Reading Texts: A Process of Discovering and Recovering Context
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
This paper reflects a reading process. It accounts for what can happen in an encounter between a reader and a text. Specifically, it is concerned with exploring ‘iconographic traces’ of Bhartrhari’s thought in Vygotsky’s Thought and Language and is a subjective account of an attempt at understanding a text within a cross-cultural setting. The nature of the inquiry juxtaposes the Eastern and the Western traditions, and touches upon a very subjective experience about contextual absence.
To get at this process more clearly and look at it in more detail the paper first indicates parallel ideas in the two texts – Thought and Language and the Vakyapadiya. This consists of an internal dialogue with Vygotsky in the form of commentaries. Second, it questions the conventional perspective of placing Vygotsky within a European context. The paper proposes an alternate ‘global perspective’. Third, it comments on cultural and intellectual ties between the east and the West in search for a historical grounding for the tracings of Indian thought in Vygotsky’s Thought and Language. Fourth, it gives a brief description of Bhartrhari’s theory of ‘sphota’. The doctrine of sphota reveals Bhartrhari’s philosophy of language.
Synthesizing the reading experience the concluding remarks highlight significant similarities and parallels between Vygotsky and Bhartrhari’s thought and also speculate upon a genealogical view of Vygotsky’s ideas tracing them to Bhartrhari’s theory of Sphota.
Such speculation rests on the assumption that Bhartrhari’s thought might have found an expression in Vygotsky’s scientific experiments.
This paper reflects a reading process as a subjective journey and is the result of investigating the first dim stirrings of intuitive thought.
Chapter I: Introduction
The Problem and the Approach
Reading Vygotsky’s Thought and Language I was reminded of the Indian Philosophical tradition. I wondered, – could it be that Bhartrhari’s Vakyapadiya served as the foundation text for Vygotsky’s Thought and Language? Since introductions and notes on Vygotsky and his text did not contain any reference to Indian thought, I decided to investigate. Thus began the reading process that would engage me on a most interesting journey in the pursuit of knowledge. This paper is supposed to be a reflection of this reading process.
The above question presented a crisis because, not only did it interfere in the interpretation of Vygotsky’s text according to the context outlined by Kozulin, but it also brought to mind anecdotal references of the contribution of Vedic ideas to modern science. There was a conflict between what I was reading and my intuition, or in other words my inherited (cultural) knowledge. My thoughts were, that it might be that Vygotsky took Indian psychology seriously and was involved in testing the Indian theories of language ‘scientifically’? Rather than accept the dilemma as an idiosyncratic interpretation, I pursued it as something to be investigated.
The process of reading was, to me a journey, the itinerary taking shape as reading progressed through tours and detours, digressions and regressions, the crossing of disciplinary boundaries, and reasserting them through criss-crossing of references. Surfing through the multiplicities of meanings of the text, I realized that a text could present itself very differently to different readers. The beginnings of this paper lie in this realization. In the writing of this paper, I engage in an act of theoretical and interpretive self reflection, one that involves the text, as well as the reader in a dialogical tension. I see this dialogical tension as a process of convolution, which brings together the world of the reader, the text and the author and gives the encounter new and alternative directions. The paper reflects both aspects of my reading experience – the ones that I am able to put in order and articulate, and the ones that escape the rational and lie in the realm of the impossible and the intuition, the reality that language itself is incapable of capturing. As a solitary reader I had inadvertently stepped into the world of contemporary research concerning the role of the reader and the interpretation of texts. Such was the thrust of the process of reading. This is not all; I realize that the writing of this paper is hardly the end, but part of a process of self-actualization. According to Indian thought, there are three ways to seek reality or unity – the yoga of devotion; of work, and of knowledge. In pursuit of knowledge through reading, one can sometimes feel the reality behind the words. (Dyne, n.d)
In general, this paper accounts for what can happen in an encounter between a reader and a text. Specifically, it is concerned with exploring iconographic traces of “Bhartrhari’s” thought in Vygotsky’s Thought and Language, and is a subjective account of an attempt at understanding a text within a cross-cultural setting. The investigation does not aim to be complete, exhaustive, or conclusive. Neither does it fall in the category of textual analysis. It does, however, propose to draw attention to interesting parallels, and raise speculative questions. The purpose is to try to articulate that dimension between the reader and the text, where images and thoughts, consciousness and imagination seek a place to rest. This however, is easier said than done. The actual writing has had to address a complicated process where themes, concepts, cultures, histories and traditions intertwine, clash and demand a resolution. It places me at once along an East-West divide and amidst the most fashionable of themes – ‘Postmodernism’ with all its alliances of perspectives such as: Phenomenology, Hermeneutics, New Historicism, and Semiotics.
