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[xmca] Poehner and Lantolf's "Pragmatism" and "Socioculturalism"
When I moved to China in the early eighties, the weekly political study classes in my work unit the main philosophical content were quotations from Chairman Mao's works that emphasized PRAGMATISM: "See truth from facts", "Practice is the ultimate criterion of truth", "in order to know the taste of the pear you must change the pear by eating it" etc. We all got quite sick of it, particularly since pears mostly came in cans.
Deng Xiaoping, who was the leading "philosopher" of the time (and who really only had one philosophical idea, the one about the white cat and the red cat which both know how to catch mice) put it this way: we need to open our windows wide to let in fresh air. But we also have to put on screens to keep out the flies. The fresh air consisted of practices, and of course the flies were ideological.
Ironically, I think that in some ways Poehner and Lantolf have a very similarly pragmatic attitude towards the Marxism of Vygotsky's ideas, and this is why, for example, Lantolf has a hard time figuring out why the differences between Leontiev and Vygotsky on the signs and tools, and on "activity" vs. "semioticity" and on the presence or absence of crises matter. I think it is ALSO why Poehner can never really tell us what distinguishes a "dualism" from a "dialectical unity".
Why do applied linguists use "sociocultural theory" instead of "cultural historical psychology" or "activity theory"? Well, let us remember that Vygotsky himself didn't really use any of these terms, except that he explicitly eschewed the label "Marxist psychology" (both because it was already heavily colonized by vulgar careerists and because it suggests a confusion of categories, like "social-Darwinism").
It is tempting to say that it doesn't matter. But I think the truth is probably the opposite: it mattered so much that he wanted to get it right, and he never got around to it before he died. That's what the article "New Findings from the Vygotsky Archives" (Zavershneva 2010) says!
Let's assume the real name of what we are doing is something like "phylo-socio-onto-micro-genetic psychology". I can see some circumstances where you would want to emphasize the "phylo" (e.g. comparative cross-species psychology) and others were you would want to emphasize the "onto" (e.g. child psychology).
Here's why I use the word "sociocultural" on the very rare occasions when I speak and write to others in my own field:
a) to contrast what I think and write and do with Diane Larsen-Freeman's "socio-cognitive", which really takes a fence sitting position on whether language is mostly cultural or mostly cognitive.
b) to compare what I think and write and do with the work of Merrill Swain, who is probably the leading exponent of Vygotsky in applied linguistics and with whom I find myself almost entirely in sympathy.
Are Poehner and Lantolf "socioculturalists" in this sense? I am not sure. I like the FIRST version of their article, the one in LTR, where they speak of "past-to-present" assessment versus "present-to-future" assessment. These seem VERY different things to me, but only if we accept the ESSENTIAL unpredictability of the future.
That assumption of unpredictability seems very hard to square with any form of institutionalized assessment, and I think the latest article is an acknowledgement of that. What the latest article does not acknowledge, though, is that unpredictability of outcomes also plays havoc with the idea that practice is the ultimate criterion of truth.
I find that I disagree with Jim Lantolf on a very wide range of issues (e.g. that self-directed "egocentric" speech is a form of language play, that a student's complaints about her teacher is a valid study of classroom behavior, that "activity" is a valid unit of analysis for language learning, etc, etc, etc,).
But I really agree with him on one essential, and essentially PHILOSOPHICAL issue: Vygotsky cannot really in any sense be called a social-constructivist. Vygotsky was a reality-got-here-first sort of fellow.
Seoul National University of Education
--- On Wed, 11/24/10, Andy Blunden <email@example.com> wrote:
From: Andy Blunden <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: [xmca] Taking the HAT out of CHAT
Cc: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <email@example.com>
Date: Wednesday, November 24, 2010, 3:54 PM
By "pragmatism" I mean the common-or-garden variety that says that all
philosophy is bunkum, not the "Pragmatism" of Dewey &c.
mike cole wrote:
> To met, at least, you ARE splitting hairs, Andy. I would be really
> helped by understanding the relationship of Dewey and CHAT (at least
> for Dewey!). What is Dewey's great failing from a Marxist perspective?
