Sponsored By: Infinity Foundation

Reading Texts: A Process of Discovering and Recovering Context – Part 3

Reading Texts: A Process of Discovering and Recovering Context
Part 3
by Meenakshi Bauri

A research essay submitted to the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research in partial fulfillment of the requirement for the degree of Master of Arts

School of Linguistics and applied Language Studies, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, September, 18, 2002

Four Perspectives on Vygotsky

1. Perspectives which compare Vygotsky’s ideas with Cognitive Science

Scholars like Phillips, Shelly; and Cole and Werstch, indicate parallels between Vygotsky and Western Developmental Cognitive Psychology. Indian scholars like S. C. Kak, indicate that recent research regarding studies of consciousness, is looking at correlations with emerging insights of cognitive science and classical Indian thought. This connection of both Vygotsky and Classical Indian thought to cognitive science could be passed off as mere coincidence, or the triangular relationship of Cognitive science. Vygotsky, and Indian thought could be investigated further within the sphere of consciousness studies, thus widening the horizons of each to establish a global perspective.

2. Views which consider Vygotsky’s ideas to be based on Marx’s ideas

One example of such work is by Fred Newman and Lois Holzman. However, though Vygotsky was influenced by Marxist ideas, unlike these ideas, he gave more importance to ‘speech’ (Valsiner & van der Veer 1993: 204; 226). Further, Holzman and Newman, who consider Vygotsky’s ideas to be based on Marx’s dialectical conception of revolutionary activity, say:

Vygotsky was searching for the “proper unit of study” for psychology, trying to free himself from both the linear, casual, dualistic Western psychological paradigm that was emerging and also from fastly rigidifying Marxist dialectics….For Vygotsky, development does not happen to us – from the inside, from the outside, or from any combination of inside outside. He rejected the inside outside dichotomy that has been a part of psychology since its beginnings. He also rejected the linear conception of progress and dynamic conception of process necessary to explain the’ relationship’ between inside and outside. He gave us a radically new conception of growth and psychological change….Vygotsky understood that a new unit of study required a new method of study, more precisely a new conception of method…Vygotsky wants us to see the totality, the whole, the unity…the interrelationships within it. (Holzman, n.d.)

This quote emphasizes some key elements in Vygotsky’s theory such as unity, totality, interrelationships, and the rejection of a linear conception of progress. According to Valsiner and van der Veer (1993) Vygotsky wanted to create a new methodology, but not in complete accordance with the Marxist thinkers; his method was only partially based on Marxist thinking. Marxism, as I understand from reading Valsiner and van der Veer, was not able to reconcile Vygotsky’s views on evolution and the human and animal intellect. According to Valsiner and van der Veer (1993), Vygotsky notes two opposing views in animal psychology:

  • The view that animals are totally different from human beings, a view defended by Descartes and behaviourism, and
  • The view that animals are not basically different from humans, Darwin belonged to the latter camp.

Neither of these views was acceptable to Vygotsky who was looking for an evolutionary, genetic, account. His view was that there are basic differences between animals and human-beings and this difference rested on the role of speech in the on-set of human culture.

I raise the point about the significance of the theory of evolution because we do not know whether or not Vygotsky’s basic assumptions regarding the theory of evolution have any correlations with the theory of evolution within the classical Indian tradition of thought. Once again my attempt has been to broaden the horizon and establish a dialogue between the East and the West.

3. Research, which explores the biographic, philosophic and intellectual influences on Vygotsky

Cited below are three sources which serve as examples to demonstrate that a discussion on the intellectual influences on Vygotsky never explores the boundaries beyond Humbolt or Potebyna. Exploring the linguistic sources and philosophic influences on Vygotsky, Tatiana N. Naumora focuses on the linguistic sources of Vygotsky’s Thought and Language and traces the unification of psychology and linguistics in Russia. Her focus is on Russian Linguistics in general, and she emphasizes the influences of Potebnya and Humbolt on Vygotsky’s thought. (Naumora, 1993, pp. 343-349) According to Morato, Vygotsky’s reflections on the semiological properties between language and cognition have a resemblance to the writings of Humbolt; M. Bakhtin; E. Benvenista 1; and C. Franchi (Morato, 2000, pp. 149-165). Once again there appears to be no attempt or a need to explore beyond Humbolt.

Van der Veer and Valsiner (1993), give detailed accounts of the intellectual milieu within which Vygotsky’s theory was formulated. Exploring the intricate details of the intellectual influences on Vygotsky, they state that their approach is “an archeology of ideas” (van der Veer & Valsiner, 1993). Summing up the influences, the authors conclude that Vygotsky’s thought presents a synthesis of evolutionary and zoopsychological ideas together with Hegelian-Engelsian-Marxian notions of history.

It is not necessary to go into the details of the arguments because none of the above mentioned sources answers the question about the influence of Indian thought on Vygotsky. However, after reading Valsiner and van der Veer, I felt that their work was important from one very significant aspect. In articulating the details of the intellectual influences on Vygotsky and contrasting the limitations of the prevalent theories in the West with Vygotsky’s own assumptions and presuppositions, these scholars chronicle the stages that scientific progress in the West had reached at that time. Perhaps Vygotsky’s theory was not just a synthesis of the scientific theories of the West but an exploration or realization and acceptance of their limits: ‘review and replacement’ as Vygotsky himself says, by seeking alternatives. So my search continued. Perhaps, I thought, things might get clearer by understanding more about Vygotsky thought, its development and its main ideas.