The nature of my inquiry juxtaposes the Eastern and the Western traditions, and speculates on some general, related questions, such as:
- Is it possible to explore further the ‘context’ within which Vygotsky’s Thought and Language operates and place it within a ‘global perspective’? I pose this question because, to get to the meanings of the text, the reader has to recover and discover for oneself the context of the text.
- Can a genealogical perspective be established for Vygotsky’s Thought and Language?
- Could Bhartrhari and Vygotsky become partners in a dialogue?
A full and comprehensive study of Bhartrhari’s and Vygotsky’s texts and how they relate to each other, is beyond the scope of this paper and my competence. My paper primarily reflects my reading process, and through that exploration looks at tracings of influences on Vygotsky’s Thought and Language, and touches upon a very subjective experience about contextual absence, or gaps in my understanding of the text as I first experienced them.
The paper can be looked upon as that perspective which would never have materialized had it not been for the method of inquiry. Self reflection as that method, helped articulate the process of moving from an initial intuitive discovery, to a patient and critical investigation. My knowledge of Bhartrhari and Vygotsky grew out of the parallels between them, which I kept finding with each new reading encounter. My endeavour has been, above all, an act of learning. It is learning when one learns that it is possible to share what one has learned, even if this means just posing a question and exploring possible answers without arriving at a definitive one. However, arriving or not arriving at definitive solutions is one kind of reading process; another would be to regard the process of reading as the coming together, and going apart of different streams of thoughts, the ones that lead into the text and ones that lead out of the text onto new trails – a process that opens up the thinking of “unthought of thoughts” to borrow the phrase from Heidegger.
The attempt throughout has been to remain true to reflecting a process, in this respect a reading process, which is a dynamic embedded in so many interconnected strands of intertextuality, that consciousness is never at rest and language forever groping. Does a reader ever arrive at a unity? Is the text ever really actualized? Is the self of the reader ever actualized? Within a process there are no arrivings only indications.
How and Why the Inquiry Started
Reflecting on a reading process is not easy. Between the reading which takes place earlier, in stages and with disruptions, and the later writing of these reflections, is a process all its own. One has to somehow collect thoughts and ideas and process them. In the writing of these pages while I try to be as close to the first reading and the first reflections, I nevertheless have to make changes in terms of selection and organization based on later readings. The authenticity of a true reflection is somewhat lost in the process. Reading Vygotsky stirred many questions and here I will try to collect those which seemed important enough to initiate further research and exploration. In doing so I may inadvertently overlook, or discard other important or urgent questions, but such is the nature of self-reflective writing.
Perhaps I can divide the questions into two categories: ones that evoked connections with Indian philosophical thought, and others which made me want to explore more about the times and people of the era in which Vygotsky lived. In other words one set of questions led me to read more about Classical Indian thought and Bhartrhari, the other led me to investigate the historical and intellectual atmosphere of the times of Vygotsky. The two sets of questions are however interconnected, one springs from the other, and together they form the various strands of the process this reader engaged in.
The first day of class in graduate school, in which we studied Vygotsky, while Prof. Medway (the instructor) was going over general introductions to the course, explaining in the introductory lecture ‘levels of speech’ in Vygotsky’s Thought and Language, I was struck by the similarities between Vygotsky’s ideas and some of the readings I had been doing on my own. I could not help exclaiming – THAT’S Bhartrhari! (Bhartrhari is a 5th Century philosopher of the Grammarian school of Classical Indian Thought). So, I went to the library and checked out the book on Bhartrhari. The book had not been checked out in ten years!
