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Review of  Meaning in Mind and Society

Reviewer: Avi Weizmann
Book Title: Meaning in Mind and Society
Book Author: Peter Harder
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 23.2341

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AUTHOR: Peter Harder
TITLE: Meaning in Mind and Society
SUBTITLE: A Functional Contribution to the Social Turn in Cognitive Linguistics
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2010

Avi Weizmann, PhD, Israel


This book describes the course of action, the methodology and the linguistic
reasons whereby cognitive linguistics is developing in order to take account of
social aspects of language and meaning. Cognitive science joins together several
sciences, including linguistics. The particular focal point of the volume is
explaining that social cognitive linguistics (SCL) can contribute both to the
public-civil and academic arenas.

The Introduction analyzes some of the basic concepts of the theory, with
particular emphasis on “conceptual frames” and the importance of discourse/s.
Harder explains that his book was undertaken with two purposes with one being
academic and the other “civic”.

Chapter 1 is about the different types of cognitive models. The author’s purpose
is to give a description of the most important fundamentals in the renewal of
linguistics that CL brought about. He intentionally tries to construct an
idealized cognitive model of what may be classified as ‘classic cognitive

Chapter 2 studies social processes and common cognitive models of meaning.
Harder analyzes social context oriented work that is presently developing within
CL. The most noteworthy expression of the usage-based style is “variational
description”, whereas the most fundamental modification from the individual mind
to minds in an interactive style is the use of the term “intersubjectivity”.

Chapter 3 explains the origin and history of SLC as a field of linguistic
research. Harder discusses French poststructuralists (e.g. Bourdieu and Passeron
1990); discourse analysis (e.g. Laclau-Mouffe 1985; Tannen 1994; Riggins 1997;
Fairclough 2003; Geeraerts 2003; O’Halloran 2003; Quist 2005; Eckert 2008);
discursive psychology (e.g. Atkinson and Drew 1979; Pother and Wettherell 1987);
systemic functional linguistics (e.g. Halliday 1967-68); and socially based
theories of meaning (e.g. Butler 2003). Finally, he presents new insights of CL.

Chapter 4 analyzes the socio-cognitive aspects of human language and different
structures of language. In this chapter, which is one of the most important of
the book, Harder introduces the basic aspects of projects in and perspectives on
socio-cognitive approaches. The chapter’s rationale is to allow the cognitive
linguist to judge whether his/her project takes account of social context.

Chapter 5 covers the semantics of social constructions in relation to linguistic
processes and subjective meaning. The author talks about the relation between
“flow” and “competency” and does so with reference to meaning rather than structure.

Chapter 6 studies the role of norms in SLC. The author argues that the social
twist contains a change of “structure” that reflects itself in the perception of
language as “flow”, “competency” and “langue”. Harder claims that a
function-based explanation is needed to appreciate the social aspects of a

Chapter 7 is on style-discourses (cf. Schegloff 1999) and their application to
different types of contexts. This chapter also addresses salient theoretical
apparatuses of SLC. Harder highlights the collaboration between conceptual
content and social constructions and analyzes, with great acumen, the “war on
terror” (cf. Lakoff 2008).

Chapter 8 looks at the relation between ethnic groups, social linguistics, and
categories of meaning. Harder affirms and believes that academic analyses of
meaning in society serve a civic function. He requests that we be decidedly
dedicated to being considerate about what is going on in the object of explanation.

Chapter 9 is a synthetic presentation of the book’s main thesis and discussions.
‘Meaning-in-society’ is discussed as “a constituent of the sociocultural niche,
[that] forms part of complex entities with extra-mental (including causal)
properties. A crucial type of such entities are “niche concepts” which represent
the way the community “cuts the pie” as part of lived practices” (p. 447).


Peter Harder, in his first-rate book, elaborated through seven years of study
and research, has a main objective that is well delimited throughout the book’s
eight chapters. He achieves this while maintaining a balance between
objective-technical and understandable styles. He describes the methods,
scientific hypotheses and linguistic theories through which CL can be applied,
not only to the individual mind, but also (and predominantly) to the
social-public domain of human reality (i.e. the social-cognitive world).

