RE: [xmca] New Valsiner SEmiots paper on MCA website at lchc

From: Michael Glassman (
Date: Fri Nov 24 2006 - 08:50:57 PST

I would like to suggest that around the time that Pierce was working there were two major philosophical positions that were struggling for dominance - idealism and realism. I idealism surrounding the idea that individuals in their thinking move towards an ideal understanding of things in the universe. Realism suggests that things exist as they do in the universe and then (possibly through experimentation with those things) we come to collect enough datum on those things in the world that we come to know what they really are (too much short hand? Lost meaning through gloss? Ah well, maybe the best I can do right now and others can add other things). Anyway, for Pierce the major enemy was idealism (and it was the major enemy of James as well) - the idea that we could know and set a trajectory towards an ideal form (interestingly this fits in with Paul Dillons comment I think, because at least some of this complete refutation of idealism is political - and based on the political troubles we are currently experiencing she never be very far from our thinking). So I think if you read the early Peirce you will be able to interpret him from a realist perspective, though I think even in his early writings you can make the argument that he was dissatisfied and was looking for something else.
I have read a couple of articles suggesting Peirce took a major turn in the 1890s, and though I would not consider myself as having an advanced understanding of him (he is so damned hard) I think I agree with this - and my agreement is based very much on historical circumstances. It is because it was during this period he and James and others (including a just emerging John Dewey) were developing some of the core ideas of Pragmatism. I think one of the ideas they were working with is that all of our understanding of the human condition should be based on human action, especially human adaptive action. Realism isn't really wrong as much as it is irrelevant, and can have some deleterious effects (one of the points I was trying to get to in my previous post about the dangers of knowledge inside the head) - because once you say that things exist separately in the universe you 1) create an automatic duality between human thought and those things in the universe and 2) set up a scenario where individuals can have greater understanding those things and therefore claim some priority in activity (also something we should always keep in mind). I believe in his later writings dealing with relational issues (the ones Tony points to) this is what he was trying to get at and didn't so much denounce realism as abandon it to its own irrelevance. Don't forget that it was Peirce that actually named Pragmatism (as if you couldn't tell from the name).
As far as experimentalism goes - I always find one of the most interesting discussions in my class starts by asking who they thing the Logical Positivists came to when they wanted to publish their first volume in the United States - it was John Dewey in case your wondering. That is because Dewey believed that human beings face problems, they adapt to those problems developing concrete solutions, and they develop those solutions through a five step experimental process which I think is one of the best explications of what the scientific method is supposed to be I have ever read (take a look at The Logic of Inquiry if you get a chance). But as opposed to the realists you did not experiment to know the properties of an object in the world, you experimented to find a solution to the problem, and whether your experiment worked was completely based on whether you could solved the problem. You do not take any proprietary information about objects away from the experiment even when you are successful. I know people are going to have trouble with this, because it is so different from the way many of us were taught. I guess Stephen Pepper gives the best example of this in the Contextualist section of Wolrd Hypotheses and his description of the person building the boat the cross the river. It is getting across the river and not the boat itself that is at the center of the experiment.
I hope this make things less, rather than more confusing.


From: on behalf of Kellogg
Sent: Thu 11/23/2006 6:39 PM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: Re: [xmca] New Valsiner SEmiots paper on MCA website at lchc

Dear Michael and eric:

I guess I really don't understand the distinction Michael is making between experimentalism and realism. I don't think I'm conflating them; I think I really don't know the difference.

What I meant to say was that Peirce distinguishes between "firstness", "secondness" and "thirdness", where the first is characteristic of iconic, direct, "thing in itself" meaning, the second is characteristic of indexical, indicative, "thing for others" meaning, and the third is characteristic of symbolic, socialized, "thing for itself" meaning.

What is "first" about firstness? Well, to me it is first because it lies closest to materiality, viz. material reality. I don't think this is an outrageous intepretation; Peirce knew his German philosophy and must have been as familiar with Feuerbach as with Hegel. So if Michael thinks that Peirce does not believe in the independent existence of real things, I'd really like to know why.

I see why Valsiner doesn't! I'm still scratching my head over that passage in "The Social Mind" where he says that the zone of proximal development can NEVER be operationalized or experimentally verified, because there is no way to know whether the child's solution of the problem actually incorporates of external assistance or constitutes an independent discovery (p. 379). To me this ineluctably suggests dualism--UNLESS you take the step of denying the primacy of external reality, in which case the distinction between interpersonal knowledge building and intrapersonal construction really is uninteresting. But in that case, whence (and whither) development?

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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