I tried to dismiss the similarities I found in the two texts – reasoning that similar ideas can perhaps be encountered in different cultures, and that two philosophers could independently think along the same lines; however, as soon as I acquired of Vygotsky’s book and read the introductory chapters, I could not help thinking that what I was reading related to the verbal culture in which I was raised. The words that particularly interested me were: thought, consciousness, and reality. Not having formally studied Indian thought, I found it difficult to satisfactorily articulate my feelings. The one thing that I felt vaguely sure about was that consciousness, reality and action had Sanskrit parallels in the notions Sattva, Tamas and Rajas. If Vygotsky was involved in exploring the concepts of Sattva, Tamas, and Rajas – then he was in company with the classical philosophers of India who had made this a central focus of their inquiry.
As the class progressed through the different chapters of Thought and Language, analyzing and discussing Vygotsky, I spent my spare time reading Bhartrhari. It was not until we came to the 7th chapter of Vygotsky’s book that I decided to note points that appeared similar in thought between the two philosophers. In the journal entries required for the course, I mentioned the fact that there appeared to be more than a slight correlation between certain ideas presented in Bhartrihari’s Vakyapadiya and Vygotsky’s Thought and Language; however, I found no mention of Vygotsky being acquainted with ancient Indian philosophy. Two statements that Kozulin quotes from Vygotsky, helped me in my inquiry. These are:
1. The resolution to the crises comes from the crisis itself;
Psychological inquiry is investigation and like the criminal investigator the psychologist must take into account indirect evidence and circumstantial clues – which in practice means works of art, philosophical arguments, and anthropological data are no less important (Vygotsky, 1997: xx; xv).
I decided to follow Vygotsky’s advice and do some armchair investigations of my own. After repeated readings of the text – Thought and Language, I noticed the significance of Vygotsky’s opening remarks in the author’s preface to Thought and Language:
This book is a study of one of the most complex problems in psychology, the interrelation of thought and speech. We have attempted at least a first approach to this task by conducting experimental studies of a number of separate aspects of the total problem… (Vygotsky, 1997, lx)
Vygotsky does not claim these ideas have not yet been investigated; rather, he says, “As far as we know, this problem has not yet been investigated experimentally in a systematic fashion.” The thought crossed my mind that perhaps Vygotsky was investigating Bhartrihari’s ideas experimentally. This led me to focus my attention on classical Indian philosophical thought.
Interestingly, I played with the idea that a possible translation of the title of Bhartrhari’s Vakyapadiya could be ‘Thought and Language‘. Vakyapadiya = sentence/thought speech word/language. Howard Coward says, “nineteenth century and early twentieth century renewal of interest in language in the west was influenced by scholars such as von Humbolt, Max Muller, and Cassirer, all of whom gave considerable attention to the Sanskrit Grammarian tradition”(1976: 115). For me, however, this was enough to start thinking of a possible area of investigation, – scholarship in the 19th century – especially as it relates to Indological studies in the West.
I started looking for information on Indological studies in Russia, which in turn led me to the German Philosophers. I kept a running list of personalities, as I came upon them in my readings. I also tried to keep a short biographical sketch on each one of the personalities with the hope that the information I was putting together might reveal further connections and patterns. The result was a fascinating array of personalities, and a curious connection of histories that included not only European scholars, but South Asian personalities as well. From the information that emerged I began to get an idea of the period discourse of the times. The question that now emerged was – How does Vygotsky’s Thought and Language fit within the intellectual discourse of the period, which focused on the contributions of Indological studies? Scholarly endeavour is closely linked to the social, political, economic, and religious, ideas of the times; in other words, consciously or unconsciously our culture exerts a tremendous influence on our being.
Frank Kermode expresses this idea thus:
Our period discourse is controlled by certain unconscious constraints, which made it possible to think in some ways to the exclusion of others. However subtle we may be at reconstructing the constraints of past (or foreign) epistimes, we cannot ordinarily move outside the tacit system of our own (Kermode, as cited in Tuck, 1990, p. 96).
Following this line of inquiry, I was prepared to look at the wider discourse of 19th century scholarship, in the hope of arriving at possible patterns of thought, and lines of inquiry that involved the scholars at that time. Studying the information I had collected so far, I learned that:
- The 19th Century was marked by European interest in acquiring, translating, and interpreting Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Pali texts.
- Philosophers and scientists were deeply concerned with theories of relationships between mind and brain.
- A genealogical perspective of works titled – Thought and Language – could be traced.
