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Re: [xmca] Race and Types of Generalization: concepts and pseudoconcepts

Gregory: yes the issue of concepts and pseudoconcepts has everything to do with racial stereotyping and prejudice.

A person is a concept; identity formation is realization of one's self-concept. Knowing another person is having a concept of the person. Social life is the rich texture in which persons are the nodal points. Racial prejudice is one example of taking a person as subsumed by their attributes; e.g., being black, being old, being homosexual or whatever, i.e., a pseudoconcept.

There are two basic approaches to this.

1. Following Althusser, Derrida, Foucault or Judith Butler, for example, a "subject" (i.e., person) is inserted into a binary category, e.g. "black," and being themselves part of the same ideological structure, the subject accepts this abstract general definition of their self-concept. According to thise, there is no essential person underneath this type-casting, we are indeed nothing more than the sum of our attributes, i.e., pseudoconcepts, but ... binary subjection can be countered by "deconstruction," which means challenging the binariness and fuzzing the edges. So there are not male and female, hetero- and homosexual, but many sexualities. Not black or white, but many ethnicities. This approach emphasises that these attributes are social constucts not inherent to the individual, i.e., not "essential." Critique is used to blur the oppressive, exclusionary boundaries.

2. Following Aristotle, Hegel and Marx, Vygotsky and Mead, etc., a person is not the sum of their attributes, but has a personality, which is contructed in dialogue and collaborative activity with others. The stereotype is created through the activity and the casting of people into unwanted roles can be combatted by changing social practices, e.g. by collaborating across artificial boundaries.

Both have a point, but I identify with 2.


The important difference in my view between Vygotsky (and ambiguously, Mead) and Habermas and his followers like Honneth, is that for Vygotsky collaboration is mediated by artifacts; for Habermas and Honneth and all the "intersubjectivists" there is no mediation. Language for example or institutions merely form a background to direct subject-to-subject interactions. Further, in CHAT interactions between people happen when people are pursuing some project together. For Habermas, people have discourse, but "discourse" means discussing moral philosophy, and there is no sense of what it is that people are doing together. Why talk? That is, there is no mediating project (other than moral philosophy).

Mead is a bit of a halfway house; interactions are mediated by gestures and actions, but he subsumes the body into the subject so the mediation by body parts and actions is masked, and it looks like unmediated interaction. Habermas and Honneth read Mead as direct intersubjectivity; CHAT reads Mead as mediated intersubjectivity.

that's my take on all this anyway,
what do you think?

Larry Purss wrote:

I am new to this wesite but am interested in "intersubjectivity" as a cultural concept and its intersection with "mediated mind" as an intersubjective process. Since I work in a public school system as a counsellor in elementary school settings I see cultural historical theoretical frameworks as a bridge between pedagogy in school settings and "psychology" which are two frameworks which my role in schools bridge. I also am interested in the "relational" turn in psychoanalysis where intersubjectivity is all the rage. The other framework which I have some interest in is the pragmatists (G.H. Mead & Habermas) who are also interested in intersubjectivity. All these frameworks are exploring development as a cultural and historical process and some theorists have opened dialogue across these frameworks. My background in exploring these topics is on a personal level as I am not affiliated with any university but in my day to day interactions I am personally curious and find these questions keep me engaged.
 To shift focus after that introduction I wanted to let Gregory know that I have printed out the newsweek article and made copies for all the enrolling teachers in the school to read.  It does challenge some cherished believes that if we create inclusive environments then discrimination will disappear.  Being EXPLICIT about differences is seldom the approach taken as it makes people very uncomfortable.  This article hopefully will start a discussion around a topic which is awkward to explore.
Thanks for your input.


----- Original Message -----
From: Gregory Allan Thompson <gathomps@uchicago.edu>
Date: Thursday, September 17, 2009 12:37 pm
Subject: [xmca] Race and Types of Generalization: concepts and pseudoconcepts
To: xmca@weber.ucsd.edu

My wife just directed me to this link to an article on the
development of racial prejudice/awareness -- "Even Babies

(there is also an interesting audio clip on the page)

I wondered whether the recent conversation about concepts and
pseudoconcepts might have something to add to the question of
racial categorization and development. It might also get at a
more naturalistic sense for how concepts are put to use in
more "naturalistic" settings.

Unfortunately, I don't have time right now to offer much to
stir the waters or to engage in much conversation, so I'll
leave it to others to determine whether there is anything
worth discussing here. Seemed interesting though.


Message: 1
Date: Tue, 15 Sep 2009 12:51:57 +1000
From: Andy Blunden <ablunden@mira.net>
Subject: Re: [xmca] Types of Generalization: concepts and
To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <xmca@weber.ucsd.edu>
Message-ID: <4AAF014D.2070007@mira.net>
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=ISO-8859-1; format=flowed

Steve, here is Vygotsky commenting on how children play chess:

"Although initially the investigator's task was to disclose the hidden rules in all play with an imaginary situation, we have received proof comparatively recently that the so-called pure games with rules (played by school children and late preschoolers) are essentially games with imaginary situations; for just as the imaginary situation has to contain rules of behavior, so every game with rules contains an imaginary situation. For example, what does it mean to play chess? To create an imaginary situation. Why? Because the knight, the king, the queen, and so forth, can move only in specified ways; because covering and taking pieces are purely chess concepts; and so on. Although it does not directly substitute for real-life relationships, nevertheless we do have a kind of imaginary situation here. Take the simplest children's game with rules. It immediately turns into an imaginary situation in the sense that as soon as the game is regulated by certain rules, a number of actual possibilities for action are ruled out."


What do you make of that?

Steve Gabosch wrote:
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
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
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
geometric shapes, 2 different heights (tall and flat) and 2
sizes (large and small).  There would be 120 (6*5*2*2=120)
blocks altogether if a full set of blocks were created out
of these
parameters. The 22 that were selected have the
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
There is no 4*1=4 solution.  That took some serious design
There are not even any clever, obscure alternative
solutions along these

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
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
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
**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
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
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
determine the different groups just by looking at the 22
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
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
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

Bik, cev, lag and mur, according to this reasoning, are the
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-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
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
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
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
processes, F on changes in the historical institutions
modern), and L on heterogeneity of mediation in relation to heterogeneity of actant networks? to understand better how
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

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
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
and the general notions derived from everyday life.
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
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

4,000 words attached. And apologies for not entering the
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: http://www.erythrospress.com/store/main.html#books

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