Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Reading :: Activity, Consciousness, and Personality (supplemental notes on dialectic)

Originally posted: Tue, 04 Jan 2005 22:40:35
I've reviewed this book before, but I reread it with an emphasis on dialectical materialism, just as I have recently done with Vygotsky's books. Some fumbling observations:
First, Leontiev is writing considerably later than Vygotsky. Vygotsky's books were published in the 1930s; Leontiev's conclusion cites a journal from 1974. In the space of those four decades Soviet psychology had changed quite a bit due to the work of Leontiev, Luria, Rubenstein, etc. World War II, the Cold War, and the Stalinist years all happened. So it's a little surprising -- but on the other hand, perhaps not surprising at all -- that Leontiev is still working on many of the same problems and tying his work even more closely to Marx's and Engels' work. Take this passage from the introduction: "Here, however, we are concerned with something else: with the working out on a Marxist philosophical basis of the special problems of the methodology of psychology as a concrete science. This requires penetration into the 'internal economics,' so to speak, of theoretical thought" (p.3). This analogizing of psychology with economics is more than protective coloring for the censors, I think; it also suggests to me that Marxist psychology had trouble developing beyond Marx's original ideas.
Foremost among those ideas is dialectical materialism. Of that, Leontiev says: "Not only concepts but also our sensory representations are dialectical. For this reason they are capable of fulfilling a function that cannot be reduced to the role of set standard models corresponding to the effects received by receptors from isolated objects. Like the psychic image, representations exist insepearable from the subject's activity, and they fill it with the riches accumulated in them and make it alive and creative" (p.43). In case we don't get the message, in his conclusion he approvingly cites the English authors of the journal Cognition (1974): "The only alternative to reductionism is dialectic materialism." "This is actually so," he adds. "Scientific resolution of the problem, biological and psychological, psychological and social, is simply impossible outside the Marxist system of analysis" (p.142). Consequently, throughout the book we see the same sort of on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand, look-let's-put-the-hands-together (dialectical) reasoning that Vygotsky used throughout Thought and Language. For instance, on p.61, the distinction between internal and external activity is portrayed in these terms.
Clearly Vygotsky has had a deep impact on this work. In addition to the occasional cites, Leontiev uses concepts that seem genetically related to Vygotsky's. For instance: Thought and Language is still fresh on my mind, so when Leontiev says that "Human activity does not exist except in the form of action or a chain of actions" (p.64), I realized that there's quite a bit of similarity between Leontiev's three-level scheme of activity (operation-action-activity) and Vygotsky's discussion of complexes vs. concepts. Just as concepts are "higher" forms of thinking that provide unity at a level of abstraction and represent a higher level of development, actions are "higher" principles of goal-directed organization. Just as complexes can be in chains, so are operations essentially chains. Actions and operations might appear identical, but the difference is that one is goal-directed and the other is not, one is conscious and purposeful while the other is unconscious and reactionary, one is related to goals and the other is related to conditions (p. 65); compare to concepts vs. pseudoconcepts. And also compare these to Vygotsky's take on dialogue as a chain of reactions.
But Leontiev has developed this notion of developmental levels into a hierarchy and has also developed the notion of tool mediation quite a bit more. Here, I think Marx is his guide, as when he says that tools are "obviously" where methods and operations are crystallized, not goals or conditions (p.66).
Although Leontiev is keenly interested in tools, most of his work has to do with connecting individual and societal activity. Of this activity, he says, "The activity of man historically does not change its general structure, its 'macrostructure.' At all stages of historical development, it is realized by conscious actions in which a transition of goals into objective products is accomplished and which is subordinated to the modives that elicit it. What is radically changed is the character of the relationships that connect goals and motives of activity" (p.91). These relationships don't just form activity, they form consciousness. "Thus man's consciousness, like activity itself, is not additive. It is not a plane, nor even a volume, filled with images and processes. It is not connections of his separate 'units' but an internal movement of his formers, activities included in total movement realizing the real life of the individual in society. The activity of man makes up the substance of his consciousness" (p.95).
