How To Mean Things with Art

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis defends an intentionalist account of interpretation, specifically a version of Extreme Actual Intentionalism, which claims that the meaning of an artwork is determined by its maker’s communicative intentions guiding its production. Starting from the observation that works of art regularly evoke a feeling of puzzlement, it is assumed that art interpretation is a practice aimed at grasping the meaning of and, therefore, understanding a work. It is argued that while there is a variety of properties glossed under the umbrella term “meaning”, individual accounts of such properties should not be independent of each other but rather continuous with a general account of meaning. On this basis, Grice’s (1957) account of utterer meaning as determined by communicative intentions is introduced as a basic model, which is then exemplarily applied to three different modes of meaning common in the arts: depictive content, fictional content, and formal properties. Extreme Actual Intentionalism based on the Gricean model is then defended against two common objections: the accusation that it would grant artists arbitrary control over the meaning of their works (the “Humpty Dumpty Objection”) and the complaint that it would make artworks’ meanings unknowable (the “Epistemological Objection”). It is concluded that given its explanatory power and its ability to meet said objections, Extreme Actual Intentionalism is superior not only to anti-intentionalist accounts of interpretation but also to its intentionalist rivals Moderate Actual Intentionalism and Hypothetical Intentionalism.
Date of Award1 Aug 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorFrederique Janssen-Lauret (Supervisor) & Emily Caddick Bourne (Supervisor)

Cite this