One of the most puzzling aspect of facing for the first time G.H. Mead’s (and all other pragmatists’) consideration about meaning is what happens to “intentionality” when the emphasis is placed on the openness of what is said until the “third turn” when the interpretant kicks in and that which has been done is settled, at least for a time. Students understand the argument (thanks to “what time is it” illustration) but one at least will be upset and ask the question: “are you really discounting the intention of the first actor?” I have to say ‘yes’ to that, but this cannot be the end, if only because it does not quite satisfy the common sense of the student(s) who remain convinced that action is founded on intentions and that research should emphasize those, if only to preserve the autonomy of the individual, “agency.” Students may not realize the ideological grounding of the insistence on intentionality, but they do insist.
Once thinking about this, I also realized that another aspect of my teaching Mead, or Garfinkel, is my insistence that cultural patterns (the ensemble of a identifiable three turn sequence) can be oppressive on all the individual participants (culture disables). At that moment, I have re-introduced the individual as a separate entity. As Ray and I have written several times, the individual can be a “unit of concern” (1998: 217).
But, if this is so, then the individual is also a unit possibly suffering because of the gap between that which she intended and that which it is now publicly acknowledged has happened.
I tried to say this in Chapter 8 of Successful Failure but I never got the sense that this piece was successful. Even I, sometimes, have a hard time reading it. So it needs to be said more easily. The power of Mead’s analysis lies in his insistence that we can indeed talk about an ‘I’, that the ‘I’ refers to an experience even though it cannot be identified without doing the violence to it that Ray and I attribute to “culture.”
So, it is not that individuals do not have intentions, but that their intentions are not the primary motor of the constitution of an event so that it gets known as having happened. Society cannot be explained by intentions (or by learning, etc.). Interaction can produce acknowledged (canned) intentions, and one of the purpose of social analysis can be to distinguish between such labeled intentions and the always-to-remain mysterious ‘I’ that moved others to label the actor.
The acting ‘I’ is free.