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[Xmca-l] Re: The Stuff of Words

Henry, something I learnt by reading Vygotsky and Luria's book "Ape, Primitive Man and Child" was that looking for the attribute which marks the distinction between human beings and animals is a hopeless and misconceived project. The point is that whatever it is which is what makes a human being essentially human is exactly that activity (or capacity) which brings about the transformation from non-human animal to human animal and *therefore* will be found *in rudimentary form* in non-human animals. A profound insight worthy of a Hegel or a Peirce.


Andy Blunden
On 8/05/2017 11:43 AM, HENRY SHONERD wrote:
Having read your post, and re-reading, I end up thinking that Peirce’s firstness/secondness/thirdness distinctions doesn’t help me understand language, not like index/icon/symbol does. My loss probably.

Also, your thoughts on the question, “Is a language has only one word a language?” make me think about a question I used to ask my students in my intro to linguistics: “Can animals have language?” They never believed me when I said that that they can't. I proved it by saying that animals don’t have the property of displacement, that is the ability to talk about things removed in time and space. After years of patiently, but firmly, rejecting their claims of animal language, I gave up. Could a language with only one word displace?


On May 7, 2017, at 6:45 PM, David Kellogg <dkellogg60@gmail.com> wrote:

Ruqaiya Hasan used to say that the natural condition of language use is a
context of situation. That is, a word like "he" or "the" or even "of" is
more typical of language use than a word like "coke bottle", and the
relationship of wording to meaning is really a natural relationship,
utterly unlike the relationship of sounding to wording (which is

You can see this in a lot of ways. One is simply frequency: in any English
text of sufficient size, "the" will always be twice as frequent as the next
most frequent words. In any list of the most frequent words in English, the
top one hundred or so are so-called "functors", not words like "coke" or
"bottle" or "gather". Another is, of course, ontogenesis: children start
their journey into language by referring to the context of situation; it's
hard to see how else they could possible do it. There is also a rather
abstract, technical argument by Voloshinov that I sometimes like to think
about; he is answering the question that N.Ya. Marr used to ask, whether a
language that has only one word is still a language, and what the one word
would be. Voloshinov concludes it would be a THEME (that is, it would be
indicative, demonstrative, deictic--not signifying) and it would indeed be
a language, because the essence of language is really "smysl" and not
"znachenie" (it is ever-changing dynamic theme and not self-similar

I like to think that in English it would go something like this:

What? That!
Where? There!
When? Then!

Now--take away the beginnings and endings, the "wh~" and the "th~" and the
"~t", "~re", "~n". SING the result; that is, RISE to ask and FALL to answer:

a?  a!
eh? eh!
e?  e...

That's a language. In fact, I rather think it's the origin of all language;
it's why Marr might just have been right to assume that there wasn't any
one original language, but that there was, possibly, an original word,
invented and reinvented hundreds of thousands of times in human history,
and constantly being reinvented by newborn children before our very eyes.

But as you can see, Ruqaiya was right. Its natural condition of use is a
context of situation. The problem is that the natural condition of language
study is NOT a context of situation. It's more like the office I'm sitting
in, the library where I will spend most of today, or the laboratory where I
try to get back to the firstness of word stuff. That's how we get theories
like Saussure's: Saussure tries to cut off all language from "parole", that
is, from context and use, and also from history, and the result is more or
less what Greg said: a purely dualistic, entirely idealistic, and wholly
language-internal theory.

Saussure was a brilliant phonologist; his theory is able to explain pretty
well why it is that any sound stuff can express any meaning stuff. But he
hit on the only completely conventional part of the whole language system,
and then he overgeneralized. There isn't anything conventional about the
relationship of meaning to grammar: there are very good reasons, for
example, why entities are typically nouns and processes are typically
verbs. It's not because we have that much of a universal grammar. It's
because we have that much of a universal context of situation.

Does Peirce help much? Not if we take him at his word: I can't really
understand how, for example, a mark of graphite on paper expresses the
Euclid's idea of line or why an algebraic equation is an index and not a
symbol. Yet there is an obvious difference between the way a child learns
that everybody has two feet, the way that we see a footprint and think of
the foot that made it, and the way that we encode a foot as a "foot". These
are not completely separate kinds of meaning-making (the word "foot" is
ALSO an index, because it "points" to the vocal tract that produced it or
the pencil that wrote it, and it is ALSO an icon because it is made of the
stuff of words. So in that sense it really is a way out of the
decontextualized heads that Saussure tried to put us in. And a way back to
the natural condition of language use, which is the context of situation.

