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[xmca] In Defense of Imprecision

Consider this data from a maternal diary study (Callanan and Oakes 1992: 221-222) cited in Nelson, Language in Cognitive Development, p. 255:
Child: Why does Daddy, James (big brother) and me have blue eyes and you have green eyes?
(Parent tells child that she got her eyes from Daddy. Child says goodnight and leaves the room. Child re-emerges about five minutes later to continue the conversation.)
Child: I like Pee Wee Herman and I have blue yes. Daddy likes Pee Wee Herman and he has blue eyes. James likes Pee Wee Herman and he has blue eyes. If you liked Pee Wee Herman you could get blue eyes too.
(Parent suggests that it might take more than liking Pee Wee Herman. Comments in the diary: "I realized that she didn't understand me so I explained that God gave me this color and they couldn't be changed.")
Child: Could you try to like Pee Wee Herman so we could see if your eyes turn blue?
(Parent says "I said I would think about it but if my eyes stayed green it was OK.")
Now, Nelson's rather severe comment is that "(a)lthough this example indicates creative causal thinking, it violates in the most extreme way the boundary between basic biological and symbolic cultural domains, and does not suggest the possession of systematically organized, causally related knowledge in either domain."
Of course it's really impossible to evaluate whether the example suggests that or not, because it's hard to say how serious the child is. But here's what it really DOES suggest, whether the child is serious or not. 
The child is capable of 
a) reflection, 
b) induction, 
c) generalization, 
d) a critical attitude towards magical explanations (e.g. God) and 
e) a scientific procedure for testing hypotheses. 
All of those things are really considerably MORE important to the creation of scientific concepts than the supposed boundary between basic biological and symbolic cultural domains, which are easily violated in much more extreme ways (e.g. tooth fillings, colored contact lenses, cosmetic surgery). In fact, taken together, these things constitute the very source of organized, causally related knowledge in both domains.
Actually, I think that the imprecision of word-meaning is related. The reason why word meaning is THE unit of analysis that Vygotsky posits for human consciousness is precisely that it is imprecise; it must be and it is accompanied with negotiation procedures for reflection, induction, generalization, critical appropriation, hypothesis formation and hypothesis testing, all of which happen in and through normal conversation. In Jay's terminology, word meaning is meta-stable rather than stable. 
What is true for word meaning is even more true of grammar. Chinese, which is one of the "few" languages (according to Nelson) to lack a tense system, happens to be historically the most developed and differentiated one as well (because the early invention of a non-phonologically based writing system held it together when other languages simply flew apart). 
After all, development might NOT mean purity; it might mean variety. So tense, like reported speech, is a very imprecise instrument that easily atrophies and withers away. You can easily see examples of this happening logogenetically whenever somebody tries to tell a long story with lots of tense changes and embedded dialogue, even in a young, still developing language like English. But that's okay; imprecision is really just an imprecise term for meta-stability.
David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education 

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