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Re: [xmca] concepts

I liked Ana's questioning of the cultural value attached to particular views about concepts in her response to David's commentary on two little passages about Jinho.

David is extolling the formal aspect of meaning as a tool: classification, set theory, syllogistic reasoning. Ana is emphasizing the value of meaning as a tool for story-telling, for engaging someone in an imagined world, for projecting possibilities. David's first example is, from the second point of view, pedantic and artificial, a mere pretext for the exegesis of a a system of classification (i.e. all boys are either Korean or foreign. This boy is Korean.). There is no projected story, no engagement, at least relatively to the second one, which could be the opening of the saga of a Korean Naruto.

Of course this overstates things, but it does call attention to the multiple functions of verbal meaning-making, and its seems to me unwise to extol abstract classification and generalization at the level of the word-based category as being the higher "conceptual" function of language. I always try to understand Vygotsky's use of "the word" as meaning not individual isolated words (except sometimes) but more to speech, to utterance, to verbal meanings, which usually require a lot more than one word, or at least that word in a richly prepared context (verbal and/or nonverbal). A word, or a verbal meaning is not automatically a generalization. Isolated words have a "meaning potential" a probability distribution of possible meanings, and as they are combined with co-text and context, the net meanings they help to make get more specified, and can be either meanings about general propositions or meanings about specific instances. Words are sign-tools that when used in particular meaning-making practices can indicate categories, and relations among categories that count as generalizations, or equally well can be used to designate particular concrete things or tell very specific stories.

Isolated words are always the wrong unit of analysis when considering questions of meaning.

This applies even to the acquisition of single-word utterances in early childhood, as I think is now pretty well accepted.

So verbal meaning making does not automatically imply generalization or categories, though languages have devices for distinguishing through different wordings between meanings made about instances and meanings made as generalizations or through categories.

And the ability to support meanings about abstract categories is just one function of the linguistic system and our ways of using it, and not necessarily (indeed I would say rather obviously not) the highest or most valuable of its functions in use.

So what of "concepts," then? I think we have to distinguish between reasoning in terms of abstract categories to make general propositions, and doing so through language (which is the original sign system for doing so) and saying that this process entails "concepts". The process surely happens. It surely happens most of the time, and originally in intellectual-social development, through mobilizing the linguistic sign system (along with other sign modalities). None of that implies a model or analysis of the process in terms of "concepts". Depending obviously on what one means by a concept. I am pretty sure that this process does not take place by the deployment of some fixed (even expandable) repertoire of semantic primitives. Nor in terms of any unit of meaning that precedes and then gets "expressed in" language. The meanings come into being in and through the deployment of the linguistic signs and do not have any independent or prior existence (contra Platonism and its romantic revivals, contra the thesis of a "lingua mentis" and contra Fodor and maybe Pinker).

So whatever LSV may have meant by "concept", in linking it as he does to language and speech in development, he likely did not mean either idealist concepts or internal mental realities that then get expressed outwardly in speech.

The etymology, as was noted, for "concept" meant a taking or pulling together. A concept brings together instances, giving one name to many similar but different things. At least that's the received notion. But is it, itself, anything more than the name we use to do this? and as a name, merely part of more complex locutions we use to do this? or as makes more sense, developmentally and in semiotic analysis, merely the front-man for a complex systems of speech and gesture and integration with context, and generally a very multi-modal procedure for con-cepting a lot of stuff under a category-term? The object of study needs to be this whole complex of doings and meanings (as verbs) that produces the category result, and surely this is not anything one would call "a concept".

All that of course is just taking categories one at a time, and we know things are never that simple. Categories are made through distinctions, and so systems of categories get created and the meanings we make with any one category-term are interpretable in relation to to all the others (e.g. foreign vs. Korean). But there is lots of research on how categories get made and used linguistically and they all pretty much show that what you have to pay attention to are the complex processes by which the connections among things in the categories are foregrounded or backgrounded, making category use more flexible and indeed potentially ambiguous, polysemic, etc. Categories get merged and divided, new ones are formed out of the shards of older ones. ALL "concepts", not just scientific ones, come in such fluid and squabbling families. Scientific and especially mathematical category terms, defined by their family connections to one another (and in the case of scientific ones by links to nonverbal objects and activities), TRY to impose an artificial stability and fixedness (and in mathematics special conditions allow greater success in doing so) -- but these are hardly a model for how these matters usually go.

