Re: [xmca] Artifacts, Tools and Classroom

From: Steve Gabosch (
Date: Mon Jan 16 2006 - 22:51:01 PST

Mary may have a different interpretation of the diagram on page 54,
about what Vygotsky has to say about how signs and tools are related
to mediated activity. I am going to argue that my interpretation
holds true to what Vygotsky said and meant, but I am certainly
interested in being corrected if I am amiss.

The diagram on page 54, Figure 4, has "Mediated activity" in a box
with two lines pointing down, one to the word "Sign" in a box, and
the other to the word "Tool" in a box. Something like this:

Mediated activity
  | \
  | \
Sign Tool

Figure 4.

The question of interpretation of this diagram came up in this
discussion because the authors of the paper referred to this diagram
as a triangle, whereas I interpret Figure 4 as a depiction of logical
categories - that the "sign" and the "tool" are "types" of "mediated
activity". Mary appears to call my interpretation into question by
counterposing her quote from Vygotsky to my statement.

So let's take a closer look at what Vygotsky said.

Vygotsky explained his approach to studying the relationship of the
tool and sign, pg 54: "We seek to understand the behavioral role of
the sign in all its uniqueness. This goal has motivated our
empirical studies of how both tool and sign use are mutually linked
and yet separate in the child's development. We have adopted three
conditions as a starting point for this work. The first pertains to
the analogy and common points of the two types of activity, the
second clarifies their basic differences, and the third attempts to
demonstrate the real psychological link existing between the one and
the other, or at least hint at its existence."

My interpretation of Figure 4 is that it depicts Vygotsky's view of
the first condition (how tool and sign use are mutually linked), and
my interpretation of the quote Mary provides from a few paragraphs
later, is he is introducing his views on the second (clarification of
their basic differences). See if this interpretation makes sense as
we proceed on pg 54. Vygotsky elaborates on the first condition:

"As we have already noted, the basic analogy between sign and tool
rests on the mediating function that characterizes each of
them. They may, therefore, from the psychological perspective, be
subsumed under the same category. We can express the logical
relationship between the use of signs and of tools using the schema
in figure 4, which shows each concept subsumed under the more general
concept of indirect (mediated) activity."

LSV discusses relationships between tools, signs and mediated
activity for the next two paragraphs, then begins the paragraph Mary
quotes from pg 55 thusly:
"On the purely logical plane of the relation between the two
concepts, our schema represents the two means of adaptation as
diverging lines of mediated activity. This divergence is the basis
for our second point."

The quote Mary provides (see below) goes on to explain Vygotsky's
second point.

My interpretation of the essential concept Vygotsky is advancing is
as follows: while on the one hand, tools and signs can be logically
subsumed under the general concept mediated activity, and in this
respect, are similar, tools and signs are also very different,
especially in terms of the way they orient human behavior.

Vygotsky makes this point in a more general way on pg 52-53, which
Mary quotes in another post, but leaves out, or my e-mail program
eliminated, Vygotsky's emphasis on the word *many*:
"The sign acts as an instrument of psychological activity in a manner
analogous to the role of a tool in labor. But this analogy, like any
other, does not imply the identity of these similar concepts. We
should not expect to find *many* similarities with tools in those
means of adaptation we call signs. What's more, in addition to the
similar and common feature shared by the two kinds of activity, we
see very essential differences."

In other words, logically reversing the order of presentation,
Vygotsky is explaining that while there are many essential
differences between tools and signs, we should expect to find *some*
similarities. As I see it, Figure 4 depicts the most important
similarity that Vygotsky sees, that tool use and sign use are both
mediated activities. None of this emphasis on the common similarity
between signs and tools as types of mediation takes one iota away
from Vygotsky's major stress on the essential differences. Rather,
it enhances our understanding of the complex relationship between
tools and signs and deepens our comprehension of how they are both
somewhat similar (mutually linked) and also very different.

If my interpretation is amiss, I and perhaps others who lean in this
direction would appreciate the correction. But if my interpretation
is on the right track, then we can return to the statement the
authors make in their paper about Figure 4:
"There have been numerous attempts to provide diagrams of the
relation among mediating artifacts, tools, and signs. Vygotsky's
(1978, p. 54) representation is a triangle with a mediated activity
at the apex and sign and tool at the other two angles."

My objection to this passage, based on my interpretation of
Vygotsky's text, is that Vygotsky is not depicting a triangle in
terms of a triangular dynamic, but rather, is depicting a
hierarchical relationship of logical categories. To be sure, the
distinction is subtle. The reason I think this subtle distinction
has meaning in this discussion is because the authors Geraldine
McDonald et al have called the traditional view of CHAT on the
relationship between artifacts and tools directly into question in
their paper, claiming there is a "lack of agreement on their relation."

As I see it, and this is the point I was stressing in my post,
Vygotsky seemed to have a fairly clear idea of this relationship, and
there appears to have been general agreement with Vygotsky on this
among CHAT theorists.

But perhaps I am naive here, and am in need of some education. It is
possible that we are seeing the beginnings or perhaps extension of a
deeper, ongoing philosophical debate over the relationship of
artifacts, tools, and signs. If so, it would not be surprising that
conflicting interpretations of what Vygotsky actually said and meant
about artifacts, tools and signs would emerge. And if this is indeed
the case, all the more interesting to hear Mary, the authors of the
paper, and others explain their alternative interpretations of the
passages and the diagram about tools and signs in Mind and Society
and other writings.

- Steve

At 09:01 AM 1/16/2006 -0800, you wrote:
>On 1/15/06 1:20 AM, "Steve Gabosch" <> wrote:
> > The
> > point LSV is making is that in this respect,
> > tools and signs are similar and not
> > different.
>"A most essential difference between sign and tool, and the basis for the
>real divergence of the two lines, is the different ways that they orient
>human behavior. The tool's function is to serve as the conductor of human
>influence on the object of activity; it is externally oriented; it must lead
>to changes in objects. It is a means by which human external activity is
>aimed at mastering, and triumphing over, nature. The sign on the other hand
>changes nothing in the object of a psychological operation. It is a means of
>internal activity aimed at mastering oneself; the sign is internally
>oriented. These activities are so different from each other that the nature
>of the means they use cannot be the same in both cases."
>LSV, Mind in Society, P. 55
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