Intentionality, pointing, and early symbolic cognition

Human Studies:1-20 (forthcoming)
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Abstract

Concepts such as “symbolism” and “symbolic cognition” often remain unspecified in discussions the symbolic capacities of earlier hominins. In this paper, I use conceptual tools from phenomenology to reflect on the origins of early symbolic cognition. In particular, I discuss the possible early use of pointing gestures around the time of the earliest known stone tool industries. I argue that unlike more basic social acts such as expression, gaze following, and attention-getters, which are used by extant non-human great apes, communicative pointing involves key elements that are characteristic of symbolic cognition. In particular, it involves “third order intentionality” as well as “shared practice horizons”: shared frameworks of understanding which are required for the interpretation of communicative acts whose meaning is not codified indexically or iconically in the signaling behavior. In the final part, I briefly review some indications for the use of pointing gestures around the time of the Lomekwian and Oldowan industries, as a way to sustain cooperation and possibly learning by instruction. It is suggested that pointing is more complex than is standardly acknowledged, and that it may have been an important communicative act for Early Stone Age hominins in transitioning to more fully symbolic speech capacities.

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Corijn van Mazijk
University of Groningen

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