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Re: [xmca] Types of Generalization: concepts and pseudoconcepts and things to yell at me about

I don't belittle the experiment Paula. After all, this
experiment was one of the things that inspired interest in
Vygotsky in me in the first place, and the one message I
sent at the beginning of this discussion (3/8/9), was just
praise for being able to reproduce it.

The whole process is fascinating. But how do we understand
Vygotsky's repeated insistence that conceptual thought is
not possible prior to adolesence? Whereas, to use Steve's
example, chess-playing obviously is possible.

And I would never yell at you over anything, Paula! :(


Paula Towsey wrote:
Dear Andy (and Steve and Peg)

This is a mega-quick response because although I'd also need to Google
things to find out what Peg is referring to, I've got this ongoing date with

As you say, Andy, the blocks activity did need to limit the reliance on
prior experience so that the concepts cev, bik, mur, and lag could be
constructed out of relatively simple, accessible ones for all ages.  But I
don't follow you all of the way that this is an activity in "isolation" from
"meaningful life experience" in "sensuous content" terms.  They might be dry
dusty geometric blocks, but I believe there are several reasons for our
differences of opinion here:

Your view that the activity is isolated from "meaningful life experience"
doesn't seem to take into account the way the blocks activity is introduced
to subjects: it is done so in a way that presents them with words which mean
nothing at the start, and what they do in the process of solving the problem
of the blocks is to ascend from the abstract to the concrete in finding out
what the words cev, bik, mur, and lag mean.  You don't have to be a
mathematician to do this - you think out aloud about things, you try them
out, and you follow the clues of the words: this word part is crucial, it is
central to the procedure as a whole, and the ways in which subjects react to
and make use of these words is what this ""testing" rationale" was designed
to reveal.

Andy, another reason behind why I think we disagree is this: it is one thing
to read about what the solution to the blocks activity is, and quite another
to find it out for oneself or to watch other people doing it.  I do suspect,
though I can't be sure, that you met the blocks on paper before you met them
in person - am I right in this? It's just that, in my experience, it seems
that people find it easier to discount the blocks as nothing special really
or so what? when they read about them because everything is so deceptively
simple on paper.  As Steve said yesterday in what I think is a perfectly
marvellous analysis of the blocks activity, they are really very cool - and
that they are not primarily about taxonomy or categorisation or logical
thinking (although the form and content of these are undeniable).  It's
about turning the pyramid of concepts upside down and not just a question of
stating the obvious in logical terms.

One other thing about "Oh, so it's not colour then" is that a person's
reaction to the "moment of correction" - or to the fact that they have noted
that there are five triangles and so sorting by one-shape-per-group is not
possible and then, in the very next series of moves, they go on to trying to
sort the blocks by starting with one trapezoid per group (there are four) -
is indicative of what Hanfmann & Kasanin term "appreciation for the
totality".  And granted, this activity and appreciation for its totality is
about mathematical material and numbers and logic, yet what transcends and
transforms the activity are the words and the meaning that they have.  It is
really about the meaning of words - not just solving a problem.  And it is
also here that I think the original author Sakharov was bang on the money
because he introduced the game to children as belonging to children from a
foreign country where the words mean something in those children's language,
and this is where Hanfmann & Kasanin present this word meaning aspect more
obliquely.  They do note word meaning but not as clearly or as upfront as
toys from the North Pole.

I think what I'm attempting here is to say that if we overlook the
meaning-making aspect of this activity we turn it into lead.
I can see that I need to deal with this in greater depth and with more
rigour - but does this give you something to yell at me about for now?

Take care.

-----Original Message-----
From: xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu [mailto:xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu] On
Behalf Of Andy Blunden
Sent: 14 September 2009 10:50 AM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: Re: [xmca] Types of Generalization: concepts and pseudoconcepts

Fascinating area of research, Peg. I had to use Google books to figure out what the hell you were talking about!

My only reaction is this: the blocks experiment was deliberately designed to isolate the tasks from any realistic references which could tap into life experience. That was necessary for the "testing" rationale of the experiment. But by isolating the sensuous content of the experiment from any meaningful life experience, they make it difficult for any conceptual thought to enter into the process. You really have to be a mathematician to get anything out of it.

But I'm still not quite sure what you were driving at, Peg.


Peg Griffin wrote:
Steve or Andy wrote: " the principle is actually very familiar, for
to modern consumers when they compare similar commodities of different
brands and models for desired (and undesired) features, prices, etc."

So, the D'Andrade type experiment is just waiting to be done!  (In
D'Andrade's variation on Wason’s selection task, the scenario involves a
task for a clerk at a department store deciding about which checks needed
be turned over to check if the supervisor had signed off on it.)
Anyone do it yet?

-----Original Message-----
From: xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu [mailto:xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu]
On Behalf Of Steve Gabosch
Sent: Saturday, September 12, 2009 11:05 PM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: Re: [xmca] Types of Generalization: concepts and

Andy, thanks for your response to Davydov on concept formation and
efforts to get us to read Davydov, Vygotsky, Sakharov, etc.  It has
certainly been effective in my case.  And Jay, your comments have also
been very helpful.

