[xmca] Paulhan, Volosinov, Mandelstam

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Thu May 24 2007 - 12:14:02 PDT

I've found the original article by Paulhan that was Vygotsky's source for "sense" and "meaning" (smysl and zenachenie). Kozulin's right: it's "Qu'est-ce que le sens des mots?" in Journal de Psychologie: normale et pathologique.
  It's all here: the distinction between "sense" and "meaning" (Paulhan says "signification"), the idea that the latter is the most stable and socially shared zone of the former, endless examples from Napoleon, and of course the conclusion about the earth and the solar system.
  But Paulhan really doesn't believe in his own distinction. First he says:
  p. 289: ˇ°Le sens dˇŻun mot, dans son acceptation la plus large, cˇŻest tout lˇŻensemble de faits psychologiques que ce mot e/veille dans un esprit, et que la re/action de cet esprit ne rejette pas, mais accueille et organise.ˇ± (The sense of a word, in its broadest acceptance, is all the psychological facts which the word evokes in a mind which the reaction of the mind does not reject but instead accomodates and organizes.)
  On p. 293 he contradicts this with a story about an acquaintance of his for whom the name "Scipion" evokes a plate of scrambled eggs, not, according to Paulhan, part of either the sense or the meaning of the name.
  On p. 304 poor Paulhan is totally stumped by the expression "beyond words", or "beyond my power to express" or "inexpressible", because these expressions do very clearly evoke a psychological fact which many people share, and therefore, contrary to what the words actually say, they have both sense and meaning. But if they say something OTHER than what they mean...?
  On p. 305, he argues that the sense and also the meaning of "furious" stems from PAST experiences of fury. Presumably, then, the meaning of "death" stems from our past experiences of death?
  Moving right along (p. 318-319) , Paulhan decides that lies do not have any meaning. But if they do not evoke a stable, socially shared zone of sense how can they be effective as lies?
  By the end of the essay, he has abandoned his distinction altogether, as when he says "comment vous portez-vous?" in which he claims the word "porter" has lost all "sens", though it does give a vague impression of geniality. Apparently what he means is that they've lost all meaning; he is simply using "sens" in its French sense, to mean "meaning". Similarly, he claims that words like "machin" (thing) and "affaire" (business) have no "sens", though they clearly do have sense. The distinction plays no role whatsoever in his full length monograph "La double fonction du langage" published only one year later.
  Why did Vygotsky pick up this distinction when Paulhan couldn't even wait to finish his essay before he abandoned it? It goes entirely against sociocultural theory in putting the psychological before the cultural/historical--on the one hand, all the psychological impressions evoked in a mind, and on the other the impressions that become socially shared through an entirely mysterious process of selection.
  Here's what I think. Paulhan's distinction between "sens" and "signification" is a very loose fitting garment. In its folds, Vygotsky was able to hide two much more important thinkers who were dangerously close to home.
  First of all, Volosinov (Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, Harvard University Press, 1973). Volosinov's distinction between "tema" and "zenachenie" is clearly MUCH closer to what Vygotsky has in mind. Like LSV, Volosinov talks about the idea of a language that has only one word (but in Volosinov it's a cave man, not a language larning child). Like LSV, Volosinov links this to "complexive" thinking (p. 100). Finally, the clincher: Volosinov provides, on p. 103, the IDENTICAL example from Dostoevsky of the six drunken workmen who have a conversation using a single (unprintable) word, and the beginning and the end of the quotation exactly matches Vygotsky's use of it four years later on p. 271 of Thinking and Speech).
  Secondly, Mandelstam. Mandelstam bequeaths a number of important ideas to Thinking and Speech. For one thing, there is the unity of opposites, the inseparability but non-identity of the thinking properties and the speech properties of the word. For another, there is the idea of that the word is the completion of an act, specifically of an act of verbal representation. And for a third, there is the whole idea that a word is a "tool for thought".
  In his 1922 essay "On the Nature of Words" (from whose epigraph Vygotsky took the Gubilov citation that ends Thinking and Speech) Mandelstam says:
  ˇ°The word in the Hellenic conception is active flesh that resolves itself in an event. Therefore, the Russian language is historical even in and of itself, the incessant incarnation and activity of intelligent and breathing flesh.ˇ± P. 69
  ˇ°In Hellenic terms, the symbol is a utensil, and therefore any object drawn into the sacred circle of man can become a utensil; and therefore a symbol too.ˇ± P. 75
  and perhaps most importantly:
  ˇ°It is most convenient and in the scientific sense most accurate to regard the word as an image; that is, a verbal representation. In this way, the question of form and content is removed; assuming the phonetics are the form, everything else is the content. The problem of what is of primary significance, the word or its sonic properties, is also removed. Verbal representation is an intricate complex of phenomena, a connection, a ˇ°systemˇ±. The signifying aspect of the word can be regarded as a candle burning from inside a paper lantern; the sonic representation, the so-called phonemes, can be placed inside the signifying aspect, like the very same candle in the same lantern.ˇ± P. 77
  (Mandelstam, O.E. 1977 Selected Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press.)
  Mandelstam is an Acmeist, and the Acmeists were an interesting mixture of Modernism and Romantic Hellenism. So he uses the Hellenistic version of "tools for thoughts" to overcome the Christian dualism of having physical sounds that create impressions on the mind that we find in Paulhan (who was, after all, a protestant minister). This idea of tool use is congenial to LSV's argument that signs are tools that cut both ways, towards the environment and also towards the self.
  But why wouldn't he cite Mandelstam directly? Well, of course, he doesn't cite Volosinov by name either, And Mandelstam had just written his "sixteen line death sentence" the poem known as "The Kremlin Mountaineer" which directly accused Stalin of engineering the Great Famine.
  ("Written" is perhaps overstating the case; according to Mark Willis, Mandelstam never wrote the thing down and only eleven people actually ever heard him recite it. Unfortunately, one of them was apparently a fink.)
  But Vygotsky DOES cite Mandelstam at the very beginning of the final chapter, in the epigraph from Mandelstam's "swallow", to which Vygotsky appends Mandelstam's actual name (at least in the Minick and Kozulin translations).
  Two questions:
  a) Does the original 1934 Soviet version of "Thinking and Speech" contain the references to Mandelstam and Gumilov? Does the 1956 edition?
  b) If not, when did it appear and how?
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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Received on Thu May 24 13:16 PDT 2007

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