RE: Bakhtin: Toward a methodology for the human sciences

From: Eugene Matusov (
Date: Sat Jan 17 2004 - 13:41:38 PST

Dear Phil and everybody-


First of all, Phil, do not believe Mike's comment about Russian vodka as
flavorless. It is negative "stereotyping" and factually wrong. I wonder if
Mike was misled by his Russian friends who let him drink pure alcohol
("spirt") mixed with water and told him that it was vodka (no offense to
Mike) :-) The more detailed discussion of this topic would probably require
a new forum like xvodka or xvmca (and a new international journal like
Vodka, Mind, Culture, and Activity co-sponsored by Absolute, Smirnov,
Pravda, and Stolichnaya). :-)


Second, thanks a lot for your summary of Seth Chaiklin's - it is very
useful. I think his point about the collective nature of ZPD is very
important. I have learned this point (with different argumentation than Seth
provided) from Mike and his colleagues in their wonderful book "Construction
zone" (1989?) where they argue that the classical notion of ZPD always ZPD
for the student and the teacher (they analyzed the classroom settings). The
teacher's ZPD is about providing sensitive guidance for the student that is
impossible without help of "more knowledgeable" other - the student, who
guides the teacher about his/her own subjectivity. I think Seth's very
correct point about cultural "function" is complementary to Mike's (and his
colleagues': Denis Newman and Peg Griffin). Since cultural practices are
aching in the history of the society, cultural "functions" also have their
own ZPD. This leads me to a participatory approach to ZPD developed by Jean
Lave, Etienne Wenger and Barbara Rogoff.


What do you think?





From: Phil Chappell []
Sent: Tuesday, January 13, 2004 5:54 AM
Subject: Re: Bakhtin: Toward a methodology for the human sciences


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 matter!

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 interested.


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

(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?


To rent your own words, "What do you think?"


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:


"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)


"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?




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.


P.S I also love the excerpt of Boris Pasternak's poem, "August" that Bakhtin

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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