Re: [xmca] Word meanings making up "personality"

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at>
Date: Fri Feb 22 2008 - 18:50:40 PST

Dear Heidi and Carol:
  I'm VERY slow when it comes to reading philosophy. I feel like I'm underwater sometimes. It's that old problem that Heidi brings up in her first quote from Ilyenkov (note to self: re-read Ilyenkov AGAIN, this time with Heidi's remarks printed out and on the desk).
  Whitehead calls it the "inert knowledge" problem; the problem of why conceptual knowledge doesn't seem to have much effect on practical skills. The dualists love this, of course; it's proof of their anti-Monism (note to self: ask Andy why and how Holquist can think that Marxism is anti-Monist....) To me, it is merely eternal reconfirmation of my own inability to think things through and inability to remember what I've thought through.
  So I will have to parse Heidi's remarks line by line (as people are suggesting we do with Martin--a suggestion I wholeheartedly endorse). Sorry!

  a) "Herd" and "dividual" are simply bad jokes (people has herd animals, and "dividual" as opposed to "in-dividual", meaning they can be divided except when they are pretending, self-consciously, to be wholes). But Peirce does write that everything about an "individual" is NEGATIVE, including the word. We consider ourselves unique by DENYING everything that is social in us and emphasizing only what is selfish and ridiculously self-important. That was his big beef with James.
  b) To me the "inert knowledge" problem is caused by the fact that concepts are really processes rather than bits of information. Every process has to be partially re-enacted in order to be realized, and every re-enactment is partially unique. The "inert knowledge" problem is NOT caused by the existence or nonexistence of concepts themselves; concepts exists the same way that running exists, but concepts are not things any more than running is a pair of legs.
  c) Heidi's FIRST Leontiev quote. This is in no way incompatible with what LSV says about word meaning (no, he didn't mean word meanings from dictionaries!) being the microcosm of consciousness (the RESOUNDING ending of "Thinking and Speech", Vygotsky's very last words). Word meanings too develop from external processes. But they develop in ways that are poorly captured by the term "activity" and better rendered by "meaning", because they have to do with processes on processes rather than processes on the environment.
  d) Heidi's SECOND Leontiev quote: This is the heart of the matter. This is the Leontiev I completely reject. I do not accept that language is a "vehicle" of something that exists separately called "meaning". That way lies a conduit metaphor, the idea of a face behind a mask, words as containers of information. No, no, and again no!
  Why does Leontiev fall into such a crude and downright SILLY formulation? It's really because his focus on activity makes him OBJECTIVIST.
  e) Heidi's THIRD quote:
  "..By this I mean that the individual does not simply 'stand' in front of a display of meanings from which he has only to make his own choice, that these meanings--notions, concepts, ideas--do not passively await his choice but burst aggressively into his relations with the people who form the circle of his actual intercourse. If the individual is forced to choose in certain circumstances, the choice is not between meanings, but between the conflicting social positions expressed and comprehended through these meanings."
  How could meanings "burst aggressively" on a person without his choosing? How could a choice between conflicting social positions be distinct from a choice between meanings? What does Leontiev think that meaning is? Hmm...smells like objectivism! I object!
f) And that brings me back to your "back to your conclusion". Here's what Heidi says:
"No doubt by word meanings you don't mean like those in a dictionary."
  No doubt! But I do mean like those in "Thinking and Speech".
  "Do you think your"interface" and L's "actual intercourse" are the same?"
  Nope. I think that a 'self' is only ONE form of interface between me and the people around me. My "self" is something like an avatar, it's a kind of imaginary friend, very similar to the kinds of imaginary friends that children come up with, or the "narrator" in a novel.
  It is quite possible to have "actual intercourse" with people in your environment without a self (just as it's possible to interact on the internet without an avatar. In some cases it's actually easier; selves get in the way sometimes. I think that the self is only ONE possible interface between the member of a herd and the other members of the herd, but animals do very well without them.
  "Do you think your "herd" and L's "the people who form the circle of ..." are the same ?"
  Nope. I think that the self creates an interface with people who are not at all part of your circle. In fact, it's possible for the self to create an interface with the "selves" you have of yourself in the past and the future. I think that is what creates the distinct difference between the narrativist and the episodic personality that we were discussing a couple of years ago (there's still a wonderful paper by Galen Strawson available at XMCA that makes this very clear).
  "A third alternative is also imaginable . In their originality there could be no difference between "subject-semiosis-object(person)" and "subject-activity-object" ."
  Nope again! I agree completely with Paul's objection to "subject-verb-object"; it's a category error on wheels, and I think that "subject-activity-object" is dangerously close to it.
  The problem is that I really DON'T think there is a single unit of analysis applicable to all the different levels of reality, Heidi. For what I do with children, word meanings are right. For what Leontiev does with daphnia and drosophilia and catfish, activity is right. The problem is that Leontiev thinks they are the same problem, and I really don't.
  Let me end with a bit of a parable. In the 1940s, there was this rather eccentric professor at Harvard called G.K. Zipf who was one of the first to try to formulate a "psycho-biology" of linguistics in which language was seen as just another biological activity. He was the discoverer of "Zipf's Law", that is, the finding that the more frequent a word or a sentence is, the shorter it tends to be, and also the finding that frequent words are frequent with the same frequency no matter how big your sample size (book, text, even paragraph).
  Why do I say he was eccentric? Well, first of all, Zipf's law is just a statistical artifact. The thing is, there are far more long words POSSIBLE than short words. So when we repeat words, we are more likely to repeat short ones. If you look at house numbers, you'll see that they are more likely to begin with 1 or 2 than with 8 or 9. This is just because there are more short streets than long ones. (The same thing is true of telephone numbers because there are more small telephone areas than big ones.) Zipf's law tells us nothing about language.
  Secondly, Zipf used "Zipf's law" to try to explain EVERYTHING by a supposed "principle of least effort" which establishes an equilibrium between diversity of meaning and economy of expression. The reason why there are only two sexes, and not three, is that people are LAZY, and with two sexes we only have to choose between being gay and being straight. That's also why monopoly capitalism is an absolutely ineradicable feature of the human (lack of) imagination.
  Benoit Mandelbrot, who gave us "The fractal geometry of nature", had this to say about poor old Zipf. First of all, if he had any understanding of mathematics he would have seen that what he was looking at was a form of linguistics without any language, without meaning. Secondly, his empirical finding was first discovered not by a Harvard professor, but by stenographers in the nineteenth century who had to do something PRACTICAL about frequent words.Thirdly, it often disturbs people in other sciences that, for example, engineers and college professors seem to have different units of analysis. Yet it doesn't seem to bother anybody that carpenters and plumbers use different tools. Is it possible that the difference might have something to do with the prestige differential?
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education
  PS: Carol, I'm really not the only one who is suggesting a divorce between CH and AT. See Kozulin's wonderful book Psychological Tools, and also:

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Received on Fri Feb 22 18:52 PST 2008

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