The Third International after Lenin

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Marxism and the Philosophy of Language

Marxism and the Philosophy of Language

By V.N. Volosinov

Harvard University Press

Reviewed by Neville Spencer

Although originally published in Russian in 1929, this work was not published in English until 1973. Since then it has come to be recognised as the original classic of Marxist linguistics, as well as one of the most important works of general Marxist philosophy.

Marxism and the Philosophy of Language is the clearest introduction to the ideas of the Bakhtin circle, which as well as Volosinov included the famous literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. It is in fact a disputed question whether Volosinov or Bakhtin authored the book. Bakhtin's works are likewise arousing renewed interest amongst non-Russian scholars.

Several of the most popular schools of philosophy of the 20th century have grown out of the concerns of linguistics. The work of the Bakhtin circle largely predates the rise of these schools, yet much of the resurgence of interest in it is due to the fact that it can be read as a powerful critique of them.

Individual or social

Volosinov develops his views on language through a critique of what he identifies as the two main trends in linguistics. The first he terms individualistic subjectivism. This trend sees language as an essentially individual phenomenon.

The explanations of the function and formation of language which are characteristic of this trend are based on psychology. Volosinov proposes that the reverse should be the case: psychology should be understood on the basis of an understanding of language.

Language, he explains, is always a social phenomenon. It could not possibly arise other than through communication between different individuals. In its original form it exists outside of the mind of any individual as sounds or as written words. The importance of this point has been overlooked in many explanations offered by linguists.

The internalisation of these forms of language creates in our minds an inner voice — the flow of words which are always passing through our minds even when they are not actually being spoken. Our inner voice allows us to understand what others are saying, to reflect on what others say and to consider what we ourselves might say in reply. Rather than merely voicing thoughts which have already occurred to us, it is through this voice that we actually think.

Volosinov gives a convincing rebuff to those who attempt, in whatever field of knowledge, to place the individual at the centre of the universe. Any human who can speak or sign is a social animal.


The second trend of linguistics Volosinov terms abstract objectivism, the key exponent of which was Ferdinand de Saussure. Out of Saussure's linguistics, the school of structuralism extended its views into fields such as philosophy, anthropology and literary theory.

The fact that our language makes sense to other people demonstrates that it is a system which has laws which are fixed for everyone. People must have some agreement on what words mean in order to be able to communicate.

On the other hand, language cannot be entirely fixed and immutable. Languages have gone through complete changes over the centuries. As well, minor changes in the way people speak happen continually.

Saussure bridged this dichotomy by describing language as composed of two separate elements — langue and parole. Langue he saw as the fixed logical element, providing the norms through which language can provide meaning and thus allow people to comprehend what others are saying. Parole plays only a secondary role; it is made up of the individual acts of speech, which always vary from the norms of language. Saussure saw these variations as accidental and random and therefore not the appropriate object for the scientific study of linguistics.

The words which compose the system of langue have a stable identity. There is a singular, fixed thing to which they refer in whichever situation they are used.

Volosinov criticised this view, pointing out that a system composed of elements with self-identity never occurs in any real situation. When someone uses a word such as "table", it is possible to determine to which particular object they are referring only by knowing the context of its use.

When people actually use language, its importance to anyone trying to understand it lies in its relation to the specific circumstance in which it is used rather than to its theoretical ideal as defined in a dictionary. Such dictionary definitions give language its necessary stability but are only abstractions.

Likewise, a work of literature would not make sense if it were taken simply as a collection of words to which rules could be applied in order to understand it. It has to been seen and understood in relation to other works.

In concrete, language is composed of all the individual acts of speech which make it up, as they actually are. Words have meanings only in the actual context in which they occur, and this is what is significant about them. The meanings of words are as varied as the different contexts in which they are used.

This non-identity of language explains how language can be in its state of continual, if often imperceptible, change. The langue which Saussure proposes is only an abstraction against which this change can be perceived. Were it the reality of language, language-change could not take place.


The critique of this untenable supposition of the absolute identity of words led to the collapse of structuralism in the late '60s and early '70s. Perhaps the most popular school which criticised structuralism along these lines was post-structuralism.

The theoreticians of this school, however, soon ran aground by in effect absolutising non-identity. Instability of meaning became everything and its stability nothing.

This left them in a contradictory position from which none could offer an escape. With the destruction of meaning, their own theories became meaningless along with all else.

Volosinov's critique of structuralist linguistics does not slide into irrationalism, as does the post-structuralist critique. Neither identity nor non-identity are absolutised: "The meaning of a word is determined entirely by its context ... [but] the word does not cease to be a single entity; it does not, so to speak, break into as many meanings as there are contexts for its usage."

The question "What is the time?" has a different meaning every time it is used. None the less, it plainly has something about it which is common to every usage of it.

Volosinov's approach is through the introduction of a distinction between what he terms theme and what he terms meaning. The aspect of language which is different each time it is used is its theme, while meaning denotes the elements of language which are self-identical and unchanging in every instance. As he pointed out in his discussion of Saussure, meanings are therefore abstractions; they do not have any concrete, autonomous existence. But meaning still forms the apparatus through which a theme can be implemented.

These two aspects are inextricably linked. The co-existence and interaction of identity and non-identity, the abstract and the concrete, must be a part of any coherent theory of language.

Volosinov offers a sound way out of some of the most fundamental problems to have plagued linguistics and philosophy. As a consequence, his book still proves to be the most illuminating study of the philosophy of language available, more than half a century after its original publication.

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