Re: sign, symbol, meaning, AND Intentionality

From: Jay Lemke (
Date: Mon Jan 17 2005 - 14:07:33 PST

Color me skeptical about the role of intentionality in meaning. I do
appreciate the interesting connection between pre-linguistic, pre-symbolic
behavior and meaning-making as interpretation, or selective
contextualization of events or acts.

I just don't equate intention and attention (mine or yours). It seems like
a big leap, and one that is supported mainly by, as the quote says, a
theory of mind (i.e. a cultural belief in the notion that people "have
minds", which I personally find not too different from the cultural belief
that we "have souls" -- which is where the idea came from, I think). You'll
note that in the conclusion in the quote there is a jump from attention to
intention ... whereas it seems quite enough to suppose that attention
shifts around to identify whole patterns of acts-in-contexts, which don't
presuppose intentionality on anyone's part. One might say rather a hope for
(or phylogenetic bias in favor of) conventionality, repeatability, etc.

What I find more interesting is the passing reference to checking the
emotional state of the other person ... our ordinary cultural theory of
mind leads us to suppose this means interpreting visible features (smiles,
frowns) as signs of a state of mind, or intention, that can include a
stance like "just joking" (cf. Bateson). But we can easily, or more easily,
I think, see the physiological visible features as _indexical_ signs, i.e.
ones produced by a total physical act / physiological state or process
(materially, causally). And the infant tunes in to these surface features
of the behavioral-actional pattern as hopefully reliable indicators of the
total pattern. It's not like frowning and speaking with an angry voice and
also holding up a sign saying "I don't mean it".

Unfortunately, English is stuck with one word for "mean it"
(intentionality) and "it means" (meaning as I use the term in semiotics).


At 08:08 AM 1/12/2005, you wrote:
>It's curious that the problem of intentionality being under-characterized in
>semiotics and the problem of semiotic development also being theoretically
>under-characterized seem to meet in one paper on infants. My thanks to Jay
>for helping to make the connection.
>Jay wrote:
>"... there are no "bare" objects, that notion is an abstraction we
> construct on the basis of conventional similarities among many
> interpreted-objects; every object is always-already interpreted, though we
> can wonder over the sense in which pre-language, pre-symbol-using bodily
> interactions do some kind of proto-semiosis or "interpreting".
>Tricia Striano and Philippe Rochat wrote:
>"Infants referential looking radiates across much of their behavioral
>repertoire by the end of the first year. For instance, infants start to
>follow people's gaze or gesture in relation to external events and situations
>(Carpenter, Nagell, & Tomasello, 1998; Corkum&Moore, 1998), to look to others
>in the context of joint play (Bakeman&Adamson, 1984; Carpenter et al., 1998),
>and to check their emotional perspective to disambiguate a novel situation
>(Campos & Sternberg, 1981; Sorce, Emde, Campos, & Klinnert, 1985; Walden &
>Ogan, 1988). Two opposing viewpoints are commonly cited to account for the
>manifestation of referential looking. The traditional, rich, interpretation
>is that the ability of infants to engage in referential looking across a
>variety of contexts presupposes a rudimentary insight into others minds. The
>idea is that infants seek and interpret others focus of attention and
>corresponding emotional perspective because they appreciate that people have
>emotions, intentions, and perspectives that differ from their own
>(Bretherton, 1991; Striano&Rochat, 1999; Tomasello, 1995; Wellman, 1993)."
>And their study concluded that, while the study of 7 month olds did not
>support the rich interpretation:
>"Infants [10-month-olds] show selectivity in their social referencing
>depending on the attention (intention) of the social partner toward or away
>from them. This finding strongly suggests that an intentional stance
>underlies 10-month-old infants referential looking patterns."
>(Emergence of Selective Social Referencing in Infancy , Infancy, 2000)

Jay Lemke
University of Michigan
School of Education
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Tel. 734-763-9276

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