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FW: [xmca] activity (was concepts)
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- Subject: FW: [xmca] activity (was concepts)
- From: anna sfard <email@example.com>
- Date: Sat, 23 Apr 2011 08:04:50 +0300
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Yes, Jay, I fully agree that this tendency to think in routines, in terms of "something to do" even when dealing with most abstract of concepts never really goes away. I have just finished editing my ex-students paper presenting a study on 7th graders just introduced to algebra. Here is one of its conclusions:
"In this classroom, [the tendency to look for a routine, a prescription for an action in an answer to any question] proved so strong that even when appearing to be asking for a definition of noun, the learners were in fact seeking answers to the question of what should be done; and if one wants to be told what to do rather than what something is, definitions are not a proper answer."
And speaking of operational definitions, for me, the *operational* is not tantamount to *functional*. It is broader, and it only means that it provides enough information to make the speaker feel she can be understood on her own terms - and can thus hold a useful conversation (conversations are useless, and even dangerous, when people are using the same words in different ways never acknowledging this fact).
And Jay, you will soon be reading the paper I mentioned above :-) I should thus apologize, I suppose, for disclosing the end of the story.
From: Jay Lemke [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Saturday, April 23, 2011 4:21 AM
To: email@example.com; eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: Re: [xmca] activity (was concepts)
Anna and Vera,
I think it makes a lot of sense that adult differentiations into cultural abstractions do not yet exist for young children, and I certainly believe that the developmental origin of whatever it is we're trying to mean when speaking of "concepts" begins with action routines, particularly with simple, repeatable routines.
Of course, as with all things developmental, this never entirely goes away. It is not superseded or replaced, but added to, layered over, and its functioning altered by the later developments. Not just in mathematics, but also in natural science, there is a strong tradition (in recent times associated with Bridgman, but he's not the only one by far) of "operational definition" of scientific "concepts": their meaning inheres in the sequences of procedures and operations used to measure them as quantities (the narrow version) or to make them observable (the broader version, more associated with quantum mechanics, and interestlngly quite like Latour's view).
Some of my own work on the nature of scientific concepts has argued that they are essentially multi-modal: verbal discourses, visual and symbolic representations, and actional procedures. In all these respects concept-mediated processes are actions, procedures, or something more flexible for which we don't quite have good terminology I think. Strategies-for-doing, or Tools-and-strategies-for-doing ... something along those lines.
What use would count numbers be if they didn't have implied procedures, like adding them or counting up to them? it is the relationship between the procedure and the "concept" that I think is what most needs to be better understood and articulated. We need to go beyond terms like "mediation" to say just what does bring a concept to life as functional activity.
Senior Research Scientist
Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition
University of California - San Diego
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Professor (Adjunct status 2009-11)
School of Education
University of Michigan
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City University of New York
On Apr 22, 2011, at 12:26 AM, anna sfard wrote:
> You made a very important comment, at least as I see it, Vera. Thanks.
> For kids, words do not partition the world in objects mainly, the way they do for grownups. Not even nouns. For the little (and cute) ones, words translate into routines - ways of doing things. One can see it with particular clarity in math. To give just one basic example out of the infinity of possibilities: Numbers begin their existence as procedures of counting - something you can see when your repeated question "How many cookies do I have here?" makes the child to repeat the counting rather than prompting her to simply state the last word she has prfeviously uttered in this process. It will take time till the reification/ objectification of number words occurs. Just like "bottle" serves a baby as a trigger for the routine of getting fed, so are the words such as "many", "more", etc. mere prompts for counting. In this latter case, however, unlike in the former, this procedure (counting) is a social game rather than anything that would have any direct practical significance.
> Thus, I would only make one small linguistic change to what you said: at this early stage, words are not "unifications" of anything - of object with intent or of object and action - because at this point, there is nothing to unify. It is simply that the kid's world has not yet been divided with words the way it is for us. Rather than speaking of unifying, I would emphasize the subsequent processes of, first, partitioning of what so far constituted a whole (e.g. the counting process becomes separate from (is reified into) the last number word - a syntagmatic change, producing ontologically distinct categories of objects and processes) and second, the concomitant complementary process of "saming" of what was not, till now, considered as "the same" (for example, three fingers, three cookies, three stars - paradigmatic change, producing. Above all, categories of objects, such as the one we call "[number] three").
> Hope it makes sense?
> -----Original Message-----
> From: firstname.lastname@example.org [mailto:email@example.com] On Behalf Of Vera John-Steiner
> Sent: Thursday, April 21, 2011 8:31 PM
> To: firstname.lastname@example.org; eXtended Mind, Culture,Activity
> Subject: Re: [xmca] activity (was concepts)
> Hi Andy, Anna et all,
> It seems to me that what we are neglecting in our conversation is the
> concept of unification which is a dialectical process. For the novice
> speaker for whom nouns are easier to produce than verbs, early words stand
> for a phrase "Bottle" stands for "give me the bottle"where the speaker
> intends to benefit from an action.. Even at this simple level there is a
> unification of the object with the subject's intent, The reason why
> Vygotsky's unit of analysis is useful as a model rather than the specificity
> of word meaning is because of this quality of unification. If we thought of
> concepts as an extension of these cognitive acts rather than reducing them
> to objects, we would be more at ease with their use. I know that a solid
> object is the result of underlying Brownian motion, but I do not need to
> keep that in mind when I try to decide whether I can move it. Our concern
> for appropriating cognitivist approaches is so everpresent that it can
> inhibit our ability to use freely what we have learned and what we can add
> tothe thought activity of our "distant teachers."
