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Re: [xmca] Word Meaning and Action


Thanks for bringing Andy's reflections on the common themes expressed
through different languages used to try to understand institutions and
concepts.  I also appreciate how Andy is attempting to link up the various
discourses and searching for common ground through exploring the historical
links between frameworks of perception/knowing.

I want to add some thoughts from Dewey's theory exploring the same themes.
I will be offering a translation of Dewey's psychology as interpreted by
Svend Brinkman in the article "Dewey's Neglected Psychology: Rediscovering
his Transactional Approach", in The journal of  Theory & Psychology, Vol.
21, pp. 298-317.

Svend explores Dewey's meta-psychology which understands the emergence of
the discipline of psychology AND the subject of psychology both emerging
when human beings were cut loose from rigid social norms.  As the world
became segmented into private and public arenas with the rise of the modern
state, NEW and novel psychological understandings of the individual also
developed.  The psychological individual represents social values getting
"subjectified", translated INTO subjective conscious form.  From Dewey's
pragmatic perspective he asks whether the activities that are informed by
psychological theories lead to useful and fruitful consequences?

Svend goes on to synthesize Dewey's notions on "habits", "thinking", and
"the self", as concepts of the Dewey's psychology.  Habits for Dewey is
"knowing how".  Thinking is something we DO reflectively when habitual
conduct is disturbed or breaks down and there is an attempt to readjust

Dewey insisted that all thinking occurs IN RELATION TO a background
understanding that can break down. This background involves "certain
acquired habitual MODES of understanding with a certain store of previously
evolved meanings" [Dewey, 1910]  Dewey defined "the mind" as the ability to
RESPOND to the body of ORGANIZED meanings by means of which events of the
present have significance for us.  Mind is primarily a verb and should not
be thought of as a substance.  Mind does not exist in the abstract [outside
of events] but only in the concrete situations of our lives as functions of
associated conduct.  Having a mind means one can respond to the meanings of
the world and is not personal or even private but rather a function of
social interactions that is a TRANSACTIONAL theory of emergence.  Dewey
suggests that persons are not in the environment like coins in a wallet,
"but as events are IN history, in a moving, growing, never finished process.
The person is a process in the world, rather than a thing separate from the
At the level of body-mind [the mental] the person participates with OTHERS
in meaningful contexts of activity.  Mind is a function of social
Meaning, for Dewey, in accordance with his transactional perspective is
understood as a contextual phenomenon.  Linguistic expressions are only
meaningful IF they function as part of ongoing social activity. Language
gains meaning by how it is used IN JOINT ACTIVITY.  [Svend points out this
perspective is close to that of Wittgenstein's later philosophy.]  Dewey
believed humans do have a range of behaviors that are instinctive ways of
reacting to the movements of others [ethology] but in order for such
behaviors to become psychologically relevant, the person must take an
interest in the meaning of the movements. When one learns to understand the
meanings of practices one is acquiring a mind.  Psychological development
primarily concerns learning to participate in cultural practices [habits]
AND SUBSEQUENTLY to learn to reconstruct these practices reflectively.  The
mind emerges when a human being learns to imagine alternative possible
futures-- including imagining one's own role in the future development of
events.[see also Anna Stetsenko]  Mind is thus connected to the capacity for

Dewey accepted the concept of "consciousness" which he connected to the
concept of IDEA [just as he had connected mind and MEANING]  Following is a
direct quote from Dewey that Parallel's Andy's reflections on frameworks by

"There is thus an obvious difference between mind and consciousness: meaning
and idea.  Mind denotes the WHOLE SYSTEM OF MEANINGS as they are embodied in
the workings of the organic life; consciousness, in a being with language,
denotes awarenes or PERCEPTION OF MEANINGS; it is the perception of actual
events, whether past, contemporary or future IN THEIR MEANINGS, the having
of actual ideas." [Dewey, 1925] {emphasis added}

