The Two Fallacies That Aren’t

When I was an undergraduate English Major at Cal State L.A. in the 1970’s, most of the faculty in the English Department had been trained as New Critics. New Criticism was focused on the text of the literary work itself to the exclusion of historical context, authorial biography, authorial intention, or any kind of reader response. The practitioners of New Criticism called it “objective criticism” because they wanted to exclude factors that were either unknowable or subjective. Their method was a close reading of the text, looking at the topic and theme of the work and such formal elements as ambiguity, irony, metaphor, symbolism, imagery and other devices.

New Criticism dominated English departments from the 1940’s to the 1960’s, so my professors were already having some questions about it. However, the practice of close reading continues and has even been officially revived in the Common Core. Two other concepts remain as well, concepts I consider pernicious. These are what Wimsatt and Beardsley called “The Intentional Fallacy” and “The Affective Fallacy.” My complaint about these phrases is more about the rhetorical effect of the word “fallacy” than the concepts themselves.

The Intentional Fallacy

Wimsatt and Beardsley argue that “The design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art” (468). They do not want to ask, “What was the author trying to do?” and then “Was he or she successful in accomplishing this intention?” Even if they could ask the author, as they could in the case of T.S. Eliot, they do not wish to because to do so “would not be a critical inquiry.” They make a strong distinction between evidence internal to the text of the work and external evidence that might be found in the author’s biography or journals and letters. We could ask, if Charlotte Bronte writes a novel about a governess, does it matter that she herself was a governess”? For Wimsatt and Beardsley, that fact is irrelevant to the text.

From many other points of view, the fact that the Bronte sisters did indeed work as governesses and were concerned about the existential conditions of such work is indeed relevant and interesting. That is why I object to the word “fallacy.” There is nothing wrong with bracketing authorial intention and other matters external to the text in order to focus more closely on the text itself. But to stigmatize attention to these external matters as a “fallacy” is ideological. It is to brand all such inquiries as illogical from the outset.

The Affective Fallacy

In the introduction to their article on the “Affective Fallacy,” Wimsatt and Beardsley state their definitions:

The Intentional Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its origins,
a special case of what is known to philosophers as the Genetic Fallacy. It begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological causes of the poem and ends in biography and relativism. The Affective Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does) . . . It begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism. The outcome of either Fallacy, the Intentional or the Affective, is that the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgment, tends to disappear. (31)

Note that in both cases what they are concerned about is deriving “the standard of criticism.” A New Critic attempts to provide an indisputable definitive reading of the work. The standard they strive toward is one of scientific certainty. They want to be able to say, “This is what it means.” Of course, in order to do that you have to leave out the squishy uncertain parts, such as what the author was thinking and how unpredictable readers might respond.

A Rhetorical Critic

Of course for a rhetorical critic, the New Critical approach leaves out all of the interesting parts. Such a critic sees the work as a rhetorical act, constructed by an author in order to have particular effects on readers. Author, text and reader are all equally important. Authors write for readers and so readers influence authorial decisions. Authors and readers are situated in contexts that are external to the text. Taken together, the two New Critical fallacies neutralize and render motionless all of this rhetorical interaction.


I rather like reading New Critics. They are attentive readers of literary works. But these two “fallacies” are fallacies only if one completely buys into New Critical dogma. It is unfortunate that we continue to react to them as if they were true. It cuts off so many other interesting approaches.

The most pernicious aspect of this terminology is the effect it has on pedagogy and the enjoyment of literature. For any reader, the first concern is how he or she responds to the work. We want to make connections to our own lives and feelings. We ask questions such as

  • Why do I identify with this character?
  • What does this character tell me about myself?
  • How does this situation relate to my life?
  • What would I do in that situation?
  • How would I feel if that happened to me?

It is questions like this that lead to engagement and the enjoyment of literature. These are starting points for real readers, who might think that a work is “good” because they engage with it. But unfortunately, the “Affective Fallacy” has taught us to be suspicious of engaging the reader’s emotions. It is a great loss.

Works Cited

W. K. Wimsatt Jr. and M. C. Beardsley. “The Intentional Fallacy” The Sewanee Review, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1946), pp. 468-488

W. K. Wimsatt Jr. and M. C. Beardsley. “The Affective Fallacy.” The Sewanee Review, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Winter, 1949), pp. 31-55

One thought on “The Two Fallacies That Aren’t

  1. Chris Grim

    The professors of my English undergrad pushed us to join niches or specialties. I quickly learned that I agreed more as a New Critic than I did in other spheres. I wrote several papers, including my capstone thesis, and presented them at different symposiums.

    You make several great points that I’ve experienced personally. New Criticism can be a great way to read a text. However, you’re right, there are a ton more interesting ways to dissect a text.

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