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Annotations on V. N. Voloshinov's 'Marxism and the Philosophy of Language'

miércoles, 25 de febrero de 2015




Critical annotations on V. N. Voloshinov’s study "Marxism and the Philosophy of Language" (1929), on topics such as reflexion vs. refraction, consciousness and signs, language and ideology, Saussurean structuralism, verbal interaction, and theme vs. meaning.

Also in

- Net Sight de José Angel García Landa


B) Notes from some chapters of the book (taken in 1988)

1. The Study of Ideologies and Philosophy of Language

The Marxist theory of ideologies is bound up with problems of the philosophy of language. Everything ideological is a sign; "Without signs there is no ideology." Physical bodies may be converted into signs and thus they become ideological products: they reflect and refract another reality. The world of signs vs. the world of natural phenomena. 

11- "Every ideological sign is not only a reflection, a shadow of reality, but is also itself a material segment of that very reality." This is a fact neglected by idealism and by psychologism.  "Consciousness itself can arise and become a viable fact only in the material embodiment of signs." Consciousness as a semiotic process: translating a sign into another one: "And nowhere is there a break in the chain, nowhere does the chain plunge into inner being, nonmaterial in nature and unembodied in signs."  This chain emerges in interaction between individuals: consciousness is social. Ideology cannot be studied as individual consciousness (idealism seeks supernatural causes; psychologism seeks subhuman ones: both disregard human society).

12- "The individual consciousness is a social-ideological fact."  Consciousness cannot be derived directly from nature, nor ideology from consciousness. [Cf. Croce’s notion of intuition as expression—JAGL].

13- "The study of ideologies does not depend on psychology to any extent and need not be grounded in it." The reality of social signs is directly determined by the total aggregate of social and economic laws. "Ideological reality is the immediate superstructure over the economic basis"—and it is not constructed by individual consciousness, who is only a tenant in the edifice. Ideological phenomena are linked rather with conditions and forms of social communication. E. g. language: "The word is the ideological phenomenon par excellence"— the entire reality of the word is absorbed in its function of being a sign; it reveals best the basic forms of semiology. [Cf. Saussure]. The word is a natural sign, not specialised in any ideological function.  But conversational language is an area of behavioral ideology.

14- The word also becomes "the semiotic material of inner life-consciousness (inner speech)." The material is pliable and accessible to the individual.

15- That is why "the word functions as an essential ingredient accompanying all ideological creativity whatsoever" (although none of the fundamental, specific ideological signs is wholly replaceable by words). The word influences any other ideological refraction. The word is the fundamental object of the Marxist study of ideologies.

2. Concerning the relationship of the Basis and Superstructures

Mechanical causality is inadmissible in the study of ideologies. No connection between isolated facts in the basis and ideological superstructures is valid—the fact torn from its ideological context [i.e. its structural relationships, cf. the Saussurean notion of structure—JAGL] is meaningless. The "dialectical generation of society (...) emerges from the basis and comes to completion in the superstructures." E.g., new characters appear in a novel not because of some social change, but because that social change has changed the structure of literature, of "the whole novel, as a single organic unity subject to its own specific laws." The word is the most sensitive index of social changes due to its ubiquity (—even of those not yet defined).

Plexanov’s "social psychology" is in fact the process of verbal communication and interaction. There is nothing inner in it. Production relations determine the forms of verbal communication. There is a need for a typology of material forms of expression, in order to understand how ideologies arise, in different periods and social groups, and which themes arise.

21- Form: "the forms of signs are conditioned above all by the social organization of the participants involved and also by the immediate conditions of their interaction." But the contents of signs are also shaped by social interaction.

22- "Only that which has acquired social value can enter the world of ideology, take shape, and establish itself there." The themes, and also the "individual" accents of consciousness, are also interindividual.

23- "Existence reflected in signs is not merely reflected but refracted. How is this refraction of exixtence in the ideological sign determined? By an intersecting of differently oriented social interests within one and the same sign community, i. e. by the class struggle.  Social multiaccentuality preserves the dynamic force of signs. There are also "dead" signs, withdrawn from the arena of ideological confrontation. The inner dialectic quality of the sign appears clearly in times of social crisis.


1. Two Trends of thought in Philosophy of Language

—i.e. individualistic subjectivism vs. abstract objectivism.

The actual mode of existence of language is a problem—vs. superficial phonetic empiricism, etc.: language is not the sum of two different psychophysiological processes (in individual speaker and hearer). It must be studied in social intercourse (in social milieux and immediate social events of communication). There are two basic trends in the philosophy of language respecting the identification and delimitation of language as an object of study.

