Re: [xmca] Self-Introduction and comment on Sawchuk/Stetsenko

From: Steve Gabosch <stevegabosch who-is-at>
Date: Wed Dec 17 2008 - 00:02:18 PST

Derek, thank you for your very thoughtful response, which I am
responding to belatedly. I read the rather unworthy review by
Professor Adams of your book that you posted on your site, and your
detailed and admirably patient response to it, which I thought was
very effective. I also took a peek at some of your other writings.

We have something in common - you were a furniture maker for 30 years,
I was a machinist for 28, you went back to school and got a PhD in a
subject you find very stimulating, philosophy of mind. I am looking
into possibilities of doing that, too.

I can see I was off by a mile thinking along the lines that
behaviorism was specifically influencing your work and your accounting
of what consciousness is. I actually see a lot of different
influences on your thinking, and appreciate the range of readings and
studies you bring to the table - and the many creative ideas you have

I personally come from what I call the classical Marxist tradition.
One of the things I deeply appreciate about xmca and the general CHAT
community is the wide range of perspectives and research experiences
it brings together. Xmca acts for me very much like a school - except
I don't have to sit on ancient hard stone benches or worry about
flunking out! :-))

I especially appreciate how you are centering your research and
theorizing around concepts related to action. Your theory of
concerted action in particular brings forward some interesting
empirical work that I think is quite relevant to CHAT. I hope you
stick around xmca, where action and activity get discussed just about
every which way.

I found the paragraph below about concerted action, copied from your
site, to be a very nice example of the kind of thought-provoking ideas
and research that I know I for one appreciate learning about.

from: Verbal Communication: from pedagogy to make-believe
(Pre-publication draft of paper forthcoming in the journal,Language

"Performing an action in concert with someone else is something that
normal human infants begin doing (or participating in) at about two
months. Infants are born with impressive imitative abilities, based on
the mirror neuron systems in pre-frontal cortex (Meltzoff and Moore
1983, Meltzoff 1996, Rizzolatti and Arbib 1998, Arbib 2002, Brεten
2007). However, neonatal imitation extends only to simple body
movements such as arm waving and facial expressions, and has a
slightly robotic appearance. It takes six to eight weeks, and
persistent loving encouragement by the caregiver, for the infant to
demonstrate awareness, in imitation sessions, that he and the
caregiver are performing the action in question ‘together’. That is,
it takes this amount of time for the infant to be able to reliably
join in the success display in addition to imitating the action (Stern
1985, pp.37, 100-102; Trevarthen 1979, p. 347). The mutual success
display is important. Before he can properly be said to be doing X
with the caregiver, the infant needs to know that he’s got it right.
The achievement of this more subtle and extensive togetherness
(including both the action and the success display) generates
tremendous pleasure and excitement in infants. Caregivers get
considerable pleasure from it too. Successful imitation is satisfying
to the infant from the beginning but mutually acknowledged successful
imitation is much more so. Human brains have evolved to be expectant
of, and to thrive on, the particular excitement that acting in concert
brings. It is the motivation for culture, and for learning, and
teaching. Researchers attest to the enthusiasm with which infants
embrace acting in concert once they master it. Caregiver and infant
soon develop their own culture of recreational concertings."

- Steve

On Dec 10, 2008, at 8:26 PM, Derek Melser wrote:

