Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Show Summary Details
More options …

Journal of Literary Theory

Ed. by Jannidis, Fotis / Kindt, Tom / Köppe, Tilmann / Winko, Simone

See all formats and pricing
More options …

Beardsley and the Implied Author

Szu-Yen Lin
Published Online: 2018-03-01 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jlt-2018-0010


Some theorists on literary interpretation have suggested a connection between Monroe C. Beardsley’s anti-intentionalism and hypothetical intentionalism based on an implied author. However, a full exploration has never been attempted. I undertake this task in this paper. A close reading of Beardsley reveals that he assumes something very similar to the implied author in interpretation. I distinguish five types of fictional works in terms of their narrative mode and show that my claim stands in at least four of the five types. The significance of my argument lies in exposing the above version of authorism in anti-intentionalism.

Beardsley is generally perceived as advocating the irrelevance of authorial intention to literary interpretation. The common interpretation of his theory is that work-meaning is generated by linguistic conventions, with intention playing no role in meaning-determination. All the interpreter needs is knowledge of public, linguistic conventions in order to recover textual meaning.

Nevertheless, when dealing with the problem of interpretation, Beardsley explicitly talks about attributing textual meaning to a fictional speaker. Although he does not elaborate on the nature of this speaker, clues scattered in his writings point to the striking similarity of this theoretical apparatus to an implied author. The key lies in his presumption that every fictional work must have an ultimate speaker to whom meaning inferred from the text should be attributed. This claim is almost the core of an implied author theory of interpretation.

A difficulty in classifying Beardsley’s view as a version of the implied author position is that his characterization of the story’s presenter might apply better to the story’s narrator than to its implied author. To test this, I examine different types of narrative modes to see whether the fictional speaker merges with the implied author in each of these scenarios.

The first factor to consider for classifying narrative modes is whether the narrator’s presence is explicit or implicit. The narrative scenario in which the narrator is implicit can be further divided into two sub-types: either the story is told from an omniscient viewpoint or centers on the experience of a third-person character. In either case, the story is not told by any of the characters in the story; rather, it is told by an implicit speaker whose words the work purports to be. It seems reasonable to identify this fictional speaker with the implied author, for both function as the subject to which textual meaning is attributed.

As for the narrative mode in which the narrator is explicit, this involves first-person narratives. In these, either the narrator is reliable or unreliable. When the narrator is unreliable, a transcendental perspective is required in determining the text’s meaning, because what is said ultimately in the work is not equivalent to what is literally said by the unreliable narrator. It follows that an implicit speaker has to be assumed and she again coincides with the implied author.

Where the narrator is reliable but textual meaning transcends what is literally expressed, an implicit speaker is at play again. This narrative scenario is thus better classified as a case in which the narrator’s presence is implicit. This leaves us with the narrative scenario in which the narrator is a reliable spokesperson for the implied author.

The identification of the narrator with the implied author in the case last mentioned is controversial. The crucial difference between them is that the former is dramatized in the story while the latter is not. I accept that the narrator here is not happily called an implied author, though I also point out several similarities between the two.

Finally, I discuss four complications to my argument. The first concerns multiple points of view in a story. To accommodate this kind of narrative, Beardsley could argue that an implicit narrator is needed to explain the definite meaning concealed behind what is literally said by different characters. The second complication is about the ontological status accorded to the narrator and the implied author. It might be objected that the two reside in different fictional worlds and this is what makes their merging impossible. But it is questionable whether this is a definitional feature of the implied author; moreover, the interpreter can take the implied author to be an instrumentalist concept and hence avoid talk about the ontological status of fictional entities. The third complication claims that versions of the implied author position developed by philosophers tend to be based on a contextualist ontology of literature; however, Beardsley’s account is acontextual. This is not true, for Beardsley has exhibited contextualist leanings in his writings. Finally, it has been objected that the formalist resources Beardsley has are not enough to guarantee a single right interpretation. But if Beardsley is actually a contextualist, contextual constraints will come into play and raise the chance of getting a single right interpretation.

The article concludes by reflecting on the significance of the misrepresentation of anti-intentionalism: it is the intention of the actual author which anti-intentionalism is against. The position in question is actually developed in an intentionalist framework based on the implied author.

