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

From: Mike Cole (
Date: Tue Aug 16 2005 - 19:57:41 PDT

Thanks very much for the thoughtful reply, Ruqaiya.
I will be interested in what others who have been following this
thread have to say.
 "see you" when you come back on line.

 On 8/16/05, ruqaiya hasan <> wrote:
> 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
> partial.
> 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.
> Ruqaiya
> ----- 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
> relationships
> between the followers of Vygotsky, Halliday, and Bernstein as well, as
> course
> 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
> disagreements?
> 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
> required.
> 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
> study!
> mike
> 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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