And here we get back to the dialectical reasoning that we see throughout much of the book. Leontiev criticizes psychology for dividing psychological factors into heredity and environment (nature and nurture) (p.101). When we examine individuals, we find that the two factors have a dialectical relationship: "The personality, like the individual, is a product of the integration of processes that realize the life relationships of the subject. There exists, however, a fundamental difference of this special formation, which we call personality. It is determined by the nature of the very relationships that form it: the social relations specific for man into which he enters in his objective activity." And "like these activities themselves, the process of their unification -- origin, development, and disintegration of the connections between them -- is a process of a special type, subject to special laws" (p.109). Again, we see this focus on "integration of processes" that we saw in Vygotsky, and this integration is conceived as dialectical.
(Note to myself: Go back and compare this notion of mediation with Latour's account from Pandora's Hope. How thoroughly is dialectic integrated into activity theory's account of mediation?)
Back to personality formation. Leontiev criticizes the "fetishism" that dominates psychology, in which personality is attributed to the nature of the individual, whereas its manifestations change "under the influence of external environment alone" (p.109). This fetishism "is the result of ignoring that most important position that the subject, entering into society in a new system of relationships, also acquires new -- systemic -- qualities that alone form the real character of the personality: psychological when the subject is considered within the system of activities realizing his life in society, social when we consider him in the system of objective relationships in society as their 'personification'" (pp.109-110). He says that the principal methodological problem is "the problem of duality of qualities of social objects, which is engendered by the duality of the objective relationships in which they exist." But "the true way to investigate personality lies in the study of those transformations of the subject ... which are the result of the self-movement of his activity in the system of social relations" (p.110).
In terms of personality, "'knots' that connect separate activities are tied not by the action of biological or spiritual forces of the subject which lie within him but by that system of relationships into which the subject enters" (p.114). Leontiev here is talking about the interrelated activities into which the individual enters, not the interrelationship of chained activities -- the latter has been underdeveloped in activity theory until recently. His example: A child is asked to get an object that was out of reach, without leaving his place. "As soon as the child began to solve the problem the experimenter went into an adjoining room from which he continued the observation, using the optical apparatus that is usually used for such observations. After a series of unsuccessful attempts, the child got up, approached the object, took it, and quietly returned to his place. The experimenter immediately came to the child, praised him for success, and offered him a piece of chocolate as a reward. The child, however, refused it and when the experimenter began to question him the youngster quietly began to cry." Leontiev says that the child wept because he found himself in a conflict or "collision" between two activities (p.114). These sorts of coordinations -- and conflicts -- among activities are evidence of the forming of personality (p.115). "Behind the relationship of activities there is a relationship of motives" (p.115).
Leontiev discusses the development of the child's personality through relationships to things and people -- two different types of relationships that are initially merged, "but later they separate and form various, although interconnected, lines of development merging one with another." These transitions "are expressed in alternating phases": practical and cognitive phases alternating with societal phases. "As a result, there appear those hierarchical connections of motives that form the 'knots' of personality" (p.126). Compare to Bakhtin's explanation of dialogue, which is developmentally less rich and well grounded, but which also doesn't rely on dialectic and allows for "unmerged" aspects of personality.

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Reading :: Thought and Language

Originally posted: Tue, 04 Jan 2005 01:30:26
Thought and Language (First Edition)
by Lev S. Vygotsky
I was stunned to realize that I hadn't yet written a review of this classic book by Lev Vygotsky, the giant of developmental psychology whose cultural-historical approach became the basis for activity theory. This first edition of Thought and Language was published by MIT Press in 1962 with a foreword by Jerome Bruner. I understand that the second edition (1986) includes more text that was not originally translated and included in this version, so I'll have to go to UT's library soon and pick it up.
Even without those materials, though, the first edition is still a valuable piece of work. Based on the Russian book published posthumously in 1934, Thought and Language is a criticism of then-current scholarship regarding language acquisition and a description of an alternate thesis. Vygotsky based his theoretical and methodological insights on dialectical materialism and supported them with considerable work with small children -- though that work was not always terribly careful. (In the foreword to Mind in Society, Mike Cole explains that Vygotsky was suffering from tuberculosis and knew he didn't have much time to experimentally develop all of his work.)
