April 2021: Thought and Language

Vygotsky on concept formation and internal speech, and a bit of crackpot planning

Hello again,

It’s been sunnier here, lockdown restrictions have loosened a bit, and I can think again. And I’ve remembered how to read books! So instead of dredging up a few half-arsed thoughts from Twitter conversations I actually have something new to write about.

There’s another reason I can think better as well. In the middle of the month I handed in my notice at work. I finish at the end of May, and my plan is to have a least a couple of months before I start looking for something else. I can be a full-time crackpot for a bit!

I’d been stressing about that decision for a while, and once I finally did it my ability to think about other things suddenly shot up. I’m now in the state where I have too many things I want to do and can’t focus very well, but I’ll take that happily. It’s a major improvement.

I’m not actually going to talk about the whole of thought and language this month, that’s a little too ambitious. It’s a book title, from a 1934 book by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. I did a research speedrun on Vygotsky and his collaborators last year because his ideas on how we learn to internalise language as verbal thinking sounded interesting. The speedrun itself didn’t go very well, mostly an annoying slog through crappy sources, but I did pick up that his main book would be worth reading. I finally got round to it last week, after being reminded of it by this tweet:

I thought this book would be of mild historical interest and I’d spend an hour or two skimming it before writing up a few quick thoughts for the newsletter. Instead I really liked it, ended up doing practically a full read while taking notes, and I’m still going on 30th April. Which is a good outcome overall, but not so good from a finishing-this-newsletter perspective. I haven’t even got to the chapter on internalisation, which is the main thing I wanted to read! So I’ll write up what I have here and then maybe do a full version later on the blog or something. Here goes…

Thought and Language notes

Introduction: Vygotsky’s life

The foreword by Alex Kozulin, ‘Vygotsky in Context’, was very well done. I wish I’d read that for the speedrun, and not a bunch of poor-quality wikipedia articles. Here’s a few main points:

Literary background. Vygotsky had literary and artistic talents as a student in Moscow - he was involved in the theatre and took an interest in the then-popular structuralist movement in literature. His first book was on the psychology of art, and this interest in language permeated his work in psychology too:

Vygotsky did not hesitate to put poetic images in his psychological works. He was particularly interested in the poetic treatment of the agony endured when thought seeks, but cannot find expression in, words.

… For him, culture and consciousness constituted the actual subject of inquiry, while psychology remained a conceptual tool, important but hardly universal.

I think this is why I find him interesting! He sort of reminds me of William Empson, who was writing around the same time but in literary criticism.

Early career. After university he worked as a school teacher, but kept his interest in psychology. At the age of 28 he gave a talk at a conference in Leningrad which impressed Luria, who was in the audience:

"Instead of choosing a minor theme, as might benefit a young man of twenty-eight speaking for the first time to a gathering of the graybeards of his profession, Vygotsky chose the difficult theme of the relation between conditioned reflexes and man's conscious behavior. . . . Although he failed to convince everyone of the correctness of his view, it was clear that this man from the small provincial town in western Russia was an intellectual force who would have to be listened to."

Luria himself was only 26 but already had some sort of well-connected administrative position, and was able to pull the right strings to get Vygotsky a research fellowship.

Central Asia. Vygotsky accompanied Luria on his trip to Central Asia to study differences in thinking styles in peasants with or without exposure to formal schooling. I’ve been vaguely thinking of reading Luria’s account of this for a while, think that’s been bumped up the list now.

Early death. Vygotsky died of tuberculosis in 1934, at the age of 37. His work had already fallen out of favour with the Soviet authorities and his collaborators had to tread carefully. His work was rediscovered in the sixties and became more widely popular.

Finally, one methodological point. One annoying thing about the book is that there isn’t much detail about the experiments he did, only a very broad overview and maybe an example or two. Kozulin explains the context:

A few words are in order here concerning Vygotsky's presentation of experimental material. Quantitative methods and operationalistic descriptions were not a significant feature of Soviet psychology in the 1920s, and Vygotsky, in particular, emphasized ideas and arguments in his monographs intended for the general educated audience, reserving experimental details for technical reports. After all, the number of professional psychologists in Russia at that time was so insignificant that each of them knew ail the others, making ii. easy for them to clarify the experimental details in the technical reports of their fellow psychologists.

That’s all very well but a bit frustrating for me, I’m not a professional psychologist in 20s Russia and don’t know where these obscure technical reports are. So I guess I’ll just go with the limited detail in the book.

