Agent, Person, Subject, Self

This book offers both a naturalistic and critical theory of signs, minds, and meaning-in-the-world. It provides a reconstructive rather than deconstructive theory of the individual, one which both analytically separates and theoretically synthesizes a range of faculties that are often confused and conflated: agency (understood as a causal capacity), subjectivity (understood as a representational capacity), selfhood (understood as a reflexive capacity), and personhood (understood as a sociopolitical capacity attendant on being an agent, subject, or self). It argues that these facilities are best understood from a semiotic stance that supersedes the usual intentional stance. And, in so doing, it offers a pragmatism-grounded approach to meaning and mediation that is general enough to account for processes that are as embodied and embedded as they are articulated and enminded. In particular, while this theory is thereby focused on human-specific modes of meaning, it also offers a general theory of meaning, such that the agents, subjects and selves in question need not always, or even usually, map onto persons. And while this theory foregrounds agents, persons, subjects and selves, it does this by theorizing processes that often remain in the background of such otherwise erroneously individuated figures: ontologies (akin to culture, but generalized across agentive collectivities), interaction (not only between people, but also between people and things, and anything outside or in-between), and infrastructure (akin to context, but generalized to include mediation at any degree of remove).

Chapter 1 introduces the concept of ontologies, loosely understood as ensembles of assumptions regarding the underlying constitution of, or salient patterns in, the world. It argues that such ontologies are both an outcome of meaningful interaction and a condition for meaningful interaction. That is, just as one interprets in light of an ontology, one ontologizes in light of an interpretation. It shows that the agents that have ontologies include not just people, but also things, and anything outside or in-between. And it shows that ontologies may be embedded and embodied as they are articulated or enminded. In part, it is meant to introduce some of the overarching categories and commitments of this book (focusing on the relation between ontology, interaction, and infrastructure). And, in part, it is meant to reflexively frame this project in terms of its own categories and commitments (and thereby critically attend to its own conditions of possibility).

Chapter 2 argues for a general and naturalistic theory of meaning, one which turns on selection as much as significance, as well as sieving as much as serendipity. The first part argues that the key unit of analysis underlying the various subfields of anthropology, as well as allied disciplines, is a relation between two kinds of relations between relations. It thereby theorizes, as concomitant processes, the way signs and interpretants relate to significant objects, and the way sensations and instigations relate to selecting agents. After carefully defining such a unit, it develops the consequences of such a definition for various domains—-ranging from biosemiotic processes like animal-signal systems and natural selection, to technocognitive processes like lawn-mowers and Turing machines. It thereby foregrounds the environment-organism relation at any level of complexity, and with respect to any kind of life form.

Returning to the notion of semiotic ontologies introduced in chapter 1, chapter 3 focuses on the relations between three kinds that may be loosely described as material substances (e.g. gold, plastic, bacteria, and snowflakes), social statuses (e.g. vagabonds, uncles, sellers, and addressees), and mental states (e.g. beliefs, desires, hopes, and fears). In particular, it treats such kinds as (projected) propensities for being that admit to interpretive reasoning. It analyzes the ways such kinds get indexed and inferred, constructed and naturalized, transformed and stabilized, and more generally enclosed and disclosed in interaction. And it widens the notion of interaction to include not only the relations between people, but also the relations between things, and the relations between people and things (and anything outside or in-between).

Chapter 4 treats relatively non-propositional semiotic processes: heeding affordances, wielding instruments, undertaking actions, inhabiting roles, and fulfilling identities. It is meant to complement chapter 5, which treats relatively propositional semiotic processes, such as mental states and speech acts, or cognitive processes and discursive practices more generally. It may thus be understood as bringing the foregoing theory of meaning to bear on Heidegger's critique of mind, thereby articulating being-in-the-world in terms of semiotic processes. It may also be understood as a theory of material culture, or the meaning of 'objects' and 'things' (in their stereotypic sense). And it may even be understood as offering a theory of context, or that ensemble of relatively unrecognized semiotic processes that remain in the background of, or serve as the infrastructure for, more stereotypic signs, such as speech acts and communicative moves more generally.

Chapter 5 focuses on language and mind, in their stereotypic sense, as relatively public and private forms of intentionality, respectively. It argues that the intentional stance of human kinds is grounded in a more fundamental semiotic stance. In particular, rather than understand intentionality in terms of representation, it is theorized in terms of inference and indexicality. Rather than arguing about the originariness or derivativeness of intentionality in human-centric and historically static terms, such issues will be treated in terms of interactions among processes occurring on phylogenetic, historical, developmental, and interactional time-scales. Rather than understand theory of mind and ethnopsychology (in the restricted sense) in terms of psychological kinds, both psychological and linguistic modes of intentionality are treated in terms of broader cognitive processes and cultural practices. Rather than focus on having intentionality and understanding the intentionality that others have, the focus is on sharing intentionality with others.

And the concluding chapter uses the foregoing framework to move from meaning to value, and from cognition to affect. In part, it focuses on value in an existential sense: the fundamental commitments of identity that constitute the ultimate grounds for human action, itself a determining factor in human-specific forms of 'choice'. In part, it theorizes selfhood, and the kinds of reflexivity and reflectivity that characterize it. In part, it uses this understanding of selfhood to theorize affective unfoldings, or 'emotion', in relation to mode of care and forms of accountability. And in part, it moves from semiotic processes to semiotic actors, focusing on the evaluating agents, persons, subjects, and selves that constitute the roots and fruits of residence in, and representations of, the world.