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Re: Vygotsky/tool/sign/symbol

Another relevant source, although after Vygotsky's time, is Susanne Langer. However, she summarizes Cassirer and Pierce and many others. In the "Philosophy in a New Key" she distinguishes between sign, signal and symbol.

Signs stand for something else, but are not “intended” by anyone, and often are either a part of the larger event for which they stand or in other ways associated with it by local proximity. For instance, lightning is a sign of thunder and storm.

Signals are different from signs in that they are developed within a culture and used by members of a community/culture with an intention to communicate certain very specific messages. For instance: green light on a traffic light means: “go!” and red light means “stop!” Signals are not natural parts of a situation or event, they are accepted arbitrary codes.

What distinguishes signals from symbols is their rigid association with the referent they denote. There is no room for interpretation: Green light in traffic means “go!” and only “go!” It never means anything else, and there is no room for polysemy or interpretation.

On the other hand, symbols are much more complex: they have to be interpreted depending on their context, on the history of their use and on a particular situation in which they are being used. Their meaning can fluctuate from situation to situation, from person to person, even from an intonation to an intonation within the same utterance. And yet, there is some consistency and rule-like constraint in the ways symbols change their meanings.

Vygotsky also struggled with the relationship between "znak" (sign/symbol??) and what it "stands for" or what function it plays in thinking and communication. In Thought and Language, Vygotsky tried to make a distinction between meaning and sense (smisl) of a symbol (znak) -- as that domain of meaning which is most dependent on the particular context and its relative locus in the context.