4. Vygotsky through his theory.

The fourth perspective looks at Vygotsky through his theory. Here the views presented by Werstch and Veresov are foremost. Werstch presents the American point of view, and Veresov, the Russian.

In his account of Vygotsky’s theory, Werstch (1985) identifies three general themes: the genetic method; the claim that higher mental processes have their origin in the social processes; and the claim that mental processes can be understood only if we understand the tools and signs that mediate them. Werstch recognizes the interconnectedness of these three themes but believes that Vygotsky’s most important contribution was the concept of mediation. According to Vygotsky’s genetic method all higher mental functions first appear on the interpsychological plane and then on the intrapsychological plane, and semiotic mediation makes the transition from intrapsychological to interpsychological functioning possible. In connection with this theory, Vygotsky analyses some important concepts, like inner speech, egocentric speech, word meaning, and word sense. Arguing that the semiotic process was a part of both the individual and the social, Vygotsky sought to bridge the gap between the individual and the social.

According to Werstch, as mentioned above, the most important and unique contribution of Vygotsky is the concept of mediation. The evolution of Vygotsky’s thinking, says Werstch, reveals a switch from an account of mediational means tied to Pavlovian psychophysiology, to one giving importance to meaning. The concept of sign becomes central for Vygotsky’s theory. Vygotsky’s insights into the nature of meaning in sign systems laid the groundwork for interpreting the genetic relationship between social and individual processes. The semiotic system is interpreted as a part of both the social and the individual, therefore making it possible to bridge the gap between them. According to Werstch, Vygotsky’s understanding of this relationship is the core of his approach.

Werstch states that there are two important points in Vygotsky’s analysis of mediation. The first is that Vygotsky expanded Engel’s notion of tools to “psychological tools” or “signs”. He noted fundamental differences between technical tools and psychological tools, or signs. According to Vygotsky, technical tools are directed towards the external world, it is a means of our external activity to control nature. A sign or a psychological tool is directed towards internal activity; it is a means for psychologically influencing behavior. Therefore, psychological tools alter the flow and structure of human behavior. They do not simply facilitate, also but have the capacity to transform mental functioning.

The second point is that, by nature, psychological tools are social and not individual. Psychological tools such as language, counting systems, mnemonic techniques, etc. are social because they are the products of socio-cultural evolution; they are not invented by individuals, and they are not instincts or unconditional reflexes. Individuals appropriate these mediational means. Moreover, psychological tools are a part of the dynamics of social interaction, and face-to-face communication as well. However, according to Werstch:

No other aspect of Vygotsky’s work has been as consistently ignored or misinterpreted by psychologists as his semiotic analysis and the intellectual forces that gave rise to it. To understand the origins and nature of Vygotsky’s ideas on this topic, one must look elsewhere – in particular, to the figures in semiotica, linguistics, and poetics that influenced him….The dominant force in literary criticism and linguistics in the USSR at the time Vygotsky was writing was Russian formalism… Russian formalism helped determine the problems Vygotsky investigated and the methods he used to investigate them. Vygotsky was led to focus on issues that might not be considered in another time and place. (1985, pp. 81-82)

In his explanation of the above, Werstch rejects the idea that Vygotsky was influenced by Pavlov in formulating his ideas of mediation. Rather, he traces the influences to semiotics, linguistics, poetics and Russian formalists. What if one explores these areas seriously? Even a casual thought connects these areas with the structuralist revolution and with comparative linguistics, which indicates a connection with Saussure and Humbolt. This is where most European scholars stop. For a truly global perspective we need to go beyond Saussure, beyond Humbolt, to that presence which hangs as the silent consciousness of so much in western scholarship.

Even in looking at Veresov, which we will do now, the perspective does not change. Veresov, in his article ‘Vygotsky before Vygotsky’, states,

…because the previous stages of Vygotsky’s theoretical work have not been investigated well, there are misunderstandings and mistakes not only to the interpretation of the previous periods of Vygotsky’s work and to the explanation of the theoretical positions he followed “on the road to his discovery”, but to the interpretation of the cultural-historical theory itself. (Veresov, n.d.)

Veresov criticizes the approaches of Werstch, van der Veer and Valsiner, as well as those of Leont’ev, Minick and Das. He states that these scholars do not reflect the theoretical evolution of Vygotsky’s thought. As a result, one does not get a true sense of a continuity related to the development of Vygotsky’s thought. According to Veresov,

The idea of mediation, the concept of the zone of proximal development, the idea of the development of theoretical concepts were all steps, fragments, and concrete applications of his (Vygotsky’s) main ideas of the socio-cultural origins of the problem. (Ibid.)

Veresov calls the development of theoretical foundation and the steps, periods and phases of that development one of the “hidden” lines of Vygotsky’s work. This line, he says, cannot be ignored. Veresov asserts that the cultural-historical theory was developed in answer to the crisis in psychology, and Vygotsky was trying to find a new approach to the study of psychology. What Vygotsky searched for was the objective scientific theory of human consciousness on the basis of consecutive monism. The problem, says Veresov, is to understand why he tried to find a new way – what the general task was to which traditional classical psychology could not give an adequate solution. This general problem is presented by Veresov through the three key words – consciousness, monism, and objectivity. Veresov applies this idea as the basis for the methodological analysis of the development of the main ideas presented by Vygotsky in his cultural-historical theory.

