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Re: [xmca] concepts

Hi everyone writing about concepts.
As I was reading the many messages I was also teaching a class about Einstein's theory of relativity in my creativity class. I was struck by how he lived vividly with abstraction, enriching them with tactile and graphic examples. To develop the theory, he had to struggle with the physical implication of concepts but he was also looking at significant relationships between them. One of the things that I have missed, probably because there was so much to read, is a description of the activity of constructing systems of concepts which sometimes require hollowing them, testing them against empirical data, working with them to simplify them, but interconnecting them. That is part of theoretical practice which we engage in here at xmca often and with passion. There is a new development in mathematics, the study of the philosophy of mathematical practice. I think that is an important unification of the activity of the mathematician with his/her tools: mathematical concepts.
----- Original Message ----- From: "Ana Marjanovic-Shane" <anamshane@gmail.com>
To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <xmca@weber.ucsd.edu>
Sent: Friday, April 15, 2011 12:58 AM
Subject: Re: [xmca] concepts

Dear David and all,

Your vision of teaching concepts helped me realize why so many schools kill interest in learning and make it into often tedious chore to be done on demand of a teacher, rather than because one is interested or really needs to know something, to experience something meaningful, or to act in some significant way in a meaningful conversation. It seems to me that "leaving Conrad out of classroom" teaches children not so much about concepts and generalizations but more that school knowledge is a lifeless structure without anybody in it, through which they have to wonder alone, like through a glass labyrinth, hearing echos of their own voices, but never entering a dialogue.

I am absolutely certain that no baby would ever learn to speak, if they would learn and learn and learn to generalize without dialogues and narratives, and a life full of real, material, syntagmatic surprises. I agree with Voloshinov's claim that for a speaker (and a learner of a language), language is never an "abstract system of properties and static concepts", but a live, moving and ideologically charged way of doing (in the sense of POSTUPOK -- an act towards another person which caries an ethical charge) by creating and shaping relationships and positions (vistas). Through this live process of making relationships and connections through dialogues, learners of a language also build paradigmatic structures of concepts, structures that they can organize and reorganize at the moment's notice (through metaphors and other so called "figures" of speech -- which, incidentally, is a great way to describe what they are literally doing). Concepts are neither a GOAL, nor an underlying, independently existing STRUCTURE of language: they are, on one hand, just potential ways to gather and shape certain mental tools, AND at the same time they are like instant holograms, that speakers can conjure (using new combinations of previous relations) and instantaneously gesture to one other (not a typo, not a foreigner's error -- I am using "gesture" as a verb). Concepts' "life spans" range from fleeting moments to centuries old -- but they are always a product of relations and relationships in an instant (episode) of a cultural practice (real or imagined).

I am digressing...

Teaching concepts without live content and, even more, without an immediate purpose -- kills the concepts themselves: they actually do not breathe without air (another Voloshinov's metaphor) and their air is a live language that is addressed to someone with a purpose! This SYNTAGMATIC air is what gives them life! It is true that studying concepts and writing about their origins, development , structure and relations between them -- is a purposeful activity in which they have a special position and are, so to speak, re-puposed in another habitat (as we do here). But students of a foreign language usually are there to learn a language -- for the purpose of using it -- not of studying the conceptual aspect of language in itself. This may become their interest -- but not necessarily. Language learners are usually neither linguists, semioticians nor logicians. Language is opaque for the linguists/semioticians/logicans. This opaqueness, its visibility, is great when language itself it in the focus, but when language is opaque, it is an obstacle and a barrier to actually using it for painting pictures with words. (The so called "use/mention" distinction by D. Hoffstadter, "Goddel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, 1979).

Too many children and adults in today's schools spend hours and hours in decontextualized activities trying to make long lists of ingredients and catalogues of possible combinations of fossilized fragments of someone else's concepts. They have many ingredients and seldom learn how to think with them -- unless they are immersed in a practice in which the concepts will live for them for the first time. Conrad could maybe help them experience that life in school from the very beginning.

What do you think?


Dr. Ana Marjanovic-Shane
Assistant Professor of Education
Chestnut Hill College
St. Joseph Hall, 4th Floor, Room #172
e-mails:  Marjanovic-ShaneA@chc.edu
Phone:    215-995-3207

On Apr 13, 2011, at 7:59 PM, David Kellogg wrote:

Ana, Jay:

Yes, I agree. “Jinho has stripey hair” is more novelistic than “Jinho is a Korean boy”, if we take seriously Joseph Conrad’s injunction that the task of a novelist is “to make you see” with words (in his introduction to the very novelistic but not particularly enlightened tale "The Nigger of the Narcissus").

