[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

RE: [xmca] Re: Vygotsky and Saussure and Whorf

An interesting and complex message.  I guess I will speak to only one piece of it which is what I see as Vygotsky trying to work out the dialectic concerning language.  I think it is true what you say (if I read you right) that the Pragmatists more or less abandoned studying language as a separate entity.  As the ongoing internalization debate suggests to study language qua language, and not as an ongoing tool in goal oriented activity, you either have to assume that language is not taking you anywhere in particular but part of a complex network of activities (Pierce) or language is taking you somewhere, but only as it relates to the larger activity (Dewey), but in both cases you can't think of language as language becasue you have to go inside of the head to find it when it is not in use, and you fall in to a dualism trap.  But the other issue is that if you aren't going inside the head there is no dialectic really possible, and I also think it is true that the Pragmatists eschew the dialectic in general.  One of the difficult things about language, and especially a dialectical model of language, is that sooner or later you are going to have to posit a "right" language, a "right" interpretation, and that leads to all types of dangers in terms of controlling thinking.
I think that Vygotsky of course was not a Pragmatist (although there are some bridges that can be built).  I think he believe in the idea that you could hold thoughts inside of your head and that those thoughts could change over time, become better at helping you navigate the world - hence the need for internalization.  But it seems to me he was trying to find a way, at least in some of his later work, to bring the agency of the individual in goal oriented activity up to the demands of society asking you to become a member in good standing through learning the rules and tools that are used.  I think his use of Frederic Paulhan is really critical here (and I also wonder how much he is using Frederic's son Jean without actually mentioning him because it may not have been politcally advisable - and Vygotsky was taking enough chances).  Frederic Paulhan was one of the early really interesting, and mostly forgotten, psychological thinking.  He actually created a two level perspective of language - what would eventually become Vygotsky's meaning and sense.  The first level of meaning belongs to society and allows us to function in society and simply get the things done we need to get done.  The second level however, sense, if I am reading Paulhand correctly, is very emotion based.  Our emotions become mixed with the words, the language, redefining it in terms of who we are, and changing our persepctive of what is around you.  Take for instance the word "love".  Do you like chocolate ice cream - I "love" chocolate ice cream.  Maybe some emotion, I will leave tha to Proust, but mostly simply letting the other person know based on what you have learned aroud the word.  And yes, in this case, the individual is a passive learner.  But then I ask you, do you "love" that person you were with last night.  Your emotions and your history enter in to the word and it becomes a dynamic - and the meaning of the word progresses - in dialectical fashion - through activities - "loving" your wife on the day you ask her to marry you is very different from "loving" your wife twenty years later (at least sometimes).  I think this second part if more Vygtosky than Paulhan.  See the Kitty/Levin example that Vygotsky uses.
I think Jean Paulhan offers an even more interesting perspective of Vygtosky.  The Flowers of Tarbes wasn't published until 1941 I think, but you can find many of his ideas in the French literary journals which it seems like Vygotsky would be reading.  He makes the argument that society comes up with words that have meaning and then individuals terrorize language (a very different meaning today) recreating it (in dialectical fashion to fit their own needs.  Would Vygotsky grabbed hold of this idea if he had lived a few more years the way so many others did?  Who knows.
Anyway, an interesting message.


From: xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu on behalf of Gregory Allan Thompson
Sent: Tue 8/4/2009 4:32 PM
To: xmca@weber.ucsd.edu
Subject: [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


xmca mailing list