A summary of Veresov’s text is as follows:

Veresov considers Vygotsky primarily as a psychologist of consciousness. He says that there was a dramatic theoretical evolution in Vygotsky’s views on consciousness and its nature, and therefore, in different periods of his scientific work, Vygotsky discovered and even defined consciousness as a psychological problem from different, opposite, and contrary theoretical positions. Veresov, through his methodological-historical approach, explores Vygotsky’s multidimensional world and more specifically, Vygotsky’s evolution on the way to the cultural-historical theory of the development of human consciousness. Through the study of the pre-history of the cultural historical theory, Veresov states that some of the ideas attributed to this theory were worked out before the theory itself, but on different theoretical models. Veresov says he seeks to discover and reconstruct the content of these theoretical models, and trace the logic of the occurrence of the main notions and concepts and thus of the origin of the cultural-historical theory itself. He concentrates on the period from 1917 to 1927, which he calls the “dark phase” in Vygotsky’s creative evolution.

Veresov identifies three theoretical models of human consciousness in Vygotsky’s writings: the reflexological (1917-1927); the behaviouristic-structural (1925-1927); and the cultural-historical (1928-1934). These models correspond to the three stages of development regarding Vygotsky’s ideas on consciousness: (1) consciousness as the reflex of reflexes; (2) consciousness as the structure of the human behaviour; and (3) consciousness as the unit of meaning and sense.

In his article, Veresov presents two theoretical models of human consciousness: the reflexological (1917-1934); and the behaviouristic-structural (1925-1927). To reconstruct these models Veresov investigates

  1. The terminological apparatus and the corpus of notions and concepts,
  2. The types of analysis of consciousness and
  3. The explanatory principles, their merits and limits that forced Vygotsky to change them in different stages of his work.

Having given a summary of the ideas discussed by Veresov, my intent here is not to enter into detailed discussion of Veresov’s ideas but to look for points of departure which would give an opportunity to expand on the horizon of Vygotsky’s ideas as presented in his text, Thought and Language. Does Veresov provide such an opening? Perhaps he does but in an indirect and unintentional way.

According to Veresov, the “philosophical conceptions” of the Ukranian linguist A. Potebyna, and the ideas presented in Vygotsky’s Psychology of Art (1925), were later developed in Vygotsky’s text Thought and Language. Psychology of Art is one of the important works of Vygotsky written before 1924, in which Vygotsky specifically refers to Potebyna, Humbolt and Indian thought concerning language and word-meaning. The philosophical ideas of Potebyna need to be analyzed critically because of the fact that Potebyna himself was a Sanskrit scholar and worked closely with Humbolt. One has to look for chance references like these because there is not much information on Vygotsky – especially as it relates to the early years of his research which is called the ‘dark period’ of his life. In highlighting this importance, Veresov links the development of the main ideas of Vygotsky’s cultural-historical theory to the philosophical ideas of Potebyna and those contained in the Psychology of Art, and therefore, indirectly to Indian thought. It is this connection which interests me; exploring such a connection might help in widening the perspective on Vygotsky.

Exploring a Genealogical Perspective on Vygotsky

To explore a genealogical perspective on Vygotsky I have to take into account the fact that the main influences on the development of Vygotsky’s thought – i.e. Humbolt, Potebyna and Saussure (if we take the structuralist movement into account) – are all connected to Indian thought. To put such a connection within a framework, I tried to understand Vygotsky’s thought at two levels:

  1. The level which deals with specific empirical investigations; and
  2. The generalities or the philosophical grounds of his specific ideas.

At one level, Vygotsky’s cultural-historical theory gives an account of the origin and development of the Western educated adult. At the other level, and again according to Valsiner and van der Van, his theory is a “general theory of man”:

In general …his (Vygotsy’s) theory is the theory of man, man’s origin and evolution to the present day. The image of man is as a rational being taking control of his own destiny and emancipating himself from nature’s restrictive bonds. (Valsiner and van der Van, 1993)

To my Indian consciousness, Vygotsky’s ideas regarding the general theory of man appeared to be very similar to the Vedantic concept of man. Man, according to Vedantism, frees himself from the bondage of Prakriti, (nature) through knowledge. According to ancient Indian thought, knowledge is of two kinds, the lower and the higher. The lower is of the intellect, the higher of the supreme consciousness – the Brahman – and cultural life bridges the gap between the two (Sarma, 1908). In the formulations of its generalities, and the exploration of its specifics, lie the origin and the development of Vygotsky’s ideas into a dominant theory. I argued to myself that perhaps the general ideas and the philosophical leanings, the presuppositions and assumptions, could genealogically be traced and or linked to Indian thought. However, such speculation involves a weaving together of different strands of thoughts. These are represented in the following questions below:

  • What would we discover if we explored the roots and origins of Vygotsky’s ideas with a ‘genealogical’ approach rather than an ‘archaeological’ one?
  • What were the prevalent theories of human consciousness during Vygotsky’s time?
  • Could one find correlations between the cultural-historical theory, which is the theory of development of human consciousness and a theory of human consciousness?

