- Get Involved
Newman, F. (2005). Vygotsky’s Place in the History of Science. Keynote. Vygotsky at Work and Play in Educational, Therapeutic and Organizational Settings, sponsored by the East Side Insitute and the Research Center at the All Stars Project, Inc.
Introduction of Fred Newman by Lois Holzman:
I think our playing today is going to be slightly more cerebral than bodily, as yesterday’s was, but just as much fun. We have a very chock-full day, and we’re very happy that to begin it for us, we will be hearing from Fred Newman.
It’s a wonderful thing to have a mentor. A mentor is a remarkable combination of teacher and colleague, someone who shares their wisdom and life with you and, in so doing, propels your life and your work forward. Most of us are lucky if we find one mentor. I have been very, very fortunate, for I have had three of them.
My first mentor was Lois Bloom, a researcher who I worked with when I was a graduate student at Columbia University. Lois taught me that to learn something about how children speak and learn to develop language, we had to leave the laboratory and go into children’s homes and onto playgrounds. We had to spend time with toddlers, playing with them and talking with them. I learned that context matters. That children don’t do the same thing in the lab that they do at home—something that seems obvious now but was not when I was a graduate student. I learned form working with Lois that qualitative research can be as rigorous—indeed, more rigorous—than quantitative research. In short, Lois Bloom projected me out of the lab and into the world, and that has been the foundation of everything I have done since.
My second mentor, with whom I did post-doctoral work at Rockefeller University, was Michael Cole. Mike taught me that laboratory experiments on human cognition cannot be ecologically valid, because you can’t see the social-cultural nature of cognition in the laboratory. He also was the first person to make me aware that science in general, and the social sciences and psychology in particular, are political, and that the research that we psychologists do can be practically relevant. Through Mike I learned to love that very practical and very political social scientist Lev Vygotsky. Both of these introductions, to Vygotsky and to the political nature of psychology, prepared me to embrace my third mentor, Fred Newman.
Fred Newman, who is the co-founder of the East Side Institute with me, co-founder of the All Stars Project with Lenora Fulani, and artistic director of the Castillo Theatre, has taught me many, many things. I could—indeed I have—written a number of books about that. But the most important thing that Fred taught me and gave me was a way into the world. Lois Bloom and Michael Cole both encouraged me to leave the lab. But while we were sitting in a playroom instead of a university, or standing on a street corner, we brought the lab—the experimental mindset and method—with us. What Fred showed me was a way to take the laboratory out of life. He invited me to develop a way to study the world through actively engaging in changing it. With Fred, I came to realize that my passion for human development wasn’t only intellectual curiosity, but also my belief that it was and is essential for human beings to find a way to develop if we are to survive and thrive. Having Fred as my mentor (we have been working together for nearly 30 years now) not only transformed what I did, it transformed who I was.
I feel I am a better scientist for being a co-builder and co-creator of what I study. A better researcher for getting the laboratory out of life. And it doesn’t negate any of the lessons and gifts provided by my first two mentors. The role of context, ecological validity, the politicalness of psychology and Lev Vygotsky have all been deepened and developed by being invited into the lives of ordinary people. They have become part of the activity that Fred and I and many hundreds of others engage in. It is I who brought my dead friend Vygotsky to Fred Newman. It is Fred who has encouraged us all to develop the living Vygotskyism evidenced throughout this conference. Please welcome Fred Newman.
After that introduction, I am about to give this unbelievably intellectual talk. Maybe we should have physical exercises. Thanks Lois, thanks a lot. I am really pleased to be here. I’m a great fan of Lev Vygotsky, and of Lois and this conference.
