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RE: [xmca] sense and sensibility

I, like David K., appreciated your rousing, interpretive review of word-meaning in Vygotsky, right down to the last line, pun intended (I am not sure yours is as meaningful as LSV's, but still funny) ;). I hope David K. doesn't mind that I borrowed his clever subject title. I have to ask, in regards to the prior post, who is Morris? I should probably know.


-----Original Message-----
From: xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu [mailto:xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu] On Behalf Of Martin Packer
Sent: Tuesday, April 26, 2011 4:11 PM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: Re: [xmca] fetishism

My last few messages were knocked sideway by Andy, in his new-found role of intellectual running back. So I'd like to try again to explain the way I'm reading Thinking & Speech these days.

It's not news that LSV highlights word-meaning, the meaning of the word. But what are we to take this to be? It seems to me that during the book LSV draws a series of distinctions between word-meaning and what we might think that it is, but it is not...

First, and easily, word-meaning is not the sound of the word. Some people reduce words to their mere sounds, but LSV won't let us do that.

Second, word-meaning is not to be confused with the objective reference, the object referred to. This too is a common mistake that LSV wants us to avoid. LSV turns to Frege to draw this distinction. But his word-meaning is not the same as Frege's 'sense,' because the latter is supposed to be objective and unchanging (though how Frege considered the sense of the 'The victor at Jena' to be timeless I really don't know! What status did it have before 1806? There's actually a literature on this very issue.)

For LSV word-meaning is not timeless. It changes over time; he didn't study philology for nothing! But it is, however, objective. (This is what blows Andy's socks off. Take a deep breath, my friend.) 

Yes, word-meaning is objective. Or if you prefer, intersubjective. I tried to explain briefly in a previous message that German romanticism was a rejection of the way the early Enlightenment had disenchanted the world by placing all value, meaning, truth and beauty in the individual mind. No!, exclaimed the angry Germans (Prussians?)! There is truth and meaning and beauty and value in the world! How? Because the world is mind, spirit, Geist. The whole darn cosmos. Each individual mind is just a budding off of the cosmic mind.

And Marx, while drawing the line at such a wacky view of the cosmos, accepted the proposal that there is objective value in the world. A commodity has value (two types of it, no less) by virtue of its constitution in social practices, quite independently of whether anyone knows this or not. The dollar bill in my pocket has value not because I believe this, but because it moves in a complex network of social-economic practices. (That's why derivatives crashed despite the fact that everyone *thought* they had value; because objectively they did not.)

(I think one can actually push this line of argument down into biological functioning. A toxic mushroom is just *bad* for me to eat, objectively bad, whether I know it is poisonous or not, by virtue of its relationship to my biological functioning. I thinks that's where pragmatism heads. But that's an additional wrinkle that we needn't get in to today.)

In the same way as a commodity has objective value, LSV wants to convince us that language has objective meaning that is independent of individual consciousness. Let me give two examples. The infant who cries out "pancakes" simply by virtue of hearing the sounds repeatedly is taken by others to have said something meaningful, though it was certainly not what she intended. Or, sometimes when I'm teaching in Spanish I make an error of pronunciation or grammar, and say something I didn't intend. My students hear and understand it, and laugh into their sleeves, but I have no idea what I said.

So, the meaning of a word is *not* only what we put into it. Language is a shared, social, objective system. The kind of 'word-meaning' that LSV is keen to introduce to us is *in* the language. It is inner, internal, inside 'the word' (where 'the word' can signify an individual word or extended discourse or...).

But let's get back to LSV clarifying word-meaning by differentiating it from what we might confuse it with. T&S continues with two chapters devoted to demolishing two appealing theories of development: early Piaget's proposal that development is socialization (enculturation?), and Stern's proposal that development is simply a matter of putting new content into the symbolic (conceptual) form that a child develops as soon as they start to use words to name things, about 24 months. That all seems rather unrelated to word-meaning, except that LSV is developing his own proposals about inner speech, which is all about how 'the word' gets "inside" an individual consciousness. And this will turn to be crucially important in the last chapter. (It's also interesting that LSV doesn't reject Stern's appeal to Brentano's "intentionality" as a characteristic of infant language. He reinterprets it as affective and volitional rather than intellectual. So our relationship to the world, which will with time become intellectual, is fundamentally emotional and grounded in practice. It turns out LSV was siding here with Wundt and against Husserl, but that too is another story.) 

And then (gulp) we get to the chapters in concept formation. I believe I can line up a selection of textual evidence to show that LSV is also drawing a distinction between word-meaning and concept, though evidently I haven't convinced too many people yet. (I may have convinced Andy that I am an idiot, but that's another matter.) For example, why is there a struggle to put our thoughts into words, if the concepts we think with are the same as the words we speak with? Why would thought be "completed," or even "incarnated," in words, if words and concepts are the same? Or, why does LSV propose that concepts are always part of a system of generalization in which each involves two components - an attitude to some portion of the world and a way of grasping that portion - all without mentioning word-meaning once? But there's no space to go into this in more detail here. More later, if anyone wants it.

We have to make one additional distinction here, one that LSV is not too clear about. He wants word-meaning to be relatively stable, changing over historical periods of time, not from day to day. At the same time, word-meaning develops *for the child,* ontogenetically.  

And finally, in chapter 7, LSV builds on Paulhan to draw a distinction between word-meaning - relatively stable, again - and sense, which varies with context and even from moment to moment. In the movement inwards from word to thought there are two external planes in the word (sound and inner form), then the plane of inner speech (with its abbreviation and functional variation), then the plane of thought itself. On this plane, thinking has largely left words behind (but surely not concepts?), with the "volatization of speech," and it deals not with meaning but with sense. LSV emphasizes that sense can be disconnected from words, where word-meaning cannot.

David K and I have been mulling over the final sentence of the book: "The meaningful word is a microcosm of human consciousness." Here, surprisingly and importantly, the term LSV uses for "meaningful word" is Осмысленное слово, whereas for the whole of the book word-meaning has been "значений слов." (Осмысленное only occurs five times in the entire book.) It really should be translated as "sensible word." Why? Because here LSV is writing *not* about the objective meaning of words, but about the personal, motivated, action-related sense a word has when someone speaks it. As thinking moves outward to speech, in the "materialization and objectification" of a thought, sense has to be "reconstituted" in words.  "The base units of thinking and those of speech do not coincide," so this requires a structural reorganization, a creative process that is not simply a matter of lining up ready-made units of meaning. 

And this explains, in fact, why word-meaning is indeed not fixed and unchanging, because each time someone speaks, the 'inner form' of the word is nudged a little in one direction or another, worked on and worked over, spiced with new connotations. Language is, of course, not completely independent of what people actually say and do. As our thoughts change, so our language will slowly change too. 

Touch down!  Cheerleaders go crazy!


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