But a teacher’s task is a little different from Conrad's: it is to make you think and talk with words. And my argument was that the "Jiniho is a Korean boy" was a better mdel for "Ann is a non-Korean girl" than "Jinho has stripey hair". I encourage my teachers (by bad example, among other things) to keep their novelizing in their novels and out of the classroom, which is a place for children to learn, and to learn, and to learn to generalize, so that they may some day, if they can, learn to novelize.

I think that when you are writing a novel, you have an enormous amount of SYNTAGMATIC variation: new situations bring entirely new vocabulary. This can be empowering...but only if you have the power to do it, and when you are learning a foreign language which is as different as English from Korean, that is simply not the case.

Of course, being a good raconteur is highly respected, and lucrative, work; it is certainly far more glamorous, and more commercial, than teaching paradigms of vocabulary. But that doesn't make it good teaching. It's only good teaching if it enables children to be good raconteurs.

It only does that if the children can learn the vocabulary they need, and they will only learn it if they can use and reuse it. They can't do that with the pictures always changing. They CAN do it with concepts that are repeated and varied.

The idea that nonvisual conceptualizations are disempowering for children is, I think, a demagogic, and ultimately disempowering one, and behind it lies an idea that is liberal and lazy at best. Looking across the Pacific at what we are told will be our future, I can’t help but feel that the American left shares some responsibility for the simultaneous rise in American education of, on the one hand, a politically (although not intellectually) vigorous “back to basics" movement (now called "race to the top”) whose appeal is by no means limited to white people and, on the other hand, the sort of short-sighted “realism” that will probably mean the death of all that recapitalization was promised to education when Obama ran in 2008 (flirting with Darling-Hammond and eventually marrying Arne Duncan).

Both the “back to the basics” reactionaries and the “pragmatic progressives” are able to say, with some truth, that they are talking about things that will make a real difference in people’s lives (what they do not admit is that that difference will be overwhelmingly negative for all but the already chosen few). Can we always say the same?

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

--- On Tue, 4/12/11, Jay Lemke <jaylemke@umich.edu> wrote:

From: Jay Lemke <jaylemke@umich.edu>
Subject: Re: [xmca] concepts
To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <xmca@weber.ucsd.edu>
Date: Tuesday, April 12, 2011, 8:20 PM

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

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 Marjanovic-Shane
e-mails: anamshane@gmail.com

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

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


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

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


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 White, PhD
University of Colorado Denver
School of Education
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



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


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 White, PhD
University of Colorado Denver
School of Education
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
we do not
know what a key term in the discussion (in this case, concept) is
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
generalizations. How is that idea of generalization related to the idea
of a

A con-cept. With-cept? I have no conception!

On Mon, Apr 11, 2011 at 1:13 PM, Monica Hansen <
monica.hansen@vandals.uidaho.edu> wrote:


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
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
discourse would be to prevent the informing of the former by the latter
LSV found so important."

I would just like to go one further: severing the links between
discourse and scientific discourse would prevent the former(everyday)
informing the latter(scientific). There can be no higher psychological processes, no scientific concepts without everyday concepts because it
the specific and local nature of experience that informs all the others
is informed by the others as well). It is the dialogic nature of
that makes them so fascinating and so powerful.


-----Original Message-----
From: xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu [mailto:xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu]
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"
the sense that a gene is a sort of functional unit, but it has no
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
(If that seems odd, try reading some Frege!)

As the Stanford Encyclopedia article points out, no one has
defined a concept. But the seeming unavoidability of invoking something
'concept' follows from the fact that we humans (and perhaps animals
another seemingly intractable debate) deal not so much with
as with generalities. We talk and write not about this think and that
but this 'kind' of thing and that 'type' of thing. We write not about
specific concept of 'rabbit,' but about 'the notion' of concept.

As Henry James once wrote, "The intellectual life of man consists
wholly in his substitution of a conceptual order for the perceptual
which his experience originally comes." One may disagree with the
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,
LSV wrote of all this, 70 years ago. We have already discussed here his
notion [!] of a system of generality, represented metaphorically by
longitude and latitude on a globe.  He conceived of this system as
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
such"?  I'm not sure what this claim would amount to. There are, and
only be, "concepts for us." Should we avoid reifying concepts?
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
completely the links between everyday discourse and scientific
would be to prevent the informing of the former by the latter that LSV
so important.

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Dr. Ana Marjanovic-Shane
Assistant Professor of Education
Chestnut Hill College
St. Joseph Hall, 4th Floor, Room #172
e-mails:  Marjanovic-ShaneA@chc.edu
Phone:    215-995-3207

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