Re: [xmca] Leont'ev responds (in abstentia) to theSocio-CulturalTheory Interest Group Seminar Series

From: david kellogg (
Date: Tue Oct 03 2006 - 17:38:04 PDT

It's the Autumn Harvest Festival here in Korea (no classes for a week, and nationwide traffic jams as everybody in Korea visits family tombs unto four generations). So I've got time to think about this stuff.

Actually, the project I set myself for this holiday was to figure out where I stood on "emergence". In particular, I need to decide if complexity theory and self-organization really does apply to language learning, or if it is merely an anti-sociocultural, cognitivist distraction. (I am tending towards the latter conclusion, but that is only because I need to be convinced of the former.)

Somehow I think that Mike's remarks are directly relevant to this problem, both because he describes ontogeny as "emergence" and because he appears to be putting forward a quite trans-historical (almost transcendental) concept of development (a concept that is broad enough to include phylogeny AND socio-cultural history AND ontogeny AND microgenesis).

Chaos/complexity explanations are similarly transcendental. They don't even distinguish (as Halliday does) between information and matter; both are self-organizing in the same way. That seems not merely transcendental but metaphysical to me.

Mike has the advantage of Russian. Unlike me he is in a position to say whether the word that Vygotsky used for "development" can be used in this transcendental way, to describe EVERYTHING that in the Grand Unified Theory that Vygotsky (and Darwin and Marx) was developing (Wells, 1999: 55). He is also probably better positioned than any person still alive to say what was and what was not in Vygotsky's GUT (if you will pardon the expression).

But I wasn't focusing on either the GUT or on the word "development" in isolation; I really meant the word "development" in the context of the zone of proximal development. One of the great things about the Chaiklin article that everybody was praising a while ago is the neat table (2003: 44-45) which includes virtually every mention that Vygotsky ever made of the ZPD.

All of them appear to me to have one thing in common. They are all about the link between microgenesis and ontogenesis; they are all about how learning leads (child) development.

I agree with Mike that Vygotsky might have had other plans for the zone of proximal development. In particular I think he probably saw child emotional development as explicable through mediated and ultimately volitional control of the lower emotions and even child physical development as explicable through mediated and ultimately volitional control of diet and exercise.

But I don't think he would have extended the ZPD to phylogenesis or to sociocultural history, and I even doubt if the zone of proximal development can be applied, as is, to adult learning (as is so widely done these days).

First of all, Vygotsky explicitly rejects Haeckl and the idea that ontogeny is a mere recapitulation of phylogeny (Collected Works, Vol. 4: 21). He also rejects descriptions of child play that are based on Haeckl, e.g. Hall (Vol. 3: 269). He admits that there are "resemblances" between phylogenesis and sociocultural history, and also between history and child development, but he denies that they are parallels.

He argues that since the OUTPUT of one process is the INPUT of the other, they cannot be the same. And it seems to me that to say that they are the same is to say that a) the starting point of the process is of no importance, and b) the emerging system as a whole has no way to store knowledge.

Secondly, we often find that in Vygotsky's scheme of things "the first shall be last; and the last shall be first". For example, Vygotsky points out that in evolution sexuality is early developing and consciousness appears more or less at the end, while in ontogeny it's the other way around. He also points out that children master tools and even signs before they have fully mastered their own bodies (vol. 3: 21).

So if we say that the zone of proximal development is responsible for the descent of man from apes, we must probably accept that the zone of proximal development can work backwards (e.g. relationships within the mind exist before relations between minds, and bodily mastery must exist before the grasping of tools).

Of course may be quite true of evolution, but is it true of the zone of proximal development? If so, aren't we in danger of dissolving the zone of proximal development into a general, transcendental, and even metaphysical concept of development?

(NOT a rhetorical question, Mike! It seems to me that this way lies a zone of proximal development that really IS consistent with complexity and chaos theory, in which volition is not important and time really can run backwards. Not sure I want to go that way...)

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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