Re: signs/symbols etc

From: Peg Griffin (
Date: Sun Jan 09 2005 - 11:11:13 PST

The best way I know of to think about 'speaker meaning' actually has been
recently reported in the NY Times Magazine year end obituary about Sidney
      "The most widely circulated tale -- in many renditions it is even
presented as a joke, not the true story that it is -- was his encounter with
the Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin. During a talk on the philosophy of
language at Columbia in the 50's, Austin noted that while a double negative
amounts to a positive, never does a double positive amount to a negative.
From the audience, a familiar nasal voice muttered a dismissive, ''Yeah,
[Ryerson, J. 12/26/04 "Sidney Morgenbesser [ b. 1921 ]; Sidewalk Socrates"

While the utterance meaning of "Yes" and "Yeah Yeah" might have been (at
least near) synonyms; the speaker, Morgenbesser, exploits connotations (of
the informal/slang), discourse role conventions, and expressive intonation
(at least) to mean the antonym of 'yes'. Austin was working on sentence
meaning (and that itself is more than combinatrics of the lexicon) in
language as a cultural tool that can yield utterances when speakers use it.

And I wonder, too, about Vygotsky's sense/meaning and the three distinctions
I noted. I think that the sort of dead or at least dormant prepared part is
'meaning' in the one paradigm and 'sentence meaning' in the other. Then I'm
thinking 'sense' for Vygotsky has two aspects for others, both are lively
constructed constrained and effected by the dead 'meaning/sentence meaning'
tool but 'utterance meaning' makes it communal/social and the 'speaker
meaning' makes it populated idiosyncratic open-ended unpredictable creative
and misunderstood (but gets us to those same things as a part of history --
Bakhtin/Volosinov's "previously occupied -- in spite of the golden arrow of

Going back to Mike's other question (1. Are all tools only symbols and never
signs?), I think that's a better question for Jay and others. Like Jay, I
think of symbols as a kind of tool and I think some tools are not symbols.
Rakes and typewriters are just tools, but once computers came along, hmmm
not clear where tool leaves off and symbol comes in since its a new kind of
exploitation/expression of mathematical systems.

In the water example, I think two different ideas about symbols are
intertwined there, but again something probably better for others to answer
than me.

(By the way another wonderful Morgenbesser conversation is reported in the
same article: ''Let me see if I understand your thesis,'' he once said to
the psychologist B. F. Skinner. ''You think we shouldn't anthropomorphize


----- Original Message -----
From: "Mike Cole" <>
To: "Xmca" <>
Sent: Sunday, January 09, 2005 11:32 AM
Subject: signs/symbols etc

> Jay-- This summary was helpful to me:
> For Peirce, and usefully for many influenced by his semiotics, SIGN is the
> most general term, and SYMBOL is a special case (contrasted usually with
> "index" and "icon") where the interpretation or construal of a relation
> between the symbol (as form, i.e. signifier, aka representamen) and what
> it's taken to be a symbol of or for is based on a culturally conventional
> and otherwise arbitrary relationship unrelated to any physical-causal
> connection or to any formal similarity.
> SIGNs are not just symbols, but all possible types of 3-way relationships
> in which something (1) interprets a relationship between (2) one item
> (form, event, thing, whatever) and (3) another, which is not reducible to
> simple sum of pairwise relations.
> So, would it be fair to say that Vygotsky really was talking about
> sign mediation of at least the index and symbolic subvarieties? (I am
> not so sure about icons because of his writing on "natural"
> psychological processes where images are precursors of signs). Then
> when he slips into using the term symbol as in "symbolic activity"
> (see index of collected works) he is not making some new point we
> should focus on?
> And, what should WE really be talking about? From an earlier message,
> Peg, in November,
> wrote in response to a note from Peter:
> The definitions you found for sign and symbol make me think of Grice's
> discussion of natural and non-natural meaning. "These spots mean measles"
> is an example of natural; "Three rings of the bell means the trolley is
> about to
> stop" is an example of non-natural.
> Tools and symbols would both be non-natural. Signs would be natural.
> For language, there is also a tripartite distinction among sentence
> utterance meaning, and speaker meaning. Maybe that distinction would come
> in handy when thinking about symbols that re-present in/for a
> socio-historical community of users.
> So, Peg, if we talk about a word like "water" it can operate as a
> sign in the sense of Jay's para 2, but also as both "a culturally
> conventional
> and otherwise arbitrary relationship unrelated to any physical-causal
> connection or to any formal similarity" and "symbols that re-present
in/for a
> socio-historical community of users." It operates as a sign if I say
> "The rain in southern
> california is finally filling our reservoirs with water" but as a
> symbol when I say " Water reminds us of the cycle of living matter, of
> the fragility of life in southern california, and of life
> everlasting."
> But if this is a reasonable way to think two questions come to mind:
> 1. Are all tools only symbols and never signs?
> 2. The three kinds of meaning you mention do not map easily for me
> onto the sense/
> meaning distinction in vygotky, in particular "speaker meaning."
> Wouldn't speaker meaning be sense?
> As usual, confused in southern california.
> mike

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Tue Feb 01 2005 - 01:00:04 PST