A quick anecdote: The first time I ever saw the words “Lev” and “Vygotsky” was when I was out at Stanford getting my Ph.D. in philosophy, studiously avoiding psychology at all costs. It was early in the ’60s, I guess ‘62, before the ’60s became the ’60s. I was studying analytic philosophy and I was over at this new (at the time new) library and bookstore. And I noticed that this new book had come out by the very distinguished Harvard philosopher W.V.O. Quine. I was excited to see it. I had heard about it coming out, a book called Word and Object, which went on to be a very important book in the area of philosophy. Quine went on (he was already there) even further to become the leading philosopher in the country until he died a few years ago. I studied that book morning, noon and night. It was in a series of books put out by MIT Press, and apparently the bookstore had gotten in Quine’s book and the next book in the series, which turned out to be Thought and Language by Vygotsky. You know how you pick up a book for a second when you’re not really interested, you’re interested in another book but you look at it, and so I did. It seemed like an interesting title, but it was clear that it was about psychology, so I put it out of my mind completely. That was the last I ever heard of Lev Vygotsky until I met Lois. Lois asked if I had ever heard of Lev Vygotsky and I recited this boring story and we’ve been the best of friends ever since.
From that very accidental beginning, I didn’t see Vygotsky as a psychologist. He was enough of a psychologist to keep me from reading him back in 1962 at Stanford but—this is what I found interesting the first time I looked at him, and it’s now decades and decades later and I still find this the case—I thought what he was talking about had much more to do with methodology, with philosophy, than it had to do with psychology. Years later I still think that. It’s no small part of why I need to warn you that that’s how I’m talking about Vygotsky today. I have no expertise at all on Vygotsky’s psychology. I’m not even completely convinced that I think it exists. My partner here is a very important expert on all kinds of things, not the least of which is Vygotsky and psychology. But that’s because she knows something about psychology and I know nothing about psychology. If I say that with a pride and defiance, that’s because it’s there.
I want to share with you today my thoughts about Vygotsky, in some sense not even as a methodologist (although I’m sure I’ll be talking about that) but where Vygotsky fits, as I understand him, into the history of science, which is inseparable (in my head, such as it is) from the history of philosophy and science, the two being very difficult to separate from each other.
Yes, he was a brilliant man, deeply involved in all kinds of things, including the activity of efforts to make profound social change, failed efforts to make profound social change. But that doesn’t mean in any manner, shape or form that he was a failure. The overall movement, of which he was in some ways a part, has had a very tragic and painful history. But Vygotsky has made, in the context of that, unbelievable contributions and I would like to share with you my thoughts about them within the context of the history of science and the history of philosophy.
This is so cliched that I almost can’t bear to say it, but as almost everyone points out, at least in western culture, if you want to look at where things came from, as best we know, everyone says, “Well, look at the Greeks.” And in many cases that’s an outrage because it is not true and it should be pointed out that it is not true, since things have come from a variety of cultures. Brilliant things. Important things. But western philosophy as such, at least as I’ve come to understand it, did indeed come from the Greeks. So, while pointing out that lots of things came from elsewhere, we should attribute some things to the Greeks. Philosophy and other subject matter are inseparable for the Greeks in a very critical way, and so ultimately is science, methodologically speaking. So when you want to look at the subject matter of what science is, as part of a process of figuring out how Vygotsky fits into the history of it, I tend to go back to the Greeks.
Science is a very complex historical phenomenon. One can’t give a definition of it; even the OED runs out of space on these kinds of things. But when I look at it sometimes I see (and this is part of going back to the Greeks) that fundamental to comprehending what science is all about—not just this science or that science, but this entire phenomenon known as western science (which has now become science in general since everyone uses it and glorifies it)—the core of it, the essence of it, whatever that means, can be found in this very old classical debate that I learned in Philosophy 101, before I ever started teaching it. The most fundamental debate that was taking place back there in Greece, a long time ago, was between a guy named Heraclites and a guy named Parmenides. It has dominated all of western thought ever since, and all we have on this debate is what they call in the philosophical field “fragments.” I was a graduate student when I first got introduced to this and one of my philosophy professors at Stanford said, “We’re going to talk about the ‘fragments’ of Heraclites and Parmenides.” I was slightly put off and concerned. But it turns out they had very little, just parchments or whatever it was they were using in those days, and there was a book with these “fragments” in it.
