November 14, 2003 | Graham

The intentional fallacy

There is a great scene from Annie Hall where Woody Allen Allen is standing in a cinema queue and becomes engaged in an argument about what Marshall McLuhan meant. He abruptly walks the other party over to a movie poster and pulls out the flesh and blood McLuhan who backs him up 100%. Allen turns to the camera and says “Boy, if life were only like this!”
To literature students this scene is even funnier because it commits what is called the “intentional fallacy”. This is the idea that because an author wrote a work they necessarily have a better idea of what it means than the reader. Books, essays and articles are artifacts, and while the author will have insights that are unavailable to the outside observer, he or she does not have a monopoly on what the work means. To take this to the extreme, as postmodernists do, is to accord the critique equal weighting with the book as a work of art, and the critic equal weighting with the author.
ABC Radio’s Earthbeat programme did an “Annie Hall” this week when it interviewed Raymond Dominick, Professor Emeritus of History at Ohio State University. Professor Dominick is the author of The Environmental Movement in Germany: Prophets and Pioneers, 1871-1971, which was extensively “cited” by Liberal Senator George Brandis in his claims that the Australian Greens are closely related to the Nazi movement. Doing a McLuhan Dominick says “I was a little distressed to see that the point I thought I had made was misconstrued, in fact I think it was twisted almost into its opposite.”
However, no doubt keenly aware of the intentional fallacy himself, Dominick then takes on the role of reader to prove his point: “On Page 111 there’s a section of the book entitled Connections Between Nazis and Conservationists. ‘The allegation has arisen from diverse quarters that environmental protection at least in some of its manifestations, is intrinsically Nazi.’ And I go on a little further down to say ‘These allegations reflect a superficial understanding of the history and world view of environmentalist and today’s Greens.’”
The real question therefore is (a) whether this is a fallacy that Brandis perpetrated by intention, or (b) whether he has some more fundamental problems with reality. George has been dubbed “George Washington” by Crikey! on the basis of a statement made at a Brisbane Liberal Party branch meeting that he had never in his life told a lie. Taking this claim at face value, I’m going for (b).

Posted by Graham at 2:01 pm | Comments Off on The intentional fallacy |
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