Hi everyone writing about concepts.As I was reading the many messages I was also teaching a class about Einstein's theory of relativity in my creativity class. I was struck by how he lived vividly with abstraction, enriching them with tactile and graphic examples. To develop the theory, he had to struggle with the physical implication of concepts but he was also looking at significant relationships between them. One of the things that I have missed, probably because there was so much to read, is a description of the activity of constructing systems of concepts which sometimes require hollowing them, testing them against empirical data, working with them to simplify them, but interconnecting them. That is part of theoretical practice which we engage in here at xmca often and with passion. There is a new development in mathematics, the study of the philosophy of mathematical practice. I think that is an important unification of the activity of the mathematician with his/her tools: mathematical concepts.
Vera----- Original Message ----- From: "Ana Marjanovic-Shane" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <email@example.com> Sent: Friday, April 15, 2011 12:58 AM Subject: Re: [xmca] concepts Dear David and all,Your vision of teaching concepts helped me realize why so many schools kill interest in learning and make it into often tedious chore to be done on demand of a teacher, rather than because one is interested or really needs to know something, to experience something meaningful, or to act in some significant way in a meaningful conversation. It seems to me that "leaving Conrad out of classroom" teaches children not so much about concepts and generalizations but more that school knowledge is a lifeless structure without anybody in it, through which they have to wonder alone, like through a glass labyrinth, hearing echos of their own voices, but never entering a dialogue.
I am absolutely certain that no baby would ever learn to speak, if they would learn and learn and learn to generalize without dialogues and narratives, and a life full of real, material, syntagmatic surprises. I agree with Voloshinov's claim that for a speaker (and a learner of a language), language is never an "abstract system of properties and static concepts", but a live, moving and ideologically charged way of doing (in the sense of POSTUPOK -- an act towards another person which caries an ethical charge) by creating and shaping relationships and positions (vistas). Through this live process of making relationships and connections through dialogues, learners of a language also build paradigmatic structures of concepts, structures that they can organize and reorganize at the moment's notice (through metaphors and other so called "figures" of speech -- which, incidentally, is a great way to describe what they are literally doing). Concepts are neither a GOAL, nor an underlying, independently existing STRUCTURE of language: they are, on one hand, just potential ways to gather and shape certain mental tools, AND at the same time they are like instant holograms, that speakers can conjure (using new combinations of previous relations) and instantaneously gesture to one other (not a typo, not a foreigner's error -- I am using "gesture" as a verb). Concepts' "life spans" range from fleeting moments to centuries old -- but they are always a product of relations and relationships in an instant (episode) of a cultural practice (real or imagined).
I am digressing...Teaching concepts without live content and, even more, without an immediate purpose -- kills the concepts themselves: they actually do not breathe without air (another Voloshinov's metaphor) and their air is a live language that is addressed to someone with a purpose! This SYNTAGMATIC air is what gives them life! It is true that studying concepts and writing about their origins, development , structure and relations between them -- is a purposeful activity in which they have a special position and are, so to speak, re-puposed in another habitat (as we do here). But students of a foreign language usually are there to learn a language -- for the purpose of using it -- not of studying the conceptual aspect of language in itself. This may become their interest -- but not necessarily. Language learners are usually neither linguists, semioticians nor logicians. Language is opaque for the linguists/semioticians/logicans. This opaqueness, its visibility, is great when language itself it in the focus, but when language is opaque, it is an obstacle and a barrier to actually using it for painting pictures with words. (The so called "use/mention" distinction by D. Hoffstadter, "Goddel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, 1979).
Too many children and adults in today's schools spend hours and hours in decontextualized activities trying to make long lists of ingredients and catalogues of possible combinations of fossilized fragments of someone else's concepts. They have many ingredients and seldom learn how to think with them -- unless they are immersed in a practice in which the concepts will live for them for the first time. Conrad could maybe help them experience that life in school from the very beginning.
