Re: [xmca] Forgiveness as Recontextualization

From: David H Kirshner (
Date: Tue Oct 24 2006 - 06:15:14 PDT

Fascinating response, David.
The discussion of decontextualization reminds me of Carl Bereiter's chapter
in my and Tony Whitson's edited situated cognition volume of 1997. Carl
addresses his chapter to Jim Greeno who coined the term "situativity
theory" as an alternative to "situated cognition theory" because the latter
term implies cognition might sometimes be non-situated. Carl's
argument--poignantly expressed, and well worth reading--is that humans (as
situated living beings) can, nonetheless, emulate non-situated machine
intelligence, as we do, for instance, when we apply logical rules in
reasoning. He maintains it is precisely this kind of cognitive process that
enables us to overcome the problem of transfer associated with situated
cognition theory--if all knowledge is indexed to the environment, how is
transfer of knowledge to another environment possible (Carl, please chime
in if I'm misrepresenting your position). Interestingly, Carl concedes in
his framing of the problem that animal cognition is situated, so your
wonderful analysis of the lioness brings out tensions between "mediated"
and "situated" (or "contextualized") that we've not yet addressed in this
David Kirshner
PS. David, it was really nice to meet you in Seoul week before last. Thanks
for coming to my talk.

                      <kellogg who-is-at To: <>, "eXtended Mind,
                      kr> Culture,Activity" <>
                      Sent by: cc: (bcc: David H Kirshner/dkirsh/LSU)
                      xmca-bounces who-is-at webe Subject: [xmca] Forgiveness as Recontextualization
                      10/24/2006 12:41
                      Please respond to
                      "eXtended Mind,


I was a little shocked by your sudden statement that NO psychological
process can be decontextualized, and I'm still not quite sure what to make
of it. To me, recontextualization presupposes some form of
decontextualization. So does internalization, actually.

I think that when Wertsch talks about the decontextualization of the
mediational means, he is implicitly setting up a kind of logical route for
interiorization to happen: first, other people are mediators, and because
other people have their own free volitional will, this form of mediation is
not readily recontextualizeable. Then, tools. These can be subordindated to
the will, but they cannot be taken out of the physical environment in which
they are used without losing their status as tools. Finally, signs. these
are both subordinated to the will and fully recontextualizeable. That's how
I've always understood Wertsch. Was I wrong? Was he?

One way to test this is to consider "forgiveness" as one of many higher
(that is, mediated) emotions, by analogy with higher (mediated)
intellectual processes. I'm afraid this throws me back to an older XMCA
discussion (now several years old, I think): Vygotsky's late manuscript
"The Teaching Concerning the Emotions".

Suppose LSV was really laying the groundwork for an essay more or less
parallel to his work on the higher mental functions. He spends all that
time discussing the already widely discredited James-Lange theory of the
emotions because he fully intends to use it as a foil to discuss UNmediated
emotions. While it is not true that "we feel sad because we cry", it might
well be true that we feel unmediated emotions because we are responding
cognitively to physical reflexes. So it might well be true we feel fear
because we react to violence, and similarly that we feel rage because we
are responding to a physical injury.

LSV's next step is to bring in Spinoza. I haven't quite worked out what
exactly he was planning on doing here, but working by analogy with "The
Development of the Higher Psychological Functions", he might be trying to
show us what happens if we take a purely mentalist, unmediated view of
human emotions. The result gives us a clear understanding of what higher
emotions might look like, but no clear path to get there. It's not

So his third step would be an attempt at synthesis. In some ways, I feel
"Psychology of Art" is already a step in this direction (though it clearly
comes from the other end of his life and would have to be reworked to fit).
That is, Vygotsky sees artworks as tools for the mediation of lower level
emotional responses into higher, mediated ones.

But there are, of course, other forms of mediation available. In the case
of the Amish, the mediators are clearly other people, and this form of
mediation is not readily decontextualizeable for the non-Amish. Clearly,
only signs are both fully capable of decontextualization and internal
recontextualization. No wonder he was obsessed with Hamlet--in a very
strange way, it is a play about forgiveness (both doing it and what happens
when it is not done).

Last night while I was cooking dinner the Korean version of the National
Geographic Channel rebroadcast a special on a pride of lions that has been
evolving in a swamp habitat. It's a difficult environment, and the pride
nearly goes extinct, particularly since someone is apparently killing most
of the newborn cubs.

Whenever the females go out to hunt, they return to find one or more of
their cubs killed (and they often eat the remains). One of the young
females goes off and gives birth. When she returns, her own mother is a
little TOO pleased to see her with the cubs--she realizes that her OWN
mother is the cub killer, and they fight. The cub-devouring grandmother is
defeated, but not killed; there is no question here of forgiveness, a
simple calculation of strength as is normal in lion-fights.

The lions are very clearly thinking (about who is the cub killer, and about
what can be done about it). But they are also very clearly not thinking
human thoughts (they "forgive" the unforgiveable simply by forgetting it
and eating the remains of their own children).

They are essentially obeying the James-Lange theory of the emotions,
feeling their physical responses, unable to recontextualize them as
volitional memory. Despite the stultifying anthropomorphism of the
voice-over, not even the National Geographic narrator can transform this
"Lion King" story into Hamlet.

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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