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Re: [xmca] Vygotsky, Saussure, and Wolves with different dreams
The English way of expressing the abstract universal noun as a plural ("I like apples") certainly has both advantages and disadvantages.
I think the main advantage is that it does draw a fairly clear line between the indicative ("the apple") and the nominative function of language ("an apple", "some apples", "apples"). "The" is clearly, as you say, deictic: that is why it is phonologically similar to "there", "then", "these", "those", and, as you point out, "this" and "that".
But the disadvantage is that the line between naming ("These are apples") and signifying ("Apples apparently originated in China")is quite blurry: we use the plural for BOTH “more than one apple” AND for the idealized concept “apples”.
This is bizarre, to say the least; it is almost as if English speakers were cavemen, for whom an idealized apple is just “a whole lotta apples” (or, as Whitehead and Russell might have put it, the set of all apples on earth).
English, however, is a bizarre language in many ways; the idealized form of the verb (the infinitive) has the meaningless particle “to”. English also has a disturbing number of consonant clusters, is promiscuously polyglot in its lexicon, and the modal system is, to put it diplomatically, quaint. It is hard to imagine a less likely candidate for a world language, until we remember that French, and Latin, the previous office holders, were probably selected for their unlearnability.
Howeveever, being a relatively tolerant and very heterogenous language community, English speakers can and do, as you point out, use the singular noun to express a concept: we say “The apple is a delicious fruit”. I would call both of these examples forms of lexical reification: a single object is held up as an exemplar of the abstract universal.
Lexical reification in the form of a singular noun is (as far as I can figure out) much more common in other languages than the canonical English way of using the plural (“I like apples”). For example, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese use a bare noun to express an idealized concept; plurals mean just that and only that: more than one.
In both English and non-English cases, though, we are really only talking about one kind of concept, that is, a concept based on an abstract, universal NOUN. Of course, not all concepts are nouns. This is one of the biggest problems with Chapter Five and the Vygotsky-Sakharov blocks test.
Vygotsky chooses “because” and “although” as his examples of concepts in Chapter Six. This makes it much easier to separate the concept from its nounly garment and see the kind of movement of thinking that produces the concept behind the reification of the thought as an ENTITY:
RELATOR: Apples contain fructose. Therefore, they are sweet. Apples are tasty. However, they are expensive. (conjunct)
CIRCUMSTANCE: Apples are sweet because they contain fructose. Apples are expensive, although they are tasty.(conjunction)
PROCESS: Fructose causes the sweetness of the apple. The taste of apples contrasts with their expense. (verb)
QUALIFIER: The resultant sweetness of the apple, the unfortunate price of apples (adjective)
ENTITY: The cause of the apple’s sweetness, the shortcoming of the apple (noun)
It’s not so easy to do this with “lag”, “mur”, “cev” and “bik”; the archetypical syncretism is a heap, the archetypical complex is a group of objects that have something in common, and the archetypical concept is inevitably something of an idealized noun, so in the Vygotsky blocks test we really only get the concept as qualifier or entity (e.g. “the mur group” or “I thought mur would have five faces, but this one has six”). So Paula and Carol’s kids are thinking in terms of qualifiers and entities rather than in terms of relators, circumstances, or processes.
It seems to me that (roughly) since the time of Galileo and Newton we have had the tendency to express concepts as qualifiers and especially entities. Again, this has many advantages; it makes it easy for people to write sentences that look like mathematical equations, and it also makes it easier to classify and define concepts. But again, it has some disadvantages; it leaves us a rather static, object-filled world in which it is rather hard to describe DEVELOPMENT, because nouns do not inflect for time.
Articles do, though! Take a look at this:
Once upon a time there was a mountain.
On the mountain was a temple.
In the temple was a monk.
The monk was telling a story.
You can see that “a” is used for NEW information, and “the” for old information. This is also reflected (indexically) in the intonation; we STRESS the new information (a MOUNtain) but not the old.
I suppose this use of articles is discursive in this example, but I think what is being expressed here is the arrow of time. It seems to me that this alternation of indefinite and definite articles to express the arrow of time occurs in all the contexts you mention: physical, inner state (not inner speech but the externalization of inner states using mental process verbs like “like”), discursive, and social.
