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[xmca] Generalization Is Not Abstraction Again
Let's imagine for a moment that Vygotsky is a rather obstreperous child. He doesn't play with blocks; he tends to play with the possessions of his elders. Sometimes he will pick up a thing and knock the stuffing out of it, and he will drag it around like a blanket for a few years, and then plump it up with something completely new.
We know that Vygotsky did this with terms like "syncretic", "complex", "pseudoconcept" and even "concept", words he did not coin but used until they were threadbare and then filled with completely new content. We know that he did this with the blocks experiment as a whole (which he and Sakharov pinched from Ach and Ribat by way of Uznadze and who knows who else).
You see, I think he did the same thing with the word "stimulus", and even with the word "mediation". Each word marks a very different period in Vygotsky's development, and each word marks a period where he has a new way of thinking but does not have a new way of referring to it yet. I think can easily see this in concept of StM2 you refer to: it's behaviorist terminology with a completely new, cultural historical, causal-dynamic content.
If, as you (and Valsiner) say, the accumulated perizhvanie of the child is a "stimulus-means" that cannot be either discounted nor factored out, which can be neither controlled nor ignored, then the whole rationale of referring to stimuli and means is obviated, and alone with it all of the terminological baggage up to and including any notion of "mediation" that does not include an account of the IDEOLOGICAL content (that is, the semiotic value, the ducks or fish or pelicans or turtles which other people are standing there pointing at).
One final example, and then I'm done. This is Vygotsky quoting Piaget on p. 27 of the Labirint edition of Thinking and Speech:
Пиаже, следуя за Ларсоном, полагает, что ≪между этими функциями сгущения и перемещения и функциями обобщения (которое является видом сгущения) должны иметься промежуточные звенья. инкретизм как раз и является самым существенным из этих звеньев≫ (1, с. 174).
Here's what Meccaci's got for this:
"Piaget, following Larsson, supposes that 'between these two functions and those of generalization (which is a sort of condensation) and abstraction (which is a kind of displacement) there must be all the intermediate links of a chain. Syncretism is precisely the most important of these links'”.
Now, this is wrong. Vygotsky doesn't say that Piaget says that abstraction is a kind of displacement at all. He leaves that part out, as Seve, who is very scrupulous about Vygotsky's use and misuse of Piaget, does:
'Piaget, following Larsson in this, supposes that “between these two functions” of condensation and displacement “and that of generalization (which is a sort of condensation) (…) there must be all the intermediate links. Syncretism is precisely the most essential of these links' ”.
But Piaget really DOES say that abstraction is a kind of displacement. Right here on p. 161 of the Routledge Classics edition of Language and Thought of the Child:
"As we have suggested elsewhere, there must be every kind of intermediate type between these two functions and process of generalization (which is a sort of condesnation) and abstraction (whch is a sort of transference). Now syncretism is precisely the most important of these intermediate links. Like the dream, it 'condenses' objectively disparate elements into a whole. Like the dream, it transfers, in obedience to the association of ideas, to purely external resemblance or to punning assonance, qualities which seem rightly to apply only to one definite object. But this condensation and this transference are not so absurd nor so deeply affective in character as in dreams or autistic imagination. It may therefore be assumed that they form a transition between the prelogical and the logical mechanisms of a thought."
So we've got condensation and transference in the Piagetian period of autistic thought. These are think "linked" in the period of egocentric thought by a "central link", which is syncretism. Vygotsky often talks about the "central" link in a chain, and I used to have a terrible time with this, because of the extremely literal nature of my imagery, but it works pretty well if we imagine a central, egocentric speech link to which two links (condensation and transference) are attached at the autistic end and two OTHER links (generalization and abstraction), like dancers holidings rings that are on a loop of string. This image has the advantage of suggesting convergent lines of development (condensation and transference) which meet in syncretism and transform each other, but then are driven functionally again in generalization and abstraction, rather the way speech and thinking do.
So here's what I think. Vygotsky DOES differentiate between abstraction and generalization. They are two different things, and they are two separate roots of conceptual thinking. But his distinction does not appear deus ex machina in Chapter Five. In fact, it doesn't even appear deus ex machina in Chapter Two, where he just barely refrains from attributing the distinction to Piaget by judicious elipsis. It is something he made up by playing with condensation and transference, Freud's two favorite cigars.
Seoul National University of Education
--- On Sun, 7/4/10, Paula M Towsey <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
From: Paula M Towsey <email@example.com>
Subject: RE: [xmca] New Conceptual Image Example
To: "'eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity'" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Sunday, July 4, 2010, 12:13 PM
These posts in response to the New Yorker cover have got me thinking about
thinking quite a bit too. One of these thinkings is this: it is perhaps
just as well that Sakharov developed such an effective method for
investigating concepts, because by eliminating the need for huge amounts of
prior experience to engage in the experimental task, the bare bones of the
structures of preconceptual thinking modes in developing word meanings could
be revealed. And the point of revealing these modes of operation is so that
we can see what the processes of developing word meanings look like when
less influenced by prior experience, when nudged towards more logical
approaches by the guiding influence of the signifying use of language.
