Re: [xmca] RE: meaning and sense and has anyone any opinion

From: ruqaiya hasan (
Date: Tue Aug 16 2005 - 01:01:53 PDT

Hello Michael

I really was glad to hear from you: for one thing it reassured me that there
is some real interest in seeing the connections. I agree that the discussion
has not been as 'concentrated' as the subject demanded. But perhaps that is
the nature of modern day existence -- one moves around so much. After today
I shall not be united with my notebook for at least another 14 days. So I
must try and address as best as I can at least some of the issues you have
raised. My interest too is not in debate as such but I do value discussion:
it often allows one to view problems from a different perspective.

As it happens I too have missed out on most of the discussion; in some cases
I was a silent listener to writers who are very familiar with the field and
I did not think that active participation in those debates would teach me
more than simply listening to them. Concrete psychology is one such field.
On Tools/signs I could have said something but again it would have
interrupted the thinking of colleagues who are -- or at least appear to
be -- very much more fluent. I do not see a difference between tool/sign:
from my reading of Vygotsky and reflection on what scholars have said on
vygotsky, it seems to me that the opposition is not here: sign is as much a
tool as a non-sign ie Vygotsky's "concrete tool" -- as I understood,
Vygotsky was using the funcitoning of concrete tool to bring home the
functioning of abstract tool (ie sign as tool), which also enabled him to
point out some important distinctions between concrete tools and semiotic
tools. The discussion of meaning in Vygotsky seems (to me) to be very
closely related to the specification of the semiotic, particularly,
linguistic tool in the performance of mental activities.

Yes, I agree with you that we must distinguish between 'misunderstanding'
and 'real disagreement'. I am less interested though in disputing or
establishing the 'credentials' of thinkers as belonging to this or that
discipline. My interest in Vygotrsky, Bernstein, Halliday, G H Mead, Bateson
and some other scholars is precisely because they have done their thinking
in such a way as to leave routes open for connecting with other important
issues which did not form their main focus. For example -- and you might
have to point out to me if my thinking differs from yours at this point --
Vygotsky's focus was on the development of specifically human mental
functions. He believed that semiotic modalities, especially language, plays
an important part in this process. His focus was not on the description of
language as such, but he exploreds those aspects of language which seemed to
him absolutely essential for mental development. Halliday's focus is on
language; the claim he makes about a child learning languageis that learning
a language involves learning language, learning about language and learning
through language. The last I see as resonating strongly with Vygotsky's main
hypothesis about the semiotic mediation of mental functions. Halliday does
not then begin to move into the field of psychology any more than I believe
Vygotsky moved to the field of linguistics: but through his case study of a
child, Halliday shows that discourse -- social interaction -- is where the
child finds the resources for shaping his/her language, ideas about that
language, as well as learning through language. If this is a psychological
claim then so be it. Then again there is another element of compatibility
between LSV and MAKH: language in this perspective has to be a
socio-historical phenomenon, not one which comes ready made in the folds of
one's brain and accidentally gets linked to the world of one's experience.
Thirdly, both Vygotsky and Halliday think of language as a meaning making
system, not simply as a meaning expressing system: the difference between
these positions is (speaking with oversimplification) the difference between
meaning as socio-historical semiotic creation as opposed to meaning as
naming: the latter concept refers to 'signalling' what is there present to
the senses, the former (ie socio-historical base for semiosis) is truly
symbolic, ie can only happen where there is a sign-system; in this view
language is not a set/collection of individual signs: it is a system of
signs wherein each sign has a value by virtue of its relation to other
signs. Similar openings can be found between Halliday and Bernstein and
between bernstein and Vygotsky. Bernstein certain makesw a psychological
claim in the same way, when he says that the child's consciousness is shaped
and his understanding of the social structure in which he is located becomes
defined by the acts of his own voluntary acts of discursive participation.
But his focus is on sociology: how is it that societies reproduce or change
themselves. this "psychological" claim is simply one element that has
significance in his system of explanations, the same way as Halliday's claim
about children's language learning is an element in his specification of the
nature of human language.

Where I see complementarity is in explanations in the wider domain: to me it
seems that if we wish to understand about how language works in the social
life of human beings, and how patterns of social life permeate language
function, and how language as we know it can only be spoken by a minded
being -- when we want to understand this wider canvass, we have to attend to
all three scholars: they complement each others' work. Not one of them by
himself can address the wider canvass; their theories being exotropic, allow
connections with other domains but they stay focused on either 'psychology'
or 'linguistics' or 'sociology'.

