Re: [xmca] Vygotsky vs. Derrida

From: Wolff-Michael Roth (
Date: Sun Oct 22 2006 - 06:20:18 PDT

I don't think you are right. Derrida writes about the problem of
translating, including the translation of a language into itself,
which is as big a problem as translating into another language
If you want to know Derrida's view on the role of the body to
knowing, I would recommend "On touching--Jean-Luc Nancy";
If you want to know on Derrida's dialectical writing, read, for
example, his work on forgiveness. His point is that you can only
forgive the unforgivable; that which is forgivable doesn't requires
little to anything on the part of the forgiving person.

He is probably the most misunderstood philosopher, because
interpreted from non-dialectical scholars. When you say, that his
work is "pretty much straight Saussurean structuralism," you are
reducing the complex oeuvre of an interesting philosopher to nothing.
You don't capture his understanding of Hegel, Marx, Husserl,
Heidegger etc.

Just a few words from a person who has read a lot from this
philosophers and those who interacted with him, and from a person who
attempted to understand how this way of thinking fits with a cultural-
historical approach.

I actually showed in a paper that recently appeared in SEMIOTICA a
possible lineage from Marx; you replace the words "commodity" by
"sign" and all the examples Marx uses with examples from semiotics,
and you end up with phrases that Derrida could have written.....



On 21-Oct-06, at 11:33 PM, Kellogg wrote:

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

"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
xmca mailing list

xmca mailing list

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Wed Nov 01 2006 - 01:00:15 PST