Podcast episode 18: Interview with H. Walter Schmitz on Victoria Lady Welby

In this interview, we talk to H. Walter Schmitz about pioneer of semiotics Victoria Lady Welby.

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References for Episode 18

Primary Sources

Hayakawa, Samuel Ichiyé (1939), Language in Thought and Action, New York: ‎ Harcourt, Brace and Co.

Ogden, Charles Kay and Ivor Armstrong Richards (1923), The Meaning of Meaning, London: Kegan Paul. (Reprinting of tenth edition with finger: archive.org)

Russell, Bertrand (1905), ‘On denoting’, Mind 14, 479-493.

Schiller, Ferdinand Canning Scott, Bertrand Russell & Harold Henry Joachim (1920), ‘The meaning of “meaning”: a symposium’, Mind, 29:116, 385-414.

Strawson, Peter F. (1950), ‘On referring’, Mind 59, 320-344.

Welby, Victoria Lady (1883 [1881]), Links and Clues, London: Macmillan & Co. archive.org

Welby, Victoria Lady (1897), Grains of Sense, London: J. M. Dent & Co. archive.org

Welby, Victoria Lady (1983 [1903]), What is Meaning? Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins (original published London: Macmillan and Co.).

Welby, Victoria Lady (1985 [1893]), ‘Meaning and Metaphor’, in Welby (1985), reproduced with original pagination (original in The Monist 3:4, 510-525).

Welby, Victoria Lady (1985 [1896]), ‘Sense, meaning and interpretation’, in Welby (1985), reproduced with original pagination (original in two parts: Mind 5:17, 24-37 and 5:18, 186-202).

Welby, Victoria Lady (1985 [1911]), Significs and Language: The articulate form of our expressive and interpretative resources, ed. by H. Walter Schmitz, Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins (original published London: Macmillan).

Welby, Victoria Lady, George Frederick Stout and James Mark Baldwin (1902), ‘Significs’, in Dictionary of philosophy and psychology in three volumes, vol. 2, ed. by J. M. Baldwin, New York: Macmillan, 529.

Wells, H.G. (1933), The Shape of Things to Come, London: Hutchison.

Secondary Sources

Heijerman, Erik and H. Walter Schmitz, eds. (1991), Significs, Mathematics and Semiotics: The signific movement in the Netherlands. Proceedings of the International Conference Bonn, 19–21 November 1986 (Materialien zur Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft und Semiotik. 5.), Münster: Nodus Publikationen.

McElvenny, James (2018), Language and Meaning in the Age of Modernism: C. K. Ogden and his contemporaries, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Petrilli, Susan P. (2009), Signifying and Understanding: Reading the works of Victoria Welby and the Signific movement, Berlin: De Gruyter.

Petrilli, Susan P. (2015), Victoria Lady Welby and the Science of Signs: Significs, semiotics, philosophy of language, New Brunswick: Transaction.

Schmitz, H. Walter (1985), ‘Tönnies’ Zeichentheorie zwischen Signifik und Wiener Kreis’, Zeitschrift für Soziologie 14:5, 373–385.

Schmitz, H. Walter, ed. (1990), Essays on Significs: Papers presented on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Victoria Lady Welby (1837–1912). (Foundations of Semiotics. 23.), Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Schmitz, H. Walter (1990), De Hollandse Significa: Een reconstructie van de geschiedenis van 1892 tot 1926, Vertaling: Jacques van Nieuwstadt, Assen/Maastricht: Van Gorcum.

Schmitz, H. Walter (1993), ‘Lady Welby on sign and meaning, context and interpretation’, Kodikas/Code 16:1/2, 19–28.

Schmitz, H. Walter (1995), ‘Anmerkungen zum Welby-Russell-Briefwechsel’, in History and Rationality. The Skövde Papers in the Historio­graphy of Linguistics, ed. by Klaus D. Dutz and Kjell-Åke Forsgren, Münster: Nodus Publikationen, 293–305 (Acta Universitatis Skod­vensis. Series Linguistica. 1).

Schmitz, H. Walter (1998), ‘Die Signifik’, in Semiotik. Semiotics. Ein Handbuch zu den zeichentheoretischen Grundlagen von Natur und Kultur. A Handbook on the sign-theoretic foundations of nature and culture, ed. by Roland Posner, Klaus Robering and Thomas A. Sebeok, vol 2, Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2112–2117 (Handbücher zur Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft. 13).

Schmitz, H. Walter (2009), ‘Welby, Victoria Lady’, in Lexicon Grammaticorum: A bio-bibliographical companion to the history of linguistics, ed. by Harro Stammerjohann, second edition, revised and enlarged, vol. II, L–Z, Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1627–1628.