Now, because (as Bernstein said) the language of description in all these
fields is specific to that field (these are not vertical but horizontal
knowledge structures), reading these scholars is problematic: each has a
different language of description; unless one understands the theoretical
structure, one might not fully understand the significance of their terms
(theories too are systems, and theoretical concepts are like signs each
deriving its meaning by its relation to other signs). So the likelihood of
misunderstanding is pretty high. Besides our profession does not really pay
us for investing in "understanding"; it pays us only for "producing": there
is hardly enough time at one's disposal to try to understand so many
different "theoretical languages". I would suggest that there will also be
disagreements among these scholars. For example, for Bernstein and also for
Halliday 'semiotic mediation' per se could not be a 'uniform' process (as
it seems in Vygotsky): different forms of semiotic mediation will produce
different sorts of mental orientations, different habits of mind (as Lave
puts it). We talk a good deal about changing the education system, the
educator and I am sure all of us are sincere, but I cannot help thinking
that education is "for" already (at least partially) formed minds; unless we
take the variation in habitual forms of mediation into account, there is no
reason for us to feel sanguine that our so called reforms are going to do
something incredibly marvellous by way of educating. Let me put it this way:
if Vygotsky says semiotic mediation is the essence of education in the sense
that it makes human minds, then Bernstein says (not against but with
Vygotsky) every child brings a (partially) formed mind; speaking to that
mind so as to get through is the essence of semiotic mediation in good
education, and Halliday says in order to understand these complex facts and
to fashion your semiosis effectively, you must understand how and why
language works the way it does, and also how and why it gets learnt in the
first place. These three scholars together solve a much bigger puzzle than
any one of them solves by himself: in each individual case the story remains

I do not see this as a lack, a failure or something of that kind: I believe
human social existence is complex and no one can tell the whole story. This
is why we need to rethink our ideas about the nature of "optimal" theories
(hence my great admiration of exotropic theories). Also we tend to judge
theories in a way that is very much like the old "intelligence tests": lets
see what they have done; rather than this, we do need to look (with
apologies to Vygotsky) at the 'proximal zone of explanation' inherent in a
theory: the question is not what did this/that theory achieve, but rather
what CAN this/that theory achieve given the right theories to interact with.

I am sure I have not addressed all the issues you raised but I do feel a
little self-conscious writing all this -- so all I want to say in closing is
this: I am very happy to have any opinions on the thoughts I have expressed,
irrespective of whether they are in agreement or in disagreement with me.
Also if people have time, correcting what they might see as errors of
understanding on my part would be welcome.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Mike Cole" <>
To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <>
Sent: Sunday, August 14, 2005 7:30 AM
Subject: Re: [xmca] RE: meaning and sense and has anyone any opinion

H Ruqaiya-
 This time it was me who has been away where the internet cannot (yet)
intrude. I write because I feel a distinct lack of closure in the discussion
which really never got seriously to bernstein-- or I missed it.
 I have no particular interest in debate, but I am very interested in
between the followers of Vygotsky, Halliday, and Bernstein as well, as
of the ideas of those thinkers "themselves".
 I started late, so missed the discussion of "Concrete Psychology" and some
of the
"Tools/Signs" discussion.
 My question is: where the complimentarties? Where are there principled
 I agree wholeheartedly that we are not looking for one-one matches.
"Meaning is the most stabile zone of sense"
does not mean that meaning is context-independent. Then entire concept of
"context-independent" seems to give
rise to as many misunderstandings as "object." Operating in at least two
different ontological/epsitemological systems (e.g
the difference associated with the systems we call psychology, lingustics,
and sociology) its a real challenge to figure out
the difference between misunderstandings and real disagreements. For the
latter some frame, some "discipline" seems
 From what I have been able to make of the conversation, there is a good
deal of overlap among the systems of ideas and the
phenomena they relate to. It seems agreed, for example, that LSV was not a
linguist and did not work from a highly elaborated
linguistics, especially a linguistics informed by recent decades of research
on grammar, thereby creating problems in relating sound,
meaning, and grammar and their psychological implications.
 I come away completely unclear whether Halliday is making psychological
claims (I think is does, but I am not a trained linguist so I
am unsure "what counts."). I am pretty sure Bernstein does make
psychological claims, but I may be wrong.
 I think, overall, the trio of lsv, halliday, and bernstein have provided a
lot of food for thought.
 One place I tried to relate our theoretical discussion to its historical
enviroment was when the discussion of education and democracy
came up. Here I believe we commonly face a difficulty dilmma. The forms of
interaction we tend to respond to as "good" ( we value
them) privilege individual agency as essential to learning and development
-- In the beginning was the DEED. But our social mechanisms
are formed so that, overwhelmingly, the developing child is encouraged to
believe that in the beginning was the WORD. "Take your seats"
was here many millenia before I came along.
 I thought Kozulin's discussion of Davydov, although no one responded to
it., particularly interesting because it was a case study of a person
using CHAT, struggling to implement a set of ideas about education that look
highly theoretical and perhaps only for the well-to-do but which
a number of Russian researchers have used a method of critique not only of
education, but of society as well. A presumably "neutral" curriculum
is nothing of the sort. And ditto for us in our time(s) and place (s). And,
of course, Davydov's colleagues and students, as well as others outside
of Russia have made up curricula for the arts and history which it is very
difficult to see as ideologically neutral.
 Still a lot of food for thought. But the food is strewn all 'round my