Keywords: Monroe C. Beardsley; implied author; narrator


  • Beardsley, Monroe C., The Possibility of Criticism, Detroit, MI 1970.Google Scholar

  • Beardsley, Monroe C., The Concept of Literature, in: Frank Brady (ed.), Literary Theory and Structure. Essays in Honor of Willaim K. Wimsatt, New Haven, CT 1973, 23–39.Google Scholar

  • Beardsley, Monroe C., Aesthetic Intentions and Fictive Illocutions, in: Paul Hernadi (ed.), What is Literature, Bloomington, IN 1978, 161–177.Google Scholar

  • Beardsley, Monroe C., Aesthetics. Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism [1958], Indianapolis, IN 21981 (Beardsley 1981a).Google Scholar

  • Beardsley, Monroe C., Fiction as Representation, Synthese 46:3 (1981), 291–313 (Beardsley 1981b).CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Beardsley, Monroe C., Intentions and Interpretations. A Fallacy Revived, in: Michael J. Wreen/Donald M. Callen (eds.), The Aesthetic Point of View. Selected Essays, Ithaca, NY 1982, 188–207.Google Scholar

  • Booth, Wayne C., The Rhetoric of Irony, Chicago, IL 1974.Google Scholar

  • Booth, Wayne C., The Rhetoric of Fiction [1961], Chicago, IL 21983.Google Scholar

  • Carroll, Noël, Art, Intention, and Conversation, in: Gary Iseminger (ed.), Intention & Interpretation, Philadelphia, PA 1992, 97–131.Google Scholar

  • Carroll, Noël, Interpretation and Intention. The Debate between Hypothetical and Actual Intentionalism, Metaphilosophy 31:1/2 (2000), 75–95.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Carroll, Noël, Art Interpretation, British Journal of Aesthetics 51:2 (2011), 117–135.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Carroll, Noël, Criticism and Interpretation, Sztuka i Filozofia 42 (2013), 7–20.Google Scholar

  • Carroll, Noël, Criticism and Interpretation Redux. Responses to My Commentators, Sztuka i Filozofia 44 (2014), 37–45.Google Scholar

  • Carroll, Noël, Interpretation, in: N.C./John Gibson (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Literature, New York 2016, 302–312.Google Scholar

  • Currie, Gregory, The Nature of Fiction, Cambridge 1990.Google Scholar

  • Currie, Gregory, Work and Text, Mind 100:3 (1991), 325–340.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Currie, Gregory, Interpretation and Objectivity, Mind 102:407 (1993), 413–428.Google Scholar

  • Currie, Gregory, Arts and Minds, Oxford 2004.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Currie, Gregory, Narratives & Narrators. A Philosophy of Stories, Oxford 2010.Google Scholar

  • Danto, Arthur C., The Artworld, Journal of Philosophy 61:19 (1964), 571–584.Google Scholar

  • Davies, Stephen, Beardsley and the Autonomy of the Work of Art, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 63:2 (2005), 179–183.Google Scholar

  • Davies, Stephen, The Philosophy of Art, Oxford 2006.Google Scholar

  • Davies, Stephen, Philosophical Perspectives on Art, Oxford 2007.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Davies, Stephen, Modest Actual Mentalism. Questions and Comments, Sztuka i Filozofia 44 (2014), 13–17.Google Scholar

  • Dowling, W.C., Intentionless Meaning, in: W. J. Thomas Mitchell (ed.), Against Theory. Literary Studies and the New Pragmatism, Chicago, IL 1985, 89–94.Google Scholar

  • Fine, Arthur, Fictionalism, Midwest Studies in Philosophy 18:1 (1993), 1–18.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Gaut, Berys, Interpreting the Arts. The Patchwork Theory, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 51:4 (1993), 597–609.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Goldman, Alan H., Philosophy and the Novel, Oxford 2013.Google Scholar

  • Hirsch, Eric Donald, Validity in Interpretation, New Haven, CT 1967.Google Scholar

  • Irvin, Sherri, Authors, Intentions and Literary Meaning, Philosophy Compass 1:2 (2006), 114–128.Google Scholar

  • Kania, Andrew, Against the Ubiquity of Fictional Narrators, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 63:1 (2005), 47–54.Google Scholar

  • Kindt, Tom/Hans-Harald Müller, The Implied Author. Concept and Controversy, Berlin/New York 2006.Google Scholar

  • Köppe, Tilmann/Tom Kindt, Unreliable Narration With a Narrator and Without, Journal of Literary Theory 5:1 (2011), 81–93.Google Scholar

  • Kroon, Frederick, Fictionalism in Metaphysics, Philosophy Compass 6:11 (2011), 786–803.Google Scholar

  • Lamarque, Peter, Implied Author, in: Stephen Davies et al. (ed.), A Companion to Aesthetics, Malden, MA 2009, 354–356.Google Scholar

  • Levinson, Jerrold, Intention and Interpretation. A Last Look, in: Gary Iseminger (ed.), Intention & Interpretation, Philadelphia, PA 1992, 221–256.Google Scholar