What do you think? Ana _________________________________ Dr. Ana Marjanovic-Shane Assistant Professor of Education Chestnut Hill College St. Joseph Hall, 4th Floor, Room #172 e-mails: Marjanovic-ShaneA@chc.edu firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: 215-995-3207 On Apr 13, 2011, at 7:59 PM, David Kellogg wrote:
Ana, Jay:Yes, I agree. “Jinho has stripey hair” is more novelistic than “Jinho is a Korean boy”, if we take seriously Joseph Conrad’s injunction that the task of a novelist is “to make you see” with words (in his introduction to the very novelistic but not particularly enlightened tale "The Nigger of the Narcissus").But a teacher’s task is a little different from Conrad's: it is to make you think and talk with words. And my argument was that the "Jiniho is a Korean boy" was a better mdel for "Ann is a non-Korean girl" than "Jinho has stripey hair". I encourage my teachers (by bad example, among other things) to keep their novelizing in their novels and out of the classroom, which is a place for children to learn, and to learn, and to learn to generalize, so that they may some day, if they can, learn to novelize.I think that when you are writing a novel, you have an enormous amount of SYNTAGMATIC variation: new situations bring entirely new vocabulary. This can be empowering...but only if you have the power to do it, and when you are learning a foreign language which is as different as English from Korean, that is simply not the case.Of course, being a good raconteur is highly respected, and lucrative, work; it is certainly far more glamorous, and more commercial, than teaching paradigms of vocabulary. But that doesn't make it good teaching. It's only good teaching if it enables children to be good raconteurs.It only does that if the children can learn the vocabulary they need, and they will only learn it if they can use and reuse it. They can't do that with the pictures always changing. They CAN do it with concepts that are repeated and varied.The idea that nonvisual conceptualizations are disempowering for children is, I think, a demagogic, and ultimately disempowering one, and behind it lies an idea that is liberal and lazy at best. Looking across the Pacific at what we are told will be our future, I can’t help but feel that the American left shares some responsibility for the simultaneous rise in American education of, on the one hand, a politically (although not intellectually) vigorous “back to basics" movement (now called "race to the top”) whose appeal is by no means limited to white people and, on the other hand, the sort of short-sighted “realism” that will probably mean the death of all that recapitalization was promised to education when Obama ran in 2008 (flirting with Darling-Hammond and eventually marrying Arne Duncan).Both the “back to the basics” reactionaries and the “pragmatic progressives” are able to say, with some truth, that they are talking about things that will make a real difference in people’s lives (what they do not admit is that that difference will be overwhelmingly negative for all but the already chosen few). Can we always say the same?David Kellogg Seoul National University of Education --- On Tue, 4/12/11, Jay Lemke <email@example.com> wrote: From: Jay Lemke <firstname.lastname@example.org> Subject: Re: [xmca] concepts To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <email@example.com> Date: Tuesday, April 12, 2011, 8:20 PMI liked Ana's questioning of the cultural value attached to particular views about concepts in her response to David's commentary on two little passages about Jinho.David is extolling the formal aspect of meaning as a tool: classification, set theory, syllogistic reasoning. Ana is emphasizing the value of meaning as a tool for story-telling, for engaging someone in an imagined world, for projecting possibilities. David's first example is, from the second point of view, pedantic and artificial, a mere pretext for the exegesis of a a system of classification (i.e. all boys are either Korean or foreign. This boy is Korean.). There is no projected story, no engagement, at least relatively to the second one, which could be the opening of the saga of a Korean Naruto.Of course this overstates things, but it does call attention to the multiple functions of verbal meaning-making, and its seems to me unwise to extol abstract classification and generalization at the level of the word-based category as being the higher "conceptual" function of language. I always try to understand Vygotsky's use of "the word" as meaning not individual isolated words (except sometimes) but more to speech, to utterance, to verbal meanings, which usually require a lot more than one word, or at least that word in a richly prepared context (verbal and/or nonverbal). A word, or a verbal meaning is not automatically a generalization. Isolated words have a "meaning potential" a probability distribution of possible meanings, and as they are combined with co-text and context, the net meanings they help to make get more specified, and can be either meanings about general propositions or meanings about specific