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RE: [xmca] Re: Word Meaning and Action: What' Plausible branch?

Hi Martin, Andy, Denise, and all.
This may be very basic, probably discussed in introductory Vygotsky classes, but I haven't gotten it straight in my head.  Is there a difference between mediating artifact and tool.  I don't mean them as exclusionary categories, things in the world can be both, but are they different.
I have come to see mediating aftefact much like McCluhan describes medium.  It is a transom over which I pass the information I have inside of my head over to you.  The medium carries this information and in the process changes it, and in some cases actually comes to own it, and then you make the choice to take it from the other side of the transom.
A tool is something that you use to directly achieve a goal.  You have a perception of what the tool means and how it can be used (that of course comes from the transactional relationships of the society around you) (from Larry's description of the Dewey article) - but its use does not designate intention to transfer or translate information but to accomplish something.
So if I use a space to dig a hole I am using a tool, not really a mediating artefact.
If I use a peso note to pay a cab driver I am using a tool, not an artefact - I am not really trying to pass information.
However if I stand on a corner and wave a peso note in the air as cabs drive by I am using the peso note both as a mediating artefact (letting the cab driver know I want to be picked up and willing to pay good money for it) and as a tool.


From: xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu on behalf of Martin Packer
Sent: Fri 6/17/2011 9:43 AM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: Re: [xmca] Re: Word Meaning and Action: What' Plausible branch?

The problem with saying that speech is artifact-mediated activity is that it tells us everything, and nothing. All human activity is mediated by artifacts; when I walk down the street my walking is mediated by, well, by the street, which is an artifact. Digging a hole with a spade is an activity mediated by an artifact, but so is writing a doctoral dissertation with a ballpoint pen, yet one would want to say that there is a significant difference between the two, I think.

No, what is needed is a detailed consideration of the *type* of artifact that is involved. Artifacts are not all the same. A word is not a spade.

Let's consider an artifact that is more complex and interesting than a spade, but is not yet a word. I have a 1000 peso bill in my pocket. Let's say I use it to buy a coffee. That is an activity mediated by an artifact, but how does it transpire? I can obtain a coffee in exchange for the bill not because of its material properties - the fact that it is paper is neither here nor there. My activity is successful because the bill has *value.* Where is this value located? One could reasonably reply that the value is in the bill - certainly if I burn the bill, its value goes up in smoke.

But one could equally reasonably reply that the value is in the society, in the economic practices and institutions in which both I and the bill participate. If the economy collapses, or if there is inflation or devaluation, then here too the value goes up in smoke, in whole or in part. Perhaps in a year my 1000 peso bill will buy only half a cup of coffee.

What is important to recognize is that the value of the bill does not come from, or inhere in, my *beliefs* about the bill. Yesterday I tried to pay a taxi driver with what I thought was a 10,000 peso bill. He saw my error immediately; I had actually handed him a 1000 bill by mistake. I believed it had one value, but in fact it had another. If the value of a bill were a consequence of my beliefs about it, that is to say if its value were entirely subjective, then such mistakes would not be possible. Each bill would have exactly the value that I believed it to have.

But of course such a situation would be intolerable, and economic exchange would collapse if money had only the value that people believed it to have. The value of a bill is *objective,* not subjective. (Or, if you prefer, it is "intersubjective," but I hesitate to use this term because its meaning is not especially stable.)

And that brings us back to words. On my reading, LSV is proposing that a word, language, has an objective meaning in a way that is analogous to the way that currency has objective value. This objective meaning is what he calls word-meaning, the 'inner form' of the word. That is not to say that word-meaning doesn't change; he insists that it does. It is not to say that word-meaning is independent of human activity, any more than the value of a bill is independent of human activity. But it *is* to say that word-meaning is not subjective; it is not a matter of what an individual *believes* the word to mean. LSV seems to find it useful to draw a distinction between speech and language. Saussure of course drew a similar distinction, and although LSV disagrees with much of Saussure's approach to language, this similarity should at least cause us to pause and take the distinction seriously.

Now, to *recognize* the value of a bill I have to have become familiar with the economic practices of the community that uses it. In the same way, to recognize the meaning in a word I have to be a member of that language community. If Mike speaks to me in Russian, his words have meaning, but it is meaning that I cannot recognize until I go to the trouble of becoming a sufficiently skilled participant in that language. It would be a mistake to conclude from an example like this that words, whether Russian or English, are just sounds, and the listener fills in the meaning. That kind of conclusion is common, but it runs into all sorts of difficulties in explaining how communication can occur, and it is not what LSV is proposing.


