Intentionality, Literature, and Free Will: An Interview With Niklas Straetker
Niklas Straetker is a second-year graduate student in the German department whose research deals with the intersections of literature, philosophy, psychology and law. In this interview, he traces the intellectual progression of the biggest philosophical problem in his research: intentionality, his relationship to the problem, and how it figures into his current research.
The Gadfly: Is there any single philosophical problem that particularly interests you or recurs in your research?
Niklas Straetker: I thought about it, and it’s a problem which is, in the very broadest sense, the question of intention.
G: How would you explain this problem to a friend with no formal training in philosophy?
NS: Within the humanities, the notion of ‘intentionality’ is ambiguous. On the one hand, you have the common-sense concept of ‘intention’ in the sense of somebody’s ‘plan’ or ‘purpose.’ Then you have ‘intentionality’ in the specifically philosophical sense, which was coined by this German proto-phenomenologist Brentano, and which denotes something broader than just ‘the plan.’ In this broad philosophical sense, intentionality refers to the idea of ‘being directed toward’ something, and looks at how you can have a relation to an object. However, within literary studies, people tend to use ‘intentionality’ in the narrower sense of the author’s, narrator’s, or protagonist’s intention. When I speak of ‘intentionality’ in this interview, I will mostly stick to the narrower meaning.
G: When did you first encounter this problem and how did your interest in it develop?
NS: I first did a BA in literature and then started with philosophy later, because I got interested in it via literature. For me, intentionality was the hinge between philosophy and literature. You may have heard of this classic text by Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author," which might have already turned into a cliche, but which still seems a bit like the paradigm in literature studies. Basically in high school you always want to know, "what did the author want to say with this text?" and "what was his intention?” And then, at university, you learn "no, that's not important, let's look at the structures that determine the text” or at how these structures dissolve themselves. And so it seemed that certain strands of literary theory were very much running this completely anti-intentional agenda. They were saying, “everyone who believes in intention whatsoever is an idiot, because there are these determining structures.” These structures would include discourse, the archive, the dissemination of the text, and so on. While I found that convincing, I also found it very coarse, very broad, this fetishization of there not being any real intention possible because these bigger external structures determine everything. And so it was, in that sense, kind of ex negativo that I got interested in intentionality.
G: Why would someone with no formal, academic philosophical training care about this problem or find it interesting?
NS: The big question, generally, is very close to the whole free will debate, which seems to be both the most interesting and the most boring question on earth. There was also kind of a moment of awakening. During my undergrad I took this insane seminar on free will theories, where I read these texts--the compatibilists, libertarians, and then hard determinists, and so on. Right now, there is this tendency to reject the possibility of free will, not in the sense that Derrida or Foucault or Barthes do, but rather from the perspective of neuroscience. Basically, neuropsychology progresses and progresses. Then there was the Libet Experiment, which philosophers always mention, saying, ‘this showed that there was a neural reaction before there was any consciousness of it,’ thereby invalidating the possibility of free will. Most people in this seminar just plainly denied that anything like free will is possible, and saw the free will debate as idealistic, antiquated, anachronistic speculation. So I had the feeling that both continental philosophers like Foucault and Derrida, as well as analytic philosophers like John Searle or neuroscientists in general, fetishize this notion of our being unable to escape prior structures. I think that the scope is just way too coarse, and a bit prone to conceptual confusion.
G: Are there any specific works or figures that have shaped your perspective on this problem? If so, briefly describe them. How did they influence your current perspective?
NS: Immanuel Kant would still be the prime guy. I first got to know him in literary studies when we read Critique of Judgement. That's normally the classic point of intersection between literary studies and philosophy -aesthetics. Kant was giving the classic definition of beauty and how we judge something to be beautiful, and I was just blown away by the clarity of his expression. Then, I read the Critique of Pure Reason, which I still believe might be the most influential work of modern philosophy if we bracket the ancients. There Kant presents what is called the Third Antinomy, where he argues that that, on the one hand, it is clear that in the phenomenal world we are completely determined, that in this realm is impossible to find something that is not caused by something prior to it ad infinitum. But, on the other hand, Kant had this idea of the noumenal world and of the realm of pure practical reason, which then would allow you, by the power of logic, to circumvent your bodily determinedness. That's the classic configuration -- Kant, on the one hand, is throwing a bone to the deterministic people, and on the other hand, is still making a plea for autonomy and freedom.
What I found interesting, and that's how literature came in, is that literature (or art in general) seems to be this hinge element that mediates between merely causal, empirical concerns, and our ability to be free or autonomous actors. Let's take, for example, the categorical imperative, in the sense that art may make it possible to follow the categorical imperative, and thus to develop one's autonomy. Literature comes in because of the German playwright, philosopher, and historian Schiller. In Germany, he's more or less as famous as Goethe, and he wrote some great plays, but he also was a Kantian philosopher. His most famous philosophical work is called Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. In this work, Schiller argues that aesthetic experience enables us to reach, or at least increases our capacity for, autonomy and freedom -- which then would give art and literature a very important function. I said it was Kant and Schiller who influenced me very much, but then it was also Kafka, just through his texts. If we assume that art can, for whatever reason, change us and better us, I always had the feeling that Kafka's texts best exemplified that. The most quoted little saying of Kafka's, which has already turned into a cliche, is that "literature has to be the axe for the frozen sea within us." This is obviously a very philosophical function, if certain artworks enable you to make structural changes in your life.
G: What are you working on right now? How would you describe your current research project to a friend with no formal philosophical training?
NS: Right now I'm working a lot on the intersection of literature, legal theory, and moral and legal philosophy. I'm particularly interested in the question of ‘madness’ and the resulting dispute between the legal system and the psychiatric system. The legal system needs to hold people accountable, but can basically only say that somebody is guilty, or that somebody deserves punishment, if they had the free will not to act. However, if somebody is ruled incapacitated or non-imputable, then you have to lock him away (in an insane asylum, for example) but you can’t blame him; the blameworthiness is gone. I've been researching how this rivalry between psychiatry and jurisprudence developed, looking in particular at the German-speaking context. In the 19th century, new disciplines like criminology and criminal psychiatry were trying to claim offenders by saying that they were medical cases rather than juristic cases. I'm looking at how authors reacted to this conundrum - this tension between the public needing to hold people accountable, and the psychiatrists and criminologists seeking to reclassify juristic cases as medical ones. You can find it in Kafka a lot. Kafka had studied law and was writing around 1900, when there was this extreme fight between classic jurisprudence and this new kind of positivistic inductive jurisprudence. The problem also comes up in the works of the great Austrian author, Robert Musil. His most famous epic novel is called Man Without Qualities. There, you have this question of how to find some compromise between the need to impute blame and hold people accountable, and the new developments in the sciences which suggest that criminality is the product of deficient bodily or psychological structures, and therefore non-imputable. Then maybe, the twist is how literature itself may interact with or intervene in this discussion.