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Re: [xmca] Language and thought, unity and the particular
Oh, the literary flourishes are mostly those of my wife, who spoke no English at all when I met her in 1991 and who is now writing a Ph.D. thesis in English on the phylogenesis of early Victorian industrial novels.
But yesterday morning, as I was burying my snout in my second trough of coffee, she turned to me with a rather different sort of flourish and asked "Do you want a (sic) egg?". (For readers who cannot attend to the form of utterances and their content simultaneously, I shall end the suspense that might otherwise distract and hasten to add that I do not eat eggs at breakfast.)
What I want to argue is that this apparently trivial mistake suggests a paradigmatic rather than a syntagmatic organization of linguistic knowledge; one that will never go away no matter how much exposure and use she gets, because it is, at bottom, more deliberate, more volitional, and, although more prone to error, more conducive to creativity for precisely that reason.
Of course, I sympathize with your feeling that thinking and speech keep in contact, that they permeate each other and diffuse through each other ("fuse" is perhaps the wrong word to use, but Vygotsky does use it) and that we need to keep that in mind at every point of analysis. On my desk there is a book by Ray Jackendoff called "Patterns in the Mind", and on p. 4, I read:
"Did it take thought for Beethoven and Picasso to produce their masterpieces? I think so. Did it take language? I don't think so."
There you have it. Beethoven composed the Ode to Joy without ever having read Schiller and Picasso painted Guernica merely by looking at the photographs in the newspapers and not by reading the text. On the authority of Jackendoff, both masterpieces might at least theoretically have been produced by completely aphasic, languageless, and consequently cultureless creatures.
So of course we need to keep in mind that at any point after the age of two, thinking and speech permeate each other. But it's easy to go running around in circles on this list: You say they are linked, and I shout back that they are distinct. Someone else says echoes me that they are distinct, and I bellow "But they are linked!"
It seems to me the way to avoid this trap is to keep in mind that at no point is there entropy of information, at no point is either thinking or speech saturated with the opposite; both are always open to new permeation and new permutation. The way in which this permutation takes place is through a process of differentiation, which sometimes leans in the direction of thinking (hierarchical, science concepts, foreign languages generally) and sometimes in the direction of speech (paradigmatic, everyday ones, native languages in general) and sometimes appears in the form of an unstable emulsion, a salad dressing in which thinking and speech are temporarily (functionally) united but are variously destined (e.g. the kind of "mix" of Korean and English that I am now looking at which is spontaneously generated in so-called "immersion" science and math classrooms here in Seoul).
The Seoul Metro has installed, as a concession to the relentless image consciousness of Seoul commuters, full length mirrors at the top of most of the subway stairs. This morning I saw, in the mirror, a young woman in high heels, a gold lame skirt and a beautiful mustard blouse putting the final touches of blush on her autumn corn fed skin and adjusting a few random strands of hair so as not to look too calculated in the impression she creates. While doing so, she is making vigorous eye contact with her creator, reaching out with her left hand to touch her face, almost like Adam reaching out on the Sistine Chapel fresco.
She is also talking intently, apparently to her God on a cell phone! Of course, the hair is a biomechanical endowment; of course, the hairdo is not. Verily, even the "naturalness" is like my wife's "a (sic) egg", an illusion; it's illusoriness is (to my eye) much like the illusion created by the intense eye contact she is keeping with herself while talking to someone else.
Seoul National University of Education
PS: I am going point by point through your letter is this postscript, because I think some readers will want to turn back at this point (if not long before!)
You say: "I view language and thought as processes that are intimately caught up with one
another such that it is difficult to speak of the two as being logically distinct. As I read your emails, you seem to be staking out a position that is somewhat more comfortable
in speaking of thinking and language as logically distinct things."
I say yes. But it is only a manner of speaking, like saying that nouns inflect for time when they take articles. I think it is perfectly acceptable for some purposes (e.g. Chapter Seven of Thinking and Speech). The illusion of movement produced by quickly flashing frozen stills by the eye is functionally acceptable for film-making, as long as we do not forget that the audience is viewing this in a cinema and not on a street. Salman Rushdie writes (I think it is Midnight's Children) about how the Communist magicians are superior to others because they bend reality this way and that without ever forgetting what it really is.
You say: 'I’m still trying to understand what you mean by “semantic categories”. This has the feeling of a language/thought distinction but it is muddied by the fact that “semantic”
has a language-y component to it. Do you mean these in the strict sense of “word meanings” vs. “grammatical rules”?'
I say no, I don't think in terms of modules: that way lies Jackendoff and his insane vision of a languageless Fidelio and cubism without cubes. A while back we were talking about what Vygotsky accepted and what he rejected from Saussure. I think the "measure of generality" he describes in Chapter Six is a clear indication that he accepted the distinction between paradigmatic organization and syntagmatic organization ("longitude" and "latitude" of a concept), while rejecting the associationist concept of meaning (which of course Jackendoff accepts, hook line and sinker, with a diagramme on p. 8 which is absolutely identical to the one used by Norm Friesen on p. 136 of MCA 16 (2), and of course the one Saussure has in the Course in General Linguistics).
The advantage of visualizing the intersection of paradigmatic and syntagmatic organization the way Vygotsky does is that they are both united and distinct at every single point. This is actually not true of the original Saussurean model or even of Jakobson's version of it: only syntagmatic organization is "real". For Vygotsky the ideal is also real.
You say: "I would like to suggest that grammatical categories can contain the kinds of things that you refer to as “semantic categories”.
I say yes. But Vygotsky shows us that things can be linked and still distinct. For example, the psychological subject of "A sombre spectacle shall unfold before you" is identical with "You shall witness a tragedy" or "What you are about to see is a tragedy". But the grammatical subjects are not the same, and for some purposes (e.g. learning) it's very useful to tease them apart and be able to modify them independently of each other.
