Re: Bakhtin: Toward a methodology for the human sciences

From: Phil Chappell (
Date: Tue Jan 13 2004 - 02:54:19 PST

Dear Eugene and All,
It would be more than boyish cockiness for me to say that Bakhtin's
theory was flavourless, especially replying to you, knowing your
interests ;-) I'd also hate to think that Russian vodka was merely
juice of potatoes... you'll note that my original line that you picked
up in grave indignation had ?? at the end - it's a pretty sound
distillation of his thinking (in a post-modern sense?? - my little way
of saying "I'm out on a limb here, can anyone chime in and help clear
this up for me?". The simple process of replying to your question
created a space for me to develop my thoughts, so thanks anyway! I
still don't really know the usefulness of the postmodernist concept,
although a colleague/mentor of mine continues to educate me on the

My work is still embryonic (no affective intent in that metaphor), but
I am putting some thoughts together for the CHAT SIG a la Judy and
Bills' request - perhaps there might be a little window to share my
work then? Specifics are in the making...I, like other xmca'ers see a
synergy between Bakhtin and Vygotsky, and I am becoming more and more
convinced that, as Chaiklin has recently exhorted us to do, we return
to LSV's original intentions for developing the ZPD before we again
appropriate it for our quite different purposes. I recently summarised
his and Palincsar's criticisms of how the ZPD has been distilled (in
the negative, Russian interpretation :)) - see below for those who are


The ZPD is arguably one of the better known theoretical constructs of
Vygotsky’s work, and I also believe that it is one of the most misused
in terms of the epistemological and ontological arguments I outlined
earlier. Palincsar (1998), a scholar who has done considerable work
marrying the ZPD with the construct of scaffolding (see below) claimed
recently that “…[the zpd] is perhaps one of the most used and least
understood constructs to appear in contemporary educational literature”
(Palincsar, 1998, p. 370). Her main reasons for this claim are that
people have misunderstood the original purpose of the ZPD and stripped
it of its theoretical framework, using it as an explanatory tool rather
than recognizing its descriptive power; and that people have taken too
literally the idea of the more capable other in creating spaces for
assisted performance, rather than looking at the range of possibilities
for the various cultural artifacts (including elements of the task
itself) that are present in the learning activity to mediate learning
in the ZPD (Palincsar, 1998).
Chaiklin (2003) discusses the “common interpretation” of the ZPD
(Chaiklin, 2003, p. 41) as comprising three assumptions – generality
assumption, whereby the ZPD is assumed to have universal applicability;
assistance assumption – similar to Palincsar’s argument that the ZPD
has been realigned to assume that learning requires the interventions
of an expert other; and potential assumption – whereby the ZPD is seen
to be some kind of natural property of the learner that allows for the
best and least difficult learning. Chaiklin (2003) critiques the
“common interpretation” on three grounds. First, the ZPD must be
related to overall development over time rather than the learning of
any discreet skill; second, that it is accepted fact that a child can
do more with direction from and collaboration with a more capable
other. What many researchers avoid is understanding the meaning of the
assistance provided in relation to the learning of skills and the
learner’s overall development. Finally, the potential of a learner is
not a property of a child (as in, “she is in her zone of proximal
development at this stage”), but rather it is an indication of the
presence of immature, or maturing, if you like, psychological functions
which can be a springboard for meaningful interventions.
Chaiklin (2003) concludes his essay with several issues for future
discussion (including the relations between the ZPD and scaffolding),
and exhorts us to review the original theoretical construct in its
cultural and historical contexts before moving it too far from
Vygotsky’s original intentions.

(a) Vygotsky was trying to raise a set of issues that have not been
confronted adequately in the contemporary literature that refers to
this concept; (b) many of the “resolutions” or “new developments” that
diverse authors have proposed seem to be a dilution of these general
theoretical issues, rather than a clarification or deepening; and (c)
many of the arguments, criticisms, and concerns that have been raised
are explicitly wrong or not pointed toward Vygotsky’s theoretical
perspective at all. Persons who want to use the zone of proximal
development concept should, as a minimum, try to understand the
particular theoretical and conceptual problems Vygotsky was trying to
address when he formulated this concept. (Chaiklin, 2003, p. 59.

On Jan 13, 2004, at 5:05 AM, Eugene Matusov wrote:

