Reclaiming Learning – the dialectic of learning

All thinking, a valuable dimension in the process of learning, sort of kick starts things, starts by abstracting or isolating certain features of a practice or process ,we concentrate on these features to the exclusion of others (Lenin 1972). So we begin with “the objectivity of consideration (not examples, not divergences, but the thing itself)” (Lenin, 1972: 221). But at the very start of this process of isolation we begin a new process of re-formation, “the entire totality of the manifold relations of this thing to others” (Lenin, 1972: 221). Look, when I began learning to drive I was taught my cockpit drill – mirrors, neutral gear and so on. Isolated activities admittedly but drawn back into the purpose of it all – driving that car from the kerb into the open road.

On its own, each specific learnt activity has the air of fiction around it, “an isolate is something that has been dragged from its environment in space, time and matter. By itself, therefore, it is a fiction, for dialectically nothing can be free of environment; but it is a real fiction in the sense that it really does have an objective existence” (Levy, cited in Guest, 1941: 47). Effectively learning does begin with a negation of the facts of an interconnected world but then itself has to be negated in order for us to understand the part played by that ‘little bit of learning’  in our practices. It is said that the tendency toward the negation of the negation is obscure, actually I would argue that it enables learning because it is that tendency that binds learning to development, more accurately, drives development in the following way: Development can be pictured spirally rather than in a linear way because as it emerges from, develops from, learning it draws to itself and also in itself creates changes (an increase / decrease in our understanding of something as we study it both in isolation and in its connections) that negates a previous state of affairs but not entirely because elements of that previous state of affairs remain, contributing towards new understanding, new practice (Vygotsky 1978).

The negation of the negation, essentially the re-formation of the process, pulling together learning , development  and being is contained inside that tendency within the process of learning where we continually begin again but crucially with a little bit more material. In this sense the tendency contains both revolutionary ‘DNA’ – it can help us explain those leaps in development (remember Leo the late bloomer? Kraus 1971) and evolutionary ‘DNA’, those developments that fossilise in our very being and enable us to refine and effectively use the tools of learning in the process of mediation (used here in Vygotsky’s conception of the process 1978) – we commonly call them skills. The use of the biological analogue is deliberate, within the biological dimension of life notions of evolutionary and revolutionary development are debated and revealed, why shouldn’t other dimensions, other aspects of human life reveal this inter – related set of processes.

The tendency is therefore an entirely practical theoretical exposition of how we learn and develop, I can well imagine those who seek to and succeed in compartmentalising learning, modularising our thinking, breaking learning up into the acquisition of discrete skills and ultimately reifying our very being into a series of capitals – human and identity capital (Becker, 1993, Cote, 2005) that in themselves are then deployed to create a social capital (Harris, 2002) will be only too happy to condemn the concept as nothing more than the febrile imagining of long dead German philosophers, last sung about on Monty Python’s flying circus.

There is however nothing fevered in the fate that awaits us if we do not begin, through our learning and its practical relationship with our world, to grasp what is going on, what our role is in confronting that condition and how we confront it with a fundamental critical resource – our common humanity. At this point it is necessary to be absolutely clear about the shape and content, the raw material, of humanity. Marx put its this way through a definition of labour power: “The aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being, which he exercises whenever he produces a use – value of any description” (Marx, 1977: 164). This definition describes human energy and that capacity to produce both the loftiest ideals about how we should live and the techniques and tools that enable us to go on living. The claim being developed here is that learning is that process through which we discern our world and also reach out to and grasp our humanity. Humanity is a powerful capacity that through the mediatory process of learning  is transformed into practices that utilise our energy to both act on the world and change it.

Language has its part to play at this point,

“One of the most difficult tasks confronting the philosopher is to descend from the world of thought to the actual world. Language is the immediate actuality of thought. Just as philosophers have given thought an independent existence, so they were bound to make philosophical language, in which thoughts in the form of words have their own content. The problem of descending from the world of thoughts to the actual world is turned into the problem of descending from language to life