David Kellogg
Macquarie University

PS: For reasons I don't understand, I'm not getting any of Haydi's stuff. I
see people referring to it, and I sometimes see it at the end of their
posts, but it's never in my inbox. I miss you, Haydi!


On Mon, May 8, 2017 at 3:22 AM, HENRY SHONERD <hshonerd@gmail.com> wrote:

David and Andy,
I have seen Peirce’s categories firstness, secondness and thirdness on the
chat before, and certainly you were part of that discussion. I would like
to understand that better, also how it relates to the three categories of
signs (iconic, indexical and symbolic). I have been reading your “Thinking
of Feeling” piece and wonder how that might relate, which I hope so, since
it would bring development into the mix. Also (sorry!), Andy’s Academia
articles on political representation and activity/social theory are
probably relevant in some way, though Andy probably sees language as a
figure against a larger ground and a linguist (like Peirce) turns the
figure/ground relationship around?

On May 5, 2017, at 4:01 PM, David Kellogg <dkellogg60@gmail.com> wrote:


(As usual, I don't see the problem. I usually don't see these problems
until the tide is well and truly over my head.)

Meaning is simply another word for organization. Organization is always
present and never separable from matter: it's a property of matter, the
that the internet is a property of a computer. Sometimes this
is brought about without any human intervention (if you are religious,
will say that it brought about divinely, and if you are Spinozan, by
nature: it amounts to the same thing, because "Deus Sive Natura").
Sometimes it is brought about by human ingenuity (but of course if you
religious you will say that it is the divine in humans at work, and if
are Spinozan you will say that humans are simply that part of nature
has become conscious of itself: once again, Ii think it amounts to the
thing). So of course there are not two kinds of substance, res cogitans
res extensa, only one substance and different ways of organizing it
in the end amount to the same thing).

You say that discourse particles like "Guess what?" and "so there" and
"because" and "irregardless" and "what you say to the contrary
notwithstanding" are "indexical". I agree, insofar as they depend on
relationship to the context of situation for their meaning. You say that
Southern drawl is indexical, and that the relationship of jazz or blues
hiphop to blackness is indexical. I agree, insofar as they satisfy the
condition I just mentioned. But "because" is also a symbol, and a
Southerner still sounds like a Southerner when he/she moves to New York
City (and in fact you can argue they sound more so). In Africa, jazz and
blues and hiphop in Africa are related to Americanness and not to

So your division of signs into just three categories is too simple, Greg.
In fact, if you really read your Peirce, you will discover that there are
tens of thousands of categories, but they are generated from three
ineffable primitives ("firstness", "secondness", and "thirdness"). So for
example all words are symbols insofar as you have to know English in
to understand "Guess what?" or "because". But some words are
symbol-indices, symbols that function as indexes, because they depend
on the context of situation for their meaning. Without the symbolic
gateway, they cannot function as indices. My wife, for example, cannot
a Southerner from a more general American accent, and I myself still have
trouble figuring out who is an Australian and who is an FOB bloody pom.
Similarly, my wife doesn't see the blackness in hiphop--it sounds like
K-pop to her.

I don't actually think that any signs are associative or "prehensive"; I
think that they are all different ways of looking or apprehending. So for
example you can apprehend a wording as a symbol: a way of organizing
stuff so that it "stands for" a way of organizing other stuff (sometimes
lunchboxes and backpacks, actual categories of objects and sometimes the
abstract models-in-the-making that Andy calls "projects"). You can also
look at wording as index: not as something that is "associated" to the
and tongue by juxtaposition or proximity or even continguity but rather
something that has a necessary relation to the vocal tract (which is
not a physiological organ, but something brought about by human
organization). But when I look at sound waves on my Praat spectrograph
think of the shelving sea, what I am trying to get at is the sound stuff,
the noise, the firstness of the stuff of words. I'm not Cezanne: I don't
think there is any way of doing this with my eyes or ears alone: I think
requires a very complex combination of tools and signs to get down to
firstness. But as Spinoza would have said if he had breakfast with
Bacon, the head and the hand are not much by themselves, but nobody
has ever really shown the limits of what they can do when they put each
other in order and start to organize the world around them.