At this point I would like to refer to Ramavatar Sarma’s lectures on Vedantism (1908) in order to explore possible answers to the questions posed above, and, at the same time, to present Indian theory as an alternative theory of human consciousness. I chose Sarma’s lectures over numerous other readings because, first of all, they fall within Vygotsky’s times and therefore could be considered a part of the discourse of those times; and secondly, because I find in these lectures a similar view – especially with regard to Vygotsky’s general theory of man. Moreover, I was particularly curious because Sarma translates the terms Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas as consciousness, action and reality specifically – something I had not encountered in any of my other readings. This usage reminded me of Vygotsky’s use of the same terms in Thought and Language.

Before I look at some basic concepts of Vedantic thought as a possible alternative theory of consciousness, I would like to add that according to Kozulin, Vygotsky, was interested in investigating the relations between the three terms consciousness, activity and reality; but neither Vygotsky nor Kozulin, nor the literature on Vygotsky, mentions directly or indirectly or even tries to trace the origin of these terms, which I think, may fall into the category of ‘conceptual terms’. Conceptual terms as I understand are theory-specific and culture-specific. Neither did I find any speculation on a line of inquiry that it could be possible that Vygotsky took Indian psychology seriously. Perhaps such a line of inquiry is of no importance to the Eurocentric point of view; but coming across these terms in Vygotsky presented a crisis to me. Was Vygotsky playing with the readers’ imagination, and was the creation of this gap intentional on Vygotsky’s part? It would not be so unusual to find in Vygotsky’s text terms and concepts from the Indian tradition of thought if we consider what the authors G.M. Bongard-Levin & A.A. Vegasin have to say regarding Indian studies in Russia. According to them, the Russian approach to the study of India was different from the rest of Europe; unlike their European counter-parts, the Russian intellectuals gave serious attention to the scientific potential of Indian thought. Bongard-Levin and Vegasin state, “Indian terms, names and images gained widespread usage and spread in scientific and publistic works and fiction of the day” (1984, p. 145).

Now to resume the discussion on Vedanta, Sarma’s two major works are, Sanskrit Lexiography (1923) and his philosophic work Paramarthadarshan (1994). In the introduction of Sarma’s Paramarthadarshan (1994), it is stated that his philosophy is considered to be non-dualistic – Vedanta minus its religion, theology, and asceticism. For Sarma, the central theme of Indian philosophy is the question of the unity of being or experience. His ethical ideal is living freedom gained from critical self-inquiry. Knowledge liberates one from Maya, i.e. the bondage of ego (or prakriti – nature). Liberation means the acquisition of wisdom while living and this wisdom is understood as active wisdom (Pandeya, 1994, pp. v-xvii).

The following are from Sarma’s ‘Lectures on Vedantism -1908’, and the extended quotes very briefly present some of the main ideas of Vedantic philosophy as interpreted by Sarma:

Vedantism presents critical thought in India. It established the permanent non-dualistic character of the concrete reality…and acknowledges both the scientific and the philosophic point of view…. The evolution of thought gradually expands our horizon and we move from a lower to a higher standpoint towards freedom. This higher standpoint is impartial, universal and rational….Vedantisam is a philosophy of immanency but not in the Spinozistic sense…it combines the Cartesian and the Hegelian arguments on the Ontological proof of the existence of God…and rejects Cartesian dualism….The real Vedantic theory is neither subjective idealism nor materialism but transcends both and reconciles them….It is the doctrine of the Sakshin. Saksin is pure knowledge. This knowledge is non-dualistic, eternal, perfect and infinite. The reality of Sakshin is self-witnessed infinite series of moments (like waves in the ocean). The Sakshin unfolds itself by and by. There is an evolution of our thoughts. Never at any moment is our thought something quite different from what it was in a previous one. There is the essential unity of knowledge…and reality is an objective force, which cannot be ignored. There is the primacy of fact….Whatever the origin of knowledge its final demonstration lies in its own truth….Methods (of gaining knowledge): knowledge is of two kinds. Presentation and representation; a combination of the two is accepted by Vedantism. The two are intertwined. Perception and inference are considered as part of Presentation. Perception is considered important because it is both a source of knowledge and demonstrative evidence. These methods of gaining knowledge are interdependent….Our knowledge is helped by language. Thought and Language go hand in hand….Experience in a critical sense is the final authority. Experience consists of critical self-examination. The ordinary thought has no rest….A Vedantin is totalistic in everything…… (Sarma, 1918)

I have diverged into some general aspects of Indian thought here primarily because reading about Vygotsky made me search for an understanding of Indian thought. Trying to understand Vygotsky was addressing a dual problem: one of understanding Vygotsky, and the other of finding out whether my thoughts made sense.