I also tried to logically resolve the triangular connection of iconographic traces of Bharthari in Vygotsky; Bhartrhari’s text Vakyapadiya, and Vygotsky and his text. When I read Vygotsky and I see “Bhartrhari” (in a cultural sense), is Bhartrhari real or an illusion? I tried to rationalize the problem as a problem of perception and inference. How is one to distinguish the real from the illusion? The most common example of perceptual illusion in Indian epistemology is that of mistaking a piece of rope for a snake. If one sees a rope in the dark and thinks it is a serpent, is the serpent real or false.
Within Indian thought, there are two views regarding the discussion on ‘illusion’ and ‘the real’ or ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’. Both views belong to the realist school of thought. The first view suggests that so long as the illusion lasts, we see the illusory object existing in front of us; we could not have mistaken the rope for a snake, unless we already know what a snake is, i.e. unless we have seen the snake already. When we see the illusory snake, we have the rope in view and remember the snake already seen; but we do not cognize the difference between the two; therefore, we take the object to be a snake. So the illusion is only this non cognition (agraha, akhati) of the difference between the object seen and the object remembered. The illusory object is not characterized as a non entity because there is no positive error in illusion, and perception – in fact all knowledge – is always true. Our consciousness cannot commit a mistake. The second view suggests that knowledge cannot commit mistakes by itself. The mere non cognition or non apprehension of the difference between the rope in front and the remembered snake cannot explain the positive perception of the snake in front. Our perception of the object in front is of the form, THAT is a snake, and not of the form that and the snake. It is not merely the non cognition of the difference between the rope and the snake, but an identification of the ‘THAT’ and the ‘snake’ that makes the perception an illusion. In fact, until later we do not know the rope at all; so there is no question at all of the difference between the rope and the snake being cognized or not cognized. What we have is the ‘THAT’ the demonstrative pointing to the rope and to the snake. So, we have mistaken the rope for another object, namely the snake. Here, the object in front is identified by us, as an object remembered. This doctrine is called the doctrine of the cognition of a different object (viparita khyati) since the serpent is obviously different from the rope ( Raju, 1971, p.75).
The above views represent the realist and the pluralist (Mimamsaka) school of thought. We generally think that in the above scenario, the snake is false, it is only an idea; but according to the realists, it is real because it is a remembered snake. If after realizing that the object in front is a rope, we ask ourselves why we saw a snake instead, we shall find that it is a remembered snake and, if we try we can trace it back to some past perception of a snake. So, we are left with the statement: THAT is real, the ROPE is real, and the SNAKE is also real (Raju, 1971, p. 75).
How does this line of reasoning tie in with Vygotsky? Perhaps in the statement “THAT is Bhartrihari.” The “THAT” is real, “BHARTRHARI” is real, and VYGOTSKY is real. Within this logic all such realities have importance. However, it is impossible to take the argument further, unless we recover the context of Vygotsky and his text. At the beginning of the chapter entitled ‘Vygotsky in Context’, Kozulin states:
The bits and pieces we have been able to gather about Vygotsky’s life portray.…We do not know much about Vygotsky’s life. He left no memoirs, and his biography has yet to be written. That leaves us with the task of putting together the scattered reminiscences of Vygotsky’s friends and co-workers (Kozulin, 1997, p. xi).
The above passage as well as Kozulin’s remarks at the end of the same chapter must be read critically:
This new translation is based on the 1934 edition of ‘Myshenie i rech’, the only one actually prepared although imperfectly by Vygotsky himself. In it I have sought to follow Vygotsky’s line of thought as closely as possible, departing from it only when it repeats itself or when the logic of Russian discourse cannot be directly rendered in English. Substantial portions of the 1962 translation made by the late Eugenia Hanfmann and Gertrude Vakar have been retained. One last word., being well aware that he was losing in his struggle with tuberculosis, Vygotsky had no time for the luxury of including well prepared, references in Myshlenie i rech. Often he simply named a researcher without mentioning any exact work. At the same time, many of his references are now obscure figures. Therefore to place Vygotsky’s work in proper context requires explanatory notes (1997, p,.lvi).
I couldn’t agree more. I am left wondering if Bhartrhari the 5th Century Grammarian and the author of Vakyapadiya is one of those ‘obscure’ figures. The opening statements by Vygotsky and the closing statements by Kozulin put Vygotsky’s Thought and Language among other highly interpretable texts, in the mind of this reader at least, and give considerable impetus to the interpretive process.
