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"Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations" by Alexander R. Luria

Richard
MrRedwood
San Francisco, CA
Post #: 24
A friend of mine on Goodreads posted a review of the titular book in which I suspect many here might be interested.

For those that are already using Goodreads, or are interested, the link is http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/164371301;­ it's by by Trevor McCandless, who can't join us, living in Australia and all.

This needs to be broken up into several posts, because Meetup's character limit per post is only 7500 characters.

BTW, he had to really had to struggle to get a hold of a copy. I'm glad to note that Worldcat shows we have quite a few copies floating around the bay area.
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Richard
Richard
MrRedwood
San Francisco, CA
Post #: 25
Part one of his review...
I struggled to get hold of this book, it having been borrowed from the Uni library and not available from any of my other libraries. So, I’ve spent the last couple of days reading it at the State Library. The reason why this became something urgent for me to read is that I’ve been reading lots of Bourdieu and his criticism of Bernstein. Bernstein sees access to literacy as being something that also gives access to cognitive skills and abilities that are simply not available without it. Bourdieu makes somewhat similar conclusions, but sees some of the advantages of literacy as being subjective – that they give access to things that are considered better by ‘taste’, but less ‘objectively’ advantages. Any advantage, according to what I can work out from Bourdieu, is mostly due to what he calls habitas – to the lifestyle of the person and their need for social distinction which is made more ‘distinct’ if it is hard to achieve. So, the only ‘objective’ advantages of the literacy and cognitive abilities is the difficulty they have in being achieved – a bit like the reason why gold is worth more than bread.

But somewhere at the back of my mind I’ve been thinking about Luria. I learnt of this book from reading a book on research (which I’ll get to reviewing at some stage) and he has been troubling me (although only at the back of my mind, really). The book on research mentions this book as an exemplary example of social research. It would be hard to overstate this. This really is a fantastic book. The fact it was a bit hard to get my hands on probably made it all the more interesting in a way – but it has given me lots to think about.

I’ve written about Vygotsky before (Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary Scientist) and Luria was involved in Vygotsky’s school. Vygotsky is very trendy (particularly at Melbourne Uni) although, admittedly, much more last year than he has proven to be this year. Mostly people were interested in his Zones of Proximal Development. But he also had ideas about the social nature of cognitive development – and it is these that I’ve been thinking about lately and that have made reading this book important.

To have a theory of cognitive development you need a kind of ladder in your head. You need to know that Kind A cognitive behaviour is of a lower type than Kind B. You need some idea of what you can do, given someone at Kind A level, to move your student towards the Kind B level.

This fits with the Bernstein and Bourdieu concern I have because if you can say that one kind of cognitive behaviour is, in fact, at a lower level to another kind of cognitive behaviour then teaching makes sense – that is, learning makes more sense than just being about show and ostentation.

In the 1930s in the Soviet Union there were all of those republics down near Turkey that end in –stan. One of them was Uzbekistan and Luria headed off there to do some research on the locals. Here were a group of people who were mostly illiterate and essentially feudal peasants. They were being placed in a kind of time machine and raced forward a couple of centuries.

Marxism holds that we are products of our social environment. Not just a little bit, but entirely products of that environment. Luria and Vygotsky took Marx at his word. They said that it should be possible to see real and predictable differences in how people think given the fact they are from socially more backward (less developed) cultures. That is, as Luria puts it, “some mental processes cannot develop apart from the appropriate forms of social life.”

He goes on to say what a rare opportunity has been offered him to do this research, “Psychology has made few attempts to deal with this problem, partly because of the infrequency of occasions when an investigator can observe how the restructuring of social systems has brought about rapidly changing forms of consciousness…”

The point being that, “We hypothesised that people with a primarily graphic-functional reflection of reality would show a different system of mental process from people with a predominantly abstract, verbal, and logical approach to reality.” (By graphic-functional, he just means that these people are fixated with concrete thinking, that they think ‘practically’, but rarely ‘theoretically’)

So, off he goes with other researchers and a series of brilliantly clever tests.

One of the debates that comes up from time to time is whether or not people see colours differently based on the language community they come from – this is particularly interesting if people come from language groups with different names for colours. For example, we have light and dark blue (but both are ‘blue’), whereas languages like Russian and French have quite different words for these two colours – and so they are seen as two colours in those language communities, rather than our one colour and two shades. However, few people in any language community is likely to have more than say 20 words they are likely to use to define colours. After you get through red, blue, green, yellow and so on you are probably going to start struggling. I’m taking it as read that people who can tell the difference between puce, burgundy and scarlet are basically oddities (if not actually wankers).