Individualistic subjectivism considers the act of speech, individual and creative, as the basis of language (and likewise of art). Language is conceived as energeia;  the laws of its creativity are the laws of individual psychology. Language as system (ergon) is the hardened lava of individual creativity.

- This conception goes from Humboldt to Potebnja [Voloshinov does not mention Vico in this respect.] Steinthal too, in a more limited way. Wundt is similar, but in the language of positivism. in the final analysis, all the explanations of myth, language and religion are psychological.

- Vossler—positivistic again—rejects sticking to form and foregrounds meaningful ideological factors. But he rejects social and political facts to a "linguistic taste." The basic reality of language here is not a system but the individual creative act of speech (Sprache als Rede).

51- "everything that becomes a fact of grammar had once been a fact of style"; there is a "Precedence of style over grammar." Studies are on the border between linguistics and stylistics.

- Croce: language as expression; it is individual.

Abstract objectivism. For this trend, the specific object of the science of language is not speech acts but (52) "the linguistic system as a system of the phonetic, grammatical and lexical forms of language." The acts are idiosyncratic, but the system ensures unity and comprehension. There is a normative identity, vs. the individual variation. The system is acquired ready-made by the individual. The individual act becomes a linguistic act only because of the compliance with the system. The system has an immanent and specific nature, not reducible to any other set of laws.

54- "This specifically linguistic systematicity, in distinction from the systematicity of ideology (...) cannot become a motive for the individual consciousness."  It is not a matter of "taste", but of arbitrary correctness. This trend assumes a discontinuity between the history of language and the system of language.

Here it is at odds with the first trend; for abstract objectivists, history and language change are irrational, while the system is coherent. For individualistic subjectivists, it was the generation of language (a historical process) which ensured its reality. In Vossler,

56- "linguistic taste creates the unity of a language at any given moment in time; and it is the same linguistic taste that creates and secures the unity of a language’s historical evolution."

The transition from one form to another is unconscious for abstract objectivists, deliberate for individualist subjectivists; the system is the essence of language for abstract objectivists, and it is dross for individualist subjectivists. The principles of these trends are antithetical.

The roots of abstract objectivism go back to Descartes and rationalism. The interest lies not in the relation between sign and reality, but in the relation of sign to sign in the system—the inner logic of the system.

58- "Rationalists are not averse to taking the understander’s viewpoint into account, but are least of all inclined to consider that of the speaker, as the subject expressing his own inner life." They use mathematical analogies; the French eighteenth-century is their ideal ground, but Saussure is the leading theorist. This school has been influential in Russia (against Vossler). For Saussure, langage and parole are not fit for study—only langue, the system. The main thesis is the correlation
language : utterance  =  social : individual
—because they present the utterance as being entirely individual!  The utterance, the individual element, is an essential factor in a history of language; history is seen as an irrational force disturbing the logic of the system.

The rest of schools effect a compromise between both positions (Neogrammarians are closer to objectivism; the fact as an ultimate criterion, laws of sound, etc.). There is a rejection of responsible philosophy.

2. Language, Speech, and Utterance (Analysis of abstract objectivism).

Language is conceived as system. Can it be considered a real entity? Not for the representatives of abstract objectivism. The system is an "objective fact external to and independent of any individual consciousness." But from a truly objective viewpoint language appears as endless becoming, not as fixed system.

66- "Thus a synchronic system, from the objective point of view, does not correspond to any real moment in the historical process of becoming."  Any system of social norms exists only for the individual consciousness—and this relationship is itself an objective fact. [Note that Saussure’s point of view as a subject, and as a linguist, is relevant here too, if we follow this reasoning. — JAGL.] This results in an hypostasizing abstract objectivism—or else an ambiguous use of the world "objective" (meaning either "objective from the standpoint of the subjectivity of the speaker" or "from the objective standopoint" (Saussure is ambiguous here).

But not even the subjective consciousness of the speaker conceives of language as a system of normatively identical forms. For the speaker the point of attention is not the identity of the form, but rather its new value in a particular context. Similar for the hearer: it is not a matter of recognizing the identity of the form; an attention (68) "to understanding its novelty and not to recognizing its identity" [One might emphasize that the one goes along with the other. And users of language are often angered by breaches of linguistic norms.—JAGL]. Linguistic forms are not a fixed signal, but an adaptable sign. Signals are recognized; signs are understood. The signal is not ideological, but merely technical. Any act of understanding is already a response: it translates what is being understood into a new context from which a response can be made.