Although Vygotsky's empirical work was primarily with children, his goal was larger than that; it was an attempt to develop a theory of general language use. Here, I think his reach exceeded his grasp. Although Vygotsky developed some valuable and important concepts, his focus on development and his allegiance to dialectic tend to get in the way of a general theory of language. That is to say, language acquisition is not necessarily the same as language use, and the latter question is neither as well explored nor as well thought out as the former in this book. In contrast to Bakhtin, who was developing his own philosophy of language at about this time, Vygotsky seems simultaneously more knowledgeable and grounded (in terms of language development) and more naive (in terms of how language is used in everyday adult life).
Before developing this idea, let's get a sense of Vygotsky's general direction. Vygotsky, as I said, worked primarily with children and was interested in language acquisition. He complains in Chapter 1 that many language researchers try to take an "elemental" approach in breaking language down into elements such as sound and meaning, and famously uses the illustration of water. You can break down water into its elements -- hydrogen and oxygen -- but you can't learn much about water that way. Hydrogen and oxygen are flammable, but water isn't. To understand water, you need to study the essential unit of analysis, the water molecule (pp.3-4). Similarly, to study language, you have to look for the essential unit of analysis, which he identifies as word meaning (p.5). Readers might recognize the "germ cell" notion that Engestrom uses so much and that has its roots in Marx. "Since word meaning is both thought and speech, we find in it the unit of verbal thought we are looking for" (p.5) --- it embodies a dialectical relationship between thought and speech. "Every idea," Vygotsky says later in the chapter, "contains a transmuted affective attitude toward the bit of reality to which it refers. It further permits us to trace the path from a person's needs and impulses to the specific direction taken by his thoughts, and the reverse path from his thoughts to his behavior and activity" (p.8). That is, Vygotsky wants to develop a historical-genetic account of language acquisition and thought, an interactionist-dialectic account that allows us to retrace the developmental steps.
The interactive-dialectical relationship is used quite a bit in this book: thought-speech (p.5, 33, 125), adaptation-need (p.21), invented-given (p.33), concepts-complexes (p.74), learning-development (most of Ch.6). The concepts-complexes relationship in particular is viewed as a "ceaseless struggle" (p.74), while the thought-speech relationship is seen as "growth curves" that "cross and recross" (p.33; cf Mind in Society p.46). In each case, the pair has an interactive relationship in which both sides develop in concert, qualitatively and teleologically. It's understandable that this sort of relationship be used to characterize language acquisition, which certainly follows a particular, predictable path -- and as I think Vygotsky shows, it's a more satisfactory account of language acquisition than Piaget's or Stern's. But it's also very interesting to me that this relationship is characterized not only as interactive but as dialectical, not only as developmental but as genetic (in the educational sense, not the human genome sense). The emphasis on these particular characterizations, I think, comes from the fact that Vygotsky was basing his work on Marx's work. Although this translation barely uses the term "dialectic," I sense that it's deeply embedded in the work, such as in these theses on the thought-speech relationship:
In brief, we must conclude that:
1. In their ontogenetic development, thought and speech have different roots;
2. In the speech development of the child, we can with certainty establish a preintellectual stage, and in his thought development, a prelinguistic stage;
3. Up to a certain point in time, the two follow lines independently of each other;
4. At a certain point these lines meet, whereupon thought becomes verbal and speech rational. (p.44)
Thought and speech are different -- thought is not just internalized speech, speech is not just expressed thought -- but they don't meet their potential until they enter a predictable, developmental interactional-dialectic relationship. At that point they meet and they irrevocably change each others' character, though they never entirely merge. Indeed, "all the higher psychic functions are mediated processes, and signs are the basic means used to master and direct them" (p.56); thought only becomes higher thought by becoming verbal, by being mediated with signs.