Luria’s test was to show people a series of coloured pieces of cloth and to ask them to group them according to the colours. Some people found this task quite easy (those schooled in the standard names we have for colours) who could arrange the colours according to those names and intensity – dark red, red, pink, white and so on. Others – a group of illiterate women in particular – simply said it couldn’t be done. And why? Well, they grouped the colours not on any abstract scheme of colour names, but rather according to what the colours reminded them of in the real world. I need to quote this:

“The group of ichkari women, however, presented us with an entirely different system. As a rule, the instruction to divide the colours into groups created complete confusion and called forth responses such as, ‘It can’t be done,’ ‘None of them are the same, you can’t put them together,’ ‘They’re not at all alike,’ or ‘This is like calf’s-dung, and this is like a peach.’ The women usually began by putting different skeins together, then attempted to explain their colour groups but shook their heads in perplexity and failed to complete the task.”

It is really important to see what is happening here. The women are not saying, ‘oh yes, nice pink, that will go with the hot pink over there and that will work well with the red’. They are saying, ‘this one looks like a peach and that one looks like cow dung – well, they don’t go together, clearly – hmm, none that look like cream, what to do?’ They don’t have an abstract scheme for colours, they have a highly practical understanding of colours as they appear in their daily world.

This is a hurdle that comes to haunt these people time and time again. Often the women grouped the colours by their intensity – so the dark reds, blues and greens were all together, but the light colours of these same colours were in different piles. But invariably these schemas would fall apart for one reason or another.
...
Richard
MrRedwood
San Francisco, CA
Post #: 26
Part two of his review...
The researchers tried much the same with geometrical shapes and asked the peasants to group those. There were triangles and squares, but some constructed of lines and some of dashes and some of dots. These would invariably be grouped according their resemblance to concrete objects – a square might look like a watch (particularly one constructed by a series of dots – as these would represent the hours on the face) and a square made of solid lines may be a glass. These would then never be put into the same category. Even when the researcher gave hints and more.

Perhaps the most fascinating of all, though, was the work with optical illusions. When we look at an optical illusion – like those ones where the same size circle is placed in the middle of either a series of small or big other circles – we imagine that every human being would look at these in exactly the same way and be ‘fooled’ in the same way. These experiments showed that this was not the case: “It turned out that optical illusions are not universal. … The number of cases (where people saw the illusion) dropped proportionately in groups whose educational qualifications were lower. Thus the data clearly show that optical illusions are linked to complex psychological processes that vary in accordance with socio-historical development.”

The researchers then did interesting things with seeing how well people would be able to categorise objects. This really was mind-blowing. Essentially, they were playing that Sesame Street game where they sing, ‘One of these things is not like the other ones’. The objects presented were an ax, a saw, a hammer and a log. (I presume no one needs to be told the log is the odd one out), people invariably said they all belonged together and none could be taken away (the logic being that a tool is no use without something to work it on, so the log was needed too) The researchers then spoke about a mystery person who had done the test before and was crazy enough to have suggested the log might be the odd one out. I will quote some of the reported conversations this provoked from the illiterate peasants:

“But one fellow picked three things – the hammer, saw and hatchet – and said they were alike.

‘A saw, a hammer and a hatchet all have to work together. But the log has to be there too!”

Why do you think he picked those three things and not the log?

‘Probably he’s got a lot of firewood, but if we’ll be left without firewood, we won’t be able to do anything.’

True, but a hammer, a saw and a hatchet are all tools.

‘Yes, but even if we have tools, we still need wood – otherwise, we can’t build anything.’”

I find that a particularly fascinating exchange. What is most fascinating about it is the fact that the peasant is incapable of thinking outside of the practical situation created. What is also amazing is that their language ever developed a word like ‘tools’ if people were unable to distinguish that level of abstraction. Vygotsky’s point is that the language may have this word because those further up the pecking order would have been able to deal more in abstractions, but to the peasants words would actually have much more concrete meanings – they would not really be the basis of abstract categories as they are for us, but have meaning that were much more fluid and much more tied to the practical situations the peasants found themselves in. In some cases ‘food’ is also seen as a tool as a man can’t work without a full stomach.

Of the illiterate peasants some 80% of them were never able to do any of the tests in a way that showed they ‘got’ the abstract category idea, they always grouped according to the practical principle of a task or a use – if a concrete story could be made to group the elements then all of the elements of the story became part of the category. Of those who had had even a little schooling, but were barely literate 70% were able to form the correct categorical principle – of those more literate 100% were able to.

One of the things that is said about this, which I’ve found remarkably interesting, is that, “it is far more difficult to establish a resemblance between objects” than difference between objects. This is actually obvious when you think about it, but a remarkable observation all the same. Asking someone to tell you why two things are different is a ‘concrete task’. All of the differences are apparent and there in front of you. However, asking someone to tell you why two different things are similar is infinitely harder. You need to be able to have abstract categories in which to link the objects to so as to point out their similarities.

