Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Reading :: Mind, Self, and Society

Mind, Self, and Society

I read this book (Kindle edition, so I refer to locations rather than pages) quite a while ago, but have not gotten around to reviewing it until now. As with most of my other reading over the last few years, this one relates to Vygotsky, who read and was influenced by Mead. I don't think Vygotsky read this specific book—it was put together posthumously by Mead's students after he died in 1934, the same year Vygotsky died—but I can see how their lines of thought paralleled.

"If we abandon the conception of a substantive soul endowed with the self of the individual at birth, then we may regard the development of the individual's self, and of his self-consciousness within the field of his experience, as the social psychologist's special interest," Mead begins (loc. 11). And "Social psychology studies the activity or behavior of the individual as it lies within the social process; the behavior of an individual can be understood only in terms of the behavior of the whole social group of which he is a member, since his individual acts are involved in larger, social acts which go beyond himself and which implicate the other members of that group" (loc.75). Thus "For social psychology, the whole (society) is prior to the part (the individual), not the part to the whole; and the part is explained in terms of the whole, not the whole in terms of the part or parts. The social act is not explained by building it up out of stimulus plus response; it must be taken as a dynamic whole-as something going on-no part of which can be considered or understood by itself-a complex organic process implied by each individual stimulus and response involved in it" (loc. 88)

In Chapter 3, in a discussion of gestures, Mead argues that language works within a complex of conditioned reflexes—in fact, language gives us control over the organization of our actions around a referent (loc.176 — compare this characterization to Vygotsky's early formulation of consciousness as a reflex of reflexes). Mead saw language as emerging from social behavior rather than being a prrequisite (loc. 240). Later, in Ch.7, he argues, "Mind arises through communication by a conversation of gestures in a social process or context of experience-not communication through mind" (loc. 691). 

Consequently, as he argues in Ch.11, "objects are in a genuine sense constituted within the social process of experience, by the communication and mutual adjustment of behavior among the individual organisms which are involved in that process and which carry it on. just as in fencing the parry is an interpretation of the thrust, so, in the social act, the adjustive response of one organism to the gesture of another is the interpretation of that gesture by that organism-it is the meaning of that gesture" (loc. 1108). And here he sounds quite externalist:

The basis of meaning is thus objectively there in social conduct, or in nature in its relation to such conduct. Meaning is a content of an object which is dependent upon the relation of an organism or group of organisms to it. It is not essentially or primarily a psychical content (a content of mind or consciousness), for it need not be conscious at all, and is not in fact until significant symbols are evolved in the process of human social experience. Only when it becomes identified with such symbols does meaning become conscious. The meaning of a gesture on the part of one organism is the adjustive response of another organism to it, as indicating the resultant of the social act it initiates, the adjustive response of the second organism being itself directed toward or related to the completion of that act. In other words, meaning involves a reference of the gesture of one organism to the resultant of the social act it indicates or initiates, as adjustively responded to in this reference by another organism; and the adjustive response of the other organism is the meaning of the gesture (loc. 1132). 

In Ch.13, Mead refers to the executive function of voluntary attention, though not by that name: "Man is distinguished by that power of analysis of the field of stimulation which enables him to pick out one stimulus rather than another and so to hold on to the response that belongs to that stimulus, picking it out from others, and recombining it with others" (loc. 1327).

This brings us to this great quote from Ch.16: "The whole process is not a mental product and you cannot put it inside of the brain. Mentality is that relationship of the organism to the situation which is mediated by sets of symbols" (loc.1780). 

He continues this line of thought in Ch.17, in which he sounds a bit like Vygotsky and a bit like Bateson: "The organism, then, is in a sense responsible for its environment. And since organism and environment determine each other and are mutually dependent for their existence, it follows that the life-process, to be adequately understood, must be considered in terms of their interrelations" (loc. 1849). And:

The processes of experience which the human brain makes possible are made possible only for a group of interacting individuals: only for individual organisms which are members of a society; not for the individual organism in isolation from other individual organisms.

