Re: [xmca] sense and meaning

From: Gordon Wells (
Date: Thu Jul 14 2005 - 16:10:32 PDT

It certainly seems that there are indefinitely many ways iof
construing the relationship between meaning and sense. My take on
this is somewhat related to the distinction David Olson made between
utterance and text and Halliday's distinction between dynamic
everyday registers and synoptic written ones. But it's not that
simple because, in both speech and writing, there is a distinction to
be made between participants' individual sense-making and the
'meaning' of what is said or written.

I recalled Jim Wertsch's paper on this topic and am copying a few
pages of it below.

J. V. Wertsch in Lee & Smagorinsky (Eds.) Vygotskian Perspectives on
Literacy Research.

Meaning as Reference and Abstraction

  Chapter 5, "An Experimental Study of Concept Development," is
primarily concerned with the transitions Vygotsky saw from heaps to
complexes to pseudoconcepts to true concepts, as manifested in
subjects' performances on what came to be known as the Vygotsky
blocks task. This chapter, which was probably written sometime during
the early 1930s, is based on research Vygotsky conducted with
Sakharov (1930) in the late 1920s. Chapter 6, "The Development of
Scientific Concepts in Childhood," was written for Thinking and
Speech, which was published in 1934, the year of Vygotsky's death. In
this chapter Vygotsky focused on "scientific" concepts and contrasted
them with "everyday" or "spontaneous" concepts. As I have noted
elsewhere (Wertsch, 1985), there are some important differences
between Vygotsky's notions of true or genuine concepts, on the one
hand, and scientific concepts, on the other, but for my present
purposes, I shall focus on two basic assumptions about meaning that
run throughout his account of both. These are the assumptions that
(1) language meaning is a matter of referential relationships between
signs and objects (both linguistic and nonlinguistic objects) and
that (2) the development of meaning is a matter of increasing
generalization and abstraction.
        With regard to the first of these points, Vygotsky (1987)
criticized other accounts of concept formation for overlooking the
role of the sign and the associated relationship between sign and
object. He argued that in such accounts "The role of the word or sign
in the process of concept formation is ignored" (p. 122). In his view
it was as if the sign, especially as it plays a role in picking out
objects (i.e., reference), does not exist and the development of
concepts proceeds along an individual, nonsemiotic path. In a related
way he argued in Chapter 6 of Thinking and Speech that the
relationship between sign and object is fundamental to understanding
how children's spontaneous concepts differ from scientific concepts:

The birth of the spontaneous concept is usually associated with the
child's immediate encounter with things, things that are often
explained by adults but are nonetheless real things. . . . In
contrast, the birth of the scientific concept begins not with an
immediate encounter with things, but with a mediated relationship to
the object. With the spontaneous concept, the child moves from the
thing to the concept. With the scientific concept, he is forced to
follow the opposite path - from the concept to the thing. (p. 219)

Underlying all these claims is the assumption that language and
meaning are basically concerned with referential relationships
between signs and objects.
        Vygotsky's (1987) argument about the role of abstraction in
the development of word meaning expands upon this basic assumption.
It examines the process whereby signs can be used to refer to
categories of objects rather than to single items. The key to this
process is abstraction, or the "decontextualization of mediational
means" (Wertsch, 1985, p. 33), which in turn relies on the existence
of systems of interrelationships among sign types. As Vygotsky argued:

The key difference in the psychological nature of these two kinds of
concepts [scientific and everyday] is a function of the presence or
absence of a system. Concepts stand in a different relationship to
the object when they exist outside a system than when they enter one.
The relationship of the word "flower" to the object is completely
different for the child who does not yet know the words rose, violet,
or lily than it is for the child who does. Outside a system, the only
possible connections between concepts are those that exist between
the objects themselves, that is, empirical connections. . . . These
        relationships mediate the concept's relationship to the
object through its relationship to other concepts. A different
relationship between the concept and the object develops.
Supraempirical connections between concepts become possible. (p. 234)

        In developing this line of reasoning, Vygotsky stressed the
role of systems of signs. It is such systems that provide the key to
the conscious awareness, intellectualization, and volition associated
with scientific concepts:

Only within a system can the concept acquire conscious awareness and
a voluntary nature. Conscious awareness and the presence of a system
are synonyms when we are speaking of concepts, just as spontaneity,
lack of conscious awareness, and the absence of a system are three
different words for designating the nature of the child's [everyday
or spontaneous] concept. (pp. 191-192; emphasis in original)

