A talk with Michael Halliday

From: phil_chappell@access.inet.co.th
Date: Thu Sep 16 2004 - 17:41:31 PDT

David Kellog asked me to send this message on to the list. Some really
interesting points raised.

Last Saturday I splashed out on a plane ticket to go to Tokyo and hear Dr.
Halliday speak, partly because I wanted to ask him about his agreements and his
disagreements with socio-cultural theory.

a) Both Vygotsky and Halliday believe in the necessity of a single, unifying
theory of language and of learning. No more cognitivism in language but
behaviorism in learning! Both of them believe that a steady state theory of
language is no good at all; we need a genetic one. BUT....

b) Halliday seems to think that children re-invent language, by discovering
first how the "outer" world is projected onto the inner one through sense and
then learning how to "project" the inner world onto the outer one. Vygotsky
rejects this: childern do not "re-invent" language--instead the child's own
line of development merges with an already developed socio-cultural one and
both are transformed.

c) Christie's idea of instructional registers which are "projections" of
regulative registers (and classroom genres which are projections of
extra-classroom ones) is clearly related (but curiously INVERTED).

Vygotsky explicitly rejects this sort of thing in his criticisms of Montessori;
the chid's needs (defined as anything that motivates the child to action) are
what "projects" the child's writing. Now, if Halliday really believes in a
rather Piagetian vision of the child as unaided discoverer, wouldn't that place
him nearer Vygotsky than near Christie?

There was a lot more, but I'm afraid I rather bungled it--I wasn't good at
articulating all this stuff, and instead we got bogged down in a rather
philosophical discussion. (I just got the photos of our discussion today, and
we both look extremely tense!)

Professor Halliday said that the world had two "realms" of phenomena: matter and
meaning, and that they were incommensurable. Information was one kind of
meaning, but only the quantifiable kind.

This bothered me even more. Not only does it suggest a rather Popperian view of
the world, it really seems to go against what Halliday himself has written.
Halliday said that all biological systems are physical systems (but not, of
course, vice versa). Similarly, all social systems are biological ones (but not
vice versa) and all semiotic systems are social (but not vice versa).

Assuming that "meaning" is the stuff that semiotic systems are made of (and
"information" the stuff that physical systems are made of), this suggested to
me that meaning was a kind of information, not vice versa.

I know, it looks like a red herring, doesn't it? But back in Seoul, I wonder if
the two problems really are unconnected. You see, it seems to me that the big
problem with assuming a universe made up of meaning and matter on every level
(besides the fact that it seems to lead to two, parallel, rather Cartesian
universes) is that there's no place in this scheme of things for the thing that
really interests us: consciousness (or "cognition", as Lantolf would say).

Maybe meaning is not a kind of information, but information that has been
projected onto consciousness. In Tokyo, Dr. Halliday spoke of a belief that
some day ultimate particles would be discovered that united meaning and matter
(I think they already have in quantum mechanics, but I would say that they
unite information and matter).

But for Vygotsky the unity of meaning and matter takes place not at the lowest,
elemental level. The "unit" of meaning appears at a higher level.

The smallest unit for him is the word. Lantolf expressed this exquisitely when
he was here in Korea by saying that a child is not a brain piloting a body, but
a social being piloting both. A social being projecting itself onto both!

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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