We have shown that thoughts and ideas acquire an independent existence in consequence of the personal circumstances and relations of individuals acquiring independent existence. We have shown that exclusive, systematic occupation with these thoughts on the part of ideologists and philosophers, and hence the systematisation of these thoughts, is a consequence of division of labour, and that, in particular German philosophy is a consequence of German petit-bourgeois conditions. The philosophers have only to dissolve their language into the ordinary language, from which it is abstracted, in order to recognise it as the distorted language of the actual world, and to realise that neither thoughts nor language in themselves form a realm of their own, that they are only manifestations of actual life.” (Marx, K. 1976:CW, Volume 5: 446 – 447)

Language – how living embodied beings make sense of their world, language in the form of written and spoken words alongside non verbal behaviour of all kinds is embedded and imbued in these categories of cultural artefact. Every cultural and social encounter between individuals involves words, gestures and behaviour that enables the individual to make sense of their perception and place in the world, a world of shared activity situations and struggles. It is inside this sensuous human activity that purposeful and directed use of language in all its forms enables individuals to grasp what appears to be external knowledge about the world and make it their own. At first glance when two individuals communicate using words nothing appears to have been created however in actually talking about something they have created a new relationship. This may well be the continuance of an existing relationship or a new albeit ephemeral one based around a request or instruction. Vygotsky had much to say about the role of the word as a unit of analysis in gaining an understanding of what takes place when a child begins to appropriate and independently use the words repeated to them by adults in their particular social and cultural settings (Vygotsky 1978). So across the life span from childhood into activity in various fields of practice the discussion about the link between the ‘apparently’ independent thought of individuals and the social environment in which those thoughts appear to begin their existence in social practice can focus on the cultural artefacts of semiotic mediation as units of analysis. Vygotsky’s contribution to an understanding of the content of semiotic mediation  – language use in social and personal interaction –  is explicitly set in the context of that discussion about what actually constitutes being.

Work on the relationship between the individual and the social through language was undertaken by one of Vygotsky’s contemporaries Volosinov (see Morris, 1998) in his critique of the language systems of Saussure and Von Humboldt (Swingewood 2000). John Parrington’s ‘In Perspective: Valentin Voloshinov’ (Parrington 1997) was instrumental in helping me construct this section of the essay with its able synthesis of the key issues these theorists dealt with 80 years ago.

In this work of relating thought to action, through the conscious preparation of projects in the mind both Marx and Engels described language as the practical consciousness that enables individuals to communicate their internal consciousness to others through words. It is my contention that words contain that consciousness and significantly declare  and completes that consciousness practically in the social space.

This notion of language as practical consciousness was developed by Volosinov (Morris 1998) in his critique of Sausurre and Von Humboldt. Volosinov recognised  Sausurre’s attempt to provide an objective explanation for the structure of language and he saw in the tradition of Von Humboldt a powerful plea for the creative role of the individual in producing language as a means of communication. What Volosinov did in his critique was to transform Von Humboldt’s creative individual into a social individual whose grasp and use of language was embedded in the social and cultural space in which she/he moved. Sausurre’s system was examined in direct relation to this social context so that the evolution and development of the structure of language (langue) was explicable in terms of the (parole) which directly expressed the practice of sensuous human activity. Language was part of social development and as an act of social beings it contributed to that development.

Saussure, according to Volosinov (Morris 1998) argued that language was a closed system of signs with a structure that could be studied on its own terms and for its own sake. In this sense de Saussure examined ‘langue’ – the abstract concept of language rather than ‘parole’ the manifestation of language in speech. Von Humboldt proposed that language was a creative act of the individual and that humans had an innate capacity for language use. This theoretical lineage – an abstract system of linguistic rules and the humboldtian concept of the innateness of language as a system of communication was developed and synthesised by Noam Chomsky in the 1960s’ (Parrington 1997). Chomsky developed the notion that language was more than a behavioural manifestation of individual response to external stimuli simply acquired by imitation. He argued that the individual’s potential for language was universal and separate to the performance of that language in speech and written form. Chomsky placed the human subject at the heart of the debate about what constituted language. He proposed that human beings are born with a basic linguistic template into which any specific language fits. The proposal is a strong one: babies do learn their respective languages extremely quickly and with a high degree of accuracy. Given Chomsky’s claim that each person is born with an innate sense of language rules his theory does allow creativity with language. All the basic template does is to provide a guide for people to make themselves comprehensible to others. But here in lies the problem with Chomsky’s hypothesis if all the template does is provide a launching pad for the whole human community to utilise language creatively across the life span then it has to be asked of Chomsky – where does the individual creativity come from?

