Centrum för kognitiv semiotik (CCS)

Humanistiska och teologiska fakulteterna | Lunds universitet


Reference, Coordination, and Ecological Pragmatics

Ingar Brinck (Lund University, Sweden)

Referential communication is heterogeneous and interactive, an embodied, embedded activity that requires skill and involves processing of many different kinds on various time-scales. Individual referential acts can be described as processes of structural coupling that depend as much on properties of the agents as of the environment. Agents coordinate their behaviour in real time in a progressive perception-action loop. Reference is emergent -- an effect of the interaction. Hence, the critical issue that that needs explaining is not how the receiver can retrieve the sender's intended reference or goal, but how two or more agents can coordinate their behaviour relative to a, perhaps changing, target and maintain attention to it.

In earlier work, I have suggested that reference is anchored to the context via a shared attentional frame (cf. Kendon 1990). The context is constitutive of competence (Hodges 2009) and simultaneously constitutes physical space, action space, personal space, social space, and cultural space, saturated with remnants of fossilized meanings, rituals, and habits. Agents negotiate reference via two types of interbodily dynamics: efficient and selective -- the one relying on sensory and motor processes, the other on pragmatic, culturally defined processes.

Thinking of referential communication within the framework of ecological pragmatics (Hodges 2009; Hodges & Baron 1992) adds an interesting dimension to the present understanding of coordination. Hodges argues that language is a dialogical perceptual system and an action system for coordinating space-time scales. It extends perception retrospectively and prospectively and thereby assists way-finding. Crucially, Hodges considers language use (conversing, or first-order languaging) a pragmatic activity concerned to realize appropriateness, or values. Speaking and listening are about acting appropriately. In fact, values-realizing theory (Hodges 2007) implies that all actions are constrained and legitimated by multiple values.

Coordination brings parts into proper relation (Turvey 1990). The organising principles that yield propriety (accuracy, rightness, satisfaction) are values. Thus, generally conceived, values are global constraints on self-organising systems, boundary conditions that underwrite the system dynamics, and motivate and obligate the activities of agents. They provide the epistemological and ethical aspects of perception and action, and in the present case, of referential communication.

We can describe values as attractors towards which acts of referential behaviour gravitate, to realize or negate them. Values constrain and so enable first-order languaging. Hodges suggests that among the epistemological values that define conversing are clarity, coherence, comprehensiveness, complexity, and variability. The fundamental nature of conversing is caring, or working to realize values via context-sensitivity and interdependency. Caring means to engage carefully with others and the world and be willing to be discomforted along the way. Caring involves ethical values, to do with conduct, accountability, and responsibility for the environment at large. Paraphrasing Hodges, one might say that conversing is to cooperate with others in joint exploration of the shared world.

Returning to the introductory remarks about how reference works, two questions present themselves. How do values as perceivable affordances help agents share attention to a third element? How does caring manifest itself in referential behaviour and how does it constrain reference? I will argue that efficiency be placed among the epistemological values and selectivity among the ethical values and exemplify how each may manifests itself in behaviour.

Furthermore, I will suggest that concerning specifically referential communication, ecological pragmatics reveals that the imperative inherent in summoning somebody, inviting him or her to share attention, has an ethical dimension that transcends the mere epistemological understanding of intersubjectivity as reciprocity and interaction. To address somebody else properly requires behaving in a way that is tuned to the other agent and actually enables him or her to make sense of one's own behaviour. Moreover, not responding to the invitation, by looking in another direction or pretending not to see, is inappropriate in a deeper, existential and ontological, sense than language sciences tend to acknowledge.

  • Hodges, B.H. (2007). Values define fields: the intentional dynamics of driving, carrying, leading, negotiating, and conversing. Ecological Psychology 19, 153-178.
  • Hodges, B.H. (2009). Ecological pragmatics: values, dialogical arrays, complexity, and caring. Pragmatics & Cognition 17, 628-652.
  • Hodges, B.H., Baron, R.M. (1992). Values as constraints on affordances: perceiving and acting properly. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 22 (3), 263-294.
  • Kendon, A. (1990). Conducting interaction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Turvey, M.T., (1990). Coordination. American Psychologist, 45(8), 938-953.