Assumptions about Communication

Jack Sidnell jsidnell at NWU.EDU
Thu Feb 22 02:06:15 UTC 2001

An Austinian question: What exactly is the term "intention" referring
to? (See Austin "Three ways of spilling ink")

Also relevant to this discussion are a number of papers in a volume
called _Responsibility and Evidence in Oral Discourse_, in particular
a paper by Jack DuBois "Meaning Without Intention: Lessons from
Divination" Crucially, just because hearers make inferences about a
speaker's "intent" (and, it should be emphasized, much else besides
e.g. his "real" underlying, subconscious, psychological motive) it
does not follow that something like "intention" exists as a unified,
integrated psychological mechanism.

Anyway there is a basic philosophical problem here that goes like
this (See Peter Winch _The Idea of a Social Science_ for further
If I must form an intention prior to my execution of any act
(scratching my noise, taking a drink, asking a question) then,
logically, I must form an intention to form an intention - it's
infinite regression and my nose remains itchy, my thirst unquenched,
my question unanswered. The only solution to this problem is to see
intentions as psychological primitives but then how do the differ
from drives?

A thought experiment: try to conceptualize how an intention is
actually formed. How will you sort out suggestions, directives,
admonitions from others, a knowledge of the circumstances in which
the act is going to be executed, a reflexive sense of the effect the
act is likely to have and how others will respond to it (see Heritage
_Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology_). Intention cannot be neatly
abstracted out of this immensely complex bundle of act-relevant
factors (much less "located" in the brain!). Just because some
hearers on some occasions make inferences about a speaker's inner
psychogical state (intention) it does not follow that some such thing
exists as a unified category. In fact there is some evidence (from
Duranti and Ochs among others) to suggest that members of non
middle-class, English-speaking etc. etc. do not operate with these
same assumptions.

In short - it might be dangerous to mistake a descriptive term, used
in everyday sense making activity, for some mysterious
psychological/social phenomena.

Jack Sidnell
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