Signalization is present in language, but is dialectically effaced by the new quality of the sign (i.e. of language as such). It is present in a second language: (69) "The ideal of mastering a language is absorption of signality by pure semioticity and of recognition by pure understanding." (In concrete contexts, etc.). The linguistic consciousness of the speaker is not concerned with abstract normative system, (70) "but with language-speech in the sense of the aggregate of possible contexts of usage for a particular linguistic form." We do not hear "words": (70) "Words are always filled with content and meaning drawn from behavior or ideology." The criterion of correctness is only applied abnormally—it is usually submerged by a purely ideological criterion.

70- "Language, in the process of its practical implementation, is inseparable from its ideological or behavioral impletion". But it is divorced from it by abstract objectivism, which is a serious error. The system is obtained by abstraction for a practical end: the focus of attention has been the study of defunct, alien languages preserved in written monuments—a philological orientation. Throughout all history, (71) "Linguistics makes its appearance wherever and whenever philological need has appeared"—a matter of necessity, but it is inadequate for dealing with living speech; it lacks range. But even the written monument is an inseverable element of verbal communication—it is caught in the chain of performance:

72- "Each monument carries on the work of its predecessors, polemicizing with them, expecting active, reponsive understanding and anticipating such understanding in return." A work is part of science, of literature, or of political life; and it is (72) "perceived in the generative process of that particular ideological domain of which it is an integral part." But it is viewed by the philologic linguist as an isolated entity.

73- "Inevitably, the philologist linguist’s passive understanding is projected onto the very monument he is studying from the language point of view, as if that monument were in fact calculated for just that kind of understanding, as if it had, in fact, been written for the philologist." A false notion of passive understanding permeates all. The heuristic and pedagogical tasks of linguistics deform the understanding of the work. The philologist is always a decipherer of secrets, and a teacher —like the priests. The whole is permeated by a philosophy of the Word, of the alien word. Foreign language spell-bounds linguistic study. With the conqueror-chief, "incipit philosophia, incipit philologia."

Importance of the alien, foreign language word in history (it determines a magical conception of the word). Linguistics is a product of the foreign word; but it does not understand the role the foreign word has played in it. Japhetic linguistics, and multitribal languages—emerging from tribal names!  A cognizance of the alien word and its assumptions determines the way abstract objectivism conceives of language at large.

77- "1. The factor of stable self-identity in linguistic forms takes precedence over their mutability"—etc. Reification of language, a jump from elements to the whole—decontextualization.

81- "people do not ’accept’ their native language—it is in their native language that they first reach awareness." There is no possibility of linguistic responsibility if the system is just accepted (etc.).  The truth of language is to be found in the dialectical synthesis of individual subjectivitism and abstract objectivism.

The utterance is not individual (something which both individual subjectivism and abstract objectivism had assumed, and this is their weak point):

82- "The utterance is a social phenomenon."

3. Verbal interaction

(Analysis of individualistic subjectivism, and synthesis of both trends).

Individualistic subjectivism is associated with romanticism (opposing rationalism and classicism). Romanticism as a reaction against the alien word and against the last resurgences of the cultural power of the alien word. The romantics were the first philologists of the native language. But this conception is also based on the monologic utterance—conceived from the inside, from the person speaking. Speech appears as expression: something defined in the mind of the individual, and objectified for others with signs. The expressible exists apart from expression; there is a switching of form. They presuppose a dualism, inside/outside, with a primacy for the inside, deformed in expression.

This is untenable. The inside and the outside are made of the same material. And, (85) "It is not experience that organizes expression, but the other way around—expression organizes experience". The word is oriented to the addressee (that was ignored); and it appears in a specific social situation, even if it is only the social purview of our group. The inner world of the individual contains a social audience. 

86- "A word is territory shared by both addresser and addressee"; "The immediate social situation and the broader social milieu wholly determine—and determine from within, so to speak—the structure of an utterance."  The speaker controls the production of the signal, but not of the sign. (87) "The degree to which an experience is perceptible, distinct, and formulated is directly proportional to the degree to which it is socially oriented" —it is not a blur in the soul, etc. [Cf. Croce.—JAGL]

2 poles: I-experience and We-experience (indifferentiation vs. differentiation).

Collective experience in a materially aligned group is the most favourable ground for achieving ideological clarity and structuredness. Individualistic self-experience is not the same as the I-experience: it is perfectly structured.

89- "individualism is a special ideological form of the ’we-experience’ of the bourgeois class." Self-confidence is not drawn from the inside, but from society. "But there resides in this type of individualistic ’we-experience’, and also in the very order to which it corresponds, an inner contradiction that sooner or later will demolish its ideological structuredness."

