Ethical Criticism and the Interpretation of Art

Wolf of WallstreetThis paper takes as its starting point an apparent paradox raised by ethical criticism of film, television, literature, and other arts. On the one hand, most ethical criticism of art traffics in normative claims – claims that purport to say something true about a work and call for intersubjective agreement. On the other hand, most ethical criticism also depends, to at least some extent, upon various interpretive claims. These range from lower-order claims about what is true of a fiction to higher-order claims about a work’s themes. However, many scholars across the humanities deny that interpretive claims carry normative force; rather, a popular view seems to be that interpretive claims are not truth-evaluable, but merely more or less plausible (relative to some, usually unspecified criterion other than truth). Thus, the tacit view of such scholars appears to be that interpretive claims do not command intersubjective assent. But if this were right, the rationality and normative force of ethical criticism would be completely undermined and the ethical criticism of art would be a very mysterious activity, bordering on incoherence.
What is the best way out of the paradox and, in relation, what account can we give of the nature of ethical criticism? What sort(s) of claims does the ethical criticism of art make? This paper argues that the best way out of the paradox is to abandon the idea that art interpretations are not truth-evaluable – indeed, that meaningful ethical criticism depends on correct interpretive claims that command intersubjective assent. Furthermore, reflection upon the nature of ethical criticism can help adjudicate an ongoing debate in philosophical aesthetics between two opposing theories of interpretation — hypothetical intentionalism and actual intentionalism. Specifically, it gives us good reasons to prefer a moderate version of actual intentionalism over hypothetical intentionalism.

Ted Nannicelli is a Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the University of Queensland. He is the author of A Philosophy of the Screenplay (Routledge, 2013) and Appreciating the Art of Television: A Philosophical Perspective (Routledge, forthcoming). He is co-editor, with Paul Taberham, of Cognitive Media Theory (Routledge, 2014), and associate editor of Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind.

11.00am Friday 29 April 2016
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Seminar Room, Level 4, Forgan Smith Tower (St Lucia)