Perception is an active search activity for Dewey, rather than passive
awareness of some content.  Mind, for Dewey, is related to the SYSTEM OF
MEANINGS, in its entirety.  Activities are structured by an OVERARCHING
SYSTEM OF MEANINGS.  Consciousness, then, refers to what stands out for the
person in this system of meanings.  Mind/meaning is the BACKGROUND and
consciousness/idea is the figure.  Dewey gives the example of reading a
book.  We are conscious of the ideas of the text that appear and disappear
as the story unfolds. This is conscious experience.  But such ideas will
conscious ideas that are normally implicit and outside our conscious

This idea is parallel to Andy's exploration of Gadamer's hermeneutical
tradition in the sociocultural turn in psychology which explores the
relations of parts and wholes in human experience.  Understanding one
element of the text demands an understanding of the whole text and ALL
understanding demands a HORIZON OF MEANING [system of meanings]  For Dewey a
background or horizon is necessarily vague and uncertain in order for
conscious experience to emerge in the first place.  This vague background is
a much larger and implicit system of meaning -- a mind, which is enormously
wider than that of consciousness [awareness of part of the larger horizon].
Consciousness OF meaning is not a passive reception of the world's
structure, but that aspect of the system of meanings where something APPEARS
as being SUBJECT TO CHANGE [development]

Andy [and others interested in frameworks, and systems of meanings as
forming different perspectives]  I continue to be intrigued by the notion of
perspectives as central to the notion of "recognition".  Andy, you mentioned
recognition as a key category that may be able to further a conversation
between CHAT and critical theory.  Not sure if Dewey's framework of meaning
and consciousness as a hermeneutical engagement of parts/wholes will add to
this conversation but it strikes me as one more attempt to find "common


On Wed, Jun 15, 2011 at 10:46 PM, Tony Whitson <twhitson@udel.edu> wrote:

> On March 27, 2010, at
> http://lchc.ucsd.edu/MCA/Mail/xmcamail.2010_03.dir/msg00308.html
> Andy wrote:
> mike cole wrote:
> Perhaps I am agreeing with Andy about the linkages between institutions and
> concepts, which is also a linkage between activities and concepts.
> -----
> Mike, I would like to mention the following semantic connections which I
> think CHAT needs to pay attention to if we are to talk to the numerous other
> currents who share our domain of enquiry.
> Institution = Discourse  (Foucault)
>            = Practico-intert (Sartre)
>            = Object (Hegel)
>            = Activity (ANL, def. by object)
>            = Genre (Bakhtin)
>            = Frame (Goffman)
>            = Tradition (Gadamer)
>            = Figured world (D Holland)
>            = Activity System (Engestrom?)
>            = Social formation (Marx)
>            = Field (Bourdieu)
> which is a dead or solidified ...?
> Project     for Schmit
>            for Hegelians like Pinkard and Andy
>            for Existentialists (Sartre, Heidegger?)
> Gestalt des consciousness for Hegel
> momentary   = context
>            = situation
> Projects & Institutions have as Units ... ?
>            = Concept
>            = Action (ANL)
>            = Text?
> obviously none of the = are really =, because they involve different
> conceptual frames. Which is my point, I guess.
> Andy
> I thought that was very helpful. Andy, have you done more with this/
> In a reply, I added:
> Thanks, Andy; this is extremely useful.
> I would add this:
> Stephen Toulmin: Concepts as micro-institutions (according to my memory,
> which is less reliable at this hour)
> I have something on this in my chapter in the Kirshner & Whitson (eds) book
> on Situated Cognition. See
> http://www.amazon.com/Situated-Cognition-Semiotic-Psychological-Perspectives/dp/0805820388/
> On Thu, 16 Jun 2011, Andy Blunden wrote:
> Apologies! On further reflection, I can now see that what you want me to
>> clarify, Martin, is the claim that by "word meaning," Vygotsky means an
>> "artefact-mediated action," rather than a property (be it psychological or
>> linguistic) of an artefact.
>> I will get busy on that,
>> Andy
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