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Re: [xmca] Re: microcosm/unit of analysis and xmca discourse
On the subject of dress. Until I was forty years old, I didn't really know how to tie a necktie. When I got a job at a university, it became every important for me to learn, and I asked my father, who, being rather old fashioned, wore a necktie every single day of this teaching life.
My father was enough of a teacher to realize that this was a skill that had to be imparted through ACTION and not through WORD MEANING. So he tried to SHOW me. But he was also enough of a teacher to realize that tying a necktie requires a mirror-image reversal of perspective, and so he made the mistake of trying to show me how to tie a necktie on MY neck rather than just showing me how to tie a necktie on HIS neck.
He couldn't do it. This is a man who has tied quite literally thousands of neckties. But the skill of tying a necktie on your OWN neck does not seem to generalize to tying neckties on other people's necks. This is, of course, what Thorndike found when he looked at perceptually based skills like estimating line segments. He found that these skills (and also motor skills like tying knots) did not generalize.
But notice that SOME of my father's skills DID generalize. For instance, he knew that in order to teach somebody a motor skill you need to SHOW them and not TELL them. He also knew that it's better to take THEIR perspective in showing them than to take your OWN. These skills are NOT perceptually based. They are not motor based. They are higher level "skills" (I'm rather unsure whether we should continue to call them skills; it seems to me that "knowledge" might be more appropriate here.)
Of course, that's what Vygotsky told Thorndike. He said that the reason why the various skills on his tests wouldn't generalize was that they were all lower level psychological functions, which are embedded in separate motor routines. But that's NOT true of higher level psychological functions, all of which are mediated by word meanings. My father's teaching skills are now almost completely unconscious (because they have been automatized) but they were painstakingly built up through decades of three hour lectures and workshops and laboratory sessions.
Now, it seems to me that I understand what Nikolai was saying very well (and I understand Andy not at all!). Nikolai argued that a microcosm is different from a unit because a macrocosm is not reducible, without remainder, to many many "cosms" which are in turn reducible (again without remainder) to "microcosms". But a "unit of analysis" has to be reducible in this way.
This is essentially what Leontiev believes about "activity", which is reducible without remainder to "actions", in turn reducible without remainder to operational conditions. But of course it is absolutely NOT true of Vygotsky's real model, which is not Leontiev's "mediated action" but instead Marx's commodity. We cannot say that capitalist economic relations are reducible without remainder to commodities.
Some commodities are mostly exchange value and other commodities are mostly use value and they are not even reducible to each other. In the same way, some mediating artefacts are mostly symbols and others are mostly tools, and these are qualitatively different; by interacting, they produce a whole macrocosm which is not reducible to the some of its microcosmic parts.
Symbols are not reducible to tools, because they have an additional function, that of acting on the user's mind, which is not found in the tool. For that reason, we cannot say that a mind is reducible to nothing but tools, or for that matter to nothing but symbols. A mind is a macrocosm which cannot be reduced to the microcosms of word meanings.
Nikolai is quite right that the philosophical tradition of Goethe, the Gestalt and the "macrocosm" is one philosophical tradition, and the philosophical tradition of Democratus, the atom, and the analytical unit is another. But I do NOT think this means that Vygotsky was following one philosophical tradition in Chapter One of Thinking and Speech where he argues that the meaningful word is a unit of thinking and of speech (and of social interaction and communication) and a completely different one in Chapter Seven where he says that the meaningful word is a microcosm of consciousness.
I think it means that in Chapter One he is laying out what his analysis will accomplish, and in Chapter Seven he is summing up what it has accomplished. That is why he uses "unit" in the first chapter and "microcosm" in the last.
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