Mind, Culture, and Activity
An International Journal

MCA Discussion Articles Vol 10, No.3

Bente Eriksen Hagtvet & Astri Heen Wold
On the Dialogical Basis of Meaning: Inquiries into Ragnar Rommetveit’s Writings on Language, Thought, and Communication

Given the complexity of cognitive and language development, and given that most scholars consider humans to be products of biological-individual and socio-cultural forces, the tendency to study language and cognition as either primarily a socio-cultural or primarily a biological-psychological phenomenon, is striking. This tendency to compartmentalize research is not unique to the study of language and cognition. Rather, academic systems tend to organize their activities in dichotomies, for example natural scientific versus humanistic research paradigms, quantitative versus qualitative research, modern versus post-modern conceptualizations. A position may in rare cases reflect theoretically based convictions, but more typically there “seem to be few bases other than personal preference or disciplinary affiliation for making a selection among the alternatives” (Wertsch, 1995, p. 58). In fact, both ethical and scientific considerations make dichotomies inadequate for dealing with multifaceted, complex reality.

Ragnar Rommetveit represents an alternative to research approaches that enhance the segmentation of insights into language, thought, and communication, rather than their integration. The aim of this article is to explore some crucial dimensions of Rommetveit’s thought in order to demonstrate their relevance and importance to scientific disciplines, in particular to the study of language and communication in psychology and education.

In his research writings and academic life as an adviser and lecturer, Rommetveit has advocated an open position towards methodological issues as well as towards theoretical paradigms and scientific traditions. For example, he has used experimental methodology in studies of reading under conditions of binocular rivalry (Rommetveit & Blakar, 1973) and has used humanistically oriented discourse analysis in examining the opening dialogue between Nora and Helmer in Henrik Ibsen’s Doll House (Rommetveit, 1991a). Thus, experimental and humanistic methods are viewed not in opposition, but as complementary tools representing different perspectives on mental activities and human interaction.

To gain deeper insights into a complex and multifaceted world (cf. Linell, this issue), Rommetveit consistently argues, for example, that descriptions of reality are dependent on the perspective adopted by the communicators, and also that a word’s meaning is dependent on its context of use. Yet at the same time he discards the post-modern idea that all perspectives are equally acceptable. Influenced by theoretical traditions like Gestalt psychology, European continental phenomenology, and socio-cultural theories from the former Soviet Union, Rommetveit’s theoretical framework is truly interdisciplinary.

This broad scope of mind and range of perspectives have given numerous students and colleagues – including ourselves – valuable insights into a reality that appears less orderly and simple, but more real than the one portrayed in more traditional approaches. At the same time we appreciate that the implications of Rommetveit’s approach are often difficult to understand in depth. What is the basis of scientific truth if scientific results are dependent on the perspective chosen by the researcher? Are some perspectives more acceptable than others? Where do truth and morality enter the scene when nothing is objective? How may children learn the meaning of words when “literal meaning” does not exist? Does his openness imply a nihilistic position where everything goes and there are no ways to evaluate scientific results and everyday descriptions as good or bad, right or wrong? Is Rommetveit’s world a pre-modern version of post-modernism – “an orgy in pluralism,” as some of his colleagues have argued in friendly conversations with him?

Underneath Rommetveit’s pluralistic approach, however, there are clear restrictions, presuppositions, and principles that direct scientific work and set limits for possible interpretations. These restrictions may be harder to detect than are the multitude of potentially “chaotic” perspectives. Also, Rommetveit has himself shown a greater dedication to arguing against what he sees as wrongly perceived objectivism and “literal meanings” in mainstream psychology and linguistics than in making restrictions on openness explicit.

In this article we foreground these restrictions. First, however, we will focus on dimensions that open and expand the paradigm by discussing some concepts of crucial importance to Rommetveit’s thinking – concepts like “perspective,” “position,” and “aspect,” and also the related notion of word meaning in terms of “meaning potentials.” Second, we will elaborate on concepts that impose restrictions on perspectival pluralism by means of the notions of “dialogue,” “truth,” and “values.” We have analyzed these restrictions in a series of discussions with Ragnar Rommetveit while writing this article. In addition, we are drawing upon research seminars, lunch conversations, and readings over a span of more than thirty years.

Ragnar Rommetveit
On the Role of “a Psychology of the Second Person” in Studies of Meaning, Language and Mind

The boundary between a biological organism and its external ecological habitat, as conceived of by lay people as well as learned biologists, is the skin. The boundaries between some of the academic disciplines dealing with issues of meaning in language and human life betray an underlying conception of the relation between the human mind and the cultural collectivity it has been socialized into as equally disjunctive: What can be located inside of the individual mind is eo ipso conceived of as residing outside of the cultural collectivity and vice versa.