I think we have fallen culturally into the habit of saying that we think in terms of concepts, but I see no persuasive evidence that we do. We make meanings with sign resources in contexts, and some of those meanings sometimes have some of the features said to define a concept. Meanwhile the mentalist, idealist, universalist baggage that the notion drags in with it continues to do immeasurable harm in both education and psychology.

Jay Lemke
Senior Research Scientist
Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition
University of California - San Diego
9500 Gilman Drive
La Jolla, California 92093-0506

Professor (Adjunct status 2009-11)
School of Education
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Professor Emeritus
City University of New York

On Apr 12, 2011, at 7:09 PM, Ana Marjanovic-Shane wrote:

> Dear David and all,
> Just a small remark or a question:
> If the two lines you compare were a beginning of two novels, and someone
> asked you which one of these novels would you prefer to read, what would be
> your answer?
> For some reason, I would be more intrigued to read the novel beginning with
> the second line:
> "Look! He has a blue sweater. He has no glasses. He has stripey hair. His
> name is Jinho."
> It seems not imprisoning me in the visual, but on the contrary, openiing my
> eyes to see something interesting. The first one is telling me nothing that
> I don't already know -- except that there is a Korean boy Jinho.  OK - so
> what?
> So even though you claim that the first line is conceptual, and that the
> second one is a mere description of visuals, I am attracted to the second
> line as a beginning of a possibly exciting story.
> I wonder if the second line does not carry some other important properties,
> other than conceptual but equally improtant?
> Ana
> _______________________________________
> Ana Marjanovic-Shane
> 215-995-3207
> e-mails: anamshane@gmail.com
>             ana@zmajcenter.org
> On Mon, Apr 11, 2011 at 11:45 PM, David Kellogg <vaughndogblack@yahoo.com>wrote:
>> Tonight I have to discuss the difference between the following.
>> T: Look! This is a boy. He's not a foreign boy. He's a Korean boy. This is
>> Jinho.
>> T: Look! He has a blue sweater. He has no glasses. He has stripey hair. His
>> name is Jinho.
>> It seems to me there are three important differences, from the teacher's
>> point of view.
>> a) The first one repeats the concept "boy" and the indefinite article used
>> to mark it as an example of the concept (actually, a number, as opposed to
>> an indicative or a demonstrative like "the" or "this" or "that"). The second
>> does not.
>> b) Imagine the teacher following up this information with the open question
>> "Tell me about Jinho". The first offers conceptual material ("foreign",
>> "boy", "Korean") that can be used by the children with ALL the other
>> characters in our textbook: Joon, Ann, Nami, Peter, Bill, and so on. The
>> second one does not.
>> c) Imagine the teacher following up the answers with a CRITICAL metaprocess
>> question "How do you know?" The first leads to a conversation about what
>> names are boy's names and what names are girl's names, which names sound
>> Korean and which sound foreign. The second merely leads back to the picture,
>> or back to the teacher's hearsay.
>> Ideologically, the first one suggests a model of a concept that is a
>> generalized and abstracted essence: "boy", "foreign", and "Korean" are all
>> essential QUALITIES (and not, actually, things). The second ALSO has an
>> implicit model of a concept; it is based on the possession of material
>> objects (and not essential properties).
>> It seems to me that for all three reasons, the first way of framing the
>> question provides a way OUT of the enslavement of the visual field and the
>> second does not. I remember that Larry speculated about concepts and
>> conceptualizations that emprison us. It seems to me that prisons are made of
>> much sturdier and sterner stuff.
>> David Kellogg
>> Seoul National University of Education
>> --- On Mon, 4/11/11, Martin Packer <packer@duq.edu> wrote:
>> From: Martin Packer <packer@duq.edu>
>> Subject: Re: [xmca] concepts
>> To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <xmca@weber.ucsd.edu>
>> Date: Monday, April 11, 2011, 8:16 PM