> ----- Original Message -----
> From: "Andy Blunden" <email@example.com>
> To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
> Sent: Thursday, April 21, 2011 9:39 AM
> Subject: Re: [xmca] activity (was concepts)
> Good ol' Lev is never that unambiguous is he, though? Consider this:
> “This justifies the view that word meaning is an act of speech. In
> psychological terms, however, word meaning is nothing other than a
> generalization, that is, a /concept/. In essence, generalization and
> word meaning are synonyms. Any generalization – any formation of a
> concept – is unquestionably a specific and true act of thought. Thus
> word meaning is also a phenomenon of thinking” (Vygotsky Volume 1: 244).
> Martin Packer wrote:
>> No need to defer - like Anna, I appreciate disagreement! I doubt I'm the
>> better scholar; perhaps the more obsessive. And my ability to understand
>> Russian is entirely mediated by Google Translate!
>> On Apr 21, 2011, at 9:17 AM, ERIC.RAMBERG@spps.org wrote:
>>> I will have to defer to you as I believe you to be the greater scholar as
>>> well as better in translation ( as I alas know only english and pig
>>> latin)> However, instinctively I believe concept to be the dialectic
>>> that allows thinking and speech to merge and become what LSV refers to as
>>> higher psychological processes.
>>> From: Martin Packer <email@example.com>
>>> To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
>>> Date: 04/20/2011 11:30 PM
>>> Subject: Re: [xmca] activity (was concepts)
>>> Sent by: email@example.com
>>> On Apr 20, 2011, at 3:47 PM, Martin Packer wrote:
>>>> I don't know, I think LSV makes it pretty clear that word-meaning is not
>>> the concept. He criticizes Ach, who:
>>>> "identifies concept and word meaning, and thus precludes any possibility
>>> of change and development in concepts" (T&S chapter 6, para 16).
>>> I apologise for my curt message earlier today. As it happens I had been
>>> sitting in a cafe for a couple of hours musing over this very issue, and
>>> when I returned home to read your message I couldn't resist a quick
>>> It seems to me that one way of thinking about what LSV does in T&S is
>>> that he defines what word-meaning [Значение] is by explaining
>>> successively what it is not. That does seem a bit dialectical, doesn't
>>> it? And one of the things that word-meaing is not is concept (ch 7). It
>>> is also not sound (preface and ch 1). Is it not objective reference (ch
>>> And I think this clarifies some of the issues in reading the book. For
>>> example, when in chapter 5 LSV borrows Frege's & Husserl's distinction
>>> between 'sense' and 'reference,' Sinn and Bedeutung should translate as
>>> Смысле and Значение, but LSV has the *former* term as Значение. So
>>> Frege's distinction becomes 'meaning' and 'objective referent.' Why?
>>> Because LSV is using this distinction to make the point that the meaning
>>> is not the object the word refers to, which is a commonsense view and
>>> also that of several psychologists whose work he is critiquing.
>>> In chapter 7, however, when LSV introduces Paulhan's distinction between
>>> 'sense' and 'signification' it is the *latter* term which he calls
>>> Значение, while the former is Смысле. Why? Because although LSV gives
>>> credit to Paulhan for introducing the distinction, he criticizes him for
>>> not solving the problem of the relationship between the two terms. And
>>> meaning, for LSV, is neither Paulhan's sense nor his signification.
>>> Here is the paragraph in full:
>>> Our research has been able to establish three fundamental characteristics
>>> which are linked amongst themselves and which constitute the originality
>>> of the semantic aspect of inner speech. The first fundamental
>>> characteristic is the predominance of the sense [смысла] of a word over
>>> its meaning [значением] in inner speech. Paulhan has rendered a great
>>> service to psychological analysis by introducing the difference between
>>> the sense of a word and its meaning. The sense of a word, as Paulhan has
>>> demonstrated, represents the ensemble of all of the psychological facts
>>> which appear in our consciousness thanks to a word. The sense of a word
>>> is in this way a dynamic, fluid, complex semantic formation which has
>>> several zones of different stability. The meaning is only one of the
>>> areas of sense that the word acquires in a given context, but it is the
>>> zone which is most stable, most unified, and most precise. As is well
>>> known, a word easily changes its sense in different contexts. The
>>> meaning, in contrast, is the immobile and immutable point which remains
>>> stable in diverse contexts. This change in sense in the word is what we
>>> have established as the fundamental fact in the semantic analysis of
>>> speech. The real meaning of a word is not constant. In one operation, the
>>> word has one meaning, and in another it takes on a different meaning.
>>> This dynamicity of meaning brings us to the problem of Paulhan, that is
>>> to say the relationship between meaning and sense. The word, taken by
>>> itself in the dictionary, has only one meaning. But this meaning is
>>> nothing other than the potential which is realized in living language;
>>> this meaning is only the foundation stone of sense.
>>> LSV's word meaning is not signification because it is not a fixed,
>>> dictionary definition. But it is not Paulhan's sense either. Sense is an
>>> important phenomenon, especially for understanding inner speech and its
>>> relation to thought on the one hand and social speech on the other. But
>>> it is not word-meaning. For one thing, LSV points out that Paulhan shows
>>> that sense can actually be detached from the word.
>>> So here too the emphasis is on what word-meaning is not. Not sense, not
>>> sound, not referent, not concept.
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> *Andy Blunden*
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