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[xmca] Re: Vygotsky and Saussure and Whorf

To Peter and others interested in internalization and 
Vygotsky's theory of language,

I thought I would step up to the plate and take a swing at 
the recent pitch that was delivered through the XMCA 
listhost in the form of Peter Jones’ paper. I must confess a 
certain fear that the result may be something like the poor 
little tyke who steps up to the batting cages for the first 
time, having watched others, and expecting to knock the crap 
out of the ball, but who instead ends up wildly swinging for 
the ball as his batting helmet falls down over his face. 
Charming to us adults to watch, but unfortunately not what 
the poor little tyke had hoped for. Anyway, here goes.

Peter (here “Peter” is certainly said with a certain 
uncertainness), I was interested in commenting on two 
aspects of Vygotsky’s thought that I thought might help to 
resolve some of the concerns that you raised with respect to 
Vygotsky, language myths, and internalization. These are the 
notion of the dialectic and the notion of mediation. I’m 
sure you know these concepts very well (no doubt much better 
than I do), but it seemed like they were conspicuously 
absent in two critical moments in your paper. 

First, with regard to Vygotsky’s theory of language, I like 
the question that you raise regarding Vygotsky’s theory of 
language. In a course on Russians and Pragmatists taught by 
Jennifer Cole (and note my doubly subordinate relation here –
 2. student of 1. the descendent of 0. a colleague of 
yours), this question of Vygotsky’s theory of language came 
up in a rather significant way, and I was never quite 
comfortable with my fellow students’ dismissal of Vygotsky’s 
semiotic theory as overly simplistic, although I couldn’t 
get enough of a handle on it to respond. So I’m grateful for 
your provocative paper and for the posts that have come in 
response to it providing me with a better sense of 
Vygotsky's understanding of, among other things, sense. 

It seems like there is still more work to do with the 
question of Vygotsky’s theory of language. In particular, I 
think you raise an important issue that has not really been 
taken up by the listserve when you write on p. 168: “a 
linguistics based on the language myth already embodies a 
psychology and a sociology”, although I would suggest 
expanding this a bit to include “the language myth” as one 
of many “language ideologies” each of which embodies its own 
psychology and sociology. I take this to be true for 
scientific understandings of language as well as folk 
understandings. As you’ll see, I don’t think that Vygotsky 
necessarily fits into the “language myth” as you have 
suggested, but I do think that Vygotsky has a “language 
ideology” and that this language ideology is caught up with 
a psychology and a sociology in ways that blinds him/us to 
certain aspects of human behavior. But it seems best to 
recognize our blinders so that we know what we are missing. 
It won’t necessarily give us a view of what we’re missing 
but at least we’ll know that we are missing something. 

So to my specific concerns. First, on the issue that I am 
less able to speak to, I wanted to propose that Vygotsky’s 
theory of language appears flat and apparently structuralist 
(in the worst sense of the word) when “internalization” is 
seen as a non-dialectical process. 

And part of the trouble that relates to your charge that 
Vygotsky views the child as passive and non-agentive is 
precisely how one understands Hegel’s notion of 
a “dialectic” between the individual and society. This has a 
long and storied history far beyond what I know or could 
deal with (even based on what little I know), but it boils 
down to the question whether Hegel’s dialectic of the “I 
that is we” reduces the “I” to the “we” thus leaving little 
room for anything like individual agency. This debate is 
probably clearer in later articulations of the individual-
society dialectic of the likes of Marx, Althusser, or 
Foucault – and N.B. I do think that these folk can be read 
as having a place for the agency of individuals, but it is 
found in a particular articulation of the dialectic. In my 
understanding of the dialectic, the "I" can transform 
the "we" (however minimally).

So turning back to the concern with language, and I’ll be 
brief on this point, I wonder if Vygotsky’s notion 
of “internalization” may have a dialectic sense that is 
simply not captured very well in the 
word “internalization”. “Internalization” suggests a rather 
simple process of bringing in to the inside what is outside, 
and in which only the insides have been changed (and in a 
rather simple fashion of having had something from the 
outside added to them). In contrast, a dialectical notion of 
the same process would recognize that something new is 
created in the process of bringing together the outside and 
inside, and that both are likely changed as a result.