In order to take a clearer and more detailed look at this process, this paper proposes to:
- Indicate the parallel ideas presented in the two texts – Thought and Language and the Vakyapadia.
- Apply the framework of Widdowson’s concept of the ‘co-operative principle’. Widdowson says, one might decompose a written passage into its constituent points of interaction, building up sequences for later conversions into paragraphs of written language (Widdowson, 1979, p.176): in other words, convert a non-reciprocal discourse into a reciprocal version. If I apply this principle to selected passages from Thought and Language, where would they lead? What would they reveal?
- Review the literature, which formed a part of the reading process with a focus on a ‘global perspective’ on Vygotsky.
- Comment on cultural and intellectual ties between the east and the West specially, during the early 19 and the early 20th century.
- Give a brief description of Bhartrhari’s theory of “Sphota”. The doctrine of Sphota reveals Bhartrhari’s philosophy of language. It assumes importance because Bhartrhari “rather than immersing himself in mystical meditation, sets out to analyze the meanings of words and the means by which such word knowledge is manifested and communicated in ordinary experience” (Coward, 1976, p. 6).
- Examine aspects of the investigation and comment on the reader/text relationship.
The themes above have been organized into the following chapters. Chapter 1 serves as the introduction to the paper. It emphasizes the reflective nature of my reading process and reveals how and why my inquiry started. Chapter 2 deals with questions that arose while reading Vygotsky’s Thought and Language. It consists of my internal dialogue with Vygotsky within the framework of commentaries. The format is informal to allow the dialogue to unfold spontaneously and thus be more readable. Chapter 3 deals with the question of perspective on Vygotsky and here I propose to put Vygotsky within a ‘global perspective’, moving away from a Eurocentric approach of placing Vygotsky strictly within the European context. Though all the chapters reflect the directions of my reading process, chapters 4, and 5 specifically deal with readings related to European involvement with the East; and an introduction to Bhartrhari and his theory of sphota respectively. Chapter 6, the last chapter, presents a synthesis of my reading experience. It presents examples of parallels between Vygotsky and Bhartrhari, which surfaced during the reading experience; together with my concluding reflections on the reading process – a process, which consists of actualizing both the text and the self of the reader. Just as the text needs a reader to be actualized, so, too the reader needs the text to actualize the self.
Chapter 2: Quotes and Commentaries
The cooperative process
According to Widdowson, reading is an act of participation in a discourse between interlocutors. It is regarded not as reaction to a text but as interaction between writer and reader mediated through the text. This interaction is governed by the ‘co-operative process’, where encoding is a matter of providing directions and decoding a matter of following them. In this interactional exchange what is actually expressed is vague, imprecise and insignificant, it is satisfactory only because it provides the interlocutors with directions to where they can find and create meanings for themselves. Widdowson suggests that this kind of creativity is not exclusive to reading but is a necessary condition for the interpretation of any discourse. Spoken as well as written discourse, operate in accordance with this co-operative principle (Widdowson, 1979, pp. 174-175).
The following is an attempt to outline the inner dialogue in which I was engaged while reading Vygotsky’s Thought and Language. Building on the co-operative process outlined by Widdowson, this section constructed in the form of commentaries, follows a tradition in which highly complex and technical arguments are illustrated by excerpts of text followed by commentaries either by the author himself or by others. The textual selections – Author’s Preface; Chapter 1 – The Problem and the Approach; and Chapter 7 – Thought and Word, are from Vygotsky’s Thought and Language – 1997. The selections from the Author’s preface; and Chapter 1, follow the sequence as they appear in the text. This being one of the reasons I’ve chosen these sections of the text. The above format makes it possible for me to juxtapose the two schools of thoughts – East and West – by presenting quotes from Vygotsky followed by my commentaries. This format is an outgrowth of a reading process that naturally lends itself to the dialogue/commentary style.
The framework is informal and as much as possible true to the original reflections; therefore, it does not always follow the strictly technical practice of citing sources and references, but presents thoughts as they appeared. While the inner dialogue explores questions and ideas that surfaced during the initial reading process, their presentation here in the form of commentaries represents what I call the external dialogue. Through commentaries this chapter reveals the dialogical relationship between the author, the text and the reader bringing to surface the subjective experiential process of the reader’s consciousness.