My perspective, of seeing Vygotsky outside of the strictly European context, assumes a semblance of virtuality if we focus on the theory of Sphota, which deals with such specific concepts like, word meaning, levels of speech, sequence in external language and the difference between sound and meaning. In ancient India, this concept of Sphota was developed into a theory of Sphota by the Grammarian school of thought. Murti says, the Grammar School advanced the Doctrine of Sphota – the Unitary Whole Word particularly the Akhanda-Vakyartha-Sphota – that the sentence is an indivisible unit whole. And this engenders meaning (Murti, 1986). It is my suggestion, that Vygotsky’s investigations and explorations on the relation of thought and speech be considered an extension of the theory of Sphota, as developed by the Grammarian philosophers, specifically Bhartrhari. My speculation is that with Vygotsky, the theory of Sphota crossed cultural boundaries. Theories and thoughts do travel. The contact of cultures and exchange of ideas is a universal and a continuous process that is, perhaps, heightened at certain times in history. Can the philosophic and scientific be isolated from such influences? Taking a genealogical view, the development of the theory of Sphota could be shown as follows:

  • The concept of sphota can be traced back to the vedic period, to the mystical meditation of the Vedic risis – 4,000 – c1, 000 BCE.
  • Patañjali provides the initial framework for the sphota theory, (150 AD).
  • The definition of sphota by Bhartrhari (450 AD) in his work – the Vakyapadiya. Bhartrhari gives a systematic philosophical analysis with illustrations of Word knowledge manifested and communicated in ordinary logical analysis by Mandana Misra in his work – Sphotasiddhi (690 AD). Mandan Misra elaborates Bhartrhari’s theory.
  • Scientific experimentation by Vygotsky in his work, Thought and Language (1934). Vygotsky tests it empirically.

The theory of Sphota is discussed in greater detail in the next section:

The word or sentence is an indivisible unity that is inherently given and engenders all meaning. The separate letters of a word or words of the sentence merely manifest the sphota, or meaning-whole. In Madhava’s Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha, the argument is put in this way…as the letters cannot cause the cognition of the meaning, there must be a sphota by means of which arises the knowledge of the meaning: and this sphota is an eternal (inner) sound distinct from the letters and revealed by them, which causes the cognition of the meaning? (Coward, 1986, p. 66).

The original concept of this theory can be traced back to the Vedic period of Indian thought. Harold Coward states,

Bhartrhari may have modeled his concept of the sphota on the vedic pranava but his method was different. Rather than immersing himself in mystical meditation, he sets out to analyze the meaning of words and the means by which such word knowledge is manifested and communicated in ordinary experience…(1971, p. 36).

Vygotsky, modeling his concept on ‘the theory from antiquity’ sets about investigating it empirically, with Western methods. Placing Vygotsky within this perspective might address the lacunas present in understanding the development of Vygotsky’s theory. Because of lack of direct evidence, it could be argued that the genealogical framework presented above is a speculation, bordering the myth. However, finding facts, direct, indirect or circumstantial, as they emerge and merge into new possibilities, fusing the process of reading with the result, and as such, blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction contributes towards the creation of the ‘virtual text’. The virtual extension of the text is the sandhya bhasa, the hidden language of the myths, the twilight language of a text. Within this context, as part of the reading process, it is a logical extension of the reader’s role in the act of interpretation.


In this section, I looked at the literature on Vygotsky according to the following four categories:

  1. Perspectives which compare Vygotsky’s ideas with recent movements in cognitive Science
  2. Those, which consider Vygotsky’s ideas to be based on Marx’s ideas
  3. Research, which deals with Vygotsky’s biography and explores the philosophical and intellectual influences on him
  4. Works that deal with the development and explanation of Vygtosky thought

In the end I presented my perspective of placing Vygotsky within a wider, global perspective, giving reasons that each one of the conventional perspectives could, at different points within their arguments, be made to add another dimension to make them truly multidimensional.

To summarize, Valsiner and van der Veer’s synthesis could include a synthesis of the traditions of the East and the West; the Marxist arguments made less rigid by considering the Indian theories of evolution; the intellectual and philosophical influences on Vygotsky could go beyond Humbolt and Potebyna; and lastly when looking at Vygotsky’s thought perhaps the contribution of linguistics, philosophy and Russian Formalism be adequately researched in an unbiased way. In other words, Van der Veer & Valsiner’s archaeology of ideas could be contrasted by exploring a genealogy of ideas. Werstch’s comment on the neglect and misinterpretation of intellectual forces that gave rise to the important concept of mediation could be followed up by further research on the linguistic sources and philosophic influences to include such sources in all their aspects, and Veresov’s identification of the three key words – consciousness, monism, and objectivity could be explored within a wider cultural context perhaps by drawing a contrast with other competing theories on consciousness and how they deal with these concepts. Finally, I presented an outline of a genealogical perspective.

My effort has been to find a way to go beyond William Jones and Max Mueller the ‘arc-Orientalists’, as Houben calls them; to go beyond colonialism, imperialism, and Eurocentricism. Perhaps one could arrive at a cross-cultural dialogue with an understanding that frees and does not bind. Most of all I was able to put my own interest in establishing a dialogue between Bhartrhari and Vygotsky into perspective. Houben states:

It is very important to gain more comprehensive knowledge of how thinkers in the past collected and theorized the data available to them. These thinkers of the past are not just providers of new data for our theories; they also become – perhaps first of all – partners in a dialogue… in order to be able to deal successfully with new challenges in philosophy and human sciences, it is important to maintain and make use of, a rich reservoir of idea-o-diversity. It is important to remain open to different perspectives on basic philosophical and human problems, and the past – especially also the past of South Asia – has conserved a great variety of powerful perspectives in seed form for us. (1997, p. 1)

He further indicates:

We have no more a monolithic reality in a simple and straightforward relation with a truthful statement. Reality has become a landscape of which different persons may have quite distinct but equally valid perceptions. Although one may try to arrive at a perception of the landscape which transcends the individual difference, any concrete perception needs a perceiver located at some point in or near the landscape. This approach to reality, rationality and truth can be called perspectivisitic in that it acknowledges beforehand the validity of different perspectives on a given issue (Houben, 1997, p. 3).

