Study Guide

Wimsatt and Beardsley Buzzwords

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It may garner me some serious credibility to let you know I, Monroe Beardsley, was once president of the American Society for Aesthetics. I wrote a ton on aesthetics, and Bill and I were rabid fans of literary aesthetics. For me, aesthetics—the philosophical study of art and beauty—should be focused on three important factors: 1) the work itself and what people thought of it; 2) what critics had to say about art; and 3) the history of the philosophy of art.

I like to think about what makes one work of art better than another work of art, and why. Think that's boring? Not so—people can get way offended by this kind of thing. I think it's not just a matter of taste. In my opinion, some works of art are just plain better than others.

Anyway, for me and Bill, aesthetics is all about pulling together and examining different critical views of art—especially literature, music, and painting.

Affective Fallacy

We'll be blunt: the idea that how you feel about a work of art has anything to do with evaluating or assessing that work of art is baloney—i.e., it's a "fallacy."

We'll give you a modern example. A movie may make you feel good, but that doesn't mean that the movie itself is good. Thinking that movie is good just because it made you feel good is what we call the Affective Fallacy. Now, we like a good Judd Apatow movie now and then, but he's no Hitchcock, right? Likewise, you may be moved to tears by The Notebook, and you may think Ryan Gosling is totally great to look at, but that doesn't mean the film is an aesthetic achievement. Don't believe us? Ask your boyfriend if he felt the same way you did about the movie—that'll tell you everything you need to know about the Affective Fallacy.

Authorial Intent

This peach of a term sounds much more complicated than it is. Authorial intent is simply the idea that what the author intended to express in a work can be determined by reading the work—as if he or she were smuggling embedded, coded messages through the sonnet to the world outside. We think that authorial intent is, first of all, pretty much impossible to determine, and second of all, pretty much irrelevant.

Our advice: stop trying to channel the author's intentions and look at the words on the page. Everything you need to do is there.


This word means a lot of different things to different people. For us, "effect" refers to emotions, specifically the kinds of emotions people have in response to a work of art. Contrary to popular belief, works of art themselves do not have an "effect" or emotional quality. Works of art are objects meant to be evaluated without all of those soppy romantic feelings people project onto them.

We think works of art are about knowledge, not emotion, so any effect they have comes from responses people have to them; the effect isn't built into the works of art themselves.

Intentional Fallacy

An Intentional Fallacy is a mistake made on purpose—like when a reader insists on reading a poem as an element of the author's biography. That kind of silly psychologizing just ends in relativism (source).

We are not down with this kind of confusion; we say that where the poem came from and what its author's intentions were in writing it are things that just do not matter. We feel like we are repeating ourselves, but seriously, the poem has a life of its own. Stop using it as a crystal ball to try to figure out historical trends or the author's attitudes, all right?


This one's easy but important—a fallacy is simply an illogical form of reasoning. It's a prejudice or a mistake in your thinking that keeps you from understanding what is really going in in a text.

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