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Posted by: on Apr 26, 2017 | No Comments
Vygotsky in Perspective
By Ronald Miller

This book has been reviewed positively by various luminaries in Vygotsky studies, some of whose works have in turn been reviewed on this blog: Kozulin and Valsiner. Yasnitsky calls it an "absolute and unconditional treasure." But reading through the reviews, you'll also see keywords such as "contrarian" and "deeply argumentative."

I agree that the book does have some strong positives. But it's also one of the most uncharitable scholarly books I have ever read. Miller, who is a professor emeritus, notes that he is writing at the end of his career, so he can say what he thinks without fear of reprisal (p.xii). And what he thinks is that various luminaries who have grounded their work in Vygotsky are either fools or knaves, substituting their dross of Americanized psychological theory for Vygotsky's gold—and obscuring the plain meaning of Vygotsky's texts. In fact, two lietmotifs show up across the text:

  • X falls headlong into a trap.
  • X mischaracterizes Vygotsky—"inadvertently, perhaps," Miller allows during his most graceful moments (ex: p.347).
Various Westerners come in for sustained and dismissive criticism along these lines—throughout, but especially in the second half of the book, "Vygotsky in America," in which Miller complains about "Americanized" CHAT. Mike Cole gets Chapter 7 (and he was understandably unhappy with the characterization), while James Wertsch gets two whole chapters (8 and 9). But Anna Stetsenko and Yrjo Engestrom also come in for criticism, and even Edwin Hutchins—who is not really even in the CHAT conversation—gets a dismissive footnote (p.38, footnote 29). 

In Miller's view, these commentators misrepresent Vygotsky, either deliberately (to push their own ideas) or foolishly (since the plain meaning of the text is right there in the text for all to see—Miller treats Vygotsky's writing like a conservative US Supreme Court justice treats the Constitution). "There is a not-so-thin line between interpretation and misrepresentation and it seems that this line is increasingly being ignored," he complains (p.xi). And that is a big problem, in Miller's view, since these commentators change the interpretations of other readers. One case that he discusses in the Introduction, and in more detail in Ch.10, is that of the commentaries in the English version of Vygotsky's Collected Works
By framing Vygotsky's texts with selected commentaries that ground his work in their own image, commentators are able to provide a form of supportive 'scaffolding' that lends a particular shape to an engagement with the text that follows. In this way, the commentaries, albeit inadvertently, constitute a subtle and indirect kind of pre-emptive censorship by providing a ready-made interpretive filter in front of the text. (p.3, my emphasis)
I'm not clear why Miller sees readers of the Collective Works as merely victims while commentators such as Cole and Stetsenko are characterized as fools or knaves. After all, Cole has been forthright about reading Vygotsky through Luria's framing and interpretation, while Stetsenko similarly came to Vygotsky through the tutelage of Leontiev. It's not as if the commentators (or anyone) came to the text without any sort of interpretive frame. Nor does it make sense that a reader of the Collective Works can't put aside the commentary and read the text itself. But we'll return to this question later, as well as some of the problems with credibility that come up in the fools-and-knaves reading.

I mentioned that Miller's book has some strong positives. That's especially true in his close reading of Vygotsky's posthumously published book, Thinking and Speech, a book that famously takes the early works of Piaget to task. In Part I, Miller, who is deeply familiar with Piaget, reads Vygotsky from a Piagetian standpoint and identifies points at which Vygotsky and Piaget actually agreed—both at the time and in Piaget's later work. As someone who has not read much Piaget, I found this section of the book interesting and illuminating.

