Re: [xmca] sense and meaning

From: ruqaiya hasan (
Date: Wed Jul 13 2005 - 06:08:14 PDT

Hi everyone, I'm back again though still distracted by various conference
sessions. (this year the International SFL Congress is meeting in Sydney
this week and next week).

Anyway, meanwhile some very interesting questions have been raised. Just
wanted to say a few things on sense and meaning. But before that, it seems
to me we might yet again attent to Bernstein's sociology of knowledge where
he points to some interesting differences between vertical and horizontal
knowledge structures: citing linguistics, sociology and as I remember
psychology as instances of the latter. He points out the striking fact that
in each of these knowledge areas there are a variety of languages of
description, often they are incommensurate with each other and dialogue
across the various persuasions becomes almost impossible even within the
'same' knowledge area. (Harry will be able to correct me because I sam
writing from memory and have not gone back to Bernstein's major publication
on this -- I have a bone to pick with Basil on his discussion of knowledge
structures and I need a lot of time to start re-reading him seriously on
this). I mention Bernstein's view here because I think we are experiencing
this situation at this moment with reference to the words 'meaning' and
sense. When it comes to talking about the "same" thing in language, we often
rely on the orthographic/phonological (or philological) identity of words;
this may delude us into thinking that what we are treating as the same words
must (or even ought to) mean the same thing. But it is just a delusion. For
example, as a linguist, I feel quite puzzled by Phil's statement
(communication of 11 July in response to Mike's original message on the
subject) that when "confronted with the concepts 'sense' and 'meaning' I (ie
Phil) immediately attend(s) to the notion of thought and context." I don't
think I know any linguists who would feel comfortable with this way of
looking at these two words.

In most modern linguistic theories, meaning is a superordinate term; its
hyponyms are "sense" and "reference", further sanctified by Frege for
logical/philosophical linguistics. Saussure had talked about "value" and
"signification" instead of sense and reference, where the scope of the
signification of a linguistic pattern is said to be conditioned by that
item's relations to other items in the language. (at its most abstract
language is simply a system of relations of relations of relations cf
Hjelmslev, perhaps the most 'formal ' abstract linguist of the last
century). These relations are both syntagmatic (structural) and paradigmatic
(systemic). Saussure argued that signification is not 'naming' as is naming
for example, in labelling goods in a shop, since the valeur (i.e., sense) of
the item is what fixes the reference. Bateson remarked once that in the
mind there are no coconuts; Saussure said that language does not name
pre-existing objects, thoughts, concepts: it classifies the universe of our
experience in terms of the sign system. Thus in a two term number system
with choice of singular v plural, each of the categories has a different
value and therefore different signification than they would have in another
language that has a three term number system with the terms singular v. dual
v. plural. (As Whorf said translation is simply an approximation, not a
replication) In this sense, one may maintain that sense or valeur must be
central to the concept of concept (and perhaps that's why Phil associates it
with "thought" -- but this is an odd way of looking at thought especially if
you take any domain of knowledge).

By expressing the above views on signification/reference and sense/valeur
Saussure left a problem: if language is a relation of relations of relations
and the valeur and significance of each item depends on that of the others,
how does anyone ever enter this closed system?

The answer was provided by Malinowski in his theory of context of situation
and context of culture (e.g. in Appendix I in Ogden & Richards Meaning of
Meaning -- small section on children learning their mother tongue). I have
felt from my limited reading of Vygotsky and some Malinowski that their
views upto a certain point on the learning of language in the "infantile"
stage are not incompatible. I know Malinowski is out of fashion but I
disregard that fact as irrelevant to the evaluation of (parts of) his work.
And I am not implying at all that he worked in altogether the same domain as
Vygotsky: his primary concern was with "how does anyone learn the meanings
of his /her language" -- and what he determined was that the ontogenesis of
meaning depends on reference: it must have its roots in the use of language
in practical contexts where the small child learns what the words do for
him/her, and that is how the meaning is embodied. It then develops from
there in interaction with acculturated others whose reality becomes the
child's reality largely speaking at least in the initial stages of life. I
have always thought that Vygotsky's distinction translated in Thought &
Language (1962 tr. Hanfmann & Vakar) as 'signal' and 'symbol' (so far as I
remember) was something like "contexctually situated word reference" and
"valeur/sense" respectively. It is only in the latter case that a word can
be used to refer to something that is absent; this is why it is essential to
the use of decontextualised information. The learning of valeur is not all
or nothing (it seems to me) but a certain set of relations is essential to
get started (eg to make a distinction that not every woman is mum, not every
man dad, not every four footed animal dog etc all of which have been cited
as features of word learning in children). In SFL the notion of context,
following Firth and Halliday, has been extended to both extralinguistic
context of culture and to intra-linguistic contexts (ie what syntagm, what
system, what situation what culture). Meaning is established by a serial
contextualisation of whatever linguistic item is under focus: meaning covers
both sense and reference though iof course for analysis they can be
distinguished in normal adult use of language they are not separable.

