RE: [xmca] Re: the Strange Situation - process and the 'non-staticness' of concepts

From: Paula Towsey <paulat who-is-at>
Date: Sun Oct 26 2008 - 02:20:05 PDT

Dear David

How lovely to log on again after a few days away and find your posting to
me: inspiring, once again - thank you muchly, David.

Your analysis using a schematic of Hegel's "Logic" (neither of which I have
read) for ways of viewing syncretic through complexive to conceptual
representation has a dimension that I hadn't considered before but which
challenges me; adds greatly to my fascination with things concerning thought
and development; and has the space to bring together a number of factors
from the processes of Chapter Five and the big wide world out there.

I hope I'm not conflating issues here and that you'll give me a hand on
this, but I've put (quite) a few lines of thought in response your posting
in this email. I really do feel that I'm not doing justice to your
elegantly sensitive analysis, but I will try(!).

Firstly - and this may be glaringly obvious to my more well-read and
experienced peers - these matters of Chapter Five have always been for me
about two main things: process and the 'non-staticness' of concepts. I deal
with this in the cut & pasted piece below.

But before the cut & paste: David, I am very much persuaded by your
conclusion in this posting concerning necessity, causality, and scientific
thought. This has given me much food for thought and answers a question I
have long held with Vygotskian psychology concerning an explanation for the
origin and mechanism of scientific thinking: the ingredients you write about
are all dependent on social interaction and not (only) egocentric
reflections. Your analysis with its implicit treatment of the social
environment in which arbitrary selection ultimately gives way to the logic
of exploring our responses to objects for themselves, for others, and for
ourselves - with others - is very compelling. The constructivist angle to
this, I mean (constructivist but not consensual).

So thank you so much for this, David. I've included a cut & paste to show
you how I constructed my understanding of Vygotsky on 'concepts' and
'concept formation', which for me holds the theoretical framework for the
creatures (and their strange logic) of Chapter Five. It is quite wordy and
quoty but traces my unravelling of his argument to create my own
understanding of it. (It is a rather long piece - I apologise, but bear
with me, even if you just skim through it?)

Vygotsky on concepts and concept formation
In arguing for a movement away from “the usual error relative to the break
between form and content” in the study of conceptual development; from the
“dry, empty, gray abstraction” that “inevitably strives to reduce content to
zero”, Vygotsky (1998) argues for a view of a concept as follows:

"A real concept is an image of an objective thing in its complexity. Only
when we recognize the thing in all its connections and relations, only when
this diversity is synthesized in a word, in an integral image through a
multitude of determinations, do we develop a concept." (1998, p. 53)

Further, he writes that, at the time, psychology began to understand a
concept “not as a thing, but as a process, not as an empty abstraction, but
as a thorough and penetrating reflection of an object of reality in all its
complexity and diversity, in connections and relations to all the rest of
reality” (1998, p. 55). The psychological processes involved – reflecting
on the nature of things and their diversity; applying rational
representations to and about things; and making connections and establishing
relationships between things – “turns out to be a long activity that
includes in itself a series of acts of thinking” (1998, p. 56).

The structure of a concept, Vygotsky writes, is revealed within an
arrangement of judgments and interrelated cognitive actions that come
together as a whole, and which has its own set of principles. It is by
viewing a concept in this way that “we find the main idea on the unity of
form and content as the basis of the concept realized” (1998, p. 56).

Vygotsky goes on to make the point that when taken together, the judgments
involved in forming a concept are in themselves a form of content which
order and connect both the content and the form of the cognitive vehicle.
This ‘totality’ “acting as a single whole, is constructed as a special
intellectual mechanism, as a special psychological structure, and is made up
of a system or of a complex of judgments” (1998, p. 57). In this way, the
combinations of cognitive actions which act in concert become a specific
form of cognitive behaviour, an intellectual mode of behaviour. This mode
of behaviour is evident in the changes in both content and form in the
development of cognition in adolescents. Vygotsky’s eloquent analysis of
form and content concludes that:

"We can assert that all changes in the content, as we have pointed out
repeatedly, necessarily also presuppose a change in the form of thinking.
Here we come as close as possible to the general psychological law which
states that a new content does not mechanically fill an empty form, but
content and form are factors in a single process of intellectual
development. It is impossible to pour new wine into old skins.
This applies completely also to thinking during the transitional age."
(Vygotsky, 1998, p. 57)

