Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Reading :: The Social Mind

The Social Mind: Construction of the Idea
By Jaan Valsiner and Rene van der Veer

The authors of Understanding Vygotsky and editors of The Vygotsky Reader also wrote this book, which is less Vygotsky-centric but still traces the genealogy of his idea of the social mind:
We are interested here in the ways in which new ideas in the social sciences have been made rigid through social means. The basic sociogenetic credo, that human personal-psychological functioning is a social process, has been invented, and has become a popular slogan in the social sciences. Yet slogans do not make science .... We will examine the social processes of construction of ideas in psychology based on the example of sociogenetic concepts. (p.2)
That is, they are not interested in demonstrating or proving the idea of the social mind—they are interested in seeing how the idea developed. In their view, current claims of the sociality of mind perform some function beyond the descriptive—they have a "missionary spirit: to persuade the world that their viewpoint is the 'right' one" (p.4). They are rhetorical (p.4), and indeed "the Soviet system of the 1930s and 1940s attempted to take over the social sciences," and "the result was that for some decades, the knowledge-constructive activities of scientists were replaced by active rhetoric assertions about the 'righteousness of Soviet science' in contrast to its international counterpart" (p.4). (The authors later note that this milieu led to greater opportunities through denouncing one's rivals for scientific resources: "it was the 'next-door neighbor' (or a competing scientific group) who was the initiator and henchman of the 'Stalinist purges' in everyday life and in 'Soviet psychology' of the 1930s" (p.29).

As you may be able to tell, although the authors want to trace the idea of the social mind in psychology, their route goes through the USSR. They have dedicated chapters on Pierre Janet (Ch.3), James Mark Baldwin (Ch.4), the American pragmatists (Ch.5), George Herbert Mead (Ch.6), and Lev Vygotsky (Ch.8), leading to discussions of today's schools based on the idea of the social mind (Ch.9-10). Rather than reviewing these in detail, I'll pick out some of the relatively more important highlights.

In Chapter 3, the authors discuss Pierre Janet, who argued that "all higher, typically human forms of conduct have a social origin: They exist first between people, as social, interpsychological acts, and only afterwards become transformed to private, intrapsychological processes" (p.122). (The authors note that this claim was made popular by Vygotsky.) Janet discussed memory based on material objects, using the example that Vygotsky later used: knots in handkerchiefs (p.126).

Chapter 4 covers Baldwin. Among other things, the authors note that Baldwin considered "phenomena of discontinuity" through persistent imitation: imitating behavior "starts from an external copy, but transforms it in the process of 'trying and trying again.' The original model that set the given developmental process into motion may soon become unrecognizable. Baldwin was well aware of that implication, which later in Vygotsky's texts became known as the 'fossilization of behavior'" (p.154).

(Readers whose entry point into the social mind was Vygotsky will appreciate these orienting statements, although they tend to make this history Vygotsky-centric.)

Baldwin also uses "the same general argument" as Vygotsky: "(i.e., the non-reducibility of the properties of a molecule, say, water, into its atomic components, a defense of the view of 'analysis-into-units') in their methodological claims in favor of the study of psychological synthesis" (p.159). In a footnote, the authors note that this example dates back to J.S. Mill (1843) and was used widely at the beginning of the 20th century. But—my note—Vygotsky also encountered it in Engels' Dialectics of Nature, where it was used to illustrate dialectics.

In Chapter 5, the authors note that William James' emotion theory later became "a target for Lev Vygotsky's intellectual quesst" (p.208). But "given the advent of the behavioralist belief system in American psychology, most of the sociogenetic thinking became 'exiled' into other areas of social sciences where its theoretical sophistication was tolerated" (p.224)—specifically sociology and philosophy. For instance, Dewey's pragmatism and American sociology "became closely intertwined" in the 1890s at the University of Chicago (p.224).

 Chapter 6 focuses on Mead, whose work has some direct influence on Vygotsky. Drawing on Hegel, Mead "tried to make sense of the dialectics of the human self by viewing the internalization process in inherently dialectical terms," that is, terms that involve one system changing into a "chaotic or fuzzy intermediate state" that eventually engenders "a 'break' with the past in the form of the emergence of a qualitatively novel form of the system" (p.259).