Further, SFL models language organisation as stratal, consisting of four
strata Context, Meaning, Wording, and Sound patterns. The "higher strata" ie
context semantics and lexicogrammar are held together by the dialectic of
realization. In speaking, context of situation and activates meanings, while
at the same time the identity of relevant context is construed by meanings
being produced (this is important since we could be at one and the sdame
time be perhaps cooking, sewing, and taking of something quite unrelated to
these activities); meanings in turn activate choices at the stratum of
lexicogrammar, while lexicogrammar construes the meanings for the listener.
In any analysis of meaning, all three levels must be taken into account.

There is much more that I would like to say eg on congruent meanings, and
what is meaning constructed out of etc but only if the discussion is of any
interest to other colleagues. It may be that we (non-psychologists, non
Activity theorists) read the words meaning, sense, and reference
differently; and what is also very likely is that within psychology etc
different groups might read the words differently. Discussion of terms could
be very helpful for mutual understanding.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Wolff-Michael Roth" <>
To: <>; "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity"
Sent: Tuesday, July 12, 2005 2:36 PM
Subject: Re: [xmca] sense and meaning

I think you can read Vygotsky, Il'enkov, Mikhailov, Heidegger, Marx all
in the same way as meaning being associated with practical
understanding, whole of activity, and generalized possibilities; sense
is personal, associated with the relation of action to activity, and a
concrete realization. Heidegger says that words do not HAVE meaning,
they ACCRUE to meaning; that is, as Marx, for Heidegger meaning
precedes sense, is associated with lived-in situations as a whole,
involving not just individuals but collectives. Meaning transcends
words--words, or rather utterances, have a sense in a particular
activity, and as all actions, have a different sense in a different

If you say "I haven't got time" to your colleague asking you whether
you want to write a review essay, this is one thing; it is a whole
different ball park when you say it to your teacher who is asking you
to finish some assignment, or something else of that nature. The sense
of the expression is a function of the activity. . .


On 11-Jul-05, at 8:36 AM, Peter Smagorinsky wrote:

> I tried to work out the sense/meaning tangle a few years ago
> in a paper published in the AERA journal Review of
> Educational Research. I think it was 2001, the title "If
> meaning is constructed, what is it made from?: Toward a
> cultural theory of reading." I'm traveling now so don't have
> the ms. handy, but I can send it when I return home if I
> remember. Peter
> ---- Original message ----
>> Date: Mon, 11 Jul 2005 21:59:12 +0700
>> From: Phil Chappell <>
>> Subject: Re: [xmca] sense and meaning
>> To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity"
> <>, Mike Cole <>
>> I'm not sure I can offer much here, Mike, but in the vortex
> of voices,
>> I'd like to add what I understand. Whenever I am confronted
> with the
>> concepts "sense" and "meaning" I immediately attend to the
> notion of
>> thought and context. Being an English speaker and therefore
> only having
>> an approximation of the semantic differences between sense
> and meaning
>> in Vygotsky's writings (meaning (znachenie) and sense
> (smysl)), I ask
>> is "sense" the socio-personal history of the communicative
> use of a
>> lexical item applied to the immediate spheres of human
> activity; and is
>> meaning the most predictable use of the word across social
> contexts?
>> SFL uses a theory of congruency that has come under
> criticism for being
>> deterministic, however if understood within the the genetic
> approach
>> used not only by Vygotsky, but also by SFL'ers (for example
> Jim
>> Martin), it is seen as an informed approach to social
> semiotics - it
>> looks at actual uses of language to make judgements about
> language use
>> in human activity. Sense and meaning can take on much more
> critical
>> applications; for example "sense" - for LSV word meaning in
> the context
>> of speech - can be thought of dynamically in the context of
> ways that
>> people engage with texts and the ways that these
> communicative
>> activities influence the social positions of the
> interactants. Meaning
>> can be thought of as "most expected meanings" in terms of
> those taking
>> a more synoptic view.
>> Rough thoughts.
>> Phil
>> On 09/07/2005, at 9:56 PM, Mike Cole wrote:
>>> In reading the work of Halliday, Hasan, and Bernstein, I
> am unclear
>>> about whether their
>>> notions of meaning do or do not coincide with Vygotsky's.
> One form of
>>> this uncertainty is
>>> whether and how a distinction between sense and meaning,
> which is
>>> central to LSV's
>>> ideas about language and thought, are viewed from an SFL
> perspective.
>>> Perhaps its there
>>> and I am blinded by my own past history?
>>> mike_______________________________________________
>>> xmca mailing list
>> _______________________________________________
>> xmca mailing list
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> xmca mailing list

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