 On 8/6/05, ruqaiya hasan <> wrote:
> Hi Gordon and everyone
> So much has been written on the topic of meaning and sense that it seems
> rash to pick it up once again, when people are perhaps just about ready to
> close the topic. (The whole debate unfortunately came at a bad time for me
> when I could read quickly but never manage to write back in a regular
> fashion). But I do want to say a few things, and some of them relate
> closely
> to what you have said in this message.
> I would have said that in probing, say, Halliday and Vygotsky on the
> question of meaning, sense etc the aim is not so much to find a "correct
> match": translating one theory into another is no less problematic than
> translating a text from one language into another. There is only the
> possibility of 'approximation' acorss the two, not of 'replication' in the
> majority of cases. One thing that makes even approximation a little
> problematic is the a-symmetry in the systemic relation between meaning and
> sense on the one hand and meaning, reference and sense on the other. When
> roughly the same domain is seen in terms of three vectors of
> differentiation, it presents a picture that is substantially different
> from
> the picture presented by a two vector differentiation. Certain
> distinctions
> are made more explicit in the former, less so in the latter.
> You have suggested Gordon, "Halliday, as linguists, treat 'meaning' as
> comprised of 'sense' and 'reference'.However, when Vygotsky contrasted
> 'meaning' and 'sense', he was making a psychological distinction rather
> than a linguistic one." I don't quite understand in what sense you use the
> term "psychological" here. Are you suggesting that "sense and meaning"
> might
> be in some way related to higher mental functions of the human species; if
> so, the question naturally arises how are such "psychological concepts"
> mediated; if they are not mediated then they must be bio-genetic; and this
> in my understanding would go entirely against the Vygotskian position. So
> a
> psychological concetualisation of meaning must be based on the meaning
> process we refer to as semiotic mediation -- this makes an interesting
> reading. Would you agree?
> You also suggested the following: " Linguists typically deal with units
> such
> as word or clause in terms of their relationship to other units within the
> system of a language and to the entities, states, etc, in the world to
> which they may refer. On the other hand, although Vygotsky was discussing
> his chosen unit 'word', it seems to me that he was thinking of its
> contextualized utterance by a speaker in interaction with a discourse
> partner or with himself. If this is correct, the distinction he was making
> was between the 'meaning'of a word as it might appear in a dictionary and
> the personal 'sense' it has for the speaker, as a result of the contexts
> is
> which s/he has heard or used the word before, together
> with the affective overtones it carries with it."
> It seems to me that SFL position on menaing is not the same as that of
> other
> linguistic models that I am familiar with. As you know in SFL meaning is
> viewed in context -- both the context of situation in which the
> interaction
> is embedded and also the context of the text within which any unit of
> language word, clause or clause complex is embedded. Besides in as much as
> speaker affect is realised linguistically, it is in SFL amenable to
> linguistic analysis since meaning is not simply "cognitive/referential"
> but
> "interactive/interpersonal" and is based in relevance since there is also
> textuality aspect of meaning. Relevance has to be interactant-context
> centred.
> What goes into the dictionary is not linguists' imagined 'word meaning':
> it
> is typically a record of the default understanding and use of items by
> members of large segments of the speech community: this understanding they
> derive from their interactions with others in the community.
> Ruqaiya
> ----- Original Message -----
> From: "Gordon Wells" <>
> To: <>
> Sent: Thursday, July 28, 2005 1:31 AM
> Subject: Re: [xmca] RE: meaning and sense and has anyone any opinion
> > Ruqaiya, Michael, Mike and Others,
> >
> > When I looked again at the message to which Ruqaiya replied as below,
> > I realized it wasn't as clear as I had thought. But before I try to
> > clarify my intended meaning, I want to suggest that there is perhaps
> > an incommensurability at the heart of our problem in trying to decide
> > the correct match between Vygotsky's 'meaning' and 'sense' and the
> > comparable terms in SFL.
> >