Mind arises in the social process only when that process as a whole enters into, or is present in, the experience of any one of the given individuals involved in that process. When this occurs the individual becomes self-conscious and has a mind; he becomes aware of his relations to that process as a whole, and to the other individuals participating in it with him; he becomes aware of that process as modified by the reactions and interactions of the individuals-including himself-who are carrying it on. The evolutionary appearance of mind or intelligence takes place when the whole social process of experience and behavior is brought within the experience of any one of the separate individuals implicated therein, and when the individual's adjustment to the process is modified and refined by the awareness or consciousness which he thus has of it. It is by means of reflexiveness-the turning-back of the experience of the individual upon himself-that the whole social process is thus brought into the experience of the individuals involved in it; it is by such means, which enable the individual to take the attitude of the other toward himself, that the individual is able consciously to adjust himself to that process, and to modify the resultant of that process in any given social act in terms of his adjustment to it. Reflexiveness, then, is the essential condition, within the social process, for the development of mind. (loc. 1906)

And let's stop there. As I mentioned, Mead's thought clearly parallels Vygotsky's in terms of a social, sign-mediated mind. On the other hand, he is not working under (some might say burdened with) a dialectical materialist framework, and consequently he sounds a bit more like Bakhtin in some places and Bateson in others. Overall, fascinating—and I really ought to read more Mead. 

Reading :: Vygotsky: Philosophy and Education

Vygotsky: Philosophy and Education

This book was recommended to me by another scholar, who suggested that I needed to better understand Hegel's influence on Vygotsky. True. I have been avoiding reading Hegel. Fortunately Jan Derry has done some of the hard work on this question already.

Derry's first sentence is: "This book is a response to the claim that Vygotsky holds abstract rationality as the pinnacle of thought" (p.1). Throughout the book, Derry explores how Vygotsky understands rationality, contrasting that understanding with how Vygotsky has been taken up by others, comparing Vygotsky's thought to situated cognition (Ch.2), and constructivism (Ch.3), Piaget (Ch.4). She then explores roots of Vygotsky's thought in Spinoza (Ch.5) and Hegel (Ch.6-7).

A few quick notes from the early part of this book:

In Chapter 2,
  • Derry sketches the evolution of the Vygotsky school, drawing on Kozulin to discuss the split between Vygotsky's more "complex" view vs. the Kharkovites (p.12)
  • She mentions, drawing again on Kozulin, that Vygotsky's "followers ... were inevitably compromised by the difficult conditions of Stalinism," leading to the activity approach, which was "a more 'materialist' approach [that] occurred in a climate of terror that had become life-threatening" (p.13, quoting Zinchenko here).
  • Specifically, the Kharkov school moved from the study of consciousness to that of object-orientedness (p.13)
  • Derry quotes Zinchenko, who said that in the context of Stalinism, symbols were deemed idealistic, whereas "the thing" was materialist (p.13); one was unsafe to study, the other was safe.
  • Critically, Zinchenko says, activity was reduced to the understanding that a human being was a functional organ for carrying out the Soviet state's directives (p.14).
In Chapter 3, Derry criticizes Wertsch for not understanding Vygotsky because he didn't appreciate Vygotsky's grounding in Hegel (a lack that I share, which is why I read Derry's book!). Specifically, "Although Hegel offers a radically different appreciation of 'abstract rationality,' that is lost to much contemporary work, owing in part to the alignment of Hegel with Marxism and Marxism with the failures of Soviet practice" (p.35). She also criticizes the North American approach more broadly as representationalist, understanding meaning as representing something that exists out there (p.39-42), rather than being created through human agency; if we subscribe to a representationalist paradigm, she says, "agency can be and is ascribed to anything that appears to exert effect" (p.42, in a passage that calls out Wertsch's discussion of tools but can be applied to posthumanism as well). 

In Chapter 4, Derry explores the underlying philosophical differences between Vygotsky and Piaget, arguing that Piaget worked within a dualist Kantian framework (p.71) while Vygotsky worked within a monist Hegelian framework (p.75). 

In Chapter 5, Derry argues that "Vygotsky's understanding of free will derives from Spinoza" (p.85). "Freedom and necessity are at the heart of Vygotsky's account of how mindedness is formed and sustained by mediation with artefacts in a social domain" (p.86). And "Vygotsky follows Spinoza in taking the basis of freedom to be the human ability to separate ourselves from our passions, from the contingencies of nature, and to make for ourselves a space within which we can determine our actions" (p.90). 

Later in the chapter, Derry returns to the Vygotsky/Kharkov split, arguing that 
The idea of economic determinism is fostered by a crude reading of Marx, where a determinate relation is taken to exist in what became known as the base and superstructure model. The temptation is then to see human beings simply as a product of their circumstances. This determinism plagued Vygotskians: It was precisely this that provoked the rift with Leontiev and the Kharkov group because they could not accept Vygotsky's insistence on the existence of a plane that was not explicable in terms of tool use in an environment. (p.97)

I'm not all-in on the first part of this interpretation: Lamdan and Yasnitky make a pretty good case that Vygotsky and Luria had themselves subscribed to economic determinism in the Uzbek expedition. But I agree that the Kharkov group collapsed the Vygotskian distinction between physical tools and psychological tools (signs). 

