RE: [xmca] The Strange Situation

From: Paula Towsey <paulat who-is-at>
Date: Tue Aug 19 2008 - 06:26:48 PDT

Dear David

As I could go on talking about these brilliant blocks for days and days, why
don’t I start off with some data, and then we can take it from there?

My main sources have been the 1986 Kozulin version of Thought and Language,
and Hanfmann and Kasanin’s 1942 monologue “Conceptual Thinking in

-----Original Message-----
From: [] On
Behalf Of David Kellogg
Sent: 18 August 2008 12:33 AM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: RE: [xmca] The Strange Situation

Dear Paula (At last! Another person who uses terms of endearment as
Thanks for your note, and thanks in advance for your promise of a nice,
juicy example. This is precisely what is missing for me in most of Chapter
Five; I am so constituted that I really can't believe in the godhead of
categories without the avatar of data. Unfortunately, I can't make it to San
Diego; classes start today here in Seoul. But I look forward to the DVD with
baited breath.
Especially since the rest of Chapter Five (in Thinking and Speech) leaves me
even more dazed and confused. On 148-151 LSV tries to argue that
'primitives', 'schizophrenics' and children share complexive thinking via
participation in which the functional application of a given word  'is
entirely different than it is in our own' (151).
And then, on pp. 152-153, we learn that historically, phylogenetically, ALL
words function complexively. There are three things wrong with this:
a)      If it’s true, then the 'functional application of a given word' by
schizophrenics and primitives cannot be ENTIRELY different from our own.
After all, the functional application of words is part of their history, and
their history is part of their (present) functional application. 
b)      It suggests that word ontogeny (in the child) is nothing more than a
recapitulation of word phylogeny (in the lexicon). This is a
methodologically wrong position; ontogeny is never a recapitulation of
phylogeny for the simple reason that phylogeny pre-exists ontogeny and not
vice versa.
c) The REAL development of concepts MUST include their pre-existence in
cultural and historical form, and so the schema outlined in this chapter
CANNOT be the actual course of development.
It seems to me that LSV’s category of 'complexive thinking' is ITSELF an
example of complexive (and ahistorical) thinking: we have a very
heterogeneous group of thought processes—child behavior in the Sakharov
experiment, the child's spontaneous concept formation, so-called 'primitive'
thinking, schizophrenic thought, word etymology, and dreams, and the word
'white', 'tooth', and 'stone' in the language of deaf mutes (155)—all of
which are 'c'omplexive'.
Of course, child behavior in the Sakharov experiment is related to the
child’s spontaneous concept development, and this might too be related to
so-called 'primitives' or at least to their children. As Jaynes argues,
schizophrenic thought is in some ways similar to the way we primitive
Westerners behaved in the Iliad, when they hear the voices of gods rather
than heed their own consciousness. But while each link of the chain seems
connected to the previous one, it is not clear what unique relationship
unites the thinking we find in the Iliad and that found in the Sakharov
On one level they all APPEAR to be the same in that they differ from
Aristotelian concepts. But as soon as we examine them closely we can see
that there is no real common feature to these phenomena: they are all quite
different both genetically and functionally, and they only share the family
name of 'complexive thinking' bestowed by LSV.

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

--- On Sun, 8/17/08, Paula Towsey <> wrote:

From: Paula Towsey <>
Subject: RE: [xmca] The Strange Situation
To:, "'eXtended Mind, Culture,Activity'"
Date: Sunday, August 17, 2008, 2:49 AM

Dear Mike

Thank you so much: I look forward to joining in with the discussion and hope
to contribute meaningfully to it. C u there!

Paula T
ps - It is tragic that Sakharov apparently committed suicide - Rene van der
Veer told me a few months back

-----Original Message-----
From: [] On
Behalf Of Mike Cole
Sent: 16 August 2008 10:37 PM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: Re: [xmca] The Strange Situation

Hi Paula--

My apologies to you and other XMCA members for making (the all too common!)
error of responding to the list when intending to respond to an individual.
And to use an impolite word as well. Never too old to repeat old mistakes it

Your message came in as I was responding to David's message to xmca about
the Sakharov-Vygotsky method in the context of an ongoing attempt that he
I and a couple of others from XMCA have been making for about a year now
to untangle issues of learning, instruction, and development. A serious
discussion of the specific issues he raised would certainly be worthwhile on
XMCA and perhaps your presentation at ISCAR will help induce that process.

I am particularly interested in analyses of the behavior of the experimenter
in the use of this method. So much depends upon it and it is so
"non-American" in its
style of trying to understand language and conceptual development. So you
can expect me in the audience for your presentation, along, I am sure, with
other xmca-ites.

I wish I were as far along in preparations for talks there as you are. As my
untoward personal comments in the prior message indicated, I am struggling
to find the time to get ready for ISCAR which is still on the other side of
a giant
pile of obligations to be met before I can re-orient.

My apologies once again for my faux pas
c u in san diego
PS-- David-- I do not parse the reference by Luria to the Sakharov-Vygotsky
experiment in *The Making of Mind* as you do. Sakharov is referred to as
"a gifted collaborator of Vygotsky's who died at a young age."
(He does not
say how). I do not believe he was a part of the 1929 group that ARL refers
to in the next paragraph and as you will note, he talks about its uptake
later in the
US. Not the same fate as the work on pictograms, etc. which he refers to in
the following paragraphs.

The extent to which Bronfenbrenner's comments about experimentation apply
the blocks experiment is an intriguing one as is the entire set of issues
surrounding the conditions that warrant generalization in psychological

On Sat, Aug 16, 2008 at 8:18 AM, Paula Towsey

> Dear David
> At this very minute I'm working on putting the finishing touches to a
> script
> for a DVD I'm having made for ISCAR and - it features the middle mode
> thinking from the middle category in preconceptual reasoning from Chapter
> of T&L: the chain as an example par excellance of thinking in
> The DVD's a microgenetic analysis of an eight-year-old and it brings
> Vygotsky's writing to life.
> The first thing I'll be doing once my DVD deadline's been met is
to read
> your very comprehensive summary - and talk at more length with you about
> this (most) fascinating instrument of Sakharov and Vygotsky.
> Till then
> Paula T
> -----Original Message-----
> From: [] On
> Behalf Of David Kellogg
> Sent: 16 August 2008 04:48 AM
> To: xmca
> Subject: [xmca] The Strange Situation
> Last night on a loooooong airplane flight I re-read "Thinking and
> Speech" (instead of re-watching, say, "Harry Potter and the
Chamber of
> Secrets"). For some reason (maybe just jet lag) Chapter Five began to
> strike
> me as very STRANGE, like the "strange situation" they used to
use in
> studies
> on child development (which I actually participated in when I was very
> little).
> On pp. 89 and 90, LSV has argued that Piaget's "clinical
method" produces
> results that will not generalize. Even Piaget's own observations on
> egocentric speech yield quite different results when we observe children
> Germany, as opposed to Geneva. More: If you ask a child why the sun does
> not
> fall out of the sky you will get a very different (and more syncretic)
> answer than if you ask the child why she fell and flubbed a point during a
> volleyball game.
> This application of cultural variation to instruction is at the very heart
> of the concept of the ZPD, of course. The same child who gives a syncretic
> answer in the former instance and a coherent answer in the latter MAY be
> able to synthesize the two if we ask a question like "Why doesn't
> fall over when you are going and why does it fall over when you
> Then Chapter Five takes a single very limited experiment (Ach's
blocks, as
> modified in Sakharov) and turns it into a very detailed (TOO detailed)
> description of concept formation. This is how I understand it:
> 1 Syncretic Order (meaning, no order other than the child's subjective
> experience)
> 1.1 Unorganized heaps (I think of this as ordering according to the
> one and then that one" principle)
> 1.2 Spatially or temporally organized heaps (I think of this as the
> over here and those over there" principle)
> 1.3 Representatives of heaps (I think of this as the "This is one of
> principle)
> 2 Complexive (meaning, empirically rather than logically ordered)
> 2.1 Associative (I think of this as the basic insight underlying
> protypicality; it's obviously linked to but distinct from 1.3 because
> the
> one hand it does involve "this is one of these" and on the other
it adds a
> kind of "because..." reason, e.g. "This belongs here
because it looks the
> same".)
> 2.2 Complexive collection (This is a pluralization of the 2.1, the child
> can
> now think "These are some of this group because they look the same
> they are all red)")
> 2.3 Chained complex (This is a metaphorical extension of 2.2: one damn
> thing
> now leads to another that lies beyond the collection, but there is no
> systematic principle for extending the collection in any particular
> direction. A yellow triangle can lead to a yellow circle and on to a red
> half-circle)
> 2.4 Unbounded complex (Now the child has a general tendency for extending
> the complexive collection, but this tendency is undefined and vague and
> reliable. For example, a trapezoid and a triangle both look kinda fat down
> here and thin up there)
> 2.5 Pseudoconcept (The child has a clear verbal reason for extending the
> complexive collection from one block to another but this reason is
> empirical
> rather than logical. So a red triangle and a blue triangle are both called
> triangle, and you can put them side by side and see that they are the
> same.)
> 3. Concepts (experientially but also logically ordered)
> 3.1 Spontaneous concepts (These are based on repeated everyday experiences
> generalized by means of everyday language. For example, the spontaneous
> concept of Saturday, which is related to the concept of week and to the
> concept of day first and foremost by the child's experience and not by
> logic)
> 3.2 Scientific concepts (also, foreign language word meanings). These are
> based on definitions and therefore have an explicit logical hierarchy,
> paradigmatic: "Saturday is the seventh day of the week" and
> syntagmatic: "When it is Saturday in Seoul it is still only Friday in
> Diego."
> (I apologize for my glosses; I know that some people can only understand
> things if they VISUALIZE, but I only ever understand if I VERBALIZE, and
> sometimes, even usually, I verbalize things in a way that doesn't
> reflect children's thought processes very well.)
> It's exquisite, not least because each stage represents a resolution
> problems that inhere in the previous stage. It's a sublime exposition
> the
> kind of HEGELIAN method that Vygotsky later used to such effect in his
> unfinished work on child development in Volume Five.
> BUT...these are stages of Sakharov's experiment. How do we know that
> really are stages of concept formation? (A lot of Mike's work in
> rather suggests the contrary, when you really look at it!)
> I know that Bakhurst talks about how Vygotsky believed in the power of
> abstraction and in the power of the experiment to rise to the
> generalizeable
> concrete. seems to me that Vygotsky himself is sometimes not very
> comfortable with this leap from experiment to quasi-stage theory:
> p. 143: "It is only in the experiment that we free the child from the
> directing influence of the words of adult language with their developed
> stabler meanings. It is only here that we allow the child to develop word
> meanings and create complexive generalizations in accordance with his own
> free judgment.It allows us to discover how the child's own activity is
> manifested in learning adult language. The experiment indicates what the
> child's language would be like and the nature of the generalizations
> would direct his thinking if its development were not directed by an adult
> language that effectively predetermines the range of concrete objects to
> which a given word meaning can be extended."
> But it IS directed by adult language! How similar all this sounds to
> Piaget's own defense of his clinical method in "Language and
Thought of
> Child", a defense that LSV rips apart in Chapter Six.
> So LSV continues:
> "One could argue that our use of phrases such as "would be
like" and
> direct" (i.e. our use of the subjunctive mood) in this context
> basis for an argument against rather than for the use of the experiment
> since the child is not in fact free to develop the meanings he receives
> from
> adult speech."
> Yes, one certainly could, and in fact LSV does precisely this on pp.
> 174-175!
> But HERE LSV continues:
> "We would respond to this argument by noting that the experiment
> more than what would happen if the child were free form the directing
> influence of adult speech, more than what would happen if he developed his
> generalizations freely and independently."
> Well, it teaches a lot LESS than that if we accept that in real life
> children NEVER develop generalizations "freely" and
> LSV continues:
> "The experiment unovers the real activity of the child in forming
> generalizations, activity that is generally masked from casual
> The influence of speech of those around the child does not obliterate this
> activity. It merely conceals it, causing it to take an extremely complex
> form."
> This sounds a terrible fudge to me. More, it suggests that the influence
> speech "conceals", "does not obliterate",
"complicates" the child's
> without actually engaging, interacting, and fusing with it. I can't
> children learning foreign language words in this way.
> Isn't it the case that most concepts form under conditions that are
> different from Sakharov's experiment? And isn't it the case that
> differences will be just as pertinent to the process and to the products
> concept formation as the differences between, say, Geneva and Germany, or
> between the sun falling out of the sky and a child stumbling in a soccer
> game?
> Luria describes the Sakharov experiments on pp. 50-51 of "Making of
> like this:
> "The individual studies that we carried out at this time, of which I
> mentioned a few, must be considered banal (!) in and of themselves. Today
> we
> would consider them nothing more than student projects. And this is
> what they were. Nevertheless, the general conception that organized those
> pilot studies laid the methodological foundation for Vygotsky's
> theory and provided a set of experimental techniques which I was to use
> throughout the remainder of my career."
> Obviously, if Sakharov's study is REALLY a description of concept
> IN GENERAL, then there is nothing banal about it at all. And on p.
> that's more or less exactly what LSV claims: "This general stage
in the
> formation of concepts in the child can be broken down into three phases
> that
> we were able to study in some detail."
> That's a risky claim. But Luria's claim about our methodological
> foundations
> seems more risky still. As Bronfenbrenner would say, isn't it the case
> Sakharov's experiment only shows us "the science of the strange
> children in strange situations with strange adults for the briefest
> possible
> periods of time" (Ecology of Human Development, p. 19).
> David Kellogg
> Seoul National University of Education
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