> > I think the problem is that Ruqaiya and Halliday, as linguists, treat
> > 'meaning' as comprised of 'sense' and 'reference'.However, when
> > Vygotsky contrasted 'meaning' and 'sense', he was making a
> > psychological distinction rather than a linguistic one. Linguists
> > typically deal with units such as word or clause in terms of their
> > relationship to other units within the system of a language and to
> > the entities, states, etc, in the world to which they may refer. On
> > the other hand, although Vygotsky was discussing his chosen unit
> > 'word', it seems to me that he was thinking of its contextualized
> > utterance by a speaker in interaction with a discourse partner or
> > with himself. If this is correct, the distinction he was making was
> > between the 'meaning'of a word as it might appear in a dictionary and
> > the personal 'sense' it has for the speaker, as a result of the
> > contexts is which s/he has heard or used the word before, together
> > with the affective overtones it carries with it.This is how I
> > interpret the following quote from Thinking and Speech.
> >
> > A word's sense is the aggregate of all the psychological facts that
> > arise in our consciousness as a result of the word. Sense is a
> > dynamic, fluid, and complex formation which has several zones that
> > vary in their stability. . . . In different contexts, a word's sense
> > changes. In contrast, meaning is a comparatively fixed and stable
> > point, one that remains constant with all the changes of the word's
> > sense that are associated with its use in various contexts. . . . The
> > actual meaning of a word is inconstant. In one operation the word
> > emerges with one meaning; in another, another is acquired. (1987, p.
> > 276)
> >
> >
> > My previous message was somewhat off topic. But Halliday's (1984)
> > paper, "Language as Code and language as Behavior", suggests that
> > there is some overlap between his distinction between dynamic and
> > synoptic and distinctions that both Vygotsky and Bruner have made. As
> > I understand it, "dynamic" applies to registers that are informal and
> > related to ongoing activity, whereas "synoptic" applies to registers
> > that formulate relationships between events and states of affais, as
> > seen from "above", as it were. This is quite close to Bruner's
> > distinction between "narrative" and "paradigmatic" modes of meaning.
> > So it seems to me that Vygotsky's distinction between "everyday" and
> > "scientific" concepts maps quite closely on to the two former
> > distinctions.
> >
> > But this is not the same issue as the distinction between meaning and
> > sense. On that issue, I liked Michael's:
> >
> > >If I understand right, sense is tied to the relation of activity
> > >(something collectively motivated) and action (something
> > >individually realized). So sense arises from the dialectic relation
> > >of self and other, individual and collective. Some writers use the
> > >qualifier "personal" to situate "sense."
> > >
> > >Perhaps that gives us an entry point to understanding meaning, as a
> > >generalized version of personal sense, that is, the possibilities of
> > >sense available at the collective level.
> > >
> > >
> >
> > Gordon
> >
> > >Gordon hello
> > >I am quite bemused by "dynamic/everyday/narrative v.
> > >synoptic/scientific/paradigmatic modes of meaning-making." what do the
> > >slashes indicate? Are they post-modenist or the conventional "or" sign.
> I
> > >really do not find it easy to interpret the lexical items of the second
> set
> > >in their present collocation.
> > >
> > >At one stage I had thought the issue was the conceptualisation of
> meaning
> in
> > >language or meaning construed by language, but I must6 have got it
> wrong.
> > >H'm well -- perhaps its that I am just not used to "dynamic" discourse
> > >online. I was even more lost with your comment which I quote below:
> > >Similarly, Halliday's dynamic/ synoptic distinction might be equated
> with
> > >narrative/syntagmatic - to some degree!!, while synoptic highlights
> > >the paradigmatic relationship between alternative lexicogrammatical
> > >realizations of the same event, with a focus on grammatical metaphor
> > >through nominalization.
> > >
> > >I most probably do not have anything very sensible from the points of
> view
> > >of the direction of the present disdcourse on sense and meaning.
> > >
> > >Ruqaiya
> > >
> >
> > --
> > Gordon Wells
> > Dept of Education,
> > UC Santa Cruz.
> >
> --------------------------------------------------------------------------

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