Form / deform RE: [xmca] Tools, thought, & signs (Bruner, Peirce, Newton)

From: Tony Whitson <twhitson who-is-at UDel.Edu>
Date: Sun Jul 08 2007 - 20:04:35 PDT

David, Katie, and Mike:

Could you just add something brief about what you mean by "deform," vs.
e.g. "trans-form", "re-form," etc.?

Since I've been thinking about it over the last year, I'm seeing "form"
and "formation" as more and more important (note Mike's "morphology" is
also about form). This includes recovery of what Aristotle meant by the
(badly translateed) idea of "formal cause" (somebody brought that up on
this list a few months ago, but I was too busy to respond then).

In European languages the vocabulary on education retains the idea of
"formacion" "Bildung" etc., but I often see these words used in ways that
suggest that the sense of formation (as distinct from, say, production)
is no longer salient. And when these words are translated into Chinese or
Japanese, the distinctive sense of "formation" is also not evident, it
seems to me. I'm guessing that German-Korean dictionaries translate
"Bildung" as the same Korean word that's used as the translation for the
English word "education" (David?).

On Sun, 8 Jul 2007, David Williamson Shaffer wrote:

> FWIW, I think in some ways the issues Tony raises at the end of his post (or
> near the end) is central from a theoretical perspective:
>>> There seems no reason for trying to sort things into categories, as being
>>> either "tools" or "signs" — the question, rather, would be whether we are
>>> presently concerned with something as it participates in the activity of
>>> sign-relations, or as it functions within tool-relations.
> Ontologically, Katie and I are arguing, as you suggest here, there is no
> difference between sign and tool--a position which we note contrasts with
> Vygotsky, but as you point our (and as we discuss in the paper) is not
> unique.
> I think this matters, in part, because of Mike's reply below. He writes:
>> Re 2: Tools may or may not amplify. But they certainly re-mediate-- they
>> change the morphology of action, in a sense, they "deform" "natural"
>> action.
> I think the point Katie and I were trying to get at in toolforthoughts (both
> the term and the paper) is that there is no such thing as "natural" action.
> All action is deformed (to use Mike's term here).
> Actually, to be fair, we argue, although not in these terms, that we can
> *assume* such a thing as "natural" action, but that we have to recognize
> this is just an assumption--and of course a cultural-historically determined
> one at that.
> Mike is correct in saying (as he did in an earlier post) that this analysis
> applies equally to both non-computational tools and computational ones. But
> computational tools open up new possibilities for action--or to use Mike's
> terms again, new kinds of deformations. As Mcluhan suggests, we tend to see
> new deformations as unnatural--the old ones have already been naturalized,
> after all.
> Mike, I'd love to talk more about this last point over a bear, but wildlife
> being scarce at least for the moment and certainly as long as Bush is in
> office, let me say for the moment that I agree--and I think Donald would
> too--that the point of "cognitive cultures" is less to suggest that we can
> characterize thinking in one age or another by a particular cognitive form,
> than it is to identify when substantially new deformations appear. (Donald
> argues that the human mind is a palimpsest--he calls it a "hybrid"--where
> old forms are retained with the new.)
> That matters because in a time of rapid change in the nature of available
> deformations, we have to be especially careful about these
> assumptions--because assumptions about what is natural and what is deformed
> have pedagogical consequences.
> Thanks again for the thoughtful comments and perspectives....
> David
>> -----Original Message-----
>> From: [] On
>> Behalf Of Mike Cole
>> Sent: Sunday, July 08, 2007 7:24 PM
>> To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
>> Subject: Re: [xmca] Tools, thought, & signs (Bruner, Peirce, Newton)
>> Thanks for the synoptic discussion, Tony.
>> I think Bruner is at least partially mistating things at the beginning of
>> your post:
>> "What is most characteristic of any kind of tool-using," he wrote, "is not
>> the tools themselves, but rather the program that guides their use. It is
> in
>> this broader sense that tools take on their proper meaning as amplifiers of
>> human capacities and implementers of human activity." ….
>> What bothers me about this well known formulation, even though I initially
>> thought it just fine, is two things: 1) the strong boundary between
>> the "program that guides the action" and the tool; 2) the notion of
>> amplification.
>> Re 1: See Bateson, (and, I believe, both Merleu-Ponty and Heidegger) using
>> the blind man and stick metaphor about "where the mind ends."
>> Suppose I am a blind man, and I use a stick. I go tap, tap, tap. Where
>> do I start? Is my mental system bounded at the hand of stick? Is
>> it bounded by my skin? Doe it start half way up the stick? Does it start at
>> the tip of the stick? ((Steps to an ecology of mind, p. 459).
>> Bateson goes on to discuss how "the mind" slides up and down the stick and
>> out away from the stick, "depending."
>> Wertsch, in Mind as Action spends a lot of time discussing about a unit of
>> analysis he calls "person acting with mediational means in cultural
