Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Ethics and Significance: Insights from Welby for Meaningful Education

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_30



This entry focuses on Victoria Lady Welby’s (1837–1912) theory of meaning – which she denominated significs – and addresses her contribution to education as, specifically, the problematic of educating for values. To bring Welby’s legacy into edusemiotics is timely, especially considering that her work does not yet enjoy the notoriety it deserves. Yet her conceptualizations demonstrate the connection of her unorthodox theory of meaning to the philosophy of education today – a key concern in both edusemiotics (Stables and Semetsky 2015) and semioethics (Petrilli and Ponzio 2010), whence ethics is informed by signs, their interpretation, and translation in the context of practical life and human actions. Such new direction explored on the basis of Welby’s significs as a theory of meaning focuses on the relation between signs, sense, and values. A particularly important contribution from semioethics today is the special attention it devotes to the relationship between the study of language (philosophy of language) and ideologies as social planning. This interdisciplinary enterprise is especially important for education in the context of so-called global semiotics (Danesi et al. 2004). The study of semiotics, according to eminent semiotician Thomas Sebeok, went through the paradigm shift during the last century thus passing through the boundaries of its earlier, exclusively glottocentric, sphere to include the whole of life.

Lady Welby on Experience and Meaning

Stating in her essay “Sense, Meaning, and Interpretation,” originally published in two parts in the journal Mind, that everyone of us is in one sense a born explorer and our choices lie in what world we would explore, Lady Welby points to the value and meaning of human experiences in the world, which – as Charles Peirce made clear – is perfused with signs: it is a semiotic world. Her major oeuvre “What is Meaning?” was reviewed by Peirce, the event leading to an 8-year correspondence between them (Hardwick 1977). Welby considered language to be just one, albeit preeminent, of the forms of broader expressions manifesting sense and significance that surpass solely linguistic representations. In an apparent affinity with Deweyan pragmatism and its focus on the reorganization and revaluation of lived experience, Welby addresses the most important components of experience as distinction and unification, comparison and combination, analysis and synthesis at once, and against the background of the confused manifold of the as yet hidden significance. Welby signals the need for studies on child development and criticizes the educational system for not sufficiently recognizing the child’s inherent capacity for interrogating reasons, for the explicit “why” question. However, typical formal schooling systematically blunts the child’s interest in language.

Reflecting on the progress of Welby’s significs, Charles Ogden asserted that the most urgent reference and promising field for significs lies in the direction of education – to which we add now the importance of tracing the main lines of development as proceeding from significs to semioethics in the context of current advances demonstrated by edusemiotics with which Welby’s theory demonstrates a remarkable affinity. For Welby, the theoretical exploration of meaning that embraces the whole of life experiences and cannot be confined to verbal signs, the related principle of translation, and the questions of education are closely interconnected. She was writing lessons, emphasizing the duty of saying what we mean and meaning what we say, and understanding what we hear or read, thereby promoting education in language for an adequate development of the interpretive and signifying capacity, ultimately for reflection on the relation between language, logic, meaning, and understanding. A “significal education” is education for critical linguistic consciousness, meaning, and value. Welby describes her concept of significs as

a method of mental training, which, though implied in all true views of education, is not yet practically recognised or systematically applied. In a special sense, it aims at the concentration of intellectual activities on that which we tacitly assume to be the main value of all study, and vaguely call “meaning”. Its instructive and disciplinary value must be secondary to this, as they are both ultimately dependent upon it. (Welby 1983[1903], p. 83)

Similarly to later semioticians like Roland Barthes denouncing the fascism of language or Michel Foucault’s critique of the order of discourse, Welby denounces the tyranny of language and expression when they tend toward uniformity, homologation, and the adherence to values imposed from above by a given linguistic system and ruling social norms. She maintains that from early childhood everyone should be educated in the spirit of conscious awareness and the development of critical and creative thinking. Welby theorizes the concepts of difference and singularity, maintaining that each human being is unique, so that beyond commonality given by the relation with the other in social life, but from a “significal” perspective developed in the direction of semioethics, identity emerges in terms of difference and the logic of otherness – not unlike much later, poststructuralist and feminist, veins in educational philosophy that contributed to the development of edusemiotics as a novel theoretical foundation for education (e.g., Semetsky 2006; Noddings 2006, 2010) to date. Welby’s approach implies education for listening to the other, for difference based on the logic of otherness, for being responsive to the other, and for engaging in dialogue with the other. The value of “otherness” is thus affirmed. Her long-term project was social change through the development of critical linguistic consciousness and training in responsible thinking based on values informing human actions (Petrilli 2009, pp. 371–379).

