Friday, December 31, 2004

Reading :: Mind in Society (supplemental notes on dialectics)

Originally posted: Fri, 31 Dec 2004 20:04:22
Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes
by L. S. Vygotsky
After reading A Thousand Plateaus, it's a relief to get back to something that makes sense on the first reading. I picked up Mind in Society to revisit Vygotsky's use of dialectics, and ended up breezing through the whole book in the space of a few days.
I reviewed this book a while back, but here are some additional notes on how dialectics play into Vygotsky's work:
Vygotsky based his psychological work on the Marxist framework. For example, he uses Engels' contrast "between natural and dialectic approaches to the understanding of human history. Naturalism in historical analysis, according to Engels, manifests itself in the assumption that only nature affects human beings and only natural conditions affect historical development. The dialectical approach, while admitting the influence of nature on man, asserts that man, in turn, affects nature and creates through his changes in nature new natural conditions for his existence. This position is the keystone of our approach to the study and interpretation of man's higher psychological functions and serves as the basis for the new methods of experimentation and analysis that we advocate" (pp.60-61). Vygotsky goes on to say that stimulus-response theories are naturalistic in this sense: they are unidirectional, assuming that human behavior reacts to nature but does not change nature (p.61). His analytical approach, on the other hand, is based on Engels' assertion that human behavior does change nature. Three analytical principles follow:
- "Analyzing process, not objects." Psychology should be developmental; we should reconstruct stages of development rather than focusing on milestones. We should "trace" development. (pp.61-62)
- "Explanation vs. description." Vygotsky accuses associationist and introspective psychology of being descriptive rather than explanatory, and notes that explanation alone doesn't suffice. His analogy is that, based on description alone, a whale seems closer to a fish than a terrestrial mammal. Rather, we should pursue genotypic (explanatory) rather than phenotypic (descriptive) explanations: "By a developmental study of the problem, I mean the disclosure of its genesis, its causal dynamic basis. By phenotypic I mean the analysis that begins directly with an object's features and manifestations" (p.62). He goes on to give examples from research into early speech development. And he quotes Marx for support (p.63).
- "The problem of 'fossilized' behavior." Since Vygotsky is interested in processes and their explanations, he is drawn to a study of "process that have already died away, that is, processes that have gone through a very long stage of historical development and have become fossilized" (p.63). These -- what I take to be "operations" in the Leontievan sense -- have been around long enough that they have become "mechanized," detached from the activities that originated them. "They have lost their outer appearance," Vygotsky says, and so "their automatic character creates great difficulty for psychological analysis" (p.64) -- particularly Vygotsky's analysis, which must reconstruct their development. Vygotsky says that we can get to this development by focusing, once again, on the process: we can alter the behavior and "turn it back to its source through the experiment" (p.64). We can see him doing this through his many case studies.
Vygotsky summarizes: "To study something historically means to study it in the process of change; that is the dialectical method's basic demand. To encompass in research the process of a given thing's development in all its phases and changes -- from birth to death -- fundamentally means to discover its nature, its essence, for 'it is only in movement that a body shows what it is.' Thus, the historical study of behavior is not an auxiliary aspect of theoretical study, but rahter forms its very base" (pp.64-65). The dialectical method's basic demand, then, is for a historical study of change, particularly in terms of the qualitative transformations that an organism undergoes.
Vygotsky amplifies this point in his discussion of child development. "Our concept of development implies a rejection of the frequently held view that cognitive development results from the gradual accumulation of separate changes. We believe that child development is a complex dialectical process characterized by periodicity, unevenness in the development of different functions, metamorphosis or qualitative transformation of one form into another, intertwining of external and internal factors, and adaptive processes which overcome impediments that the child encounters" (p.73).
In their afterword, Vera John-Steiner and Ellen Souberman call Vygotsky's method "interactionalist-dialectical" (p.124) -- a good term, since there are plenty of psychological theories that are interactionalist but not dialectical.
A few things might strike us here. First, Vygotsky's relentless focus on development is, as he says, based on the Marxist dialectical account. Recall that Deleuze & Guattari declare dialectics "dead" because of multiplicity (see my more recent review of A Thousand Plateaus): signs don't simply develop, they form interconnections that are antimemories, antigenealogies, antihistories. Serres and Latour make similar charges. Vygotsky's whole thesis, that psychology is developmental, tends to elide the sorts of ahistorical associations that these other authors highlight. In fact, Vygotsky explicitly argues against an associational understanding of psychology. This makes some sense given the problems on which Vygotsky was working, but it also suggests that there might not be enough room in his approach for nondevelopmental phenomena.
We can also contrast with Bakhtin, who was working at about the same time on his philosophy of language. Like Vygotsky, Bakhtin was conscious of cultural-historical development and wanted to produce an interactionist understanding of it. But Bakhtin, unlike Vygotsky, thought in terms of dialogue rather than dialectic. Vygotsky's interactionalist-dialectical approach -- in my tentative reading -- assumes historical development of a unitary consciousness through a series of dialectical events, i.e., a series of interactions with the environment. Bakhtin's interactionist-dialogical approach, on the other hand, does not assume a unitary consciousness or a permanent settlement. The "voices of the mind" (see Wertsch) are voices of different participants interacting, never coming to a permanent agreement that would produce a unity of consciousness. That is to say, Bakhtin's dialogism provides a basis for a cultural-historical understanding of associations; perhaps Vygotsky's dialectical materialism does not. And maybe that's why I recognized so much Bakhtin in the more lucid patches of A Thousand Plateaus.
Obviously I'm in the middle of thinking through these issues, and I'm pretty sure things are not so clear cut. I'm planning to reread Vygotsky's Thought and Language soon, along with parts of Morson and Emerson's Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics, so hopefully I'll have more answers soon.

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