Further confusing things, as ontogenetically-oriented 
developmentalists, our focus is precisely on how the insides 
are changed, how the "I" is changed by the "we". And I think 
that there is an important point here that the element of 
history is elided in this one-sided approach (and I think 
this is one of your larger points Peter), but it doesn't 
mean that the other side is not there in theory.

I’ll leave it to others to determine whether I am pushing 
Vygotsky too far in suggesting that there is room to 
consider diachronicity in Vygotsky's theory of language, but 
I think his dialectical thinking is obvious in his 
characterization of the development of language/word in Ch. 
7 of Thought and Language (and as  per an earlier XMCA 
discussion, I know he has read and has been strongly 
influenced by Hegel). Although Vygotsky speaks primarily to 
the way in which the child is changed in the process of 
getting language, and apparently doesn’t speak to 
the “diachronic” in the development of language (and thus 
appearing similar to Saussure’s notion of language as 
a “fixed” pre-given), his notion that the child is changed 
by the development of language does not necessarily mean 
that the child is only a passive receptacle of a pre-given 
language, nor that the language remains static through time. 
Rather, the dialectical view would at least imply that the 
language will also be changed by the child as an act of re-
creation that can be both reproductive and transformative 
(or maybe: “re-created anew all over again” - to capture the 
multiple redundancies of the process). 

Moving on to my second concern via a brief aside, I agree 
with Harris’ (and your) critique of structuralism and the 
need to avoid the reification of language as something 
outside of human practices. And I think there is good work 
to be done in putting to rest this incredibly 
persistent “language myth”. But I think that Harris is 
replacing one language myth with another (and some of what 
you present of his position makes me question whether or not 
I’m right about this – but in the interests of making a bold 
and provocative argument in the spirit of the original 
piece, I’ll press on). The myth that he seems to be buying 
into (as represented in the last section of your paper) is 
the myth of “referential transparency” i.e., that language 
transparently represents the world.

Maybe I’m misreading here (or maybe I don’t have the proper 
interlocutor in mind), but some of Harris’ arguments are 
just downright silly – straw man arguments of the lamest 
sort (e.g., that the notion of semiotic mediation would mean 
that you would have to have equivalent forms in inner and 
external speech – to have a way to greet oneself – or that 
you have to state the sentence “lift my arm” before being 
able to lift your arm). 

But his argument about the construction of “private” signs 
by the subject, given in the example of “turning right at 
the church”, has, at the least, a common sense appeal to it 
that Mr. Everyman will find to be reasonable (note: Mr. 
Everyman is borrowed from Whorf’s paper Logic and Language – 
I promise to return him when I’m done). And yet, if one 
takes seriously the evidence from scholars who have recently 
revisited the linguistic relativity hypothesis (not to be 
confused with Pinker’s straw man of “linguistic 
determinism”!), then there is good reason to think that even 
this apparently private and constructed sign is mediated by 
the language Harris speaks.

“Turning right” at the church seems to be something that one 
just does, irrespective of language. Yet, Stephen Levinson’s 
work with Guugu Yimithirr (GY) suggests that this is 
invoking a category that is affected by the language that we 
speak. Raising questions about Kant’s great a priori of 
Space, Levinson suggests that there are indeed different 
ways in which space can be habitually carved up by language. 
In the case of GY speakers, the default way of referring to 
space is by cardinal direction (north, south, east, west). 
Through a series of experiments involving the ordering of 
objects in rooms that are located across the hall from each 
other (i.e., the rooms are mirror images of each other and 
the subjects must place objects on a table in “the same” 
order in one room as in the other - note this notion of "the 
same" comes up in the recent paper for discussion about the 
double stimulation task), Levinson demonstrates that the 
language one speaks is consequential for their “cognition” 
and behaviors. Regardless of whether or not they vocalize 
during the task, the GY speakers order the objects in terms 
of cardinal direction and the Dutch speakers organize them 
in terms of relative direction (left to right).