Let's preface the discussion with some points from the Introduction. Miller emphasizes a distinction that Kozulin and others have also emphasized: that Vygotsky used signs (word meaning) as a unit of analysis for understanding consciousness (p.20), and his focus on mediation was really about sign mediation (p.21). In contrast,
Leont'ev explicitly and expressly argued that Vygotsky's semiotic emphases and focus on consciousness and word meaning were misguided and that a theory giving more weight to material forms of activity was needed. It is this distinction between meaning and consciousness, on the one hand, and material activity, on the other, that is lost in the secondary sociocultural literature, and the loss is profound because Vygotsky's entire theory is undermined if consciousness and meaning are sidelined and replaced by a general concept of activity. ... In place of the clear and unambiguous distinction that Vygotsky makes between signs as psychological tools and the material tools of labour, Cole and Wertsch collapse the distinction and substitute their own concepts of artefacts and cultural tools, respectively, concepts that are cornerstones of their own activity-driven approaches and determine how the core concept of mediation is used. (p.20)
For Vygotsky, a tool is external, while a sign is internal and involves self-mastery (p.23). Miller says that Vygotsky's contribution is not that he breaks down barriers between inside/outside or individual/social, but that "he incorporates the social as part of the constitution of his concept of a human person" via speech (p.26, his emphasis). In this reading, external signs do not substitute for internal ones, but help to manage the process; their significance is as sign, not tool (p.29).

Interestingly, Miller argues that while Americanized CHAT "has diluted Vygotsky's theory by ignoring or sidelining the role of signs and word meaning in the construction of all his key concepts," Russian activity theorists "highlight the importance of psychological tools and semiotic mediation in Vygotsky's work. Instead of twisting the meaning of his psychological concepts to suit their purpose, they look back and discover another more material Vygotsky buried deep inside his better-known semiotic persona" (p.41). He closely reads Leont'ev's preface to the third volume of the English-language Collected Works, professing to be baffled by its "confusing mixed message" because
Clearly, from his own account and assessment of Vygotsky's theory, in practice Vygotsky devoted very little effort to the study of labour activity. If by studying consciousness and meaning Vygotsky did not in principle drift away from the study of practical, objective, labour activity, then the principle to which Leont'ev refers in the above passage strikes a hollow chord that gives body to an empty claim. (p.44)
Miller seems incurious about a question that could easily be answered with a little historical investigation—or some consultation to books he has already cited. But Miller seems, here and elsewhere, to be oddly ahistorical and oddly incurious about why someone's reading would differ from his own. Throughout Part I, Vygotsky is discussed in the first person and Thinking and Speech is described as the final and therefore purest expression of a unitary theory (but see p.97 and p.178 for rare acknowledgements that Vygotsky was refining and developing this theory). In fact, Miller sometimes seems surprised that the different chapters in this book do not cohere more closely in argument, which suggests that he is unaware that the book is actually a compilation of materials from 1928-1934. That is, they span Vygotsky's instrumental period and his holistic period.

In contrast, Miller does a good job of discussing Piaget developmentally, noting which of Vygotsky's characterizations of Piaget were correct at the time and which developments of Vygotsky anticipated Piaget's later developments. His work became especially valuable to me in Ch.4, in which he critiques Vygotsky's arguably problematic notion of scientific concepts. He argues that Vygotsky has tried to shoehorn Piaget's distinction of spontaneous and non-spontaneous concepts into Vygotsky's own distinction of higher and lower mental functions (p.139). In contrast, he argues, Piaget's concepts describe parts of the human condition, not cultural knowledge, and thus do not fall under cultural-historical theory (p.139). This distinction interests me because it recalls the Uzbek expeditions that Vygotsky and Luria put together, expeditions that purported to find cultural roots in perceptual illusions. That is, I am unsure to what extent Vygotsky would acknowledge that such concepts can be separate from cultural-historical factors. Certainly he would be more receptive to such an argument in 1934 than in 1929, when he was still enthralled with the idea of the socialist alteration of man.

Moving on: In Chapter 6, Miller tackles Vygotsky's final chapter of Thinking and Speech, in which "Vygotsky engages with the innermost recesses of human consciousness and leaves little room for doubt about the ultimate focus of his life's work" (p.177). (Note that Miller interprets this chapter as a final revelation of what was there all along, rather than a development.) He adds, "It is a commonplace that meaning is always embedded in ripples of expanding contextual wholes, from word to phrase to sentence to paragraph to chapter, book, oeuvre, and so on. It is not surprising, then, that this chapter would be virtually incomprehensible without reading and understanding the previous chapters" (p.177). And "Whether or not, or the extent to which, Vygotsky changed or revised his core concepts is open to interpretation, but reading backwards from 'Thought and word' casts a different light on his project as a whole' (p.178). Specifically, Miller reads Vygotsky as arguing that "as children develop into adults they discard their external auxiliary crutches and replace them with internal mental representations" (p. 195). (Here, I think Miller could complicate this claim by rereading Hutchins and some of the other work he dismissed earlier.)