(And that is about as much philosophy as you are going to get out of me,
I'm afraid. The tide is galloping in....)

David Kellogg
Macquarie University

PS: What I am absolutely certain of is this: mediating activity is not
absent in sign use, pace Alfredo or Wolff-Michael, but it is very
from mediating activity in tool use, for the same reason that painting is
different from wording: in painting you CAN leave out the human (if you
doing a dead seal for example, or if you are Rothko or Jackson
keep in mind that the former committed suicide and the latter murdered
innocent young women). But in wording you never ever can. Wording can
unmediated--in fact it has to feel unmediated or it doesn't work very
well--but in reality it's even more mediated than ever.


On Sat, May 6, 2017 at 1:09 AM, Greg Thompson <greg.a.thompson@gmail.com


David (and others),

In the interests of disagreement (which I know you dearly appreciate),
last post included this:
"Words don't "cause" meaning: they provide material correlates for
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
what you mean by "meaning". If by meaning, you mean some plane of
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
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.

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
to semiotics (i.e., meaningfulness).

Peirce's triadic view of the sign offers a different approach that may
a way out of this trouble by putting the word back INto the world. (p.
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
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
other words (hence the sense of ineffability). With only the symbolic
function, the whole world of words would be entirely self-referential
thus truly ineffable (and this is why I like to say that Derrida is the
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
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
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
only inheritors of this tradition - Michael was a student of Jakobson's
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
the best place to find this argument is in Silverstein's chapter
"Metapragmatic Discourse, Metapragmatic Function," or in less explicit
slightly more understandable article "Indexical Order and the
Dialectics of
Sociolinguistics Life").

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
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 -
are first learned as indexes, temporally and spatially collocated,
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
at such a young age (and seems incredibly precocious when they do!),
discourse markers are primarily indexical). The indexical function is
rudimentary form that then provides the groundwork for the development
the symbolic function.

So then, in this Peircean(Vygotskian) approach, the meaning of signs is
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
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
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
"concepts" (and, by extension, "meaningfulness"). I think that perhaps
of the most taken-for-granted aspects of social science today is the
that we know what "concepts" are. In anthropology, people easily talk
"cultural concepts" and typically they mean precisely something that
around in some ethereal plane of "meaningfulness" and which is not of
material stuff of the world. Yet, this runs counter to the direction
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
seems to me to offer precisely what is needed -- a way of understanding
concept as a fundamentally cultural and historical thing, rather than
simply as an "ideal" thing. The concept is the holding of a(n
relation across time (cf. Hebb's synapse or Peirce's sunflower).
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
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
scholar, I need to be spending my time putting stuff out - and unlike
rest of you, I'm no good at multi-tasking... it's either one or the
for me).

Very best,

On Wed, May 3, 2017 at 4:18 PM, David Kellogg <dkellogg60@gmail.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",
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
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
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
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
meaning: they provide material correlates for meaning and in that sense
"realise" them as matter. Meaning does not "cause" wording; it
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.
reason why we don't see a table as a trapezoid, when we stand over it
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
view if not from language and from other people?

David Kellogg
Macquarie University

On Wed, May 3, 2017 at 11:55 AM, Andy Blunden <ablunden@mira.net>
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
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
reverse, making a real time Fourier transform of that air pressure
coding the harmonics it in nerve impulse. The brain never hears that
pressure signal.)

Andy Blunden
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: xmca-l-bounces@mailman.ucsd.edu <xmca-l-bounces@mailman.ucsd.
on behalf of David Kellogg <dkellogg60@gmail.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
which they
were previously a part and which they mediate in the present (e.g.,
structure of
a pencil carries within it the history of certain forms of writing).
are material
in that they are embodied in material artifacts. This principle
with equal
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
relative prominence
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
human beings."

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
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
making a more archaeological point about graphite, wood, rubber and
relationship to a certain point in the history of writing and
Actually, pencils are more like tables than like words--the idea has
come first.)

David Kellogg
Macquarie University

Gregory A. Thompson, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Anthropology
880 Spencer W. Kimball Tower
Brigham Young University
Provo, UT 84602