The point here is that when Harris goes the “same way” that 
he always goes, he turns right rather than “to the West” 
(assuming this is the appropriate cardinal direction). GY 
speakers, in going the same way would go “to the West”. In 
each case, what is picked out in the world as “the same” is 
actually different. I’ll assume that the consequences of 
this distinction are sufficiently clear (if not, I’m happy 
to tell the terribly tragic but true tale of a Hyde Park 
(Chicago) doctor who found himself on “the wrong side of the 
tracks” when his usual entrance to the train platform was 
blocked due to construction and he was forced to enter the 
platform from the stairs at the other end, which is of 
course a mirror image of the way he usually goes. Despite 
going the “same” way he always goes (right, left, right), he 
ends up on the wrong platform. He realizes this too late and 
tries to run across the tracks and jump onto the platform on 
the other side but is struck and killed by the train that he 
was trying to catch. If only he were a GY speaker for 
whom “the same way” would have meant going to “the platform 
on the east side of the tracks”. Consequential indeed.).

What I am suggesting here is that “turning right” is, in 
fact, a thought/behavior that is mediated by the relevant 
categories of the language that one has learned. To 
invoke “to the right” or “to the West” is to carve up the 
world in particular ways (each alternative is productive and 
useful, but nonetheless, each alternative is a partial, 
mediated way of understanding the world around us). This 
linguistic mediation, along with so much of the literature 
that comes from others working in the tradition of Whorf and 
Sapir, seems to have been swept under the rug in Harris’ 
characterization of language. Harris has missed this 
important sense in which the "privately" constructed sign 
is, in fact, mediated by the social context of language. I 
note this in reference to Vygotsky partly because the 
Whorfian tradition is a tradition that I am more 
specifically familiar with, but partly because I think there 
are some real affinities for the theories of semiotic 
mediation put forward by Whorf and by Vygotsky. Whorf’s work 
(and others working in this tradition) points to the adult, 
developed form, and Vygotsky gets us to focus on how this 
came about in the process of development. (John Lucy has a 
nice paper with Jim Wertsch that compares the intellectual 
projects of Vygotsky and Whorf, found at: 
and also considered in an article on p. 103 of the LCHC 
quarterly newsletter v7 no4: 
Importantly, this paper closes by questioning the separation 
of form and substance, language and thought, and the 
cultural and the material in our theories – something that 
those of us on either side of this debate should certainly 
attend to.)

Maybe I’ve misread the sections you have presented on 
Harris, but Harris seems to be an atheist on the point of 
mediation, leaving us with the myth of referential 
transparency, as if our language categories grasp the real 
world in an immediate and un-mediated sense. I don't see 
that this is the case.

Finally, I don’t see a problem with Vygotsky’s theory and 
the idea that individuals can create private signs to be 
used in non-social ways. I would simply add that it is only 
because of one’s knowledge of speech for others that one can 
then take signs and turn them back onto one’s self (and onto 
themselves, as in meta-language). It is because we have a 
language for others that we are able intensionalize new 
categories based on existing categories given to us in 
speech for others, and to extensionalize existing categories 
onto new objects (whether, e.g., a “thought” that can be 
treated as an “object” as in Whorf’s note about 
the “grasping” the “thread” of an argument, or a “self” that 
is somehow the same as an “other” as in Hegel’s problematic 
regarding self-consciousness). The point here is that 
thought has been mediated by language (as with “turning 
right”). Thus, in this view it is not that thought is 
language (and Vygotsky is clear that there is something 
called “thought” that exists prior to language), but rather 
that thought is transformed, made into something new, by 
language (and to my first point, we might add that language 
is transformed in the process of being employed in thought-
ful activity).

This is probably a bit off the mark in a number of ways, and 
definitely a bit too long, but I hope it will at least push 
the conversation into some new territory that might 1. get 
at why there are such different understandings of Vygotsky’s 
theory of language, and 2. push for the notion of semiotic 
mediation (albeit via a slightly different tradition). 

Ugh, that was a terribly long post. Peter, I had read your 
article soon after it came out and had wanted to find some 
way to respond. And so I'm happy to have found such an 
opportunity. Thank you for the very provocative article.

I’ll now re-adjust my helmet and saunter back to the dugout 
and let the heavy hitters do their thing - whether on this 
topic or some other.

Greg Thompson
Ph.D. Candidate
The Department of Comparative Human Development
The University of Chicago
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