Re: [xmca] Does Vygotsky Accept the "Assistance Assumption"?

From: Kellogg (
Date: Tue Nov 28 2006 - 15:19:55 PST

First of all, I'd better fess up. I'm the one who put "mysterious" in the third assumption. As Mike says, it really is pouring gas on the kerosene.

But this naughty bit of incendiarism was well meant. From previous experience (when I suggested that the ZPD could not be applied to adult learners) I knew that all three assumptions would attract wide support; all three, but especially the third, really DO represent what Lantolf and Thorne mean when they use the ZPD. And like Mike (and like Seth Chaiklin), I think all three are revisionist distortions of what Vygotsky meant. So I was hoping to make that third assumption a little discussion-worthy.

And sure enough I think that the third "potential" assumption is what really gave rise to the offshoot that Andy and Michael (Glassmann) are pursuing (see "Empirical Evidence for the ZPD?"). It's not just that "empirical" (that is, evidence-based) is being confused with "empiricist" (that is, anti-theoretical).

If we see the speaking subject and object as completely separate and not linkable then it's hard to see how we can do without the idea of "potential" (in the sense of a pre-existing "road not taken" which is then taken). As soon as we say the subject and object are separate, then we must plant little embryonic seeds of the subject in the object, or we cannot explain how the one becomes the other.

(Dear Carol--Yes, I was struck by the "buds and flowers" quote too. Like you, I highlighted it. But perhaps unlike you, I wrote something very disgruntled in the margin, because LSV, elsewhere, is very explicit and consistent about rejecting all biological metaphors, and this is a particularly bad one.)

If we see speaking subject and object as identical, then (to return to Valsiner's paper), whither (and whence) development? How can anyone learn to say anything that they don't already know? This position looks as hopeless as ever to me, and I'm afraid I would have to qualify all the patient attempts of Tony and others to get it through my thick skull as "mysterious".

But if we see subject and object as "linked but distinct" (I'm going to have start wearing a sign with this emblazoned on the front and "Beware: Marxist Curmudgeon!" on the back) then there really is no need to attributed a mysterious "potential" in the individual that "blossoms" in response to the presence of a ZPD, and the ability of children to develop their own voices out of the voices that they hear is in principle no more mysterious than cell division or sexual reproduction.

Let me give you some empirical (but not empiricist) data. This is from a Korean fourth grader who is keeping a kind of dialogue journal with two other fourth graders, in English.She is complaining because, like many Korean fourth graders, she has to attend cram school in English outside regular school hours.

May 17th Monday Title: play
I want play alway...
Because I don't hav play time.
Why I don't have play time?
Because School is over 3'oclock and I go to school (that is, cram school--dk) and over is half past six.
therefore I don't have play time.
But I'm not exasperating.
Why? beccause that time I study.
Then I increase ability.
I play on Saturday.

Now, if you read this over aloud, you will probably intone the "Why?" questions with a rhetorical "UP" intonation. "WHY don't I have play time? I'll tell you why! It's because I have to go to bloody cram school, that's why!"

Now, WHY "why?" That is, why should these questions go up? Normally in English wh-questions go DOWN--unless we are asking for someone to repeat the question, e.g.

When did you say you were born?
Where did you say you were born?
Why did you say you were born?

But these questions definitely go up. Now why should that be the case? I think it is the case because this bit of dialogue journal really is what Volosinov calls vitiated dialogue. What is happening is that the child is moving the (imagined) response to the front of what she is saying.

Something like this:

(What do you want?)
I want play alway...
(Why do you always want that?)
Because I don't have play time.
(And why should that be?)
Why I don't have play time?


But I'm not exasperating.
(Why not?)
Why? Because that time I study.

So what we have here is not an abstract, purely theoretical "unity between speaking subject and object" but a concrete link which remains disinct, even intonationally.

Bakhtin was given to calling this kind of "linked but distinct" relationship between the speaking subject and the intended object "dialogic" in contra-distinction to "dialectical" (and Gordon Wells follows suit in "Dialogic Inquiry"). But "dialectical" is good enough for Volosinov. And me.

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education


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