This insight is incredibly valuable and carries us quite a ways, helping us to examine language acquisition and use in more complex ways than before. But at the same time, dialectic spells trouble when we get to general language philosophy and use. If dialectic is the ruling principle for language use, then non-dialectical interaction -- for instance, a dialogue in which nothing gets resolved, or a relationship that is indeterminate or multivalent -- can only be seen as abnormal or defective. I think that's the problem behind Vygotsky's discussion of complexes vs. concepts in Ch.5.
Here, Vygotsky explains that concept formation happens in three stages. The first is when the child solves problems by placing items in unorganized heaps. "At this stage, word meaning denotes nothing more to the child than a vague syncretic conglomeration of individual objects that have somehow or other coalesced into an image in his mind. Because of its syncretic origin, that image is highly unstable" (pp.59-60).
The second stage is what they call "thinking in complexes." "In a complex, individual objects are united in the child's mind not only by his subjective impressions but also by bonds actually existing between those objects. This is a new achievement, an ascent to a much higher level" (p.61). "In a complex, the bonds between its opponents are concrete and factual rather than abstract and logical" (p.61). Vygotsky and his colleagues identify five types of complexes:
- associative: Based on a common trait, similarity, contrast, or proximity (p.62).
- collections "on the basis of some one trait in which they differ and consequently complement one another" (p.63).
- chains: "a dynamic, consecutive joining of individual links into a single chain, with meaning carried over from one to the next" -- although that meaning might change from one end of the chain to the other (p.64).
- diffuse: "marked by the fluidity of the very attribute that unites its single elements"; that attribute may be based on "a dim impression that they have something in common" (p.65).
- pseudo-concept: it looks like conceptual thinking, but it's still a complex. For instance, when a child is asked to pick out all the triangles, he can do it, but on the basis of visible likeness (associative) rather than on the basis of concepts. The pseudo-concept is the bridge to concepts (p.66). It is "a complex already carrying the germinating seed of a concept" (p.69).
Yes, a germinating seed. One can see how the Marxist narrative of development guides this discussion of language development. And it leads to the third stage, the concept, which is a unifying theme (p.69) that allows the language user to transcend complexes and transcend the given language to form her own understandings and groups (p.67). This is where the discussion goes off the tracks, I think, because we go from language acquisition to language philosophy. Complexes, Vygotsky says, characterize not only children's thought but also the thought of primitive peoples: "Primitive people also think in complexes, and consequently the word in their languages does not function as the carrier of a concept but as a 'family name' for groups of concrete objects belonging together, not logically, but factually" (p.72). And not only primitives, but us, in the etymologies of our common words (p.73)! And this brings us to the "ceaseless struggle within the developing language between conceptual thought and the heritage of primitive thinking in complexes" -- a struggle that is not so ceaseless after all in terms of individual words, since the concept usually wins (p.74).
That's a troublesome conclusion to draw, since the implication is that modern (as opposed to primitive) societies converge on single abstract meanings of words and leave behind the childish associational meanings. Compare to Bakhtin's decidedly different understanding, in which the word is half someone else's and words can recall interactive but nonconvergent dialogues. It's easy to see now what Deleuze and Guattari meant when they said that multiplicity had killed off dialectic: once you accept that words always have these multiple meanings and, yes, associations, Vygotsky's notion of concept formation becomes untenable -- at least as I understand it here. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that complexes, as Vygotsky calls them, are still quite plentiful in fully developed adult speech and concepts -- though perhaps developmentally "higher" or later -- cannot supplant them.
Perhaps this notion of dialectic development is what makes the final chapter, on general language use, seem flat. Vygotsky uses examples from literature, including Dostoevsky's story of the drunks carrying on a conversation composed of a single unprintable word, but he sees dialogue as a "chain of reactions" (p.144) -- something that sounds rather similar to the chain complex -- rather than something in which viewpoints are exchanged without necessary agreement. There's something very linear about Vygotsky's depiction of dialogues and of development. Again, compare with Bakhtin.
Still, this is a fascinating book. I'm going to have to pick up the second edition, but I also need to review Morson and Emerson's compare-and-contrast between Bakhtin and Vygotsky.

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