>> context." The short form of JSB's idea here belies that unit of analysis
>> and the fusions it points to.
>> Re 2: Tools may or may not amplify. But they certainly re-mediate-- they
>> change the morphology of action, in a sense, they "deform" "natural"
>> action. Peg Griffin and I wrote about this in an article called "Cultural
>> amplifiers reconsidered" which is not in electronic form. Anyone interested
>> we can get it into such form. The basic idea is to think of amplication as
>> increased amplitude of a signal without change in its form; that is
>> not human, artifact-mediated, activity.
>> Very interesting about Newton. It gives one pause to think when one hears
>> discussions of human progress. Now uneducated farmers can
>> kill hundreds, and soon thousands, with some simple apprenticeship in
>> killing, but they stand on the shoulders of giants of course.
>> Thanks Tony, thought provoking once again.
>> mike
>> On 7/8/07, Tony Whitson <> wrote:
>>> Before we move on to the next article, there are things I've said about
>>> tools, thought, and signs that were offered more or less as assertions,
>>> without the explanation needed to make sense of them. This longish post
>>> attempts to remedy that.
>>> A much more readable version (layout, formatting, live links, and even a
>>> photo of the inscription that was minted on the edge of Newton's coins)
> is
>>> posted at
>>> I would suggest that anybody who wants to read this post should read it
>>> there, and come back here if you would want to discuss anything from it
> on
>>> this email list.
>>> ------------
>>> This post relates to a discussion of Shaffer and Clinton (2007) on the
>>> eXtended Mind, Culture and Activity discussion list (XMCA) in June and
>>> July
>>> of 2007.
>>> 1. Bruner and tools for thought
>>> In the toolforthoughts article, computer technology is the focus of
>>> discussion about tools in relation to thought. Noting Levi-Strauss'
>>> observation "that totems (e.g., animals and other natural objects) were
>>> not
>>> chosen because they were good to eat, but because they were good to think
>>> with," Paul Dillon implicitly raised a question of tools for thought as
>>> something more general than computers in the world we live in.
>>> Other examples are suggested in Peter Dow's account of a curriculum
>>> development project headed by Jerome Bruner (circa 1965):
>>> Concern with teaching about technology had been a persistent [p. 87]
>>> theme from the beginning at ESI Social Studies. …. Bruner linked
>>> technology
>>> to the development of man's conceptual powers. "What is most
>>> characteristic
>>> of any kind of tool-using," he wrote, "is not the tools themselves, but
>>> rather the program that guides their use. It is in this broader sense
> that
>>> tools take on their proper meaning as amplifiers of human capacities and
>>> implementers of human activity." ….
>>> Early efforts to define the technology unit and translate these
>>> general
>>> notions into effective classroom materials bogged down in debates over
> how
>>> broadly to define the term tool. Should the discussion of tools be
>>> restricted to physical objects, or is a logarithm a tool? Is the Magna
>>> Carta
>>> a tool? Is E = mc2 a tool? Should the technology materials include
>>> perspectives from disciplines as diverse as mathematics and history? One
>>> of
>>> the difficulties in trying to construct a unit on this topic was the lack
>>> of
>>> a clear conceptual structure for defining what technology is and for
>>> considering its social implications. Here, as with the other topics, some
>>> of
>>> the most interesting issues and questions fell outside of the framework
> of
>>> established academic categories. … (Dow, 1991, pp. 86-7)
>>> 2. Peirce, thought, & signs
>>> Schaffer and Clinton draw from Latour's strategy for correcting what
>>> Latour
>>> sees as the problem of treating the human and the non-human
>>> asymmetrically.
>>> It seems to me, though, that what Latour sees as a problem arises from an
>>> assumed Cartesian dualism. The problem does not arise, in the first
> place,
>>> within a Peircean perspective that does not presume that kind of dualism
>>> between the human and the natural, or the human and the artificial.
>>> Peirce recognized the world as constituted semiosically, with humans
>>> ourselves emerging within our participation in the semiosis that was well
>>> underway before we got here. Peirce understood the entire universe as
>>> "perfused with signs":
>>> It seems a strange thing, when one comes to ponder over it, that a
>>> sign
>>> should leave its interpreter to supply a part of its meaning; but the
>>> explanation of the phenomenon lies in the fact that the entire universe —
>>> not merely the universe of existents, but all that wider universe,
>>> embracing
>>> the universe of existents as a part, … that all this universe is perfused
>>> with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs (Peirce, CP 5.448;
>>> cf. Whitson, 2007, p. 322 ).
>>> Peirce says "all thought is in signs," understanding "thought" as as an
>>> activity of the world (not just humans), and "signs" also in a sense
>>> that's
>>> not limited to human communication. From Whitson (2007, pp. 296-7):
>>> As distinguished from semiology [i.e., in the tradition of Saussure —
>>> including Greimas and Latour], as well as earlier historic forms of