Do children “get” this time sense of articles later than the physical copresence sense? I think it depends what we mean by “get”. If we mean they are metalinguistically conscious of it, I think we can probably say that they will never get it; I have never actually met a linguist who sees this as a form of time inflection, much less a child. But if we mean that they understand it, I think they get it very early indeed.
Seoul National University of Education
--- On Tue, 8/11/09, Gregory Allan Thompson <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
From: Gregory Allan Thompson <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: [xmca] Vygotsky, Saussure, and Wolves with different dreams
Date: Tuesday, August 11, 2009, 11:07 AM
Two questions come to mind with regard to your post:
First, you say that English articles appear to you to be very
important in “getting” concepts. What types of linguistic
resources are available in other languages (esp. Korean) for
doing the same?
Second, and relatedly, I wonder if you could further delineate
the sort of indexicality (or deixis) that you are referring to
with regard to the English article (or an article, or
articles). As you point out in your example, the difference
between using “an apple” vs. “the apple” depends on the
context of usage and whether or not there is an apple
co-present to the speakers (although there are some exceptions
– see the third example below in which co-presence is not a
physical co-presence but a “psychological” one, and there you
have the “concept”). But there are various realms onto which
such indexicals (deictics) can be functionally projected --
including physical contexts, discursive contexts, inner-state
contexts, and social contexts. Here I focus on the first two
of these (although my work focuses on the second two).
As a possible answer to these questions, I offer the following
taxonomy (I should note that this is not a rigorously
developed taxonomy but rather is intended as a prod to think
about the question).
As an important aside (and speaking to the question of
languages without articles), I include other deictics here
like “here”, “this”, and “now” (and Hegel fans will recall
that these were important for Hegel) in addition to articles,
so that there is a “here” where I am physically, but also a
“here” where I am discursively – as in my previous “what I am
proposing here is…”. The critical feature of the English
article is it’s deictic/indexical function. Although the
argument below may come through more cleanly if we were to
trace the developmental trajectory of one of these deictics
(e.g., "here"), I'll try to limit my discussion here to the
English articles and their deictic/indexical functions.
Taking the definite article, first there is “the apple that is
on the table” (and you'll note that I’m assuming (or maybe
creating?) a context here). I call this a physical-situational
deictic because it indexes the physical context of the
utterance. Second, there is “the idea I am proposing here
is…”, which I would call a discourse deictic because it
indexes the previous discursive context of the utterance. And
then there is a third more complicated form which gets most
closely to the notion of the concept as it is being discussed
here, “the apple is a delicious fruit” (and one could ask: At
what age are children able to a) understand such an utterance
without looking around for “the apple” that is being
referenced and b) produce utterances like this in which they
take categories as objects? I’ll have to ask Nicholas (7) and
Sophia (4) tonight, although Naomi (1) won't have much to
say). I would call this last one a metasemantically reflexive
deictic because it indexes the category itself (Jakobson has a
term for this that might be less of a mouthful but his
framework is eluding me right now).
This brief taxonomy is relevant to development of
language/concepts because the child first gets the
physical-situational deictic (“the apple is on the table”).
Then, later on in development, the child gets the discursive
deictic and is able to use deictics with reference to discourse.
The essential developmental move then is first to be able to
understand the physical-situational deictic, which of course
presupposes an understanding of word meaning (which itself
develops from indexical to symbolic). Then, the key step to
get into the world of conceptual thought is to be able to
project this physical-situational form of deictic reference
onto discourse itself such that language can be taken as an
object. The connection with Vygotsky here is, of course, with
his “dog” with the little horns. I had some students in my dev
psy class this summer run some simple experiments testing
metalinguistic awareness with kids. Whether or not the kids
(i.e., subjects) could “get it” (e.g., to know that you can’t
buy a candy bar with the word “dollar”) depended on their
ability to talk about or objectify language – and this is
somewhat obvious in that the experiment hinges on the word
“word” – do kids understand what is meant by the word “word”
that is included in the question that the children are asked?
I assume that once the child is able to use referential
deictics, then they will be able to understand and produce
utterances such as “the apple is a delicious fruit”, i.e. to
“get” the concept. To take a step back from the strong
argument here about discourse deictics, I’m not so certain
that proficient use of this form of language will be
necessary, but I think that the some form of the general
process that is described here is necessary – of shifting from
language used to index immediate physical co-present context
and to language used to index discourse itself.
