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Humanist Archives: March 25, 2023, 6:24 a.m. Humanist 36.479 - followup: agency & intelligence

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 36, No. 479.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
                      Hosted by DH-Cologne
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        Date: 2023-03-24 09:29:35+00:00
        From: Tim Smithers <>
        Subject: followup: agency & intelligence

Dear James,

I too write words that others find meaning in which I had no
intention of putting there.

Still, one way to read what I wrote [1] is that it's not
agency that matters, it's intentionality.

And notice that writing without intending to say anything, or
knowing what to say, is intentional.

And remark that, that's what makes intentionality count, and
agency not.

If this is flogging something that's dead, then I'm trying to
raise its ghost to haunt the Plastic texts (and images and
sounds) that ChatGPT, and its ilk, are used to produce.

Best regards,


[1] Humanist 36.461: followup: agency & intelligence (120)

> On 22 Mar 2023, at 06:05, Humanist <> wrote:
>              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 36, No. 468.
>        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
>                      Hosted by DH-Cologne
>                Submit to:
>        Date: 2023-03-22 02:38:18+00:00
>        From: James Rovira <>
>        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 36.463: followup: agency & intelligence
> Many thanks to Tim, Mauricio, and Williard for their replies. I feel a bit
> silly needing to be re-reminded of Milton's Areopagitica, but that is
> perhaps the key sentence in the key text for our discussion. I like
> Maurcio's comments as well. Since the AI is a human product, how does human
> agency relate to the product of AI? We can say that humans programmed the
> AI to produce text, and to produce text in a certain way, but not
> necessarily to produce any *specific *text. In that case, it wouldn't be an
> AI, but a kind of advanced photocopier.
> The real issues come out in Tim's distinction between intentional and
> unintentional agency. But these aren't new issues. It seems to need no
> defense to say that an author writes with intentional agency. The problems,
> historically (and the issue has been critically beaten to death since the
> 1940s, I think), are several:
>   - First, it's not always true that authors write with intentional
>   agency. Sometimes (perhaps rarely) authors don't really know where they're
>   going with a piece of writing. Does that mean the text has no meaning?
>   - Next, intentional agency would seem to be only relevant at the moment
>   of composition. It is not unusual for authors to forget, change their mind,
>   or worse, lie about whatever it was that they were thinking when they wrote
>   the text down. Yes, they do lie. They say one thing in letters around the
>   time of composition and then something else entirely in interviews or
>   autobiographies. We're talking about people who make up stories for a
>   living, after all.
>   - Other times, authors simply don't ever say. They write, they die, they
>   leave no record of what they were thinking. What do we do in that case? How
>   do we read an author's mind retroactively? My own thinking about this
>   subject goes along these lines: the work that we do to recover an author's
>   probable intent is not at all an act of mind reading. What we're really
>   doing is recreating a reading community -- imagined readers who have the
>   author's background, interests, ideas, past reading, etc. -- and ascribing
>   likely interpretations to that reading community.
>   - Finally, there's the fact of polysemy, which has been long recognized.
>   It was described in Plato's dialogues, repeated by the early church fathers
>   (Origen and Augustine), codified and systematized by Aquinas, reaffirmed by
>   Dante, and then extended to literary interpretation rather late in this
>   history. This fact alone, the fact that a sufficiently complex text is
>   capable of producing a number of different, and sometimes conflicting,
>   meanings simultaneously means that textual meaning can't be limited to
>   authorial intent. Authorial intent, if it *could be *determined, would
>   only consist of a limited range of these possible meanings, which aren't
>   infinite, but are more than any one author could reasonably be expected to
>   plan into the work.
> That's what we do with texts produced by *living authors*. AI generated
> text? I would say its meaning would be entirely dependent upon the reading
> community that receives it because, indeed, it has no intentional agency.
> So a lack of intentional agency does not mean we have to ascribe
> meaninglessness to a text. Whatever a text's origin, the text's *meaning(s)
> *reside in its words, and those words are communal property.
> But in this way, we're putting AI generated text on an interpretive level
> equal to humanly generated (written) text. The living human author does not
> own exclusively his or her language any more than the machine does, the
> human being does not express intention except through words, and we have no
> access to the author's intention except through his or her words. So at the
> receiving end, we simply and always interpret the words, not the author.
> The communal property of language is what makes communication possible.
> I would say that honesty and charity requires that we ascribe meaning to
> the text, intention to the author, but that we never equate meaning with
> intention except with the author's permission. I can say what I think this
> text means, but I can't always say certainly that the author so intended.
> In the case of AI, we can discard the need for charity and only concern
> ourselves with meaning, not intention.
> Jim R
> --
> Dr. James Rovira <>
>   - *David Bowie and Romanticism
>   <>*,
>   Palgrave Macmillan, 2022
>   - *Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism
>   <
> Emancipation-of-Female-Will/Rovira/p/book/9781032069845>*,
>   Routledge, 2023

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