For Vygotsky the task of locating the development of individuals and the creativity individuals bring to bear on their own development began with Marx. He recognised that both Marx and Engels did not develop a comprehensive linguistic theory (See both Vygotsky 1976 & 78, particularly the commentaries by his editors). However in both Marx and Engel’s work there was a valuable starting point for his investigation in that both men recognised that language arises out of the need of individuals to communicate in the various social spaces they find themselves in. Spaces that act on them through the social intercourse of others and on which they too can have a profound effect through the articulation of their thoughts about what is possible and desirable in social and personal development (Marx and Engels, 1970). Vygotsky’s perspective focused on the psychological aspects of language development in order to demonstrate the process outlined above. For Vygotsky language was the means by which reflection generalisation and thought processes took place. He was concerned to root this social conception of speech in the development of individuals from infancy and spent some time in developing experimental techniques with children in order to validate his hypothesis. At this point it is worth noting that Vygotsky was attempting to provide a solution and explanation for the socially rooted development of individuals in the context of work being undertaken by Volosinov in philosophy (Morris 1998) and Mikhail Bakhtin in sociology (Swingewood, 2000). Bakhtin’s work grounded the notion of the self and the autonomous individual in the latter’s relationship with the other.

What is important here is that Bakhtin did not deny individuality rather he celebrated it as a distinctively social public and collective phenomenon. Vygotsky’s contribution to this model of the social development of the individual was an attempt to answer the question – how did each individual come to the point where she/he could celebrate their individuality with others in a communication that had meaning for both the individual and the other?

Developing the dialectical process.

This is a complex discussion grounded in the discourse of what constitutes being, We can get into this process because of those dialectical connections that essentially negate isolation, making our humanity integral to the process of learning, development and being.

There is nothing mystical in this process, learning and development move as a result of the struggle – the working of dimensions both against and with each other in the actual self movement that characterises the relationship of learning and development. This is the site of that energy, elemental and potential power that drives that conscious struggle we all engage in to make sense of our world through the daily new beginning of mind. Look, on this discussion of dimensions, I’m not just dealing with the social, cognitive and emotional dimensions of learning (Illeris, 2004). The dimensions that both drive and act as a skeleton shaping the relationship between learning development and being emerge from that relationship as well. Take the dimension ‘future’, in order to make sense of our learning in the present we have the gift of our past but we drag into this temporal relationship another dimension, one that doesn’t exist other than in our minds – the future. We create both a point of time and a space that we fill with our plans, these then direct from our future how we conduct our present and modify and manipulate the process of learning which in turn drives a particular kind of development. The future becomes a powerful ideological  dimension, those social and political forces that can, by dint of material power today, convince the rest of us that a particular future is inevitable (TINA!) will drive that fiction deep into our consciousness, the fiction will earn its objective status and again inevitably my equally objective opposition to that future will be reduced to a purely subjective opinion, deserving only a place in the footnotes on those pages that deal with our past. (See the extended quotation on page 5 where Suzuki’s argument is laid out).

This is the struggle. When a student says it’s difficult, when they don’t get the discourse that a critical humanity existent in all of us comes before, pre figures, all opinions all notions all accepted ways of being, when the process of learning is so manipulated and modified by ideas, notions and concepts that take on the shape of natural dimensions in the process of learning they literally have to re – configure their thinking. A contradiction emerges in their study. Their taken for granted common sense view of the world is literally assaulted by the apparently ‘purely’ theoretical concepts that leap and dance from the pages of the book or paper they read. There is real opposition here, between theoretical concepts naturalised into practice and held in our consciousness and those theoretical positions that would seek to ground our practice in a common humanity that negates current social practice, theoretical positions that would, for instance, take the concept of social capital  (see Field, 2000 for significant discussion and for  definitions of these terms in the context of the field of Practice) and its notions of bonds, bridges and governance (Baron, Field and Schuller, 2000) and annex its rational kernel – the social, freeing entirely natural human relationships from the vector capital, a vector in the sense that it carries into the human relationship the notion that some how the social is external to our experience, something that we have to consciously build within particular parameters, suggesting that if we are left to our own devices that capital  will take on negative connotations, we will not use it properly. Classically working class communities, for instance the former mining villages of the UK, that have experienced a catastrophic economic attack, have been subject to the kind of regeneration experiment that sought to introduce bridging social capital because, it was claimed, the kinds of social bonds found within such communities weakened new initiatives in economic regeneration. The point being made here is that a particular ideological formation captures the way we live, distorting entirely natural reactions to intense social stress and then serves up a way of being that insists that social regeneration requires external stewardship to draw in new bridging social capital because the communities themselves have a social (capital) deficit (Rees 2005).

