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[xmca] Vygotsky's Sunbeam and Lewin's Overcoat
Our discussion of Professor Chaiklin’s article has (correctly) focused on action research, where Vygotsky and Lewin can be seen as two independent variants of a common theme, that is, the non-separation of social research from psychological research, and of both from transformative action.
Before we take up another article, though, I’d like to consider some striking differences, not only between Lewin and Vygotsky but between Luria and Vygotsky circa 1930-1931 on the one hand and Vygotsky circa 1933-34 (during his period of direct contact with Lewin) on the other.
In “Tool and Sign in Child Development”, Vygotsky and Luria borrow a number of tools from Gestaltism and Kurt Lewin: the idea of “vectors” in a field, for example, and the idea that speech simply extends the child’s perceptual field to the future (planning) and to the past (memory). The picture of development that appears is really a structural picture: the tool and the sign enter into a new structure, which is well described by “mediation” and the strong analogy between tools and signs (i.e. that they are both variations on the idea of mediated action).
But in Chapter Seven of Thinking and Speech Vygotsky subjects Gestaltism to rather savage criticism. In particular, the idea that speech simply has the structure of “problemàsolution” or “stickàbanana” is taken to task. In Part One, Vygotsky says that this is essentially no different from the old associative relationship between a man and his coat.
Of course, it is true that when the sun shines I can take off my coat, and when the wind blows I cling to it harder, as the man in Aesop’s fable. But whether the sun shines or the wind blows, the coat does not grow into my flesh, nor does my epidermis begin to form seams, buttons, and zippers. They form a structure; they do not fundamentally transform each other.
Vygotsky wittily points out that this is, in the end, the old associationist psychology in another guise (which is why he ends Section One with a world-weary reference from Heine, who is commenting on how similar the new Bonapartist regime in France is to the old one). But he also objects that this view cannot account for the clear distinction between higher and lower psychological functions (for Gestaltists, and especially for Lewin, figure-ground perception is the model for mental functions in general).
The Lewin view (which is still that of Vygotsky and Luria in 1930) doesn’t give us a very clear mechanism for the operation of the genetic law. Somehow artifacts “bring” culture from the social environment into the mind. They are not neutral stimuli but culturally marked in some way. In what way?
Signs are not like tools. They stand for something else TO SOMEONE ELSE. That is, they always imply a second person and another consciousness in a way that tools do not. We can say of signs (but not of tools) that what is impossible for one is inevitable for two. We can say of signs (but not of tools) that they are initially “external” to consciousness but that they become “interiorized”, and in so doing they change their own structure and the structure of consciousness itself. The ability to say these two things seems essential to the operation of the four “genetic laws” in Mescheryakov 2006 (which, Spinozan that I am, I cannot help but think of as one basic principle, namely “Outside In” or perhaps “Two Before One”)
In Tchaikovsky’s opera “Iolantha”, based on Henrik Herz’s play “King Rene’s Daughter”, a Moorish doctor called Ibn Hakia acts as a mediator between the philosophical dualism of the King and the monism of the author. Although a Muslim, he has clearly read Maimonides and Spinoza.
“Two worlds, mind-made and ;made of flesh
Make up God’s realm. In us, His will
Made them inseparable friends. And so
Before light can flood our mortal eyes
We must feel the concept of vision
Within our minds.”
When Iolantha’s sight is at last restored she thanks God in terms that Vygotsky clearly took up in the closing moments of Chapter Seven:
Even in your smallest creatures
The light shines like sunlight in a drop of water. :
Seoul National University of Education
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