In the next chapter I look at significance of the involvement of the West with the East, the impact of which has yet to be fully realized by scholars.

Chapter 4: Echoes of the East

Reasons for investigating European involvement with the East

Once again, realizing that I was reading Vygotsky’s Thought and Language very differently compared to other students in the class, and that there was nothing to be found in terms of comparative studies on Bhartrhari and Vygotsky, it was clear I would have to find my own path trying to understand and synthesize two culturally different approaches to the study of the relationship of language, thought, and reality. To get some understanding of Vygotsky’s thought and his cultural embeddedness I needed to know more about Vygotsky and about the discourse of his times.

In terms of Bhartrhari, it was essential to get acquainted with the classical theoretical traditions of India and India’s connections with the West, if one were to trace the migration of thought from the East to the West.

The scope is vast and my readings at times diffused, focusing on questions such as: Was there a possibility that Vygotsky had read Bhartrhari? What were the influences on Vygotsky? Sometimes getting caught up in the debate on Imperialism versus Orientalism – How did Vygotsky view the primitive/colonial non-western people? Considering that St. Petersburg was one of the most important centres of Indological studies at that time, what impact did this have on the Russian intellectual community? What were the connections of Russian intellectuals from St. Petersburg with scholars in Germany, in India? How did the British who ruled India in those times, look upon the Russian-Indian connections?

Related to my own experience of reading Vygotsky with some background knowledge of Bhartrhari, tthese questions surfaced as a natural part of the reading process. Each set of questions led to further readings, and I discovered that the intimate relation between language and thought has been a topic of philosophic discussion for centuries within the Indian tradition. I also learnt that the 19th Century west is characterized by fervent activity in deciphering, translating and disseminating Asian texts through Indological studies, and, as having a fascination with advait-vedanta, one of the major philosophical traditions of India (Tuck, 1990, pp. 22-25).

Commenting on the times of Bakhtin and Vygotsky, Lemke says …

He (Bakhtin) worked as part of a group of scholars in the period immediately following the Russian Revolution, a time when Marxist ideas were widely respected and when there was a temporary crack in the monolithic ideology of European culture. In this period, Vygotsky began to ask about the social origins of mind…” (1995, p. 22).

I wanted to find out more about “the temporary crack in the monolithic ideology of European culture”, and about “the period” when Vygotsky began to ask about the social origins of mind. This period characterizes Europe’s involvement with the East. My dialogue with Vygotsky then, became an attempt to discover and uncover the larger dialogue of the period: the meeting of the East and the West.

In this section I trace the important historical links in the European involvement with the East. History serves as a pointer; it indicates and makes us aware of the relationships between the elements of the image and ourselves. Iconicity and indexicality are intertwined, they convolute, as do agents, events, things and time in relation to each other when we engage in interpretation. In this sense, history cannot be left behind. Such was my reasoning behind investigating this period in history.

First I will look at 19th century scholarship in the West and give a brief outline of European involvement with the East, specifically focusing on the interpretive practices of the West regarding ancient Indian texts and manuscripts. Then, I will explore the connection between India and Russia. During the 19th century, both India and Russia were experiencing revolutions. In Russia we read about the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. In India we have the First War of Independence – 1857; and the working of the nationalist movement, which led to the Independence of India in 1947. Intellectuals and revolutionaries in both countries drew strength and inspiration from each other. The comparison draws attention to the fact that, within interested circles what was happening in one country was being watched and studied by the other. Writings, both philosophical and scientific, cannot be separated from their times.

European involvement with the East and scholarship concerning Indic studies

At first, European interest in India was mainly commercial. The Dutch, the Portuguese and the British established colonies in parts of India. The British established the British East India Company in 1600 AD, and eventually were able to control almost the entire Indian peninsula. With the European presence in India, the missionary presence also grew. These missionaries were the first to discover and translate Sanskrit works into European languages, thus starting a scholarly interest in the study of Indian culture and its literature. According to Tuck (1990), the first European Sanskrit scholar (1651) was a Dutch missionary – Abraham Roger, who published some of the works of Bhartrhari, as well as a Book on Brahmanical texts, titled Open Door to the Hidden Heathendom. The first Sanskrit Grammar is also supposed to be written by a European Jesuit priest, Johann Ernest Hanxleden (1701). Charles Wilkins, an employee of the British East India Company, was the first Englishman who started compiling and translating Sanskrit texts.

Tuck comments that it is William Jones, the founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, however, who is acknowledged as the ‘undisputed founder of Orientalism and as the man whose opened Sanskrit studies to the West (1990, p. 3). In 1786, Sir William Jones announced that study of the Sanskrit language held the key to the origins of the classical languages of the West and suggested that there were similarities as well as genealogical connections with Greek and Latin, Germanic, Celtic, and Persian languages, and classical Indian and Western mythologies. Jones helped establish Indian philosophy, Indian literature, and comparative philology as legitimate areas of inquiry, and Sanskrit language and Hindu culture became objects of extreme value (Ibid. p. 4).