People also found it impossible to explain things – when asked to imagine they had to tell someone what a car or the sun were to someone who had never seen either of them before they said that they would not be able to do such a thing – that personal experience was the only means open to people to understand anything.

Which brings me up to the point where I should stop – despite only having explained half of the book. The only other thing I will mention is syllogisms. This, again, needs to be quoted, as it is a deep and important philosophical point – so I’ll end just after this extended quote:

“Conceptual thinking involves an enormous expansion of the resultant forms of cognitive activity. A person capable of abstract thought reflects the external world more profoundly and completely and makes conclusions and inferences from perceived phenomena on the basis not only of his personal experience but also of schemes of logical thinking that objectively take shape in a fairly advanced stage of development of cognitive activity…”

So, a researcher asks the following questions in syllogistic form:

“Now, in the North, in Siberia, there is always snow. I told you that where there is snow the bears are white. What kind of bears are there in the North in Siberia?

‘I never travelled through Siberia. Tadzhibai-aka who died last year was there. He said that there were white bears there, but he didn’t say what kind.’

“We could scarcely find a better example of how the theoretical operation of inference from syllogisms is dealt with than the responses of this subject, who had only just arrived from the remoter regions of the Kashgar country. The subject refused to discuss any topics that went beyond his personal experience, insisting that ‘one could speak only of what one had seen,’ and failing to accept the premises presented to him.”
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Richard
MrRedwood
San Francisco, CA
Post #: 27
Part three of his review...
The impossibility of moving these people out of their highly concrete existence and to see the abstract principles behind these tasks is amazing. There is lovely talk at one point of what are basically mathematics problems (if it is three miles to town A and four miles to town B, how far is it to town B from here if you have to go through town A first?) They can do the simple maths, generally, but if the towns are given real names and the distances given didn’t correspond to the actual distances between the towns then everything comes crashing down and no answer is obtained.

I found this book virtually impossible to put down – it really is well worth whatever effort is involved in your finding it and reading it. Laria writes beautifully, truly beautifully – in clear and ‘kind’ sentences, unlike Vygotsky, how can be very difficult at times. He writes like someone with something important to say and that he wants to make sure you will understand. Worth more than five stars, to be honest.

Me [Richard]...
Trevor, can I repost your review to another forum? I sometimes join a reading group that studies and discusses various books covering cognition, and I'm sure many would like to hear about this.

Trevor’s response...
I'd be delighted. I really am annoyed with this review because it is so long and still didn't cover all of the important material in the book. The bit that has annoyed me most that I didn't mention is that he also points out that when they tried to get people to talk about themselves those with limited or no education found the task almost impossible to even understand. Asking questions like, 'what are your negative traits and what would you improve about yourself if you could' - were answered in a bewildered silence or with statements like, "I would like to have more land or perhaps just better clothes." Luria presents this as an interesting counter to Dualism and 'cognito ergo sum'. Sorry - need to quote this now I've started:

“As our observations showed, the task of analysing one’s own psychological features or subjective qualities went beyond the capabilities of a considerable proportion of our subjects. In general, subjects in the first group failed the task. As a rule, they either refused to name positive or negative qualities in themselves or dealt with the question by describing concrete and material aspects of their lives. Sometimes they pointed to having ‘bad neighbours’ as one of their ‘shortcomings,’ or, in other words, they ascribed the undesirable characteristics to other people in their environment. They frequently found it easier for them to characterise other people than to characterise themselves.”

And later he talks about those who were (what we might call) properly self-reflective:

“As a rule, this type of self-examination was particularly pronounced for subjects who involved themselves in collective life, took part in kolkhoz meetings, and whose behaviour was evaluated by others. The increasing role of social evaluation, under whose influence self-evaluation takes shape, comes to be more and more predominant.”

What is most interesting about this book - besides the number of times I had to stop reading to shake my head and say 'get out of here' - is that it forces the reader to question things they might (or at least I always had) think were merely universal human traits. We are more than happy to think that cognition develops from child to adult - the idea that cognition may have been quite different due to earlier levels of social development is somewhat harder to accept (it certainly seems somewhat less than properly 'PC'). These studies into the cognitive abilities of pre-literate peoples have really struck me profoundly.

So, yes, please, share away.

James H.
user 13603321
San Francisco, CA
Post #: 160
One of the debates that comes up from time to time is whether or not people see colours differently based on the language community they come from – this is particularly interesting if people come from language groups with different names for colours. For example, we have light and dark blue (but both are ‘blue’), whereas languages like Russian and French have quite different words for these two colours – and so they are seen as two colours in those language communities, rather than our one colour and two shades. However, few people in any language community is likely to have more than say 20 words they are likely to use to define colours. After you get through red, blue, green, yellow and so on you are probably going to start struggling. I’m taking it as read that people who can tell the difference between puce, burgundy and scarlet are basically oddities (if not actually wankers).

