Re: rommetviet intros

From: Phil Chappell (
Date: Thu Aug 05 2004 - 03:58:07 PDT

This may also be useful, in Vol 10 No. 3 of MCA.

On the Dialogical Basis of Meaning: Inquiries into Ragnar Rommetveit’s
Writings on Language, Thought, and Communication

Bente Eriksen Hagtvet

Astri Heen Wold


Given the complexity of cognitive and language development, and given
that most scholars consider humans to be products of
biological-individual and socio-cultural forces, the tendency to study
language and cognition as either primarily a socio-cultural or
primarily a biological-psychological phenomenon, is striking. This
tendency to compartmentalize research is not unique to the study of
language and cognition. Rather, academic systems tend to organize their
activities in dichotomies, for example natural scientific versus
humanistic research paradigms, quantitative versus qualitative
research, modern versus post-modern conceptualizations. A position may
in rare cases reflect theoretically based convictions, but more
typically there "seem to be few bases other than personal preference or
disciplinary affiliation for making a selection among the alternatives"
(Wertsch, 1995, p. 58). In fact, both ethical and scientific
considerations make dichotomies inadequate for dealing with
multifaceted, complex reality.

Ragnar Rommetveit represents an alternative to research approaches that
enhance the segmentation of insights into language, thought, and
communication, rather than their integration. The aim of this article
is to explore some crucial dimensions of Rommetveit’s thought in order
to demonstrate their relevance and importance to scientific
disciplines, in particular to the study of language and communication
in psychology and education.

  In his research writings and academic life as an adviser and lecturer,
Rommetveit has advocated an open position towards methodological issues
as well as towards theoretical paradigms and scientific traditions. For
example, he has used experimental methodology in studies of reading
under conditions of binocular rivalry (Rommetveit & Blakar, 1973) and
has used humanistically oriented discourse analysis in examining the
opening dialogue between Nora and Helmer in Henrik Ibsen’s Doll House
(Rommetveit, 1991a). Thus, experimental and humanistic methods are
viewed not in opposition, but as complementary tools representing
different perspectives on mental activities and human interaction.

  To gain deeper insights into a complex and multifaceted world (cf.
Linell, this issue), Rommetveit consistently argues, for example, that
descriptions of reality are dependent on the perspective adopted by the
communicators, and also that a word’s meaning is dependent on its
context of use. Yet at the same time he discards the post-modern idea
that all perspectives are equally acceptable. Influenced by theoretical
traditions like Gestalt psychology, European continental phenomenology,
and socio-cultural theories from the former Soviet Union, Rommetveit’s
theoretical framework is truly interdisciplinary.

  This broad scope of mind and range of perspectives have given numerous
students and colleagues–including ourselves–valuable insights into a
reality that appears less orderly and simple, but more real than the
one portrayed in more traditional approaches. At the same time we
appreciate that the implications of Rommetveit’s approach are often
difficult to understand in depth. What is the basis of scientific truth
if scientific results are dependent on the perspective chosen by the
researcher? Are some perspectives more acceptable than others? Where do
truth and morality enter the scene when nothing is objective? How may
children learn the meaning of words when "literal meaning" does not
exist? Does his openness imply a nihilistic position where everything
goes and there are no ways to evaluate scientific results and everyday
descriptions as good or bad, right or wrong? Is Rommetveit’s world a
pre-modern version of post-modernism–"an orgy in pluralism," as some of
his colleagues have argued in friendly conversations with him?

Underneath Rommetveit’s pluralistic approach, however, there are clear
restrictions, presuppositions, and principles that direct scientific
work and set limits for possible interpretations. These restrictions
may be harder to detect than are the multitude of potentially "chaotic"
perspectives. Also, Rommetveit has himself shown a greater dedication
to arguing against what he sees as wrongly perceived objectivism and
"literal meanings" in mainstream psychology and linguistics than in
making restrictions on openness explicit.

  In this article we foreground these restrictions. First, however, we
will focus on dimensions that open and expand the paradigm by
discussing some concepts of crucial importance to Rommetveit’s
thinking–concepts like "perspective," "position," and "aspect," and
also the related notion of word meaning in terms of "meaning
potentials." Second, we will elaborate on concepts that impose
restrictions on perspectival pluralism by means of the notions of
"dialogue," "truth," and "values." We have analyzed these restrictions
in a series of discussions with Ragnar Rommetveit while writing this
article. In addition, we are drawing upon research seminars, lunch
conversations, and readings over a span of more than thirty years.

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Tue Nov 09 2004 - 11:43:01 PST