Friday, May 22, 2015

Reading :: Language and Cognition

Language and Cognition
By A.R. Luria

Here's another book that I won't be able to review adequately. The material is thick and draws across many disciplines (Luria began in psychology, then studied neurology, then drew from linguistics and a number of other areas). But I'll hit what I think are the highlights for my current project.

First, the introduction, which James Wertsch wrote for this 1981 English edition. Wertsch asserts that "one can identify the origins of almost every aspect of Luria's approach in Vygotsky's writings of the 1920s and 1930s. However, that does not mean that Luria simply added a few minor details to a complete theoretical framework. His development of Vygotsky in light of modern linguistic and neurophysiological research constitutes a major accomplishment" (p.2). Wertsch notes that Luria acknowledged his debt to Vygotsky (p.2) and identifies three themes that characterize their research:
(1) the use of genetic (or developmental) explanation, (2) the search for the social origins of human psychological functioning, and (3) an emphasis on the role of sign systems in mediating social and individual processes. These three themes provided the cornerstones of Vygotsky's attempt to reformulate psychology on Marxist foundations. They have guided the research of Luria as well as the research of Vygotsky's other followers (e.g., D.B. El'konin, P.Ya. Gal'perin, A.N. Leont'ev, and A.V. Zaprozhets). (p.3)
Note that this claim papers over the differences between Vygotsky and the others, specifically in point (3). It's not inaccurate, but it does portray the relationship in the same way that Leont'ev chose to portray it after winning the Lenin Prize in 1963 and as Luria later portrayed it in his autobiography. Wertsch follows this line in describing Vygotsky, Leontiev, and Luria as the "troika," with the latter two developing the ideas of the first. Luria "developed Vygotsky's ideas in the areas of neurophysiology, neuropsychology, developmental psychology, neurolinguistics, and cross-cultural studies" and Leontiev "developed the philosophical foundations of a general Marxist psychology" (p.8). And Wertsch notes that Luria was deeply influenced by Leontiev's work, using terms such as "activity," "action," and "operation" the same way that activity theorists do (p.8).

Now to the book itself. The sixteen chapters cover a range of material: the problem of language in consciousness (Ch.1), words and word meanings (Ch.2-3), concept development and semantic fields (Ch.4-5), speech, inner speech, and thought (Ch.6-7), sentences, complex utterances, and speech utterances (Ch.8-11), comprehension, language, and discursive thinking (Ch.12-16).

The book's debt—or perhaps careful obesiance—to Marxism-Leninism is evident from the first page of the first chapter, in which Luria approvingly quotes Lenin: "Lenin pointed out repeatedly that the study of cognition, and hence of science, is not so much a study of things in and of themselves, as the interrelationship among them" (p.17). Lenin said a lot of things, and many of them contradicted each other, but Luria expertly uses this quote to frame the problem of cognition in Vygotksy's terms:
What was Vygotsky's proposal? His basic position sounds paradoxical. It is as follows: In order to explain the highly complex forms of human consciousness one must go beyond the human organism. One must seek the origins of conscious activity and "categorical" behavior not in the recesses of the human brain or in the depths of the spirit, but in the external conditions of life. Above all, this means that one must seek these origins in the external processes of social life, in the social and historical forms of human existence. (p.25, his emphasis)
Luria asserts that
humans differ from other animals because, with the transition to sociohistorical existence, to labor, and to the forms of social life associated with it, all basic categories of man's behavior undergo a radical change. Human activity is founded on social labor and the division of social labor. These aspects of human life give rise to new forms of behavior that are independent of biological motives. Direct, instinctive behavior yields to complex, indirect behavior. (p.26)
He goes on to cite Leontiev on the structure of activity. Notice that although the origin of man is consonant with both Vygotsky's and Leontiev's accounts (which are both drawn from Engels), the interpretation is Leontiev's: labor, not sign systems, is taken to be the crucial foundation. But Luria also gives language its due, again drawing from the Engels origin story:
As Engels correctly pointed out, it was in the process of social labor that the need arose for people to say something to each other, to specify the situation in which they are participating, and to convey the information which emerges as a result of the division of labor. ... The birth of language led to the appearance of a whole system of codes signifying objects and actions. ... (pp.26-27)
That system of codes came to assume a decisive importance for the further development of human conscious activity. ... (p.27)
Language, in the course of social history, became the decisive instrument which helped humans transcend the boundaries of sensory experience, to assign symbols, and to formulate certain generalizations or categories. That is, if humans had not possessed the capacity for labor and had not had language, they would not have developed abstract, "categorical" thinking. (p.27)
No language, no labor, no abstract thought or categorical behavior. So, Luria counsels us, seek their origins "in the social forms of human historical existence"; this is "the basic position of a Marxist psychology" (p.27).

Throughout the rest of the book, Luria repeatedly credits Vygotsky with advances: understanding that "word meaning" and thus the structure of consciousness "develops even after the object reference of the word is stabilized" (p.53); formulating the zone of proximal development (pp.64-65); understanding voluntary acts when superficial Pavlovians and behaviorists couldn't (p.89); truly understanding inner speech when the Piagetans couldn't (p.104); and understanding a thought as completed in, not simply embodied by, speech (p.150). He sometimes explains Vygotsky's observations from Luria's own vantage point as a neurologist (ex: p.108).

Luria contrasts monologic and dialogic speech in Ch.11, but not in a Bakhtinian sense. He argues (implausibly to my mind) that written speech is always monologic, clarifying, and without an addressee (p.166)—"written speech... always remains speech in the absence of an interlocutor" (p.167).

Overall, the book constitutes such a broad sweep, and Luria delves into fields that are unfamiliar enough to me, that I had a hard time getting my arms around this book. I think I'll return to it. And of course I recommend it to those of you who are interested in activity theory.

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