[xmca] Elements and Units

From: David Kellogg (vaughndogblack@yahoo.com)
Date: Thu Jan 25 2007 - 10:32:51 PST

Hola, Cynthia!
  First, I have an apology. I read Spanish, but my friends tell me that when I try to speak it I sound like I am speaking French with a Spanish accent.
  Second, I have a warning. I work in primary education. My Vygotsky is a primary school teacher. A lot of other people have other Vygotskies, who do different things.
  Third, I have a question for YOU. When Vygotsky says that "word meaning" is the unit of analysis, what does the word "word" mean?
  When people talk about what Vygotsky meant by "unit of analysis", they usually go back to the little story that Vygotsky tells about the water molecule. Hydrogen burns, and oxygen helps it burn, but water neither burns nor helps things burn. So elements do not tell us much about what units will do. We need units, not elements, if we want to analyze things.
  I don't like this story very much. First of all, it's not really Vygotsky's. He got it from John Stuart Mill. Secondly, a water molecure doesn't develop, or at least it doesn't develop in a revolutionary way, from a molecule where there are two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom to a molecule where there are two oxygen atoms and one hydrogen atom.
  I have a better one. As Wittgenstein points out, games have almost nothing in common. There are board games and dice games and competitive games and cooperative ones; there are games based on luck and those based on skill, and then there are lots of activities that seem to be just based on repetitive behavior (like jumprope or catch).
  Vygotsky pointed out that games have not one but TWO things in common. They all have an imaginary situation of some kind (even if it is highly implicit, like imagining that an action will continue indefinitely) and they all have rules (even if they are very subtle, like "repeat, repeat, repeat").
  The reason we don't see this is that sometimes the imaginary situation is dominant and explicit and the rules are secret (like when children play "House" and Daddy has to eat while Mommy serves) and sometimes it is the other way around (like when they play soccer and they pretend that they can't touch the ball with their hands).
  In other words, games are a unit of analysis, and every game always contains two kinds of elements: imaginary situations and rules. But sometimes it is the imaginary situation which is derived from the rules, and sometimes it is the rules which have to be derived from the imaginary situation. (This is what happens when children play and they argue.)
  In Capital, Marx begins with a very abstract (but ubiquitous) unit of analysis, namely the commodity. The commodity contains an inherent contradiction, between use value and exchange value. This contradiction is what causes it to develop, from a commodity that is mostly use value to one that is mostly exchange value.
  As Capital develops, Marx shows how this very abstract analysis is expressed in concrete historical relationships. In order to show this, it is very important that the unit should be holistic, that is, that it should contain BOTH sides of the contradiction, and that the change of proportion (from “use value/exchange value” to “exchange value/use value”) should be a revolutionary one.
  Both Volosinov and Vygotsky faced similar problems. In 1926 Volosinov was faced with a world populated by two types of linguists: those who ignored the actual thought in language and concentrated only on the structural oppositions (the abstract objectivists led by Saussure) and those who ignored the structure of language and concentrated only on its expressive thought (the idealist subjectivists, led by Vossler).
  Volosinov understood that there could be no question of "uniting" these two false positions. For one thing, Volosinov knew that they were inherently tautological. It is not possible to "explain" the structure of language using the structure of language, as Saussure did. Nor is it possible to “explain” the thought of language by using the language of thought, as the romantics wanted to.
  Volosinov understood that the utterance, which was HIS unit of analysis, contains both thought and structure. But for that very reason, as Kozulin points out, the utterance cannot be both the unit of analysis and the explanatory principle.
  If the utterance contains both thought and structure, then we cannot say that the utterance is caused by thought, or that the utterance is caused by structure, because both of those statements would contains tautologies. There must be some other explanatory principle, some other thing out of which both thought and structure co-evolve.
  Vygotsky’s problem is almost identical, as well as contemporaneous. In 1926, when Vygotsky got up at a conference in Moscow to talk about “Consciousness as a Problem in the Psychology of Behavior”, there were two types of psychologists in the room: those, like Chelpanov, who believed in consciousness without behavior, to be explored using introspection without observation, and those, like Pavlov, who believed in behavior without consciousness, to be explored by observation without introspection.
  (In fact, there was a third kind of psychologist in the room; Kornilov, who believed in “uniting” the two erroneous positions. But Kornilov believed in a psychology without Chelpanov or Pavlov, and that is why Vygotsky was able to work with him for a time.)
  Vygotsky’s solution is quite similar to Volosinov’s too. He understood that there could be no question of uniting the weaknesses of both positions; a synthesis could only be achieved by the Marxist method of double negation. He had to find a unit of analysis that included both consciousness and behavior, united in an inherently unstable opposition that could develop, from behavior/consciousness to consciousness/behavior.
  The unit he discovered is, amazingly, the same as that of Volosinov. It is the utterance. I know, I know, he says that it is “word meaning.” But what does “word meaning” mean to a one-year-old child?
  One-year-old children know a lot about language: they know it has rhythm, and they know it has intonation. But there is lot that they don’t know: they don’t (yet) know that it has vocabulary and they don’t yet know that it has grammar.
  This seems like a contradiction. If they can hear the rhythm of speech and silence, then surely they know about words. If they can hear the difference between UP and DOWN intonation, then they probably know something about sentences, and even questions.
  But in fact there is no contradiction. Or rather, there IS a contradiction, but it is precisely the kind of contradiction that we want, a contradiction WITHIN the unit of analysis that will allow it to develop.
  The child knows the external aspect of words (that is, words as sounds). But the child does not yet know their internal structure (that is, words as discrete, analyzed meanings). The child knows the sentence as iconic, or even indexical meaning, but not as a string of symbolic meanings.
  The child will learn, and develop. Someday the child will learn to use e-mail, for example, and be able to read foreign languages which he or she cannot pronounce correctly. The fact that you can read these words is proof that it is possible for the child to invert “sound/meaning” to “meaning/sound”.
  But Vygotsky, like Volosinov, understood completely that since, in utterance-meaning, there is both consciousness AND behavior, we cannot simply use utterance-meaning to explain consciousness or behavior. Because if we do that, we get a tautology, or rather two of them: something that contains consciousness already is what causes consciousness; something that contains behavior already is what causes behavior.
  So Vygotsky, like Volosinov, looked for something else to use as his explanatory principle. You are not going to be surprised when I tell you that what Vygotsky and Volosinov was exactly the same explanatory principle: verbal and non-verbal human interaction; not abstract interaction, but real dialogue between real flesh and blood humans and their immediate environment. Verbal and non-verbal interaction structures thought, and verbal and non-verbal interaction brings consciousness out of behavior.
  But if verbal and non-verbal interaction is the explanatory principle, then "word" is not quite the right word, is it?
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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