Schmitz, H. Walter (2011), ‘Archiv und Anthologie der Signifik – in einem einzigen Band?’, Beiträge zur Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft 21:1, 127–152.

Schmitz, H. Walter (2014), ‘“It is confusion and misunderstanding that we must first attack or we must fail hopelessly in the long run.” Taking stock of the published correspondence of Victoria Lady Welby’, Kodikas/Code 36:3/4, 203–226.

Semiotica, vol. 196: 1/4 (2013), Special Issue: On and beyond Significs: Centennial issue for Victoria Lady Welby (1837–1912), guest editors: Frank Nuessel, Vincent Colapietro and Susan Petrilli.

Transcript by Luca Dinu


JMc: Hi, [00:11] I’m James McElvenny, and you’re listening to the History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences Podcast, online at hiphilangsci.net. [00:20] There you can find links and references to all the literature we discuss. [00:25] Today, we’re joined by Walter Schmitz, Emeritus Professor of Communication Science at the University of Duisburg-Essen. [00:33] He’s going to talk to us about Victoria, Lady Welby, an important and yet perhaps still somewhat underappreciated figure in the history of semiotics. [00:43] So to get us started, could you please tell us about Victoria Welby’s work and the background to it? [00:51] What were her major contributions to semiotic thought? [00:54]

WS: Lady Welby was born in 1837 and died in 1912. [01:05] She didn’t get any formal education, she got private lessons, and travelled a lot, especially with her mother, to the United States, northern Africa, Syria, and later she became maid of honour to Queen Victoria, in the ’60s for two years. [01:31] And after her marriage, at first she tried to find some arguments against the fundamentalistic interpretation of the Athanasian creed and theological texts, biblical texts, and that was her first start in the study of interpretation. [02:00] Afterwards, she studied philosophy, natural sciences, and everywhere she found puzzling terminology, and she found nobody cared for meaning, for meaning of the terminology, for meaning of ordinary words, and so she started a critique of terminology and ordinary language, and she found that the language they were using was not in agreement with the results of sciences. [02:39] And further on, she began to introduce the topic, the study of meaning, into British philosophy, psychology, and even linguistics. [02:52] In 1896, she could publish her first important article in the philosophical journal Mind on sense, meaning and interpretation. [03:08] To sum up the main point of her contribution to semiotics, we have to see that Lady Welby does not proceed from definitions of signs and their features in order to then investigate the relations into which signs with certain features can enter. [03:33] That was a way Peirce shows. [03:36] She starts at the other side, so to speak, and concentrates on the problem of meaning — that is, on questions of the interpretation and the communicative use of signs — and this she does in following theoretical and practical intentions. [03:56] And I think herein lies the essential merit of her contribution. [04:03]

JMc: You say that she started with Bible interpretation, and, as we’ve discussed in previous episodes of the podcast, hermeneutics, so this task of Bible interpretation also played a major role in German intellectual life in the 19th century and in the study of meaning in the 19th century in Germany. [04:24] Why do you think Lady Welby started with hermeneutics herself? [04:29] Was it because she was particularly religious or particularly pious, or was it more to do with the fact that this was one of the few intellectual outlets that was available to her because she couldn’t get a formal education? [04:42]

WS: I think the root were practical problems. [04:47] She was a mother and had to educate her children, and as a very independent mind – mentally, financially and in every aspect independent mind – she asked herself: How have I to educate my children in religious questions? [05:05] And there, she didn’t find any answer in the biblical or ecclesiastical books, and so she started to study biblical texts and ask herself: How do I have to understand these texts? Do I need a new interpretation, a contemporary interpretation? [05:25] And as she couldn’t read German, she couldn’t understand French, but only English, she was concentrated on what she could find in the English literature, especially in ecclesiastical books. But it wasn’t allowed for a woman to do that. [05:44] That was a main problem for her, and to publish a first book in 1881, and a second edition in 1883, that was offensive for many of her relationships, and she had to defend herself against the aggression of persons from the church as well as from societal relations, yeah? [06:10]

JMc: Yeah, okay. [06:11] Lady Welby is in fact the first woman to have appeared in our podcast series so far, right at the end of the 19th century. [06:19] If I can expand briefly on this problem of her not being able to get a formal education — as you mentioned, she was born in 1837, and as far as I’m aware, the first English university that allowed women to attend classes was the University of London in 1868, so she would have already been an adult by that stage, but even then, the female students at the University of London weren’t allowed to take degrees, so they were still second-class citizens in the university world. [06:51] So on the one hand, it’s nice that we’ve finally been able to find a woman scholar who was able to fight against all of the restrictions that were put on her gender in this period, but on the other hand, it’s still a story of privilege, isn’t it, because she’s a member of the high aristocracy, she’s financially independent, she was the maid of honour to Queen Victoria — in fact, she was named after Queen Victoria, who was her godmother. [07:19]