Apparently there was a seething debate, a wild debate, a great debate, a debate fundamental to all of human life which they started. Essentially and as succinctly as I’m able to put it, it was a debate about change and permanence. Change and permanence. Heraclites essentially says, “You can’t step in the same river twice. Everything is in a state of flux,” and so on. Parmenides, by contrast, seems to be saying in his fragments (and in the essays that Plato wrote about him, which are much more informative than the fragments), that everything is not permanent—not just in a temporal sense, but even stronger than that, in a spatial sense: “There is really no change at all. Change is illusory. There is only one great big thing. Just one.” He points to the oneness of the world.
The interesting issue that emerges from that is that if you think that the world is in a state of constant change—which there is evidence for, scientific evidence as well as philosophical evidence, as well as personal evidence—then what you need to do if you are interested in doing some kind of characterization of what the world is like and how the world works is you have to give some kind of accounting for permanence, or at least the appearance of permanence. Even to make the distinction that Heraclites and Parmenides are both making—since it’s not as if they don’t in some way or another recognize the other; they just take the one, change or permanence, to be fundamental. So, if you take permanence to be fundamental, then you have to give some accounting of change. And if you take change as fundamental, then you have to give some accounting of permanence. And they did. Moreover, I would argue, and I think I could make the case (although someone could make another case which is equally sound) that the entire history of science is about that. Some people in science, from the vantage point of change, try to give very complex accounts of permanence. How is it that some things look to be stable, permanent, unchanging, in some sense fixed, from the vantage point of change?
Or, how is it that we have some concept of change from what seems an intuitively obvious sense of permanence? If everything is changing, if it is a constant flowing of a river, if it is just a buzzing, blooming, confusing world, how do we account for the fact that some things appear to be right here? There it is. It seems permanent. It seems in front of my nose. It seems clear. This doesn’t appear to be a buzzing, blooming confusion. If it really is though, what is the mechanism by which we see it as in some manner, shape or form permanent? And conversely, if we say that there is permanence in the world, how is it that we understand efforts to show that this so-called permanent thing over here is in physical fact not permanent? Within physics, the most elaborate and complex science (the dominant science, many would argue), people get paid big bucks for pointing out that there are a billion, trillion quanta bouncing all over the place, right in front of our eyes. How do we get from one to the other? Because it seemed clear even to Heraclites and Parmenides—pig headed as they were about their own fundamental positions—that both are there. Both are in this world. And we recognize that as in some way or another true, whatever that means, within our daily lives in ordinary ways.
There seems to be some degree of stability that we recognize in a fairly matter of fact way and yet at the same time we recognize that the stability is co-partner with a constant process of transformation and change. How do they both wind up there together? It is a fascinating question to me. Not only scientifically. It is indeed a fascinating question even theologically. And, as we know, Galileo raised it and almost got his whatever chopped off from having done so. What the church fathers were really saying to Galileo, was, “You can’t say this. It is incoherent with what we and everybody understands the world to be. It is not simply wrong, it creates a madhouse out of everything.”
How do these two things exist in the world in which we live? If there are things that are permanent, how in the hell do they get to be unpermanent? (Permit me such a word for a moment.) Think about what permanent means. It isn’t transparently obvious how you get from permanent to anything other than permanent. And if everything is changing all the time, in some sense or another, how does anything ever stop long enough to be permanent? How does that which is moving stop? And how does that which has stopped start? What we are raising here, in some ways simplistic and in some ways with simple language, is pretty much what science has been about for thousands of years. It is in some ways the fundamental philosophical question. Not, “How did we get here? —which in my opinion is not a philosophical question at all—but, “How is it that, once here (not just us but the whole world, all the things), how did they get anywhere? Why is it that anything at all happens?” We are still working on these questions in every possible way. We’re still raising the question in virtually every effort to produce new ideas in science.
And what about in psychology? I’ve now been around long enough to have learned from Lois a little bit of what psychology is. I can now use the word in a sentence, as they say. I guess I know what it means therefore. But, how does anything develop? How can you even conceptualize development? How does something get from here to here? To raise a silly question about it, why would it want to? Well, Aristotle took care of that. But, how does it do it? It is an extraordinary magical trick. If it’s going on all the time, how is it that periodically it appears to stop? Whatever it is. And if it starts out stopped, how is it that it ever got started moving in the first place?