90- "Outside objectification, outside embodiment in some particular material (...) consciousness is a fiction."  Consciousness as material expression is an objective fact and social force, (90) "capable even of exerting in turn an influence on the economic bases of social life."

91- "Behavioral ideology is that atmosphere of unsystematized and unfixed inner and outer speech which endows our every instance of behavior and action and our every ’conscious’ state with meaning" (comparable to the "social psychology" in Marxism). (91) "The established ideological systems of social ethics, science, art, and religion are crystallizations of behavioral ideology, and these crystallizations, in turn, exert a powerful influence back upon behavioral ideology, normally setting its tone"—and providing vital contact at the same time. The work is illuminated anew by the consciousness of the perceiver: it gains new sustenance from the ideology of each age.

There are several strata in behavioral ideology (with a different definition, orientation, amplitude). They range from fleeting thoughts to strata linked with ideological systems and which can modify the economic basis. Creative individuality is a firmly grounded social orientation. Biographical explanations are interesting in the lower strata, but useless in the upper ones: the social being is all-important there. Individualistic subjectivism is correct in valuing the individual utterance and in not severing the linguistic form and the ideological impletion. But it is wrong in deriving both (ideology and subjectivism) from the individual psyche.


94- "The actual reality of language-speech is not the abstract system of linguistic froms, not the isolated monologic utterance, and not the psychopathological act of its implementation, but the social event of verbal interaction implemented in an utterance or utterances." The same applies to printed verbal performances. [Cf. the "Discourse" section of Acción, Relato, Discurso— JAGL.]

95- "Any utterance, no matter how weighty and complete in and of itself, is only a moment in the continuous process of verbal communication." "Verbal communication can never be understood and explained outside of this connection with a concrete situation." The study of language should follow the steps of its actual generation: from particular utterances, to the forms of utterance, to language forms. The particular utterance is only an island in the continous sea of discourse. Social circles determine the types of utterance used. Rhetoric and poetics should be used to study the ideological utterance:

98- "1. Language as a stable system of identical forms is merely a scientific abstraction (..)

2. Language is a continuous generative process implemented in the social-verbal interaction of speakers.

3. The laws of the generative process of language are not at all the laws of individual psychology, but neither can they be divorced from the activity of speakers. (...)

4. Linguistic creativity does not coincide with artistic creativity nor with any other type of specialized ideological creativity. But, at the same time, linguistic creativity cannot be understood apart from the ideological meanings and values that fill it. (...)

5. The structure of the utterance is a pure sociological structure."

The notion of an individual speech act is a contradictio in adjecto.

4. Theme and Meaning in Language

 The monologism of linguistics is revealed in the analysis of meaning (conceived as passive understanding). The significance of an utterance is its theme. Individual, irreproducible, determined by linguistic forms and by extraverbal situation.

100- "Only an utterance taken in its full, concrete scope as an historical phenomenon, possesses a theme."  "Meaning" consists of the reproducible aspects of the utterance (abstract); "Meaning is the technical apparatus for the implementation of theme." There is no clear boundary—but a dialectical dependence from one another. Voloshinov alludes to Marr’s theory of the origin of language starting from a one-word utterance containing all significance, i.e. being all theme.  OK in the sense that

101- "Multiplicity of meanings is the constitutive feature of word." Marr’s one-word language ia all theme, but there is no meaning that one word. Theme is the upper limit of linguistic signifincance; meaning is the lower limit.

Voloshinov rejects the opposition of "usual" vs. "occasional" meanings, or of "denotation" vs. "connotation", etc. —There is a tendency in such discriminations to ascribe greater value to a central core of meaning, presupposing it is stable. And this analysis would leave theme unaccounted for. Cf. the problem of active understanding:

102- "To understand another person’s utterance means to orient oneself with respect to it, to find the proper place for it in the corresponding context." "Any true understanding is dialogic in nature." (—except in the case of the understanding a foreign language). [Note the danger of using "dialogic" in this sense, when some extra element must be added to characterize actual dialogue.—JAGL]

Meaning does not belong to the word, but to a word in its position beween speakers. Meaning is realized only in active and responsive understanding.

102-3- "Meaning is the effect of interaction between speaker and listener produced via the material of a particular sound complex." The word is always linked in actual speech with a specific evaluative accent. The actual intonation is only a vehicle for this intonation (e.g. swearwords can have many meanings). Intonation is used to convey this evaluation only in familiar speech; public speech uses other evaluative devices. It is this evaluation that plays the active role in changes of meaning, and in the generation of themes.

The expansion of man’s interests from primitive times is reflected in the generation of new semantic properties in language.


The Chains of Semiosis



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