>>> semiotics [e.g., with the Stoics], semiotics following the work of C. S.
>>> Peirce is today, first and foremost, the study of semiosis, or the
>>> activity
>>> of triadic sign-relations, recognizing that
>>> the whole of nature, not just our experience of it, but the whole
>>> of
>>> nature considered in itself and on the side of its own and proper being
> is
>>> the subject of semiosis — the process and product, that is, of an action
>>> of
>>> signs coextensive with and constructive of the actual world as well as
> the
>>> world of experience and imagination. (Deely 1994: 187-188)
>>> As Peirce observed, 'To say … that thought cannot happen in an
>>> instant,
>>> but requires a time, is but another way of saying that every thought must
>>> be
>>> interpreted in another, or that all thought is in signs' (CP 5.253). Once
>>> the semiosic character of thought is recognized, thought itself is
>>> understood in a more general sense, such that
>>> Thought is not necessarily connected with a brain. It appears in
>>> the
>>> work of bees, of crystals, and throughout the purely physical world; and
>>> one
>>> can no more deny that it is really there, than that the colors, the
>>> shapes,
>>> etc., of objects are really there. … Not only is thought in the organic
>>> world, but it develops there. (CP 4.551)
>>> What exactly is it that Peirce says is 'really there' in the physical
>>> world, as undeniably as the colors and the shapes of objects? What Peirce
>>> is
>>> referring to is the semiosic action of triadic sign-relations:
>>> It is important to understand what I mean by semiosis. All
>>> dynamical
>>> action, or action of brute force … either takes place between two
> subjects
>>> …
>>> or at any rate is a resultant of such actions between pairs. But by
>>> 'semiosis' I mean, on the contrary, an action, or influence, which is, or
>>> involves, a coφperation of three subjects, such as a sign, its object,
> and
>>> its interpretant, this tri-relative influence not being in any way
>>> resolvable into actions between pairs. (CP 5.484; original emphasis)
>>> What, then, are tools, or toolforthoughts? Are they different from signs,
>>> species of signs, or what?
>>> 3. Newton, signs, and tools
>>> rough coinageAmong the problems tackled by Isaac Newton, over the course
>>> of
>>> his varied career, was the problem of preserving England's currency
>>> against
>>> counterfeiting and "clipping" (filing off precious metal from the edges
> of
>>> coins). As head of the Royal Mint, Newton oversaw torture to induce
>>> confessions, capital punishment, and even having offenders drawn and
>>> quartered to protect the value of the royal coinage.
>>> Newton's mint began the practice of making coins with ridges around the
>>> edge
>>> so that clipping could be easily detected; and also, at that time,
>>> actually
>>> engraving the edge with the words "DECUS ET TUTAMEN" — a phrase that
> might
>>> be literally translated as "an ornament and a safeguard," but which we
>>> might
>>> also recognize as an engraving that is announcing itself as "both a sign
>>> and
>>> a tool."
>>> 4. Of tools and signs (umbrella example)
>>> Let's try this example: Suppose I know that you always check the weather
>>> on
>>> your computer before you go out for lunch. Today I notice you picked up
>>> your
>>> umbrella on your way out the door. Without checking the weather for
>>> myself,
>>> I take my own umbrella with me when I go out. From a Peircean
> perspective,
>>> my action of taking my umbrella is one of the three terms in a triadic
>>> sign-relation: My action is an interpretant determined by your action
> (the
>>> representamen), interpreted as a sign of possible rain (the object-term
> in
>>> this triad). Here the umbrella participates in the activity of triadic
>>> sign-relations.
>>> When we get outside, either of us might be preoccupied with holding our
>>> umbrella in the right position so it doesn't get blown inside-out by the
>>> wind. Now our concern is with the umbrella in its tool-relations — or
>>> simply
>>> its instrumental use as a tool for keeping dry.
>>> There seems no reason for trying to sort things into categories, as being
>>> either "tools" or "signs" — the question, rather, would be whether we are
>>> presently concerned with something as it participates in the activity of
>>> sign-relations, or as it functions within tool-relations.
>>> What do you think?
>>> Dow, Peter B. Schoolhouse Politics: Lessons from the Sputnik Era.
>>> Cambridge,
>>> Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.
>>> Peirce, Charles S. Collected Papers. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard
>>> University Press, 1866-1913/1931-1958.
>>> Shaffer, David Williamson, and Katherine A. Clinton. "Toolforthoughts:
>>> Reexamining Thinking in the Digital Age." Mind, Culture, And Activity 13,
>>> no. 4 (2007): 283-300.
>>> Whitson, James Anthony. "Education ΰ la Silhouette: The Need for
>>> Semiotically-Informed Curriculum Consciousness." Semiotica 164, no. 1/4
>>> (2007): 235-329.
>>> _______________________________________________
>>> xmca mailing list
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Tony Whitson
UD School of Education

"those who fail to reread
  are obliged to read the same story everywhere"
                   -- Roland Barthes, S/Z (1970)

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Received on Sun Jul 8 20:13 PDT 2007

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