You conclusions are that:

Knowing different predicates (“ligblue” for light blue; “darblue”for dark blue) for different colors (light blue and dark blue) causes you to have different visual experiences (the visual experience of light blue, and the visual experience of dark blue) of those colors.

The same predicate (“blue”) for different colors (light blue and dark blue) causes you to have the same visual experience (the visual experience of light blue, or the visual experience of dark blue, but not both) of those colors.

Your experimental evidence doesn’t support your conclusion. It just presumes that it’s true. It is true that French people who have different predicates for light blue and dark blue also have different visual experiences of them, while Americans who have the same predicate for them don’t, ONLY IF the conclusion is true. But the conclusion is false. Why? Because what makes French people have their visual experiences of light blue and dark blue--their rods and cones in their retinas, their visual cortex, etc.) are pretty much the same as what makes American people have their visual experience of light blue and dark blue. Just because you don’t have a word to describe the precise character of your visual experience doesn’t mean you’re not having the visual experience. It’s ridiculous to think otherwise. If you don’t have the word “pain” in your vocabulary, or any words functionally equivalent to it, and you therefore can’t describe the precise character of your experience of pain when you’re having the experience of pain, if I smash a hammer on your thumb, you’re still going to be experiencing pain, even though you don’t have the words to express what you’re feeling.
James H.
user 13603321
San Francisco, CA
Post #: 161
“Now, in the North, in Siberia, there is always snow. I told you that where there is snow the bears are white. What kind of bears are there in the North in Siberia?

‘I never travelled through Siberia. Tadzhibai-aka who died last year was there. He said that there were white bears there, but he didn’t say what kind.’

“We could scarcely find a better example of how the theoretical operation of inference from syllogisms is dealt with than the responses of this subject, who had only just arrived from the remoter regions of the Kashgar country. The subject refused to discuss any topics that went beyond his personal experience, insisting that ‘one could speak only of what one had seen,’ and failing to accept the premises presented to him.”


Carrying on a conversation is to engage in a cooperative endeavor. It’s like you helping me fix my flat tire—a cooperative endeavor. There are norms in place (“norms of cooperative conversation”) that insure that the carrying on of the conversation is cooperative. We often don’t realize what these norms are until someone violates them. And when someone has a tendency to violate them, this is a symptom of a mental illness—for example, schizophrenia, autism, or some other antisocial mental illness. One norm of cooperative conversation goes like this: Don’t say something misleading. Another is: Don’t be redundant. The way this works in the conversational practice of question-making, as opposed to just the practice of statement-making, is this: Don’t ask a question if you already know what the answer is to the question. This rule is violated anytime you take a test, anytime your skills are being evaluated by someone. Because the person asking the question already knows what the answer is to the question he asked. But we who have been schooled in the institution of test-taking KNOW in advance that this rule is going to be violated. Now, for these peasants being asked questions relating to syllogistic reasoning, who have little to no experience with test-taking, it doesn’t seem clear that they are aware that this norm is being violated. For one thing: anytime you compute a deductively valid inference (which include a syllogism), the conclusion of your inference is going to be contained in the premises of your argument. So, if you ask me, what conclusion can be drawn from these premises, you already know what the answer is, because the conclusion is going to contained in the premises you just provided me. So, if I’m taking the view of the peasant, I would say:

Why the hell are you going to ask me what kind of bears there are in the North in Siberia IF

1 you already know what the answer is
2 you already told me, by way of the previous two sentences you just spoke, what the answer is.

So, from my standpoint, if I interpret what you say in this way, I’m going to think that you are being redundant and misleading, and that you are therefore being uncooperative. What happens here is this: when I think that you’re violating a norm of cooperative conversation, what I do is try to interpret what you say in such a way so that you are not violating any of those norms. IN other words, I make another interpretation. This is actually another norm of cooperative conversation: The Principle of Charity—try to interpret what the speaker says in such a way so that they appear cooperative and rational. So, what I do here is wonder: hmmmm, he must be asking me what I know of what kind of bears there are in the North, when that knowledge is independent of anything he just told me. Well, I don’t have perceptual experience of it, cuz I’ve never been there. But I have testimony-based experience that’s related to it, because I know of someone who told me via testimony that they had been in Siberia. At least that’s something relevant to say, better than nothing. One of the things going on here is that anyone being tested is trying to do well on the test: they are trying to fulfill the expectations or even win the approval of the person asking them the questions. They want to be told: “Good job!” or “You’re smart!”, etc. They want to be cooperative, and they want to be commended for their performance.
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