instances. Words are sign-tools that when used in particular meaning-making practices can indicate categories, and relations among categories that count as generalizations, or equally well can be used to designate particular concrete things or tell very specific stories.Isolated words are always the wrong unit of analysis when considering questions of meaning.This applies even to the acquisition of single-word utterances in early childhood, as I think is now pretty well accepted.So verbal meaning making does not automatically imply generalization or categories, though languages have devices for distinguishing through different wordings between meanings made about instances and meanings made as generalizations or through categories.And the ability to support meanings about abstract categories is just one function of the linguistic system and our ways of using it, and not necessarily (indeed I would say rather obviously not) the highest or most valuable of its functions in use.So what of "concepts," then? I think we have to distinguish between reasoning in terms of abstract categories to make general propositions, and doing so through language (which is the original sign system for doing so) and saying that this process entails "concepts". The process surely happens. It surely happens most of the time, and originally in intellectual-social development, through mobilizing the linguistic sign system (along with other sign modalities). None of that implies a model or analysis of the process in terms of "concepts". Depending obviously on what one means by a concept. I am pretty sure that this process does not take place by the deployment of some fixed (even expandable) repertoire of semantic primitives. Nor in terms of any unit of meaning that precedes and then gets "expressed in" language. The meanings come into being in and through the deployment of the linguistic signs and do not have any independent or prior existence (contra Platonism and its romantic revivals, contra the thesis of a "lingua mentis" and contra Fodor and maybe Pinker).So whatever LSV may have meant by "concept", in linking it as he does to language and speech in development, he likely did not mean either idealist concepts or internal mental realities that then get expressed outwardly in speech.The etymology, as was noted, for "concept" meant a taking or pulling together. A concept brings together instances, giving one name to many similar but different things. At least that's the received notion. But is it, itself, anything more than the name we use to do this? and as a name, merely part of more complex locutions we use to do this? or as makes more sense, developmentally and in semiotic analysis, merely the front-man for a complex systems of speech and gesture and integration with context, and generally a very multi-modal procedure for con-cepting a lot of stuff under a category-term? The object of study needs to be this whole complex of doings and meanings (as verbs) that produces the category result, and surely this is not anything one would call "a concept".All that of course is just taking categories one at a time, and we know things are never that simple. Categories are made through distinctions, and so systems of categories get created and the meanings we make with any one category-term are interpretable in relation to to all the others (e.g. foreign vs. Korean). But there is lots of research on how categories get made and used linguistically and they all pretty much show that what you have to pay attention to are the complex processes by which the connections among things in the categories are foregrounded or backgrounded, making category use more flexible and indeed potentially ambiguous, polysemic, etc. Categories get merged and divided, new ones are formed out of the shards of older ones. ALL "concepts", not just scientific ones, come in such fluid and squabbling families. Scientific and especially mathematical category terms, defined by their family connections to one another (and in the case of scientific ones by links to nonverbal objects and activities), TRY to impose an artificial stability and fixedness (and in mathematics special conditions allow greater success in doing so) -- but these are hardly a model for how these matters usually go.I think we have fallen culturally into the habit of saying that we think in terms of concepts, but I see no persuasive evidence that we do. We make meanings with sign resources in contexts, and some of those meanings sometimes have some of the features said to define a concept. Meanwhile the mentalist, idealist, universalist baggage that the notion drags in with it continues to do immeasurable harm in both education and psychology.Jay Lemke Senior Research Scientist Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition University of California - San Diego 9500 Gilman Drive La Jolla, California 92093-0506 Professor (Adjunct status 2009-11) School of Education University of Michigan Ann Arbor, MI 48109 www.umich.edu/~jaylemke Professor Emeritus City University of New York On Apr 12, 2011, at 7:09 PM, Ana Marjanovic-Shane wrote:Dear