Re: signs/symbols etc

From: Jay Lemke (
Date: Tue Jan 11 2005 - 21:08:22 PST

An interesting take. I would suggest perhaps that the indexical order of
intersubjectivity has a darker side to it ... less voluntaristic or
emergent (even herd) for the community ("me, too," feels like the symbolic
order) ... and more like the causal-effective order: the Svengali, the
Hitler ... the other than imposes its imprint on us like it or not.
Personally, I don't see a good side to this one, though others may think of

Die Gedanken sind nicht so frei as we might like to hope ...


At 12:32 AM 1/10/2005, you wrote:
>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 -
>Jay Lemke
>University of Michigan
>School of Education
>610 East University
>Ann Arbor, MI 48109
>Tel. 734-763-9276

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