Valentin Nikolaevich Voloshinov (June 18, 1895, St. Petersburg – June 13, 1936, Leningrad) was a Soviet/Russian linguist, whose work has been influential in the field of literary theory and Marxist theory of ideology.
Written in the late 1920s in the USSR, Voloshinov's Marxism and the Philosophy of Language attempts to incorporate the field of linguistics into Marxism. The book's main inspiration, however, does not come from previous Marxists, whom Voloshinov saw as largely indifferent towards the study of language. Instead, Voloshinov's theories are built on critical engagement with Wilhelm von Humboldt's concept of language as a continuous creative or 'generative' process, and with the view of language as a sign-system posited by Ferdinand de Saussure. To some extent, Voloshinov's linguistic thought is also mediated by the analyses of his Soviet contemporary Nikolai Marr, and by the work of the Crocean linguist Karl Vossler.
For Voloshinov, language is the medium of ideology, and cannot be separated from ideology. Ideology, however, is not to be understood in the classical Marxist sense as an illusory mental phenomenon which arises as a reflex of a "real" material economic substructure. Language, as a socially constructed sign-system, is what allows consciousness to arise, and is in itself a material reality. Because of this belief that language and human consciousness are closely related, Voloshinov holds that the study of verbal interaction is key to understanding social psychology. Voloshinov further argues for understanding psychological mechanisms within a framework of ideological function in his book Freudianism: A Marxist critique.
It is a mistake, argues Voloshinov, to attempt to study language abstractly and synchronically (i.e. in an unhistorical manner), as Saussure does. Words, for Voloshinov, are dynamic social signs, which take different meanings for different social classes in different historical contexts. The meaning of words is not subject to passive understanding, but includes the active participation of both the speaker (or writer) and hearer (or reader). While every word is a sign taken from an inventory of available signs, the manipulation of the word contained in each speech act or individual utterance is regulated by social relations. In Voloshinov's view, the meaning of verbal signs is the arena of continuous class struggle: a ruling class will try to narrow the meaning of social signs, making them "uni-accentual", but the clash of various class-interests in times of social unrest will make clear the "multi-accentuality" of words.
By virtue of his belief that the 'struggle for meaning' coincides with class struggle, Voloshinov's theories have much in common with those of Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, who shared an interest in linguistics. Voloshinov's work can also be seen to prefigure many of the concerns of poststructuralism.
Voloshinov devotes the last portion of Marxism and the Philosophy of Language to a treatment of reported speech in order to show social and temporal relations between utterances to be integral properties of language. This was taken up by Roman Jakobson in an essay entitled: "Shifters and Verbal Categories," and influenced the development of the Prague School of functional linguistics as well as linguistic anthropology.
Some scholars believe that works bearing Voloshinov's name were actually authored by his colleague Mikhail Bakhtin, although the topic is still the subject of debate; a few of these works have been added to reprinted editions of Bakhtin's collected works.