>> Phillip,
>> I didn't mean any petard-hoisting, honestly! I just get excited at times
>> about ideas. Big ones, and little ones too.
>> Let me respond a bit more appreciatively to what you're saying. I'm most
>> interested at the moment, in my own work, in trying to understand Vygotsky.
>> I think I share that interest with some others here, but I'm equally sure
>> not everyone has the interest. But to me it's quite fascinating to struggle
>> to try to interpret and apply texts that I am separated from by time,
>> language, geography and economic system.
>> Is there power in knowledge? Do knowledge claims bolster positions of
>> professional expertise? Do academics not traffic in prestige and advantage
>> even as we make apparently neutral and detached pronouncements about trivial
>> details? Does success in every endeavor not "depend on a very complex
>> knowledge of and ability to manipulate determinative politics, discourses,
>> and institutions -- on professional competencies and social privileges that
>> constitute even the 'organic intellectuals'"? (That's Paul Bové beating up
>> on Charles Taylor in his foreword to Deleuze's book on Foucault.)
>> Yes, of course. I take Foucault very seriously. Does Vygotsky write about
>> any of this? No, not really. Does that mean he was not aware of it?
>> Impossible! This was a man who read Marx, who was living at the time of a
>> revolution whose stated aim it was to correct the distortions that an unjust
>> society had wrought on human beings, and who was in a position of power
>> himself when Stalin took control. How could he possibly not have been aware
>> of the connections between knowledge and power, the micro-politics of
>> concepts?
>> He did write occasionally, as in "The Socialist Formation of Man," of
>> topics such as the formation of the "psychological superstructure of man"
>> and of "the basic assumption that intellectual production is determined by
>> the form of material production." He wrote that "A fundamental change of the
>> whole system of these [societal] relationships which man is a part of, will
>> also inevitably lead to a change in consciousness, a change in man’s whole
>> behaviour." He even wrote of Nietzsche and questioned his assumption that
>> the will to power would continue to dominate human relations. By and large,
>> though, his writings let these things pass.
>> Just as at the beginning of T&S Vygotsky writes that of course emotion and
>> communication are intimately linked to thinking and speaking, but that they
>> must fade into the background in his analysis in that book, I read all
>> Vygotsky's texts assuming that politics and power are also in the
>> background, unspoken but not forgotten. Then, to me, it seems that what
>> Vygotsky was doing is similar to what Foucault was doing in his writings on
>> the ethics of self-formation. He is focused on the *formation* of subjects,
>> and of forms of subjectivity, as children grow into adults in whatever kind
>> of distorted social order they happen to be born into. Could he explicitly
>> put it that way? Did he have the space or time to spell out the whole story?
>> Or do we have to do it for him?
>> Bottom line, I don't see that a politics of concepts is in any clear way
>> incompatible with Vygotsky's project, as I grasp it. His 'concrete
>> psychology' of the Moscow tram driver would also be a study of the American
>> professor.
>> Martin
>> On Apr 11, 2011, at 8:52 PM, White, Phillip wrote:
>>> ah, the bliss of being hoisted upon one's own petard!  thanks, Martin.
>> (;-)
>>> yeah, Foucault's use of concept is constant.
>>> what i was obliquely attempting to get at was that the term 'concept'
>> could be seen as highfalutin, rather than, say, the term "big idea".  (hah!
>> of course, my father would rebuke me with, "What's the big idea?!")
>>> but what i mean is that concept is another word for idea.  and an idea
>> that appears to be difficult to grasp, abstract in short, could be seen as a
>> 'big idea'.
>>> it's about lingo, using latinate/greek words, rather than those little
>> ordinary daily words.
>>> it even seems to me that when, say, i'm teaching about "community of
>> practice" - i guess we could say that's a pretty big concept, or even
>> "legitimate peripheral participation", that initially it seems abstract, but
