This one little word has recently caused a whole lot of anxiety, confusion and anger for me. It’s a seemingly harmless nice word and before the end of Term 2, I would have said it is a word with positive implications. However, after the stress this word has caused, i have come to the conclusion that it is in fact the most deceptive, irritating, terrible word in the English language.
Alright that might be an over reaction, but I have been wanting to share my recent thoughts about this word with you, the people of the internet and see if you felt there is any truth to my new hatred.
It all started with an essay selection for my least favourite module I have been forced into doing this year: Methods in Art History (shudder). This module has had me going grey. I cannot describe the intrinsic difficulty of it and among my year group it has been a regular source of ranting and raving. We have all been united this year through the nonsensical pretentious criticisms we have been “studying”. There is a new sense of camaraderie as we have battled to get to the heart of Wollheim, Hegel and Winklemann (what kind of name is that?) say about art. These are the critics who should not be named. Looming over the end of term was the 3000 word essay on some complicated topic presented by any one of these.
As I browsed the options available to me, a growing panic started. They were all awful. There seemed no way to actually talk about art, rather the philosophy of “art”, a concept that conveniently enough can’t be absolutely defined. Fantastic.
In the end the question I chose was this:
“To what extent does the artist’s intention arbitrate the meaning of the work of art?”
It seemed a relatively accessible title, so I began my research.
Little did I know what kind of hurdles I would come up against with that little word in the middle there.
Intention. In actual fact, intention is not a solid concept. How did I not think of this before? Intention, like art supposedly, cannot be defined. It is not an action, and it is not a wish, a desire or a plan. It is some kind of mysterious internal motivation that propels us. But we can have intentions and never act on them. I might intend to write an amazing Methods essay but I know that is impossible. I can intend not to cry in despair as I re-read Wollheim, but the thick convoluted ideas might just get to me anyway. You can start with one intention and this intention may lead to other intentions. But what is intention? Does intention matter? (See how easy it is to become trapped in the circular nature of this one little devilish word?)
People say “I had good intentions”. However, does intention really matter in the fact of the final result? This was what I started thinking about during the writing process. If I ran someone over, I may not have intended to but the result is still the same. They have been run over, and I will face consequences for that. So why do people, when finding themselves in a situation where they have made a mistake, cling to the idea that they had ‘good intentions’? We do not like coming across as intentionally bad people and if our internal motivation was pure, then somehow we are free from the guilt of our action. We can never know the internal motivations of people so we look to their actions for clues of their inner thinking.
All this is not to say that intention is not a valid concept, but it will never definitively determine our actions. I personally intend to live a good live. I act out this intention by trying to be loyal to my friends and family, pursuing activities that make me happy and building a solid foundation for my future. My life may not be realized in exactly the way I intend, but perhaps a life based on good intentions has better potential for one’s own peace of mind. But if my actions do not reflect my intentions, then all the good, kind intentions in the world do not matter for it is my actions that will speak for me. I am not saying give up on having good intentions. Rather put more time and effort in be active. Into doing the things you want to do.
I have confused myself greatly the past few week by trying to define an indefinable word. It has got me thinking about what my real intentions are and whether or not they are indeed intentions. I hope I have not confused you too much with this little post, but I think I have found a quote with nicely captures the validity of intention:
In the light of our actions, intentions are worthless. Let your actions speak of your intentionality. We are the only ones who know of our “good intention” but when we do “good action”, the rest of the world knows of them. And isn’t that the real purpose of intention?