The history of science is an effort to answer that question, in my opinion. Well, as I understand him, Vygotsky was profoundly preoccupied with that question. I don’t think he really had a deep love for psychology, for which I deeply admire him. But I think he had a deep love for that question. Indeed, it seems to me, being serious for a moment about psychology, psychology has yet to give its answer to that question—though it tries, and that’s to its credit. It comes up with lots of different theories and so on and so forth. But I don’t think psychology has answered that question. Now, that’s fine; it’s not a critique. After all, physics, the queen of all sciences, answered that question with extraordinary elegance. Mr. Isaac Newton, or Sir Isaac Newton, answered that question with such theoretical force, and such empirical evidence, that the world, literally, was stopped in its tracks to appreciate this unbelievable answer—only to discover that it was wrong. After 100, 150 years. So psychology shouldn’t feel bad. Psychology is a baby science. If it’s a science at all, it’s a baby science. So it shouldn’t be so surprising that it hasn’t yet found its answer to that fundamental scientific question.
Vygotsky was in love with that question, it seems to me. And he thought—and I must say I am in some ways sympathetic to this position—that the psychological version of that question was so profound that nothing short of a total social revolution could possibly touch it. Though I’m not particularly sympathetic to the social revolution that he was connected to, I do very much agree with him in thinking that it is going to take a social revolution to answer that psychological question.
There are lots of different ways to describe what we’re talking about here, but in some sense, we are talking about the relationship between, if you will, becoming and being. Another philosophical way of putting it—and don’t quote me on any of my historical facts, because I get it wrong all the time, but I think it goes like this: There were two bishops in Scotland who said two very different though equally interesting things. Bishop Butler, I think, said (and this is one of my favorite quotes, which I got from my mentor Donald Davidson who loved this quote, although he and I disagreed violently on many things), “Everything is what it is and not another thing.” A rather profound quote, if you think about it for a moment. Though I think profoundly wrong. In about hundred years, another bishop, from the same area, named Berkeley, Bishop Berkeley says, roughly speaking, “Nothing is what it is. It is what it appears to be.” I find it fascinating to put those two quotes together. They are so interestingly different. The scientific and serious question is not whether this is true or that is true but how do you get from one to the other?
Everyone knows that perception can be completely misleading. You can say what something looks like, and you got it all wrong. There are illusions. There are delusions. The argument from illusion is the cornerstone of traditional philosophy. The argument from illusion is simply that you look at something and you think it is so and so, but if you look more carefully or look from a different angle, or whatever, you see that it looks a little different. And if you look from still another angle, it again looks a little different. Everything is illusory and, moreover, there is no argument to show that any given perceptual experience isn’t illusory. So the argument from illusion goes. Everything could be illusory. Indeed, everything might be illusory. Every day that I live it seems more and more the case that that might well be.
It also is clear that despite the limitation of perception, perception emerges as the most profound phenomenon within science, as the fundamental source of certitude. Hey, wait a second! Aren’t you telling me you can always get it wrong? “Oh, you think you see Esther? That’s actually a friend of hers who’s dressed up like her today.” Perception can mislead you, and yet, it is simultaneously perception which science uses to give ultimate justification for its most certain claims. How did we wind up in a world where both of those are the case? That’s the interesting question from my point of view. It is a curious thing if you let yourself think about it. They should be, you’d think, diametrically opposed to each other. If perception is so potentially illusory, how could it possibly qualify as the god of certainty? Well, whoever put this thing together liked that joke, because she or he repeated it endlessly. And you wonder why so many people are in therapy. It is enough to make you crazy. Indeed, it does, in a very fundamental way, it does make you crazy. We keep referring to how certain we are of things—how right we are, how correct we are, the truth of it. In a way, this makes plain that anything we are saying in the name of that could be totally and completely wrong. That’s what our species has wound up with. Our wrongness and our rightness are shockingly interconnected. How can you have a world like that?
