[xmca] Reifications and Amalgams

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Tue May 22 2007 - 09:43:09 PDT

I have some thoughts about the Shaffer and Clinton article "Toolforthoughts: Reexamining Thinking in the Digital Age", which is, so far, leading the XMCA poll for the free discussion article of the month.
  On p. 291 the authors say:
  "In this ontology (...) there are no tools without thinking and there is no thinking without tools."
  My first thought was if we cannot distinguish between the tool use without thought of the bonobo using a grass stem to fish termites out of a hill or the stick-and-banana tool use of the chimpanzees in Kohler's experiments on the one hand and the thoughts without tools of Einstein's Gedankenexperiments on the other, then in this onotology there can be no development of any kind. So perhaps we'd better distinguish between a truism like like "there are no tools without thinking and there is no thinking without tools" and a clear falsehood like "tools and thinking are inseparable and form an identity" implied by the construct of "toolforthoughts".
  My second thought was that what is really happening here is that the authors are trying to avoid dualism by creating an imaginary larger whole to which they assimilate both tools and thoughts on a strictly equal basis. I see no fundamental difference between this reasoning and that of the "primitives" who think that they are red parrots because they belong to a larger kinship structure including red parrots. When you get right down to it, this is how we form profoundly dualistic reifications like "soul" and "self" as well.
  My third thought was that there was a good reason why Shaffer and Clinton bring in chaos/complexity theory at the end. As in 1926, when Vygotsky wrote "Consciousness as a Problem for the Psychology of Behavior", we are witnessing attempt to create a form of bottom up psychology which does not require (and therefore can explain) consciousness. As in 1926, it is doomed to fail because it lacks a historical perspective of how society creates the conditions for growth, which in turn creates the raw material for new culture. But at least in 1926 the underlying model was biological and not simply mechanical or even mathematical.
  I also had some rather less theoretical thoughts, of a similarly pessimistic nature. On p. 295 the authors uncritically quote Seymour Papert in 1980 who apparently enthused that "computers make it possible to learn mathematics by living in Mathland as one can learn French by moving to France." It is now possible to NOT learn French while moving to France, for example by wasting all one's time teaching English (as American students in their "study abroad" year not infrequently choose to do). It is similarly possible to avoid Hamlet by playing a Prince of Denmark video game.
  Once again, I protest against the facile phrase "schooling emphasizes the production and consumption of symbolic texts". Texts are not consumed when we read them. This is yet another important difference between a tool and a thought, and it is clear evidence that a text is rather closer to the latter than the former. It seems to me that the purpose of this particular "toolforthought" is to avoid thought, once again by appealing to a "higher" whole, in this case a sloppy, moralizing amalgam of schooling with capitalist production.
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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Received on Tue May 22 10:45 PDT 2007

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