> [XMCA] Steve, Andy,
> Thanks for your responses. I will respond to the questions (some of
> them) in
> reverse order.
> I have not related the mirror neurons findings to Vygotsky's work on
> imitation, mainly because of the amount of interesting new research
> being
> done in this field. For me the most exciting finding is that of Nagy
> and
> Molnar (2004):
> *
> <
> >
> *
> N&M demonstrate that infants can, within hours (even minutes) of
> birth, not
> only imitate simple actions (including facial expressions) as
> famously shown
> by Meltzoff and Moore 1981, but also perform actions in such a way
> as to
> actively solicit imitation of them by the observer. This shows, I
> think,
> that the foundational social ability is not just imitation, but
> something
> much more like my *concerted* activity. Newborns want to be imitated
> as much
> as they want to imitate; they want to perform actions together with
> others.
> Steve, you say that "The classic behaviorist position [is] that
> there is
> really no such thing as consciousness at all" and you suspect this
> may be my
> view. My view is that consciousness – being conscious or self-aware
> in the
> act of doing something (including being self-aware in the act of
> perceiving
> something) – and thinking are very real indeed. But I say that
> consciousness
> and thinking are actions, actions that children have to learn how to
> perform. Consciousness and thinking are species of activity –
> basically, as
> Vygotsky says, species of concerted activity that the child learns to
> perform, in abbreviated or 'token' form, on his or her own.
> I also heed Wittgenstein's warnings about the power of everyday
> figurative
> expressions (and especially nominalised verbs used in conjunction with
> metaphor) to mislead. The use of 'mind' and 'subjectivity' as nouns
> implies
> that there are entities existing apart from, and over and above, these
> actions (such as being conscious of things, thinking, imagining,
> etc.) that
> we perform, and are aware of performing, and see others performing,
> in the
> everyday world. The use of these terms as nouns also – due to their
> inveterate association with metaphors of internality or inner-ness –
> implies
> that there is something essentially private about consciousness and
> thinking. Certainly, someone's being conscious of something or their
> thinking about something may be private in the sense that you can't
> see them
> doing it. But that is just the way with these 'abbreviated' or
> 'token' or
> 'minimally rehearsed' actions. Basically, consciousness and thinking
> remain
> public – in the sense that anyone, given similar circumstances,
> would be
> conscious of that little piece of bird shit on the windscreen.
> Anyone, in
> those circumstances, would become conscious that they are walking a
> little
> faster than necessary. Any uniqueness in 'individual consciousness'
> reflects
> neither more nor less than uniqueness of the person's circumstances
> at the
> time. If this is behaviourism (I think it's miles different) then it
> isn't
> classic behaviourism, surely.
> When you say, Steve, that CHAT needs to "sufficiently account for the
> productive role of individual subjectivity in the activity cycle",
> are you
> suggesting there is a need to account for the contributions that
> individuals' thinking can make to discussions prior to collective
> action? If
> so, and disregarding the fact that discussions are, ideally,
> *constituted*by thought-out individual contributions, I agree. With
> knobs on. For me, the
> role of individuals' thinking is hugely important in cultural
> activity in
> practically all areas.
> I confess to being almost completely ignorant of sociology – though
> I have
> been delighted by long passages in Durkheim – so my contribution
> will be
> vanishingly small here. I would say though, that my concerted activity
> theory could provide a philosophical foundation for sociology. Given
> that
> people have a native ability to act in concert (which Nagy and
> Molnar seem
> to have shown), it is relatively simple to go on to show how the
> other forms
> of cultural activity – solo action, cooperation (= concerting with
> division
> of labour) and objective activity (exploitative, aggressive
> activity) –
> might have derived from prototype action in concert. Albeit objective
> activity is more a travesty or pathology of concerted activity than an
> intelligent adaptation of it.
> My lack of interest in the historical is merely a reflection of my
> chosen
> field of interest: namely, the prehistoric and modern-child-
> developmental
> foundations of cultural activity, rather than its ten millenia or so
> of
> historical (post-settlement, adult) adaptations. I am more
> interested in how
> people can think at all, and in exactly what kind of activity
> thinking is,
> than how their thinking is affected by their practical and cultural
> circumstances.
> Andy, I realise that anyone as sensitive as I am to the misleading
> reification of actions and activity (and actional concepts
> generally) must
> expect a little boisterous chaffing. You are not alone in your
> sentiments –
> read Fred Adams' review of my book in *Mind. *
> I could reply
> in kind:
> I could say I'll show you my subjectivity if you'll show me yours...