  • Levinson, Jerrold, Messages in Art, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 73:2 (1995), 184–198.Google Scholar

  • Levinson, Jerrold, Contemplating Art, Oxford 2006.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Levinson, Jerrold, Aesthetic Pursuits. Essays in Philosophy of Art, Oxford 2016.Google Scholar

  • Lin, Szu-Yen, Beardsley on Literature, Fiction, and Nonfiction, Journal of Aesthetics and Culture 8 (2016), http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/jac.v8.29208.Google Scholar

  • Lin, Szu-Yen, Beardsley’s Contextualism: Philosophical and Educational Significance, Journal of Aesthetic Education (forthcoming).Google Scholar

  • Livingston, Paisley, Intention in Art, in: Jerrold Levinson (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics, Oxford 2005, 275–290 (Livingston 2005a).Google Scholar

  • Livingston, Paisley, Art and Intention. A Philosophical Study, Oxford 2005 (Livingston 2005b).Google Scholar

  • Lyas, Colin, Wittgensteinian Intentions, in: Gary Iseminger (ed.), Intention & Interpretation, Philadelphia, PA 1992, 132–151.Google Scholar

  • Mikkonen, Jukka, Literary Fictions as Utterances and Artworks, Theoria 76:1 (2010), 68–90.Google Scholar

  • Nathan, Daniel O., Irony and the Artist’s Intentions, British Journal of Aesthetics 22:3 (1982), 245–256.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Nathan, Daniel O., Irony, Metaphor, and the Problem of Intention, in: Gary Iseminger (ed.), Intention & Interpretation, Philadelphia, PA 1992, 183–202.Google Scholar

  • Nathan, Daniel O., Art, Meaning, and Artist’s Meaning, in: Matthew Kieran (ed.), Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art, Oxford 2005, 282–293.Google Scholar

  • Nehamas, Alexander, Writer, Text, Work, Author, in: William Irwin (ed.), The Death and Resurrection of the Author?, Westport, CT 2005, 95–115.Google Scholar

  • Shusterman, Richard, Text, in: Stephen Davies et al. (ed.), A Companion to Aesthetics, Malden, MA 2009, 565–562.Google Scholar

  • Spoerhase, Carlos, Hypothetischer Intentionalismus. Rekonstruktion und Kritik, Journal of Literary Theory 1:1 (2007), 81–110.Google Scholar

  • Stecker, Robert, Apparent, Implied, and Postulated Authors, Philosophy and Literature 11:2 (1987), 258–271.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Stecker, Robert, Objectivity and Interpretation, Philosophy and Literature 19:1 (1995), 48–59.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Stecker, Robert, Interpretation and Construction. Art, Speech, and the Law, Oxford 2003.Google Scholar

  • Stecker, Robert, Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art. An Introduction, Lanham, MD 2010.Google Scholar

  • Stecker, Robert, Interpretation, in: Berys Gaut/Dominic McIver Lopes (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics [2001], New York 32013, 309–319.Google Scholar

  • Tolhurst, William E., On What a Text is and How it Means, British Journal of Aesthetics 19:1 (1979), 3–14.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Trivedi, Saam, Surplus, Authorial Intentions, and Hypothetical Intentionalism, College Literature 42:4 (2015), 699–724.Google Scholar

  • Vaihinger, Hans, The Philosophy of ›As If‹, transl. by C. K. Ogden, London 1924.Google Scholar

  • Walton, Kendall, L., Mimesis as Make-Believe. On the Foundations of the Repesentational Arts, Cambridge, MA 1990.Google Scholar

  • Walton, Kendall, L., Marvelous Images. On Values and the Arts, Oxford 2008.Google Scholar

  • Wilson, George M., Elusive Narrators in Literature and Film, Philosophical Studies 135:1 (2007), 73–88.Google Scholar

  • Wimsatt, William K./Monroe C. Beardsley, The Intentional Fallacy, The Sewanee Review 54:3 (1946), 468–488.Google Scholar

  • Wolterstorff, Nicholas, Response to Beardsley on ›Fiction as Representation‹, Synthese 46:3 (1981), 315–323.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

About the article

Published Online: 2018-03-01

Published in Print: 2018-03-26

Citation Information: Journal of Literary Theory, Volume 12, Issue 1, Pages 171–192, ISSN (Online) 1862-8990, ISSN (Print) 1862-5290, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jlt-2018-0010.

Export Citation

© 2018 Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG, Berlin/Boston.Get Permission

Comments (0)

Please log in or register to comment.
Log in