On Jun 16, 2011, at 11:46 PM, Andy Blunden wrote:

> Yes, I've heard that story before and I usually have it in mind when I speak (sic) on this topic. That is exactly what I mean (sic).
> Andy
> mike cole wrote:
>> Andy/Martin et al--
>> Not sure where this fits in the discussion.Perhaps it falls somewhere  in terms of "its in the text" versus "we interpret" distinction. I do not think that i agree with all of what Andy writes below, but I get the first part and want to test my understanding with different example to see if it fits.
>> When lecturing to classes on topic of words and meaning, material and ideal, I find that students simply do not understand what i mean when I say that language is simultaneously material and idea. When this confusion arises, I start some easy to understand topic and switch into Russian, the only non-English language in which I can pass in a casual conversation for 2 minutes.
>> Bewilderment.
>> Question 1. What disappeared when i began to speak Russian? Typical Answer: The meaning of what I was saying.
>> Question 2: What was left? The material, phylogenetically linked, capacity to produce/hear sound waves in the human spectrum and to parse them in various ways without tuition.
>> (sign languages will substitute here, i am shorthanding).
>> So the meaning of what I was saying disappeared. But this rasises an interesting
>> Question 3: Where did "the meaning"  come from in the first place? >From  a past history of those artifacts/words, phrases, pragmatic gestures, discourse acts, etc mediating our joint activity with our world.
>> Next I try to demystify this way of talking. At this point, if its a sizeable audience, someone has understood the Russian that I spoke. So i ask whoever understood what I said  how it came to me that she could make sense of the words I had chosen. The them of doing something with others with Russian as the medium of joint activity is the invariable reply.
>> Does this capture what you are saying about words as they enter into human activity?
>> mike
>> On Thu, Jun 16, 2011 at 7:02 PM, Andy Blunden <ablunden@mira.net <mailto:ablunden@mira.net>> wrote:
>>    Thanks Martin, I find those questions very clear, so if answers to
>>    these can assist in our communication, I am very hopeful.
>>    "When you suggest that the word is the artifact, what precisely do
>>    you mean by that?"
>>      I mean that a word is a material object produced by a human being as
>>      part of their social life and/or used by human beings in social
>>      intercourse. I have in mind the burst of pressure waves in the air
>>      as the primary material form of the word, and the use of the larynx,
>>      lips, lungs, etc., the primary [paradigmatic] means of producing
>>      words. Words are also chiselled in stone, inscribed on paper,
>>      recorded on magnetic tape, encoded in electronic packages, and so
>>      on. These are all equally words, but I seem to recall Vygotsky uses
>>      terms like "written speech" to indicate that additional
>>      psychological functions are entailed in the production of written
>>      speech over and above the production of spoken words, and the spoken
>>      word is the paradigmatic form of the word. [Note that I am always
>>      talking about one instantiation or token of the given sign. To
>>      resolve the riddle of the universal significant potential of any
>>      word, itself a single individual, I call on Hegel. But CS Peirce
>>      resolved this in own way which actually includes Hegel's solution as
>>      a part. But what Hegel and Peirce do not do is call on a dichotomy
>>      of some kind.]
>>    And how would I recognize the action of word-meaning?
>>      A person who utters a word in their sleep, or reads out the text of
>>      a document in a foreign language, for example, is not meaning
>>      anything by what they utter. There is a word, but no meaning. A
>>      meaningful word is always essentially an active constituent of a
>>      social relation (including to a social relation to oneself). When I
>>      say "stop please!" to [sic] you, then as an English-speaker you know
>>      that I mean I want and command you to stop. Perhaps if I stare
>>      wide-eyed at you, with my elbows out, you will anticipate the
>>      meaning that is about to burst from me? :) But when I utter the word
>>      I do something. You may be offended and tell me to get lost, or
>>      apologise and say "Why didn't you say so before?" Perhaps just
>>      uttering "stooooo.." will be enough to do the job in the context and
>>      even the half-word will carry my meaning? I might say "Basta!"
>>      confident that you would see my meaning equally well with humour. As
>>      Tony put it, words have potentiality, or affordances, and these one
>>      can learn to some limited extent by reference to a dictionary - a
>>      typology of words, though it is actual use in social intercourse
>>      which invests this potentiality in words, not dictionaries. But it
>>      is always /potential/, and potential is only manifested in action,
>>      by actually uttering the word in an appropriate context.
>>    When I hear someone speaking, how do I distinguish analytically
>>    between the word, the meaning, and the word-meaning?
>>      The word is a word only if it is meaningful. Otherwise it is just a
>>      sound. A word is physically identical to a sound shape which may in
>>      a context be quite meaningless. That's why Vygotsky takes word
>>      meaning, or the meaningful word on one occasion, as the *unit*.
>>      Because if you take the meaning away from the sound it is no longer
>>      a word, just a sound. So the answer is really: "*Analytically*, you
>>      can't" That is after all the whole problem with analytical
>>      philosophy. Cut the meaning and sound off from each other, consign
>>      the sound to phonics and the meaning to semantics and all human
>>      life, all purposeful activity is gone forever. I guess this is a
>>      practical answer to Denise's very sharp question.
>>    Andy
>>    Martin Packer wrote:
>>        Andy, what I was asking about was this:
>>            Vygotsky says in several places that the word is the sign
>>            for or carrier of the concept. As I said earlier, in my
>>            reading word meaning is an artefact mediated action, the
>>            word being the artefact and the meaning being the action
>>            (both subjective and objective), invested with potential
>>            for meaning-with by activity-with. A concept is in my
>>            humble opinion a cultural unit or form of activity. So
>>            word meaning, once developed to the point of concepts, is
>>            related to concept as an action is to an activity.
>>        Word-meaning is an action, meaning is an action, and word is
>>        an artifact? When you suggest that the word is the artifact,
>>        what precisely do you mean by that? The sound alone? And wow
>>        would I recognize the action of word-meaning? When I hear
>>        someone speaking, how do I distinguish analytically between
>>        the word, the meaning, and the word-meaning?
>>        Martin
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