I'm not suggesting a tabula rasa, but a base line; a pretty good place to
begin looking at what thinking sans systemisation looks like ontogenetically
(and perhaps may have looked like phylogenetically too).
My mother often observes of me "When all you have is a hammer, everything
looks like a nail". So here I am again, hammering away with some of my
(prior) experience with "The Blocks" and with what seems to be my (sole)
measure of generality: an abiding interest in complexive modes of thinking.
Thinking about the New Yorker cover raises for me the question of a
particular element that subjects (or, in this case, those who have responded
to Mike's invitation for a microgenetic introspective report) bring to the
research situation - what Valsiner calls the StM2: our prior experience.
It's hard not to quote him chapter and verse:
"The second kind of Stimulus-Means (StM-2) are semiotically encoded
personal-cultural experiences that an individual subject carries with them
into any new experimental situation. The personal understanding of the
given situation, its role in social life (as well as for the subject him- or
herself) is constructed instantly by the person, when entering into the
field. It is based on all previously lived-through experiences.
This interpretation activity of the subject is not controllable by the
experimenter, and it cannot be eliminated. Vygotsky's methodological idea
was to turn that inevitably uncontrollable moment of human interpretation
into the target of investigation." (2000, p. 79)
This view of the research situation is not exactly brand new to researchers
on this forum, and so you may be wondering why on earth I would be quoting
it to begin with: the angle I want to pursue takes this StM2 as its starting
point, whether we're forming new concepts in response to blocks and words,
or whether we are interpreting and attaching symbolic meaning to birds and
fishes in a particular configuration.
What's also got me thinking about thinking is the almost unconscious ease
with which we as adults employ two of our intricately linked intellectual
"resources": our "structures of generality" and our prior experience. Now,
I'm not for a minute intending to reinvent an argument for introspection
here, but want to suggest that if you look at how they are separated out in
Chapter 5 of T&S, perhaps the purposes of analysis there could also begin to
fit out here.
Remember that for starters the design of the blocks experiment was that the
solution to the problem did not depend (greatly) on prior experience. When
the need for prior experience to solve the problem was taken out of the
experimental situation, what Vygotsky was hoping to reveal was a picture of
what a child's thinking would look like without the directing influences of
the language of the adults around them. In the experimental design, two
simple pairs of word meanings - tall/short, and big/small - (easily
accessible meanings that don't depend on a vast amount of prior experience
to acquire) could be combined to form four new concepts for which there were
no readily available words in the given language (big+tall, big+short,
small+tall, small+short a.k.a. lag, bik, mur, and cev). And how the
children went about forming these new word meanings revealed their modes of
thinking, their structures of generality, their means of acquiring word
meanings, which, as David Kellogg points out, don't necessarily coincide
with the functions of thinking, with our ability "to actually do stuff"
mentally. But before we move on to the measures of generality, could we go
back to our structures...
The important thing to remember about these structures of generality or
generalisation is that they are developmental both in an ontogenetic sense,
and in a microgenetic sense. Unlike Piagetian modes, which are discarded
when a new one comes about through equilibration, we continue to see the
world with all of these Chapter 5 modes throughout our lives, and we invoke
them in interesting and novel ways, in combination or alone, even at times
employing the different modes themselves in a chain-like series of movement
towards a particular understanding. These Chapter 5 modes are
characteristic of a particular feature that Mike reminded me of again quite
recently: they are, says LSV, like coexisting geological layers of the
BUT (to use the Kelloggian emphasis of all caps), what differentiates the
way we as adults draw on our repertoire of modes compared to children who
are still operating with complexive modes is that we "have a system" - or,
as LSV puts it more clearly, "a systemic point of view". This isn't to say
that we necessarily invoke a systematic, systemic point of view all the
time, or that our modes of operation constantly demonstrate a high degree of
systemisation, but that we can. And that we can so easily bestows immediate
access to a variety of approaches in what seems to be an easy-to-direct
course of action. These measures of generality allow us, as David says, to
"do stuff" mentally, to do stuff within a system, because we have moved from
the concept-for-others to the-concept-for-myself. But the ability to do
this comes about for most adults so effortlessly for most of the time that I
think it sometimes makes it difficult to remember that the interaction is
not as smooth for developing perspectives - an element I recently and
clumsily referred to it as "the jerkiness of development", which David so
clearly restated (thank heavens) as "by which Paula means the nonlinearity,
the crisis-ridden nature of development".