> No? Too
> private? And so on. But I will instead attempt a brief explanation
> of my
> coming out with such wacky statements.
> I believe that people's actions and activities are not susceptible to
> objective (e.g., scientific) scrutiny in the way that natural
> phenomena are.
> There is an exactly parallel argument in Ilyenkov relating to the
> difference
> in our manner of perceiving of man-made vs. natural objects, but I
> will
> stick to my one about our perceptions of activity, because I think the
> situation is simpler with regard to actions. Here goes. Our primary
> recourse
> when witnessing others' actions is empathy. We imagine performing that
> action ourselves and we organise our perceptions of what we are
> seeing in
> accord with the action we are imagining performing. Empathy is
> incipient, or
> (better) inhibited acting in concert with the other. Empathy is
> essential
> not only for understanding others' actions, but for identifying
> them. It is
> essential, in fact, for perceiving them at all.
> So what? Well, empathy happens to be explicitly antithetical to the
> kind of
> objectivity that is integral in the scientific method. If you view
> actions
> objectively (in terms of macrophysiological activity of homo
> sapiens, or
> whatever) the action simply disappears. It is not accessible to an
> objective
> view. Only fellow-performers or would-be fellow-performers of action
> X, only
> people with the right know-how, are capable of seeing, identifying and
> understanding person P performing action X. [P happens to be engaged
> in
> tidying up the facial expression on his drawing of Mickey Mouse. In
> the
> ontology of what science does 'Mickey Mouse' feature?] Basically, to
> understand everyday actions, a scientist has to take off his white
> coat and
> become an everyday citizen.
> Unfortunately, empathic knowledge (although it is obviously just as
> important as objective knowledge) is not as susceptible to verbal
> communication as objective knowledge is. Therefore, when we are
> talking
> about actions, to give us the impression at least of the kind of
> ease we
> have in talking about objects, we tend to objectify actions. We talk
> about
> actions as if they were things in the world. We use the gerund
> instead of
> the infinitive, we nominalise verbs, we cement the nominalisation with
> sympathetic metaphors and thus reify the action or activity in
> question. It
> may sound bizarre that we do all these things, that we use these
> rhetorical
> dodges in everyday speech, but we do Andy, we do. We like to
> conceive of
> actions and activities in terms of things, we define them with
> reference to
> things relevant to them. We mythologise actions (such as thinking) by
> inventing supernatural agents or mechanisms (the mind) and
> attributing the
> action in question to their machinations.
> OK, so some reifications – society, football, language, natation, sex,
> labour, alienation, reification, the world – are indispensable for
> everyday
> purposes. And it sounds funny, wacky, when you try to do without
> them, or
> say they are not really the names of things, when you mean that the
> underlying reality is an actional one, not any kind of object. For
> my part I
> say, for everyday purposes, let the mind metaphors thrive. But if
> you want
> to establish a serious, disciplined, theoretical, generalising-type
> study of
> people's activity, especially their joint activity, their cultural
> activity,
> you must first be aware of the multifarious colloquial ways we have of
> objectifying activity, and the metaphors which 'corroborate' these
> objectifyings and which further confuse our perception of the
> underlying
> activity. Then you must be prepared to dispense with these rhetorical
> devices – because after all you want yours to be a disciplined
> study. And
> finally you confront the fact that our knowledge of actions and
> activities
> is primarily empathic, that, ultimately, we cannot specify activity
> except
> by demonstration. What we are interested in – and fair enough, too –
> is
> something that we ourselves do. So you have to take the white coat
> off to
> see it.
> Anyone want to dance with me on this one?
> Derek
> 2008/12/11 Steve Gabosch <>
>> Welcome to xmca, Derek. I took a peek at your website - really
>> nice job.
>> There really are a lot of valuable resources there, such as the
>> links. I
>> had not seen the Vygotsky site at which is
>> awesome and there is lots more. A quick browse of your Vygotsky on
>> Thinking
>> essay and biblio shows how seriously you have been studying "CHAT"
>> literature in your work.
>> Your theory of "token concerting" is interesting. Recent (not that
>> recent
>> anymore, I guess) research on mirror neurons would seem to strongly
>> underscore that conception. How have you related this to Vygotsky's
>> discussions of imitation?
>> Btw, the position Stetsenko (2005) takes is that Leontiev's account
>> of
>> activity did not sufficiently account for the productive role of
>> individual
>> subjectivity in the activity cycle, but that CHAT needs to do so.
>> The
>> classic behaviorist position that there is really no such thing as
>> consciousness at all seems to have little to offer this kind of
>> inquiry,
>> which is chasing that imaginary ghost, the "psyche." To the extent