Welby’s work prefigures both John Dewey’s philosophy of democratic education and Charles Morris’ contributions. Indeed, Morris referred to the school system as a form of social organization for the perpetuation of culture underlining the interconnection between education, communication, and political-ideological orientation of the community. He was adamant that the totalitarian society cannot give widespread attention to semiotics as regards its educational plans because such knowledge of sign phenomena would make it less easy to manipulate those who have this knowledge. He asserted that it is precisely because of this fact that semiotics should have a prominent place in the educational system of a democratic society.

Welby worked on educational issues relative to all spheres of knowledge and experience throughout the entire course of her research. In her “Questions for Teachers,” she formulates 50 questions bearing on theological and eschatological issues aiming to teach educators per se to interrogate the text. Text is composed by signs that need to be interpreted rather than taken as “facts.” No text should be accepted passively. Interpreters must establish relations of active participation, relate dialogically to the text, interrogate it, and question value systems, behavioral patterns, and belief systems. The connection between language, logic, and meaning involves education understood as educating for meanings and values and laying down the pathway to critical thinking and ethical responsibility. Welby called for systematic training in critical and creative reflection and wanted “to persuade parents and schoolmasters that the first need is to centre all education upon the question of ‘Meaning and how to convey it’” (1983[1903], pp. 140–141). Educating in the meaningful use of language is our moral responsibility, the capacity to interrogate sense and significance – our ethical commitment toward the general improvement of the human condition and interpersonal relationships.

A significal education develops the power of interpretation and expression from different points of view. Educating for meaning and values teaches students to make distinctions and detect fallacies and confusions, whether intentional or unconscious, to establish connections and associations among ideas and research fields, to link all parts of growing experience, and therefore to apply in practice the principle of semiotic translation. Beyond interlingual translation, to translate is to confront, contrast, compare, and associate multiple signs and sign systems (whether verbal or nonverbal), linguistic expressions and value systems, spheres of knowledge, and lived experience. This involves identifying a common denominator (metaphorically of course), common language, and shared meanings on the basis of which one can interpret the unknown other, and thereby make sense for, and find significance in, our experience of relating to others. Reflecting on analogy and translation, also described as “inter-expression,” the processes of transferral, transvaluation, and the translation of meaning through human experience constitute a test to the validity of meaning beyond enhancing signifying value generally. The first analogy upon which all others are constructed is the one between one’s own mind and others: “we forget that we cannot say one word to our fellow without assuming the analogy between his ‘mind’ and our own” (Welby 1983[1903], p. 43).

Welby introduces the term “metalemma” for linguistic metaphors, underlining the importance of resorting to imagery as well as experimentation and verification for communicative effectiveness. Unconscious logico-linguistic mechanisms should be lifted to the surface of consciousness as a step toward dealing with inferential or interpretive inadequacies and communicative deficiencies at large. This, for Welby, implies developing a propensity for the critique of imagery and analogy from early childhood while acquiring adequate habits of analysis, verification, and classification. She signaled the need for training in the use of imagery (popular, poetical, philosophical, and scientific) as well as teaching strategies oriented to such awareness. She describes the “critique of imagery” as a method against confusing and fallacious inferential processes. Interestingly, Peirce’s mode of abductive inference is typically considered fallacious from the viewpoint of the strictly analytical philosophy of language that affords no place for semiotic mediation and interpretation and posits signs as exclusively verbal and reducible to their direct representations. However, abduction is invaluable in edusemiotics that recognizes the unconscious dimension of experience and the necessity to become aware of it by developing self-reflective, critical, and creative consciousness. Interpreting the nonverbal “language” of images, translating it into verbal expressions, and utilizing all forms of inference including abduction, deduction, and induction are part and parcel of fully-fledged edusemiotics (Semetsky 2011, 2013).

Welby’s Significs as a Theory-Practice Nexus

Welby’s theoretical research was inseparable from practice: she was not only attending school lessons but also constructing elaborate lesson plans to conduct lessons herself on an experimental basis. In this context, Welby remarks:

The following extracts are from a series of twelve familiar lessons on “Sign and Sense” given by a grandmother to a boy eight years old, and reported verbatim. They gave much delight, not because of any aptitude on the part of the teacher, but obviously from the natural affinity of the subject and the fascination of its problems to the young mind. The lessons, however, had to be discontinued from the time the boy went to school. It is to be hoped that the time is not far off when such lessons in worthier form will become the recognised introduction to the school course. (Welby 1983[1903], p. 306)

