[xmca] Volition and Cognition

From: David Kellogg (vaughndogblack@yahoo.com)
Date: Sun Feb 11 2007 - 21:44:31 PST

One of my many betes noires is the abuse of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and Schrodinger's poor little pussycat by people who are trying to justify theoretical agnosticism at a vastly super-atomic (viz, the social) level. People are not pussycats (and in fact Scrodinger's cat wasn't either).
  I mention this partly because Elias and Cindy are now reading of Vygotsky's impatience with Piaget's theoretical agnosticism, which I think was the contemporary equivalent thereof.
  (Here in Korea the differences between Piaget and Vygotsky are the all-time favorite question on the civil service exam for teachers, but as usual they get it wrong. It used to be that Piaget and Vygotsky agreed about everything, and now it is that they agree about nothing. The truth, as usual, lies beyond both extremes simultaneously rather than in the middle; Piaget enraged and enraptured Vygotsky, and I gather the feeling was mutual when Piaget finally got around to reading LSV!)
  But I also mention it partly out of pique at a weekend spent ensconced with some particularly drivelous po-mod epistemology. I think people who try to demonstrate their understanding of quantum mechanics by doing this merely demonstrate they do not understand the point that Vygotsky is making, namely that the unit of analysis ITSELF evolves as we go from physics to biology, and from biology to the social sciences, and even from the social sciences to semiology.
  I think that the question Ana raises about words vs. utterances is an example of this change. Of course, I am with Ana: the utterance is the unit of analysis, at least as far as Vygotsky the primary school teacher is concerned. But I also think that it's quite possible to imagine a system where the "utterance" is gradually refined to the word-concept.
  Interestingly, Jay (1990) argued that scientific concepts are not fundamentally different form other concepts. I always assumed that he was arguing that scientific concepts do not have structure--that what makes them scientific is simply the networks of thematic relationships in which they come swaddled. I thought this was a little misleading, because where thematic relationships include relationships like "...is a type of..." and "...includes..." then clearly the larger, more abstract concept must have structure.
  But now I think what he means is that OTHER concepts also have structure. And of course he's right! If that were not true, it would not be possible to write dictionary definitions for every day concepts because dictionary definitions usually work by treating the word as a hyponym and referring to a hypernym, and that hypernym MUST, "by definition", have a structure, even if it is not a scientific concept!
  So I am very willing to accept that some concepts do not have structure, and others do, and even that concepts that do not have structure can evolve, through paradigmatic thematic relationships (of the kind Ana calls "South-North" movement, and I, in my backward way, called "North-South") into ones that do.
  By the same reasoning, I'm also willing to accept that volition is not cognition, but that it can evolve into it. The point I was trying to make to Elias, before my cleverness got in the way, was that it is possible (and even likely) that people actually have volition BEFORE they have consciousness.
  Now, of course, by any traditional Western psychology, this cannot happen. BOTH Freud and Janet assume that consciousness really has to prefigure ANY form of unconsciousness (Freud assumes that the unconscious is just the repressed conscious, and Janet assumes that it is the unhypnotized conscious). BOTH of these accounts are anti-genetic. NEITHER can explain how consciousness got there in the first place.
  But Martin's idea that volition is a connection between functions that do not have consciousness and consciousness offers a way out of this impasse. I think it offers a way out, because it suggests that the functions that do not have consciousness (eidetic memory, unmediated perception [which Mike suspects does not really exist], reactive attention) develop, then will develops (through the words of others, and their application by the self ot the self), and only then conciousness.
  For that to work, though, we need two things. First, we need a kind of Copernican Revolution (like what Kant did when he argued that perceptions have to conform to conceptions rather than the other way round). Volition has to come BEFORE consciousness rather than the other way around. Second, we need a unit (a unit which can change and evolve) that includes volition. Both utterances and words qualify, and in fact I can easily imagine utterances being refined into word meanings as children grow older.
  But what is the non-volition element of the unit? I think Ana's got it right; it's the action component, where action is understood as semiotic action, "theme" in Volosinov and "sense" in Vygotsky. The very OPPOSITE of dictionary definitions.
  Now, Valsiner and van der Veer claim that Vygotsky got the main ideas of his genetic approach from Janet. But there is this really BIZARRE passage in Janet where he talks about how the imperative arose in human language. He argues that the dog barks and then carries out whatever meaning a dog bark has. But when a tribal chieftain-to-be commmands and begins to execute it, he STOPS, and then other people carry out his command. This, for Janet, is the origin of tribal chieftainship and indeed all human social order! The reason I find this totally bizarre is that it suggests that self-regulation takes place BEFORE other regulation! (Janet, P. 1929 L’évolution psychologique de la personalité. Editions A. Chahine: Paris. p. 188)
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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