The book offers a very rich and detailed critical overview of relevant
linguistic theories.
Harder calls “cognition in action” the new social turn of CL. Its foundation is
the public basis of meaning as well as the interaction between cognitive and
non-cognitive aspects of reality or, as is frequently said in the course of his
explanation, mental and non-mental objects of language. This “cognition in
action” has a central intuition, or better said, a working hypothesis with
two levels of reality -- the personal and social -- which are inter-related with
dynamism through personal and contextual-social meaning. Certainly, these kinds
of intuition, as Harder says, have a very common, and to some extent, obvious
outline; but on the whole we don’t find scientific developments about the
“cognition in action” starting point, nature, and main characteristics. As such,
this book offers a new and personal insight.

Harder locates CL within a wider shared perspective and also offers a very
comprehensive, critical and clever debate with reference to classical and
modern linguistic theories pertaining to the topic. For example, it is
noteworthy to mention that some significant research about CL has stressed,
almost exclusively, the significance of the personal mind’s relation to issues
dealing with meaning (Searle 1995). Harder doesn’t disagree directly with Searle
and others but goes beyond such an approach and argues for the condition of the
so called “levels-of-analysis” (cf. the influences of Russell’s theory of types
(1907-1908) with influence of the communications theory of Bateson (1980)).

We have a personal level and a collective level of meaning but not, as Harder
says unambiguously, a collective mind independent of the individual one. Thus,
Harder applies the concept of “joint attention” (Tomassello 2008), which takes
for granted that plain intentional achievement enables language education and
learning processes, and as such, is the valid missing link between automatic
input and language in the mind. “Joint attention” is an especially useful and
interesting CL tool that embraces the two dimensions we are dealing with here --
personal mind and environmental reality -- as aspects of the unique dimension
of “we”.

Harder includes “language in mind”, subject meaning, and other
worldly-contextual meaning as a framework for our daily existence and linguistic
experience as being embedded in a shared contextual edge. It is important to
highlight that Harder offers examples that are very relevant and interesting in
order to better understand these concepts and their abstract properties.
Furthermore, he promotes the importance of the causal interplay between mental
and non-mental factors. Social and public contexts act as meaning-producers or
causes. In this sense, following Wittgenstein (1953) and Tomassello (2008),
Harder describes social reality as a process or flow dimension that highlights
the objective value of external facts or events. This prevents the reduction of
social events to pure mental interpretation or subjective causation without
links to external reality (e.g. society, different kinds of groups, states).
Here, we could also find effective and well explained socio-political
implications of this theoretical approach.

Effectively, Harder discusses several ideological and systematic overviews of
the levels “I” and “We” in some chapters (cf. Chapters 3 and 6), especially
when he considers epistemological limits, not only of major trends like
structuralism and iconic thinkers like Derrida (1967), but also in relation to
“flow or process trend” as represented in CL.
Also, Harder analyzes important philosophical background; he directly
criticizes not only the traditional Aristotelian linguistic theory but also the
Platonic system (where ideal world = real world; material world = ephemeral).
His purpose is to evaluate and reasonably appreciate the value of the material
and social world (not ephemeral in the Platonic sense) as the cause of
“linguistic meaning” and “linguistic structure”.

The book critically articulates one further discrepancy between CL and the
“Discourses” interpretative analysis. “Discourses” (Tomasello 2008) approaches
generally could produce conflicts or could direct supposed and accepted meaning
towards a problematic situation that normally is ideologically partial when
describing the corresponding objects of language and meaning. The big difference
here is that CL makes available a structure with the foundational purpose of
action and joint support as components of a required framework for accepting
impersonal and difficult processes.

Harder affirms that purposeful relationships are a vital component of the
external circumstances and causality that configures meaning-in-society
(together with its linguistic programming). “Functionality” is central to
grasping the development of the main argumentation here and is perhaps its most
relevant features. “Functional patterns” are not, like “langue”, the social
dimension of language (as in the classical insight of Saussurre (1916), barely
mentioned by Harder). On the other hand, “functionality” is better understood as
“affordances” (cf. Gibson 1979) in the sense of how a determined sociocultural
community creates and uses linguistic meaning. The subject interacts with the
external environment to find out possibilities for linguistically and
purposefully communicating.