But that may be a rather obvious point that bears little fruit...
>Date: Mon, 10 Aug 2009 16:54:39 -0700 (PDT)
>From: David Kellogg <firstname.lastname@example.org>
>Subject: Re: [xmca] Vygotsky, Saussure, and Wolves with different
>To: email@example.com, Culture ActivityeXtended Mind
>Content-Type: text/plain; charset=iso-8859-1
>Oh, I wouldn't presume. But to me it is part of a jagged line
which connects ostension, indication through gesture, naming,
and signifying...and the English article system.
>Of course Vygotsky probably never read Peirce. But to me that
is of no consequence; I see internal dependencies on the one
hand (that is, common logic) and external common references on
the other (e.g. the common reference to Hegel; I am sure that
someday Vygotsky's copy of the "Logic" will be discovered and
even Andy will be satisfied here).
>Ostension is, as Greg says,is virtually iconic, in the
Peircean sense; it's object-related meaning right there in
your hand. Gesture involves what Toolan calls an analytical
question: what of all the possible things in the line of the
gesture is the speaker indicating? In Peircean terms, it's
indexical, a form of secondness. Nomination is a form of
thirdness; it involves interpretation. But once named, the
name becomes an object, and we can start all over again.
>What Paula and Carol are really interested in
understanding is signifying; that is, reference to idealized
objects (complexes) and ultimately to objectified ideas
(concepts). But they want to understand signifying
GENETICALLY, as it arises from ostension, indication, and
naming things that are present and not present, near and far,
existent and non existent, in other words, signifying.
>I think signifying can be explained in Peircean terms too.
When, in Chapter Seven, Vygotsky explicitly links the rise of
the concept to the transition from indicating to naming to
signifying, he is essentially following a path well trod by
Peirce, and whether he knows that he is not the first or
whether he knows that the footprints he finds on the trail are
those of Peirce are equally immaterial.
>To your example. When you set out for the farmer's market,
your idea of the apple you want to buy is not object related.
It's a symbol, not an icon, nor yet an index. You have in mind
not this apple nor that apple nor even these apples or those
apples, but some idealized apples. You signify that apple,
because you can neither grasp nor point to it.
>When you arrive at the farmer's market, you point indexically
to the objects you want. The farmer, if he is in the mood for
ostension, will grasp one for you to examine. You reach for
it, and rise to the concrete; it becomes for you an icon.
>That idea of the apple in your head (as opposed to the
experience of the apple in your hand or your moth) is only
partly based on the ghosts of your various object-related
experiences in the past with apples. It is also based on the
sum total of your culture's object-related experience withs
apples. All this bears fruit, in conceptual form, in the word
meaning "apples". When you look at "an apple" it becomes an
example of a concept, and when you eat "the apple" you have
absorbed it not only ideally but also materially, down to the
>I think Paula and Carol's big contribution to my own
understanding of this example has to do with the way they
tackle the extremely muddy section of Chapter Five that deals
with potential concepts. For a complex to become a potential
concept, two things and not one are required.
>First of all, we have to have abstraction and generalization.
But abstraction and generalization are simply two modes of
moving along the lines of longitude on that Chapter Six
measure of generality which runs from object relatedness to
>Secondly, we have to have a system and a hierarchy. System
and hierarchy are what distingish science concepts from
everyday ones, but (nay, so) they are also present in much
attentuated form (e.g. the English article system) in
>T: Do you like apples? (general concept)
>(T takes an apple out.) (example)
>Ss: Yaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!! Apple! (example)
>(In Korean, the general concept AND the example are expressed
by the bare singular of the noun. As far as I know this is
also true of Russian, which similarly lacks an article system).
>T: Yes, this is an apple. Now, is this apple MY apple or YOUR
apple? (object related)
>Ss: Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine!
>T: Maybe! The apple is the WINNER'S apple. Now, let's play!
>Here too there is a rise to the concrete, although this is
not exactly what Davydov had in mind!
>Seoul National University of Education
The Department of Comparative Human Development
The University of Chicago
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