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[Xmca-l] Re: Отв: Отв: Re: Ilyenkov, Marx, & Spinoza

Dear David

Please could you explain a bit more your (and/or Vygotsky's) argument against conventionality, and what you mean by "natural" in this context? I don't understand how the blackbird example fits.

I have three problems with the blackbird example:

1. Russian has no word for blackbird.

Russian uses the phrase чёрный дрозд, literally, "black thrush", so it seems strange for Vygotsky to use the word "blackbird" as an example. If you were reading in English translation, perhaps the translator was taking liberties?

2. black + bird does not imply blackbird.

Not all black birds are blackbirds; not all blackbirds are black birds. In British English, blackbird refers specifically to the Turdus merula; in American English, blackbird refers to any of a number of small birds --- the so-called New World blackbirds --- none of which is the Turdus merula (and not all of which are black birds, e.g. the yellow-shouldered blackbird). Other black birds --- e.g. crows, rooks and ravens --- are not blackbirds at all.

3. As you put it, "other languages do it differently".

Your argument about "black" + "bird" only applies to English. The French for blackbird is not "noiroiseau" or even "oiseaunoir", but "merle" (from the Latin merula, which isn't black+bird either).

The half-enculturated German child might see a blackbird and use the phrase "schwarz Vogel", but a slightly-more-enculturated German child would use the German word for blackbird, which is "Amsel".

Putting #1 aside, the limitations and variations in #2 and #3 can be explained by looking at the history of the communities using the term. But surely convention is an artefact of history, so a historical explanation would be closer to "conventionality" than "nature". The only non-conventional aspect I can see is the geographical distribution of Turdus merula (basically Europe, New Zealand and a bit of Eastern Australia).

Best wishes


On 02/08/17 22:47, David Kellogg wrote:
Dear Sasha:

Thanks for the reply. I took the time to read the English version of your
paper with great interest and large areas of agreement. But the areas of
disagreement, which I'll talk about in another post on "free will as
infinite selection", were actually the zones of greatest interest.

I think Vygotsky doesn't accept conventionality as a pervasive principle in
language, and neither do I. Take, for example, Vygotsky's example
"blackbird". We can say that the phonemes/graphemes (the  language-specific
sequence of vowels and consonants) is conventional; we know this because
other languages do it differently. But once we take the "salto mortale" of
accepting that "black" means the (original) color of ink and "bird" means a
winged animal descended from the dinosaurs, the pairing of "black" and
"bird" to describe the blackbird is natural and not conventional: it obeys
laws that are clear even to the half-enculturated child.

I think that is why Vygotsky can give many examples of "child made"
language ("mazoline", etc.) that are non-conventional and why he can link
these Mondegreens to actual etymological processes and actual words
("sidewalk"). Saussure's principle applies to language in only one place,
and it happens to be the only place in which Saussure was completely
competent as a linguist: sounding. Saussure's principle does not apply to
either wording or meaning: these are not purely conventional but natural.

I think Vygotsky did not accept Pavlov as a human psychologist, but only as
an animal behaviorist. Of course, he was deferential, just as you or I
would defer to Mike (who was once an animal behaviorist himself), and just
as Mike himself would defer to a Luria or a Bernstein. Mere bad manners
doesn't make you an original thinker. I will agree to call this deference
discretion: Vygotsky didn't like to pick fights and lose them.

I think that's why Vygotsky concentrates his fire on Watson, and Thorndike
and not Pavlov, why he points to Pavlov the animal behaviorist's insightful
remarks about the sign to shame his psychologist colleagues (this is
similar to what he does in shaming Piaget and Freud with the biologizing
Bleuler), and why he uses Pavlov's metaphor of a "telephone switchboard"
for his own purposes

I didn't just include the Chuck Berry song in memory of a great musician; I
think that the lyrics show us the very point you are making about the sign.
You are certainly right that by itself, treated as just another instrument,
the sign doesn't have the power to confer free will on the human marionette
that Watson, Thorndike--and Pavlov--imagine. If a human is a puppet on a
string, it doesn't help to put another puppet in control of the string and
then put the human in control of the other puppet.

But that's not what signs do. That's only what casting lots, tying knots,
and counting on your fingers APPEAR to do. When humans have do these
things, they try to go beyond the appearance. They imagine that casting
lots conveys messages from God, that knots tie themselves (as the Russian
formalists said), and that counting on fingers taps into some World Three
of eternal discoveries (Popper).

And when they have been giving these unlikely explanations for thousands of
years, some humans begin to notice that the voice of the gods sounds very
familiar, that the knot tying of one child is unlike that of another, and
that some cultures count toes and elbows. Dorothy looks under the curtain
and realizes that the Wizard of Oz is only a wizened old man, and it turns
out you don't need his help after all. Soon people are making decisions in
their own heads, remembering with imaginary knots, and memorizing Maxwell's

Of course, you and I get the joke. This is no more happening "inside the
head", with an "individual" memory, than it is happening in a lot, a knot,
or on your fingers. It's happening in a whole culture--many thousands of
years of thinking. But the thinking isn't "passed on" through language;it
is recreated and re-elaborated with every generation. The telephone
switchboard, like the conventional phoneme/grapheme, is useful at one point
and one point only: helping the caller get in touch with Marie. But the
actual communication between father and daughter is not conventional or
automatic at all. It's natural; i.e. it's hard work.

David Kellogg
Macquarie University

Ivan A. Uemlianin PhD
Speech Technology Research and Development


                        festina lente