You say, "My concern is that we too easily forget that language and thought are caught up with one other as soon as a child is speaking. So, first question – does your semantic vs.
grammatical categories map onto the categories of thought and language respectively? As I understand your position, there is some parallel between these two distinctions)."
I say, yes, there are grounds for your concern (see Jackendoff's folly). Nor would I "map" semantic categories like "entity" onto grammatical ones like "noun" for all the reasons I said. Children who use language are painters, not map makers, and that is even more true of language users at more developed levels (viz., my wife).
"In your Strauss quote, I would want to push a bit further and say that it isn’t simply the case that language puts pain into words, but rather that pain actually takes on new meaning with language."
If pain did not take on new meaning with language, it would be impossible for language to explain pain; it would merely translate it.
You say: "Where I differ is in the sense in which these language and
thinking are distinct. I’m pushing for a much tighter connection between the two such that it is very difficult to describe conceptual thinking without considering language as well.
I say it is very difficult to describe lattitude without considering longitude as well.
You say "There were two points that you made about the “phasal” vs. “semantic” properties of language that did not square with my read of Vygotsky’s Ch. 6 of thought and language.
First was the notion that the distinction between “phasal” and “semantic” properties of language is central to understanding the development of concepts in that the phasal
properties of language map onto syntax and the semantic properties of language map onto thinking."
It is certainly the case that the distinction between the "phasal" and the "semantic" properties of language is essential to understanding the development of concepts; that is why Vygotsky emphasizes the SYSTEM. But the system is at once longitudinal and latitudinal, at once syntagmatic and paradigmatic. We cannot "map" a concept without both.
It is certainly NOT the case that the phasal properties of language are in any way equivalent to syntax. If that were the case, why would Vygotsky include phonology in the phasal properties of language? In addition, everyday concepts are concepts; complexes are acts of thinking, and even syncretic heaps require thought (though I disagree entirely with Steve that they are the result of the child's perceptions). All of these things are "more phasal" and "more syntagmatic" and "more speech" than their functional equivalents (viz. true, scientific concepts) but none of them are devoid of thinking.
You say: "To this first point, as I read this distinction between “phasal” and “semantic” in Vygotsky, it seems that this distinction (discussed on pp. 196-197 of Kozulin’s
translation, that is, assuming I have the right section) is used simply as part of an analogy for understanding the move from spontaneous to scientific concepts, and not as a distinction relevant to the thinking vs. speech distinction."
I say that everything in Vygotsky's book is relevant to the thinking vs. speech distinction. This distinction (phasal vs. semantic) is a central distinction within speech. To suggest that the distinction between thinking and speech is irrelevant as soon as we have decided that a given phenomenon (viz, speech) belongs to the one and not the other seems to me to be a rather binary, nondialectical way of proceeding.
Minick points out in his foreword that what sets the Vygotsky of Thinking and Speech apart from that of, say, Educational Psychology, or even Tool and Symbol, is the key concept of functional differentiation, the differentiation of speech into thought-like speech and speech-like speech. Of course, the same thing happens with thinking: there is speech-like thinking (complexes) and thinking-like thinking (concepts). This is what Paula and Carol are studying.
You say: "The phasal vs. semantic distinction appears to me to be a distinction that he is making between the two sides of his analogy of the learning of scientific concepts with learning a second language (first language:second language::spontaneous concepts:scientific concepts). Vygotsky does note important differences between the two:
“However, while in the study of a foreign language attention centers on the exterior, phonetic, and physical aspects of verbal thought, in the development of scientific concepts it centers on semantics. And since physical and semantic aspect of speech develop along their own independent lines, our analogy cannot be a complete one. The two developmental processes follow separate, though similar, paths” (p. 196).
There is another (related) reason why the analogy between science concepts and foreign language concepts cannot be pushed too far: every foreign language is also a native language. But for my wife, the analogy holds quite precisely: "Do you wan a (sic) egg?"
You say: "Thus, I see the phasal vs. semantic distinction not as a distinction between language and thought (or phonetic/grammatical vs. semantic) but rather as a distinction between part and whole."
I say no. The problem is that semantics is hierarchical, systemic, not necessarily experiential. We experience semantics as sameness (this apple is like that apple) but we cannot experience this sameness without a superordinate concept, without a hierarchical system. To say that latitude is really just a part of longitude is no more true than to say that longitude is a part of latitude.
You say, "In the case of the second language learner, she does not learn the new word
with respect to the whole of the language. Instead, she learns it as a part of and with respect to a different whole, namely, her first language, and this leads to an
emphasis on the “phasal” aspects of language."
I say no. When my wife says "Do you want a (sic) egg?" she is attending more to the semantic meaning of "a" than to its phasal aspect; the same thing is true when she confuses "a" and "the" and "he" and "she". She is thinking of meanings and not of sequencing. She is thinking of system and not function. Of course, language is the way it is because it does what it does. But that is not how learners experience it, nor is it how they learn it, as you point out.
You say "Grammar contains categories and concepts just as semantics do (and you may have been in agreement with me on this). And importantly, the category (and the concept behind it) can only be seen with respect to the larger system in which the grammatical category exists. Thus, what I’m getting at is further evidence for how it is
that the “phasal” and the “semantic” share identity in the sense that both require an understanding of the relationship of the part to the whole in order to “get” it."
I say this seems to me to contradict what you just said about the phasal being a part of the semantic and to rather confirm my own view, which is that the phasal and the semantic are mutually determining aspects of verbal thinking. But perhaps I didn't understand you correctly.
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