>> once everyone in the class talks about it, that over time, with concrete
>> examples from experience, that "community of practice" no longer seems
>> abstract.  in fact, it seems quite real and people can identify it when they
>> observe it, just like they can identify the difference between an ornamental
>> pear tree and a comice pear tree.
>>> takes me back to Bateson - that making sense of the world, recognizing
>> the patterns, is recognizing the difference that makes a difference.  and
>> it's that curious difference wherein a child over time can distinguish
>> bertween a cat and a dog and a horse and a donkey, and it's through
>> recognizing the difference that makes a difference.
>>> so, while Foucault didn't suggest it, i'm suggesting that one of the ways
>> experts claimed expertise was to employ a vocabulary that would set the
>> profession apart from the everyday world of being.
>>> am i being anti-intellectual?
>>> because when with my students we been reading Lave, say, and there is
>> always someone who complains about her vocabulary, i always argue in support
>> of her vocabulary.
>>> internal contractions.
>>> phillip
>>> Phillip White, PhD
>>> University of Colorado Denver
>>> School of Education
>>> phillip.white@ucdenver.edu
>>> ________________________________________
>>> From: xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu [xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu] On
>> Behalf Of Martin Packer [packer@duq.edu]
>>> Sent: Monday, April 11, 2011 5:38 PM
>>> To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
>>> Subject: Re: [xmca] concepts
>>> But,
>>> Phillip,
>>> wasn't Foucault's central concern in, say, The Order of Things, to
>> explore the *basis* on which human knowledge, or knowledges, are
>> constituted? In his terms, within a discursive formation there is a
>> dispersion of concepts. An ordering of words is used to order what can be
>> seen in the world. The point was not that there is no such thing as
>> 'concept,' but that concepts are not neutral, natural maps of a preexisting
>> and independent reality. For example, he wrote of the "form of positivity"
>> of the sciences - "the concepts around which they are organized, the type of
>> rationality to which they refer and by means of which they seek to
>> constitute themselves as knowledge." To a great extent, his attention to the
>> material practices in which both objects and abstractions are produced was
>> drawn from Marx, so I don't think it is wildly incompatible with Vygotsky's
>> project.
>>> Martin
>>> On Apr 11, 2011, at 5:36 PM, White, Phillip wrote:
>>>> though really, i'm more with Jay on this point that there is no such
>> thing as a 'concept' -  i'm thinking that the practice of the word became,
>> what?, let's say 'insitutionalized', or 'valorized' during the enlightenment
>> project... that period which Foucault points to of ways of categorization
>> and classifications that emerged as professional experts exercised for
>> themselves the power to label, prescribe, diagnose, etc. etc., as in, for
>> example, the separation of madness and reason.
>>>> yeah ......
>>>> another one of my half-baked ideas!
>>>> phillip
>>>> Phillip White, PhD
>>>> University of Colorado Denver
>>>> School of Education
>>>> phillip.white@ucdenver.edu
>>>> ________________________________________
>>>> From: xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu [xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu] On
>> Behalf Of mike cole [lchcmike@gmail.com]
>>>> Sent: Monday, April 11, 2011 4:07 PM
>>>> To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
>>>> Subject: Re: [xmca] concepts
>>>> I agree, Monica. Its odd that we make such distinctions and then worry
>> that
>>>> we do not
>>>> know what a key term in the discussion (in this case, concept) is
>> supposed
>>>> to mean (we all find a way to make sense of it for ourselves however!)..
>>>> Martin and other conceptual knowers. LSV and Luria insisted that words
>> were
>>>> generalizations. How is that idea of generalization related to the idea
>> of a
>>>> concept?
>>>> A con-cept. With-cept? I have no conception!
>>>> mike
>>>> On Mon, Apr 11, 2011 at 1:13 PM, Monica Hansen <
>>>> monica.hansen@vandals.uidaho.edu> wrote:
>>>>> Martin,
