[xmca] Concepts as Meta-Artefacts

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Mon Apr 28 2008 - 16:05:22 PDT

Pardon the change of subject line, but I think that Cathrene has brought in a distinct change of topic, and it's (for me) quite an illuminating one.
  At first I was quite taken aback at the sudden interjection of LSV's use of "sense" and "meaning" from Paulhan. I think these two terms do NOT mean, in Vygotsky's mouth, what Paulhan meant, and they CERTAINLY don't mean what they meant in A.A. Leontiev's ears (that is, "sense" is nothing more than connotation, and "meaning" is merely dictionary denotation).
  I think they mean what Volosinov meant when he distinguished betwen "theme" and "meaning". Consider a word like "I" or "you" or "it" or "this" or "that". What do they "mean"? Well, that depends entirely on who is saying the word, where, and when. And even then the meaning doesn't last for very long. Like a grunt (or like the drunken expletive in Dostoevsky that both Volosinov and Vygotsky use), it is all theme and no fixed meaning.
  Now consider a word like "hammer" (thanks, Martin!). Of course, this too can vary; if I am pounding in nails with a rock I can call it a hammer, and in China in the early eighties the word "iron hammer" meant Lang Ping, the captain of our volleyball team, who famously slew the Americans at the Los Angeles Olympics. But the RATIO of invariable ("self-identical", normative) dictionary meaning to variable (mutable, flexible, polymorphous) contextual meaning is clearly much higher than with pronouns, demonstratives, and deictics.
  Still, "the hammer" and even "a hammer" is not yet a concept. In English, conceptitude is rather confusingly expressed by the plural, "hammers". This conveys the "meaning" (as opposed to a theme) of an abstract, hypothetical set of all hammers. This is a bizarre quirk of English (and not very consistent in English either, since we use "Man" to express the concept of "humans" and we go around saying things like "Marriage is a market").
  It is untrue of other languages, which treat the plural as simply referring to "more than one" (e.g. Korean), and it's an endless source of difficulty for Korean elementary school students who, with the utterance "I like an apple" have turned our lesson "I like apples" into a prosaic version of Prokofiev's "Love of Three Oranges".
  What is the difference between this abstract set of all conceivable hammers and a real, concrete box of hammers at the hardware store? In English, there is no way to express this difference at the lexical level (other languages, more reasonably, use the bare form of the noun for the concept and the plural form to express the idea of more than one concrete object). It has to be expressed at the thematic level, as an utterance.
  So Cathrene's comment, after all, turns out to be key: the concept of "hammers" is no ordinary artifact but a meta-artefact. Like any concept, it's a word meaning, a droplet of consciousness, a generalization which has been formed and shared through words.
  Yes, these words are about things. Yes, the things they are about are tools. But no, you can't break a walnut with the meaning of "hammers" any more than you can with the name hammer or Lang Ping or M.C. Hammer. As my dad always says, you need the right tool for the job. To hammer in a nail ("a" nail not "nails"), you use a theme, "the hammer", and not a meaning "hammers".
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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Received on Mon Apr 28 16:07 PDT 2008

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