WS: Yeah. [07:19] She knew to use these privileges in order to go on with her studies. [07:28] She invited other persons to come to her manor in Lincolnshire, and she discussed with them their topics, and she also tried to get somebody like the psychologist Stout, or philosophers like Schiller, or mathematicians and philosophers like Russell, to care for the problem and to go on with the study. [07:59] She sent them her essays, discussed the essays, and so in a correspondence with them, she tried to get to a final version of the essay and to publish it, so she worked together with others and to use her privileges in order to overcome lack of knowledge, lack of experience. [08:26] Even in writing scientific texts, she had assistants who helped her to write the books. [08:33] For every book, she had a different or new assistant who was well informed and who had got a literary study and could do it. [08:45] So the privilege was used in order to get to the aim. [08:51]

JMc: On a purely political level, too, I believe she was an opponent of the suffragettes, for example, like she didn’t support women’s suffrage. [09:00]

WS: In political questions, I think that’s not the only argument to call her a very conservative woman, especially in the discussions with Frederik van Eeden, a Dutch poet and psychiatrist she corresponded with and knew him very well, they had heavy discussions on the South African wars between Dutch colonists and the English colonial empire. [09:37] I think in those questions, she was a conservative but in others, she was very progressive. [09:47] If you see what happened after Lady Welby, you can see that she chose the right way. [09:58] It was necessary at that time to discuss the topic of meaning and to get a new approach to it. [10:08] Ogden and Richards and everything [10:10], and even Bertrand Russell wrote on his bundle of letters he got from Lady Welby, later on he wrote on it, ‘From Lady Welby, who turned my attention to linguistic questions.’ [10:24] I think at that time, in 1905, for example, when Russell wrote about ‘On Denoting’, he didn’t understand her very well. [10:35] She was in advance, and she argued against Russell in that point the same way as later on, many years later, Strawson argued against Russell, and so there she was progressive, but in political respect, she was a conservative, yes. [10:58]

JMc: Yeah. [10:58]

WS: A member of her class. [11:00]

JMc: Yeah. [11:00]

WS: Yeah. [11:00]

JMc: Although I think, too, just on Russell, didn’t he write in some of his correspondence that he refuses the invitation to go to her house because he would have to be honest with her, and he thinks that it’s a shame that everyone is encouraging her? [11:16]

WS: I think at that time, Russell didn’t think very highly of Lady Welby. [11:25] But later on, he recognized that she shows the right way. [11:31] Even in 1923, when there was organized a symposium on the meaning of meaning, Russell participated in that symposium, but he, at that time, wrote a very behaviouristic approach to meaning, while Schiller, Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller, the philosopher, was a defender of Lady Welby’s approach, and Russell needed more time to learn than others. [12:05] Yeah. [12:05] Yeah. [12:05]

JMc: Do you think Russell ever did learn? [12:08] He was still fighting ordinary language philosophers in the ’50s and ’60s. [12:13]

WS: I’d say even the point he writes, ‘She called attention to linguistic questions,’ is a kind of misunderstanding. [12:21] She wasn’t interested in linguistic questions; she was interested in ways of interpreting signs, and that’s a more general question as a linguistic one. [12:37] For her, the word outside of use has a verbal meaning, but it hasn’t sense; it has no meaning. [12:46] Her interest was in the meaning of signs and not in words or in a systematic description of language. [12:54]

JMc: Yeah. [12:55] Okay, so this is a key word that brings us to the sort of heart of her doctrines, namely this trichotomy that she sets up between sense, meaning and significance. [13:05]

WS: Yeah. Yeah. [13:06]

JMc: Could you explain what that means? [13:09]