Two questions on your essay, Andy.

One, what do you mean by "an absolutely non-empirical social factor"
when you say: "The transition from complex to concept is a protracted
and complex process, but one which necessarily involves a complex
leap, in which absolutely non-empirical, social factors enter into the
formation and enrichment of the concept."

Two, I am having difficulty understanding how Sakharov block solutions
for bik, cev, lag and mur are not "true concepts" in the way Vygotsky
used the term.  A taxonomy formed out of formal rules can be a true
concept, yes?  The Sakharov block test is really just a puzzle where
you have to figure out the taxonomic classification system by
observing the visible attributes of the blocks and figuring out the
only one that can be put into four logical groups.  Yes, the nonsense
words are arbitrary and only have meaning to test participants - but
that is the case for any game.  In chess, for example, rooks and pawns
are "concepts" - yes?  If a rook is a concept, then why not bik, cev,
mur and lag?


Here are some details on the Sakharov test and its solution that might
help visualize this question of whether the solution groups to the
test are themselves "true concepts".  In discussing details to the
solution to the test the way I do, I am arguing that the solution
groups are "true concepts."  I am willing to be corrected on this, of
course.  Perhaps there is a better way to interpret these details.

The 22 Sakharov blocks were very cleverly designed.  No two blocks are
exactly alike.  They are comprised of 6 different colors, 5 different
geometric shapes, 2 different heights (tall and flat) and 2 different
sizes (large and small).  There would be 120 (6*5*2*2=120) different
blocks altogether if a full set of blocks were created out of these
parameters.  The 22 that were selected have the interesting
characteristic of having one and one only possible rule-based solution
to the challenge of sorting them into 4 logical groups based on their
physical attributes.

Since there are 4 groups that these 22 blocks are going to fall in,
one's first impulse is to look for a single parameter that all blocks
share that has 4 variations.  As it turns out, this is impossible.
There is no 4*1=4 solution.  That took some serious design
forethought.  There are not even any clever, obscure alternative
solutions along these lines.

In one of Paula's earlier papers, she reports on a child who, after
deciding that neither color nor shape would work as solutions, began
counting numbers of **sides** of the blocks to see if **that**
parameter fell into 4 groups.  It doesn't - they fall into 5 groups.
That little inspiration got me me to try to come up with some other
way of grouping the blocks into 4 logical groups by seeking unusual
parameters, such as numbers of angles, numbers of two-surface
intersections, numbers of three-surface intersections.  However, no
single parameter I have come up with has has only 4 variations.  (As
an aside, most of these parameters just mentioned, interestingly, have
5 variations - the reason being that all the 6 different geometric
shapes have different totals of these unusual parameters except the
square and trapezoid, which have the same number of these - so
consequently, the total of 5 keeps reappearing).

I don't think it is a coincidence that there are no alternative
solutions. I am guessing that Sakharov very deliberately designed
these blocks to avoid that distraction.  This is part of this test's
very clever design.

What makes this test a puzzle even to most adults is that the solution
requires not finding one parameter with 4 variations, but combining
**2** parameters that each have **2** variations.  I think Paula calls
this a dichotomous solution (Paula, do I have the right word?).
Running into this principle in the way this test presents it is not an
everyday occurrence, but the principle is actually very familiar, for
example, to modern consumers when they compare similar commodities of
different brands and models for desired (and undesired) features,
prices, etc.  Once one understands this general principle (multiplying
the parameter variations to figure out the total possible
combinations) and that this is the way this Sakharov-block puzzle
works, the solution becomes completely obvious by just observing the
parameters and counting their variations.  Since the solution seeks 4
groups, and since there are no 4*1=4 solutions, the one and only
possible other solution would be to find a 2*2=4 way of assembling the
groups together.  And wallah!  There the solution is, plain as day
once you see it - tall/flat and large/small.

In theory, if one understands this principle clearly, one could
determine the different groups just by looking at the 22 blocks,
counting and calculating the parameters and their variations by eye,
and do so without picking up a single block.  However, since the
nonsense words are arbitrarily assigned, it would still be necessary
to pick up a block in each of 3 different groups to determine the
precise names that correspond to each group.  There probably are
people who could figure this all out just by staring at these blocks
and arriving at this reasoning, but they would have to be a pretty
experienced puzzle solver to do that in one shot, I would think.
However, there are many very bright people associated with this list -
anyone solved or seen the test solved in "one shot," so to speak?  (An
interesting question to ask is, about those that do solve the test -
which solve it **conceptually**, and which stumble on the solution as
just a pseudoconcept?)

The question Mike and Paula discussed, and I think David raised, about
what procedure or methodology does the test-giver use to guide the
test-taker during the test, is especially interesting.  Which block do
they overturn under what circumstances to show the test-taker the
error of their ways during the test, and what other "hints" and
"prods" to they provide as the test proceeds?   (The younger the
child, the more creative prods are needed, from what Paula's
reports!)  This question is interesting on two levels.  One,
obviously, relates to how these prompts influence what the test-taker
understands and does.  But here is another level to look at this from:
**what concepts** are guiding the **test-giver** when they are giving
their prompts?  (And if they are not being guided by "true concepts,"
then what are they being guided by?)