        Carried to its logical extreme, this principle of
systematicity suggests that mathematics would provide an ideal
illustration of abstraction, and indeed Vygotsky (1987) turned to
mathematics in the context of a discussion of the claim that "by its
very nature, each concept presupposes the presence of a certain
system of concepts. Outside such a system, it cannot exist" (p. 224).
One of the implications of this systemic property is that concepts
can be defined in accordance with the law of concept equivalence,
which in principle means that

any concept can be represented through other concepts in an infinite
number of ways. . . Thus, the number one can be expressed as
1,000,000 minus 999,999 or, more generally, as the difference between
any two adjacent numbers. It can also be expressed as any number
divided by itself or in an infinite number of other ways. This is a
pure example of the law of concept equivalence. (pp. 226-227;
emphasis in original)

        This passage reveals the asymptote of development that
Vygotsky envisioned when dealing with abstraction and the
decontextualization of mediational means. As such, it also reveals a
view of human nature that runs throughout Chapters 5 and 6 of
Thinking and Speech. In such a view, humans use, or are at least
capable of using, systems of decontextualized word meanings and hence
of becoming abstract, rational thinkers. From this perspective,
meaning is largely a matter of the relationship between semiotic
expressions such as words and sentences, on the one hand, and a world
of objects, on the other. Furthermore, it is an approach that claims
that the semiotic potential of decontextualization is what gives rise
to abstraction and what yields increasingly powerful ways to
categorize, reflect on, and control this world.
        The picture ofVygotsky's account of meaning I have just
sketched runs throughout his writings on concept development and
related issues of abstract reasoning. In my view, it reflects a side
of Vygotsky that was deeply committed to Enlightenment traditions of
abstract rationality (Wertsch, 1996a, 1996b). This commitment
provided the foundation for the efforts Vygotsky and his colleagues
undertook as part of the first grand socialist experiment in the form
of the Soviet Union. To be sure, sharp differences emerged among the
various parties involved in this effort (Zinchenko, 1995), but the
fundamental tenets accepted by all included a belief in some form of
universal human rationality and a belief in the possibility of
progress toward such rationality.

Meaning as Contextualized, Personal Sense

The view of meaning I have just outlined and the philosophical
commitments associated with it stand in striking contrast to some of
the ideas and assumptions found elsewhere in Vygotsky's writings. The
main text I shall consider in presenting this alternative perspective
is Chapter 7 of Thinking and Speech, but other texts such as The
Psychology of Art (1971) are revealing as well. To my knowledge,
Vygotsky never explicitly addressed how his account of meaning in
Chapter 7 of Thinking and Speech differs from that outlined in
Chapters 5 and 6. Instead, he simply seems to have shifted gears and
moved from one perspective to another.
        Vygotsky wrote, or rather largely dictated, Chapter 7 of this
volume in the final months of his life. In it he concerned himself
with the relationship between "Thought and Word." In actuality, the
terms thought and word in this chapter reflect a more general
opposition that Vygotsky saw as operating between two semiotic
potentials (Wertsch, 1985). Word can be taken as a cover term for the
potential that language has for the kind of explicit, expanded,
systemic, and decontextualized meaning and form outlined in the
previous section. Thought, in contrast, can be taken as a sort of
cover term for the potential language has for abbreviated form and
for contextualized and personal meaning.
        Throughout Chapter 7, Vygotsky examined these two general
semiotic potentials in terms of several more specific oppositions.
For example, he outlined a distinction between the "internal" and
"external" forms of the word, a distinction that is prefigured in the
ideas of one of his teachers, Gustav Shpet (1927). This opposition is
also manifested in the distinctions Vygotsky drew between social and
inner speech (with egocentric speech serving as an intermediary),
between written speech and inner speech, and between sense (smysl)
and meaning (znachenie).
        In all these cases, Vygotsky stressed that the two members of
the opposition were quite distinct with regard to form as well as
function and meaning. In general, he took language, social speech,
written speech, the phonetic or auditory aspect of speech, the
grammatical categories of subject and predicate, and meaning to be
associated with explicit, systemically organized, decontextualized,
social, expanded form, whereas thought, inner speech, the semantic
aspect of speech, the psychological categories of subject and
predicate, and sense were viewed as being characterized by implicit,
condensed, and highly contextualized and abbreviated form and
personal sense. In short, he outlined a set of oppositions subsidiary
to the general distinction between word and thought.

