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Re: [xmca] Vygotsky and Saussure

David, Monica,

Can we agree then on something like this: the affordances/constraints of the young child's social situation (especially relations and interactions with significant others) contain sufficient organization/ information to able the child to acquire language on all levels - acoustic (syllables not phonemes, following Vygotsky), lexical (following Vygotsky, and also recent work by Eve Clark on how child- directed adult speech provides information about conventional word- meaning), and grammatical (following Bruner) - without needing to appeal to innate capacities (such as the LAD)? (Though obviously since chimps can't do it, something biological is necessary.)


On Jul 25, 2009, at 3:25 PM, David Kellogg wrote:


Yes, definitely! If you read pp. 49-50 in the Minick translation of Thinking and Speech, we get Vygotsky's remarks on Saussure's phonology in pure form. Of course, he rejects (again and again) the Saussurean view of semantics; it's nothing but associationism. But since he rejects associationism on the basis of its arbitrariness, its lack of an intelligent link, and its lack of system, he has to reject Saussurean phonemes too, no?

No! As you say, there are two points here for Vygotsky to appropriate. The first is that the phoneme is part of a gestalt, specifically, a contrast with some other word (e.g. "back" and "bag"). But the second is that that gestalt is defined by MEANING and not by sound.

Here is where Vygosky really parts company, not only with Saussure and structuralism but also with Gestaltism. For Saussure, the relationship between phoneme and meaning is entirely arbitrary; but for Vygotsky it is fully determined by the social situation of development.

For Gestaltism, the structural relationship is not unique to language; it's shared with perception. But for Vygotsky the consciousness that is created by thought is never reducible to the consciousness that is created by perception.

The question I have is what Saussure would have made of all this. Saussure was actually quite skeptical about his own system; he had good reason to instruct his wife and students not to publish any of his work. And as the article Mike sent around (on the Mandelshtam poem) makes clear, he had big big problems with precisely the concepts at issue: the arbitrariness and linearity of language.

Notice that Vygotsky doesn't really use the word "phonetic" very much. The word which is usually translated as "phonetic" is actually "phasal". But in the example Vygotsky gives about the psychological vs. grammatical predicate/subject, where he talks about psychological/grammatical gender, and number, and even tense, it is very clear that for Vygotsky ALL the linear aspects of language, the aspects which (unlike thought) include TIME in their compositionality, are to be considered "phasal", not just phonetics.

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

--- On Fri, 7/24/09, Martin Packer <packer@duq.edu> wrote:

From: Martin Packer <packer@duq.edu>
Subject: Re: [xmca] Intensions in context and speech complexity ; From 2-?
To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <xmca@weber.ucsd.edu>
Date: Friday, July 24, 2009, 8:03 AM

On Jul 23, 2009, at 2:46 PM, David Kellogg wrote:

I think Vygotsky actually finds the single kernel of truth in Saussure's course when he argues that a science of phonetics needs to be founded on MEANING MAKING and not on the physical description of noises people make with their mouths. However, his ability to find this kernel in a mountain of structuralist chaff should not deceive you; he is no uncritical consumer of Saussureanism.


Coincidentally I was reading yesterday the section in Problems of Child Psychology (vol 5 of the Collected Works) where Vygotsky again makes this point. It is evidently Saussurian linguistics that V is enthusiastic about: he refers to it as phonology and contrasts it with an older phonetics which focused solely on articulatory definitions. Phonology has the advantage of seeing the sounds of language as a system, and so the child never learns a single sound in isolation but always one sound against the background of the others. V points out that this is a basic law of perception: figure/ ground, and also that the ground in the case of oral language is provided by the speech of adults (so the 'ideal' endpoint of development is present and available from the start, as emphasized in the passage that Lois quoted a few days ago).

V is critical once again of analyses that divide a phenomenon into elements and in doing so lose the properties of the whole. Phonology, he says, has the advantage that in studying the sounds of a language as a system it doesn't divide it into separate elements, nor does it lose the central property of language, namely that it has meaning. V adds that sounds always have meaning: "the phoneme," he writes "is not just a sound, it is a sound that has meaning, a sound that has not lost meaning, a certain unit that has a primary property to a minimal degree, which belongs to speech as a whole" (271).

V's analysis makes a good deal of sense to me. But my own limited knowledge of Saussure - guided in part by Roy Harris' writing - has indeed included the dogma that the sound level of language carries no meaning. You are saying, I think, that V has a reasonable reading of Saussure, if not the canonical one. Can you say more about this way of reading Saussure? V seems to be suggesting that the child does not learn first sounds, then words, but always acquires the sounds of language in the context of the use of words in communicative settings, and this has the consequece that the sounds would be aquired as aspects of a meaningful unit. Am I on the right track here?

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Martin Packer, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Psychology Department
Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA, USA 15282
(412) 396-4852


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