[xmca] Vygotsky vs. Derrida

From: Kellogg (kellogg@snue.ac.kr)
Date: Sat Oct 21 2006 - 23:33:26 PDT

It seems to me that Ana is right. Derrida means different things by "language".

"We only ever speak one language" implies to me that when we learn other languages we simply relabel existing first-language concepts.

"We never speak only one language" implies to me that the language we speak is saturated with foreign language words already, as French is with Latin and English and other languages as well.

But there is a big difference here: in one case, "language" is mostly an intra-mental entity, while in the second itis chiefly inter-mental. In one case language is synchronic (the abstract system carried in the mind of every native speaker posited by Saussure), and in the other diachronic (the living, historical, evolving and above all concrete body of real utterances posited by Volosinov).

For Derrida, "difference" and not context is the source of meaning. There is actually nothing particularly liberating about this view; it is pretty much straight Saussurean structuralism: Because A gains its meaning by not being B, B's meaning is part of A's meaning.

It is "dialectical", but only in the sense that Bakhtin criticized; it lacks concrete dialogism, and in particular, it lacks the dialectical materialism of Vygotsky's view.

Whenever Vygotsky works with a difference-in-development, there is always one element which free, unbound, primary and ultimately determining, and another which is dependent, bound, secondary and ultimately derivative.

For example, "thinking with words" is in a sense more material than "thinking without words", and words ultimately derive their meanings from their relationships to material contexts.

The relationship may change, that is, the dependent may become independent and the secondary may become primary (as when thinking with words restructures our mathematical concepts, and is restructured again by the direct use of mathematical concepts without words). But Vygotsky is simply not interested in oppositions which cancel each other out.

For Vygotsky, Derrida's two meanings of the word "language" are (if you will pardon the redundancy) linked but distinct. So for example Vygotsky did believe that "relabelling" native language word meanings was the initial stage of foreign language learning.

But Vygotsky pointed out (and this is completely consistent with his remark about thinking without words being given by words themselves) that foreign language learning is a kind of thinking in scientific concepts (because foreign language word meanings are accessible only through language and are from the very outset decontextualized).

In this sense foreign language learning represents "the next step" AFTER scientific concepts, because while scientific concepts allow us to think in a decontextualized, hierarchical, and paradigmatic way about everyday experience, foreign language learning allows us to do that about language itself.

That is the inner meaning of Vygotsky's old anecdote, taken from Federenko, about the Russian soldier who knows lots of foreign language words for a "nozh" (that is, a knife), but who ends the long mulit-lingual list with the remark that Russian is best, because after all it's really just a nozh! The Russian soldier is only at the relabelling stage (similar to the Augustinian view of language criticized by Wittgenstein) and has not yet achieved a scientific view.

I think that Vygotsky believed that in the superiority of decontextualizable meanings and scientific concepts in exactly the same sense in which he believed (and we believe) that multilingualism is better than monolingualism. The ability to decontextualize meanings and manipulate them scientifically presupposes the ability to understand them in context, but not vice versa.

My friend's students see no point in learning English, since they believe that they will end up in factory or service jobs (if they are lucky). My friend's daughter would like to drop out of middle school, because she says, quite correctly, that the chances are she will end up in a dead-end anyway so she might as well save the years wasted on trying to get into a good university.

Statistically, their arguments are unanswerable. The chances are overwhelming that they are right, and that the years spent learning English and trying to go to college will simply be wasted years better spent experimenting with jobs and perfecting relationships.

Yet there is are two very important sense in which their arguments are wrong. First of all, decontextualized thinking allows volition and choice that is not available otherwise; it is possible for an intellectual to go bohemian and be a factory worker or a waitress, but the reverse is simply not realistic in a bourgeois society. Second, being an intellectual is really a lot of fun, even though we adults somehow manage to fail to convey that when we teach teenagers.

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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