Ask an Interesting Question, Get an Interesting Answer. Stephen Knapp and Walter Benn Michael’s Anti-Critical Theory Question: What Happens if We Don’t Separate Meaning from Intention and Knowledge from Interpretation? Will This Kill Critical Theory?

Within the humanities, contemporary critical theorizing typically entails political commitments, predominantly from the left, accompanied by some line of attack or qualification on Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle (his idea that every communicative act necessarily requires a speaker or author, a message, and an audience—the terms for these being ethos, logos, and pathos). Decoupling the elements within the rhetorical triangle—as tends to be done by critical theorists for purposes of debate (“Is the idea of authorship meaningful?”; “Can a text truly carry a central or privileged meaning?”; “Do readers ever really discover anything in the text but themselves?” etc.)—is considered of dubious value by some; indeed, a form of unwarranted context dropping by others. Below are some anti-critical theory questions for the object or subject of your contemplation. They are designed to bring into consciousness some of the implications (for logic, sense, and context) of separating the elements in Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle:

  • Of nature: Is what goes on in nature actually meaningless (just one damn thing after another)? What meaning can the natural object or ecosystem of your contemplation carry separate from God’s (or an alien’s) original intentionality in bringing it into existence? What meaning, if you don’t believe in God or aliens, can it really ever have for you? By analogy, if you witnessed an elaborate pool table shot (the balls akin to the atoms that make up nature), then realized it was initiated by an accident—a lamp fixture dropping from the ceiling and striking the cue ball—would the elaborate choreography of the subsequent balls landing into their respective pockets have meaning? And what knowledge can you actually possess of nature separate from your interpretation of what you take to be its facts?
  • Of human artifacts (art, film, literature, photography, goods-for-sale, architecture, etc.): What meaning can an object of human fashioning have absent the intentionality of its creator(s)? What knowledge can you possess of the object of your contemplation separate from your interpretation of it?
  • Of the individual: What meaning can an individual carry absent her own purposes (such as, say, a woman writing a sonnet for moving her lover’s heart)? What meaning can you carry absent your own purposes? If, for example, you were to discover that you have no free will, but are completely and utterly a determined being, would your private purposes still have meaning? Do zombies, in their behaviors, bear meaning (moral or otherwise)? Where? And what knowledge can you really possess of others separate from your personal interpretation of them?
  • Of society: Where do meaning and intention reside in society, and are these things different? Where do knowledge and true beliefs reside in a society, and are these different? If a mass of zombies invaded a city, taking it over, what would this mean? And how would we know that the meaning we gave to such an event was true? What does it mean to give meaning to something (or to take a meaning from something)? And what’s the difference between knowing something and being quite certain that you know something (have a truly sincere belief—an interpretation—that you think actually accords with the facts)?

In 1982, Stephen Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels wrote an essay titled “Against Theory” that got a lot of critical attention among textual theorists within the humanities. In it, they argued that textual theorists are misguided in two ways: (1) in order to have something to talk about (or at least generalize about), they divide meaning from intentionality and knowledge from “true belief” (interpretation); and (2) they take sides over these false divisions. Hence, some academics, such as E. D. Hirsch, argue that meaning resides in the author of a text alone, while others, such as Roland Barthes, argue that the author is “dead” and that meaning resides in the structure of the artifact alone (the text). Likewise, some scholars argue that knowledge is objective (“out there”) while others argue that it resides in the reader as beliefs alone (there is no objective knowledge). Knapp and Michaels, as philosophical pragmatists, were having none of this:

The theoretical impulse, as we have described it, always involves the attempt to separate things that should not be separated: on the ontological side, meaning from intention, language from speech acts; on the epistemological side, knowledge from true belief. Our point has been that the separated terms are in fact inseparable. […] Meaning is just another name for expressed intention, knowledge just another name for true belief.

In other words, a communication event always has three things: (1) an author; (2) some material artifact of an expressed intention (a letter, a book, a blog, the sound and style of a voice); and (3) a reader who must engage in an interpretation (knowledge as “just another name for true belief”). This suggests that there are no sides to take. In interpretation, neither the author, nor the language artifact, nor the reader can ever be marginalized, dispensed with, or ignored. In short, Knapp and Michaels argued, contemporary textual theorizing is fatally misguided as a practice, setting up false problems, and so should be abandoned.

One way they illustrated their position was by imagining the following stanza from a Wordsworth poem magically appearing in beach sand in the wake of a receding wave:

No motion has she now, no force;

She neither hears nor sees;

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,

With rocks, and stones, and trees.

Were you to witness these words appearing before you, apparently written via the action of water, how might you explain to yourself such a Twilight Zone moment? Would you conclude that the sea was a conscious being or that Wordsworth’s ghost had written it? Or might you chalk it up to dumb luck? Here’s Knapp and Michaels:

[Y]ou would find, we think, that all the explanations fall into two categories. You will either be ascribing these marks to some agent capable of intentions (the living sea, the haunting Wordsworth, etc.), or you will count them as nonintentional effects of mechanical processes (erosion, percolation, etc.). But in the second case—where the marks now seem to be accidents—will they seem to be words?

Their answer: “Clearly not. They will merely seem to resemble words.” In other words, meaning cannot be separated from intention, language cannot be separated from intentional speech or text acts, and the hearer or reader cannot be separated from interpretation (knowledge as “just another name for true belief”). These constitute, as it were, a communicative ecosystem that “the theoretical impulse” wrongly attempts to separate, but that “should not be separated.”

Put another way, Knapp and Michaels argue (to echo Mark Twain) that the deaths of the author, the text as an artifact of intention, and the reader as an interpreter are all greatly exaggerated. There are only phantom sides to take for or against these three things. The debates among textual theorists, therefore, are a striving after wind.

Is this checkmate for critical theory? And how would you ever know for sure?


  • Knapp and Michaels. “Against Theory.” The Norton Anthology of Critical Theory (Second Edition, 2010, pp. 2488-2506).
  • W. J. T. Mitchell (Editor). Against Theory: Literary Studies and the New Pragmatism (1985).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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