Re: [xmca] Concepts as Meta-Artefacts

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at>
Date: Sun May 11 2008 - 19:33:03 PDT

In G.B. Shaw's play "Major Barbara", the cynical millionaire arms manufacturer Andrew Undershaft (doubtless the original for the current summer blockbuster "Iron Man") remarks to his future son-in-law that men in love frequently overestimate the differences between one female and another.
  Undershaft is a character; that is, a voice inside a voice. Shaw is using this voice inside his voice to draw attention to the extreme fungibility of the bourgeois world view, the way in which all values are reducible to interchangeable units of money and all lives reducible to mutually equivalent deaths, preferably (profitably) brought about using one of the products of Undershaft Enterprises.
  Shaw is, of course, affirming the opposite. He's arguing that theatre-goers tend to UNDERestimate the difference between one voice and another, one play and another, one playwright and another. We linguists too, at least in the bourgeois era, have tended to grossly overestimate the SIMILARITY between one voice and another, one text and another, and of course one utterance and another.
  I think that's Volosinov's point, and it's got nothing to do with "denotation" or "connotation", contrary to what AAL thought. "Denotation" and "connotation" are both types of meaning which lie firmly within the fundamentally bourgeois notion of sentence meaning. They are BOTH both aliquot and fungible; they are BOTH divisible into parts and BOTH cannabalizeable, being made up, like a Model T, of interchangeable parts.
  "Denotation" is divisible into dictionary meanings, and the meaning of a sentence (accordign to this form of semantics) is simply the sum of these dictionary meanings, perhaps with some contextual "wild card" thrown in. But "connotation" is also aliquot and fungible, both because it is dependent on denotation (the "social contract" that Saussureans believe in) and because it is anchored (so says Paulhan) in individual experience, and individual experiences of words are considered equivalent in importance because individuals are, in the bourgeois system, the ultimate interchangeable part.
  I think it's safe to say that LSV could NOT have had "denotation" and "connotation" in mind when he began to speak of "sense" and "meaning" at the very end of Thinking and Speech. Pehaps he'd just read the Paulhan paper, and he picked up the two words without thinking to much about how Paulhan was using them, or perhaps he just didn't have time to thoroughly criticize them.
  Perhaps he was avoiding Volosinov's term "theme" because it means something quite different in literary studies or because the whole circle around Volosinov had been broken up and its major figures were either under arrest or on the verge of arrest. Perhaps (though I find this VERY hard to believe) he hadn't actually read Volosinov (though we know that Volosinov knew and read him).
  But in any case, the last part of Thinking and Speech makes a LOT more sense when we substitute "theme" and "meaning" for "sense (smysl)" and "meaning (znachenie)". First of all, it becomes clear why "meaning" is the "most stable" zone of "sense". "Senses" are simply the variegated pragmatic uses of a particular semantic meaning; sense is the ensemble of utterances that word is involved in. "Meaning" is the abstract, self-similar "essence" of that ensemble of utterances, and that is why it is implicated in conceptual use.
  My point was that this abstract "essence" is expressed in English by the plural form. That's why our elementary school book has the sentence "I like apples". But most non Standard Average European languages do not express concepts in this way at all. Chinese, for example, uses the bare form of the noun, and so does Korean.
  Arabic expresses many concepts using the feminine singular ending (ta marbuta), so that the feminine singular has now become a generalized way of expressing the plural of inanimate objects. When I studied Arabic in the early eighties, we Westerners rather ignorantly thought this was a comment on the nature of the feminine. It was, correctly seen, only a comment on the arbitrariness (and the inconsistency) with which languages like English and Arabic employ morphological forms to express semantic meaning independent of pragmatic use. It's an example of the way in which ALL language overestimate the similarity between object. In the same way, we grossly overestimate the similarity between utterances. That's how we get word meanings.
  Using language to talk about language is notoriously hard--I notice this on a daily basis because I work with transcripts of teacher talk. But it's not simply because we are "using a bamboo brush to paint the bamboo", or because we can't see the bamboo forest for the trees. It's also because our concept of "language" is based on an abstract system rather than a real, material experience. It's based on an abstract vision of interchangeable parts rather than a living experience of interdependent neighborhoods. But when we use language to actually talk, even when we are only talking about language, that's not what it is at all.
  When we started painting and exhibiting in China in the early nineties, our first exhibition was on houses and cities (and their general lack of relationship to human needs). We called it "The City is a Shiny Box" (well, it sounds a lot better in Chinese, but the topic was still too abstract and needed to be made concrete). I did a large painting of a street near our studio full of open manholes (because criminals were stealing the manhole covers and selling them for scrap). Every hole was unique; only the missing manhole covers were identical and interchangeable. It was the only painting I ever sold at a profit, but I still miss it.
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education
  PS: Mike--when I say that people who do not learn foreign languages as school subjects do not experience them as languages, but only as different ways of speaking, I am referring to the experience of a language as an abstract system. Of course, even as a four year old, I knew that there was a "thing" called French. But to me, in my four year old life, French was something I did, not something I knew. This is not unrelated to the fact that it was something I HAD to do in the company of certain people and not others, and it was not something I could choose to do or not to do.
  I don't think that the illiterate multi-lingual's notion of language is necessarily less "scientific" than that of the linguist. In some ways it is more so, because the reality of a language is more like a city than like a dictionary. But you can see where a dictionary might be more useful if your main job was turning turning texts into discourses and vice versa. And you can also see that the "system" of language is more susceptible to random access.
  Mike Cole <> wrote:
  DAvid-- I went and checked at the xmca archive, but your change of subject
line has disconnected these comments from Cathrene's so I am failing to pick
up the thread.
I understand that we do not hammer nails with the meaning of hammer, but
your last line confuses me. (To hammer in a nail ("a" nail not "nails"), you
use a theme, "the hammer", and not a meaning "hammers". ).

