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RE: [xmca] Visual Thinking? - a lightning-delayed response
Let me add my name to the (justly) long roster of congratulations to Mike. And in honor of the occasion (or maybe in honor of Friday the Thirteenth or Valentine's Day) I want to try to bind this thread to the long line of tangled threads on one of Mike's most worried skeins of yarn, the problem of how Vygotskyans reconcile a belief in human universality with a belief in cultural specificity and a belief in universal equality with a belief in cultural-historical progress.
In Chapter Five of Thinking and Speech (p. 148 in Minick, and p. 235 of the Vygotsky Reader), LSV writes:
"If this theory is really correct, then it should be possible to verify it functionally. This means that if we examine adult concepts and children's complexes in action, the differences in their psychological nature should become clearly apparent . If children 's complexes are different from concepts, it would mean that the activity of thinking in complexes would manifest itself in a different way than the activity of conceptual thinking. We therefore wish, at this stage, to carry out a brief comparison between the results of our investigation and other data established by psychological research regarding the characteristics of children's thinking, and the development of primitive thinking in general, and by applying an operational test, to subject the properties of thinking in complexes which we have discovered to a functional verification.”
What did he mean by "primitive"? Is it specific to some people? Or...what seems more likely...is the fact that children have it and adults share it and even continue sharing it suggestive of something much more universal and less culturally specific.
LSV points out, again and again, that there are "natural analogues" to the various categories of complex and other functional equivalents of concepts in real life. After our seminar, we went to a restaurant and had great fun sorting the various dishes according to "heaps" (e.g. toenjjang jiggae, a kind of stew), "associative complexes" (e.g. the array of smoked duck, steamed pork, fried squid, and stewed octopus offered for wrapping), and of course the functional collection-complexes of the place setting (knife, fork, spoon, plate, but in Korea the tools are more multifunctional and the settings less individualized).
There are lots of children's games that work according to chain-complex rules, such as "word pingpong" or "verbal volleyball", the reversible syllable game "ggutmalitki", the jumprope chant "Baboon's backsides are bright red" or this one from Opie and Opie:
Up in the mountains
Lying on the grass
I saw a Chinaman
Sliding on his
Ask no questions,
Tell no lies
I saw a Chinaman
Doing up his
Flies are a nuisance... (Opie and Opie 1959: 94)
There is a nice Chinese ditty used by parents to deter children from pestering them for stories. Note that it is NOT a chain complex, because it includes the element of hierarchy.
Once upon a time there was a mountain
On the mountain was a temple
In the temple was a monk
The monk was telling a story
The story went "Once upon a time there was a mountain..." etc.
In fact, conversation is a clear natural analogue of the chain complex, because a topic is "uptaken" and then developed, leading to another topic, and so on without end.
But there's the rub. A conversation CAN be considered as a chain complex, but it can also be considered as having a hierarchical structure, just as the Chinese mountain-temple-monk story can. As Applebee points out, a narrative CAN be a heap, a complex, or even a concept (even THE concept of human metaconsciousness).
Different ages of children can play the same game. By watching how older children play and win, children learn to reconstrue rote play language as role play language and then role play language as rule-based play language. The same thing probably happens with when play language is reconstrued as language play: heaps of words can be reconstrued as complexes, and eventually as conceptual hierarchies.That's why Vygotsky argues that the playground is a natural analogue of the designed zone of proximal development in the classroom.
Now it seems to me that from a socio-cultural (cultural historical) point of view there is really no problem in any of this. Yes, culture is specific just as playgrounds are different from classrooms, and of course some cultural environments (such as playgrounds) emphasize complexive and syntagmatic thinking rather than conceptual and paradigmatic thought, while others (especially classrooms) do the reverse.
And so it is also the case that culture is universal in that the POTENTIAL for conceptual thinking is always there in complexive thinking and vice versa. So it naturally follows that universal human equality is not contradicted but rather confirmed by general human perfectibility, and concretely realized in our universal propensity to imperfection.
But this book by Katharine Nelson (Language in Cognitive Development) that I've got my snout in this morning really DOES have some problems, and I think they are related to the fact that the standpoint is not what I would call socio-cultural (cultural-historical) but rather what people in my neck of the woods (applied linguists) call socio-COGNITIVIST (the "hybrid mind" theory, where minds are both social and not-so-social, and the social and the cognitive kind of "construct and are constructed by", as the popular slogan has it, each other).
On p. 225, Nelson says: "Vygotsky, like Piaget, accepted a classical logical definition of concept, and based on his work with a concept formation task similar to one used by Inhelder and Piaget (sic), he also concluded that children move through a sequence of preconceptual stages of heaps, chain-concepts (sic!), collections (sic!!), and pseudoconcepts."
OK, so she hasn't read Thinking and Speech, at least not in the un-Bowdlerized Minick version, so she doesn't know that Vygotsky's concept formation task is not based on verbal definitions, and she doesn't know that collection-complexes have to come BEFORE chain-COMPLEXES (not concepts), and she imagines that Vygotsky "considered the collection to be a primitive conceptual structure" (p. 231).