> What did he get wrong?
> They share a lot, it seems to me. So what have I got wrong?
> On Wed, Nov 24, 2010 at 1:54 AM, Andy Blunden <firstname.lastname@example.org
> <mailto:email@example.com>> wrote:
> *Response to Poehner and Lantolf.*
> Not being an L2 teacher or any other kind of teacher, I will limit
> my comments to Poehner and Lantolf’s attack on philosophy. That
> they can quote Vygotsky in support of their cause is neither here
> nor there, as Vygotsky’s entire lifetime is testimony to the place
> he gave to philosophy in his critique of psychology, and /vice
> versa/, and the great admirer of Spinoza could be quoted in the
> opposite spirit just as well.
> “... Practice sets the tasks and serves as the supreme judge of
> theory, as its truth criterion. It dictates how to construct the
> concepts and how to formulate the laws.” (Vygotsky, 2004, p. 304)
> Vygotsky concludes that the highest test of a theory is practice and
> that the distinction that had been made between general and applied
> psychology (e.g., industrial, educational psychology) was not only
> invalid but in fact, as he convincingly argued in “The Crisis,”
> applied psychology /is /psychology. This was, for Vygotsky, the full
> implication of Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach for the science
> of psychology: “Marx has said that it was enough for philosophers to
> have interpreted the world, now it’s time to change it” (Vygotsky,
> 1997b, pp. 9–10).
> The claim that “practice is the truth criterion” for theory is the
> position of pragmatism, not Marxism. This may seem like splitting
> hairs, after all Marx does say in Thesis 2: “The question whether
> objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a
> question of theory but is a *practical* question. Man must prove
> the truth ... in practice. The dispute over the reality or
> non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a
> purely scholastic question.”
> But the passage of 150 years has clarified matters. “Applied
> psychology /is /psychology,” and the interpretation of Thesis 11,
> “... it was enough for philosophers to have interpreted the world,
> now it’s time to change it” makes things clear. Thesis 11 is
> saying that the point of philosophy is to change the world. In the
> absence of the socialist utopia, then, philosophy is not done for.
> The revolution Vygotsky wrought in /philosophy/ is testimony
> enough to that. The cry that the time for philosophy is past is a
> call to abandon philosophy.
> In this context, L2 theory may be fraught with dualisms, but it
> seems to me that there is a fashion nowadays to point to dualisms
> everywhere without justification, so I am not impressed with the
> claim of 20 dualisms which might just as well be 20 valid
> distinctions. My suspicions are confirmed when the authors
> themselves posit a false dichotomy: “mediation through cultural
> concepts” versus “mediation through social interaction.” This is a
> new dualism to me; probably it is what lies behind the neologism
> of “SCT” which the authors use to supplant CHAT. But more of that
> What on earth is a “/cultural/ concept”? What are “/non/-cultural
> concepts”? And how is an action to be mediated by a (cultural)
> concept /other than/ as part of a social interaction.” And what
> kind of interactions are /not/ social? And what is it that is
> being mediated other than the (social) use of a (cultural)
> artefact? Is there any other way of using an artefact other than
> in the course of a /socially/ meaningful action? How is a
> “cultural artefact” used without “social interaction”? How is a
> “social interaction” effected without the use of “cultural
> artefacts” or some other type of non-cultural artefact?
> So this is a false dichotomy. But what end does it serve? Well, it
> justifies the use of SCT = Socio-Cultural Theory, by (1) inserting
> “socio-” usually by contrast with “societal,” (2) dropping the
> “Historical” dimension of development, and more importantly (3)
> dropping Activity. So we have come full circle. The meaning of the
> use of Theses on Feuerbach against itself is to reduce Activity to
> being the test or manifestation of Theory. But the opposite is
> just as valid: Theory is the manifestation of Activity, a.k.a.
> *Andy Blunden*
> Joint Editor MCA: http://lchc.ucsd.edu/MCA/Journal/
> Home Page: http://home.mira.net/~andy/ <http://home.mira.net/%7Eandy/>
> Videos: http://vimeo.com/user3478333/videos
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