David and all, Just a small remark or a question: If the two lines you compare were a beginning of two novels, and someoneasked you which one of these novels would you prefer to read, what would beyour answer?For some reason, I would be more intrigued to read the novel beginning withthe second line: "Look! He has a blue sweater. He has no glasses. He has stripey hair. His name is Jinho."It seems not imprisoning me in the visual, but on the contrary, openiing my eyes to see something interesting. The first one is telling me nothing thatI don't already know -- except that there is a Korean boy Jinho. OK - so what? So even though you claim that the first line is conceptual, and that the second one is a mere description of visuals, I am attracted to the second line as a beginning of a possibly exciting story.I wonder if the second line does not carry some other important properties,other than conceptual but equally improtant? Ana _______________________________________ Ana Marjanovic-Shane 215-995-3207 e-mails: firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.comOn Mon, Apr 11, 2011 at 11:45 PM, David Kellogg <firstname.lastname@example.org>wrote:Tonight I have to discuss the difference between the following.T: Look! This is a boy. He's not a foreign boy. He's a Korean boy. This isJinho.T: Look! He has a blue sweater. He has no glasses. He has stripey hair. Hisname is Jinho. It seems to me there are three important differences, from the teacher's point of view.a) The first one repeats the concept "boy" and the indefinite article used to mark it as an example of the concept (actually, a number, as opposed to an indicative or a demonstrative like "the" or "this" or "that"). The seconddoes not.b) Imagine the teacher following up this information with the open question"Tell me about Jinho". The first offers conceptual material ("foreign", "boy", "Korean") that can be used by the children with ALL the other characters in our textbook: Joon, Ann, Nami, Peter, Bill, and so on. The second one does not.c) Imagine the teacher following up the answers with a CRITICAL metaprocessquestion "How do you know?" The first leads to a conversation about what names are boy's names and what names are girl's names, which names soundKorean and which sound foreign. The second merely leads back to the picture,or back to the teacher's hearsay. Ideologically, the first one suggests a model of a concept that is ageneralized and abstracted essence: "boy", "foreign", and "Korean" are allessential QUALITIES (and not, actually, things). The second ALSO has an implicit model of a concept; it is based on the possession of material objects (and not essential properties). It seems to me that for all three reasons, the first way of framing thequestion provides a way OUT of the enslavement of the visual field and thesecond does not. I remember that Larry speculated about concepts andconceptualizations that emprison us. It seems to me that prisons are made ofmuch sturdier and sterner stuff. David Kellogg Seoul National University of Education --- On Mon, 4/11/11, Martin Packer <email@example.com> wrote: From: Martin Packer <firstname.lastname@example.org> Subject: Re: [xmca] concepts To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <email@example.com> Date: Monday, April 11, 2011, 8:16 PM Phillip, I didn't mean any petard-hoisting, honestly! I just get excited at times about ideas. Big ones, and little ones too. Let me respond a bit more appreciatively to what you're saying. I'm mostinterested at the moment, in my own work, in trying to understand Vygotsky. I think I share that interest with some others here, but I'm equally sure not everyone has the interest. But to me it's quite fascinating to struggleto try to interpret and apply texts that I am separated from by time, language, geography and economic system. Is there power in knowledge? Do knowledge claims bolster positions ofprofessional expertise? Do academics not traffic in prestige and advantage even as we make apparently neutral and detached pronouncements about trivialdetails? Does success in every endeavor not "depend on a very complexknowledge of and ability to manipulate determinative politics, discourses, and institutions -- on professional competencies and social privileges that constitute even the 'organic intellectuals'"? (That's Paul Bové beating upon Charles Taylor in his foreword to Deleuze's book on Foucault.)Yes, of course. I take Foucault very seriously. Does Vygotsky write aboutany of this? No, not really. Does that mean he was not aware of it?Impossible! This was a man who read Marx, who was living at the time of a revolution whose stated aim it was to correct the distortions that an unjustsociety had wrought on human beings, and who was in a position of powerhimself when Stalin took control. How could he possibly not have been awareof the connections between knowledge and power, the micro-politics of concepts? He did write occasionally, as in "The Socialist Formation of Man," oftopics such as the formation of the "psychological superstructure of man" and of "the basic assumption that intellectual production