Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences

, Volume 11, Issue 4, pp 599–622 | Cite as

Gestural sense-making: hand gestures as intersubjective linguistic enactments



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.


Gesture Language Intersubjectivity Normativity Convention Enaction 


  1. Allen, B. (2008). Artifice and Design: Art and Technology in Human Experience. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Austin, J. L. (1961). Philosophical Papers. Oxford: Clarendon.Google Scholar
  3. Bara, B. G., & Douthwaite, J. (2010). Cognitive Pragmatics: The Mental Processes of Communication. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  4. Beata Stawarska 2009a. Between you and I: dialogical phenomenology. Ohio University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Beata Stawarska & Meeting. 2006.: International Association for Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences; Intersubjectivity and embodiment Springer; 2006.Google Scholar
  6. Bimbenet, E. (2009). Merleau-Ponty and the quarrel over the conceptual contents of perception. Trans. Robin Muller. Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal, 30(1), 59–78.Google Scholar
  7. Brandom, R. (1994). Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing and Discursive Commitment. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Calbris, G. (1990). The Semiotics of French Gestures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Cienki, A., & Müller, C. (2008). Metaphor, gesture, and thought. In R. W. Gibbs Jr. (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Cooperrider, K. (2011). Review of Pragmatics and Nonverbal Communication, by Tim Wharton (2009). Gesture, 11(1), 81–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. De Jaegher, H. (2009a). Social understanding through direct perception? Yes, by interacting. Consciousness and Cognition, 18(2), 535–542.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. De Jaegher, H. (2009b). What made me want the cheese? A reply to Shaun Gallagher and Dan Hutto. Consciousness and Cognition, 18(2), 549–550.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. De Jaegher, H., & Di Paolo, Ezequiel. (2007). Participatory sense-making: An enactive approach to social cognition. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 6, 485–507.Google Scholar
  14. Egginton, W., & Sandbothe, M. (2004). The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy: Contemporary Engagements Between Analytic and Continental Thought. Albany: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  15. Enfield, N. J. (2009). The Anatomy of Meaning: Speech, Gesture, and Composite Utterances. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Enrici, I., Adenzato, M., Cappa, S., Bara, B. G., & Tettamanti, M. (2011). Intention processing in communication: a common brain network for language and gestures. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 23(9), 2415–2431.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Ezequiel Di Paolo. New APPS: Art, Politics, Philosophy, Science. 1 Jun. 2011. Web.Google Scholar
  18. Franklin, A. (2007). Blending in deception: tracing output back to its source. In E. T. Levy, S. D. Duncan, & J. Cassell (Eds.), Gesture and the Dynamic Dimension of Language: Essays in Honor of David McNeill (pp. 99–109). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
  19. Fuchs, T., & de Jaegher, H. (2009). Enactive intersubjectivity: Participatory sense-making and mutual incorporation. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 4(8), 465–486.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Gallese, V. (2005). Embodied simulation: From neurons to phenomenal experience. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 1(4), 23–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Gendlin, E. (1962). Experiencing and the creation of meaning: A philosophical and psychological approach to the subjective. Evanston: Northwest University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Goodwin, C. (2006). Human sociality as mutual orientation in a rich interactive environment. In N. J. Enfield & S. C. Levinson (Eds.), Roots of Human Sociality: Culture, Cognition, and Interaction. Oxford: Berg.Google Scholar
  23. Goodwin, C., & Goodwin, M. H. (1986). Gesture and coparticipation in the activity of searching for a word. Semiotica, 62(1–2), 51–76.Google Scholar
  24. Grice, H. P. (1989). Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Habermas, J. (1981). A Theory of Communicative Action (Vol. 1). Boston: Beacon.Google Scholar
  26. Hutto, D. (2005). Knowing What? Radical Versus Conservative Enactivism. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 4(4), 389–405.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Johnson, M. (2007). The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  28. Kendon, A. (1980). Gesticulation and speech: Two aspects of the process of utterance. In M. R. Key (Ed.), Nonverbal Communication and Language (pp. 207–227). The Hague: Mouton.Google Scholar