Quotes and Commentaries
Quotes from Vygotsky’s Thought and Language are presented in bold print to distinguish them from other quotes; my commentaries and reflections follow the quotes.
This book is a study of one of the most complex problems in psychology, the interrelation of thought and speech. (Vygotsky, 1997,p .ix)
Vygotsky is represented as one of the classical figures in the history of psychology. There is a vast amount of literature available about the impact of his ideas on modern psychology, pedagogy, social sciences, epistemology and cognition. He is recognized for creating the cultural-historical approach, which is one of the leading psychological theories of the 20th century on human consciousness (Veresov). It was within this context – the study of consciousness – that we were discussing Vygotsky’s book Thought and Language in Professor Peter Medway’s course on – Written Language and Cognition – 29.545. While explaining the significance of the book, professor Medway explained that the central point in the book is that – ‘language is the means of thought and thought is a derivative of language’ (class notes- Sept. 17,1997). In my attempt to understand the ideas presented in class, I read the book with a great deal of interest. In his book Thought and Language Vygotsky outlines his theories about the interrelation of thought and speech. In the author’s preface of his book, he says:
As far as you know the problem of the interrelation of thought and speech has not yet been investigated experimentally in a systematic fashion. (Ibid. , p. lix)
I read layers of meanings in this utterance. Does this mean that although the concept of the connection between thought and speech was a part of ancient philosophic discourse, this link had not yet found its way into the scientific literature of the West? Could this be the reason that Vygotsky sought to systematize it with his methods of investigation? Professor Medway outlined five important streams or themes discussed in Vygotsky’s book – Thought and Language:
- The connection between language and thought.
- Words as generalizations
- Development of speech into thinking.
- The role of instruction in development
- Concept development
Professor Medway also mentioned that Vygotsky was the first to do a psychological investigation by conducting experimental studies regarding the interrelation of Thought and Language. In the following passage, Vygotsky outlines his thoughts regarding his experimental studies.
We have attempted at least a first approach to this task by conducting experimental studies of a number of separate aspects of the total problem such as – experimentally formed concepts, written language in relation to thought, inner speech etc. The results of these studies provide a part of the material on which our analyses are based. (Ibid., p. lix)
By ‘our analyses’ I presume Vygotsky is referring to Luria and himself. The meaning of “The results of these studies provide a part of the material on which our analyses are based” is not entirely clear. My question to Vygotsky would be: What constitutes the other part of the material on which his analyses are based?
In his book, The Making of the Mind Luria talks about his research and the importance of Vygotsky’s contribution towards that research. According to Luria, the theoretical foundations of much of the experimental work of the time, were naive. Luria further states that the task of laying the theoretical foundations for his experimental work fell on Vygotsky whom he met in 1924. (Luria, 1979, p. 28-37). It follows that Vygotsky’s hypotheses provided the theoretical foundations to further Luria’s experimental studies; but what were Vygotsky’s hypotheses based on? Did they constitute the other part of the material on which his analyses are based?
Theoretical and critical discussions are a necessary pre-condition of and a complement to the experimental part of the study and constitute a large portion of the book. The working hypotheses that serve as starting points for our fact-finding experiments had to be based on a general theory of the genetic roots of thought and speech. In order to develop such a theoretical framework, we reviewed and carefully analyzed the pertinent data in the psychological literature. (1997, p. lix).
In this passage Vygotsky does not specify the literature which led to the development of his theoretical framework. This is one of the reasons that Vygotsky scholars today are trying to find a continuity in the development of his ideas leading to a dominant theory, and exploring the web of influences that contributed to this development.
We subjected to critical analysis those theories that seemed richer in their scientific potential, and thus could become a starting point for our own inquiry. Such an inquiry from the very beginning has been in opposition to theories that although dominant in contemporary science, nevertheless call for review and replacement. (Ibid., p. lix-lx)
Again Vygotsky does not specify whether the theories selected by him for their scientific potential, fall strictly within the European tradition. This question comes to mind for two reasons; first, because of Vygotsky’s opening statement – “as far as we know the problem of the interrelation of thought and speech has not yet been investigated experimentally in a systematic fashion”; and second, because he says that from the very beginning his inquiry was in opposition to the dominant contemporary theories. Vygotsky calls for a ‘review’ and ‘replacement’ of these dominant theories. I understand ‘review’, but ‘replacement’ would mean a substitution by new and different ideas. Where did these new ideas come from? I am reminded of Lemke’s statement, in Textual Politics – discourse and social dynamics. In the section on Bakhtin and Heteroglossia, Lemke states:
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… (Lemke, 1995, p. 22).