*Why cant I hammer nailS but can hammer a nail?
What is the larger point here that I am missing?


On Mon, Apr 28, 2008 at 4:05 PM, David Kellogg

> Pardon the change of subject line, but I think that Cathrene has brought
> in a distinct change of topic, and it's (for me) quite an illuminating one.
> At first I was quite taken aback at the sudden interjection of LSV's use
> of "sense" and "meaning" from Paulhan. I think these two terms do NOT mean,
> in Vygotsky's mouth, what Paulhan meant, and they CERTAINLY don't mean what
> they meant in A.A. Leontiev's ears (that is, "sense" is nothing more than
> connotation, and "meaning" is merely dictionary denotation).
> I think they mean what Volosinov meant when he distinguished betwen
> "theme" and "meaning". Consider a word like "I" or "you" or "it" or "this"
> or "that". What do they "mean"? Well, that depends entirely on who is saying
> the word, where, and when. And even then the meaning doesn't last for very
> long. Like a grunt (or like the drunken expletive in Dostoevsky that both
> Volosinov and Vygotsky use), it is all theme and no fixed meaning.
> Now consider a word like "hammer" (thanks, Martin!). Of course, this too
> can vary; if I am pounding in nails with a rock I can call it a hammer, and
> in China in the early eighties the word "iron hammer" meant Lang Ping, the
> captain of our volleyball team, who famously slew the Americans at the Los
> Angeles Olympics. But the RATIO of invariable ("self-identical", normative)
> dictionary meaning to variable (mutable, flexible, polymorphous) contextual
> meaning is clearly much higher than with pronouns, demonstratives, and
> deictics.
> Still, "the hammer" and even "a hammer" is not yet a concept. In English,
> conceptitude is rather confusingly expressed by the plural, "hammers". This
> conveys the "meaning" (as opposed to a theme) of an abstract, hypothetical
> set of all hammers. This is a bizarre quirk of English (and not very
> consistent in English either, since we use "Man" to express the concept of
> "humans" and we go around saying things like "Marriage is a market").
> It is untrue of other languages, which treat the plural as simply
> referring to "more than one" (e.g. Korean), and it's an endless source of
> difficulty for Korean elementary school students who, with the utterance "I
> like an apple" have turned our lesson "I like apples" into a prosaic version
> of Prokofiev's "Love of Three Oranges".
> What is the difference between this abstract set of all conceivable
> hammers and a real, concrete box of hammers at the hardware store? In
> English, there is no way to express this difference at the lexical level
> (other languages, more reasonably, use the bare form of the noun for the
> concept and the plural form to express the idea of more than one concrete
> object). It has to be expressed at the thematic level, as an utterance.
> So Cathrene's comment, after all, turns out to be key: the concept of
> "hammers" is no ordinary artifact but a meta-artefact. Like any concept,
> it's a word meaning, a droplet of consciousness, a generalization which has
> been formed and shared through words.
> Yes, these words are about things. Yes, the things they are about are
> tools. But no, you can't break a walnut with the meaning of "hammers" any
> more than you can with the name hammer or Lang Ping or M.C. Hammer. As my
> dad always says, you need the right tool for the job. To hammer in a nail
> ("a" nail not "nails"), you use a theme, "the hammer", and not a meaning
> "hammers".
> David Kellogg
> Seoul National University of Education
> ---------------------------------
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Received on Sun May 11 19:34 PDT 2008

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