This discourse conveys very clearly that a concept cannot be divorced from
its content or its form or from the processes that are involved within,
through, and because of it. In the same way as other forms of ‘higher’
intellectual activity develop, Vygotsky is adamant that the process of
concept formation is not merely a ‘quantitative overgrowth’ of less
sophisticated actions because it is a qualitatively new type of behaviour:
“Unlike the lower forms, which are characterized by the immediacy of
intellectual processes, this new activity is mediated by signs [emphasis in
original]” (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 109). The second point of the summary of
Vygotsky’s presentation to the First Congress on the Study of Human
Behaviour in Leningrad in January 1930 illustrates this central position as

"Experimental research into concept formation processes has shown that the
functional use of a word or another sign, as a tool for actively directing
attention to specific characteristics, separating and isolating them, and
then abstracting and synthesising these characteristics, is a fundamental
and essential part of the entire process; the formation of a concept (or the
acquisition of meaning through a word) is the result of a complex activity
(an operation using a word or a sign) in which all the fundamental
intellectual functions are involved in a specific combination." (Zalkind,
1930, pp. 70-71 / Inggs & Van der Veer, 2006)

“The development of the processes that eventually result in concept
formation”, writes Vygotsky, “begins in earliest childhood, but the
intellectual functions that in a specific combination form the psychological
basis of the process of concept formation ripen, take shape, and develop
only at puberty” (1986, p. 106). Throughout childhood, however, several
kinds of precognitive structures function similarly to the way in which true
concepts function, and it is this ‘functional similarity’ in the thinking
processes and the use of words by children that is crucial. Compare the
(1930) quotation above with the one below:

"Our experimental study proved that it is a functional use of the word, or
any other sign, as a means of focusing one’s attention, selecting
distinctive features and analyzing and synthesizing them, that plays a
central role in concept formation.
Concept formation is the result of such a complex activity, in which all
basic intellectual functions take part." (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 106)

The developmental – or genetic – aspects of thinking that result in the
ability to generalise and to abstract and to synthesise these two should not
be overlooked because they are crucial in this ‘complex activity’. (To
avoid confusion, please note that Vygotsky’s use of ‘complex’ above refers
to ‘intricate’ and is not the same as the “thinking in complexes” of
children.) Children’s manner of “thinking in complexes” serves to put
together, to unite, discrete elements, which creates the basis for later
generalisations. However, advanced concepts depend on the ability to do
more than put things together or unify them: advanced concepts also depend
on abstraction, on the ability to isolate elements and to look at them as
separate from the whole or total concrete experiences in which they are
rooted. “In genuine concept formation, it is equally important to unite and
to separate: Synthesis and analysis presuppose each other as inhalation
presupposes exhalation (Goethe)” (Vygotsky, 1986, pp. 135-136). In the
development of children’s thinking, thinking in complexes is the early form
of generalisation, and the use of potential concepts is the early form of
abstraction. When children are able to hold together these two elements and
not lose sight of them, when they are able to synthesise them in a way where
the one does not destroy the other, then a fully mature concept will emerge,

"only when the abstracted traits are synthesized anew and the resulting
abstract synthesis becomes the main instrument of thought. The decisive
role in this process, as our experiments have shown, is played by the word,
deliberately used to direct all the subprocesses of advanced concept
formation." (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 139)

Vygotsky goes on to discuss a further difficulty which is to be found in the
cognitive movement from the abstract to the concrete and back again. In
adolescents, for example, applying a newly learnt concept to a new and
different situation relies on the ability to move from the abstract back to
the concrete. This transition (usually only mastered towards the end of
adolescence, according to Vygotsky) “from the abstract to the concrete
proves just as arduous for the youth as the earlier transition from the
concrete to the abstract” (1986, p. 142).

Vygotsky argues that this process does not take place according to the
schema of formal logic, nor to the superimposition and intensification of
some characteristics and the blurring of others as in ‘Galston’s composite
photographs’ in which is it assumed that “the sum of these traits is the
concept”: the reality, he argues, from the observation of other
psychologists (long ago) and from his own experimental study, is different:

"When the process of concept formation is seen in all its complexity, it
appears as a movement of thought within the pyramid of concepts, constantly
alternating between two directions: from the particular to the general, and
from the general to the particular (Peter Vogel) [emphasis in original]."
(Vygotsky, 1986, pp.142-143.)

