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[Xmca-l] Re: In Defense of Fuzzy Things

Hi David,

Thank you for sharing these ideas.  On a similar note, I would like to add some additional considerations:

The fuzziness of terms depends on the paradigmatic traditions and their criteria for definition. In some traditions, it is required that the terms are well defined. Actually, very "tightly," so tightly that there is no room for personal interpretations. In other traditions, they even don't want to use the term Term. They talk about concepts, and leave them fluid and moving. They don't want to constrain the thought by channeling it into tightly defined terms. However, in the culture where LSV works, they are meticulous about definitions.

Perezhivanie might seem fuzzy for us, but in some East European scholarly circles it is defined very tightly. There are monographs and dissertations on its definition. There are many papers. By citing the papers and monographs, researchers indicate how they use the term and do not spend hundreds of words on it in their papers. When a concept is defined scholarly, it becomes a term. Terms are mutually agreed definitions of concepts. Terms work only in the terminological systems and societies in which they are created. Outside these systems they are just words. I have always consulted dictionaries in philosophy, psychology, sociology, and so form when I am interested in the meaning of a term. If I work on a paper for a philosophical journal, I will keep with the meaning of the term in philosophy, the philosophical term or its variation. I will also search in other disciplinary dictionaries, but with respect to the philosophy journal audience. Long ago, one professor was advising his students to search for the meaning of terms in the Oxford Dictionary in order to understand the term. The Oxford Dictionary is about the meaning of words, not terms. On the other hand, if I am writing a letter to a relative, I would not use the term. I will use the word as it is known in everyday life. 

Another problem is that concepts and terms are created and defined in a particular paradigmatic and cultural environment and work only there. Any attempt to translate them is futile. I am talking about complex abstractions in the social sciences. So, there is no way to translate Perezhivanie in English without redefining it in one of the scholarly and cultural traditions in the US or UK. In principle, this is like starting the job from the beginning. It might be an impossible job because terms do not exist separately -- they can exist only in terminological system. This presupposes that the redefinition of one term cannot be done without redefinition of many other terms in the system. This is like creating a new theoretical system. It is too much to do. 

One big problem in translation is that each culture has different conceptualizations and concepts. They might overlap, but not as much as we would like. And here comes the fuzziness. The core might be clear, but the large area of the periphery might be very different. The translation is almost impossible. Only a person who has translated knows these problems. If the languages come from the same cultural area, there is a good chance that the concepts are very similar. But if the languages come from completely different cultural areas, the translations become ridiculous. It is not possible to share the ideas because of many small deviations here and there, which in the long run change the initial idea to a large degree. It is conundrum, at least for me. 

One good exercise is to translate a joke. We have to select several jokes from another culture that are considered very funny there, people understand them with ease and actually, anticipate the joke with the first sentence or two.  If this joke is translated in English, most of the listeners will "drop their jaws." First, what is this about; this doesn't make any sense; it is too rude; it is stupid, it is not politically correct; and so forth. Jokes are very context specific. If a person is not immersed in that context, he/she would not be able to make sense of it; or the translation will sound more like a novel then a short joke. There will be no fun in the long presentation. The joke needs to have punch. The translation will slow it down and ruin it.

Best wishes,


-----Original Message-----
From: xmca-l-bounces@mailman.ucsd.edu [mailto:xmca-l-bounces@mailman.ucsd.edu] On Behalf Of David Kellogg
Sent: Monday, July 07, 2014 7:06 PM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: [Xmca-l] In Defense of Fuzzy Things

Andy has written a number of posts in which he has implied clarity is a paramount goal in philosophical discussions, or, conversely, people are "confused" by having read key texts in an order which obscures their genetic relationship to each other.

What I want to suggest  is that these two things are actually in
contradiction: if we want to understand how texts are genetically related to each other, we have understand how the word meanings they contain can be "fuzzy" rather than clear.

Fuzzy boundaries are, if you will pardon the expression, central to human languages, including philosophical language (which is, as Halliday points out, merely a tidied up version of naturally fuzzy language, an upstart which has come back to berate its slovenly parents). Let me take the very first sentence of "Thinking and Speech" as an example.

"This work is a psychological study of one of the most difficult, complex, and intricately tangled questions of experimental psychology, the problem of thinking and speech."

Vygotsky is very fond of triplets like these, and when we first read him, we often take it as redundancy, and we are comforted, because if we don't understand what he means by "complex" we can catch him on the rebound with "difficult" and if that doesn't work, we get a nice concrete image with "tangled".

But as the text unfolds, it transpires that something can be difficult without being complex. For example, Vygotsky's interpretation of egocentric speech is actually less complex than Piaget's, because it has fewer parts, but it is quite a bit more difficult, precisely because it puts things that are apparently quite different together.

Similarly, it transpires that something can be complex without being difficult, e.g. the different senses of "consciousness" used by Freud and Piaget, which Vygotsky sorts out with the simple example of tying his shoes. The question of learning and development is "tangled" and "difficult" but it has only two parts to it. So we have to say that there is a certain fuzziness here, not unrelated to the fuzziness of "unit" and "unity" that we've been discussing.

Let me take one more example: the idea of  a "переживание".  Should it be "felt experience" or "thought over experience" or just "lived experience"?
The difference seems extremely important; as Andy points out, the concept is undoubtedly related--genetically--to the emergence of "notion" or "concept" through contemplation. Andy is doubly right to relate it to the German Romantic idea of "Urphanomenon". We even find it in English in Wordsworth's famous preface to the Lyrical Ballads, where he defines poetry as "emotion recollected in tranquility":

"(T)he emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind."

But of course in order to see these quite distinct ideas as being linked, we can't just see them as clearly distinct--it's sometimes more useful to see them as being fuzzy. It seems to me that ontogenetically, a "переживание"
must needs be at first mostly a "felt experience", because the child doesn't have much experience to recollect in tranquility. Only then can it become mostly a "thought over experience", and it is only in the minds of dinosaurs like me and Andy that we can say it is a thoroughly lived out experience. (I have sometimes felt a little like a placid, ruminant brontosaur set upon by a ferocious tyrannosaur, but I console myself with the thought that where Andy says I am confused, I am usually just plain wrong.)

Still, I think this fuzziness of my language doesn't preclude setting up the kinds of distinctions that Andy finds so important in philosophical language; on the contrary, understanding how things move seems to necessitate a kind of "moving picture" approach where we can make many fine distinctions and then try to link them fluidly, simply because that is the way our language and our minds works. But there are two intellectual operations to this: the ability to separate things out into separate frames, and then the ability to join the frames in a single fluid motion.
Once we clarify, we have to fuzz out.

Take a look at this. It's actually a Flash Mob at Tesco's in Holland Park, London, carried out as a sort of publicity stunt by a local opera troop trying to publicize their rendition of Puccini's "La Rondine" (a kind of verismo version of "Traviata", except that nobody dies). Like any Flash Mob, the categories of experiencers are kind of fuzzy--at the beginning it's a little unclear whether the cashier's assistant is in on the joke or
not: is she doing the Flash Mob or merely undergoing it? By the end it's a party to which everybody is invited, even the Chinese tourists with their cell phone cameras.


I think categories of experience are similarly porous, which is another way of saying that they are warm and fuzzy: we all begin as outsiders, but understanding is a process of becoming an insider. The question is: is becomign an insider a process of transforming undergoing into doing, or is it a process of transforming undergoing into doing? It's kind of fuzzy.

David Kellogg
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies