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Re: [xmca] Vygotsky, Saussure, and Wolves with different dreams
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- Subject: Re: [xmca] Vygotsky, Saussure, and Wolves with different dreams
- From: David Kellogg <firstname.lastname@example.org>
- Date: Tue, 4 Aug 2009 13:35:28 -0700 (PDT)
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Paula, it sounds like concept formation without ontogenesis is really concept microgenesis. Of course, microgenesis is quite impossible without changes in ontogenesis. But ontogenesis, in turn, is led by microgenesis, not in the sense that ontogenesis is simply the sum total of acculumated microgeneses but rather in the sense that the sum total of accumulated microgeneses provides the environment in which the next stage of ontogenesis must unfold. (Similarly: development is not the sum total of accumulated learning. But learning is what sets the scene for the next phase of development.)
You know, there is a strain of Buddhism in Korea which rejects the idea of karma, because the idea that the animal kingdom has “higher” and “lower” forms is a reification of a food pyramid, and of course a good Buddhist cannot accept that meat eating is the principle according to which the universe is organized.
Unfortunately, I appear to have made exactly the same mistake. I assumed that since wolves were higher on the food pyramid than sheep, they must represent conceptual thinking, which is higher on the ontogenetic pyramid than complexes.
So I assumed that a wolf in sheep’s clothing was a concept pretending to be a complex. Of course, it’s exactly the opposite; it’s a ravening, all assimilating diffuse complex marauding around the peaceful flock of conceptual sheep, murderous instincts barely contained within a boundary of sheepskins.
I also think I was wrong about “deep sixing” Chapter Five. Yes, Vygotsky does explicitly repudiate Chapter Five in several places (e.g. where he condemns “pedologists” and says that complexive thinking must be left outside the school door). But I am now convinced that this is nothing more than political expediency. The “complexes” are still there in Chapter Six, but they are now referred to as preconcepts. This is actually a better term for them; “complexive” thinking is not complex, or it is only complex by the standards of syncretic thinking.
hasEML = false;
SG: “What did LSV mean by a "concept-for-myself," (a phrase, I understand, derived from Hegel)?”
DK: I always think about Vygotsky’s description of the microgenesis of gesture in infants. The baby makes random motions, or “gesture in itself”. One of these is interpreted by a nearby caregiver as a reaching or grasping motion. In this way the gesture becomes a “gesture for others”. Only when the baby forms an idealized mental image of the gesture (and some form of this is necessary in order for the gesture to become intentional, because, like the architect’s blueprint and unlike the beehive, the gesture must be erected in the child’s mind before it is realized in the world) can we call the gesture a “gesture for myself”.
Obviously you can do the same thing with other creative acts, many of which begin with involuntary creativity (that is. error), or creativity in itself, continue with social affirmation (creativity for others) and in the end become conscious and deliberate. Examples are the child drawing a scribble which becomes a cloud when it is noticed by others, or a verbal gesture (“mama”) which becomes a word. I think this is why Marx speaks of language as PRACTICAL consciousness; consciousness that exists for others and therefore for myself in the German Ideology.
The “object in itself”, “object for others”, and “object for myself” trope in part predates Hegel: it is Hegel’s response to Kant’s belief that we live in a world of unknowable “objects in themselves”. In Hegel’s “Science of Logic” (NOT the shorter “Logic” which Andy has made available) he shows how these objects DO become knowable, and the process whereby this happens is certainly close to what Vygotsky describes in Chapter Five.
Objects are first of all heaps of characteristics or features or “particularities” which are related to each other in an apparently random, arbitrary manner. I think of this as unrelated faces on the subway when I am going to work; what Pound describes as:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd
Petals on a wet, black bough.
The second line does not organize the faces in any objective way (that is, in relation to each other); it is simply a subjective response, a magnification of “apparition” or “impression”. Syncretism.
But these features then acquire OBJECTIVE relationships; that is, concrete, factual links: this man looks like he might be that little girl’s grandfather, and that couple there might be related too.
Finally, I overhear their conversation and all traces of arbitrariness and randomness: there are three generations of one family, and they are on their way to the family shrine to do “chesa” to their ancestors.
SG: “When do modern adults possibly employ syncretic representations besides perhaps when they dream?”
I had to ask myself, when I saw this, when they do NOT. As I said I think that the way in which we perceive a subway car full of travelers is always initially syncretic; there are no objective factual links and the unity of the scene is entirely imposed from without (viz. by the subway car and by the visual purview).
You also see syncretic representations in the kinds of “random facts” that people used to compile on the internet, or “twenty one things I like/hate about you” or whatever. In lists like these there are no objective links; the unity of the list is imposed from without. That is why “syncretism” is also translated as “tas” (French) or “masso” (Italian): a heap, or a pile, of objects, where the unity is randomly, arbitrarily imposed from the outside, and the objects within it have no concrete or factual links with each other.
One of the reasons that Vygotsky’s use of “syncretism” is confusing is because he appears to have taken it over from Piaget, hollowed it out, and filled it with a completely new content. In Piaget, syncretic thinking is rather like the syncretic religions found in Korea (mixtures of Shamanism, Buddhism, and even Christianity).
Take the child’s belief in Santa Claus: the child is able to believe that Santa Claus brings presents AND that you must write thank you notes to your grandparents at one and the same time; it really doesn’t matter that these two things are contradictory.
This kind of thinking, although a good example of what Piaget means by syncretism, is not really syncretic by Vygotsky’s standard; it is much more complexive, because the concrete factual link between the gift and the giver shifts and changes but it is objective; it is always there.
SG: “When do modern adults use complexes versus true concepts in their everyday thinking and activities, and what are some examples of that?”
DK: I am one of those people who cannot drive very well because I am always confusing left and right (if you say “right” to me I will instinctively turn to the left). I also do this with concepts: for example, when Paula and Carol and Lev Semyonovich say that the pseudoconcept is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” I imagine it as a marauding concept in a flock of innocent complexes, when in fact exactly the opposite is what is meant. I am currently trying to write a book full of binary chapter titles (e.g. “Form and Meaning”, “Use and Usage”, “Sense and Sensibility”, “Cohesion and Coherence”) and I am going mad because form keeps turning into meaning and vice versa.
Vygotsky points out that there are many words which turn into their opposites in this way. Eric just provided a rather short list of these in English. “Agency”, for example, means both acting as a subject and acting as an object (a travel agent, or a real estate agent). “Subject” too!
But in a more general sense, complexive thinking is more the rule than the exception. Race, for example, is an associative complex; there is no such thing as “white” or “black” in language, genetics, or even culture. A place setting or a toolbox is a complex-collection, not a concept: tools have nothing but their handles in common, but a tool kit is not a collection of handles. Everytime you say “by the way”, or “anyway” or “anyhow”, and almost every time the subject line of one thread on this list turns into another, we see chain complexes at work. A metaphor (e.g. “the present is the revolving door through which the future charges into the past”) a diffuse concept; it expands and expands until it becomes utterly meaningless (the past does not charge into the future in quite the same way as the future charges into the past, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a building on either side of this putative revolving door).
And this brings me back to the first question: in what sense is a pseudoconcept a concept for others but NOT for myself? It seems to me that a pseudoconcept is nothing more and nothing less than a diffuse concept which has become BOUNDED or LIMITED in some way. The child begins sorting the blocks according to color. He starts with a white one. He then adds yellow, because that’s a light color, almost white. Then he adds green cause that’s kinda yellow too. And then blue, because that’s kinda green. And then black because that’s kinda really dark blue.
It’s possible to see this as nothing more than a chain complex. But it isn’t, because in a chain complex the objective link varies in an unbounded way; it could be absolutely anything. In a diffuse complex there is a similar multiplicity of examples which vary in an apparently arbitrary way. Yet that variation is not completely arbitrary and it is certainly not random. There really is a higher concept (“color”) emerging.
If the diffuse complex continues to diffuse, it is not only not a concept, it is not even a pseudoconcept. But suppose we oppose purely FUNCTIONAL limits on it: for example, we tell the child that yellow is a light color but that green is not, or that green can be divided into light green and dark green. We could even explain to the child something about shades and tints: you can shade a color by adding black, and tint a color by adding white. The child now has an understanding that looks and acts just like a concept. But it is not a concept, because the BOUNDING, LIMITING element is imposed from the outside, by others. Only when the child can consciously impose the limit of the pseudoconcept by an effort of self-conscious realization can we speak of a true concept.
So what is the test that distinguishes a functioning pseudoconcept from a true concept? I think that the only REAL test is this: conceptual thinking allows the creation of completely NEW concepts out of pseudoconcepts and even diffuse concepts, because the child is able to consciously, deliberately, volitionally impose rational limits on the variations inherent in complexive thinking.
The genius of the Sakharov blocks is actually the same as their limitation: on the one hand, unlike the Ach prototype, they allow the CHILD to create the concepts of cev, mur, lag and bik. And on the other, they do not allow the child to create completely NEW concepts.
Seoul National University of Education
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