WS: Let’s begin with sense. [13:12] Lady Welby sought a very broad concept of sense, and it was a kind of organismical concept. [13:25] That means every experience has a value, and the value is a sense. [13:32] Every experience to which we react responds to that stimulus, gives us the sense of it. [13:41] The sense is the organismical reaction to the stimulus. [13:47] That’s the value of that experience. [13:50] But on the other hand, words or utterances have sense or get sense by the interpretation of the hearer or reader, and it’s the sense the utterance gets in the certain situation in a certain context and uttered by a certain speaker or writer. [14:17] And this first is the sense of the utterance, while meaning is the intention which is combined with this utterance, so the interpreter has to find out the difference between sense and meaning. [14:40] The sense is what we get almost immediately, but in order to get to the meaning of it, we have to make conclusions. [14:50] An example: somebody asks me, ‘Where is Peter?’ and I answer, ‘Yesterday, I saw a yellow Porsche in front of house number seven.’ [15:02] So the sense of my utterance might be, ‘Yesterday, there was such and such an event which I experienced,’ but the meaning of my utterance is quite different: ‘Peter was in that house.’ [15:22] Now we come to significance. [15:24] The significance is a consequence of or an implication of the utterance or even an event, even experience. [15:37] So it might be that in that house number seven, another woman is living, and the person who asked me where Peter is was perhaps the wife of Peter, and she will be afraid that Peter went to another woman. [15:56] So the consequence or the implication of my utterance might be of very great importance to that woman. [16:07] So significance is the third meaning events or utterances or words may have. [16:17]

JMc: So these three, this sense, meaning, and significance, in 1909, Peirce wrote to Welby in a letter that his own tripartition of immediate interpretant, dynamical interpretant, and final interpretant, quote, nearly coincides with her sense, meaning and significance. [16:38] You mentioned at the beginning of the interview the two different directions that Peirce and Welby approach the problems of semiotics from. [16:47]

WS: Yeah. [16:48]

JMc: But Peirce seems to have thought himself that his own views and Welby’s were very, very close. [16:55]

WS: He wrote that to Lady Welby, and I think there are some relationships, but they aren’t… by far, not identical. [17:07] If I go to the immediate interpretant, it has some similarity with sense but it’s not quite identical, and even less the dynamical interpretant is identical with meaning. [17:26] Perhaps final interpretant and significance might be even more similar than even Peirce thought, but their approach was so different that we couldn’t expect that their terms should be used to name the same concepts. [17:45] The differences shouldn’t be overlooked. [17:47] I think for Peirce, it was so important to have somebody to discuss semiotic questions, to explain her his ideas on semiotics, that at some time he overlooked the differences, and she did it in a similar way. [18:11] Peirce wasn’t interested in communication and interpretation. [18:15] He was interested in the development of a general semiotic system, and he left it as an empirical question to find out where and how these classes of signs were realized in real events, and that’s a very different approach, and it has to get to very different aims. [18:46] Yeah. [18:46]

JMc: Yeah. [18:47] Okay. [18:48] So could you tell us then a bit about what happened to Lady Welby’s legacy, to her work in later generations? [18:57] So there was the Dutch Significs movement, as it’s known, a group of scholars in the Netherlands who took Lady Welby’s work as an inspiration and continued in that line, but I think it’s probably fair to say that since that time, there hasn’t been much interest in her work, except a resurgence, say, since the 1980s onwards with semioticians looking at the history of semiotics, so not deploying her theories actively today to make new analyses, but just trying to uncover the past. [19:31]

WS: That’s right. [19:32] Even Signific movement in the Netherlands didn’t go the same way as Lady Welby. [19:41] It was just a source of inspiration, and they developed, especially Gerrit Mannoury, developed as a kind of a psychological communication theory. [19:54] What happened to Lady Welby’s ideas was a kind of following a clandestine results. [20:02] If you look at the book by Ogden and Richards, The Meaning of Meaning, there you find a lot of hints to Lady Welby, even if the authors try to conceal them, but they are standing on Lady Welby’s shoulders. [20:21] Yeah. [20:22]

JMc: Yeah. [20:22] And of course, Ogden was one of Lady Welby’s assistants.

WS: Yes, yes. [20:26]

JMc: Yeah. [20:26]

WS: And he got, for example, the important letters from Peirce to Welby, he copied them and printed them in the appendix of The Meaning of Meaning, or the personal idealism of Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller was also in some respects influenced by Lady Welby’s theory. [20:53] Even in the novels by H. G. Wells, you can find traces of Lady Welby. [21:02]

JMc: Okay. [21:02]

WS: Especially the late novel The Shape of Things to Come gets to Ogden and Richards and to Lady Welby, and he knows very well the connection between Welby and Ogden, for example. [21:17] So another more or less clandestine trace is in General Semantics today as than an outsider group, but nevertheless, Korzybski, Hayakawa know very well the writings of Lady Welby, and I think she was important at her time, but in certain respect it was good to overcome her beginnings, but semiotics has never again found a way to concentrate on these uses of signs in communication. [21:55] They all tried only the way of a systematization like Peirce did or like Saussure, but signs used in communication is a problem of interpreting the signs that is still a neglected question in semiotics. [22:13] Perhaps it has wandered into conversational analysis or Gesprächsanalyse, but it left semiotics.

JMc: Thank you very much for this interview. [22:26]

WS: Thank you for your interest in it. [22:28]


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