This was the time when Friedrich Schlegel wrote his influential work, Uber die Sparche and Weisheit der Indian. His older brother had become the first professor of Sanskrit at the University of Bonn. In 1918, Franz Bopp published Uber das Conjugations system der Sanskritsparche, a systematic comparison of Sanskrit with German, Greek, and Latin for the purpose of illuminating the origin and basic structure of all Indo-European languages. All these scholars were indebted to Jones for creating an intense interest in Europe, in Indian language and Indian culture.

Tuck (1990) mentions that European thought in the 18th and the 19th centuries was dominated by ‘rationalism’ which is described as being restricting and limited. In contrast, the study of Indian literature provided a source of liberation. Under the leadership of the Schlegel brothers, the German Romantic movement was responsible for starting the trend of the study of Indian literature. Around this time, translations of Sanskrit texts into European languages became a widespread European practice. According to Tuck there was a tendency in the 19th century to romanticize Indian literature, and to discover answers to European concerns and parallels with European thought. He gives the example of Schopenhauer:

Schopenhaur’s appropriation of the Upanishads for his own purposes was by no means an exception to common practice, though it is probably the most notorious. This practice was widespread and unquestioned. Throughout the 19th century, European scholars consistently grafted their own intellectual concerns and discursive practices onto an India that was virtually of their own creation and treated Indian texts as exotic expressions of their own presuppositions and philosophies. (1990, p. 7).

Tuck presents a slightly different argument than Said in the Orientalist debate. Said, according to Tuck, argues that Europe consistently pictured Asia as one of its recurring images of the Other, and that this view of the Orient helped define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, and experience. However, Tuck states:

although it is true in many cases that Europeans have portrayed Asia as a dark, threatening, ultimately unknowable and anti-Europe, but it is equally true that the urge to find parallels, to see Asia as a mirror, has been at work, particularly among those scholars engaged in the translation and interpretation of ancient texts These professionals were interested in India not because it was culturally opposed to the West, but because they believed that the two cultures have the same linguistic and philosophic origins. (Ibid., p. 8).

To illustrate this point, Tuck refers to William Jones. In his book Discourse on the Philosophy of The Asiatics, William Jones asserted that there were linguistic philosophical and religious parallels linking Europe and Asia. Tuck says that it was not until the late 19th century that Indian philosophy was recognized as an independent subject for scholarly inquiry. According to Tuck, Indian philosophical study was a sub-discipline within Sanskrit studies, and this sub-discipline had a Kantian influence. 18th and 19th century German Idealism promoted Indian philosophical studies and the writings of this group of scholars on Indian texts are:

Infused with Kantian and Hegelian terminology, neo-Kantian beliefs about the primacy of epistemology and the idealist concerns with transcendental truth. ….German idealism presented a lens through which the Indian philosophical tradition appeared to have been duplicating the latest discoveries of the great European thinkers. (Tuck, 1990, pp 17-18)

According to Tuck, the history of Indian philosophic studies is a history of “isogetic” interpretations (Ibid., p. 30). Tuck asserts that writers in the West were using Indian philosophical apparatus to solve Western philosophical problems and using Western philosophical language to re-describe ancient Indian philosophical concerns:

European scholars have consistently looked in the Indian intellectual tradition for answers to Western philosophical problems. They have used European technical terminology in translations and analysis of Sanskrit texts… (Ibid., 1990, p. 10)

Could any of the above arguments be applied to Vygotsky’s Thought and Language? More specifically, what were Vygotsky’s connections with German idealism? With the structuralist revolution? Saussure, the founder of modern structuralism and linguistics was also a professor of Sanskrit at the university of Geneva in the 1880’s. Is it possible to speculate that Vygotsky took Indian psychology seriously enough to be tempted to test it empirically, and in that process found Western scientific investigations lacking a method to adequately test presuppositions of Classical Indian thought? Did he look for answers to methodological problems within psychology not only in the philosophy of Spinoza, but Vedanta as well? To answer my questions I had to look into what was happening within in Russia.

Russia, Tolstoy and Gandhi

According to Isaiah Berlin, Russia at that time was “skeptical of the West, was disillusioned by the Western liberal and radical ideologies. Russian thinkers were looking for alternative answers” (1978). My question was, did they turn to the East in search of alternatives? Berlin mentions several intellectuals of that time including Tolstoy, who was one of the literary giants of that era whose influence cannot be overestimated. Three important themes of Tolstoy caught my attention: history, education, and spirituality. These three themes are tied to his search for truth and a desire for social change. Isaiah Berlin notes that in his journals, Tolstoy talks about his educational visits to the West, which included Britain and Germany, and speaks “forcefully” against the Western Education system. Tolstoy believed in social change through “spiritual”, and “educational” means. Reading about Russia, the picture of the Russian society that emerges is of a society in chaos, with writers, intellectuals, and others involved in working for social reform. Those interested in social reform (although there was opposition between the two groups), were Westernizers – a group of atheists and agnostics who took their convictions from liberal Western philosophers and revolutionary thinkers. They believed Russia could be saved only by the injection of Western ideas. The other group – the Slovaphils – opposed imitation of Western Europe. They stressed the ancient Indo-European sources of Slavic culture, claiming the Slavic languages as belonging to the same family, they emphasized the study of Sanskrit. It was in this intellectual and spiritual background, that Tolstoy’s seniors, contemporaries and the generation which followed lived. Their world is described as:

self-enclosed, desperately questioning, furiously rejecting world, obsessed with the great problems of the hour interminably discussing, intriguing, united only in impotent rejection of the status quo…(Cranshaw, 1974, pp. 97-98.)