(Refs are Kozulin's 1986 translation of T&L/T&S and Vygotsky, L., (1998). In
Rieber, R., (Ed.), (1998), The collected works of L.S. Vygotsky: Volume 5 –
Child Psychology, New York: Plenum Press.)

David, I'm going to be more out of touch again over the next several weeks
(on a great commercial assignment) so I will respond when I can. Otherwise,
perhaps we can continue this discussion direct - wot think you?

Best regards


-----Original Message-----
From: [] On
Behalf Of David Kellogg
Sent: 25 October 2008 04:05 AM
To: xmca
Subject: Re: [xmca] Re: the Strange Situation

Dear Paula:
(For whatever reason, I'm afraid the label's sticking. "The Strange
Situation" is, like a working class hero, something to be. Meaning,
something that is to become.)
I'm going to try to use Hegel's "Logic" to make sense of the categories we
find in your DVD and also in Chapter Five. But I've tried to read the Logic
several times myself and failed each time.
So I'm not actually going to use the "Logic" directly, but instead take a
very schematic understanding of it from an article on the logic of 19th
century realist novels. (Brown, M. [1981] "The Logic of Realism: A Hegelian
Approach", PMLA 96/2, 224-241). This puts me in good company; Andy says that
LSV mostly gets his Hegel from other sources too (probably the Philosophical
Notebooks of Lenin).
Early on in Thinking and Speech, LSV pours scorn on Piaget's declaration of
independence from philosophy and says "the lack of a philosophy is itself a
very definite philosophy". But Piaget's non-philosophical philosophy is not
simply raw empiricism; it's a form of neo-Kantianism.
That's why LSV is careful to highlight wherever Piaget talks about
"schemata", Kantian reflections of unknowable "things in themselves". It's
also why he uses the image of social thinking simply "squeezing out" the
egocentric thinking of the child; LSV is rejecting the neo-Kantian idea that
there are separate faculties of reason and judgement. 
So what's the alternative to Kantian reflections of things in themselves?
Hegel gives us three distinct stages in the unfolding of an idea: "for
itself", "for others", and "for oneself". But in some ways the ways in which
these stages are linked are more important than the way they are distinct.
First of all, there is "contingency", which he subtitles: "formal reality,
possibility, necessity". Now, in this stage stuff has no "necessary"
existence; it just appears as random things, or heaps. That's why Hegel says
it has the "form" of reality, rather than its truth.
But even here, as Hegel says, "everything is through its other what it is
itself". There is a contrast between the object and the environment, and
that contrast is something made by the child as the child takes objects and
puts them into heaps. The criterion of selection is a non-criterion; the
child selects "for (the object) itself".
Now suppose the child takes this same logic, the logic of the heap, and
applies it to the individual object. By this logic, the object appears as a
"heap" of traits, facets, or aspects, each one utterly unconnected with the
others. An object is a random heap of qualities.
But the independence of one quality from another is actually a kind of
relationship, although a negative one. If a block is part of this heap, then
it is not part of that one.  and if an object is yellow, then it is
not blue. The point is that reality is something that is directed outwards;
the reality of a heap is directed towards other heaps, the reality of an
object is something directed towards other objects, and the reality of a
facet is directed towards other facets.
Because the reality of a facet is directed towards other facets, it can be
contrasted, and even chained, according to likeness, or according to partial
similarity, or according to cause and effect. That's what creates the
various types of complexes, including the chain complex.
Of course, identifying relationships (resemblance, causality,
complementarity, even adversativity) is also a way of isolating them. And
isolating relationships always involves not only an element of relativeness
but even an element of arbitrariness. We see a lot of this in our data.
But we also see that as the relationships are isolated, the arbitrary
elements and irrelevant decisions are gradually eliminated. Hegel says that
in the third stage of the unfolding of the idea, all the randomness is
absorbed and objects are now fully determinate.
LSV takes Piaget to task for not considering causality to be objective; for
asserting that the causality of science is as egocentric and relative as
that of the child. For LSV, this is really a type of complexive thinking.
Thinking of "real reality", that is, the reality of groups and chains, and
complexes, is not the final stage any more than thinking of heaps was.
Scientific causality is, for LSV, a higher form of causality; it corresponds
to absolute necessity, where there is no longer heterogeneity or randomness
in the relation or in the object. I think this is where he sees
concepts--true concepts--coming into existence.
David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

xmca mailing list

xmca mailing list
Received on Sun Oct 26 02:25:00 2008

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Fri Sep 18 2009 - 07:30:00 PDT