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

From: Paul Dillon <phd_crit_think who-is-at>
Date: Fri Feb 22 2008 - 21:58:21 PST

Wow, what an exchange! I had to download and parse Heidi’s post which I’ve attached to a separate message. I'm responding to several posts in this
mike’s discarding the possibility of including a “nomothetic” element on the basis of Ilyenkov’s philosophy makes sense since the nomothetic needs to be established in a certain order, biological laws depend on environmental conditions/phenomena that aren’t biological, and certainly cultural laws depend on similar environmental conditions both biological an non-bioogical. The nomothetic frameworks of physics differ from those of biology. Dialectics is at the heart ..
  From Phillip:
  “To understand Newton, we do understand his historical context, but we don't read the alchemy texts in order to understand his work.”
  Yes this is absolutely true and this is precisely Marx’s point when he says that the anatomy of the human provides the clue to the anatomy of the ape. Some concepts and practices were carried over from alchemy, others discarded, this can’t be understood in terms of the functions that the surviving concepts had in alchemy but only in terms of the concepts and practices that developed with Boyle science that transcended and incorporated the essential elements of alchemy. One should remember, when thinking about how concepts and their objects relate: many basic chemical processes, such as amalgamation and even the discovery of oxygen as dephlogistinated air, occurred with the use of alchemical concepts.
Jeez David,
  you have provided best list of stereotypes and cliches about the development of human life under socialism that I’ve ever seen in one place at one time: i.e.; (new society, new man & forces controlled by men themselves & the root of the content and disconent of mend, and which in that way determines their destiny & the new man could self-consciously grasp and master the laws of his own formation & time to change the world & fate & destiny & science of history & the natural laws of society's movement & lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society, etc.).
  As to the construction of a “new man”: Does everyone forget that capitalism also had to develop a “new man” appropriate to it, quite different from the kind of “man” who lived in feudalsim? Unforturnately developing that “new capitalist man” didn’t use education but such wonderful institutions as the Great Witch Hunt (reducing women to the domestic servants), the enclosure of commons to destroy the reproduction of peasant communities, the introduction of poor houses, massive executions of the indigent that such measures produced, the use of child labor inside factories because they were small enough to fit in the machines, and on and on until arriving at global capitalism’s wonderful and soul-satisfying consumer society that results in the destrucion of the planet, a nice new (and also comfortable for a few) “capitalist man”, still being reproduced in schools throughout the world. At least Vygotsky was looking to develop personalities on the recognition that the
 essence of our humanity is found in our social relations, which enable our personal realization, ie, our freedom.
  The comparison of V’s relation to the dialectical materialist tradition is likewise way out there, for me: David, you write that a series of 20th century theorists “ . . . emerged also out of the tradition of Kant, and Hegel, and yes, referred back to Marx and Engels,” This is downright anachronistic. Vygotsky was working within and for the government of a society in the process of developing socialism on the basis of principles.derived from Marxist theory. He wasn’t “referring back to Marx and Engels”, he wasn’t cozied up in Foucault or Bourdieu’s libraries, which isn't at all a criticism of being cozied up in libraries just an appreciation of the relationship of their intellectual work in contrast to Vygotsky's, or vice versa..
  From this perspective, maybe mike’s feeling of being stuck in a time warp has to do with being stuck in a society for which Vygotsky wasn’t developing his psychology; a society in which the possibilities of V's psychology of education inevitably encounter contradictions, barriers to their implementation, such asthe power relations fextending from from school board to classroom. . This has to do with Heidi’s comments about “not applying what they learned” – the substantive content of education not being what it announces itself to be. While on the other hand, the promise of Vygotsky’s psychology remains necessarily unrealizable outside a completely different society; one in which education doesn’t serve the reproduction of capitalist class society, an outcome of at least US and British society, well documented but rarely addressed in the CHAT or even AT tradition.
  Michael Glassman wrote: " Andy, come on - to say it's difficult to understand somebody if you haven't read one of the progenitors of their ideas is a rather dicey proposition”.
  But this isn’t true with physics, chemistry, mathematics, or any other "nomothetic " discipline. People learn Newtonian physics first to acquire such concepts as mass, momentum, heat, etc. Physics students still learn F=MA before they can even begin to comprehend what E=MC2 means. If Hegel and Marx provided Vygotsky with his arithmetic(as he seems to have claimed) , how can one understand his algebra without understanding that arithmetic first?
  David, you post made me feel Andy’s frustration with burning intensity and illustrated the necessity of seeing Vygotsky’s project within the framework dialectical materialism. Speaking of the development of concepts you wrote:
  “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."
  Nomothetic understanding, conceptual knowledge, does have to do with processes on processes. But only for idealists is the meaning of the concept grounded in that abstract process upon abstract process, in the understanding itself. . The processes upon which the processes of understanding operate are the processes independent social meanings (ie, passed down through learning processes, like the proper technique for flaking obsidian to produce an arrow point ), meanings preceding words that arise from the practices that allow the reproduction of existence of any society and its members. These concrete meanings precede the elaboration of their concept, they develop as “empirical” knowledge, they develop ahead the conceptual understanding, as Ilyenkov said, it’s a spiral process..
  And you ask, “ How could meanings "burst aggressively" on a person without his choosing?” How about reading the text of a letter notifying that you (a healthy young USA male, not in college, without children, between the ages of 18 and 35) had been drafted in 1967?”
  But the divide is most pronounced when you write:
“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.”
  This really defies and doesn't fit with the idea of the social construction of self. But I’m game and would just like you to clarify the meaning of “ownership” implied by your use of the word “my” for the intagible self you have described? How owns the avatar? I'm wondering whether you need Vygotsky at all.
  Finally, with respect to AT: the formulation isn”t” "subject-activity-object", it’s “subject-artefact-object”.
Tomorrow hopefully I will get around to reading Martin’s article again. I’m really interested to evaluate what it says about V from the perspective of the debate within Marxism concerning the Manuscripts and other early writings in relation to the "mature" Marx.

David Kellogg <> wrote:
  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 22:00 PST 2008

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