>> you have
>> that perspective, when reading authors like Sawchuk and Stetsenko,
>> and
>> perhaps Vygotskyists in general, you must sometimes feel like an
>> atheist in
>> a Bible study group! LOL
>> What I find most powerful about CHAT is its high level of
>> consciousness
>> about methodology, always seeking to avoid one-sidedness, always
>> seeking
>> ways to look at things from all sides, all angles, from all
>> disciplines,
>> from all possible perspectives. That is the essence of the
>> dialectical
>> method, which by its nature is a collective process. What this
>> means is
>> that on a certain level, all points of view in science are
>> authentic and
>> valuable contributions, yours included, but it takes a dialectical
>> approach
>> to synthesize all these views into a full comprehension of the
>> thing under
>> inquiry.
>> Speaking to the core idea in the Sawchuk/Stetsenko paper, wanting
>> to bring
>> ideas and theories in sociology to bear on CHAT, I take this in the
>> context
>> of believing that CHAT has the potential to play a special role in
>> social
>> science. Armed with its methodological ideas, and centering itself
>> on
>> **activity**, a highly potent and centralizing way of looking at
>> human
>> affairs, I think that CHAT is learning how to look at the
>> accomplishments
>> and limitations of both psychology - and sociology - and develop
>> ways to
>> move social science forward along a new kind of path, the one
>> Vygotsky
>> envisioned when he spoke of constructing a "general psychology."
>> CHAT has
>> the potential to play a significant synthesizing and systematizing
>> role in
>> social science, which to date has been badly fragmented and
>> disorganized
>> throughout its history.
>> In that spirit, how does your theory of concerting relate to
>> sociology?
>> More specifically, how does it compare with and relate to the points
>> Sawchuk and Stetsenko made about the various theories of social
>> conduct that
>> they surveyed?
>> Also, I am curious: why do you say the H of CHAT, the historical,
>> is of no
>> interest to you?
>> Thanks for joining us on xmca, Derek.
>> - Steve
>> On Dec 9, 2008, at 8:51 PM, Andy Blunden wrote:
>> Wonderful to hear from you, Derek. If only we could have more
>> dialogues
>>> across parties and disciplines!
>>> That said, as I read you, you are adopting that wonderful kind of
>>> "ruthless reductionism," that "shameless behaviourism", the kind
>>> of position
>>> that leads to wonderful performative contradictions like the
>>> philosophy of
>>> mind which declares that mind does not exist, people that believe
>>> that
>>> subjectivity is an illusion, and participate in activity while
>>> believing
>>> that society requires inverted commas and so on.
>>> If mind and subjectivity do not exist, and behaviour is imitation,
>>> how did
>>> you come to write this email? Was a kind of conditioned reflex?
>>> you saw
>>> someone else writing the same idea so you found yourself compelled
>>> to do it
>>> too? And were you aware of what you were doing when you were doing
>>> it? Or
>>> was it, like mind, society, subjectivity, but an illusion. And if
>>> it was an
>>> illusion, do you expect we share that illusion?
>>> What say, instead of declaring that subjectivity does not exist,
>>> what if
>>> we discussed what it means and how it is constituted? Because
>>> really, I
>>> could only agree with you if I had a subjectivity so as to perform
>>> and
>>> experience agreement. And then I would be forced to disagree with
>>> you.
>>> :)
>>> What do you think, Derek?
>>> Andy
>>> Derek Melser wrote:
>>>> I come to XMCA as a philosopher of mind convinced that 'mind' (and
>>>> related
>>>> metaphor-based notions such as 'internalisation') can be
>>>> explained in
>>>> terms
>>>> of (a) people's natural tendency to act in concert (do the same
>>>> thing,
>>>> together) and (b) various derivative, subtler, but still
>>>> in-principle-observable, skills that children acquire. My account,
>>>> developed
>>>> from those of Ryle, Vygotsky and Hebb, has acting in concert as
>>>> the basis
>>>> of
>>>> culture. Solo action, cooperation, and objective practices (in
>>>> which the
>>>> empathic, side-by-side stance characteristic of concerted
>>>> activity has
>>>> given
>>>> way to objective attitudes) are learned adaptations of acting in
>>>> concert.
>>>> Unfamiliar concerted (and solo, cooperative and objective)
>>>> activity must
>>>> usually be preceded by preparatory educative activity, the
>>>> prototype of
>>>> which is the demonstration-and-imitation procedure. The immediate
>>>> goal of
>>>> demonstration-and-imitation is for teacher and pupil to perform the
>>>> action
>>>> in concert. After the pupil's participation has improved, perhaps
>>>> after
>>>> repeated demonstration-and-imitation sessions, to the point where
>>>> he can
>>>> perform the action on his own, rehearsals may still be necessary
>>>> prior to
>>>> performance.
>>>> To rehearse an action or activity is to go through a
>>>> demonstration-and-imitation session in a streamlined and
>>>> abbreviated way.
>>>> There are many different ways of abbreviating the
>>>> demonstration-and-imitation procedure, some involving two or more
>>>> participants, others for the solo agent. Verbal communication,