Harder discusses the most important application of CL, which is its social
facet, with respect to the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society of our time.
CL advances the limits of “Discourses” based theories and analyses.
Personally, I think Harder’s interpretation is decidedly important for
researchers and students of CL and also for people interested in social
theories, its relations with linguistic studies and the
philosophical-ideological background of some linguistic theories.
Notwithstanding, I suppose that this last aspect, the ideological, and to some
extent philosophical, framework is still open for exploration and could be
widened in subsequent studies of this type.

This book has made an admirable contribution to the rightly called “social
turn” of CL, inspired significantly by the Evolutionary Theory of Croft (2000,
2001). Here, CL presents its singularity within the field of linguistic studies:
Harder proposes new hermeneutics of Saussurean linguistics (especially the
notions of diachronic and synchronic) and even of “Discourses” studies.
Harder’s purpose is to develop “meaning in society” based on meaning in the
mind, according to classic CL, and moreover on meaning from inter-subjective
and inter-social points of view. “Meaning in society” isn’t explicitly,
following the theory of Harder, a hypothetical mind of social structure, but
rather the starting point of the approach called “Joint World”, which integrates
hypothetically preceding standard insights in an innovative and special
reassessment of sociocultural niches.

Functionality sets up the functional roles and the dynamical inter-relations
between the personal and collective levels analyzed here; starting up from the
aptitude of the individual mind through the flow of activity (“parole” in the
classic Saussurean sense) oriented towards the social aspect of language as well
as meaning (“langue”).
This web of functionality also operates with non-mental aspects of human reality.
Language and conceptualization are expressions of humans skills and semantic
proficiency makes it possible to stir up an array of offline meanings, which are
prospectively input to courses of actions and different kind of facts and data.
These would-be and possible meanings are produced by a mixture of forces to
allow involvement of individual subjects (and of course, minds and languages)
within social context or “niches” (as Harder says). “Meaning-in-society” is
meaning as the basic part of the “sociocultural niche” and its multifaceted
elements. A critical category of such elements is “niche concepts”, which
represent how some communities symbolize, interpret and linguistically adapt
their own societal experiences in the context of meaning as active elements of
the linguistic processes described by SLC. Meanings as components of “social
constructions” are components of the theory, close to non-abstract branches of
our world (and community, society and group), and linked to normative models
and ethical standards. The most essential relevance of the construction offered
in this book is that it theoretically elaborates and establishes a difference
between concepts as elements of the objective-external frame and concepts as
part of personal-subjective proficiency and experience.

Overall, the book is a main contribution to CL studies and research on
socio-cultural and socio-political niches. The technical style and highly
scientific argumentation make this book especially apt for linguists and
scholars interested not only in cognitive studies but also in philosophical and
sociolinguistic studies. In sum, Harder’s work represents a way of furthering
the limits of linguistics, semantics, and also “Begriffsgeschichte”, or
conceptual history (cf. Koselleck 2002), through its social turn and new
functional features of conceptual levels of both mind and meaning.


Bateson ,Gregory 1980. Mind and Nature. A necessary unity. London: Fontana.

Croft, William A. 2000. Explaining Language Change. An Evolutionary Approach.
London: Longman.

Croft, William A. 2001.Radical Construction Grammar. Syntactic Theory in
Typological Perspective. Oxford: University Press.

Chomsky, Noam 2000. New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind. Cambridge: CUP.

Derrida, Jacques. 1967. De la grammatologie. Paris: Les editions de minuit.

Gibson, James J. 1979. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin.

Kosselleck, Reinhart 2002. The Practice of Conceptual History. Stanford:
Stanford University Press.

Russell, Bertrand. 1908. Mathematical logics based on the theory of types.
American Journal of Mathematics 1908, 222-262.

Saussure Ferdinand de. 1916. Cours de Linguistique générale. Lausanne- Paris: Payot

Schegloff, E. 1999. Schegloff texts as Billig’s data. A Critical Reply.
Discourse and Society 10, 4, 558-572.

Searle, John. 1983. Intentionality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Searle, John. 1995. The Construction of Social Reality. Hardmonsworth: Penguin.

Tommasello, Michael 2008. Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT press.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig 1953. Philosophical Investigation. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Avi Weizmann is an Ancient Professor of Philosophy who is now retired but continues to research in the areas of philosophy of language, comparative linguistics and philosophical studies.

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