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[xmca] Sign, Meaning, Word, Concept: Ontogenetic Development as Differentiation

I always STRONGLY resist any attempt to collapse tools and signs. But there is one part of the analogy I find hard to resist. There are always two ends to a tool: there's a handle (viz, the interface) and there's the "business" end (the axe head, the knife blade, the computer screen, etc.).
Now, handles tend to look alike, simply because hands do. But the business ends of the tool tends to look different, simply because they do different things. Of course, at bottom, both the similarities and the differences are functional adaptations, but in one case the functional adaptation is to a biological endowment and in the other the functional adaptation is to something much more much more varied and rapidly changing.
It really seems to me that signs also often look alike. For example, the number of different syllables in the world's languages tends to be around four to twelve thousand (depending on how you count tonality), and all languages seem to make important differentiations between closed sounds (consonants) and open sound (vowels). Writing systems tend to assume that written space is spoken time, etc. 
The Chomskyans never tire of marvelling that all languages have nouns and verbs, which is about as convincing an argument for universal grammar as saying that all social environments contain objects and involve actions which in turn need to be accounted for in languages. 
It's the business end of sign systems that really differ, and which change rapidly, so that's the place to look for development.I take it that from the get-go the child faces the same dilemma as the language as a whole: there are far more things in heaven and on earth than there are words in the child's vocabulary. This means, to me, that the process of development has to follow a line of differentiation and not simply generalization.
Words like "that" and "this" and "it" and "is" and "do" and "say" very quickly become overgeneralized. They need to be differentiated. This process involves both generalization ("that" becomes differentiated into "rabbit", "grass", and "soil") and abstraction ("rabbit" becomes "rabbits" and not simply "the rabbit" or even "a rabbit"). It eventually involves selection and precise specification as well ("rabbits eat grass").
Nouns and verbs need to be differentiated in turn. This process too involves both generalization  and abstraction ("the rabbit eats grass" but also "the grass 'eats' soil"), and eventually selection and precise specification as well ("the grass absorbs nutrients from the soil, herbivores consume graminoids"). 
That seems to me to be the general process of concept formation that Vygotsky is talking about, and that is why "word meaning" is really the key link, both in Achilles' model of the sign and in Volosinov's. "Conceptual word meaning" is really a subset, something that gets differentiated out in ontogenesis. This process of differentiation may sometimes LOOK the same as it does in phylogenesis of language and culture, but it isn't. Ontogenesis may or may not involve a functional differentiation, but culture abhors purity with the same loathing that nature holds for vacuums.  
Habermas is a case in point:
"The teleological model of action takes language as one of several media through which speakers oriented to their own success can influence one another in order to bring opponents to form or to grasp beliefs and intentions that are in the speakers' own interest. this concept of language--developed from the limit case of indirect communication aimed at getting someone to form a belief, an intention or the like--is, for instance, basic to intentionalist semantics. The normative model of action presupposes language as a medium that transmits cultural values and carries a consensus that is merely reproduced with each additional act of understanding. This culturalist concept of language is widespread in cultural anthropology and content oriented linguistics. The dramaturgical model of action presupposes language as a medium of self-presentation; the cognitive significance of the propositional components and the interpersonal significance of the illocutionary
 components are thereby played down in favor of the expressive functions of speech acts. Languae is assimilated to stylistic and aesthetic forms of expression. Only the communicative model of action presupposes language as a medium of uncurtailed communication where speakers and hearers out of the context of their preinterpreted lifeworld, refer simultaneously to things in the objective, social and subjective wordls in order to negotiate common definitions of the situation." 
(Habermas, J.  [1981] The theory of communicative action, Vol. 1, Boston: Beacon Press. p. 95) 
Habermas seems very close to falling into the same ethnocentric trap Roger Caillois falls into in his book Man, Play and Games. Caillois divides games into "agon" (games of skill, where the ethos is "let's compete!"), "alea" (games of chance, where the ethos is "let's be fair!"), mimicry (games of make believe, where the ethos is "let's pretend"), and "ilinx" (games of dizziness and disorientation, where the ethos is basically "let's get drunk").
No prizes for guessing which kinds of games enoble and civilize man, and which kinds degrade him! Olympics (agon) and stock markets (alea) are for winners (most of which are found in the Northern Hemisphere of our plant), while mask dancing and intoxicants are for the losers in the antipodes. From this we learn that Mozart operas, Shakespeare plays, and good wine are infallible signs of primitive cultures and depraved and retarded minds, while boxing and reality shows are the ne plus ultra of civilization. 
In Habermas' scheme, communicative action is a + b + c! I guess it's not too surprising that it comes out superior in the end. But why "in the end"? Suppose the child is involved in DIFFERENTIATING the teleogical, the normative, and the dramaturgical from the communicative rather than somehow synthesizing them into a higher form of rationality? Once again, the child takes communicative action and overgeneralizes it, then abstracts away certain aspects and selects them. Ontogenetic development is a process of volitional, conscious, deliberate differentiation. The same cannot be said for phylogenesis in language generally (because centripetal forces are just as important as centrifugal ones, or even more so). But perhaps it could for our discussion: we need to differentiate between ontogenetic differentiation of concepts and their phylogenesis, because two very different processes are at work.
David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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