In Chapter 8, we finally get to Vygotsky himself. According to the authors,
Vygotsky's fascination with comparative psychology and Gestalt psychology should be seen against the background of what had become his main goal: to formulate a theory that gives an adequate account of the development, function, and structure of specifically human mental processes. ...
Vygotsky's basic idea was that human ontogeny differs from animal ontogeny and human phylogeny in that it combines the two "lines": the lines of natural and cultural development. In his view, phylogeny consisted of two "stages," a stage of slow biological evolution and a stage of accelerated development after the "invention" of tools and language. Biologically, he reasoned, the human species had not changed much during the last few hundred thousand years. Human natural capacities have essentially remained the same. However, the development of tools and language made rapid cultural growth possible, which resulted in radically changed mental processes. The mental processes of modern human beings are fundamentally different from those of hominids who had only the rudiments of speech and tool use. Thus what we observe in human phylogeny is Vagner's and Severtsov's psychological development without gross morphological change. (p.364) 
As the authors point out, "Vygotsky's view of development and his cultural-historical theory at large borrowed many concepts and findings from the investigations of his predecessors and contemporaries. Many things that now seem original and truly innovative were quite commonplace at the time Vygotsky advanced them" (p.373).

Unfortunately, "Vygotsky's view of conceptual development was not received favorably by his Soviet contemporaries"; it was branded "idealism" (p.377).

The authors go on to discuss other elements of Vygotsky's thought. One problem: "the transformation of cultural instruments or means." Vygotsky argued that in internalization, speech gains different and potentially idiosyncratic qualities. The authors note that if this is so, all prediction becomes "hazardous and inconsistent" (p.380)—limiting Vygotsky's theory as a theory of learning.

In their conclusion of this chapter, the authors argue that Vygotsky wanted to formulate a psychology "that was at once truly human and based on sound biology" (p.382); "In sum, he wished to show animal-human continuity in the spirit of Darwinism and human uniqueness in the spirit of Marxism. He wished to show that human beings had somewhere in human history made the dialectical leap from biological necessity to human self-mastery and freedom" (pp.382-383). This optimism undergirds the key features of his work: "his consistent developmental approach, his anti-reductionism, his interest in comparative psychology, his emphasis on dialectical synthesis," and his focus on word meaning (p.383).

In Chapter 9, the authors move on to contemporary understandings of the social mind. They note that cultural psychology is not a new phenomenon, although it is sometimes presented as new (p.389). But it has three current directions:

  • dialogical perspectives, which "emphasize the notions of discrepancy, opposition, negotiation, and conflict as productive (rather than destructive, or 'abnormal') aspects of the theoretical constructions"
  • socially situated activity, which overlaps the former and which is "the location where human sociality is displayed"
  • symbolic construction, which emphasizes how human minds engage in symbolic construction "as the locus for the social being of the person" (p.389)
Dialogical perspectives appropriate Bakhtin, who of course developed the concept theoretically, not empirically (p.390). The authors briefly discuss the work of Markova and Hermans, then argue that 
Thus not all dialogical approaches are dialectical. Rather, some of the dialogical perspectives incorporate into themselves the construct of unity and contradiction of opposites within the same whole. Only these approaches are dialectical in their nature. Furthermore, of these approaches only some may emphasize the process of synthesis (as emerging from contradictions) as a device for emerging of novelty. In the strictest sense, it is only the latter that could be considered dialectical. (p.391)
The authors then discuss Wertsch's work (pp.391-392) before moving on to "activity-based theoretical elaborations" (p.393). The authors characterize US-based AT as opposing cognitivist stances, carrying on a latent continuity with Deweyan pragmatism, and attacking positivism in mainstream psychology. Meanwhile, European AT implies allegiance to French roots (Janet, Wallon) (p.393).

In sum, this thick book does a great job of stepping back and examining the intellectual history of the social mind. I enjoyed seeing the hidden connections among different strands, especially in how they came together in Vygotsky's work. If you're interested in the social mind, Vygotsky, or activity theory, definitely consider picking up this book.

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