emanating from the stars one by one at dusk. While on ground, the character looks at the stars for direction, and while in the sky, he looks for the stars’ equivalent on the ground. In the text this analogy is aesthetically perfect, however the author is trying to convey the special connection between the hero and the stars as guidance in a broad sense. To understand the full intent of this, it might help the reader to know that Saint-Exupery was a pilot in the war-torn world of the 1930s when pilots relied on rudimentary instrumentation systems and often compensated by looking at stars for navigation during their long and lonely journeys. The reader may develop a sense of this connection the character has with the stars from the text itself, but by knowing specifics about the author’s life, one expands his or her understanding of this connection into its true magnitude. Saint-Exupery wrote of the stars in each and every one of his books. In which, they all represent a form of spiritual comfort for the main character, which is often a man on a quest for knowledge. Conversely, the reader would not come to the same conclusion, if he or she relied upon other extraneous information. The knowledge that Saint-Exupery was for instance a mail carrier pilot, that he was educated in Jesuit schools in Switzerland, or that he was fond of performing imitations of Victor Hugo at the dinner table would offer little insight into the intent of the author in this specific case. It is thus up to the reader to decide which information would either help clarify or further inform the reader of the true intentions of the author. In using the idea of intentionalism in moderation, the reader is allowed to recognize certain helpful pieces of outside information, while rejecting those that seem irrelevant.
Livingston would agree that excessive extra-textual information about the author and his intentions, either private or professional, would not help the story’s aesthetic integrity, that is the story’s soundness and literary value. It might be argued that a well-written text does not need external reports to establish the meaning of explicit or implicit story content. However, just as some intentions may not be conscious, the same could be said for the familiarity with concepts that aid the reader when reading a story. To use one of Livingston’s examples, the author Zola captures perfectly the life struggle of labourers in the late 19 century in his book, Germinal. It is by reading the text one hundred years after its original publication, that the reader finds it essential to know historical information about the worker’s revolution and the economic status of the country at that time. What was then ‘common knowledge’ for the reader is now a conscious effort to relate the story to the environmental circumstances that surrounded the story.
Readers of fictional stories must try to be aware of the beliefs the story is dependent upon him or her to accept in order for the story to be logical. These beliefs are direct manifestations the author’s intentions. To achieve story competence, one must use the intentional heuristic with caution and care. Attempting to directly relate each and every phrase of a text back to the objectives of the author would not only be an exhausting task, but a useless one. Instead the audience should open a story with willingness to abandon certain convictions and replace them temporarily with those anticipated by the author.
Livingston, Paisley. “What’s the Story?” Introduction to Cultural Studies Course Package (2000) : 339-353.