David (and others),
In the interests of disagreement (which I know you dearly appreciate), your
last post included this:
"Words don't "cause" meaning: they provide material correlates for meaning
and in that sense "realise" them as matter."
I was with you up until that point, but that's where I always lose you.
I know it is a rather trite thing to say but I guess it really depends on
what you mean by "meaning". If by meaning, you mean some plane of existence
that runs parallel to the material stuff, then this seems to be a bit of
trouble since this leaves us with, on the one hand, "matter" (res extensa?
noumena?), and on the other hand "meaning" (res cogitans? phenomena?).
Matter is easy enough to locate, but where do we locate "meaning" as you
have described it?
This reminds me of Saussure's classic drawing on p. 112 of his Cours
(attached) in which "the indefinite plane of jumbled ideas" (A in the
diagram) exists on one side of the chasm and "the equally vague plane of
sounds" (B) exists on the other side of the chasm. Each side is
self-contained and self-referential, and never the twain shall meet. Worlds
And this ties to the conversation in the other thread about the
ineffability of meaning (as well as Andy's Marx quote about a science of
language that is shorn from life). My suspicion is that this supposed
ineffability of meaning has everything to do with this Saussurean approach
to semiotics (i.e., meaningfulness).
Peirce's triadic view of the sign offers a different approach that may give
a way out of this trouble by putting the word back INto the world. (p. 102
of the attached Logic as Semiotic).
Peirce offers three kinds of relations of representamen (signifier) to
object: iconic, indexical, and symbolic. The symbol is the relation with
which we are most familiar - it is the one that Saussure speaks of and is
the one that is ineffable or, in Saussure's words, "arbitrary", i.e.
"conventional". It is the stuff of words, the meaning of which is found in
other words (hence the sense of ineffability). With only the symbolic
function, the whole world of words would be entirely self-referential and
thus truly ineffable (and this is why I like to say that Derrida is the end
of the Saussurean road - he took that idea to its logical conclusion and
discovered that the meaning of meaning is, well, empty (and thus
But Peirce has two other relations of representamen to object, the iconic
and the indexical. In signs functioning iconically, the representamen
contains some quality of the object that it represents (e.g., a map that
holds relations of the space that it represents or onomatopoeia like "buzz"
in which the representamen has some of the qualities of the sound of the
bee flying by). With signs functioning indexically, the relationship of
representamen to object is one of temporal or spatial contiguity (e.g.,
where there is smoke there is fire, or where there is a Southern twang,
there is a Southerner, or, most classically, when I point, the object to
which I am pointing is spatially contiguous with the finger that is
Now if I follow the argument of another of the inheritors of Roman
Jakobson's legacy, Michael Silverstein (yes, Hasan and Halliday weren't the
only inheritors of this tradition - Michael was a student of Jakobson's at
Harvard... and he does a great impression of Jacobson too), then we can
indeed locate a ground of the word (i.e., the symbolic function) in the
more primitive (i.e., rudimentary) indexical function.
But that argument is always a bit too much for me (if there are any takers,
the best place to find this argument is in Silverstein's chapter
"Metapragmatic Discourse, Metapragmatic Function," or in less explicit but
slightly more understandable article "Indexical Order and the Dialectics of
Vygotsky's argument is quite a bit more elegant and comprehensible: in
ontogeny meaningfulness begins with the index, first as the index par
excellence, pointing (something that, as Andy has previously pointed out,
might not be exactly how things go in a literal sense, but the general
structure here works well, I think, as a heuristic if nothing else - words
are first learned as indexes, temporally and spatially collocated, "bottle"
is first uttered as a way of saying "thirsty" and then later to refer to a
co-present object; note this is also why young kids get discourse markers
at such a young age (and seems incredibly precocious when they do!), since
discourse markers are primarily indexical). The indexical function is the
rudimentary form that then provides the groundwork for the development of
the symbolic function.
So then, in this Peircean(Vygotskian) approach, the meaning of signs is not
ineffable, there is a grounding for words, and that grounding is the
indexical, the "word"/sign that is both in the world and of the world.
This seems to me a way of putting meaning back into matter. And perhaps
speaking of words as the material correlates of meaning can be a useful
heuristic (i.e., how else can we talk about meanings and concepts given our
current set of meanings/concepts?). But we should also recognize that if it
becomes more than an heuristic it can lead us astray if we take it too far.
I'd add here that I think one of the greatest opportunities for CHAT to
make a contribution to social science today is in its conceptualization of
"concepts" (and, by extension, "meaningfulness"). I think that perhaps one
of the most taken-for-granted aspects of social science today is the idea
that we know what "concepts" are. In anthropology, people easily talk about
"cultural concepts" and typically they mean precisely something that floats
around in some ethereal plane of "meaningfulness" and which is not of the
material stuff of the world. Yet, this runs counter to the direction that
anthropology is heading these days with the so-called "ontological turn"
(I'll hold off on explaining this for now since this post is already
running way too long, but I'll just mention that one of the aims of this is
to get to a non-dualistic social science). CHAT's conception of the concept
seems to me to offer precisely what is needed -- a way of understanding the
concept as a fundamentally cultural and historical thing, rather than
simply as an "ideal" thing. The concept is the holding of a(n historical)
relation across time (cf. Hebb's synapse or Peirce's sunflower). Concepts
are thus little historical text-lets.
Okay, that was too much. Perhaps I will find some time in the future to
return to that last part, but there is no time to develop it further now.
Anyway, I'm glad that I finally had the opportunity to catch up to these
conversations. Delightful reading/thinking.