Through my readings, I learned that this period is marked by an increasing dialogue between the East and the West, specifically India and Europe. In the 1920’s and 1930’s Vygotsky’s ideas were sharply criticized and his theory was condemned as a whole (van der Veer & Valsiner, 1993, p. 374). Was it because of the Eastern influence that Vygotsky’s inquiry was in opposition to the dominant theories in contemporary science and that his theoretical investigations and claims were called ‘erroneous’, and ‘eclectic’? Some critics also called it ‘the exotic branch of Russian Psychology.'(Vygotsky,1997, p. xliii & lv). What connotations would one extend to the word “exotic”? It was also said that the theory of cultural development did not represent Soviet paedology and psychology, (van der Veer & Valsiner,1993, p. 380). Vygotsky’s exact position towards Marxism was questioned. Despite this criticism, he was praised for his intellectual independence, and for his quest for synthesis. It is said that as a result of his broad knowledge of international psychology he could lead his ideas to a novel synthesis (Ibid., p. 393). The key idea here is the idea of synthesis; but I wonder what the term ‘International psychology’ denotes. Would the Indian Yoga system, which was the traditional psychology of India in Bhartrhari’s day, be included in a definition of international psychology?
The author and his associates have been exploring the field of language and thought for almost ten years, in the course of which some of the initial hypotheses were revised, or abandoned as false. The main line of our investigation, however, has followed the direction taken from the start. (1997, p. lxi)
Exactly what does Vygotsky mean when he says ‘from the start’? I presume that it refers to his several years of research in this area and includes his writings prior to the text Thought and Language; but what was that direction that he took from the start? Is it what he says in The Psychology of Art?
The first and most widespread formula of art psychology goes back to W. von Humboldt; it defines art as perception. Potebnia adopted this as the basic principle in a number of his investigations. In a modified form, it approaches the widely held theory that comes to us from antiquity, according to which art is the perception of wisdom, and teaching and instruction are its main tasks. One of the fundamental views of this theory is the analogy between the activity and evolution of language and art (Vygotsky, 1925).
Further, from the same text…
The psychological system of philology has shown that the word is divided into three basic elements: the sound, or external form; the image, or inner form; and the meaning, or significance (Ibid.).
My interpretation of the above passage is as follows:
Vygotsky mentions Humbolt and Potebyna (also Schopenhauer elsewhere in the text). One cannot think of Humbolt, Potebyna, or Schopenhauer, without a connection to Indian thought. Also, Vygotsky talks about “the theory from antiquity” but finds no need to specify, which theory from which antiquity? He further mentions “the psychological system of philology”. The only psychological system of philology I know about is the yoga system of Patan~jali. Coward mentions this specifically (Coward, 1976). Vygotsky refers to Humbolt and the theory from antiquity; is it this direction that he took from the start? This above quote is significant from yet another perspective. Vygotsky emphasizes that teaching and instruction are important in the acquisition of wisdom. Again this corresponds to the path of knowledge, and the role of siksa or instruction and teaching within it. In one short paragraph, Vygotsky has stated the main concepts of the philosophical tradition of the East.
Vygotsky has been described as a prodigal reader, one who was known for the acquisition of ideas from seemingly disparate fields. It is a pity it is not possible to elaborate upon his research during this ten-year period, in order to obtain a more personal account of his investigation and a better idea about the range, depth and extent of his readings.
