Philosophers: The Hon. Victoria, Lady Welby-Gregory
(1837-1912 CE)

[Life & Work] | [Links] | [Bibliography]

Her parents were Hon. Charles and Lady Emmeline Stuart-Wortley, and relatively little is known of her early life. She spent much of her time travelling the world (her journals, describing her experiences, survive), and was in Beirut at the time of her parents' death. She also wrote poetry and plays. Her varied activities included founding the Sociological Society of Great Britain and serving as Maid of Honour to Queen Victoria (who was her godmother).

In 1863 she married politician Sir William Welby-Gregory, and went to live at Denton Manor in Lincolnshire. Though having little formal education, she mixed and corresponded with prominent thinkers, and educated herself through them. By the late nineteenth century she was writing papers on meaning, published in the leading academic journals Mind and The Monist, and in 1903 she published her book What Is Meaning? Studies in the Development of Significance, followed in 1911 by Significs and Language: The Articulate Form of Our Expressive and Interpretive Resources. Also in 1911 she contributed a long article to the EncyclopFdia Britannica (11th ed.), 'Significs', the name she'd given to her theory of meaning. She also published papers and a book (Time As Derivative (1907)) on the reality of time.

The first of these books, What Is Meaning?, was reviewed for The Nation by the American philosopher C.S. Peirce, and a six-year correspondence between the two ensued, published in 1977 as Semiotics and Significs. The two philosophers had much in common, in terms both of their approach to the subject and of the theories that they had developed. She had already started on a similar correspondence with C.K. Ogden, who had contacted her in 1910, and whose work on meaning was deeply affected by her theories (though in his book The Meaning of Meaning (1923) he downplays her significance).


Welby's interest in meaning flowed from her original concern with theology, and the interpretation of the Christian scriptures, as brought out in her first book, Links and Clues (1881). This concern developed into a more general worry about the nature of sense in language, including (perhaps especially) the everyday use of language. Much of her work consisted of the development of distinctions between different kinds of sense, and the various relationships between these kinds of sense and ethical, aesthetic, pragmatic, and social values. She coined the word 'significs' (she'd originally used 'sensifics') for her approach; it had the advantage over terms like 'semiotics' and 'semantics' of bearing no theoretical baggage, and of indicating the specific area of interest that existing studies had tended to ignore.

every one of us is in one sense a born explorer: our only choice is what world we will explore, our only doubt whether our exploration will be worth the trouble. [...] And the idlest of us wonders: the stupidest of us stares: the most ignorant of us feels curiosity: while the thief actively explores his neighbour's pocket or breaks into the 'world' of his neighbour's house and plate-closet.
'Sense, meaning, and interpretation (I)' Mind N.S. V, 1898

She divided sense into three main categories: "sense", "meaning", and "significance", which corresponded to three levels of consciousness, which she dubbed, using astronomical terms: "planetary", "solar", and "cosmic" respectively. This set of distinctions is explained in part by reference to a version of Darwinian evolutionary theory.

+ One Hundred Philosophers (2004)
U.S.A.:     Barron's Educational Books
U.K.:        Apple Press
Australia: A.B.C. Books
The book covers the history of philosophy chronologically from Thales of Miletus (6th century BCE) to Peter Singer (b.1946 CE), with philosophers from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Australasia, and the U.S.A., about 60% getting a page, 40% two pages. Scattered through the book are brief introductions to such topics as African, Chinese, and Indian philosophy, scepticism, women in philosophy, mind and body, the philosophy of science, and moral philosophy. The book's divided into periods, each with its own introduction and timeline of other important events. There's also a glossary, suggested further reading, and an index.
    * Victoria, Lady Welby
    Short article in Wikipedia.
    * Lady Welby Library
    A collection in Senate House Library, University of London: "A collection of books and pamphlets formed and extensively annotated by the Hon. Victoria A M L Stuart-Wortley, afterwards Lady Welby-Gregory (1837-1912), was given by her husband Sir Charles Welby-Gregory. It consists of 1,500 volumes and 1,000 pamphlets, mostly 19th century, on theology, philosophy, economics, education, science and philology. Current interest in the collection stems from Lady Welby's development of 'significs', now understood as a forerunner of semiology."

Primary texts

  • "Meaning and metaphor" (Monist 3:4 (1893) pp 510-525; and in Welby [1985])
  • "Sense, meaning, and interpretation I" (Mind 5:17 (1896) pp 24-37; and in Welby [1985]; extract in M. Warnock [ed.] Women Philosophers, J.M. Dent, 1996
  • "Sense, meaning, and interpretation II" (Mind 5:18 (1896) pp 186-202; and in Welby [1985])
  • "Notes on the 'Welby Prize Essay'" (Mind 10 (1901) pp 188-209)
  • Semiotic and Significs: Correspondence between Charles S. Peirce and Victoria Lady Welby (edited by Charles S. Hardwick, with the assistance of James Cook. Indiana University Press, 1977)
  • Other Dimensions: A Selection from the Later Correspondence of Victoria, Lady Welby (edited by Mrs Henry Cust. Jonathan Cape, 1931)
  • What Is Meaning? Studies in the Development of Significance (Reprint of original edition London, 1903. John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1983)
  • Significs and Language: The Articulate Form of Our Expressive and Interpretive Resources (Edited by H. Walter Schmitz. Reprint of original edition London, 1911. John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1985)

Secondary literature

  • Gerard Deledalle "Victoria Lady Welby and Charles Sanders Peirce: meaning and signification" (in A. Eschbach [ed.] Essays on Significs John Benjamins, 1990)
  • William Andrew Myers "Victoria, Lady Welby (1837-1912)" (in M.E. Waithe [ed.] A History of Women Philosophers vol. 4, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995)
  • Jaime Nubiola "Scholarship on the relations between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Charles S. Peirce" (in I. Angelelli & M. Cerezo [edd], Proceedings of the III Symposium on History of Logic, Gruyter, 1996) -- contains useful section on "Peirce's reception in British philosophy: Lady Welby, Ogden and Russell"
  • Susan Petrilli "The biological basis of Victoria Welby's significs" (Semiotica: Journal of the International Association for Semiotic Studies 127, 1999)
  • H. Walter Schmitz "Victoria Lady Welby's significs: the origin of the signific movement" (in Welby [1985])
  • H. Walter Schmitz [ed.] Essays on Significs: Papers Presented on the Occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the Birth of Victoria Lady Welby (1837-1912) (John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1990)
  • Ferdinand Tnnies "Note in response to Welby" (Mind 10 (1901) pp 204-209)

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