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

From: david kellogg (
Date: Fri Oct 06 2006 - 00:41:54 PDT

Dear Mike:

I think, as you initially suspected, we are not so far apart after all. I agree that the term "development" refers to many things, and I certainly agree that LSV uses development in "zone of proximal development" to refer to something rather narrower than development transcendal or metaphysical, namely the specific link between microgenesis and ontogeny (which I will argue below is not, or not symmetrically, reciprocal).

I also agree that LSV must have had other mechanisms in mind for the other types of development he wanted to describe as part of the GUT (phylogenesis, socio-historical development). In particular, I think he had a pretty orthodox Darwinian view of evolution, which means that quite unlike ontogenesis the main mechanism was natural selection and extinction.

I think Vygotsky explicitly rules out "trial and error" (that is, the main principle of natural selection) as a developmental principle for ontogenesis; instead, he says, the driving principle is learning, and in fact imitation (Collected Works, Vol. 1: 210-211). It seems to me that this rules out the idea of a cross-species zone of proximal development, because he clearly says that apes are not capable of imitation, or model building and in situations where the means of problem solving is not in the visual sphere they rely not on imitation but on trial and error (Vol 1: 107).

It seems to me that the key to understanding both the extent and the limitation of the explanatory power of the zoped lies in Vygotsky's understanding that although school appears to almost everybody involved in it to be a negation of play, it is in fact the continuation of play by other means. Explicitly rule-based play (where roles are implicit) inverts and replaces play where the roles are explicit (and rules unstated). Vygotsky believes that school really is a continuation of rule-based play, developing decontextualization, abstract reasoning and self-control. The main difference, which for Vygotsky is important but ultimately not criterial, is that in the classroom the children imitate the teacher rather than the more successful peers who have mastered rule-based play that they once imitated on the playground.

This is why, I think, Vygotsky would have said that the existence of the zoped in anything but a socialist educational system contains an intractable contradiction. I'm currently working on so-called "task-based learning", and I'm really impressed at the extent to which, from a linguistic as well as a moral point of view, it often involves a REVERSION to explicit roles and an ABANDONMENT of the rule-based freedom which stems from the internal recognition of necessity.

Take for example the issue of what to call the teacher. This is an extremely fraught question in English education here in Korea. Native speakers would like to waltz into the classroom and announce: "David Kellogg is my name. You can call me Mr. Kellogg, or you can call me David, but you cannot call me Mr. David or simply Kellogg, because in English there is a fixed rule: never use a last name without a title and never use a first name with a title."

But of course there is no such rule at all: elementary school children DO say "Mr. David" even in the USA, and high school physical education teachers do say things like, "Come on, Kellogg! Twenty push-ups, on the double!". Besides, in Korea the last name comes first and the first name comes last. What would be sensible is to teach children to negotiate. You don't say "Mr. Kellogg" or "David", you simply say "What do I call you?" and then you do it.

It is this fundamental empathy, after all, which underlies the language instinct itself (and it is the lack of it rather than the lack of intelligence which prevents apes from developing discourse). But empathy is not the way education systems work; rules and roles are more like it. So instead, the children call the teacher, "Teacher", which is, of course, rather infantile in Western culture. But it is reducible to a fixed discourse role, and therefore it is considered more "teachable". (And it IS more teachable than the fixed rules cited above!)

Under our system there is an irreconcilable conflict (emotional and even intellectual) between self-regulation and other regulation. In this sense, the child at play is a harbinger of socialism; The child is both self-regulating and other-regulating, and there is no contradiction, because the rule that governs the child's play is the same that obtains for the other children at play (a situation manifestly not the case in our own society).

And even more obviously not the case in ape society! So despite our clear agreement on the use of "development" and the zoped as a specific link between microgenesis and ontogeny, I can't quite get my head around your idea of a trans-species zoped. My confusion is somewhat worsened, I'm afraid, by the formula that "cognition and culture construct each other".

In a very abstract sense, this may be true; by using the language, I am also constructing it, because even if I coin nothing new, my use of particular formulae when I write rather than others influences the overall frequency of certain formulations and in an infinitesemally small way influences other users that I come into contact with, and this may (or may not) have a ripple effect on the whole language system. But the relationship between my use of the language and the language's use of me is extremely asymmetrical. The language by and large takes no notice at all of me, while I must take notice of its rules of grammar and use at every single node of every sentence I write.

In the same way, it seems to me that cognition and culture construct each other, but by and large culture takes very little account of individual cognitions, and individual cognition must constantly bring adapt to culture. This is why, I think, you also say that the zoped is a device for cultural transmission (rather than saying it is a device for cognitive transmission to to culture). That is, unfortunately, true, but it contradicts the idea that culture and cognition are mutually constitutive (except, of course, in child's play).

I look forward to reading your chapter in Wertsch's book. At the risk of sounding terribly ignorant I must confess that the only Wertsch 1985 I have is "Vygotsky and the Social Formation of Mind". Which book do you mean?


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