Well, Vygotsky took all this stuff very seriously. He was deeply committed to finding a way of looking at things which was at least compatible with that fundamental dilemma (although to call it a dilemma is to understate it). He was looking for a way of understanding human growth, human beings, how children learn, how children grow, that took seriously this profound dilemma. He was looking for a method which attended to this.
It is important I think to see this. The critical question, again, is not whether you choose one or the other. “Oh, I’m a change person.” Or a permanence person: “I’m with Parmenides. I’m a Parmenidean and I support permanence.” That’s nice, but from a scientific or historical or human point of view that’s like, in some sense, picking your favorite nationalist state: “I prefer this country to that.” Well, fine. You have every right to do so. It means a great deal in terms of what goes on every day of the week, but it doesn’t mean anything historically. You see, this is a country so used to choosing sides that people live with the illusion that if you choose a side you’ve actually done something. Choosing a side doesn’t mean anything. You say, “How can you possibly say that? Aren’t millions of people killed by choosing this side or that side?” Yes! But it still doesn’t mean anything. That is tragic. That’s very sad. But the notion that it really means something is, in my opinion, a profound illusion, of which there are many. So it makes no difference whether you say, “Oh, I’m a Heracliten. I’m a change person.” Or, “I’m a permanence person.” The hard issue for all of science and all of humanity is to figure out how to account for everything else given the silly label you’ve given to yourself.
If there is anything that I love about postmodernism (much of which I do love although a lot of it is just ridiculous), humanistically speaking, it’s that the fundamental issue is to discover something about the “other,” not about yourself. The fixation on understanding who you are is also part of that silly Greek tradition, wonderful, brilliant tradition that it is. “Know thyself!” Why? How? Why would I want to know myself? And how could I? I don’t believe, at this point in my life, in “knowing” or “thyself.” So I don’t take it very seriously. But it profoundly impacts on people. What’s of great significance it seems to me, and science is moving more and more and more in this direction, is an understanding of the “other,” whether it is the other objects of physics, the other worlds, the other this or that. It’s the understanding of the other that has come to be the essence of what science has evolved into, to the great credit of science. That’s what Vygotsky was fundamentally interested in. I’m in no position to appraise his success, but I really love the question and I love the extraordinary creativity of Vygotsky in attempting to answer that question.
One or two examples, just so you will walk away from here believing that I actually read Vygotsky. One of the things Lois and I have worked with in our writings is about what we laughingly call, “our Vygotsky” which (I think this is accurate, or I may have made this up), if you’ve ever read this book that we wrote called Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary Scientist, we begin by making a distinction between the “real Vygotsky” and “our Vygotsky.” We didn’t actually make that up if I remember the story. As I remember it, our editor effectively introduced it because she didn’t want to be over-identified with anything we had to say about Vygotsky, so it was a disclaimer. We thought it was the right thing to do also, because our Vygotsky looks very little like the Vygotsky that an awful lot of people have written about. Which is fine. Why shouldn’t there be a multiplicity of Vygotsky’s? Why shouldn’t there be a multiplicity of Fridley’s and Esther’s and so on. And, increasingly, some sciences (I would argue especially physics) are coming closer to arguing that that is actually sound. That the notion of a singular characterization, a singular dimensionality in the physical world, is highly suspect. So too, it seems to me, in the psychological world. Except in the psychological world we run off to quickly characterize that as neurotic. We haven’t yet learned, it seems to me, that what is now being called neurotic will someday, years from now, probably centuries from now, be called a characterization of how human beings are. Yes, it doesn’t match up well against the idealizations that some human beings want to make up about where human beings are, but neither do most of the discoveries in 20th century physics.
In any event, in our Vygotsky, we examine this brilliant conception of completion. It’s a very critical conception from Vygotsky, although most of the people who write about their Vygotsky don’t even mention it. To us, it knocked us out of our chair. Completion is Vygotsky’s effort to engage a very much-related philosophical issue, essentially, the issue of the mind/body relationship. He introduces this conception which attempts, in its formulation, to break down the need for explaining how the mind impacts on the external world, at least in speech. That’s a somewhat narrow area, but I think he’d be willing to generalize it. That had been a problem for centuries. How does what goes on, as we say, in the mind, impact at all on what’s outside the mind? Why would it impact? Why should it impact? Why should my making sounds mean anything at all to anyone else in this room? How does that work? Well, there has been a lot of study of that. Lois has done a lot of it. And a lot of good answers, interesting answers. What has been very difficult for people is to give some kind of paradigmatic clarification, some definitional clarification, some conceptual clarification of how to think about that and how to talk about that.