My point in going into all this detail is to suggest that this
parameter-counting principle is a concept, (or combination of
concepts), and that the solution groups, which themselves are
organized according to this principle, being completely derivative of
this overall concept, are necessarily concepts as well.  Generalizing,
I am suggesting that these are "concepts" within this experimentally-
designed system in the same sense that the numbers 1, 2 and 3 are
"concepts" within the number system.

Bik, cev, lag and mur, according to this reasoning, are the made-up
names for specific concepts and are arbitrarily assigned - as are,
ultimately, all words for the things they correspond to.  In this
game, these four nonsense words correspond to the concepts flat-large,
flat-small, tall-large, and tall-small, which are meaningful concepts
within the game's rules.  These conceptual groups are an integral part
of that puzzle's internal taxonomy and its overall conceptual system -
even though this puzzle, in many ways, is just about as artificial,
rule-based, experimental, arbitrary and trivial as you could probably
invent and still get children and adults to make sense out of.  But
lots of cool puzzles are kinda like that.  And this Vygotsky-Sakharov
concept formation test really is a cool puzzle.

Well, that's my argument for calling these nonsense words "true
concepts" in the Vygotskyan (not necessarily the Davydovian) sense.

- Steve

On Sep 11, 2009, at 1:14 PM, Jay Lemke wrote:

A small follow-up, having now read at least Andy's comments on
Davydov, if not the Davydov itself.

I would agree very broadly with what Andy says, and highlight one
point and note one that is perhaps underemphasized.

Maybe it's because of Davydov's view,  but it seems clear to me that
LSV emphasizes very strongly and consistently the key role of verbal
language, and so we ought really want to know more about exactly how
the ways in which children and early adolescents use verbal
languages changes as they come to mediate their activity more along
the lines we might call acting-with-true-concepts.

What struck me as very important, that Andy emphasizes (and Davydov
also?) is that the development of true concepts depends on their use
in social institutions. This limits the relevance of artificial-
concept experimental studies in ways that would not be apparent in a
more purely cognitive science paradigm (or old fashioned empirical-
concept ideology), because the similarity to natural true concepts
is only logical-formal, and not also social-institutional. A lot of
my own students tend to get this wrong, because they identify the
social with the interpersonal, such that there is still a similarity
(in the micro-social milieu of the experiment itself as a social
activity). But not at the macro-social institutional level.

And here perhaps is also a clue to my query about how the modes of
mediation differ across the historical cases (Foucault), the cross-
cultural cases (Levi-Straus), the post-modern cases (Wittgenstein,
Latour), and even the everyday true concept vs. formal scientific-
mathematical true concept cases. The difference arises in and from
the institutional differences. Could we perhaps combine LSV's
insights into how this works in the developmental case (changes in
the social positioning of the child/adolescent), L-S on the
functioning of mytho-symbolic mediated activiity in rituals and
social structuration processes, F on changes in the historical
institutions (medieval-early modern), and L on heterogeneity of
mediation in relation to heterogeneity of actant networks? to
understand better how this institutional context and its processes
play out?

I left out Wittgenstein, but he may help with an intermediate scale,
not the large social institutions, but the game-like activities of
which they are composed.

I'll be looking at Davydov to see what he offers in these terms.


Jay Lemke
Professor (Adjunct)
Educational Studies
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

On Sep 11, 2009, at 5:51 AM, Andy Blunden wrote:

I have prepared a response to Davydov's book, but it is 4,000
words, so I have attached it in a Word document. But here is a

Davydov claims that in his analysis of the Sakharov experiments,
Vygotsky fails to demonstrate any real distinction between a true
concept and an abstract general notion (what is usually and
mistakenly taken for a concept in non-Marxist thought).

I claim that he has a point, but Vygotsky is guilty only of some
unclarity and inconsistency in his language, and makes the
distinction very clear. And Davydov should pay more attention to
what Vygotsky says about the relationship.

Davydov works with a mistaken contrast between scientific concepts
and the general notions derived from everyday life. Scientific
concepts are by no means the only type of true concepts and
everyday life is full of concepts.

Nonetheless, Davydov has a point. It is evident that Sakharov, the
author of the orignal, oft-cited report evidently is guilty exactly
as charged by Davydov. And no-one seems to have noticed!

Although Paula and Carol are consistent and correct in everything
they say in their paper, they err on one occasion only when they
cite Kozulin citing Hanfmann. It is as if people equate logical use
of generalized empirical notions with conceptual thought, never in
their own words, but only by means of citing someone else's words.

I think this is the legacy of a lack of clarity in Vygotsky's

4,000 words attached. And apologies for not entering the discussion
of Paula and Carol's paper earlier, but I was not clear in my own
mind on these problems, and Davydov helped me get clear. Better
late than never!

Andy Blunden (Erythrós Press and Media) Orders:
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