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RE: [xmca] Visual Thinking? - a lightning-delayed response

Dear David

Agreeing to disagree with you about these blocks is invigorating because we
frequently arrive at the same place through different paths...  

I admit upfront that there are occasions where I paint with a rather broad
brush and suspect that even though the blocks are an extremely delicate
instrument that they do too.  I think some of this has to do with their
arrival on the scene at a time when psychology was quite young, and because
of the need of the authors to move away from the immediacy of the familiar
crowding in and interfering with introspection.  So, by taking Ach's
procedure a little further, they tweaked it to iron out some of the most
obvious weaknesses: eg, they took away playing with things first by the
subjects, and they took away the numerical neatness of four equally numbered
groups (because Sakharov says real life doesn't work that way), and they
allowed the solution to be offered gradually, in the form of words that have
no meaning in the existing language but which are not arbitrary in meaning
either.  "Mup" and "rots" somehow morphed into "lag" and "cev", strange
words for combinations of real characteristics which owed their heritage to
the "gatsun" and "fal" of Ach, and even further back to the ideas of
Aveling.  And so the method of double stimulation took on a semiotic
function, distinct from that of coloured cards or paper steps on the floor,
where those strange little three-letter words really do direct the activity.
In fact, a number of the studies conducted with adults in the US and
elsewhere in the intervening years overlook this crucial element: the blocks
are not just about finding 149 possible solutions, but about revealing how
you respond to the semiotic mediation; it's about thought and language.

And, even though Vygotsky was aware of the shortcomings of the blocks
method, he included the work he and Sakharov had done five to seven years
earlier as Chapter Five of "Thought and Language" - practically unchanged.
I'd like to believe he did this for a really good reason - and not one
solely motivated by heartbreak over Sakharov: I believe he included this
work because he saw value in it, in 1934.  And so, even with its
shortcomings (not allowing for generalizations to be built upon, or
hierarchies to be established), he wrote, much closer to 1934, that his
investigations into "real" concepts actually complemented "the experimental"
blocks study.   Within these new investigations into scientific and
spontaneous concepts, a measure of generality, which links concepts together
in many different ways (perhaps even interpersonally and expressively, as
you point out, David), was found "which varies on the different levels of
development, from syncretic formations to concepts proper.  Analysis of the
child's real concepts also helped us to determine how concepts differ at the
various levels in their relation to the object and to word meaning, and in
the intellectual operations they make possible" ('86, pp 201 - 202).  Once
again, function and development, particularly in the last phrase of this

So, the blocks study needed further work to find out more about concepts and
their formation, to fill in more of the finer details (Vygotsky calls them
gaps), whether these be about arranging things into nouny-type
classifications or cause-and-effect conjunctions or unfamiliar combinations
into descriptions of things as tall-and-big, tall-and-small, flat-and-big,
and flat-and-small.  When I first started out, the intention was to find out
if the five complexes that Vygotsky writes about could be found in the
thinking of people today.  I believe they were.  And, yes, I do agree that
the finding of these relates to the "fairly specific task with its own
peculiarities", but I don't believe it is limited to or by that.  This
fairly specific task was developed with a fairly specific game-plan: to
attempt to uncover the processes involved in subjects coming to understand
new words, or developing new concepts, and to allow this process to be
revealed as the researchers looked on.  And it is in this, as a true-blue
cultural-historical artefact, that the blocks methodology is reflective of
the where, the when, and the what of its era: even so, working with them now
some eighty years after they came into being doesn't dull the very specific
and intricate unfolding that takes place as each session progresses.  The
bold strokes of the blocks' colours and shapes and numbers of them hide the
finer touches of the very simple double dichotomy - which can only be found
by insight (the application of, or recognition of, a system?  Using one
system to find another?).  But, the solution CAN also be put together brick
by brick, or by trial and error, or by vague (intuitive) responses to their
sizes, or by physical and concrete measuring strategies, or by statistical
analyses of the relationships between the different kinds of blocks.  By
"system" (presence or absence of one, p. 205, 1986), I think Vygotsky's
talking about a systematic approach that's governed by a simpler, less
complicated set of rules.  And in my experience with the blocks and the
younger subjects, this approach also means one that is far more consistently

In whichever way these unfold, responses can be found that find
correspondence with Vygotsky's complexes - some of these are more
developmental in flavour, and are found in younger subjects, and some are
more functional in flavour because adults are working with working
hypotheses or manipulating the blocks to establish those essential rather
than functional relationships.  And I think that key to all of this, and
where we shall probably still disagree, is that the whole process in Chapter
Five towards Chapter Six is about broad brush strokes painting the emerging
partnership of generalising and abstracting and elevating the abstracted and
generalised characteristics into principles which can be compared and
juxtaposed: developing a system.

Because at first, with the younger subjects, one-to-one associations were
made; they were fairly simple, not really abstracted and not generalised
beyond a pair.  Not very many connections between things were made.
Collections were the strangest - not the least because I think most of us
are taken by surprise at the type of "logic" that lumps things together
"because they are different".  And I think Vygotsky did his best by
explaining how this works on the functional participation of knives and
forks and shoes and socks.  Yet I also think that it's easy to view these
examples as arising in linear fashion in the same mistaken way that the
evolution of finger and thumb is sometimes viewed with similar teleological
simplicity.  I haven't read the comments online currently on the bad PR of
the anecdote, but I do remember putting things together because they were
different to each other and I also remember feeling deeply satisfied by
that.  And I think chains represent more relationships being explored, but
ones which occur in the given moment and the logic of it all is finding the
reasons, not making them logical or consistent.  And also, I suspect, the
inclusionary activity invoked here is deeply satisfying, if the subjects in
my study were anything to go by.  This type of exploration - flexing the
abstracting and generalising muscles - is taken a step further by the time
we get to the biblical tribe, and this is more sophisticated because of the
numbers of possibilities involved: it appeared in some of my subjects to be
like the playground bragging in building a case for how many friends you
have by advancing as many reasons as you can come up with.  And then, when
an apparently more simple approach is adopted - one that appears greatly
more refined than previous strategies - these pseudoconcepts, these wolves
in sheep's clothing, are fascinating to observe.  I've got a paper about
these coming out in the near future - can I appeal to it and beg your
indulgence and patience in the meanwhile?

And yet, perhaps it's because I have this hammer (Chapter Five's thinking
strategies) that so many things appear as nails to me - but I see examples
of complexive and pseudoconceptual thinking in so many instances around me,
and in my own behaviour past and present.  And whichever way the metaphor is
mixed, it seems clearer and clearer to me that the broad brush strokes of
Chapter Five are an integral part of the bigger picture.

So, this moving from the concrete to the abstract involves moving, as you
say, from the complex to the simple - to the purer, unfettered, more linear
relationships of rationalist thinking.  I think the elements which make up
the subjective whim are most often not viewed in a way that takes note of
how richly invested in they are compared to the clean-cut lines of the
rule-bound "flying great circles", or the exactness of "juxtaposing", or
that "brother" in a dictionary is "male sibling".  I think that what happens
with the blocks is a bit like the "Dinosaur Theory" in the Monty Python
sketch: it starts off with few connections, grows towards lots and lots, and
ends up with the simplicity of the double dichotomy.  But despite this
confusing exterior, the direction, as you say in ending off your posting,
David, is that differentiation is a process of simplification; of "LESS
action (less "activity") and MORE apperception (more "visual thinking")".
(David, I really, really wish I'd said that!)

Best regards.  

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