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Re: [xmca] Leontiev and Sign

I've had a long familiarity with Silverstein's work. Two of my best friends were his doctoral students many years ago, and his work has interesting parallels to my own, though we've never really had a personal dialogue.

Silverstein was a pioneer in bringing linguistics and anthropology together, sort of the next generation after Dell Hymes. But he was not so ethnographically oriented (as Dell's own students were, e.g. Michelle Fine, Judith Irvine, Elinor Ochs et al.), and was more of a theoretician, trying to compete with the Chomskyans, setting a functionalist paradigm against the formalism dominant in linguistics. He was a student of Roman Jakobson at Harvard, and he must have encountered Voloshinov and probably Vygotsky, if not then, later.

What he has mainly tried to do is to show how the reflexive capacities of language for talking about talk, and for talk as a form as action (cf. Austin), help us understand how it becomes a powerful tool for social action and a bridge between culture in the macro-social sense and semiotic action in the micro-social sense. From Jakobson he took the key linguistic idea of "shifters", more formally called indexicals, and broadened its application to understand how what we say always both says something about us and at the same time helps remake ourselves and the situation we are talking about into what it then is (or is for us).

Silverstein is not easy to summarize, and he is even harder to read, and hardest of all to understand when he presents orally (hyperfluent). Unfortunately for some reason he never wrote a magnum opus (or hasn't yet), so his ideas are scattered among many papers, each one quite brilliant in itself.

I think Stanton Wortham, one of his former students, reads xmca and might give a better overview.


Jay Lemke
Professor (Adjunct)
Educational Studies
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

On Oct 5, 2009, at 3:32 PM, Tony Whitson wrote:

The questions L is asking make me think of the linguistic anthropologist Michael Silverstein. (Anybody here have views of his work?) A relevant collection, including some Silverstein, but also Wertsch, Holzman, and others is SOCIAL AND FUNCTIONAL APROACHES TO LANGUAGE AND THOUGHT, edited by Maya Hickmann, Academic Press 1987. There's only one Leontyev ref in the index, which is in a string of citations incl. Vygotsky, Luria, Leontyev, Scribner & Cole, LCHC 1981, and Wertsch. That appears in a chapter by Elinor Ochs, with whom, if I'm not mistaken, David Kirshner has had some acquaintance.

L's conjecture (below) seems harmonious with Peirce, it seems to me, except that Peirce would start not with perception, but with "feeling," which we can't really know directly because it is eclipsed by any thinking about it. But Peirce was very much concerned with how more advanced signs spring from and depend on such things as feeling and perception. Again, though, the caution that he wrote as a logician, not as a psychologist or linguist.

On Mon, 5 Oct 2009, Achilles Delari Junior wrote:


In his letter to Vigotski, A. N. Leontiev wrote about a number of theoretical that he understood "fundamental". The fifth one touch the problem of "sign". He said, for instance that "my intuition here is that the sign is the key!" I think that is very important to recognize that Vygotsky's theory is also an activity theory, but is there some study that searchs Leontiev's contributions
to "semiotic mediation" theory?

"5. In addition to these it is essential to work out theoretical questions,
directly guiding specific research.
It seems to me that among them belong: (a) The problem of F[unctional] S[ystems]: “possible” (i.e., something like quantum) I[nter]f[unctional] relations and “possible” functions of functions (after all a system is not a spring salad, but something presupposing only the possible, i.e., certain combinations); (b) Determination of i[nter]f[unctional] relations (the conditions under which they arise, the process of their birth, factors (= determinants);
here an experiment in their artificial formation is necessary,
that is, a “dynamic argument” is needed, an experiment along the lines of “ingrowth”). Here, it is necessary to think through the place, the role of the sign; my belief, or more precisely, my intuition here is that the sign is the key! Roughly speaking, the first operations with quantities involve
perception, further, the f[unctional] s[ystem] of perception, an
intell[ectual] operation. What has transformed the perc[eption] of quantities—
this simple operation, into a higher intell[ectual] function? The
inclusion of a unique sign—the concept of numbers, that is, the sign, a medium of intell[ect] (thought!). If this concept is real, then perception, operations with quantities using it specifically, is also included in a syst[em] of conceptual thought. This is all very crude and the example has not turned out successfully (it seems—there is no time to think!); (c) The problem “intellect–will,” that is, the problem (figuring out the problem!) of intention (this is already a given!); and (d) personality as a syst[em] expressed in concr[ete] problems, that is, how it is formulated."
(LEONTIEV, 2005, pp. 74-75)

Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, vol. 43, no. 3,
May–June 2005, pp. 70–77.
© 2005 M.E. Sharpe, Inc.

Thank you.
From Brazil.
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Tony Whitson
UD School of Education
NEWARK  DE  19716


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