Vygotsky says this remarkable thing. The problem, says Vygotsky, is that psychology tends to begin, as do all of us when we think about this, as insisting upon a separation between those two and then spends years figuring out how to put them back together again. (Kind of like a lot of things we do, this strange species of ours.) Vygotsky says the way to understand speaking (leaving aside the question of whether there is an inside or an outside, but if there is) is to consider the possibility that what goes on inside is not something which is in any manner, shape or form separable from the extension of that to the external phenomena that are the completion of that. What Vygotsky is saying, in effect, is that the notion that language emanates from some other place is a denial of the fundamental ontology. That is, there isn’t another place. It is one thing happening in one connected world, and what you do and what others do in connection to this thought is intrinsically connected to what we identified as the internal separated phenomenon. It is the completion of one kind of thing. But the kind of thing is hard to understand because you have a preset categorical understanding of what counts as a kind of thing.
When I used to teach epistemology, I would begin my first class by going to the blackboard with a piece of chalk. (Now I don’t do it because I don’t walk so well and, moreover, there is no blackboard.) I would begin with a piece of chalk. (People thought I was out of my mind and they were probably right.) I would start drawing a line on the blackboard. People would think, “What is that, a graph?” And then I would move it off of the blackboard and continue to draw up across the wall and over here and down there and so on.
The point of this was to start to teach people that we have to understand, even if we are old fashioned Kantians who believe in categories of the mind and so on, that our categories of the mind as manifest in the world in which we live are profoundly limiting. That there are indeed, as Shakespeare pointed out, more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. And science is coming closer and closer to appreciating that.
Vygotsky loved this stuff and, moreover, not only did he love it (he wasn’t just an abstract philosopher), he appreciated that if he could discover creative scientific answers to this kind of stuff he would know something about how to help children learn. And he inspired me. I think that is an extraordinary insight. So, a lot of what he did that I feel most attached to, that I think both of us feel most attached to, is to make these kinds of practical discoveries without abandoning these conceptions. See, a lot of people, a lot of scientists, have these serious insights and they abandon them in the process of trying to be practical.
I just finished reading a book about two of my favorite scientists of all time, Einstein and Gödel. One of the most beautiful things about the two of them—brilliant, brilliant mathematicians, physicists and so on—is that they never abandoned their fundamental methodological commitments in the name of trying to crank out another paper with another practical theory. It ultimately led to them being totally stymied in their work. Which I think is wonderful. Because I think if coming to the point where you simply don’t know what the hell you are doing forces you to compromise on what you know to be philosophically sound in order just to come up with another theory, that’s to me one of the more profoundly unethical things to do. They didn’t do it. Vygotsky didn’t do it. We’re trying not to do it. Someone else will have to judge. The interesting thing is that if you persist in not compromising in the world in which we currently live, cynical as it is, what you wind up being called is an opportunist. It’s another one of those strange things.
That’s the Vygotsky that I am in love with. Vygotsky as a revolutionary scientist, with equal does of both, who is going to discover something about this fundamental question without coming up with some cheap answer. So we can go on and further and further discover as people are now in this world (despite all that is going badly, and so much is going badly; don’t confuse me with someone who doesn’t think almost everything is going badly). I think there is an ongoing pursuit worldwide of attempting to understand what the hell is going on. And it is a very important pursuit. Politics absent this pursuit is a total waste of time in my opinion. And I am a deeply political person. So Vygotsky is a contributor to that, as is Wittgenstein, as is Gödel, as is Einstein, lots of brilliant people. Insofar as I have any capacity to pay tribute: to Lev Vygotsky, thank you very much.