>>>>> I have enjoyed reading your back and forth on this topic of concepts.
>>>>> Examining the concept of concepts is indeed problematic, but it is the
>> crux
>>>>> of the whole issue. Social/individual, internal/external,
>>>>> physiological/mental, concrete/abstract, etc.
>>>>> You ended with this:
>>>>> "But to sever completely the links between everyday discourse and
>>>>> scientific
>>>>> discourse would be to prevent the informing of the former by the latter
>>>>> that
>>>>> LSV found so important."
>>>>> I would just like to go one further: severing the links between
>> everyday
>>>>> discourse and scientific discourse would prevent the former(everyday)
>> from
>>>>> informing the latter(scientific). There can be no higher psychological
>>>>> processes, no scientific concepts without everyday concepts because it
>> is
>>>>> the specific and local nature of experience that informs all the others
>>>>> (and
>>>>> is informed by the others as well). It is the dialogic nature of
>> concepts
>>>>> that makes them so fascinating and so powerful.
>>>>> Monica
>>>>> -----Original Message-----
>>>>> From: xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu [mailto:xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu]
>> On
>>>>> Behalf Of Martin Packer
>>>>> Sent: Sunday, April 10, 2011 11:33 AM
>>>>> To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
>>>>> Subject: Re: [xmca] concepts
>>>>> On Apr 10, 2011, at 12:33 PM, Martin Packer wrote:
>>>>>>>> Maybe the notion of a "concept" might be a bit like that of a "gene"
>> in
>>>>> the sense that a gene is a sort of functional unit, but it has no
>> simple
>>>>> material reality in itself.
>>>>> Jay's opening sentence neatly illustrates the difficulty of eliminating
>>>>> 'concept.' He writes of 'the notion' of a concept - which is to say, to
>>>>> write about concepts he has to employ a concept, namely that of
>> 'concept'!
>>>>> (If that seems odd, try reading some Frege!)
>>>>> As the Stanford Encyclopedia article points out, no one has
>> satisfactorily
>>>>> defined a concept. But the seeming unavoidability of invoking something
>>>>> like
>>>>> 'concept' follows from the fact that we humans (and perhaps animals
>> too;
>>>>> another seemingly intractable debate) deal not so much with
>> particularities
>>>>> as with generalities. We talk and write not about this think and that
>>>>> thing,
>>>>> but this 'kind' of thing and that 'type' of thing. We write not about
>> the
>>>>> specific concept of 'rabbit,' but about 'the notion' of concept.
>>>>> As Henry James once wrote, "The intellectual life of man consists
>> almost
>>>>> wholly in his substitution of a conceptual order for the perceptual
>> order
>>>>> in
>>>>> which his experience originally comes." One may disagree with the
>>>>> separation
>>>>> of the two order that James' words seems to suggest, but it seems
>>>>> implausible to deny that there are *two* orders.
>>>>> Do this order of generalities involve complex interrelations or
>> systems, as
>>>>> Jay suggests? Are they specified in practice, in ways that depend on
>>>>> context? Yes, of course. I am deep in the middle of chapter 6 of T&S,
>> and
>>>>> LSV wrote of all this, 70 years ago. We have already discussed here his
>>>>> notion [!] of a system of generality, represented metaphorically by
>> lines
>>>>> of
>>>>> longitude and latitude on a globe.  He conceived of this system as
>>>>> operating
>>>>> in acts of thought that actively grasp their objects. He saw both the
>>>>> dependence of generalities on language, and their distinction.
>>>>> Should we avoid, as Jay recommends, claiming that "there are concepts
>> as
>>>>> such"?  I'm not sure what this claim would amount to. There are, and
>> can
>>>>> only be, "concepts for us." Should we avoid reifying concepts?
>> Certainly!
>>>>> Should we remove the term from all scientific discourse, leaving it
>> only as
>>>>> an "everyday locution"? That's a matter of taste, I suppose. But to
>> sever
>>>>> completely the links between everyday discourse and scientific
>> discourse
>>>>> would be to prevent the informing of the former by the latter that LSV
>>>>> found
>>>>> so important.
>>>>> Martin__________________________________________
>>>>> _____
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