Tuesday, January 04, 2005

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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