[xmca] Meaning and Cognition...or Sense and Volition?

From: David Kellogg (vaughndogblack@yahoo.com)
Date: Thu Feb 08 2007 - 10:32:40 PST

Hola, Elias!
  Thanks for your letter. You and Cindy are doing amazing things to my Spanish dictionary. (and Martin doesn't help, because for some reason his punctuation inserts a bunch of "o"s in front of words when they appear on my computer, creating non-words like "Osimbologia"....).
  Consider a dictionary. It's a book full of words and meta-words--that is, words about words. When I try to use a Spanish-Spanish dictionary, I soon discover that the meta-words are usually much more difficult than the words.
  You've probably had this experience too: you look up a word you don't know, and in return you find ten you didn't know, and if you have any sense you give up and use a bilingual dictionary, or the next step is not knowing a hundred words, and so on ad infinitum.
  So why DO people use monolingual dictionaries? Well, of course, for most of human history, and even for most of human literacy, they haven't! Monolingual dictionaries were invented only a few hundred years ago (in China, really, but English speaking people attribute it to Samuel Johnson or Daniel Webster).
  The real purpose of the monolingual dictionary was POLITICAL. Like the literary canon (to which it is very closely related) the monolingual dictionary serves to set a POLITICAL standard, an idealized, homogenized NATIONAL standard of meaning, suitable for the erection of an idealized, homgenized NATIONAL bourgeois nation-state.
  In order to work, this homgeneous "meaning" has to be stable, or in Volosinov's terms "self-similar". Nothing like WRITTEN language to help bring that about! Unfortunately, there's nothing quite like SPOKEN language to help destabilize it. In fact, spoken language HAS to be unstable, or rather "meta-stable". Something is "stable" when it remains constant by remaining self-similar, like those pesky water molecules.Something is meta-stable when it remains 'constant' by changing, like the games that Cindy and I were talking about.
  So what are the "cells of meaning"? Well, they are obviously NOT dictionary definitions, and that for two reasons.
  First of all, because if "cells of meaning" were dictionary definitions, all children would experience the same kind infinite regression that I experience with my Spanish-Spanish dictionary, and all linguists would experience the kind of Saussurean tautalogical quandrary the Vygotsky was anxious to avoid: meaning is a kind of meaning expressed by other meanings. Words are given meaning by other words. This will not do.
  Secondly, because if "cells of meaning" were dictionary definitions, they would not develop or change any more than water molecules do. In fact, if "cells of meaning" were dictionary definitions, we could never have developed written language out of spoken language, and there would be no dictionary definitions at all.
  That's why Volosinov distinguishes between "theme" and "meaning". "Meanings" are abstractions from all the different occasions when you have used a word, and like all abstractions they are self-similar and unchanging. You can look meanings up in a dictionary.
  But people don't talk dictionary meanings. They talk themes; they look each other in the eye, they point to their surroundings, they nod and wink and use intonation to show what the words really mean. Trying to put dictionary meanings together to make sentences is (according to Volosinov) like trying to make a light bulb shine after you've shut off the electricity.
  Volosinov imagines a cave man who has only a single word to express himself (a grunt or a scream or a laugh) and must necessarily apply it to every thing and every event and every experience he encounters. Is it, Volosinov asks, a word? Yes, Volosinov says, it is precisely a word...because the essence of a word is NOT meaning--but theme.
  (On the other hand, if we follow Volosinov's logic, we have to admit that when we open a dictionary what we see are NOT words, because they have only meaning, and no theme! This conclusion is slightly absurd, but it seems eminently reasonable to me when I am trying to look up those hundred words in my Spanish-Spanish dictionary!)
  Vygotsky's version is in many ways more "sensible", if you will pardon the pun. He argues that words contain variable, situational, NEGOTIABLE sense as well as meaning. For the child (Volosinov's cave man), the word is mostly sense and not meaning.
