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[xmca] Language and thought, unity and the particular, and the extent of mediation
Let me just say thank you again by your sustained and careful
engagement with my (way too long) post.
It sounds like there are many more points of agreement than I
initially thought (and I’ll follow your lead in placing points
of disagreement in the p.s., well not really disagreement,
more of a point of clarification).
I appreciate your cynicism towards Jackendoff’s view of the
relationship of thought and language (although I must confess
I had to read that bit twice to get your “sense” since I’m as
much of a tone-deaf reader as I am a tone-deaf writer). And I
am in agreement with your suggestion that for the purposes of
investigation it is useful to make distinctions between
thought and language and even to investigate the functional
(and formal?) differences between them.
So let me make clear the ax that I’m grinding here and why it
seems non-trivial to me. My concern is that there are a number
of authors (e.g., Jackendoff, Peter Jones, Roy Harris, Steven
Pinker to name a few) who seem to push the line that we can
meaningfully talk about an unmediated thought that stands
behind an utterance. My concern with this (British
Empiricist?) take on thought and language is that it can lead
to a sense of an unmediated access to reality, as if one’s way
of thinking about the world (physical and social) is a simple,
transparent, and complete representation of what is there.
There are lots of reasons to be concerned with this, but from
what I gather from your writing and your post, we are in
agreement on this point, so I won’t go into detail with the
reasons to be concerned with this approach to
My concern is somewhat finer grained and relates to the way
that we (i.e., the CHAT/MCA in-group) talk about the relation
of thought and language. My concern is that the language that
we use to make this point can sometimes give the impression
that it is possible for there to be some originary unmediated
thought (in a microgenetic sense – i.e., in the sense of the
life of a thought that we might study in a real-time
interaction – vs. a phylogenetic or ontogenetic or historical
sense), and this leads to a greater likelihood of being
misread. There is, of course, always some chance of being
misread, and certainly people will use Vygotsky in ways that
run counter to what you and I understand as his intentions,
and yet, precisely for this reason, it seems worthwhile to
push the argument.
I'll add that I’m still unsure whether or not you (and/or
Vygotsky and/or other CHAT/MCA folk) imagine an original
moment of a given thought that is untainted by language and
culture – a sort of Ur thought that only later is mediated by
language and culture after we try to express it (those who
oppose the linguistic relativity hypothesis would read
Slobin’s notion of “thinking for speaking” in this way).
(While trying to make this a non-trivial matter, I can't help
but feel that I am hairsplitting a bit here too).
To restate the specific concern with a notion of an originary
unmediated thought, I see even low level experiences (Qualia)
to be mediated by language and culture (for an example, see my
original post on the left/right distinction and the man who
ended up on the wrong side of the tracks).
But there is a further problem that was addressed in the
recent post about the beginning and ending of activity, with
the exception that here we have to ask the question: "When
does a *thought* begin and end?" If we want to trace a
thought’s origin to some unmediated land of pure reason, we
need to locate the originary moment when the thought began. I
find Dewey’s essay on the concept of the reflex arc to be
useful as well as James’ more elegant and succinct words:
“Let anyone try to cut a thought across in the middle and get
a look at its section, and he will see how difficult the
introspective observation of the transitive tracts is. The
rush of the thought is so headlong that it almost always
brings us up at the conclusion before we can arrest it. Or if
our purpose is nimble enough and we do arrest it, it ceases
forthwith to be itself. As a snowflake crystal caught in the
warm hand is no longer a crystal but a drop, so, instead of
catching the feeling of relation moving to its term, we find
we have caught some substantive thing, usually the last word
we were pronouncing, statically taken, and with its function,
tendency, and particular meaning in the sentence quite
evaporated. The attempt at introspective analysis in these
cases is in fact like seizing a spinning top to catch its
motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how
the darkness looks.”
(okay, maybe not so succinct in an email post, but certainly
shorter than Dewey's article)
Taking the ongoing-ness of thinking seriously means that it
becomes difficult to really speak of microgenesis of thoughts
in everyday life because this would imply a starting point to
thought – as if thought were locatable in discrete chunks
(although I must confess that I do this all the time in both
non-academic and academic settings, and, in fact, this is
precisely the focus my dissertation – the micro-genesis of
thought in a tutoring interaction. A misguided notion to be
sure. But a necessary evil.).
Given this concern with the origins of *a* (given) thought
(notice the value of characterizing "thought/thinking" via
pluralize-able English count nouns (vs. mass nouns) as a way
to make thought "feel" like discrete chunks - thoughts are
discrete countable things ("a thought" or "some thoughts") not
simply a mass of stuff ("a mass/pile of thought"), and
definitely not an ongoing process ("thinking")), it would seem
that a focus on activity is really the key thing to keep in mind.
What I have come to appreciate through our conversation is
that I did indeed miss the extent to which you are pushing a
dialectical notion of thought and language. I’m still working
over the differences you have articulated in your last post,
and although it is doubtful that I will express my thoughts on
these differences through *language* (qua “a response”), I
certainly will incorporate your comments into my *thinking* --
which begs the question: how could I incorporate your ideas
into my thought without incorporating them into my language
unless these two things are logically distinct and separate?
