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[Xmca-l] Re: Отв: Отв: Re: Ilyenkov, Marx, & Spinoza

I love your intervention, Ivan, especially being a blackbird lover in South-eastern Australia. But I won't spoil it by interrupting, but look forward to David's riposte!


Andy Blunden
On 4/08/2017 7:58 PM, Ivan Uemlianin wrote:
Dear David

Please could you explain a bit more your (and/or Vygotsky's) argument against conventionality, and what you mean by "natural" in this context? I don't understand how the blackbird example fits.

I have three problems with the blackbird example:

1. Russian has no word for blackbird.

Russian uses the phrase чёрный дрозд, literally, "black thrush", so it seems strange for Vygotsky to use the word "blackbird" as an example. If you were reading in English translation, perhaps the translator was taking liberties?

2. black + bird does not imply blackbird.

Not all black birds are blackbirds; not all blackbirds are black birds. In British English, blackbird refers specifically to the Turdus merula; in American English, blackbird refers to any of a number of small birds --- the so-called New World blackbirds --- none of which is the Turdus merula (and not all of which are black birds, e.g. the yellow-shouldered blackbird). Other black birds --- e.g. crows, rooks and ravens --- are not blackbirds at all.

3. As you put it, "other languages do it differently".

Your argument about "black" + "bird" only applies to English. The French for blackbird is not "noiroiseau" or even "oiseaunoir", but "merle" (from the Latin merula, which isn't black+bird either).

The half-enculturated German child might see a blackbird and use the phrase "schwarz Vogel", but a slightly-more-enculturated German child would use the German word for blackbird, which is "Amsel".

Putting #1 aside, the limitations and variations in #2 and #3 can be explained by looking at the history of the communities using the term. But surely convention is an artefact of history, so a historical explanation would be closer to "conventionality" than "nature". The only non-conventional aspect I can see is the geographical distribution of Turdus merula (basically Europe, New Zealand and a bit of Eastern Australia).

Best wishes


On 02/08/17 22:47, David Kellogg wrote:
Dear Sasha:

Thanks for the reply. I took the time to read the English version of your paper with great interest and large areas of agreement. But the areas of disagreement, which I'll talk about in another post on "free will as infinite selection", were actually the zones of greatest interest.

I think Vygotsky doesn't accept conventionality as a pervasive principle in language, and neither do I. Take, for example, Vygotsky's example "blackbird". We can say that the phonemes/graphemes (the language-specific sequence of vowels and consonants) is conventional; we know this because other languages do it differently. But once we take the "salto mortale" of accepting that "black" means the (original) color of ink and "bird" means a winged animal descended from the dinosaurs, the pairing of "black" and "bird" to describe the blackbird is natural and not conventional: it obeys
laws that are clear even to the half-enculturated child.

I think that is why Vygotsky can give many examples of "child made" language ("mazoline", etc.) that are non-conventional and why he can link these Mondegreens to actual etymological processes and actual words ("sidewalk"). Saussure's principle applies to language in only one place, and it happens to be the only place in which Saussure was completely competent as a linguist: sounding. Saussure's principle does not apply to either wording or meaning: these are not purely conventional but natural.

I think Vygotsky did not accept Pavlov as a human psychologist, but only as an animal behaviorist. Of course, he was deferential, just as you or I would defer to Mike (who was once an animal behaviorist himself), and just as Mike himself would defer to a Luria or a Bernstein. Mere bad manners doesn't make you an original thinker. I will agree to call this deference discretion: Vygotsky didn't like to pick fights and lose them.

I think that's why Vygotsky concentrates his fire on Watson, and Thorndike and not Pavlov, why he points to Pavlov the animal behaviorist's insightful remarks about the sign to shame his psychologist colleagues (this is similar to what he does in shaming Piaget and Freud with the biologizing Bleuler), and why he uses Pavlov's metaphor of a "telephone switchboard"
for his own purposes

I didn't just include the Chuck Berry song in memory of a great musician; I think that the lyrics show us the very point you are making about the sign. You are certainly right that by itself, treated as just another instrument, the sign doesn't have the power to confer free will on the human marionette that Watson, Thorndike--and Pavlov--imagine. If a human is a puppet on a string, it doesn't help to put another puppet in control of the string and
then put the human in control of the other puppet.

But that's not what signs do. That's only what casting lots, tying knots, and counting on your fingers APPEAR to do. When humans have do these things, they try to go beyond the appearance. They imagine that casting lots conveys messages from God, that knots tie themselves (as the Russian formalists said), and that counting on fingers taps into some World Three
of eternal discoveries (Popper).

And when they have been giving these unlikely explanations for thousands of years, some humans begin to notice that the voice of the gods sounds very familiar, that the knot tying of one child is unlike that of another, and that some cultures count toes and elbows. Dorothy looks under the curtain and realizes that the Wizard of Oz is only a wizened old man, and it turns out you don't need his help after all. Soon people are making decisions in their own heads, remembering with imaginary knots, and memorizing Maxwell's

Of course, you and I get the joke. This is no more happening "inside the head", with an "individual" memory, than it is happening in a lot, a knot, or on your fingers. It's happening in a whole culture--many thousands of years of thinking. But the thinking isn't "passed on" through language;it is recreated and re-elaborated with every generation. The telephone switchboard, like the conventional phoneme/grapheme, is useful at one point and one point only: helping the caller get in touch with Marie. But the actual communication between father and daughter is not conventional or
automatic at all. It's natural; i.e. it's hard work.

David Kellogg
Macquarie University