The aim of this essay is to enquire into issues of meaning which until recently have remained largely unexplored in a no man’s land between, on the one hand, mainly humanistically oriented studies of collectively constituted meaning and language as a system and, on the other, studies of individual human cognition, linguistic competence and performance, and situated linguistic mediation of meaning. The potential contribution of psychology to such a cross-disciplinary venture, I shall argue, is twofold: Some important issues of meaning can be conceptualized and further explored in terms of a psychology of the individual organism. Other, more basic problems can only be captured and explored by what I shall term “a psychology of the second person.”

Henrik Wergeland – Norway’s Walt Whitman – wrote more than 150 years ago in his great poem about the evolution of man:

Do not forget that thou are dust.
Do not forget that thou are more than dust.

These words sound like a poetic pronouncement of the philosophical doctrine of dualism: Humans are part of nature, a biological organism subject to natural laws and natural scientific explanation; yet humans are also inhabitants of an immanently meaningful world and, as such, only intelligible as a “you,” “ from within.” However, Wergeland’s words may be read as a memento to psychologists seriously concerned with issues of meaning as follows: Do not forget that it is your vocation to challenge the doctrine of dualism and try to combine knowledge about humans as biological organisms and insights into humans “from within” in a hybrid academic discipline aimed at insight into humans as “animal symbolicum” (Cassirer, 1944).

Per Linell
Dialogical Tensions: On Rommetveitian Themes of Minds, Meanings, Monologues and Languages

A persistent theme1 in most of Ragnar Rommetveit’s writings has been his wish for a “social-cognitive” integration of different approaches to human action, cognition, and communication – on the one hand, more cognitively oriented, representational-computational approaches to human cognition and communication, and, on the other hand, a hermeneutic-dialogical paradigm which stresses the dynamic and interactive nature of the individual mind as embedded within a cultural collectivity (e.g., Rommetveit, 1983, 1992, 1998). To a large part, these two epistemologies represent natural science explanation and humanistic understanding of man, respectively (Rommetveit, 1998, p. 215). If there is a desire for integration or reconciliation between these perspectives, there is also, in Rommetveit’s work, a clear preference for the latter perspective, that is, a dialogically based approach to language and mind (Rommetveit 1990, 1992, 1998), something which may seem to exclude the integration desired. If all this, taken together, represents a tension or oscillation between two different stances, it is rather typical for dialogism more generally (Wold, 1992a, 1992b; Linell, 1998; Marková, in press); the tension between, on the one hand, dialogism as the only overall epistemological framework, and, on the other hand, the acknowledgment of monologues and dialogues as both existing (and interacting) in a dialogically constituted world. In this essay, I shall elaborate on this as the “big” tension in dialogism, but I will also discuss some other ambivalences in the work of Rommetveit and other dialogists.2

In the course of my journey across some Rommetveitian themes, stories, tropes and metonymies, I shall comment on four issues in particular: (1) the so-called double dialogicality as applied to the partial sharedness of meaning, (2) double dialogicality in relation to the roles concrete other and the generalized other, (3) the place of praxis in relation to the situational versus socio-cultural dimensions of sense-making, and (4) the place of monologue and monologism within dialogism. My approach is thoroughly dependent on Ragnar Rommetveit’s insights (and the same holds for a wide circle of researchers on language and communication, see Wertsch’s introduction to this journal issue).

Eduardo F. Mortimer & James V. Wertsch
The Architecture and Dynamics of Intersubjectivity in Science Classrooms

In this article we shall examine instructional discourse from the perspective of how it involves the creation and maintenance of intersubjectivity. Specifically, we shall examine discourse from a Brazilian eighth grade science classroom and explore some of the implications our analyses have for understanding the dynamics of intersubjectivity in general and for understanding intersubjectivity in pedagogical settings in particular. The illustrations we shall use allow us to examine how “speech genres” (Bakhtin, 1986) are involved in the negotiation of intersubjectivity, how they shape “bids” in such negotiation (Rommetveit, 1974), and how they may be resisted as well as accepted.

Jay A. Seitz
A Communitarian Approach to Creativity

The political and cultural milieu and the differential distribution of power among individuals and groups within a society constrain creative activity in science, art, and entrepreneurship. Standard psychological theories view creativity as arising largely from the unique or extraordinary characteristics of individuals (e.g., mental processes, background knowledge, intellective style, personality, motivation, and so on) giving voice to social attitudes and beliefs about the folklore of such terms as the lone genius, brilliant inventor, estranged artist, or ruthless entrepreneur. In fact, any creative product emerges from a unique coincidence of individual intellective abilities; the nature and relative sophistication of a scientific, artistic or entrepreneurial domain; the complexity and structure of the field of legitimization; and the distribution of power and resources within a group, community or society.


MCA Journal Archive