Re: [xmca] Elements and Units

From: Mike Cole (
Date: Sat Jan 27 2007 - 10:54:44 PST

David et al-- In the fall 1979 issue of Soviet Psychology, vol 18, no 1,
p3-66 there is a long article by Karl Levitin about the involvement of the
Vygotskian scholars of the time
in the life of the blind deaf. The little monograph, which Karl titled "The
best path to man," makes clear Ilyenkov's involvement with this long term
project as well as that of
Mescheryavov whose book, Awakening to Life was published by Progress,
Leontiev, and several others.

The entire piece is worth reading, but in particular, in the context of this
discussion, the fact that the Russians noted parts of Helen Keller's
autobiography that appear to fall out
of memory, that capacity being, as David notes,. a funny thing. In
particular, (pp. 22ff) it recounts how Helen would hang on her mother's
skirts and participate in household activities
and "make clumsy signs." It goes on to quote Keller on her interactions with
the daughter of the Keller's cook, three years older than Helen, who, she
reports, could understand her

Seems worth re-covering the reports and discussion vis a vis current
concerns. The Russians were putting a huge emphasis on participation in
joint, mediated, activity as the conditions for one to become a fully
competent human being.

I am cc'ing Karl on this note. With his permission perhaps we can bring the
entire essay to you in the brave new world of pdf files.

On 1/25/07, David Kellogg <> wrote:
> Dear Cynthia:
> As far as I know, the only person on earth who ever actually remembered
> the moment when, as a child, language is discovered, was Helen Keller.
> That in itself is a little strange, isn't it? We all made this momentous
> discovery, that is, that people are constantly talking behind our backs
> right to our faces. But none of us remember it.
> Yet if we consider Volosinov's (and Ilyenkov's) idea that the mind never
> really experiences the world directly but can only dialogue with it as one
> form of semiotic material to another, it makes perfect sense. Before that
> moment, there is nothing to remember, and nothing to remember it with.
> But WAS there a moment? Was there a big bang when the idea that
> everything has a name suddenly occurred? Or does the emergence of verbal
> interaction out of nonverbal interaction happen gradually?
> This question probably doesn't seem related to your question about
> whether word meaning is an element of thought or of speech. We seem to have
> entirely unasked your question, or rather turned it around: thought and
> speech are elements of word meanings, rather than vice versa.
> But where were the elements of that unit before the unit appeared. Yet
> by answering this question it becomes a little easier to understand how
> "word meaning" (if that is the right name) can contain both thought and
> speech.
> We all know the story of how Helen discovered the big secret at seven,
> with one hand under the cold water of the pump and the other in the warm
> hand of her teacher. Helen is a little vague about it, actually; she
> suggests that she might have been remembering, either from the age of six
> months old, or perhaps even from a previous life. She also says that before
> this she was only imitating the acts of speech, and had no idea what a word
> was.
> Memory is a funny thing. Fortunately, her teacher, Anne Sullivan, wrote
> a letter the very night of that discovery. Her account is quite different
> from Helen's: she says that Helen knew already what words were, and that she
> had trouble with verbs, because she couldn't differentiate "milk", "mug",
> and "drink". They went outside for a cool drink, and it occurred to Ann that
> the water flowing from the pump, unconstrained by an object, might help
> disambiguate those three things: the liquid, the container of the liquid,
> and the action required to obtain it.
> Yet she agrees with Helen when she says that the momentous discovery was
> that "everything has a name". Those are the very word that Anne Sullivan
> uses. I said earlier that I thought this was a thundering banality, from the
> point of view child language acquisition, because children often apply the
> same verbal gesture to almost everything in their environment
> indiscriminately. Every thing has a name, and it is always "thing".
> But for Helen and Anne the key realization of that discovery was that
> even a dynamic, flowing substance like water, a noun so very like a verb,
> has a name. And from there the idea of verbs and even functors doth flow.
> The question is, what is the pump that makes all these varigated
> semiotic materials flow? Well, that part Anne and Helen (and Vygotsky and
> Volosinov) have always agreed on: it is human interaction.
> Dear Mike:
> About eight paragraphs from the end of Chapter One (of Thinking and
> Speech) Vygotsky says this:
> "The primary function of speech is communication, social intercourse.
> When language was studied through analysis into elements, this function,
> too, was dissociated from the intellectual function of speech. The two were
> treated as though they were separate, if parallel, functions, without
> attention to their structural and developmental interrelation. Yet word
> meaning is a unit of both these functions of speech."
> Notice that he says that social intercourse is primary. Intellectual
> functions will follow on. And in fact, Vygotsky is going to talk about
> concept formation in a minute. But before he does that, he says this:
> "That understanding between minds is impossible without some mediating
> expression is an axiom for scientific psychology. In the absence of a system
> of signs, linguistic or other, only the most primitive and limited type of
> communication is possible. Communication by means of expressive movements,
> observed mainly among animals, is not so much communication as a spread of
> affect. A frightened goose suddenly aware of danger and rousing the whole
> flock with its cries does not tell the others what it has seen but rather
> contaminates them with its fear."
> Now, it's tempting to read this as saying that non-verbal interaction is
> not communication at all. But that isn't what it says. First of all, it says
> "signs", not simply linguistic signs. Secondly, it says that even without
> signs, a primitive and limited type of communication is possible
> (fortunately for the one year old). Thirdly, it says that the communication
> by means of expressive movements is "not so much" communication as a spread
> of affect.
> In other words, for animals we have something like
> "affect/communication", and only with verbal interaction does it become
> possible to reverse this into "communication/affect".
> Next, Vygotsky says this:
> "Rational, intentional conveying of experience and thought to others
> requires a mediating system, the prototype of which is human speech born of
> the need of intercourse during work!"
> And then he goes on to talk about concept formation. Well, I admit. He
> never actually says that verbal and non-verbal interaction is an
> "explanatory principle" in so many words. But he comes pretty close!
> David Kellogg
> Seoul National University of Education
> I
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