Early chapters

These are mostly background, setting up the views he wants to argue with later. Some of this was very skippable even given that I liked the book, there’s only so much I want to know about century-out-of-date chimpanzee research. I did find a few interesting bits though.

His main target is Piaget. I skimmed a lot of this too, but it seems that the main point is that Piaget thought that children started with an ‘egocentric’ style of speech, as a running commentary on they were doing, and later learned a more ‘socialised’ style of thought based on interaction with adults.

I haven’t read any Piaget, and the quoted bits are a bit WTF. Like this:

What is the reason for the prevalence of egocentrism in children before seven? Why do they not communicate their ideas to each other? "What is the reason for this? It is, in our opinion, twofold. It is due, in the first place, to the absence of any sustained social intercourse between the children of less than seven or eight, and in the second place, to the fact that the language used in the fundamental activity of the child-play--is one of gestures, movements, and mimicry as much as of words. There is, as we have said, no real social life between children of less than seven or eight" (Piaget, 1959, p. 40).

So children younger than 7 don’t talk to each other, and just gesture or something? I’m not sure I trust this guy.

Anyway Vygotsky and collaborators investigated children’s speech by giving them frustrating tasks to do, like colouring activities with missing pens. These breakdowns in routine activity prompted a lot more ‘egocentric’ running-commentary speech, sort of like the rubber duck debugging I do when my code doesn’t run:

We found that in these difficult situations the coefficient of egocentric speech almost doubled, in comparison with Piaget's normal figure for the same age and also in comparison with our figure for children not facing these problems. The child would try to grasp and to remedy the situation in talking to himself: "Where's the pencil? I need a blue pencil. Never mind, I'll draw with the red one and wet it with water; it will become dark and look like blue."

I liked this example, with an extra unplanned frustration in the task:

A child of five-and-a-half was drawing a streetcar when the point of his pencil broke. He tried, nevertheless, to finish the circle of wheel, pressing down on the pencil very hard, but nothing showed on the paper except a deep colorless line. The child muttered to himself, “It's broken," put aside the pencil, took watercolors instead, and began drawing a broken streetcar after an accident, continuing to talk to himself from time to time about the change in his picture. The child's accidentally provoked egocentric utterance so manifestly affected his activity that it is impossible to mistake it for a mere byproduct, an accompaniment not interfering with the melody.

Vygotsky’s point is that ‘egocentric speech’ is not just a running commentary, it feeds back on the original activity and alters it (whereas in Piaget’s theory it would just be a pure byproduct, I think).

Concept formation in children

I saw the perfect tweet for this section last week, courtesy of Pamela Hobart:

This sort of associative concept-making is exactly what Vygotsky studied. He points out that most words that children learn are already in use by adults, so their meaning has been stabilised. So young children learn to say ‘cat’ when an adult says ‘cat’, but that doesn’t mean that they are extending the concept in exactly the same way. ‘Popcorn’ clearly means something different to this toddler than it does to us! To study the difference, he had to get children forming artificial concepts:

The material used in the concept formation tests consists of 22 wooden blocks varying in color, shape, height, and size. There are 5 different colors, 6 different shapes, 2 heights (the tall blocks and the flat blocks), and 2 sizes of the horizontal surface (large and small). On the underside of each figure, which is not seen by the subject, is written one of the four nonsense words: lag, bik, mur, cev. Regardless of color or shape lag is written on all tall large figures, bik on all flat large figures, mur on the tall small ones and cev on the flat small ones.

As the number of the turned blocks increases, the subject by degrees obtains a basis for discovering to which characteristics of the blocks the nonsense words refer. As soon as he makes this discovery the words come to stand for definite kinds of objects … and new concepts for which the language provides no names are thus built up.

Vygotsky talks about how younger children form what he calls ‘complexes’, weaker forms of concepts built up by pairwise associations between specific blocks. A common feature of these is the ‘chain complex’, where the criterion for similarity changes over time, so that later blocks in the chain may have no features in common with earlier ones:

For instance if the experimental sample is a yellow triangle, the child might pick out a few triangular blocks until his attention is caught by, let us say, the blue color of a block he has just added; he switches to selecting blue blocks of any shape-angular, circular, semicircular. This in turn is sufficient to change the criterion again; oblivious of color, the child begins to choose rounded blocks.

The chain formation strikingly demonstrates the perceptually concrete, factual nature of complex thinking [note: this means ‘thinking with complexes’, rather than ‘complicated thinking’]. An object included because of one of its attributes enters the complex not just as the carrier of that one trait but as an individual, with all its attributes.