Since I have posited doing precisely this, it must therefore
be the case that language and thought are distinct. QED.
p.s. I’ll speak to just one point of contradiction that you
noted in your p.s. response:
My words were not well chosen and in fact contradicted my
intentions (and my later words) in the statement: “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.”
What was intended here (and this is potentially recoverable
from a very close reading of the rest of the paragraph) is
more like: “Thus, I see Vygotsky’s emphasis on the phasal vs.
semantic distinction as being about the relationship of part
and whole, where both phasal and semantic components involve a
relationship of part to whole”. I am indeed arguing that the
phasal and semantic categories both rely on the relationship
of part to whole (and I’m not sure whether you gave me a “yes”
or a “no” on this argument). I’m suggesting that Vygotsky is
emphazing this distinction as a way of showing that when
learning a new language, the parts are connected to the
previous language qua system and as such, important concepts
that are contained in the language will not be learned. In my
example of boeuf and mouton, I was pushing the argument that
the phasal categories, i.e. the categories relating to sound,
such as French or German “sounding” words (and sounds),
contain concepts (French is good to eat and German is beastly)
and depend upon the relationship of part to whole such that
you have to understand the whole system in order to understand
the part. Or alternatively, the trouble that your wife is
struggling with is that the concept contained in the definite
vs. indefinite article has not been learned as a part to the
relevant whole (English nouns) but rather as a part to a
different whole (Korean nouns), and that it there is a
conceptual moment entailed by the English system of definite
vs. indefinite articles (and I would suggest that this puts me
in agreement with your assessment of this as a paradigmatic
rather than syntagmatic problem).
My apologies for the mis-wording of the topic sentence of that
paragraph. The only reasonable thing to do seems to be to eat
my words – or at least the French-derived ones (“delicacies”
>Date: Thu, 27 Aug 2009 17:50:01 -0700 (PDT)
>From: David Kellogg <firstname.lastname@example.org>
>Subject: Re: [xmca] Language and thought, unity and the
>To: Culture ActivityeXtended Mind <email@example.com>
>Content-Type: text/plain; charset=utf-8
>Oh, the literary flourishes are mostly those ofÂ 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 flourishÂ andÂ asked "Do you want a (sic)Â egg?". (For
readers who cannot attend to theÂ form of utterances and their
content simultaneously, I shall end the suspense that might
otherwise distract and hasten toÂ addÂ that I do not eat eggs
>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
>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 theoreticallyÂ have been produced
by completely aphasic, languageless, and consequently
>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 speechÂ 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 KoreanÂ 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
touchesÂ of blush on herÂ autumn corn fed skin and adjusting a
few random strands of hair so as not to look too calculated
inÂ the impression she creates.Â While doing so, she is making
vigorous eye contact with her creator,Â reaching out with her
left hand to touch her face, almost like Adam reaching out on
the Sistine Chapel fresco.
>She is alsoÂ 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 illusionÂ created by
the intense eye contact she is keeping with herself while
talking to someone else. Â
>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!)Â
>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
>I say yes.Â 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: 'Iâ€™m still trying to understand what you mean by
â€œsemantic categoriesâ€・. This has the feeling of a
language/thought distinction but it is muddied by the fact
>has a language-y component to it. Do you mean these in the
strict sense of â€œword meaningsâ€・ vs. â€œgrammatical
>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 organizationÂ the way Vygotsky does is that
they are both united and distinct at every single point.Â This
is actually not true of the original Saussurean model or even
of Jakobson's version of it: only syntagmatic organization is
"real".Â For Vygotsky the ideal isÂ also real.Â
>You say: "I would like to suggest that grammatical categories
can contain the kinds of things that you refer to as
>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.
>Â 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 â€“ 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 yourÂ concern (see
Jackendoff's folly). NorÂ would IÂ "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 isnâ€™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
>You say: "Where I differ is in the sense in which these
>thinking are distinct. Iâ€™m pushing for a much tighter
connection between the two such that it is very difficult to
describe conceptual thinking without considering language as
>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
â€œphasalâ€・ vs. â€œsemanticâ€・ properties of language that
did not square with my read of Vygotskyâ€™s Ch. 6 of thought
>First was the notion that the distinction between
â€œphasalâ€・ and â€œsemanticâ€・ properties of language is
central to understanding the development of concepts in that
>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 â€œphasalâ€・ and â€œsemanticâ€・ in Vygotsky, it
seems that this distinction (discussed on pp. 196-197 of
>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)Â and thinking-like thinking (concepts).
This is what Paula and Carol are studying.Â
>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:
>â€œHowever, 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,
pathsâ€・ (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 â€œphasalâ€・ aspects of language."
>I say no. When my wife says "Do you want a (sic) egg?" she is
attending moreÂ 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 Iâ€™m
getting at is further evidence for how it is
>that the â€œphasalâ€・ and the â€œsemanticâ€・ share identity
in the sense that both require an understanding of the
relationship of the part to the whole in order to â€œgetâ€・ it."
>I say this seems to me toÂ 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.
The Department of Comparative Human Development
The University of Chicago
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