Miller adds that Vygotsky's work has been overstretched by "some commentators," who apply Vygotsky's statements about late childhood learning to learners in "full-blown adulthood" (p.196). He does not entirely clarify the distinction, but seems to gesture at the fact that children internalize intermental functions as intramental functions, turning external speech to egocentric and finally internal speech (p.196). I would have liked to see more about how adults, like children, re-externalize speech when they work at the edge of their capabilities—for instance, when an adult is trying to do complex math in her head, she might subvocalize "carry the one" or trace her finger across imaginary columns of numbers. Miller seems to get close to acknowledging this sort of externalization in adults later (pp.371-2), but doesn't quite clarify the differences, so we are left without a clear articulation of the edges of Vygotsky's pronouncements.

This chapter marks the end of Part I, the detailed examination of Thinking and Speech. As noted, I think this part is valuable for its close reading and its comparison with Piaget. At the same time, the reading is generally ahistorical and—despite Miller's attempt to acknowledge interpretive difficulties at the beginning of Chapter 6—seems wedded to the notion that meaning can be found in the plain text if people simply look for it. But, as Miller repeatedly notes, commentators and especially Western commentators take different meanings from the text than he does. In the second part of the book, he lays into these commentators.

In Chapter 7, he critiques Michael Cole, who admits to "selective borrowing" (p.205). For Cole, I think this 1996 admission is completely understandable—as noted, he first encountered Vygotsky when Luria pressed him to read Vygotsky's writings and publicize them in the West. Cole did so, even though at first he had a hard time getting his head around not only Vygotsky's writings but also Luria's own. So he ended up reading Vygotsky through Luria's work on the one hand and the work of contemporary American psychology on the other. Miller does not explain why this situation is different from the victims who read Vygotsky based on Cole's own commentary. But somehow it is different. Miller notes:
It is easy to gloss over the fact that embedded in the above passage is a gross misrepresentation that is compounded as Cole's story unfolds. Given the prominence of the term 'history' in Cole's formulation, it is not unreasonable to expect that the actual history of the Russian cultural-historical school would be respected and not bent out of recognition to accommodate a fundamentally different, if not opposite, set of ideas. At issue is the fact that the Russian cultural-historical theory was primarily developed by Vygotsky and to a considerable extent Luria, with whom he collaborated on a number of projects. ... Leont'ev moved away and severed his links with the cultural-historical approach and established his own brand, known as activity theory. (pp.206-207)
Sort of. And Leontiev, who dominated Russian psychology from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, styled himself the heir of Vygotsky. His account was not seriously contested until 1979, when Leontiev was dead and Schedrovitsky argued that activity theory deviated significantly from Vygotsky's program. That's 17 years after Cole was first exposed to Vygotsky as an exchange scholar in 1962-1963 by Luria himself, and a year after Cole coedited Mind in Society in 1978.

When Miller charges that "by employing the device of linking together Vygotsky, Luria, and Leont'ev, Cole creates the impression that they share the same views and developed a common approach to mediation" (p.207), he implies that the troika was a fiction that Cole produced on his own. This is demonstrably untrue—Luria and Leontiev both represented the troika before Cole did. Yet Miller not only lays the blame on Cole, but overreaches: "It is immensely puzzling why Cole goes to considerable lengths to claim a mythical lineage with the Russian cultural-historical theory when he, in fact, either rejects or ignores the main tenets of that theory" (p.208). Miller has just acknowledged that Luria was a codeveloper of the cultural-historical theory (pp.206-207), yet he avoids acknowledging the fact that Luria himself claimed this lineage and represented it in this way to Cole.

Miller has a colorable argument when he claims that Vygotsky's difference between psychological and physical tools is lost in Cole's work (p.212). Yet he locates it in the wrong place: here in Cole's work, rather than in the pronouncements of Vygotsky's adherents, who claimed to develop (and, arguably, did develop) Vygotsky's ideas further. This leads Miller to deny that material artifacts can do what language does, providing "a means of self-control and self-regulation of higher psychological functions" (p.213). Yet knots and cards are both material artifacts that Vygotsky describe as being used for self-regulation. Arguably, they are being used as signs, but they are also material nonetheless, a point that Miller never quite seems to address.