In any case, Derry notes that a rapprochement could occur only when orthodox Stalinist concepts developed that would make it possible: "only when Vygotskian theory was reinstated in the language of the second signal system of Pavlov. The second signal system incorporates the notion that language and concepts mediate human existence as a second signal system rather than as a first signal where stimuli act on the nervous system directly" (p.98; for examples, see my reviews of Simon, Cole & Maltzman, and especially Luria). 

In Chapter 6, Derry finally turns her attention to "the most significant philosopher for Vygotsky—Hegel" (p.105). "Hegel's philosophy is not readily accessible," she adds with some understatement (p.105). To lead us through it, she contrasts Kant and Hegel:
  1. Kant believed in an unknowable realm; Hegel believed that everything was knowable.
  2. Kant believed that the mind in itself could construct the world in a particular way; Hegel believed that the mind emerges in social activity.
  3. Kant emphasized representations corresponding to a world of which we have knowledge; Hegel emphasized "meaning arising inferentially within a system" (p.106).
Based on Hegel, Vygotsky understood forms of knowing as "developed from activity rather than linking the categories of understanding" (p.108). He also argued that words and concepts "do not merely reflect but actually structure thought. Concepts do not follow, but actually precede, thought" (p.112). Indeed, "Under the influence of Hegel, Vygotsky is bound to reject the representationalist view of knowledge, which presupposes a terminus where knowledge is complete" (p.116). 

In Chapter 7, Derry considers Vygotsky, Hegel, and education. Here, she emphasizes that Vygotsky's views were not "the caricature of evolutionism mistakenly attributed to both Hegel and Marx" (p.135). I won't go further into this chapter, but it is illuminating.

Overall, this book really helped me to understand Hegel (and Spinoza, and Kant) in relation to Vygotsky's thinking. If that's something you want to do also, definitely pick this book up.

Reading :: Hegel: A Very Short Introduction

Hegel: A Very Short Introduction

I don't enjoy reading philosophy, yet I've been told that to really understand activity theory, I have to understand Hegel—a notoriously unclear writer. So I've been reading summaries and commentaries on Hegel before tackling his original work. And what better place to start than a book that in its very title promises to be Very Short?

Thanks to COVID-19, I chose to buy the Kindle version. The book is indeed Very Short, with just six chapters covering Hegel's life and major aspects of his thought. My review will be Even Shorter, focusing on those aspects that resonate with activity theory.

One of those aspects was, obviously, Hegel's attention to change and development through history, something that he accepted from Schiller and that went on to influence Marx and Engels (p.13). 

A bit later, Singer describes the master-slave dynamic in Hegel, in which, through his [sic] labors, the slave "makes his own ideas into something permanent, an external object" (p.80). In doing so, the slave becomes aware of his own consciousness. This insight, Singer says, inspired Marx 40 years later to develop the concept of alienated labour, in which the worker objectifies or externalizes himself by putting the best of himself into his labour (pp.80-81). When the object is someone else's property, the objectified essence of the worker is lost to him and actually oppresses him. This concept of alienated labour becomes the basis for Marx's concept of surplus value (p.81).

Singer also describes Hegel's understanding of dialectics and the dialectical method, which Hegel uses "to uncover the form of pure thought" (p.99). Singer draws from Hegel's Philosophy of History to provide an example of the dialectical method, in which Greece's customary society (thesis) was revealed as inadequate via Socrates' questioning and independent thought (antithesis), leading to the "acceptance of the supreme right of individual conscience" (synthesis) (p.100). The synthesis then becomes the thesis for the next movement of history. I am not sure how adequate this explanation is, since (according to other sources, including Wikipedia) the thesis-antithesis-synthesis triad first appeared in Fichte's summarization of Hegel's work. But perhaps it is enough: Singer goes on to explain that dialectic involves detecting how development involves opposing elements, leading to the disintegration of the current state and the creation of a relatively stable new state, which then develops its own tensions (p.102).

And I think that's enough for now. Singer has indeed produced a Very Short book, one that is highly readable. It did not sell me on the prospect of reading Hegel in the original, but it did give me an idea of the sweep of his thought and how it connects to themes about which I am concerned. If you're interested in taking the first step toward understanding Hegel, check it out.