Re: signs/symbols etc

From: Jay Lemke (
Date: Tue Jan 11 2005 - 20:55:34 PST

many interesting questions ... questions beget questions when we're really

first perhaps, the tool. We can think of a tool as having an iconic sign
function insofar as form follows function ... insofar as from looking at
some tools we can tell a bit about what they were used _on_ or with (e.g. a
screwdriver, a key, a plug-for-a-socket or vice versa, etc.) We can think
of it as having an indexical sign function insofar as its other material
affordances, what it can physically do not by virtue of shape or form
alone, but in other respects (say a brick as a weapon, or a screwdriver as
a lever), "points to" those uses or contexts or co-operands.

but indeed a tool can also be a symbol, as when the Euclidean compass (or
protractor for those old enough to remember constructive geometry in
school) is a symbol of the field of architecture (Egyptian) or of the
society of Free Masons (builders). In that case its relation to its
"object", what it points towards (or what an interpreting system construes
it as pointing towards) is based now NOT on its physical properties (form
or causal efficacy) but on some conventional generalization perhaps far
abstracted from its historical uses, with an intervening cultural value
system that has determined that some particular such connection is a
salient one (architects or builders could be represented symbolically by
trowels, or blueprints, or stone blocks, or archways).

But is it then still a tool? or just the image or idea of what was once a tool?

More in the spirit of CHAT, I think, would be the notion that something can
be used as a tool and ALSO have a symbolic value (the Ideal aspect): an
heirloom samurai sword can still be used to cut someone's head off, and it
may retain its symbolic value in part because it is still kept sharp and
functional; or its shorter cousin might be the hara-kiri tool of choice,
not just because it's sharper than the ordinary kitchen knife, but because
it is more honorable and appropriate to cut out your guts with a family
heirloom that symbolically represents honor and the way of the samurai than
to do the same act with a kitchen knife. Tool function and symbolic meaning
can converge as well as diverge.

As to the sense/sentence/utterance meaning distinctions ... I think Peg is
right that one has some different dimensions here. My sense of how Peirce
deals with this is that word or sentence meaning is conventional symbolic
meaning, arbitrary and assigned by convention of the community ... but
utterance meaning, apart from issues of intentionality, is an interpreted
meaning, it has a longer chain of interpretants, that goes from the typical
sentence meaning to what that sentence is taken to mean by some
interpreter, in a context, with a history, etc.

I believe that for Vygotsky the great wonder was that a lot of individual
interpreters could all agree on some more abstract sentence meanings.
Bakhtin rather reversed this and wondered at how we take a sentence and
make it our own on some occasion, how we fill it with our unique
accentuations. "yeah, yeah" becomes "you've got to be kidding" or "not
likely" or "tell me something I don't know" when filled by not just tone of
voice, but selective use in a situation. LSV is looking at how the child
gets into the shared language system of the community. B. is looking at how
we then take a shared resource and use it to make meanings uniquely our own.

Halliday would say that a sentence in isolation, like a word, has a
"meaning potential", a specific range of things it DOES NOT mean, choices
it makes among all possible meanings that define an open range of what it
could, as opposed to could not, mean according to the conventions of the
community ... but an utterance in actual situated use has an "instantial
meaning" which is far more specific, more specific indeed than the language
system as such allows for, because it incorporate meaning-specifying
contextual information in addition to the linguistic information
represented by choices in the semantic system.

The child is learning to interpret instantial meanings from which to infer
ways of using (implicit) meaning potentials to create new instantial
meanings. The little grammarian is also a little poet. LSV talks a good
deal about the role of symbolic play in learning the culture ... does he
deal specifically with word-play? with what I would take to be the
strongest evidence of conscious use of language (or any signs) as tools,
and not just as a code-of-standard-meanings: inventive play with language.
Lying is just the tip of this iceberg, below it lie puns and jokes, and
deep under the water the marvelous poetry of everyday inventive language
use. Kids, famously, say the damndest things!


At 12:32 PM 1/9/2005, you wrote:
>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 a
>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 meaning,
>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.

Jay Lemke
University of Michigan
School of Education
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Tel. 734-763-9276

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