is determined by the form of material production." He wrote that "A fundamental change of the whole system of these [societal] relationships which man is a part of, will also inevitably lead to a change in consciousness, a change in man’s whole behaviour." He even wrote of Nietzsche and questioned his assumption that the will to power would continue to dominate human relations. By and large,though, his writings let these things pass.Just as at the beginning of T&S Vygotsky writes that of course emotion and communication are intimately linked to thinking and speaking, but that theymust fade into the background in his analysis in that book, I read all Vygotsky's texts assuming that politics and power are also in the background, unspoken but not forgotten. Then, to me, it seems that whatVygotsky was doing is similar to what Foucault was doing in his writings on the ethics of self-formation. He is focused on the *formation* of subjects, and of forms of subjectivity, as children grow into adults in whatever kind of distorted social order they happen to be born into. Could he explicitly put it that way? Did he have the space or time to spell out the whole story?Or do we have to do it for him? Bottom line, I don't see that a politics of concepts is in any clear way incompatible with Vygotsky's project, as I grasp it. His 'concretepsychology' of the Moscow tram driver would also be a study of the Americanprofessor. Martin On Apr 11, 2011, at 8:52 PM, White, Phillip wrote:ah, the bliss of being hoisted upon one's own petard! thanks, Martin.(;-)could be seen as highfalutin, rather than, say, the term "big idea". (hah!yeah, Foucault's use of concept is constant. what i was obliquely attempting to get at was that the term 'concept'of course, my father would rebuke me with, "What's the big idea?!")that appears to be difficult to grasp, abstract in short, could be seen as abut what i mean is that concept is another word for idea. and an idea'big idea'.it's about lingo, using latinate/greek words, rather than those littleordinary daily words.it even seems to me that when, say, i'm teaching about "community ofpractice" - i guess we could say that's a pretty big concept, or even"legitimate peripheral participation", that initially it seems abstract, butonce everyone in the class talks about it, that over time, with concrete examples from experience, that "community of practice" no longer seemsabstract. in fact, it seems quite real and people can identify it when they observe it, just like they can identify the difference between an ornamentalpear tree and a comice pear tree.the patterns, is recognizing the difference that makes a difference. andtakes me back to Bateson - that making sense of the world, recognizingit's that curious difference wherein a child over time can distinguish bertween a cat and a dog and a horse and a donkey, and it's through recognizing the difference that makes a difference.so, while Foucault didn't suggest it, i'm suggesting that one of the waysexperts claimed expertise was to employ a vocabulary that would set the profession apart from the everyday world of being.always someone who complains about her vocabulary, i always argue in supportam i being anti-intellectual? because when with my students we been reading Lave, say, and there isof her vocabulary.internal contractions. phillip Phillip White, PhD University of Colorado Denver School of Education firstname.lastname@example.org ________________________________________ From: email@example.com [firstname.lastname@example.org] OnBehalf Of Martin Packer [email@example.com]Sent: Monday, April 11, 2011 5:38 PM To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity Subject: Re: [xmca] concepts But, Phillip, wasn't Foucault's central concern in, say, The Order of Things, toexplore the *basis* on which human knowledge, or knowledges, are constituted? In his terms, within a discursive formation there is adispersion of concepts. An ordering of words is used to order what can beseen in the world. The point was not that there is no such thing as'concept,' but that concepts are not neutral, natural maps of a preexisting and independent reality. For example, he wrote of the "form of positivity" of the sciences - "the concepts around which they are organized, the type ofrationality to which they refer and by means of which they seek toconstitute themselves as knowledge." To a great extent, his attention to the material practices in which both objects and abstractions are produced was drawn from Marx, so I don't think it is wildly incompatible with Vygotsky'sproject.thing as a 'concept' - i'm thinking that the practice of the word became, what?, let's say 'insitutionalized', or 'valorized' during the enlightenment project... that period which Foucault points to of ways of categorizationMartin On Apr 11, 2011, at 5:36 PM, White, Phillip wrote:though really, i'm more with Jay on this point that there is no suchand classifications that emerged as professional experts exercised forthemselves the power to label, prescribe, diagnose, etc. etc., as in, forexample, the separation of madness and reason.yeah ...... another one of my half-baked ideas! phillip Phillip White, PhD University of Colorado Denver School of Education firstname.lastname@example.org ________________________________________ From: email@example.com [firstname.lastname@example.org] OnBehalf Of mike cole [email@example.com]Sent: Monday, April 11, 2011 4:07 PM To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity Subject: Re: [xmca] concepts I agree, Monica. Its odd that we make such distinctions and then worrythatwe do not know what a key term in the discussion (in this case, concept) issupposedto mean (we all find a way to make sense of it for ourselves however!)