[xmca] In Defense of Scientific Concepts

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Mon Oct 08 2007 - 19:09:51 PDT

I'm at a disadvantage, because I don't read Russian and I read German very badly. And contrary to what Sasha says, I'm not sure language is irrelevant here.
  I'm not sure I agree that LSV confused scientific concepts with verbal definitions. We know that he attacks empty verbalism just as Sasha does. We know his example of why the direct instruction in concepts is pedagogically fruitless is essentially identical to Sasha's: children gain the word, but not concept, and the case is not altered when children get a meta-word made of other words.
  We also know that he believes that scientific concepts can "grow downwards" and spontaneous concepts can "grow upwards", like stalactites and stalagmites, until they form a single solid pillar. It's hard to see how this could happen if LSV confused scientific concepts with verbal definitions.
  The way I read Chapters Five and Six (of Thinking and Speech) it seems to me that LSV is stressing the volitional ACCESS of concepts. What is important is not that a word can be defined using other words, but that a concept can be located in a hierarchy of other concepts. This deliberate accessibility (independent of context) allows the child do things with the concept, and as Sasha says, SOME of these things are done with the hands. But some of them are not done with the hands at all.
  Jay (Lemke) points out that the NOMINALIZATION of processes like "grow" (as "growth") or qualities lik "deep" (as "depth") allows them to enter into thematic relations that are quite difficult in the linguistic form that they canonically have. It's not just a matter of definition, it's also a matter of classification (verbs are not quite so classifiable as nouns). Most importantly, we can THEMATIZE nouns more easily in English and standard European languages than we can verbs or adjectives. So it becomes possible to set up sentences that look rather like mathematical equations, as Newton and Galileo did.
  Consider how difficult it would be to write the following sentence without this kind of nominalization:
  ¡°The high price of endothermy in terms of energy use is justified by enhanced muscle performance¡±
  The grammar here is dead simple: the sentence just says X is Y. But the vocabulary is extremely complex, precisely because processes have been nominalized and reified. This is not empty verbalism. This is rather closer to what Mike is talking about when he says that abstractions must be made concrete by raising the devil of theory to the level of details.
  Of course, this type of grammatical reification became extremely valuable to the rising bourgeoisie after it was forged by Galileo and Newton. For one thing, it was secular; it meant independence from the clergy. For another, it was abstruse, and out of reach of the lower classes.
  So of course after Galileo and Newton came Samuel Johnson and after scientific English came pompous bureaucratic English, which emphasizes the abstruseness and negated the revolutionary rationalist content, doing more to create to the problem of inert knowledge than even religion ever aspired to. But it seems to me that the original language of Galileo and Newton made hands on science easier, not more difficult.
  I don't agree, however, that practical work is the sole criterion of a true scientific concept. To a small child, the concept of the twenty four hour day is not much more practical than the concept of imaginary numbers. Yet both have uses that go considerably beyond what we can do with our hands or the hands of others. And long before we find those uses, something tells us they are promising and worth carrying around, like a bright pebble or an interestingly shaped stick.
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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Received on Mon Oct 8 19:12 PDT 2007

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