This is where we start to see a connection with another of my favourite topics…

Cognitive degreebling

Wait, where did that word come from? I meant cognitive decoupling, of course. This is a term associated with the psychologist Keith Stanovich - I talked about its history in this post. It means the ability to focus on one aspect of a situation independent of its other features. The young children doing the blocks task have limited ability to do this, so quickly get distracted by different properties of the blocks, but this develops over time (I’ve bolded the bit that’s basically a description of cognitive decoupling):

In our experiment, the first step toward abstraction was made when the child grouped together maximally similar objects, e.g., objects that were small and round, or red and flat. Since the test material contains no identical objects. even the maximally similar are dissimilar in some respects. It follows that in picking out these "best matches," the child must be paying more attention to some traits of an object than to others - giving them preferential treatment, so to speak.

The chapter I’m reading currently is more directly about this, comparing how school students learn ‘scientific concepts’ introduced by a definition compared to everyday concepts. I haven’t read enough to give a good account of it yet, though, so I’ll stop here.

Connections to Ong

I also haven’t left myself long enough to think about this properly, but there are obvious connections between Thought and Language and Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy, which I reviewed here a while ago. Ong’s book is about the connection between speech and writing, with writing as the more stabilised, externalised, ‘discrete-object-like’ one of the pair. Vygotsky’s book does a similar thing for thought and speech, this time with speech as the stabilised one of the pair. Basically I now understand this comment:

Other stuff this month

I had a couple of other interesting conversations on twitter. One was this thread on random sections of Bryan Magee’s Confessions of a Philosopher:

The book turned out to be packed with lore on various intellectual lineages of the time (who are ‘the Cambridge neo-Hegelians’, for instance?) and some good dunking on academia. A bit more context in the replies.

Also some conversations about Brian Cantwell Smith. Here’s the first tweet from @natural_hazard with some paper suggestions to follow up:

And here’s a thread on his paper ‘On the Semantics of Clocks’:

Next month: crackpot planning

Next I’ll finish this book - I just have half the scientific concepts chapter and the internalisation chapter. Then maybe I’ll write a blog post, or maybe I’ll cover the rest in the next newsletter. I also need to start thinking about what I’m going to do starting in June when I’m suddenly going to have way more time than I’m used to. I definitely want to escape Bristol for a bit and see friends and family, but other than that it’s all pretty open. At the moment I have plenty of ideas:

  • Right now I’m getting a lot out of cleaning my room. Seriously. Marie Kondo style rather than Jordan Peterson style, so basically picking up objects one by one and discovering what I actually feel about them. Makes me realise that that my visual taste is pretty stunted and I’m surrounded by things where I don’t have much feeling about them one way or the other. I expect to keep going with this one.

  • I would be very happy if I could get my attention back round to physics, but I always find that difficult to steer. Had a bit of success in reloading the context last month, will try again in May.

  • Research speedruns. I have a few more topics I’d like to try.

  • I’m still mildly interested in the Romantic movement. I think the chain of thinking I’m interested in is something like this: a lot of ‘postrationalism’ looks to me like pure romantic reaction against rationalism and I want to get clearer on exactly what it leaves out. Learning more about the original movement might be helpful here. Also McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary seems like a particularly pure example of this romantic tendency so maybe I want to reread/think about it some more.

  • Maybe I’ll get my website off of wordpress and escape blocks editor hell?

  • I want to generate kaleidoscope images again. This probably isn’t the most high value thing I could do with my time but who cares, I want to do it. Maybe I will put them on mugs and T-shirts this time, or get a twitter bot to tweet them out, or whatever else I wanted to do last time but didn’t get to.

  • I’d like to revisit some of my old mathematical intuition stuff now I’ve read more relevant theory. I still have very long term ambitions of taking some of this stuff I’ve been reading about language and seeing how/whether it applies to mathematics.

  • I also had a potentially-good idea in March about making a collection of mathematical examples in the style of the ones in my examples only newsletter. I’ve thought about this one before but always assumed it would have to be a website or a book or something, which is a lot of work. I realised that the MVP of this is just a twitter account that tweets them out. Still quite a lot of work though, and I’d first have to convince myself that I could come up with enough examples.

That’s, um, a lot, and probably not exhaustive. I’m taking a few months off, not a decade. So I need to focus and prioritise.

I’m also joining a five-week club on Hyperlink Academy in May and June, The House of Interdisciplinary Autodidacts. Interesting looking schedule on self-directed research with some practical projects. Hopefully it’ll also give me a bit of transitional structure as I adjust to having way more time than before.

See you next month!