Re: [xmca] Elements and Units

From: Martin Packer (
Date: Thu Jan 25 2007 - 17:38:40 PST

Mike, Cynthia is one the students here in the class at UDLA, Puebla. We've
been reading chapter 1, and I just presented a shockingly brief overview of
Piaget's work in preparation for chapter 2.


On 1/25/07 4:26 PM, "Mike Cole" <> wrote:

> Our seminar has been reading the "thought and word" chapter, David. So your
> note is timely.
> ...
> Martin-- Are your folks in Pueblo also working on this chapter these days?
> mike
> On 1/25/07, David Kellogg <> wrote:
>> 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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