  29. Kendon, A. (2004). Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Kita, S. (2009). Cross-cultural variation of speech-accompanying gesture: A review. Language and Cognitive Processes, 24(2), 145–167.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Koopman, C. (2011). Rorty’s linguistic turn: Why (more than) language matters to philosophy. Contemporary Pragmatism, 8(1), 61–84.Google Scholar
  32. Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  33. McDowell, J. H. (1994). Mind and World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  34. McNeill, D. (1992). Hand and Mind: What Gestures Reveal About Thought. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  35. McNeill, D. (2005). Gesture & Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  36. McNeill, D., & Duncan, S. D. (2000). Growth points in thinking-for-speaking. In D. McNeill (Ed.), Language and Gesture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Menary, R. (2010). Introduction to the special issue on 4E cognition. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 4(9), 459–463.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Merleau-Ponty, M. (2002). Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge Classics.Google Scholar
  39. Merleau-Ponty, M. (2006). The structure of behavior. Trans. Alden L. Fisher. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.Google Scholar
  40. Müller, C. (2007). A dynamic view of metaphor, gesture and thought. In E. T. Levy, S. D. Duncan, & J. Cassell (Eds.), Gesture and the Dynamic Dimension of Language: Essays in Honor of David McNeill. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
  41. Parrill, F. (2008). Form, meaning, and convention: A comparison of metaphoric gesture with an emblem. In A. Cienki & C. Müller (Eds.), Metaphor and Gesture. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  42. Rorty, R. (1979). Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Rorty, R. (1989). Contingency, Irony, Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Simpson, D. (2010). Language and know-how. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 4(9), 629–643.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Sperber, D., & Wilson, D. (1986). Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  46. Sperber, D., & Wilson, D. (2002). Pragmatics, modularity and mind-reading. Mind and Language, 17(1), 3–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Stawarska, B. (2009). Merleau-Ponty and Sartre in response to cognitive studies of facial imitation. Philosophy Compass, 4(2), 312–328.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Steiner, P., & Stewart, J. (2009). From autonomy to heteronomy (and back): The enaction of social life. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 4(8), 527–550.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Stewart, J. R., Gapenne, O., & Di Paolo, E. (2010). Enaction: Toward a New Paradigm for Cognitive Science. Cambridge: MIT.Google Scholar
  50. Strawson, G. (2004). Real intentionality. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 3(3), 287–313.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Streeck, J. (1993). Gesture as communication I: Its coordination with gaze and speech. Communication Monographs, 60(4), 275–299.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Streeck, J. (1994). Gesture as communication II: The audience as co-author. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 27(3), 239–267.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Streeck, J. (2008). Depicting by gesture. Gesture, 8(3), 285–301.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Streeck, J. (2009). Gesturecraft. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Streeck, J. (2010). New Adventures in Language and Interaction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co.Google Scholar
  56. Sweetser, E., & Sizemore, M. (2008). Personal and interpersonal gesture spaces: Functional contrasts in language and gesture. In A. Tyler, Y. Kim, & M. Takada (Eds.), Language in the Context of Use: Discourse and Cognitive Approaches to Language. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  57. Thompson, E. (2005). Sensorimotor subjectivity and the enactive approach to experience. Phenomenology and Cognitive Sciences, 4(4), 407–427.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Waisman, O. S. (2010). Body, Language and Meaning in Conflict Situations: A Semiotic Analysis of Gesture-Word Mismatches in Israeli-Jewish and Arab Discourse. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  59. Wharton, T. (2009). Pragmatics and Nonverbal Communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Zahavi, D. (2005). Subjectivity and Selfhood: Investigating the First Person Perspective. Cambridge: MIT.Google Scholar
  61. Zahavi, D. (2008). Simulation, perception, empathy. Consciousness and cognition, 17(2).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of OregonEugeneUSA

Personalised recommendations