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Re: [xmca] concepts

Thanks, Monica, for these thoughts and questions. It's been a busy week and I am just working my way through more xmca postings.

One possible suggestion for getting at some of your questions about how much authentic meaning-making is going on in kids writing is to broaden the mediating means -- what happens if they try to connect their written texts with drawing pictures? or enacting a playlet? or building something? While there are some aspects of meaning-making that are bound to particular sign systems, in general I think the sort of flexible meaning-making we associate with conceptual understanding crosses over from one to another, or more subtly, it flows through and among them. When we restrict our meaning-making artificially to just one medium (or one genre, or one topic) it becomes much harder to tell the difference between rote and living meanings.


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 13, 2011, at 10:19 AM, Monica Hansen wrote:

> Jay:
> I like your use of "considerable historical baggage of ideologies". This is
> the same baggage that we contend with in teaching curriculum and
> instruction. What of best practice research is designed on the tacit
> implications of this so-called baggage? Thankfully, a marked shift in
> thinking about the social and cultural factors of learning has made its way
> into the discourse. 
> The full-embodiment of all these shifts--in thinking of concepts, in
> conceptualization of learning, in the conceptualization of theory and
> science, and in learning as a science--is still, I agree, subject to the
> weight of the respective baggage. 
> I appreciate your statement that all concepts are cultural constructions.
> Lakoff and Johnson (1999) suggest an argument against those who say, what
> about the universals--those things that are true for all people across all
> cultures--by reminding us that if our knowledge and ability to know is
> embodied, and we have similar bodies, then there will be a certain amount of
> our individual experience that resounds with experience of others. Overall,
> I think some researchers and scientists, just like all people, are afraid to
> let one reality go because we all fear chaos (especially teachers and
> parents who have been in a classroom that is "out of control").
> Stability=comfort. I am not so much bothered by the idea that things change
> and so do ideas because I am comforted by the fact that even so, many things
> stay the same! Expecting that things will change, expecting that the
> students in my classes will grow and learn is okay by me.
> I am working on several ideas right now in relation to my project on the
> reflective writing of second and fourth graders: imagery/mental
> representation, words and meaning, and larger meaningful constructions like
> declarative statements of concepts/propositions. In thinking about what it
> is that these student have constructed in writing I am considering many of
> these questions: What is recalled from sensorimotor memory, Is it just
> words? Is it meaningful? Is it demonstrations of concepts? And knowing what
> the objectives of the lessons were in the activities, were any of the
> concepts reported? How does a child's knowledge of conventional words and
> forms of writing assist or diminish what they intend to communicate? How
> much is their writing an artifact of the influence of their instruction
> about writing? What is it that they mean, if it is not one of my categories
> or if it is not conventional? If children of this age are not really able to
> think in concepts, what is it that they are writing exactly about what they
> are learning? There are so many questions! 
> Overall, this discussion has been a wonderful working diversion thanks to
> the contribution of all of the contributors on XMCA.  
> -----Original Message-----
> From: xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu [mailto:xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu] On
> Behalf Of Jay Lemke
> Sent: Sunday, April 10, 2011 6:37 PM
> To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
> Subject: Re: [xmca] concepts
> Martin, Andy, and all --
> We are planning to have some discussions around the Concept of a Concept and
> its/our Discontents over the next few weeks here in the Lab.
> We'll see what that turns up. Meanwhile, I'll just say that I am uneasy with
> a lot of our Western philosophical tradition around "concepts" and precisely
> the way it overlaps with folk-theory discourse in particular modern
> historical epochs (and particulars cultures, not to mention social classes,
> etc.) deeply rooted in mentalism and individualism.
> Obviously LSV and many others, including most of us, have been working to
> find more materialist and trans-individual ways of dealing with the
> phenomena for which the notion of a concept normally serves, and brings with
> it its considerable historical baggage of ideologies we mostly don't share
> or like.
> I don't believe that abstract-level reasoning, or the use of categories, at
> all demands a notion of "concept" such as we usually have it. Concepts are,
> I think, inherently reifications. Not in the sense that they put us in mind
> of some real material thing, which they don't, but in the sense that they
> claim a "thing-like" semantic status (they are named, by nouns, qualified by
> adjectives, even counted in some quarters! and used as the agents and
> objects of verbs) ... all of which is very un-process-like, very
> un-dynamical, very Platonist not just in the sense of edging towards giving
> Ideas causal force but in the sense of supporting an unchanging universal
> Order.
> Higher intellectual reasoning and action-problem-solving processes, fully
> embodied, always essentially feeling-guided as well as logically
> describable, seem to me to be ones in which the mediational processes are
> protean, flexible, fuzzy, productively ambiguous, leaping beyond logic and
> then cleaning up after themselves for the sake of formal propriety.
> Categories are made, modified, and discarded as the moment demands. To say
> the same thing twice (i.e. in two events or contexts), the root of what we
> usually call generalization or abstraction, is always an approximation,
> always a judgment about the relative relevance of making things appear
> similar vs. highlighting their differences. Fixed abstractions are cultural
> conventions, supported by institutions, disciplines, and paradigms. They are
> limiting, and meant to be limiting, they are tools of social and cultural
> control. Higher-order intellectual processes become creative precisely
> insofar as we liberate ourselves from the notion that the Given Concepts
> worshipped around us are anything more than signposts and reference points
> in a much larger space of possible ways of doing and representing and
> reasoning.
> Are there really "fixed knots"? I would only go so far as to say there is
> Something, indeed, even that while colloquial is too thing-like. Processes
> are happening, dynamics is happening, chaos fills the pleroma, and there are
> only two certainties: difference and change. The Great Happening is not
> homogeneous and uniform in any dimension, including space and time. The
> Kantian a priori's are nothing of the sort. They are just one set of roots
> to which one culture's view of reality can be reduced if you wish to do so.
> Modern physics has made a hash of both space and time, not mention cause.
> Dynamics, on and across some scales, creates and defines space and time as
> we experience them and measure them. But there is no necessity about this.
> It's just one method of bookkeeping. I go not with Plato but with
> Herakleitos: Panta rhei, ouden de menei. Everything is in flux, nothing
> persists. Only the timescales differ. There are no stable knots in the
> chaos, only transient ways of making do, one of which likes to hold on to
> its imagined knots.
> So, I'm not basically interested in saying What Things Are, including what
> concepts "are", but rather in saying How Events Happen, including events in
> which we might be tempted to provisionally agree that that some "higher
> intellectual processes" were happening. I don't think we could ever define
> those as such, but we could become a dynamical system in which we could get
> something worthwhile done while provisionally agreeing to count some
> event-specific processes as if they were instances.  :-)
> I'll try to relay some of what gets said in our Lab discussions on the
> usability of "concepts" to the list, or encourage others to do so.
> JAY. 
> 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
> www.umich.edu/~jaylemke 
> Professor Emeritus
> City University of New York
> On Apr 10, 2011, at 11:32 AM, Martin Packer wrote:
>> 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. 
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