And so you may be wondering what has happened to "prior experience" in all
of this. I don't intend to raise an argument here for Galston's composite
photograph (building up a picture through lots and lots of layers like
snapshots) either, except to suggest a speculative comparison of the two
activities: how prior experience is engaged in the blocks-and-words activity
and how it affects responses to something like the birds-and-fishes (it was
only when reading Steve's post that I realised how much I'd missed out - I
would have been hard pressed to name the image "Sky and Water" (even though
mine was a scuba approach, from 30 m below)).
How are our responses to birds-and-fishes similar to the responses to the
blocks activity, if at all, and how, crucially, are they different?
How/where/what/whatever the source of our exposure to particular kinds of
experience, some of them present us with a degree of systematisation
inherent to whichever particular discipline or form of societal knowledge it
may happen to be. So then, in the way that the links being made by people
(all adult people) on the forum in response to the New Yorker cover reveals
first and foremost to me a drive to find something in and about the
connections which has meaning according to one system or another -
evolutionary, artistic, conservationist, political, symbolic, and so on.
Also, maybe, it would be interesting to see how a bunch of hairdressers
would respond. Or a group of engineers. Or the three-year-olds at the
preschool down the road. Or a cafe of disinterested teenagers.
Paula M Towsey
PhD Candidate: Universiteit Leiden
Faculty of Social Sciences
From: email@example.com [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org] On
Behalf Of Steve Gabosch
Sent: 03 July 2010 08:21
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: Re: [xmca] New Conceptual Image Example
The original 1938 M.C. Escher poster upon which this New Yorker cover is
based is called "Sky and Water". Google images made finding that
out easy. Useful Wikipedia article at
The points made by Kevin and others on its implications with regard to the
Gulf oil spill strike me as right on the money. Water turns to oil indeed.
How do I react introspectively, subjectively? I guess this is more of a
macro reaction (political) than a micro analysis (purely psychological), but
this is how I react. I respond to the oily pelican as a metaphor for even
more than just the oil disaster, which itself I take as a sign. To me, this
clever cover suggests (possibly not entirely self-consciously) how
**pervasive** that oil disaster is
- that not only is modern capitalist society destroying the planet eco-
system, but it is also undermining humanity itself. Subtly corrupting a
popular Escher poster like this (adding an oily pelican and a
turtle) is an ironic statement to me about how destructive capitalism has
become, symbolized by the Gulf oil catastrophe. Nothing - not the sky, the
water, the birds, fish, amphibians, etc. - and not even the deep ocean
itself - is safe under this social system. And now this
death grip drips and oozes from our classic art on magazine covers.
No animals or humans can be safe in such a world. That's my reaction,
On Jul 2, 2010, at 6:55 PM, O'Connor, Kevin wrote:
> I had the exact first impression as Andy, that it's an Escher drawing.
> My attention was drawn to the center, and I gradually worked out from
> there to the top and bottom, and also gradually noticed the different
> species. I wondered about the tortoise, and about the haziness of the
> bottom levels in the water - but it wasn't until I got to the pelican
> and saw the black drops
> - from the beak, from the wings, from the tail - that I suspected that
> this was oil, and that the drawing is a commentary on a devastated
> Interesting that color, which in the original simply provides
> contrast, in this drawing is meaningful in representing the oil. In
> fact it changed from water to oil before my eyes after seeing the
> On 7/2/10 9:07 PM, "mike cole" < <mailto:email@example.com>
>> Interesting, Andy.
>> What else might be there?
>> Any Americans awake to take a peak?
>> On Fri, Jul 2, 2010 at 5:58 PM, Andy Blunden < <mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org>
>>> Yes, I used almost this exact image on my PowerPoint to illustrate
>>> "Gestalt" when I did my talks on CHAT in April. (See Attached) So my
>>> microgenetic report is somewhat invalidated. I recognised it as an
>>> Escher drawing (or in his style) immediately ... so I began by
>>> presuming that the white and black figures were both birds, and only
>>> then realised that the black / white figures were birds / fishes,
>>> and then only because you asked did I notice the variation in
>>> species and finally the tortoise, so I started to think of Darwiniam
>>> themes ... and finally wondered what the pelican had in its mouth
>>> and why?
>>> mike cole wrote:
>>>> The New Yorker has done it again. If you have a minute, take a look
>>>> at this week's cover.
>>>> In the process of looking new meanings will emerge. How they emerge
>>>> appears to differ from person to person. I would REALLY appreciate
>>>> a microgenetic introspective report from anyone with the time. I
>>>> have now collected three examples of such, including my own and all
>>>> three are different.
>>>> I sure wish I could get to ask Vygotsky and Eistenshtein to do this
>>>> and report to us about it!!
>>>> xmca mailing list
>>>> <mailto:email@example.com> firstname.lastname@example.org
>>> *Andy Blunden*
>>> Home Page: <http://home.mira.net/~andy/> http://home.mira.net/~andy/
>>> Videos: <http://vimeo.com/user3478333/videos>
>>> Book: <http://www.brill.nl/scss> http://www.brill.nl/scss
>>> xmca mailing list
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