..Martin and other conceptual knowers. LSV and Luria insisted that wordsweregeneralizations. How is that idea of generalization related to the ideaof aconcept? A con-cept. With-cept? I have no conception! mike On Mon, Apr 11, 2011 at 1:13 PM, Monica Hansen < firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:Martin, I have enjoyed reading your back and forth on this topic of concepts.Examining the concept of concepts is indeed problematic, but it is thecruxof the whole issue. Social/individual, internal/external, physiological/mental, concrete/abstract, etc. You ended with this: "But to sever completely the links between everyday discourse and scientificdiscourse would be to prevent the informing of the former by the latterthat LSV found so important." I would just like to go one further: severing the links betweeneverydaydiscourse and scientific discourse would prevent the former(everyday)frominforming the latter(scientific). There can be no higher psychological processes, no scientific concepts without everyday concepts because itisthe specific and local nature of experience that informs all the others(and is informed by the others as well). It is the dialogic nature ofconceptsthat makes them so fascinating and so powerful. Monica -----Original Message-----From: email@example.com [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]OnBehalf Of Martin Packer Sent: Sunday, April 10, 2011 11:33 AM To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity Subject: Re: [xmca] concepts On Apr 10, 2011, at 12:33 PM, Martin Packer wrote:Maybe the notion of a "concept" might be a bit like that of a "gene"inthe sense that a gene is a sort of functional unit, but it has nosimplematerial reality in itself.Jay's opening sentence neatly illustrates the difficulty of eliminating 'concept.' He writes of 'the notion' of a concept - which is to say, towrite about concepts he has to employ a concept, namely that of'concept'!(If that seems odd, try reading some Frege!) As the Stanford Encyclopedia article points out, no one hassatisfactorilydefined a concept. But the seeming unavoidability of invoking somethinglike 'concept' follows from the fact that we humans (and perhaps animalstoo;another seemingly intractable debate) deal not so much withparticularitiesas with generalities. We talk and write not about this think and that thing, but this 'kind' of thing and that 'type' of thing. We write not aboutthespecific concept of 'rabbit,' but about 'the notion' of concept. As Henry James once wrote, "The intellectual life of man consistsalmostwholly in his substitution of a conceptual order for the perceptualorderin which his experience originally comes." One may disagree with the separation of the two order that James' words seems to suggest, but it seems implausible to deny that there are *two* orders. Do this order of generalities involve complex interrelations orsystems, asJay suggests? Are they specified in practice, in ways that depend on context? Yes, of course. I am deep in the middle of chapter 6 of T&S,andLSV wrote of all this, 70 years ago. We have already discussed here hisnotion [!] of a system of generality, represented metaphorically bylinesof longitude and latitude on a globe. He conceived of this system as operating in acts of thought that actively grasp their objects. He saw both the dependence of generalities on language, and their distinction. Should we avoid, as Jay recommends, claiming that "there are conceptsassuch"? I'm not sure what this claim would amount to. There are, andcanonly be, "concepts for us." Should we avoid reifying concepts?Certainly!Should we remove the term from all scientific discourse, leaving itonly asan "everyday locution"? That's a matter of taste, I suppose. But tosevercompletely the links between everyday discourse and scientificdiscoursewould be to prevent the informing of the former by the latter that LSVfound so important. 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_________________________________ Dr. Ana Marjanovic-Shane Assistant Professor of Education Chestnut Hill College St. Joseph Hall, 4th Floor, Room #172 e-mails: Marjanovic-ShaneA@chc.edu firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: 215-995-3207 __________________________________________ _____ xmca mailing list email@example.com http://dss.ucsd.edu/mailman/listinfo/xmca __________________________________________ _____ xmca mailing list firstname.lastname@example.org http://dss.ucsd.edu/mailman/listinfo/xmca