A significal education is education in training thought to identify problems and ask questions, rather than pave the path to final truths. Asking questions is a condition for the acquisition and transformation of our conceptual knowledge and practical skills: the dynamic reality of the question sweeps the mind forward in an endless movement to new and wider horizons. To develop an inquiring spirit in a child is much more significant than providing ready-made answers. Any answer in fact should be just a departure point for a string of new questions. Welby was keen to confront her ideas with the semiotic perspective and was convinced that we should not ignore the need to reassess the relation between languages and values in the direction of education founded on the study of signs embedded in life. Teaching methods should be revised and updated in light of research on language and meaning, while questioning the relation to values and applying in practice the principle of translation. Welby envisaged the children of tomorrow as being educated in a sense of sense so to understand what the meaning of “meaning” per se is. Children should be educated to understand what signs signify and to learn how to translate and interpret the dialectics pertaining to real practical life. Educating for meanings and values can provide guidance to better navigate through the “jungle” that we call language. The children of tomorrow, whose education is indeed “significal,” would be able to interpret and translate the signs of experience. Such new generation of students, if and when educated in significs and semioethics, will be able to understand the deeper meanings that are available today only to, using Welby’s words, the sheer force of genius.

As all human beings are instinctively endowed with “mother sense” or “primal sense,” such sensibility is a priori for the development of critical consciousness, creativity, and ethical responsibility. Welby comments that if mother or primal sense continues to be more vital in women than in men, this is because women are more capable of shaking off the effects of “high” civilization and typical or conventional education. She insisted on early childhood education and bringing up children in the spirit of crucial importance of preserving and utilizing all aspects of language, not only as regards the economy of knowledge but also using language for lucidity, grace, melody, dignity, beauty, and the power to express the inexpressible. The following passage deserves to be quoted in full to underline the importance of Welby’s theory of meaning for edusemiotics as a new, and future-oriented, direction in the philosophy of education:

We must remember that while the appeal to the matter-of-fact character would have told on the side of economy, of simplicity, and of efficiency … the appeal to the imaginative character would have told on the side of truer conception, whether abstract or pictorial, whether ethical or artistic, whether making for truth, goodness or beauty. The prosaic type would have seen the point best on the economical, …as a question of success or failure, praise or reproof, reward or punishment. The imaginative or emotional type would have seen the iniquity and folly of crippling or mutilating the most precious of its gifts, of starving instead of fostering a really vital energy. All alike would by this time have contributed abundantly to our store. For the whole mental atmosphere and attitude of a generation thus trained from the very beginning of life would be altered. Its centre of gravity would be changed. Its world would also at once be expanded; the area of the common interest enlarged and concentrated, and value of life revealed and enhanced.

[…] We should at last touch [a child’s] natural tendency to seek a “because” for everything – to link together all parts of his growing experience. As all fun and chaff, no less than all wit and humour, depend on turns either of sense or meaning or significance; as the ludicrous depends on the incongruous, and our sense of the incongruous depends on the strength of our mastery of the congruous, this method of education would lend itself, as no other could attempt to do, to the child’s craving to be interested, excited, even amused in learning. (Welby 1983[1903], pp. 212–218)


Welby’s corpus includes a selection of extracts from different authors expressing their views on education, in support of her own position and touching on such themes as educational reform, teacher training, and student training strategies, the importance of motivation and interest in learning processes and of imagination, the objects of primary education, the place of classical studies in the educational system and of grammar, etc. Her focus on play and imagination in the acquisition of knowledge recalls Peirce’s notion of the play of musement, later developed by Thomas Sebeok with regard to his concept of primary modeling. The present-day problems relative to educational theories and pedagogical practices show that an expansion of philosophy of education to the point of its convergence with semiotics is now necessary. It is such current expansion that constitutes the critical instance of philosophy as semiotics, that is, an open-ended field of inquiry and research demonstrating that the fully-fledged science of signs is always in the process of evolution, rather than being an achieved end result to boast about.

Welby’s contribution to edusemiotics is thus indispensible, her historical place among such “edusemiotic precursors” as Peirce, Dewey, Deleuze, Kristeva, or Noddings notwithstanding. Nor is her theory of any small account as reflected in the fact that, with respect to other extant possible denominations circulating at the time, including “semiotics,” she should have preferred to introduce the neologism significs to underline her inexhaustible interest in sense and significance, in value and not simply linguistic meaning. With her choice of the term “significs” for her research, the question she underlined is not that of whoever professes this or that discipline or subject matter nor in the established role of scholar, scientist, or intellectual. Instead, it is the question posed by an ordinary person in everyday life, namely, what does it mean for me, for us, today, now, or later and what sense and what value does our practical experience have. This is a question that semioethics recovers and that also is central to edusemiotics.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Bari Aldo MoroBariItaly