We've been getting a lot of questions that confuse authors' intentions with a text's meaning. For example, the question Did Shakespeare consider Julius Caesar a tyrant or a martyr? is actually two questions: (1) what meaning did Shakespeare intend for Julius Caesar to have, and (2) what meaning does Julius Caesar have. @verbose in their answer does an excellent job of illustrating the distinction between those two questions.

However, I don't think it should be necessary to have to repeat the same debate about why author's intentions are different from a text's meaning in every question. My question is: when questions confuse intentions with meaning, should we leave the question as is and explain the difference in the answers, or should we edit or close the question to fix the fallacy?

  • 1
    Can't we just point them to the question you asked and its answers, and then reframe the confused q to be about the text's meaning? Not to toot my own horn, but reframing seems to have worked okay as a strategy for the Jules C. question.
    – verbose
    Feb 21, 2017 at 2:05
  • Related question: meta.literature.stackexchange.com/q/539/481
    – Shokhet
    Feb 28, 2017 at 2:57

3 Answers 3


I would favor leaving the question itself alone and explaining the difference in the answer.

This situation reminds me of questions on Stack Overflow or Computer Science which are founded on misunderstandings or incorrect principles due to the questioner's inexperience with the subject. On those sites it's pretty common to downvote and close such questions, which I don't agree with, so we're already one step ahead: whether we edit or explain in answers, we're still teaching the questioner something they hadn't known before.

The reason I favor explaining in answers is that an answer is a much better venue for teaching the questioner something than an edit is. verbose's explanation in the linked answer is brilliant, and it engages with the questioner at their current level of understanding, whereas the best we could do in an edit is change the language to match the question as it would be written by someone who already understands this distinction. This could well leave the questioner looking at the edited version and wondering what exactly was wrong with what they originally wrote. Instead of directly teaching them something, it forces them into a game of "Spot ten differences between this edited post and your original post".

Of course, if we get lots of questions like this, it'll get tedious explaining this all the time. And we will probably get lots of questions like this; I've already seen plenty of posts on Meta talking about how the author's word and intent should be the gold standard for evidence in answers, which just isn't how most literary analysis works. So the best solution might be to write a canonical question, something like "What is the intentional fallacy?", that explains the distinction. If we see a question that commits this fallacy, we can mention that the question isn't specific enough to answer as is and point them at this canonical question as a guide for making edits. If it becomes a big enough problem we can start closing as "unclear what you're asking" until the edits are made.

The benefit I see for having a canonical question is that we avoid repeating the same explanation in dozens or hundreds of answers, but we still have the flexibility that an answer offers for teaching a concept instead of having to monkey-see monkey-do it with edits.

In the best case, the questioner understands what needs to be done to fix their question and does it on their own without further interference. But if a questioner still doesn't understand what needs to be done, or doesn't feel capable of doing it, then we can still make edits ourselves to bring the question on-topic, while also addressing the questioner's specific confusions.

In effect, this process can serve as a sort of workshop on the intentional fallacy for those questioners who are willing to learn: they get a general explanation of the concept from the canonical question, but they can also get help on their specific case from comments or edits made by helpful community members. This way, even if someone other than the questioner has to make the edits, the questioner at least has a reference point for the purpose of the edits was. This might also be a useful model to adopt for other issues where questioners' instincts are at odds with accepted practice in literary criticism.

  • I think we've already reached the point where "we get lots of questions like this." I think your last paragraph addresses this, but it would be helpful if you could expand your last a paragraph a bit.
    – user111
    Feb 21, 2017 at 0:57
  • 2
    Yeah I agree with the suggestion to have a canonical q re: intentions and pointing to that in the answer. Closing the question is a disservice to people who are after all trying to learn something about the text's meaning, even if they mistakenly identify that with the author's intention.
    – verbose
    Feb 21, 2017 at 2:14
  • @Hamlet I expanded on how I think the process I'm imagining would work. Is there anything else that was lacking or unclear?
    – Torisuda
    Feb 21, 2017 at 4:49
  • @verbose I was thinking of using the canonical question as a guide for edits, but linking it from an answer might be even better. It would mean other users can learn how to avoid the framing misconception by seeing it corrected in other questions, as Emrakul's answer points out.
    – Torisuda
    Feb 21, 2017 at 4:54

The intentional fallacy is a common misunderstanding that is often complicated and difficult to unpack afresh, but it's important to do. My answer is based on this logic:

  1. The goal of Stack Exchange is to act as a resource for future readers with questions to find good answers to them.

  2. The questions that people come to ask on Stack Exchange are questions (we assume, broadly speaking) that others are liable to have down the line, as well.

  3. If the questions asked here represent framing misconceptions, then when someone searching for information about a topic finds the question here, they will likely also have the same framing misconception.

    3a. (This both has to do with the assumption that SE is good at search engine optimization, and the fact that they're just straight-up more likely to share the same misconception.)

  4. An appropriate answer to the future reader, if the question as written is based on a framing problem, should at minimum address the framing misconception, as it's integral to any approach to addressing the question.

Should we ask that OP change the question based on a framing misconception? Well...

  1. Editing the question to address a framing issue, and then answering the question without the framing issue, while potentially valuable, means that those who find the question later won't find something that directly challenges their framing problem. That issue will already have been cleaned up.

    5a. (In fact, if the question they have is too dissimilar, they may not find it at all.)

  2. Which means, if we don't answer the framing problem, we're not going to act as a very useful resource for future readers.

Don't get me wrong - asking the question without the framing issue is important and valuable. But readers are liable to have that framing problem that gets carried through many questions, and that's just a systemic problem in the field of literature that we're going to have to deal with as a site. Editing that out of the questions restricts our ability to ask and answer questions with the ability to reach more people and further the spread of thought and information about literature.

As a result, an answer that addresses both the intentional fallacy and provides a good answer with an implicitly-edited removal of it would be the ideal.

  • (I'm mostly just playing around with this style of writing about Stack Exchange, note. I'm not super pleased with it, but I'll fiddle with it.)
    – user80
    Feb 21, 2017 at 4:21

We should answer the question as it has been asked. If the question asks about intent, we should answer about the intent, if someone asks about the meaning, we should answer about the meaning. There is no need to tell people they are asking the wrong question.

If they ask about both you should vote to close as too broad and leave a not in the comments asking for clarification.

  • 3
    The problem is that people are asking about both intent and meaning, and treating one as a synonym for another. This makes it very confusing to answer these questions.
    – user111
    Feb 21, 2017 at 0:20
  • @Hamlet Then, I will add to my question.
    – Benjamin
    Feb 21, 2017 at 0:24

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