At the beginning of their book, van der Veer and Valsiner quote Vygotsky’s thoughts regarding creativity as a historically continuous process (1993, p. xi). In the passage, Vygotsky says that no innovative scientist creates ideas independently from the collective-cultural processes and cultural history, and from the interpersonal relationships in which human life is ingrained. Van der Veer and Valsiner talk about “intellectual interdependency”(Ibid., p. 393), which brings with it the notion of a cross-cultural embeddedness as well – especially if Vygotsky was interested in international psychology. This makes the idea of synthesis a very important one because it brings into play the dialogic involved not only within the local but a global perspective as well: a synthesis of Eastern and Western thought; an attempt at translatability of cultures; an example that theories do travel, and not only from the West to the East, but also from the East to the West. However, such a dialogic is missing in the literature on Vygotsky. Vygotsky is presented strictly within the European tradition. This assumption seems an impossibility considering the fact that Vygotsky was ‘keenly’ interested in the ‘structuralist revolution’ as Kozulin states (1997, p. xiii). It has been established, though often not acknowledged and explicitly stated, that Indian influences found their way into European Linguistics through Saussure, who was a professor of Sanskrit and the founder of European Structuralism.
In this work we have tried to explicate the ideas that our previous studies contained only implicitly. We fully realize the inevitable imperfections of this study, which is no more than a first step in a new direction. (1997, p. lxi)
Perhaps by ‘our previous studies’ Vygotsky is referring to the ideas in the passages previously indicated from his work, The Psychology of Art.
If one were to thoroughly explore the ideas of intertextuality and dialogism as they relate to 19th and early 20th century intellectual history, it would be difficult to ignore the wider context in which all dialogue of this period was embedded. It is this wider context that is the object of my exploration. The following passage from van der Veer and Valsiner illustrates the point further:
…all people involved in social discourse are co-constructors of ideas. Their social worlds include a variety of concepts of heterogeneous meanings. The individual makes use of some of these concepts and adjusts their meanings in accordance with the context in which these meanings are to be used. Other concepts may be actively rejected, or merely passed by without their being integrated into the knowledge structure that the individual is constructing. Nevertheless, even in the latter case, the presence of these concepts in the social world of the individual (and his mind) is a relevant part of the mindscape that leads to new ideas. The emergence of a new idea takes place within an individual’s mind while he is participating in (immediate or deferred) social discourse. Hence the personal achievement of novel ideas is intellectually interdependent with the socially available and intellectual culturally organized raw materials, – concepts with heterogeneous meanings, innovation thus necessarily occurs in the social context – both the means (meanings) and needs (goals set by the individual in the given task setting) are at first suggested to him socially. These may later be transferred into an internal psychological sphere – thus a – Tibetan monk contemplating issues of jealousy in the isolation of his cave is involved in as much a socially constructed endeavour as a psychologist leading a discussion on the same topic at a conference (1993, p. 395).
I find this reference to a Tibetan monk and a leading psychologist curiously interesting. By a stretch of imagination, the psychologist in question could be Lev Vygotsky and the monk, Bhartrhari the 5th century Grammarian philosopher! Going over my notes from Prof. Medway’s class I came across passages where Prof. Medway explained how an utterance is a plastic concept, and a book represented a chain, a dialogic chain of utterances, that there are no neutral utterances. Intertextuality in this sense is built up of utterances of before; we are all engaged in a dialogic activity even in private conversation (class notes).
Keeping this in mind, it is my assumption that the research from which Vygotsky’s hypotheses originated was a part of the larger discourse. I see his work as an important contribution towards the translation and translatabilities of theories – an interesting mixture of intuition and fact, East and West, science and spirituality, a true continuation of his and Luria’s work in the study of the cross-cultural development of thinking! It is my speculation that the challenge his group encountered was perhaps how to make a borrowed theory acceptable and applicable, palatable to European consciousness; in other words, how to make it fit European discourse. Outside of religious mysticism and culture specific limitations, the Eastern philosophies offered a theoretical platform from which scientifically possible hypotheses could be empirically investigated. Vygotsky’s work seems to chronicle the empirical experiments of the West against the philosophical suppositions of the East, and Psychology, as Kozulin rightfully states, offered the conceptual tool. The problem of thought and speech had always been a central issue within Indian philosophic thought, and it was an important topic of discussion in the intellectual circles of Vygotsky’s times. It is therefore logical that it became a focal issue of psychological investigation. Perhaps Vygotsky was trying to compare and contrast the progress made by the empirical scientific West with the theoretical suppositions of the East. Or even further, perhaps he was exploring whether science was capable of uncovering empirically within its methods, the realizations contained within Eastern philosophies. What would such findings indicate?
Continue to Part 2