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Re: [xmca] concepts

Andy --

I completely agree that the units of meaning are units of a social semiotic of action, an idea I presented in 1979. So, I have no problem with taking "concepts" to be such units, but I think that if you examine such units you find that they have very little if anything in common with what "concepts" are ordinarily taken to be.

The units of meaning are not linguistic units. They are functional units of meaningful activity, but they acquire their meaning (or "ideal" aspect ala Ilyenkov) by participating in semiotic relations or semiotic systems (one of which, perhaps the primary one, is the semiotic of actions), and among these sometimes are linguistic semantic relations (when the action includes speech, or when the interpretation of the meaning of the action depends on speech forms, which need never be voiced), but also visual semiotics of various sorts, and many others. (I use "semiotic" here conventionally as a shorthand for semiotic resources system or sign-system-in-context-in-practice.)

What is the minimal linguistic form that constitutes a speech act? While it can be a single word, that is only true when the context around it enable us to interpret it in terms of a complete sentence (or clause in grammar) with a modality: statement, question, command, offer and their variants. This is already rather unlike the notion of a concept, which is usually nameable in a single word, but not so unlike LSV's insistence that "scientific concepts" or what I take to be his notion of a true or fully developed concept-in-use always operate as terms in systems of related concepts. The connection between a speech act, or a minimal "text", and a system of logically or "conceptually" (i.e. semantically) related linguistic units (call them words, semantemes, or thematic items) is subtle and complex and the subject of a long period of research in functional linguistics in which I was lucky enough to be involved. But no matter how one parses out these matters, the minimal nodal entities don't have functional meaning in context in use, only their combinations or relations do. So words, or units of meaning corresponding to words can't have meaning. Granted, this sounds a bit counter-intuitive, but it just shows the limits of our folk-theories, and perhaps the need to be clearer about what meaning is. Only functional actions have meaning.

That in turn points to another problem with the usual notion of concept: that is is supposed to flexibly apply across many very different particular contexts and instances. But the only units that can have meaning can't have this magical property of generalization or abstraction, or they have it in a much restricted sense. Words as isolated units appear to have this protean character because they can appear in many different "sentences", but it's the sentences (in context of use) that have meaning (i.e. make meaning, constitute meaningful functional action), and the longer the sentence, or text (Halliday's conclusion is that texts, spoken primarily, are the units of meaning), the more specific its meaning, but the less like a word-concept it is, and the less it can float across contexts like a good "concept" should. In an alternative version of the argument, the more deeply embedded in a system of semantic relations with other word-like units (semantemes, thematic items), i.e. the more semantic connections to the more other such units, the more specified -- within that particular thematic formation -- the meaning of any one node is. But such large, complexly internally articulated semanteme-systems or thematic formations, are again not free to be entextualized across many contexts, but tend to be restricted to a specific range of contexts.

This whole approach is not at all unfamiliar in our usual Marxist-Vygotskyan discourse -- it's another way of saying that meaning increases as we become more concrete and specific and attend to the living actions of everyday life, but that as we move toward abstract conceptual generalizations, meaning thins out and disappears, except insofar as bourgeois ideology demands that the abstract ruminations of "mental labor" be paid more highly than the material productive craft of manual work.

Whatever LSV may have meant by "concept" I don't think he meant to identify higher mental functions with more abstract units of meaning.

Jay Lemke
Senior Research Scientist
Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition
University of California - San Diego
9500 Gilman Drive
La Jolla, California 92093-0506

Professor (Adjunct status 2009-11)
School of Education
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Professor Emeritus
City University of New York

On Apr 14, 2011, at 10:47 PM, Andy Blunden wrote:

> I'd like to mount a defence of continuing to use "concept" in my work, for its own value, rather than to maintain links with people still trapped in the use of "old language." Following Steve, I will include lots of quotes from LSV because I think people like to have original quotes to refer to, even when the interlocurtor is talking nonsense, as may be the case here.
> Part of my motivation is expressed well by Marx when he said:
>   "One of the most difficult tasks confronting philosophers is to
>   descend from the world of thought to the actual world. /Language /is
>   the immediate actuality of thought. Just as philosophers have given
>   thought an independent existence, so they were bound to make
>   language into an independent realm" (German Ideology, ch 3).
> I can see the problem linguists have in  incorporating "concepts" into their system of concepts (or "into their language"), because as I see it, "concept" is not a concept of linguistics, but rather is a unit of an entire social formation. As such, they are acquired by thinking and expressed in language, but fundamentally, "concept" is a concept which belongs to the unity of thinking and activity, not linguistics.
> When Jay gave us (on my request) a Linguistics 101 list of the "concepts" of linguistics, he explained that each of the distinctions reflected the resolution of disputes which had arisen in the past within the formation. Of course. Which nicely illustrates what Vygotsky calls a concept (in its true rather than embryonic sense).
>   "Concepts are always formed during a process of finding a solution
>   to some problem facing the adolescent’s thinking process. The
>   creation of the concept is dependent on a solution to this problem
>   being found" (Vygotsky Reader p. 257-8).
>   "The concept is formed only with the emergence of a need that can be
>   satisfied in the concept, only in the process of some meaningful
>   goal-oriented activity directed on the attainment of a particular
>   goal or the resolution of a definite task" (Vol. 1, p 127).
>   "The /functional conditions of the concept’s origins /are ... in
>   connection with a particular task or need that arises in thinking,
>   in connection with understanding or communication and with the
>   fulfillment of a task or instruction that cannot be carried out
>   without the formation of the concept"  (Vol. 1, p. 123).
>   "the concept exists only within a general structure of judgments,
>   that it exists only as an inseparable part of that structure" (Vol.
>   1, p. 164).
> Thinking and speech do not coincide and nor do language-use and activity.
>   “The word is comparable to the living cell in that it is a unit of
>   sound and meaning that contains – in simple form – all the
>   characteristics of the integral development of verbal thinking” (T&S 1)
>    “The units of thought and speech do not coincide. The two processes
>   manifest a unity but not an identity. ... thought does not
>   immediately coincide with verbal expression ...What is contained
>   simultaneously in thought unfolds sequentially in speech ...
>   Therefore, thought is never the direct equivalent of word meanings”
>   (T&S 7).
>   "all the higher mental functions are mediated processes. A central
>   and basic aspect of their structure is the use of the sign as a
>   means of directing and mastering mental processes. In the problem of
>   interest to us, the problem of concept formation, this sign is the
>   word. The word functions as the means for the formation of the
>   concept. Later, it becomes its symbol. (Vol, 1, Ch 5)
> So, while I can see that it is not possible to transform "concept" into the language of linguistics, "concept" is one of the things that people talk about and orient their activity towards, and therefore concepts make their appearance in language. I think it is in the dissonant unity of words and other symbols and artefacts, activity, including speech-use and thinking, that concept exist.
> What do you think?
> Andy
> Jay Lemke wrote:
>> I agree that there is  both a rhetorical-political dimension to the issue of "concepts" and a theoretical one. If you're talking to people who don't have any other way to make sense of some things except with a notion of "concepts", then you have to create some hybrid third-space or translation bridge or common pool in which to swim communicatively. ...
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