If such was the state of affairs in Russia, it makes sense to speculate that some Russian intellectuals, reformists, and academicians seeking an alternative to the Westernizers, like the Slovophils, looked to the East for alternatives. Maxim Gorky, in Reminiscences of Lev Nikolayevich’ Tolstoy, discloses that “He (Tolstoy) advised me to read Buddhist scriptures” (1920). References like this reveal Tolstoy’s interest in the Orient.

In the 1880’s Tolstoy wrote his philosophical work, A Confession and What I Believe. In this book, Tolstoy attacked the Russian Orthodox Church, and as a result, the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated the author. This became a time of intense spiritual search for Tolstoy, and perhaps led to his becoming acquainted with Indian philosophers residing in the West. Tolstoy’s teachings influenced Gandhi in India. Gandhi’s association with Tolstoy is well documented both within India and within Russia.

In his article on Gandhi, Komorav (1971) attempts to bring together the material available on Gandhi’s attitude to revolutionary Russia. He states that, although a great deal has been written about Gandhi and his ideological kinship with Leo Tolstoy, his attitude to revolutionary Russia and its influence on him have not yet been discussed. Filled with numerous references and quotations, not only of the correspondence between Gandhi and Tolstoy but also from Gandhi’s speeches and writings, the article analyzes Gandhi’s reaction to the first Russian Revolution of 1905, and to the October Socialist Revolution of 1917, and provides an interesting link to the discourse of the period.

Vafa, studies the influence of Gandhi’s views and activities in the Soviet Union. He begins by saying that the study of Gandhi’s views and activities is a deep-rooted tradition in their country, Russia. In view of widespread public interest in his personality and work, articles and other material about him have been published in the Soviet Union since the twenties, and these appeared not only in special scientific magazines but also in mass publications intended for broad public reading. Gandhi was also called “The Hindu Tolstoy” (Vafa, 1971, pp. 28-29).

From the Indian side, Dr. Nag explores the relationship between Gandhi and Tolstoy. In his book, Tolstoy and Gandhi (1950), Nag gives the Indian perspective. Nag relies on events told to him by Tolstoy’s Russian Biographer – Paul Birukov. Nag says, it is now accepted, though not widely acknowledged, that Tolstoy was influenced, especially in his later life by the Eastern philosophies of Confucius, Buddhism, and the Indian Scriptures, Vedas, Upanishads, and the Gita. The evidence of this is visible in Tolstoy’s article, ‘Letter to an Indian’. This writing by Tolstoy was later translated into several Indian languages and distributed throughout India by Gandhi and his followers. According to Nag, Tolstoy had studied Oriental religions for years. In his diary dated the 14th of September, 1896, he mentions Swami Vivekanand’s Raja-Yoga. Swami Vivekanand (1863 1902) was a well-known Indian scholar, philosopher and activist, and one of India’s leading social reformers of the modern era. Vivekananda is said to have forged the unity of East and West in the area of philosophy.

Nag mentions another diary entry regarding Tolstoy’s correspondence with Sanyasi Baba Premananda Bharati, a resident of California. Tolstoy took so much interest in Baba Bharati’s booklet Krishna (1904), that he arranged for the translation of the booklet into Russian. In his ‘A Letter to a Hindu’ (1909) Tolstoy quotes extensively from this booklet.

Further, Nag says:

Nearly half a century ago, at the hospital of Kazan, Tolstoy the young soldier met for the first time one Asian Buddhist monk from Mongolia. Since then he had been seeking light from the Orient by reading all the important books on Oriental religions and Philosophy. This aspect of his life was first noticed and brought out by my late lamented friend Paul Birukov, author of ‘Tolstoy and the Orient’. (1950, p. 125)

Another Russian scholar, E. Halperine Kaminsky, published in 1912, two volumes. The first, Tolstoy by Tolstoy contained his autobiographical letters between 1848-1879. The second volume is entitled The Thoughts of Humanity. It is a book of Tolstoy’s favourite quotations from outstanding thinkers and texts of the Orient and the Occident. Nag says,

Three days before Tolstoy’s death his disciple M. Gorbornov brought before him the first two fascicules of that book. It was published after Tolstoy’s death. In this posthumous work we find the vast range and profundity of his spiritual searchings. Starting from the early Brahminical and Buddhist texts he turned to Chinese, the Semitic and the Greeco-Roman philosophies….But the most interesting for us Indians are the chance quotations or adaptations of the Indian thoughts in the writings of Tolstoy. In the archives of U S.S,R. probably some day, some scholar will assemble fully the relevant documents; meanwhile we are grateful to some authors like P. Birukov for giving us very revealing indications regarding Tolstoy’s approach to the thoughts of India and the Orient……… It was P. Birukov who first pointed out that the earliest contact of Tolstoy with Oriental thought was in 1847, when he met the Mongolian Lama at the Kazan Hospital. Tolstoy made extensive studies of Buddhism and the basic doctrine of Ahimsa, as he gathered from many works of the French and German Orientalists. (Ibid.)

Continue to Part 4