Re: [xmca] Beyond Alterity/Intersubjectivity

From: Kellogg (
Date: Thu Aug 24 2006 - 16:57:36 PDT

Thanks for taking time off from paid work to reply, and also to scan the relevant passages. Let me see if I can rephrase my objections to the passage and picture on p. 28 a little more clearly.

As Halliday says, we are trying to look at the concept of instantiation from two points of view at the same time. What he doesn't say is that the two points of view are in some way incommensurable. As I see it, there are three reasons for this incommensurability.

a) First of all, the biomechanical world of the context of situation is incommensurable with the semiotic world of the context of culture. One is made of flesh and blood and matter and can be measured in terms of mass and volume rather than informational bytes. The other is made of concepts and abstract relationships. Contrariwise, the context of culture is a semiotic thing; made of informational bytes and not matter. How can one by an instantiation of the other?

b) Secondly, the potential world is not commensurable with the actual one. In fact, Korea's climate is not made up of the POTENTIAL weathers which might have occurred in Korea over a given historical epoch; it is composed of the ACTUAL weathers observed over that time. The misleading word "potential" really transports us rather suddenly back to the context of situation and the text; from the point of view of the context of situation and the text, the language system consists of potential selections rather than actual selections from the grammar over a given historical period, but from the point of view of the context of culture, the potential system really is reducible to the actual choices that the speakers of a language make (this is always in flux, because of the creativity of the system, but that creativity is situational; it is individuals who create and innovate with language and not the system itself).

Halliday writes, as you quote, "A text (...) is an instance of an underlying system, and has no meaningful existence except as such." But this is actually not so: a text's biomechanical appearance (the font used, the medium on which it is enscribed, the intonation with which it is articulated) has nothing to do with the underlying system; and yet it is indelibly part of the meaning. It is much truer to say that the underlying system has no meaningful existence except as it is embodied in actual utterances. There's Bakhtin for you!

c) The context of culture and the context of situation are incommensurable because in a very important sense the relationship is not one of instantiation but of causation. It is simply not true to say that "weather" is caused by "climate" or that "climate" is caused by "weather". However, we know from Vygotsky that ontogenetic development in a context of culture is, at least in a dialectically mediated sense, caused by (some forms of) microgenetic learning. Looking at matters from the point of view of cultural reproduction, we can say that ontogenetic development is in some sense caused by phylogenetic development.

But Vygotsky would have utterly denied that this relation of causation means that there is the kind of parallelism that Halliday suggests between cultures and situations; he rejected Haeckl and would never have accepted that ontogenesis recapitulates microgenesis; on the contrary, that one pre-supposes the other means that they other must be different from the first.

I guess at bottom I think Vygotsky and Halliday are incommensurable paradigms. Vygotsky is not simply monist; he is materialist. Halliday, on the other hand, sees language as being a material, causative, basic factor of human existence rather than a mediational tool.

I think this is reflected in the schematicism of the diagram on p. 28. Yes, he gives us a very good sense that the historical-cultural context is both linked and distinct in relation to the biomecanical one. But he cannot explain how one develops out of the other, and this is what is hidden by the word "instantiation".

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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