"nothing but a series of jerks" RE: 3rdness and mediation

From: Tony Whitson (twhitson@udel.edu)
Date: Sat Dec 25 2004 - 16:46:50 PST

-----Original Message-----
From: Mike Cole [mailto:lchcmike@gmail.com]
Sent: Thursday, December 23, 2004 5:42 PM
To: Xmca
Subject: 3rdness and mediation

Mike writes:
I take the last two statements of these Russian intiators of
cultural-historical psychology to imply that
1.the cultural habit of behavior (sign/tool mediated action) is not
reducible to its parts
2.is emergent
3.is a qualitatively new psychological process with new meanings,
affordances, etc.
[drawing, inter alia,
>From Jay (Dec. 17). I think we would say today in the language of complex
systems theory that 3rds are _emergent_, and so tool mediation means here
the sense in which subject-tool-object forms a dynamic whole, a new
emergent unity, the sense in which a tool allows subject and object to
become two parts or aspects or "moments" in a higher-order material system.
Indeed this is a possible reading of LSV's original triangle. But this
emergent new whole is not just a physical fusion (already implied by
mediation-as-secondness), but a system with emergent properties and new
meanings, new affordances, new possibilities for action

I see a number of exciting insights and possibilities being opened up by
this discussion.

Just for the sake of seeing how "Thirdness" may contribute to our
Does it help to think about the difference between "dynamics" and
"semiotics," where semiotics deals with triadic relationships that cannot be
reduced to "dynamics" [as in "The branch of mechanics that is concerned with
the effects of forces on the motion of a body or system of bodies ... The
forces and motions that characterize a system: The dynamics of ocean waves
are complex." (American Heritage Dictionary)]

Is it conceivable for a material system to be an irreducible emergent unity,
or a dynamic whole, constituted by combinations of dyadically dynamic
effects and interactions, rather than triadically mediating semiosic
relations? It seems to me that it is conceivable. Maybe not likely (since a
complex system comprised only of interdependent dyadic relationships would
be brittle and lacking in adaptability.) But the thought experiment is
useful, it seems to me, in forcing us to clarify the difference between
complexes of dynamic dyads versus semiosic triads that are irreducible to
complexes of dyads.

There's a long footnote in my chapter in the Situated Cognition book
(Kirshner & Whitson, 1997, fn. 3, pp. 103-104) where I use adaptive
heliotropism for an example of a plant species as an "intelligent system"
capable of triadic semiosis in Peirce's sense:
" ... The process does comprise a complex of ["dynamic" or] mechanical
(dyadically caused) events, but the process itself occurs and the outcome of
the complex of mechanical events is determined on the basis of a triadic
relation in which the leaves respond to light not as a simple cause or
stimulus, and not for the energy which that light made available for
photosynthesis, but as a representamen; that is, as something signifying the
energy available from the light to be absorbed later, after stems and leaves
have moved. This triadicity can be seen in the corrigibility of the process,
by which the response to light can be corrected, modified, or lost as the
species "learns" from its "experience" in responding to the source of
nonpresent (future) energy through the mediation of the present light.
In the present light of this discussion, we can consider how the "scientific
intelligence" of the botanists differs from that of the plants. ... The
botanists themselves are at least partially aware that they are interested
in these things as representations of things other than the signs
themselves, so the scientists (unlike the plants) are capable of
deliberately and consciously changing their representational and
interpretive practices to better serve their interests (including
scientific, as well as budgetary, career, ideological, or other interests).
Peirce would have accounted for this as an example of how triadicity is more
fully realized in the
semiosic activity of the botanists than in that of the plants. A false
hypothesis or less than satisfactory model or instrument can be corrected or
improved through critical symbolic reflection and does not depend on such a
crude corrective mechanism as survival of the fittest.
Although the plant species might also exhibit rudimentary triadic
intelligence, its triadicity is relatively "degenerate" ...
We see that Peirce's notion of scientific intelligence extends beyond the
traditional American psychologist's notion of intelligence in human
individuals. It would include the social intelligence involved in situated
cognition at the level of "interactions between people over the course of
a few minutes," as discussed by Clancey and Roschelle (1991, p. 4; Roschelle
& Clancey, 1992).
Beyond this, it includes various kinds of intelligence in broader social
processes. ....
[Toulmin's] evolutionary model might suggest how the intelligence of peer
review in determining survival of the fittest research programs more closely
parallels the intelligence of heliotropic plants than some philosophers of
science would like to think.
Beyond that, of course, .... we need to understand that presumably
scientific and cognitive activities at any level may be determined by the
interested generation of new realities, rather than by "cognitive" or
"scientific" interests per se.
End of Excerpts

In the example of heliotropism, the plant species has evolved a dynamic
mechanism for directing leaves toward the source of energy. Although the
mechanism operates dynamically at the level of the organism, it exists in
the species only by virtue of the survival value of its (triadically)
mediating function.

Compare this with an imaginary hypothetical example of, say, a
geothermically heated rock within an ecosystem where water falling on the
rock is heated and circulated as water vapor so that vegetation grows where
it would otherwise be too cold and dry. This may contribute to an
irreducibly complex dynamic material system, in which the hot rock mediates
to bring water, heat, and vegetation into fertile relationships that would
otherwise not exist. But, in my view, this would be an example of what Jay
refers to as "just a physical fusion (already implied by
mediation-as-secondness)." The rock's mediating function (unlike the
mediating function of the heliotropic mechanism in the plant species) is
accidental to what it is or where it is or how it affects the falling water.
There is mediation here, but it is merely secondness, merely a complex of
dyadically dynamic relationships.

In considering these issues, it occurred to me that Dewey's 1896 article on
"The reflex arc concept in psychology" is actually a superb source for
considering the difference between mediation as Thirdness vs. Secondness in
human thought and behavior. Dewey doesn't use Peirce's vocabulary here
(indeed, he writes explicitly about "Thirdness" only in two later articles,
in 1935 and 1946); but the conceptual distinctions are richly illustrated.
Today I've been taking extensive notes on relevant passages in Dewey's
article; but this post is already way too long, so I'll confine myself to
just one passage that might be of interest for how it locates these issues
in relation to concerns within the history of psychology:
Dewey writes (ew.5.99) that
"... the reflex arc idea leaves us with a disjointed psychology, whether
viewed from the standpoint of development in the individual or in the race,
or from that of the analysis of the mature consciousness. As to the former,
in its failure to see that the arc of which it talks is virtually a circuit,
a continual reconstitution, it breaks continuity and leaves us nothing but a
series of jerks, the origin of each jerk to be sought outside the process of
experience itself, in either an external pressure of "environment," or else
in an unaccountable spontaneous variation from within the "soul" or the
the footnote:
>3 It is not too much to say that the whole controversy in biology
regarding the source of variation, represented by Weismann and Spencer
respectively, arises from beginning with stimulus or response instead of
with the co-ordination with reference to which stimulus and response are
functional divisions of labor. The same may be said, on the psychological
side, of the controversy between the Wundtian "apperceptionists"

[Footnote Page Break ew.5.100]
and their opponents. Each has a disjectum membrum of the same organic whole,
whichever is selected being an arbitrary matter of personal taste.

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