Intentionality, Literature, and Free Will: An Interview With Niklas Straetker

Intentionality, Literature, and Free Will: An Interview With Niklas Straetker

Sophie Kovel

Sophie Kovel

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, conducted by Rachel Dichter, he traces the intellectual progression of the biggest philosophical problem in his research: intentionality.

The Gadfly: Is there any single philosophical problem that particularly interests you or recurs in your research?

Niklas Straetker: My primary interest is, in the very broadest sense, the question of intention.

G: How would you explain this problem of intention?

NS: Within the humanities, the notion of ‘intentionality’ is ambiguous. On the one hand, ‘intention’ can refer to the common-sense concept of somebody’s ‘plan’ or ‘purpose.’ However, there is also a specifically philosophical notion of ‘intentionality,' which was coined by the German proto-phenomenologist Brentano, and which denotes something broader than just ‘the plan.’ In this philosophical sense, intentionality refers to the idea of ‘being directed toward’ something, and looks at how one can have a relation to an object. 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 the topic of intentionality, and how did your interest in it develop?

NS: I first did a BA in literature and ultimately got interested in philosophy through my study of 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?” 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.  It seemed to me that certain strands of this latter sort of literary theory were running a completely anti-intentional agenda. They were saying, “everyone who believes in intention whatsoever is an idiot, because there are these determining structures," which could include discourse, the archive, the dissemination of the text, and so on. While I found that argument convincing up to a point, I also found it very coarse and very broad -- it seemed to be this fetishization of the impossibility of intention. So, in that sense I ultimately got interested in intentionality ex negativo.

Both continental philosophers like Foucault and Derrida, as well as analytic philosophers like John Searle … fetishize this notion of our being unable to escape prior structures.

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. During my undergrad I took this seminar on free will theories, where I read texts by the compatibilists, the libertarians, the 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. Philosophers sympathetic to determinism often cite the Libet Experiment - which claimed to show that the neural impulses which initiate action can occur prior to an individual's conscious decision to act - as proof of the impossibility 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? How did they influence your current perspective?

NS: Immanuel Kant would still be the prime figure. I first got to know his work 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 posited the existence of a noumenal world and a realm of pure practical reason, in which one could, by the power of logic, circumvent one's 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 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 ideal. 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.

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 ideal.

G: What are you working on right now? How would you describe your current research project?

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 this issue 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 suggested 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.

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