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Reading :: The Mind on Paper

Posted by: on Jan 24, 2018 | No Comments
The Mind on Paper: Reading, Consciousness and Rationality
By David R. Olson


David Olson is a cognitive developmental psychologist who has, according to the back cover of this book, authored or edited 20 books on cognition, language, and literacy. Unfortunately I have only recently become aware of his work (I don't recall seeing it being cited in writing studies or professional communication). I'm going to have to read more of it, because this book is great.

Olson argues in the summary that "to understand the cognitive implications of literacy, it is necessary to see reading and writing as providing access to and consciousness of aspect of language ... that are implicit and unconscious in speech ... Reading and writing create a system of metarepresentational concepts that bring those features of language into consciousness as a subject of discourse" (p.i). To understand reading and writing, Olson presents five sections: introduction; theories of the relation between writing and mind; reading and the invention of language about language; the implications and uses of metarepresentational language; and conclusions. I'll touch on some of these parts below.

In Chapter 2, "Inventing Writing," Olson traces the history of writing: preserving and communicating information; inventing signs for language; inventing the alphabet; and (interestingly) how children reinvent language. I've discussed the invention of writing before, but Olson brings new insights as well. Among them: "Early forms of writing are now seen as directed to creating a functioning system of visual communication and not an attempt to represent language" and "representing language was a slow and largely unintended achievement" (p.23)—specifically
primarily keeping records of business transactions. But business transactions were verbal agreements. Why not represent the actual verbal expressions? One reason ... is that an appropriat set of concepts about the properties of language that could be visually represented was not available to the inventors. In inventing and borrow writing systems, they were discovering the properties of the language they spoke. (p.23)
That is, how do you visually depict a syllable, word, or sentence when you haven't conceptualized what these units are? These units are not necessarily intuitive (a fact that becomes obvious if you have ever tried to transcribe a conversation). In inventing written signs, Olson says, we invented these units: "the visual sign changed from representing things [such as vats of beer] to representing the words of things, thus producing the first logographs or word signs"—signs that "could be combined syntactically with other word signs to convey a meaning" (p.26). Since this system "directs attention to the language used as opposed to the event represented," it produces the "consciousness of language" (p.26), leading to the depiction of words and syllables (pp.26-27), and eventually consonants and vowels (pp.29-30). In representing speech events spatially, writing changed how we thought about (and allowed us to retroactively assign units to) those speech events. As he argues in the Conclusion, "The translation of language from a time-based temporal structure to a spatial one is the occasion for the discovery and consequently the awareness of certain implicit or underlying features of language" (p.219)

In Chapter 4, "Vygotsky and the Vygotskians," Olson examines Vygotsky's thoughts about writing and specifically Vygotsky's thesis that "social practices become psychological ones" (p.53). Olson characterizes Vygotsky as insisting that "language was definitive of thought itseld and that the mind should be seen as an assembly of internalized cultural tools, language primarily among them" (p.54)—a reasonable though not entirely accurate characterization. Olson argues that language "defines thinking, not simply aids it"—and characterizes Vygotsky as saying that "language is less a tool than the very medium of thinking" (p.54). Vygotsky, he says, argued that "writing was not only useful as a practical resource but also brought 'awareness, abstraction and control' to speech and thought" (p.57, quoting Thought and Language). In fact, Olson says that "Vygotsky insisted on the importance of writing in the development of consciousness of language" — and notes that Cole & Cole disagree, insisting that writing is secondary to social processes (p.60). Olson concludes by arguing that the "tool" metaphor of writing is too limited: "the attempt to represent language in a new spatial medium, I argue, may lead one to invent new concepts that make one conscious of the properties implicit in the spoken medium ... the concepts essential to a critical rationality" (p.63).

In Chapter 5, "The Cognitive Science of Metarepresentation," Olson takes this thesis further. Along the way, he critiques Kahneman's focus on System 1 thinking. For Kahneman, logic is normative and unexamined. Olson argues that "logic is metarepresentational; it is less a theory of thinking than a metalanguage for thinking about thinking" (p.69). Kahneman's System 2 ignores mediational means such as writing, Olson says. That's significant because "metarepresentational processes are embedded not only in the minds of educated thinkers but also in institutional structures such as science, government, the school and academy that have responsibility for maintaining the standards of rationality" (p.70). Metarepresentational signs—described by Vygotsky as "self-referring" signs—are important for understanding System 2, but also phenomena such as Theory of Mind (pp.77-80). As he says in the Conclusion, "metalanguages lift a structure from its place in normal discourse to make it an object of thought, something that one may say something about" (pp.220-221).

Overall, this is a tightly argued and thoughtful book building on Olson's decades of research. I found it to be fascinating. If you're interested in the cognition of language, and/or want to rethink Vygotsky in light of later cognitive research, pick it up.