Alessandro Duranti is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at UCLA, where he served as Dean of Social Sciences from 2009-2016. In his book The Anthropology...

Alessandro Duranti is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at UCLA, where he served as Dean of Social Sciences from 2009-2016. In his book The Anthropology of Intentions: Language in a World of Others (Cambridge University Press, 2015), Duranti explores the relevance of intentions in making sense of what others say reflecting the range of his intellectual curiosity: from analytic and continental philosophical foundations of the concept of intentionality to political discourse in Samoa and the U.S., anthropologists’ accounts of the opacity of other minds in Pacific societies, and the embodiment of intentions in jazz improvisation.

Duranti takes up the stalled opposition between, on the one hand, analytic philosophy of language–which tends towards individualistic conceptions of intentions–and, on the other hand, linguistic anthropology–which rejects this armchair universalizing, offering counterexamples of contexts where inner states are not socially salient. In making the case for a continuum of intentionality, he offers a way to reconcile this opposition: the salience of intentions varies across individuals and cultures, and with it, the social and linguistic elaboration of being-in-the-world varies too.

For Duranti, intentionality is an irreducibly intersubjective phenomenon: an individual’s ostensible, performed, and uniquely conceived meaning is always in tension with the meaning interpreted and evaluated by a community, whether present or not. We are not just beings in the world: we always exist in a world of others. This intersubjective tension undergirds the social construction of, for example, authenticity and responsibility in politics, the ability to be an active listener in music, and the translation of a concept from one social world to another. This interview discusses The Anthropology of Intentions in relation to Duranti’s wide-ranging academic career, up to and including his recent sabbatical excursions into the ancient Greek world in search of the origins of the notions of intention, mind, and soul.

[Afterword. Alessandro Duranti contributed to a special edition of Journal of Ethnographic Theory (Vol 7, No 2, 2017) in which he discusses ideas we talked about in the podcast. You can find it here.]


John Weston is an Associate Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at Queen Mary University of London. His research focuses on the relationships between language, knowledge and ethics. He can be reached at [email protected].

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