But presumably she HAS read her own work and she seems to have read a very great deal of Merlin Donald's. Now, according to this work, "(t)hat language enters into and changes both cognition and communication between the years of one and six is the critical argument put forward here". (Where? Well, p. 337, i.e. at the very end of the book).
Either this is a THUNDERING banality, a mountain bringing forward a mouse rather than a monk, or else it is directly related to the previous four sections: the storied mind, the temporal mind, the paradigmatic mind, and the projective mind.
In the storied mind, we learned that language facilitates narrative, and that narrative is essential to perspective taking, and thus to modern scientific discourse. In the temporal mind, we learned that language allows children to make fine distinctions between past, present, and future. In the paradigmatic mind, we learned that hyponyms and hypernyms are essential to creating conceptual frameworks, and of course in the projective mind we learned that the language mediated "theory of mind" is what allows interpersonal differentiation, empathy, and moral development to happen.
Alas, all of these processes are more favored by some languages than others. I remember that in 1989, just before the death of Hu Yaobang and the beginning of the mass movement which is so wrongly remembered as a movement centred on Tiananmen Square, there was a TV series in China called "He Shang" (Roughly, "The Yellow River Threnody").
The TV series was a kind of cultural critique of modern China, invidiously comparing the walled yellow dust of the East with the enterprising blue sea of the West (I know, you have to kind of turn the map upside-down to make this work). And one episode actually tried to argue that because Chinese has only aspect and no tense, we have no time, only things not done.
Sure enough, Nelson agrees: "(L)anguage may make salient a type of relation that was not previously apparent in the child's nonlinguistic conceptual representations. Present evidence (???) suggests that this may be the case for the tense system, bringing out the distinction between past, present, and future. Prior to acquiring this system, children may distinguish only now and not-now, or attend only to action relations in the heare and now, the living present." (p. 289)
Now, if we go back and we really READ Chapter Five of Thinking and Speech, we notice something quite interesting. It is true that the block experiment tends to favor concepts that are nouns. It's also true that the stages are to a certain extent "stand alone" and do not seem to generalize each other very well, all deficiencies which Vygotsky realizes and makes good (more or less) in Chapter Six.
But here is the reason why Paula and I keep rabbitting on and on and on about it. Everything that Nelson describes, the great discoveries of the narrative mind, the temporal mind, the paradigmatic mind, and the projective mind, can be found in some form on every level in Chapter Five shown in experimental form by Sakharov, and again in Chapter Six, in the "real life" classroom analogues shown by Shif.
The child's heaps, founded on pure subjectivism, are a kind of "I-centred" narrative; the child's complexes, founded on Leontiev's beloved object-oriented activity, are an "it" centred narrative, and of course the concept involves a discovery of the "I" hidden in the "it". This is quite universal, and the specifics of whether it is encoded in (for example) vocabulary or in grammar really just depends on the (context of) culture.
The same point can easily be made about the great discoveries of the temporal mind. They too can be found on every level, because the great thing about the present is that, unlike both the past and the future, it is PERCEPTIBLE. Vygotsky's categories are, as Paula and I agree, about the progression from perception to apperception to ideality. The progression from time perceived to time idealized is quite universal, and the specifics of whether it is encoded in (for example) tense or aspect, is rather trivial. (The "past tense", by the way, is not a concept; it's a diffuse complex at best; English, like any other language, expresses precise distinctions in time through time adverbials.)
So too with the paradigmatic mind and its hyponyms and hypernyms, which is at the very centre of Sakharov experiment! The child can see an apple, but it is rather more difficult to see or draw "fruit" (as opposed to vegetables) and of course it's impossible to see or draw the Gravestein in a Gravestein or the Granny Smith in a Granny Smith unless you have some Caravaggio in you. Needless to say, whether something is named by a hyponym or a hypernym is both specific (and often more specific to register rather than merely language) and universal. All languages can use hypernyms and no languages always do.
For Nelson, the key realization that language brings to the projective mind is that "you are not me but like me". I think this is WHY Vygotsky considers the adversative relationship to be both more difficult and more useful than the causative one (and in fact I would argue that the causative relationship is actually a special case of adversativity). But this too is there in the blocks experiment, because of course each block is linked but distinct. I have always thought that English was extremely POOR in its ability to express adversative relations. However, I'm quite sure that the moral backwardness of anglophones generally stems from other causes.
E. Knutsson, perhaps inadvertantly, has reminded us what some of those other causes might be, by posting a "Goodthink" link to an EXTREME right wing blog, with genuine advertisements for real fascist literature (e.g. Pat Buchanan's book on how the war against Hitler was wrong) and a plug for actual fascist organizations (the Vlaamsblok fascist party in Belgium).
Yes, let's remember Mike's wonderful work on the specificity of culture and the humility required to carry out even trivial comparisons between languages and between cultures. And let's not forget the Russians who died liberating Auschwitz, the White Rose students guillotined by the Nazi allies that Buchanan's book so pines for, and the heroic Wallon workers who fought the Vlaamsblok's fascist mentors and predecessors so that their children could learn French and not just Flemish.
Seoul National University of Education
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