Re: signs/symbols etc

From: Andy Blunden (
Date: Sun Jan 09 2005 - 21:32:22 PST

I have been lurking in on this discussion about Peirce and Vygotsky, and
laughed out loud at the "yeah, yeah" joke. Semiology seems to lend itself
to jokes! But it also prompted me to share my thoughts, such as they are.
With so many heavyweight experts, not only in CHAT, but semiology, I have
been a bit reluctant to speak (believe it!). Nevertheless, I also see great
resonances between Peirce's semiology and Vygotsky and also Hegel. My
approach as ever is to try to relate the ideas to relations between people,
and how they are mediated.
Mainly I am interested in the icon-symbol-index trilogy, though the other
categorisations of signs in the discussion paper were immensely useful in
demystifying the idea of a sign, and also helped understand the way Hegel's
concepts find different applications in the same domain.
Firstly, I see the icon as above all a person, though it can be a group or
a practice or activity, but generally something in which a person not only
can see themselves, but because the icon is so impressive and attractive,
actually are motivated to see an image of themselves in the icon. The icon
is what teachers used to call a "role model,"
Secondly, there is symbol: the symbol is an expert or figure of authority
in the broader culture who gives an explanation of the experience or
actions of the icon, or demonstrates why and how one should emulate it. The
symbol would classically be highly mediated, taking the form of a "theory"
explaining the experiences and emotions of the icon in "scientific" or
otherwise socially legitimated terms. The symbol is a kind of book, or
teacher, or a word.
Thirdly, the index is numbers of people who raise their hand and say "Me
too!", demonstrating that the icon genuinely does point to something
universal and not just individual or particular.
These three constitute a new subjectivity; ideally they coincide, with
every index looking just like the icon and capable of operating in the
symbolic register.
For example, Kate Millett explains the meaning of sexism (here the
individual expert and the word are combined on different aspects of the
symbolic register). A group of women form a "consciousness raising group"
which receives publicity (Kate may be a member, but not necessarily, but
ideally the members of the group become about to replicate the explanation
of their action in terms of "sexism").
Finally, millions of women across the world form "consciousness raising
groups" to talk about sexism, and prove that they are experiencing it
themselves. etc., etc.
The importance of this approach for me is (1) we get away from "signs" in
the normal sense of the word, and making trivial (if humorous)
observations, (2) we get to talk about people, and (3) this clarifies how a
new subject (or social movement) gets on the road without the normal
paraphenalia of branches, party structures, leaders, etc.
What do you think?
At 12:30 PM 9/01/2005 -0800, you wrote:

> > 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.
Hegel Summer School: 18th February 2005 - At 06:40 PM 9/01/2005
-0500, you wrote:
>A key to understand what guided Vygotsky, I think is his belief that the
>"meaning" and "concept" are but two sides of the same coin. Thus he
>identified "word meaning" and "concept", seeing cultural mediation in the
>way how having a word with its culturally delimited "meaning" guides the
>processes of concept development. He even talked about "pseudo-concepts"
>-- when a child can use words for all intents and purposes as if s/he had
>fully developed concepts, but is not yet able to explicitly define these
>concepts independently of their usage. (Thought and Language). As if the
>word holds together all the ingredients necessary to form a concept before
>it has been formed.
>This leads me to think that Vygotsky really had in mind something like
>Ogden and Richard's model (Symbol-Thought-Symbolized).
>A transition between word meaning to sentence meaning and finally to the
>utterance meaning is not just a transition to a bigger and a more complex
>analytic unit. It seems to be a transition to a different dimension (or a
>different scale?) -- from a Symbol -Thought (Concept) - Symbolized set of
>relationships to a more communicational set of relationships as in Speaker
>-Listener - Topic set of relationships.
>One thing that strikes me is the fact that these two sets of relationships
>(Symbol-Concept-Symbolized and Speaker-Listener-Topic) have traditionally
>been studied by different disciplines -- and the knowledge has been
>compartmentalized and expressed in different terminology.
>Meaning as a process (in Jay's sense of the word) does not have coincide
>with syntactical units like "word", "phrase", "sentence" or even
>"utterance". Meaning can be distributed between several people in an
>interaction, and even over greater periods of time than just a single
>event. But on the other hand, and in difference to other communicative
>tools, language can also pack concepts, even whole universes into a single
>"word". That is why I think that it should be very interesting to put
>these different aspects of the study of meaning together.
>Peg Griffin wrote:
>>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"
>>NYT ]
>>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
>>>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
>>>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.
>Hegel Summer School: 18th February 2005 -

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