I'll keep reading but no promises that I'll be able to comment (as a young
scholar, I need to be spending my time putting stuff out - and unlike the
rest of you, I'm no good at multi-tasking... it's either one or the other
On Wed, May 3, 2017 at 4:18 PM, David Kellogg <email@example.com>
Well, yes. But if present day conditions are the REVERSE of the
under which Vygotsky was writing--that is, if the present trend is to
subsume labor under language instead of the other way around--don't we
this distinction between signs and tools more than ever? That is, if
formulations like "cultural capital", "symbolic violence", "use/exchange
value of the word" are erasing the distinction between a mediating
which acts on the environment and a mediating activity which acts on
mediators and on the self, and which therefore has the potential for
reciprocity and recursion, isn't this exactly where the clear-eyed
philosophers need to step in and straighten us out?
I think that instead what is happening is that our older generation
of rheumy-eyed philosophers (present company--usually--excluded) are too
interested in the "tool power" of large categories and insufficiently
interested in fine distinctions that make a difference. But perhaps it
is also that our younger generation of misty-eyed philosophers are, as
Eagleton remarked, more interested in copulating bodies than exploited
ones. Yet these fine distinctions that do make a difference equally allow
generalization and abstraction and tool power, and the copulating flesh
the exploited muscles are one and the same.
Take, for example, your remark about the Fourier transform performed by
ear (not the brain--the inner ear cochlea--I can see the world centre for
studying the cochlea from my office window). Actually, it's part of a
range of "realisation" phenomena that were already being noticed by
Vygotsky. In realisational phenomena, you don't have cause and effect,
as in cause and effect you don't have "association". Words don't "cause"
meaning: they provide material correlates for meaning and in that sense
"realise" them as matter. Meaning does not "cause" wording; it correlates
wording to a semantics--an activity of consciousness--and through it to a
context of situation or culture, and in that sense "realises" it.
So in his lecture on early childhood, Vygotsky says that the
of forms, colours, and sizes by the eye in early childhood is part of a
way relationship, a dialogue, between the sense organs and the brain. The
reason why we don't see a table as a trapezoid, when we stand over it and
compare the front with the back, the reason why we don't see a piece of
chalk at nighttime as black, the reason why we have orthoscopic
and we don't see a man at a distance as a looming midget is that the
imposes the contrary views on the eye. And where does the brain get this
view if not from language and from other people?
On Wed, May 3, 2017 at 11:55 AM, Andy Blunden <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
Personally, I think the first and most persistently important thing is
see how much alike are tables and words.
But ... Vygotsky was very insistent on the distinction because he was
fighting a battle against the idea that speech ought to be subsumed
the larger category of labour. He had to fight for semiotics against a
vulgar kind of orthodox Marxism. But we here in 2017 are living in
different times, where we have Discourse Theory and Linguistics while
Marxism is widely regarded as antique. As Marx said "Just as
have given thought an independent existence, so they were bound to make
language into an independent realm." and we live well and truly in the
times when labour is subsumed under language, and not the other way
Everyone knows that a table is unlike a word. The point it to
how tables are signs and word are material objects.
(BTW David, back in 1986 I walked in an offshoot of the bionic ear
project. The ear has a little keyboard that works like a piano keyboard
reverse, making a real time Fourier transform of that air pressure wave
coding the harmonics it in nerve impulse. The brain never hears that
On 3/05/2017 7:06 AM, Alfredo Jornet Gil wrote:
David (and or Mike, Andy, anyone else), could you give a bit more on
distinction between words and tables?
And could you say how (and whether) (human, hand) nails are different
from tables; and then how nails are different from words?
From: email@example.com <firstname.lastname@example.org.
on behalf of David Kellogg <email@example.com>
Sent: 01 May 2017 08:43
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: [Xmca-l] The Stuff of Words
Gordon Wells quotes this from an article Mike wrote in a Festschrift
George Miller. Mike is talking about artefacts:
"They are ideal in that they contain in coded form the interactions of
were previously a part and which they mediate in the present (e.g.,
a pencil carries within it the history of certain forms of writing).
in that they are embodied in material artifacts. This principle
force whether one is considering language/speech or the more usually
of artifacts such as tables and knives which constitute material
differentiates a word, such as “language” from, say, a table. is the
of their material and ideal aspects. No word exists apart from its
instantiation (as a configuration of sound waves, or hand movements,
or as neuronal activity), whereas every table embodies an order
This is the kind of thing that regularly gets me thrown out of
the ear. Mike says that the difference between a word and a table is
relative salience of the ideal and the material. Sure--words are full
the ideal, and tables are full of material. Right?
Nope. Mike says it's the other way around. Why? Well, because a word
without some word-stuff (sound or graphite) just isn't a word. In a
word, meaning is solidary with material sounding: change one, and you
change the other. But with a table, what you start with is the idea of
table; as soon as you've got that idea, you've got a table. You could
change the material to anything and you'd still have a table.
Wells doesn't throw Mike out by the ear. But he does ignore the
perversity in what Mike is saying, and what he gets out of the quote
just that words are really just like tools. When in fact Mike is
just the opposite.
(The part I don't get is Mike's notion that the structure of a pencil
carries within it the history of certain forms of writing. Does he
that the length of the pencil reflects how often it's been used? Or is
making a more archaeological point about graphite, wood, rubber and
relationship to a certain point in the history of writing and erasing?
Actually, pencils are more like tables than like words--the idea has
Gregory A. Thompson, Ph.D.
Department of Anthropology
880 Spencer W. Kimball Tower
Brigham Young University
Provo, UT 84602