>>>> consciousness
>>>> and thinking are all forms of rehearsal – all ways of rehearsing
>>>> actions
>>>> and
>>>> activities before (or indeed whilst or instead of) performing
>>>> them – and
>>>> they are all 'derivatives by abbreviation' of the
>>>> demonstration-and-imitation procedure.
>>>> A child acquires these various rehearsal skills in much the same
>>>> way he
>>>> acquires other skills – by watching and listening to other people
>>>> demonstrating them, by attempting to join in, and by practising
>>>> them on
>>>> his
>>>> own. In *The Act of Thinking* (MIT Press 2004) I retrace some of
>>>> the main
>>>> steps in the child's (and perhaps early man's) mastery of verbal
>>>> communication, consciousness and thinking.
>>>> My feeling about the Sawchuk/Stetsenko paper is that it is
>>>> insufficiently
>>>> purist. It embraces concepts which are actually antithetical to,
>>>> and
>>>> compromise, a pure activity approach. For example, there is
>>>> 'subjectivity',
>>>> which we are said to be in danger of 'undertheorizing' (p.340).
>>>> What can
>>>> subjectivity be if not 'private experiencing'? Activity theory
>>>> casts all
>>>> experiencing as public, or incipiently public. Subjectivity is a
>>>> mentalist
>>>> concept. Listed among 'the specific principles of human
>>>> development' on
>>>> p.341 are 'the social origin of mind' (which implies there is
>>>> such a
>>>> thing
>>>> as mind) and 'internalisation' (implying the existence of an inner,
>>>> presumably mental, dimension). Vygotsky fell in here too, which
>>>> is why we
>>>> need Ryle. Activity does not internalise, it does not disappear
>>>> into the
>>>> mental, as it becomes familiar. Nor is mind 'extended'; it does not
>>>> extend
>>>> from the 'inner' to embrace 'outer' phenomena: mind is a fiction.
>>>> Sawchuk and Stetsenko characterise activity as 'reciprocal
>>>> interaction
>>>> with
>>>> the world' (339), as a process of 'engagement with the world' and
>>>> as
>>>> 'transforming the world' (343). However, the world need not stay
>>>> in the
>>>> picture. It is required neither as a venue nor as a patient or
>>>> product of
>>>> people's activity. The notion of the world, and things in the
>>>> world, is a
>>>> teaching aid invented to assist our acquisition of the perceptual
>>>> skills
>>>> we
>>>> need to employ in the course of our activities.
>>>> If we want to concentrate on the activity, then the 'selves' that
>>>> Sawchuk
>>>> and Stetsenko say people's activity creates ('as they create
>>>> their world'
>>>> (343)) are also dispensable. Selves disappear, they get absorbed,
>>>> in
>>>> concerted activity. Even 'the social order', with its reification
>>>> of
>>>> activity as the 'social structure' or 'society' that sociology is
>>>> predicated
>>>> on, may be a distraction. And what about 'historical'?
>>>> Personally, I am
>>>> most
>>>> interested in the foundational human activities – concerting,
>>>> cooperation,
>>>> verbal communication, consciousness, thinking, etc.). These
>>>> practices
>>>> were
>>>> almost certainly established more than a million years ago, so
>>>> history
>>>> played no part in their development, though evolution did. History
>>>> becomes
>>>> relevant only in connection with the great increase in objective
>>>> practices
>>>> that accompanied the relatively very recent transition from small-
>>>> group
>>>> nomadic life to our settled agricultural existence – if that
>>>> counts as
>>>> history.
>>>> Should I have presumed to list with XMCA and to comment on a
>>>> review of
>>>> CHAT,
>>>> when the XM is anathema to me, the H of no interest? My C would be
>>>> 'concerted' rather than 'cultural' too, though, since I conflate
>>>> these,
>>>> that's a quibble. Is this where I belong? An activity purist like
>>>> myself
>>>> has
>>>> at least the AT in common with others in this forum, surely.
>>>> Well, no.
>>>> I'm
>>>> not at all sure about the T. It has always seemed to me that our
>>>> knowledge
>>>> of activities is irreducibly empathic. When we witness or imagine
>>>> an
>>>> activity, in order to comprehend what we are seeing we must imagine
>>>> engaging
>>>> (if not actually engage) in that activity. There is no
>>>> possibility of any
>>>> truly objective or 'scientific' observation of activity (behaviour,
>>>> conduct,
>>>> action, things we do). Cultural activity is not a natural
>>>> phenomenon. It
>>>> is
>>>> not even a phenomenon. It is something* we* do. We are
>>>> participants,
>>>> players
>>>> – or incipient, would-be players. We cannot get outside it, hold
>>>> it at
>>>> arm's
>>>> length, make a scrutinizable object of it. If we do, it vanishes.
>>>> We must
>>>> empathise even to perceive activity. Certainly, we can be self-
>>>> aware in
>>>> the
>>>> act of doing something, alone or with others, and this self-
>>>> awareness
>>>> need
>>>> not impede (or not too much) our participation. But what can
>>>> 'theory'
>>>> amount
>>>> to in this context?
>>>> Derek Melser
>>>> **
>>>> _______________________________________________
>>>> xmca mailing list
>>> --
>>> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
>>> Andy Blunden <
>>> >+61 3 9380 9435 Skype andy.blunden
>>> Hegel's Logic with a Foreword by Andy Blunden:
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