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Reviewed by:
  • The Philosophy of Gesture: Completing Pragmatists' Incomplete Revolution by Giovanni Maddalena
  • Matteo Santarelli
The Philosophy of Gesture: Completing Pragmatists' Incomplete Revolution Giovanni Maddalena. McGill-Queen's UP, 2015

The Philosophy of Gesture by Giovanni Maddalena is a multilayered volume: It is a "history of philosophy" book, endorsing a challenging anti-Kantian interpretation of Peirce and pragmatism. It is a "theoretical philosophy" book, dealing with classic issues—for example, the difference between synthetic and analytic, the definition of identity—and introducing a new concept, that of complete gesture. Finally, it is a book of "applied philosophy," pointing to a further application of the new concept of complete gesture to the fields of pedagogy, morality, psychology, and literature.

Dealing with all these three aspects in a single review would be impossible, maybe even unfair. Therefore, I will focus here mainly on the discussion of the concept of complete gesture and of its possible application to political theory, an issue that has not yet been tackled in the existing reviews of The Philosophy of Gesture.1

Maddalena defines gesture as "any performed act with a beginning and an end that carries a meaning (from gero = I bear, I carry on)" (70–71). The choice of the word "carry"—sometimes we find the even more explicit expression "embody"—is not casual. Rather, it expresses one of the key theoretical assumptions of the book: the entanglement between representing and recognizing, communicating and understanding. There is no way of understanding without communicating; and communicating always involves a minimum degree of understanding. Thus, gesture does not simply represent meaning: rather, it embodies it, carries it.

Therefore, we always understand by making gestures, even in the most apparently abstract domains of knowledge—see Maddalena's discussion of gestures and mathematics. But the quality and the degree of this understanding vary. In particular, some gestures exhibit a specific quality. They are fully synthetic, insofar as they are able to represent and recognize identity through changes. Maddalena calls them "complete gestures."

A complete gesture—that is, a gesture by means of which we communicate and we understand identity through changes—is defined by Maddalena in both phenomenological and semiotic terms. Semiotically, a complete gesture [End Page 119] is a dense blending of icons, indexes, and symbols. Phenomenologically, it is a gesture including all the Peircean categories of firstness, secondness, and thirdness. We could mix these definitions up by saying that a complete gesture is an innovative (firstness—iconicity) single gesture (secondness—indexicality) embodying a general idea or concept (thirdness—symbolicity). This single creative and innovative gesture carries a general meaning, and its generality entails the possibility of re-performance. Some examples of complete gestures are liturgies, rituals, rites, artistic performances, and experiments. Scientific experiments are probably the most straightforward and clear example: every first experiment proving a theory is innovative, singular, and it must be re-performed in order to prove its capacity to embody a general meaning.

If we move to the example of an artistic performance, we will find another important feature of complete gestures: assent. Assent is understood by Maddalena as the occurence of an interpretant prompted by a sign, which influences the mind of the interpreter in a specific way. The example of artistic performances shows clearly how assent "is the point of union between author and interpreter" (96). Consequently, the degree of completeness of a gesture does not depend solely on the performer, but also on the response of the audience. In agreement with Peirce's pragmatic maxim, the meaning of a gesture coincides with the conceivable effects that the realization of the gesture may involve. In the case of artistic performance, the reaction of the public is a decisive part of these conceivable effects.

Let us consider the following example: Many rock music fans would agree that a concert by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band should be understood as a complete gesture. It is a fresh singular event, carrying a general meaning—a certain idea about music and the value of collective experience, of social justice—and it is re-performable. Such a concert is normally part of a very long world tour. Furthermore, it involves the assent of the...


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