  This explains Piaget's discovery that meanings are not stable for children but more akin to verbal gestures. It certainly explains Charles Darwin's discovery that his grandson used the same word to mean "duck", "swan", "lake", "water", "glass" and "coin", and it explains Helen Keller's trouble disambiguating "milk", "mug", and "drink". Not surprisingly, the most common words in my own data base of child language tend to be "me" and "you" and "it" and "be" and "do" and "here" and "this"--all words which are mostly theme and not meaning.
  "Sense" is a good word here, because it implies that the content of the word is very much sensory--it is iconic and indexical, and not simply symbolic. This should answer your question about whether meaning is equivalent to symbolism.
   Of course, as the child grows older, the ratio of sense/meaning changes. This does not happen because the child learns lots of different senses and then "splits the difference", the way that Galton claimed concepts were formed (by super-imposing transparent photographic plates). It happens because the child learns the power of abstraction--the ability to create a new, abstract, self-similar, context-independent form of sense called "meaning".
  Eventually, at school, the child learns to THINK of language as being a kind of meaning/sense, where the dictionary definitions are the "chief" meaning of a word, and the actual situationally contingent uses of the word are derivative. But the truth, to any materialist (and Volosinov and Vygotsky were materialists to the core), is much nearer the opposite: "meaning" is an abstract, self-similar, and not very useful kind of sense.
  Let us tackle "consciousness" along the same lines, but here I think the word we want is not "sense" but rather "will". "Consciousness", or perhaps we should call it "cognition", evolves out of the child's ability to subordinate his being to his own will.
  Perhaps you know James Lantolf. He too is a Hispanophone with a strong interest in things Vygotskyan. When he was in Korea, he remarked that when Vygotsky says "consciousness" he really means "cognition".
  I have been thinking about this for a year or so (along with a number of differences that I have with Lantolf). On the one hand, he's right--in so far as Vygotsky is trying to get away from the "soul" based ideas of mind that lead directly the kind of tautalogy Vygotsky wanted to avoid: Consciousness is caused by cognition sounds a lot better than saying that consciousness is caused by consciousness.
  But it only SOUNDS better. In fact, it leads us to the same problem: what causes cognition? In fact, saying that words are units of cognition doesn't tell us much more about what they are made of and how they develop than saying that they are units of consciousness.
  Besides, when Vygotsky talks about consciousness, he is clearly NOT talking about the Freudian idea of a consciousness out of which unconciousness is carved through repression, or even Janet's idea of consciousness as being the state that we are in when we are not hyponotized or asleep.
  Neither of these ideas has much room for word-meaning, and in fact both of them inevitably take us back to a tautological idea: consciousness is primary, like word meanings in a dictionary. Consciousness just IS.
  Vygotsky talks about native language learning as a progression from unconscious use of language to conscious, deliberate analysis and synthesis (for example, the use of a monolingual dictionary). He talks about the learning of science as being a progression from the spontaneous, unselfconscious use of ideas to the rigorous definition and deliberate use of concepts. He talks about moral development in terms of a progression from other-regulation to conscious, volitional self-regulation. Now, all of these things are forms of cognition. In each case, the new element is not cognition but VOLITION, that is, the deliberate exercise of human will power.
  So it seems to me that Vygotsky is really talking about word-sense as a unit of VOLITION. Remember that LSV lived through a period of great ferment in the verbal arts. At the beginning of the 20th Century, literati from T.S. Eliot to Shklovsky agreed on one thing: meaning comes to us from the outside, not from within our souls. Eliot claimed it came from "tradition" and Shklovsky from disembodied structure. LSV is neither a traditionalist nor a structuralist, but he certainly DOES hold that volition comes to us, not from within ourselves, but from out there.
  If you think a minute, you will see that it has to be that way. Expecting human volition to come from within is like, as Luria says, expecting a shadow to carry stones. Or expecting a monolingual dictionary to make "sense"!
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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