Re: [xmca] Was Stalin RIGHT About Vygotsky?

From: Mike Cole <lchcmike who-is-at>
Date: Fri Apr 11 2008 - 21:51:55 PDT

Very interesting and complex note, David.
Many will not have read Eugene's article so cannot properly comment.
I associate your note with earlier note on Karpov's views. Is that correct?

I wonder what Eugene thinks? So by cc I will ask him. We only caught a
glance of
each other at AERA under circumstances where it was not possible to stop and

T think I am alloted a day to read and catch up with XMCA and my
undergraduate lab course.
I can see that several ongoing discussions are ongoing.


PS-- Eugene: Is there some acceptable form in which we can make your article
available to xmca members
who do not have access to them short of expensive purchase of journals?

On Fri, Apr 11, 2008 at 4:58 PM, David Kellogg <>

> I just read, on Andy's recommendation, Eugene's very stimulating article
> on the difference between the "ontological project" of South African
> "cultural historical" thinking (national unity) and the "ontological
> supertask" of Western Vygotskyans (opposing differential forms of
> institutional failure). This is in Culture and Psychology, 14 (1) 5-35.
> I LIKE the idea that "ontology" orients itself to practical tasks. I also
> think that by posing the question in this way, Eugene makes possible a
> solution: the way in which we use the tool that LSV bequeathed us depends on
> the way we recontextualize it, and that in turn depends in thoroughly
> understanding the way in which it was contextualized in the first place as
> well as a painstaking analysis of the new context. But for exactly that
> reason, I am much more sympathetic to a "fundamentalist" reading of Vygotsky
> than he is. And as a result I have a question. Does anybody seriously think
> that Stalin was RIGHT about Vygotsky's attitude towards Uzbek peasants?.
> It seems highly implausible. Stalin was uniformly wrong about everything,
> but particularly about the scientific questions in which he and his minions
> occasionally dabbled. His criticisms of Ya Marr's position on language as
> superstructure are laughable, his support for Lysenko's war against genetics
> was contemptible, and his ham-handed grasp of Marxism as a method nearly
> crushed the life out of it for many generations to come. In general,
> anything that required concentration, careful reading and scientific
> consideration independent of short-term political aims was beyond him, and
> so he delegated the task to someone who was even less interested in critical
> thinking.
> So why is it that so many people assume that the criticisms that were
> made of the Luria and Vygotsky studies (that they were ethnocentric and
> arrogant, that they denigrated non-European people, and that they assumed a
> single, monotonic line of human development) were made in bad faith but were
> fundamentally correct? Isn't it MUCH more likely that they were made in bad
> faith and as a result based on a complete misrepresentation?
> The attitude of real Marxists towards Western rationalism was a highly
> critical one: they did not assume that the "formal logical" principles that
> it had uncovered were disinterested or objective. The attitude of real
> Marxists towards ALL oppressed groups was highly partisan: groups like the
> Jews (and blacks, and gays in our own time) were blessed/cursed with mutiple
> ontogenies; while the dominant castes understood their own culture
> exclusively, oppressed castes were in a position to understand the dominant
> culture critically and to also understand that alternatives were possible.
> The early Bolsheviks believed that the structure of society was such that
> the strata of society with the most power had the flabbiest ontologies and
> the least real knowledge, and that this was one of the things that made
> possible their overthrow. They believed that their real task was not to
> raise the oppressed to the level of a bourgeois philistine, but rather to
> raise them far above it, by casting down the oppressor classes,
> appropriating their culture, and transforming it with their own.
> It's true, LSV does assume that there is something "complexive" rather
> than "conceptual" about pre-modern thinking (a suggestion that Volosinov
> decisively rejects). But LSV does not fail to point out how pervasive
> complexive thinking is in so-called "modern" ideas as well.
> It's also true that LSV was hard up for good sources. Inevitably, LSV
> cites lots of fairy tales from Levy-Bruhl, including the one about
> "Hottentot" morality of "Kaffirs" (in the chapter on ethics in "Educational
> Psychology"), and sometimes these citations appear uncritical to our eyes.
> But this same fairy tale about the "Hottentot" moralist was used by
> Bolsheviks to show that moral thinking by "worker Hottentots" had the same
> formal logical basis as bourgeois thinking, and an interest in going far
> beyond it. (See, for example, Trotsky, "Their Morals and Ours", with its
> withering critique of Levy-Bruhl).
> I think LSV (and also Cole and Scribner, and Cole, Gay, Glick and Sharp)
> do not believe that one set of instruments are in any monotonic sense
> superior to another; if anything LSV is more interested in generality than
> efficiency in his discussion of psychological tools, and that is why he is
> more interested in semiosis than in, say, Fordism.
> I think he must have seen that semiotic tools can be easily expropriated,
> seized from their original misusers and set to an entirely different
> historical purpose. There is absolutely no reason to think that having done
> this, the oppressed will simply go about reproducing the culture of the
> oppressor.
> On the contrary, Levi-Strauss's observation that the non-modern man is a
> Jack-of-All-Trades who wants multifunctional tools rather than an engineer
> who requires precision made and task-dedicated instruments augurs well for
> the oppressed. Of course, this preference for jerry-built solutions to a
> wide range of problems is not unique to them: it is the intrinsic world
> view of any competent language user. It is no accident that the culture of
> the oppressed tends to be made of words rather than, say, celluloid and
> computerized SFX.
> Eugene is absolutely right to point out that the Hutchins work on
> Micronesian navigation is as much about the "fly by night" basis of
> so-called "Western" navigational practices as it was the about the
> consistency and principled quality of the Micronesian practices! My father
> spent part of his postgraduate years in Micronesia, not studying the local
> people but rather vaporizing their islands with hydrogen bombs.
> My dad came back imbued with wonder at the culture he had just helped to
> exterminate (and an abiding regret that he had not acquired more of their
> ingenious star maps made of tapa cloth strings and knots). Part of this
> wonder was the realization that the Micronesians had mastered our cultural
> practices as well as their own; they could not only build their own canoes,
> but given a set of plans from a California boat builder, could turn out
> wooden versions of the popular "Lightning" sailboats for American military
> officers as well (he recently tried to locate some of these boats, which are
> apparently still being sailed).
> David Kellogg
> Seoul National University of Education
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Received on Fri Apr 11 21:53 PDT 2008

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