        Explicit, systematically organized form Implicit,
condensed, abbreviated form
        Language Thought
        External social speech Inner speech
        Written speech Inner speech
        Phonetic/auditory aspect of speech Semantic
aspect of speech
        Grammatical subject and predicate Psychological
subject and predicate

        Meaning (znachenie) Sense (smysl)

        In Vygotsky's (1987) view, the externality associated with
the first set of terms is tied to the fact that they are concerned
with the social and hence public world, whereas the internality of
the second set of terms is tied to the fact that they are concerned
with a private psychological world: "Inner speech is for oneself.
External speech is speech for others" (p.257).
        Some of Vygotsky's (1987) most interesting comments on the
oppositions I have outlined emerge in his discussion of the
properties of external and inner speech, and it is in this connection
that he presented his distinction between meaning (znachenie) and
sense (smysl). It is perhaps useful to note in this connection that
for Vygotsky the Russian znachenie, which is related to the verb znat
(to know) served both as a term standing in opposition to smysl and
as a sort of unmarked superordinate term incorporating both meaning
and sense:

A word's sense is the aggregate of all the psychological facts that
arise in our consciousness as a result of the word. Sense is a
dynamic, fluid, and complex formation which has several zones that
vary in their stability. . . . In different contexts, a word's sense
changes. In contrast, meaning is a comparatively fixed and stable
point, one that remains constant with all the changes of the word's
sense that are associated with its use in various contexts. . . . The
actual meaning of a word is inconstant. In one operation the word
emerges with one meaning; in another, another is acquired. (p.276)

        In outlining the distinction between meaning and sense in
Chapter 7 of Thinking and Speech, Vygotsky was not saying that one
term reflects reality and the other reflects a mere figment of
analysts' imagination or that we should pay attention to one and
ignore the other. Furthermore, he clearly was not arguing that the
members of these various oppositions could be ranked in terms of some
single, unifying hierarchy of development. Although he formulated his
account of conceptual functioning in developmental terms, he did not
view the highest form of such functioning (i.e., the use of genuine
concepts) as either more or less advanced than inner speech
functioning (Wertsch, 1996a, 1996b). Instead, he assumed that both
members of the various oppositions he outlined in Chapter 7 of
Thinking and Speech playa role in human action and mental life and
hence deserve serious attention. In this respect, his line of
reasoning reflects assumptions about heterogeneity in mental
functioning (Wertsch, 1991) and runs parallel to what Cassirer (1946)
outlined when analyzing how theoretical and mythical thinking coexist
and play essential roles in human consciousness.
        The one place where Vygotsky brought his notions of word and
thought into contact in such a way as to suggest a genetic hierarchy
can be found in his account of speech production in Chapter 7 of
Thinking and Speech. There he presented speech production as a micro
genetic process (Wertsch, 1985) of moving from motive and thought to
external speech, and in outlining this process he suggested one way
in which some members of the oppositions outlined earlier might be
coordinated into a more comprehensive picture. Specifically, he
argued that speech production involves a series of genetic
transformations from condensed, abbreviated forms of representation
involving sense, psychological predicates, and so forth to an
explicit form of social speech with all its expanded phonetic and
auditory aspects, meaning, and so forth. This micro genetic process
has been examined in more detail by Luria (1981) and Akhutina (1975,
        Vygotsky's comments on speech production suggest how poles of
an opposition might be related through genetic analysis, but the
picture he came up with left some obvious problems unresolved. This
lack of resolution is particularly"evident with regard to his account
of inner speech. In Chapter 7 he wrote extensively about the semantic
and syntactic properties of egocentric and inner speech, and these
all had to do with its condensed, abbreviated form and its grounding
in sense (i.e., in contrast to meaning). However, even within the
confines of this chapter, he seems to have had two different
phenomena in mind. On the one hand, he invoked inner speech as one of
the phases of the microgenetic process of producing speech
utterances; on the other hand, he argued that inner speech serves as
an instrument in problem solving and other forms of rational thinking.
        Leont'ev (1978) has distinguished these two notions of inner
speech as "inner speech in the strict sense" and "inner programming
of an utterance" (p. 15). The former involves "the use of an
inner-speech code to solve some communicative (usually cognitive)
task," whereas the latter concerns "the use of an inner-speech code
to plan a speech utterance (or, correspondingly, to retain its
content in short-term memory, to remember it as a reference point in
translating from one language to another, etc.)" (pp. 15-16).
Although Vygotsky never articulated how these two notions of inner
speech might be distinct, their difference is obvious for several
reasons, the foremost being that inner speech in the strict sense
derives from internalizing social speech, but social speech could not
exist if it were not for the inner programming of an utterance.
        Hence, instead of expecting to find some neat resolution to
this inconsistency in Vygotsky's theoretical framework, I believe it
must be understood as reflecting an inherent tension, if not
opposition, in Vygotsky's writings and, more generally, in the
intellectual milieu in which he lived and worked. In particular, I
believe it reflects the intellectual heritage of two grand traditions
in the history of philosophy that provide the intellectual context in
which he, as well as the rest of us, live in the 21st century. I have
already mentioned one of these, the Enlightenment. The other is

Gordon Wells
Dept of Education,
UC Santa Cruz.

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