> Dear Phil and everybody–
> From:Phil Chappell []
> Sent:Saturday, January 10, 2004 5:50 AM
> Subject:Re: Bakhtin: Toward a methodology for the human sciences
> Dear Eugene,
> The quotation that I refer to - "The text lives only by coming into
> contact with another text (with context). Only at this point does a
> light flash, illuminating both the posterior and anterior, joining a
> given text to a dialogue". says to me that Bakhtin's grand idea is
> that the world and the knowledge constructed in the world is found in
> dialogue - the meeting of texts from past, present and future times
> and spaces (your fave quotes from the essay point to this, don't
> they?). I'm personally not very good with "isms" and "tions", etc, but
> this does seem to fit within a postmodernist view of the world of
> their being no metatheories that determine truths and verifiable
> facts. If we link the idea that we can only interpret the meaning of a
> text by referring to previous and anticipated like texts, with the
> essential nature of dialogue in understanding knowledge creation
> between individuals, then we are close to a postmodernist view of the
> world as situated meaning making that is not aligned with any
> political, religious or other worldviews. Text and Context is
> everything???
> Phil, I just realized that my question to you from my previous message
> was caused by cultural/linguistic misunderstanding. You used the word
> “distillation” that you used in a sense of “purity”. However, in
> Russian “distillation” metaphor may have negative connotations as
> something that does not have any flavor. That is why I asked “what do
> YOU, Mister, exactly meant by saying that Bakhtin’s theory does not
> have any flavor?!…”J (read this direct speech with boyish cocking tone
> as I’m teasing myself). Looking back at my misunderstanding I found
> how language can be affectively strong charged with negative and
> positive valences embedded in semiotic networks…
> As to postmodernist nature of Bakhtin, some people, including Mike,
> argue not without merits that Bakhtin was premodernist rather then
> postmodernist. In my personal view, Bakhtin was all at once:
> premodernist, modernist, and postmodernist. I can easily find and see
> all aspects in his writing.
> The relevance for me...I have been struggling with this in terms of my
> research on understanding the processes of collaborative development
> of another language. Rather than trying to prove or disprove instances
> of the "development of an interlanguage" based upon universal notions
> of ideal grammars, ideal speakers or ideal listeners, it seems much
> more useful to me to seek descriptions and explanations of the ongoing
> dialogue that a group of learners construct during the process of
> developing their skills of using this new tool and understandings of
> the way the new tool can work with the first language in development
> as well as work as a tool for participation in present and future
> human activity, and whatever motives emerge in each learning activity.
> This is "garage rock" in form - emerging thoughts that are being
> stretched and pulled as I work out how the research and the
> interventions might benefit a group of language learners and their
> teacher and hopefully other learners and teachers.
> Phil, I’d love to see specific examples and their discussion if it is
> possible. What specific issues do you deal with?
> Eugene
> To rent your own words, "What do you think?"
> Phil
> On Jan 9, 2004, at 7:53 AM, Eugene Matusov wrote:
> Dear Phil–
> Can you elaborate on “it's a pretty sound distillation of his thinking
> (in a post-modern sense??)”, please?
> Thanks for sharing your thinking!
> My two favorite quotes from Bakhtin’s article on methodology:
> 1)     
> “The exact sciences constitute a monologic form of knowledge: the
> intellect contemplates a
> thing and expounds upon it. There is only one subject here-cognizing
> (contemplating) and speaking (expounding). In opposition to the
> subject there is only avoiceless thing.Any object of knowledge
> (including man) can be perceived and cognized as a thing. But a
> subject as such cannot be perceived and studied asathing, for as a
> subject it cannot, while remaining a subject, become voiceless, and,
> consequently, cognition of it can only bedialogic.Dilthey and the
> problem of understanding. Various ways ofbeing active in cognitive
> activity. The activity of the one who acknowledges a voiceless thing
> and the activity of one who acknowledges another subject, that is,
> thedialogic activity of the acknowledger. The dialogic activity of the
> acknowledged subject, and the degrees of this activity. The thing and
> the personality (subject) aslimits of cognition. Degrees of thing-ness
> and personality-ness. The event-potential of dialogic cognition.
> Meeting. Evaluation as a necessary aspect of dialogic cognition.” 
> (p.161)
> 2)     
> “The inclusion of the listener (reader, viewer) in the system
> (structure) of the work. The author (bearer of the word) and the
> person whounderstands.The author when creating his work does not
> intend it for a literary scholar and does not presuppose a specific
> scholarlyunderstanding;he does not aim to create a collective of
> literary scholars. He does not invite literary scholars to his banquet
> table.”
> What do you think?
> Eugene
> From:Phil Chappell []
> Sent:Wednesday, January 07, 2004 7:59 AM
> Subject:Re: Bakhtin: Toward a methodology for the human sciences
> On Jan 5, 2004, at 2:27 AM, Eugene Matusov wrote:
> Please share your observations and thoughts while reading this short
> paper.
> Eugene, Bill and All,
> Bakhtin's essay, which I haven't read for quite some time, reminds me
> of his powerful theories of intertextuality and dialogicality. In his
> exposition of a methodology for the human sciences as opposed to the
> natural sciences, the latter which he claims is a monologic form of
> knowledge in the sense of one subject contemplating a voiceless thing,
> Bakhtin foregrounds the boundaries between text and context in a truly
> historical sense. A simple utterance from his essay left me pondering
> for quite some time..."The text lives only by coming into contact with
> another text (with context). Only at this point does a light flash,
> illuminating both the posterior and anterior, joining a given text to
> a dialogue". I'm not sure how much background knowledge of Bakhtin's
> works is needed to be stimulated by this comment in terms of
> methodology and research reporting, but it's a pretty sound
> distillation of his thinking (in a post-modern sense??). In the human
> sciences, a methodology that specifies context as being a uniquely
> human construct - humans undertaking social activities in their
> everyday lives that necessitates individual actions organised around
> situated collective activity for me suits a dialogic form of inquiry.
> Well, that's what I think ;-) and thanks for bringing this essay of
> Bakhtin's out again, Eugene.
> Phil
> P.S I also love the excerpt of Boris Pasternak's poem, "August" that
> Bakhtin quotes...
> Farewell, spread of the wings out-straightened
> The free stubbornness of pure flight,
> The word that gives the world its image,
> Creation: miracles of light.

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