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RE: [xmca] concepts

I’ve always supposed that the ‘meaning’ vs ‘sense’ distinction in Vygotsky is rather like that in Voloshinov’s Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. The meaning is the ‘dictionary’ term – what makes it possible for us to understand each other. But as Voloshinov suggests, there is more to the USE of a word than its shared, dictionary meaning. It is always ‘accented’ in use – the sense imparted can be, for example, smiley or sarcastic. It can draw on a whole host of other references and images. And it can be CONTESTED – indeed, a lot of everyday political argument is about the ‘accents’ and ‘associations’ and ‘references’ that particular words and phrases accumulate on the way. Much of the freight of words in everyday use is carried by their SENSES, and it's through changes in their senses that much of how words change occurs.

Colin Barker

From: xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu [xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu] on behalf of Martin Packer [packer@duq.edu]
Sent: 12 April 2011 00:54
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: Re: [xmca] concepts

On Apr 11, 2011, at 12:13 PM, Monica Hansen wrote:

> I would just like to go one further: severing the links between everyday
> discourse and scientific discourse would prevent the former(everyday) from
> informing the latter(scientific). There can be no higher psychological
> processes, no scientific concepts without everyday concepts because it is
> the specific and local nature of experience that informs all the others (and
> is informed by the others as well). It is the dialogic nature of concepts
> that makes them so fascinating and so powerful.

Hi Monica,

Yes, indeed, Vygotsky does write of this kind of link between EC and SC also. He suggests that the EC "stands between" an SC and its object, so it is certainly not that one replaces the other; they can operate together in complex ways. ("the everyday concept, standing between the scientific concept and its object, acquires a whole series of new relationships with other concepts and modifies its own relationship with the object.")

What might this "standing between" consist of? It might be - and I have been trying to figure this out - that what the EC offers to the SC is its sense, its "inner image." I have been trying to trace the possible sources of LSV's use of the term sense. As David K has pointed out, in chapter 7 the sense-reference distinction is attributed to Paulhan. But in chapter 5 the reference is to Peterson, in what seems to have been a pretty mainstream soviet linguistics text. It is hard for me not to think that Paulson must have been writing of Frege's famous distinction between sense and reference, or denotation. Whether or not LSV had read Frege, he certainly knew well the work of phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, who was strongly influenced by Frege. LSV even uses the same example that Husserl and Frege himself used to illustrate the sense-reference distinction: the two expressions "The victor at Jena" and "The vanquished at Waterloo" have the same referent (Napoleon), but they differ in what LSV calls (in translation, perhaps bad) their "meaning" or what Frege called their "sense."

Why is this important? Frege was concerned centrally with how it is that we can judge two things to be identical; how we can say that there are equal. Sameness, he argued, is not a relationship between objects, it is a relationship between the names or signs we use to refer to objects. But we can use different signs to refer to the same object and in doing so say something new about it. How is that possible? Frege explored the way that words and expressions not only refer to, and generalize about, an entity, they also in doing so express a sense that tells us something extra about the object.

Vygotsky, too, uses the term 'sense' to emphasize that a word is not simply an arbitrary, conventional link between an abstract concept and an object. The word "pomme" is not merely an empty link between a concept [apple] and an object on a tree; it also, as a consequence of its etymology, points out that the apple is 'the fruit of fruits' because of its biblical significance. The word "apple" in English does not contain the same sense.

Vygotsky wants 'sense' to do a lot of explanatory work. The climax of chapter 5 of T&S - the chapter which is the peak of the mountain in terms of length, complexity and difficulty - is that child and adult will use the same word with different senses, and this is what makes possible the child's development from pseudoconcepts to genuine concepts. Only because they use the same word to communicate, albeit with quite different sense, can the general law of cultural development operate. The child is using the concept "for-others," and in doing so becomes capable of using the concept "for-self."

There is an important issue here. How is it possible for two people to grasp different senses in the same word? Vygotsky emphasizes from chapter 1 that the appropriate unit of analysis is the "inner aspect of the word." In chapter 5 he traces the etymology of common Russian words to show, for example, how "mouse" contains the image "thief." But if this 'image' or 'sense' is *in* the word, how can child and adult find a different sense in the same word?

Frege, like LSV, insisted that language is not a system of meaningless symbols. There is debate in Frege scholarship over whether he considered sense invariant. Perhaps the question can be answered within Frege's general approach. Or perhaps I am wrong, and sense as Vygotsky understood it had a quite different source. Even so, though, the question remains, if the sense of a word is an "inner aspect," intrinsic to the word, how can two people find a different sense in the same word?

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