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Re: [xmca] activity (was concepts)

On Apr 21, 2011, at 2:17 AM, Andy Blunden wrote:

> * The quotes you give seem to confirm for me that as a unit of an activity, "act" is exactly the right term for his use of "word meaning."

Hi Andy,

LSV nowhere suggests that word meaning is an act. Word meaning, he says, is the "unity" of thinking and speaking, because when one uses a word (or words) in speaking, one is necessarily generalizing, and generalization is an act of thinking. That has the consequence, he argues, that by studying word meaning as the unit of analysis one is able to investigate the (dynamic, complex) relationship between speaking and thinking.

So what is word meaning? 

LSV tells us it is the "inner form" of the word. LSV himself used the notion of inner form before, in the Psychology of Art, where he explained that a word has not two but three basic elements: its sound, or “external form”; its meaning or significance [does anyone have the Russian to check the translation here?]; and its “inner form.” This third aspect, he says, is to be understood as the etymological form that expresses the content. It is often forgotten or displaced. For example, the Russian word for "mouse" once signified "thief", and only by means of the inner form have the sounds acquired the meaning “mouse.” The inner aspect is the “image” that a word contains; it can be said to be the link *between* sound and meaning, between signifier and signified. The fact that LSV could also write of the 'inner form' of a statue makes it clear that 'inner' here does not mean 'inside'- for there is nothing special inside the marble. The form is 'inner' in the sense that it is the 'internal' relation between material and idea (in the case of the statue) and between sound and meaning (in the case of the word). It mediates, in other words, between the *material* and the *ideal* aspects.

But the term "inner form" is much older. Dilthey pointed out that Aristotle wrote in his Poetics of the “inner structure” of the tragedy, in an analysis that LSV knew well. Von Humbolt wrote of “innere Sprachform” as the way a language shapes both the perception and the conceptions of its speakers. (He seems to have been rethinking the Kantian relationship between receptivity (sensibility) and creativity (reason); the forms that Kant proposed are imposed by mind were, for Von Humbolt, provided by language.) Potebnya argued that words carry not only a meaning, but also the past experience of the individual and the nation, through which all new experience is filtered. Consequently a word usually has three aspects: an external form, a meaning, and an internal form. In many cases the internal form is rooted in myth and, hence, acts as a bridge between folklore and modern language. With time the consciousness of a word's internal form fades, and one of the tasks of literature is to restore this consciousness.

The fact that different languages use different words to refer to a single object and so express a single concept is usually taken to be evidence in support of Saussure's claim that words are arbitrary signs. Apple, pomme and manzana, for example, seem to be arbitrary equivalents. It appears that we could use any sound at all to talk about the idea of an apple.

But in fact, manzana and pomme do not have an arbitrary relationship to their referents. The Spanish word “manzana” comes from the Iberian pronunciation of matiana, a Gallo-Roman translation of the Latin word matianum, which was a scented, golden apple first raised by and named after Matius, a friend of Caesar's who was also a cookbook author. In short, “mazana” originally meant something like “chef Matius’ special fruit.”

And the French term 'pomme' comes from the Latin pomum, which originally referred to all fruit. Before Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire, some time in the 4th Century, the Latin word malum (melon in Greek) meant "apple." After the adoption of Christianity, however, and due to the important symbolism of the apple in the bible (ie, the Garden of Eden), the general term pomum, "fruit," was used to describe the apple as "the fruit of fruits." In short, ‘pomme’ originally meant something like “the special fruit.” 

These are the kinds of examples of etymological origins and shifts that LSV gives, though his are in Russian, so I find them harder to grasp.

I have already mentioned that LSV concludes chapter 5 with the suggestion that “it is important to differentiate two aspects of what is commonly referred to as the meaning of a word”: (1) meaning “in the proper sense of the word” and (2) objective reference, because making this distinction helps us understand both ontogenesis and historical language change. He suggests that words change their meaning historically “in the same way as they do in the case of children,” so that everyday words are complexive in character. He returns here to his suggestion in chapter 1 that a word contains an image, which can be effaced or forgotten, so that the connection between sound and meaning appears to be solely arbitrary and so “incomprehensible,” though in fact it is not. 

I actually think LSV could do more than he actually does with this notion of word meaning. For example, he suggests that in the "transfer" of a word from one thing to another, word meaning is *not* involved. He argues that when we talk of the “leg of a table,” for example, the word "leg" is functioning solely to indicate or name. It is “not a sign for some meaning with which it is bound up in the act of thinking,” the word is merely “a perceptually given thing which is associatively connected to another perceptually given thing.” The word here is a name that was bound to one object, then transferred to another object which is similar, in a concrete and historically contingent manner. 

An alternative analysis, though, might be that there are systematic metaphoric substitutions in any language, such as “love is a journey.” This of course is Lakoff's example, and Lakoff argues that metaphor is "a conceptual system underlying" language, that provides an "ontological mapping across conceptual domains." LSV doesn’t seem to be interested in metaphor. To raise this point is to risk confusing our discussion, though, because what Lakoff calls 'conceptual' here is not what LSV considers conceptual. The kind of knowledge that metaphor provides through its mappings is what LSV considers to be word meaning.

This is not to say that there are no problems with LSV's account of word-meaning. One problem is that, if meaning is ‘in’ a word, it is not clear how it can differ for child and adult. It turns out that there is a considerable literature on this issue in the context of Frege’s distinction between sense [which LSV translates as 'meaning'] and reference, and it suggests one possible solution to the problem. Frege considered senses to be abstract entities, distinct both from referents, which are real objects, and from ‘ideas,’ which are psychological. Senses, then, occupy a “third realm” that is neither mental nor material. LSV did not draw such a clear distinction, so that ‘meaning’ for him at one moment seems something linguistic, at other times a matter of what someone “thinks.” According to most readings of Frege each sign has a single, invariant sense which all speakers of a language will “grasp” in the same way. But Frege acknowledged that people can differ in what they can “bring to mind” of a sense (I'm drawing here on the work of philosopher Robert May, at UC Irvine). The solution to the problem of framing LSV’s claims in Frege’s terms would be, then, to suggest that child and adult necessarily grasp the same sense in a word or expression (because there is only one sense to grasp), but they bring to consciousness different aspects of this sense. 

That's quite enough for one message, I think!


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