, Volume 11, Issue 4, pp 599-622
Date: 30 Nov 2011

Gestural sense-making: hand gestures as intersubjective linguistic enactments

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Abstract

The ubiquitous human practice of spontaneously gesturing while speaking demonstrates the embodiment, embeddedness, and sociality of cognition. The present essay takes gestural practice to be a paradigmatic example of a more general claim: human cognition is social insofar as our embedded, intelligent, and interacting bodies select and construct meaning in a way that is intersubjectively constrained and defeasible. Spontaneous co-speech gesture is markedly interesting because it at once confirms embodied aspects of linguistic meaning-making that formalist and linguistic turn-type philosophical approaches fail to appreciate, and it also forefronts intersubjectivity as an inherent and inherently normative dimension of communicative action. Co-speech hand gestures, as linguistically meaningful speech acts, demonstrate both sedimentation and spontaneity (in the sense of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s dialectic of linguistic expression (2002)), or features of convention and nonconvention in a Gricean sense (1989). Yet neither pragmatic nor classic phenomenological approaches to communication can accommodate the practice of co-speech hand gesturing without some rehabilitation and reorientation. Pragmatic criteria of intersubjectivity, normativity, and rationality need to confront the non-propositional and nonverbal meaning-making of embodied encounters. Phenomenological treatments of expression and intersubjectivity must consider the normative nature of high-order social practices like language use. Reciprocally critical exchanges between these traditions and gesture studies yield an improved philosophy that treats language as a multi-modal medium for collaborative meaning achievement. The proper paradigm for these discussions is found in enactive approaches to social cognition. Co-speech hand gestures are first and foremost emergent elements of social interaction, not the external whirring of an isolated internal consciousness. In contrast to current literature that frequently presents gestures as uncontrollable bodily upsurge or infallible imagistic phenomenon that drives and dances with verbal or “linguistic” convention (McNeill 1992, 2005), I suggest that we study gestures as dynamic, embodied, and shared tools for collaborative sense-making.