This brings him to a critique of Engestrom's famous triangle, which he mainly criticizes under the heading of Cole's work. Miller professes bafflement at the triangle's origins, stoutly arguing that it is not the stimulus-response triangle that Vygotsky uses (pp.214-221) and that it is more of an "article of faith" than an explanatory device (p.221). Again, Miller's lack of curiosity does not do him any favors here. Engestrom's diagram takes up the notion of mediation that is illustrated in Vygotsky's triangle but interpreted through Leontiev's book Problems of the Development of Mind. In that book, Leontiev recapitulates Engels' story of how labor made man, retaining many of Engels' major claims (such as the claim that tools are central to labor). Leontiev adds elements such as division of labor and the orientation toward an object. In his recapitulation, Engestrom hews pretty closely to the major elements, adding Rules as an additional point of mediation between individuals and communities—but he jettisons the underlying Engels story, which, although it had great currency in the USSR, was not useful in the West. Miller, unaware of this background, complains that "Engestrom indulges in the most extravagant of claims without even an attempt to justify them" (p.222). Yes, the origins are obscured, but these ideas are not made of whole cloth, they are taken from Leontiev. In lieu of doing the work to understand the idea's genealogy, Miller speculates that Engestrom likes triangles because he likes Hegel, Pierce, and Popper (p.224).

Speaking of extravagant and unjustified claims, it is worth noting that Vygotsky also enthusiastically used Engels' account in Studies on the History of Behavior. He, Luria, and Leontiev referred to it frequently in their other publications. Engels' account was hardly scientific, but it had the sort of Marxist-Leninist "truthiness" that was required in Stalinist science, and Vygotsky was not above using it.

In the interest of time, I'll skip his similarly flavored critique of Wertsch in Ch. 8-9. In Ch.10, he quarrels with the commentators of Vygotsky's Collected Works and The Essential Vygotsky. Here—to coin a phrase—Miller falls headlong into his own trap.

Here, Miller makes a point of using the Collected Works because "Vygotsky's earlier books translated into English had suffered distortions precisely because of interference and tampering with the texts by editors who decided to eliminate what they considered to be non-essential in Vygotsky's writing." In comparison, the Collected Works gave readers the ability to "understand Vygotsky by reading his complete texts in all their complexity and with their blemishes and imperfections fully exposed" (p.316). That is, the CW provided a pure text so that readers could read its plain meaning rather than distortions. Miller uses this pure text to bludgeon the commentators.

This tactic reaches its nadir in his discussion of Stetsenko's introduction to "Tool and Sign," in which he emphasizes differences between Stetsenko's claims and Vygotsky's texts. "But Vygotsky does refer to theoretically important conclusions in more than one place," he tells us, citing two similar passages to "hammer home the point" (p.342). Why did Vygotsky make nearly the same point twice? Answer: He didn't. The repetition is not Vygotsky's attempt at emphasis, it is an artifact of an irresponsible translation process, one of the reasons why the Collected Works are not considered the gold standard for Vygotsky studies.

Bizarrely, Miller seems to entertain conspiracy theories in which one commentator is silently hinting at the incompetence or malevolence of others (p.353) and in which editors remove Vygotsky's words in order to hide their own limitations (p.319).

Unfortunately, these severe drawbacks—frankly, I consider them broad mischaracterizations, based in a fervent and largely ahistorical understanding of Vygotsky's last book—undermine what is good about the book. Miller does put his finger on some important differences between cultural-historical theory and activity theory. And, although I don't know Piaget well, I think he has some valuable insights into the interplay of his ideas with Vygotsky's. But based on the more vituperative and (to my mind) demonstrably unfair conclusions Miller draws, I am hesitant to take anything else in the book on faith. I'll certainly use it to find references, but I won't rely on it to anchor my own works.

If you're looking for a polemic, or you'd like your understanding of activity theory challenged in a way that will sometimes be generative, I can recommend this book. But in my view it is deeply flawed. Its lack of charity leads it into places where a scholarly text should not go.