What I really meant to say

The lyrics of Crossfade’s song Cold (2004) declare “What I really meant to say, Is I’m sorry for the way I am.” Annoyingly, the song keeps cropping up when I do a web search on idioms ascribing meanings to writers. But it kind of fits. Do we really know what we mean to say? Does the author of the words know any more than the recipient?

The same question applies to all creative production. Can you ever know the mind of the artist, writer, designer, architect or originator of a creative idea or product? I was also reminded of this conundrum as I read Paul Kidder’s book Gadamer for Architects that explains the problem well from a hermeneutical perspective.

Authorial intent

There are at least three responses to the problem of an author’s meaning. One is to try and get back to the author, scrutinise their interviews, diaries, articles, books, and if they are still alive then ask them what they meant by their creation, as if their opinion settles the matter.

Distant ship, broad horizon, duskScholars may debate what the author really meant, but somewhere there’s an original meaning that can be ascribed to the author-creator.

The second approach is to put any commentary an author may have about their own work to one side and presume that we know more than they do. In looking back at an author we may well, with the benefit of hindsight, be better able than they are to situate their work, and in any case we’ll know more about the effect their work has had.

But (third) from a hermeneutical perspective it’s more important to note that we know differently rather than know better or more. This is the nature of interpretation, to approach any interpretive task from a different horizon. This difference may be the product of the difference in time, being in a different place, culture, educational context, or social context. This is what keeps the interpretive process alive. The other two approaches tend to close off discussion or at least take it in the direction of originality and authenticity.

Social aspects of creation

As everyone knows, no matter how we ascribe authorship in any particular case, the fact remains that inventions are of their time and the products of many minds. Top of the poll for quotes about originality on the Goodreads website is “Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters. (Palahniuk wrote Fight Club.) The “fallacy” of authorial intention so often leaves out the social dimension of any particular achievement.

Hindsight bias

I’ve been reading Daniel Kahneman’s interesting book on “fast” and “slow” thinking. He provides sobering and unsettling evidence that we really are very unreliable when it comes to reporting our own state of knowledge. So there are many experts who claim they knew about the 2008 financial crisis before it happened, or talk as if they did. Similarly, I knew we would lose the tender. I knew the book would be misunderstood. I knew what I meant when I wrote it.

In fact the evidence shows that our knowledge about what we knew gets skewed according to what we now know — or think we know now.

Kahneman sees this as a weakness in human reasoning. But from a hermeneutical perspective such “unreliability” and forgetfulness indicates yet again how indebted we are to the shifting horizons within which we find ourselves — and enabled by them. We can’t think otherwise, and thank goodness for that. In any case, people to whom we ascribe authorship are as prone as their readers to their own shifting horizons and points of view.


  • Kahneman, Daniel. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin
  • Kidder, Paul. 2013. Gadamer for Architects. Abingdon, England: Routledge
  • Kidder, Paul. 2011. Philosophical hermeneutics and The Ethical Function of Architecture. Contemporary Aesthetics, (9) (online), 6-6.



  1. catatsea says:

    Hoping a shifting horizon allows me to eventually claim “But (third) from a hermeneutical perspective it’s more important to note that we know differently rather than know better or more. ” as my own … 😉

    Teaching ethnography for the last few years this is hands down the hardest thing I need to communicate. We are so wedded to the idea of the “right” or “best” knowledge (not least because most of our reward systems” are based on being judged to be in possession of large amounts of right knowledge) that getting someone to accept and commit to learning to know differently is incredibly hard. Presenting this idea in the context of authorial intent is incredibly helpful. Thanks for a thought provoking post.

  2. s1340260 says:

    When I saw the title, the first thing came up in my mind is some frictions exist in interpersonal relationships. I agree that due to different backgrounds ,different experiences … It is hard for us to know what others really means. After reading your article, I just thought of one example in CHINA. There is one famous writer who’s name is Xueqin Cao .He wrote a famous ancient romantic friction named Dream of Red Mansions in Qing Dynasty. These days many scholars are still discussing his famous friction ,especially the real ending in Xueqin’s intention. Because Xueqin only wrote 80 chapters of the friction ,then he passed away and left the ending remains unknown.There are also other writers who tried to continue that friction but they are all no so good and cannot express what Xueqin really wants to show.That’s a pity.

    1. Interesting case. It’s a kind of obsession, isn’t it. If only Mozart had lived longer. New stuff may not be as good in the original author’s terms, but it may be better in a way that is different.

      – Richard (Please excuse my brevity. Sent from a mobile device.)

  3. marinaoeo says:

    I had a thought about this that might change the question “what I really meant to say” and make it “what does each person perceive from what I say”. Is it necessary that when someone says something there is a particular meaning behind his words and a whole background connected to them? Maybe, sometimes, an artist creates a piece of art without the intention to say something, just to let the audience make guesses and let people’s imagination create their own scenarios, which can be very interesting and creative as well.

    1. Thanks for the comment. That’s a good reformulation of the question from the artist’s viewpoint. I assume that most self-aware writers, artists, creators are unlikely to insist that they have a direct message they wish to communicate and is some how embedded in their work. Perhaps the burden of authorial intent is imposed by reviewers and critics, who may also in psychoanalytic mode seek to reveal intentions of which the author is apparently unaware.

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