When confronted by such discussions and conceptual struggle, when faced with a new reality in which common sense and taken for granted practice is revealed as nothing more than a set of dominant theories about how we should conduct our earthly affairs the learner (all of us now!) is faced with that conceptual struggle in which opposites have shape and content and motion precisely because of the existence of opposites. This is the real meaning of that conception of their unity, their unity and interpenetration emerges from their opposition and that struggle that ultimately requires that a particular way of living and being becomes dominant and expunges past practices, Zizek (2008) has some provocative and compelling arguments on this issue of taking this struggle of opposites to its natural conclusion. My argument here is that yet again this struggle is one of the key dimensions of learning, that acts to stimulate and drive not just the acquisition of new knowledge but our apprehension and use of that knowledge to create new ways of living.

The multi dimensional process of learning drives development because of its inter connectedness, it is a sensual link between us and the world, it places the human being in the world. So learning when not fictionalised, modified or manipulated enables us to embark on apprehending the world through the combined process of splitting up our practices ( the beginning of critical analysis) in order to see those parts in their inter relationship (incidentally this is the analysis / synthesis process that completes the theoretical element in the total process of critically reflective practice, its often mistakenly elevated into Hegel’s method as a whole (see Beiser, 2005 for a discussion on how Hegel is misunderstood) – that’s not the case and simplified models of thesis, antithesis and synthesis should be rejected as a mechanical modification of a sensual

embodied process that actually takes place in our world naturally and socially. This is an intensely material process as well – when we learn about the multi faceted multi dimensional world we live in we can only do this because learning is inextricably woven into this reality through our actions in the world. We take on the weight of the world (with apologies to Bourdieu, the term La Misere du monde goes to the heart of the struggle I’m struggling with here! Bourdieu, 1999: viii) and fight this weight. It’s in this daily fight with all its negative notions of misery and difficulty that we see something of that humanity, at least the possibility of a definition of that humanity in our desire to develop freely, to be rid of misery, want and fear, to begin again. Marx concretised this struggle when he wrote:

“Man appropriates his comprehensive essence in a comprehensive manner, that is to say as a whole man. Each of his human relations to the world – seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, thinking, observing, experiencing, wanting, acting, loving – in short, all the organs of his individual being are the manifestations of the human reality.” (Marx, 1974: 299-300).

In this sense we are equipped comprehensively to deal with the quantitative weight of our world, to deal ostensibly with the raw material of reality and qualitatively shape and act on that reality through our unity with it in our lived practice. In this practice made up of hard work, slumber, reflection there are other tendencies at work promoted and driven to dominance at those times when our grasp of reality enables rapid and diverse development.

This led Vygotsky to consider development as “a complex dialectical process, characterised by periodicity, unevenness in the development of different functions, metamorphosis or qualitative transformation of one form to another, intertwining of external and internal factors, and adaptive processes” (Vygotsky, 1978: 73). A cooked dinner or a revolution have quantitative features – fish or the inability of the rulers to continue ruling – but it is conscious sensual practical active human learning that drives our development, provides us with that visible ability to cook that fish beautifully or on a slightly grander note make that revolution, no ruler no matter how incompetent or corrupt gives up the power. This is the dialectical process we call learning, it’s not the moribund stalinized philosophy of long dead states, but the processes of life revealed at that point where the dialectic of learning spirals with the dialectic of development and new possibilities of living are opened up to us, new in the sense that we can practically grasp those possibilities, old in that sense that our drive to develop lies deep in our cultural historical genesis, it’s worth quoting Suzuki at this point:

“Those early humans are not numerous, large, strong or fast, or endowed with special sensory abilities. There is little to indicate the spectacular trajectory this naked ape is about to follow.

But if we watch them for a while, we can recognise their special secret: their behaviour reveals that they are intelligent. The human brain endowed us with a massive memory, insatiable curiosity, inventive-ness, and an ability to think in abstracts. These qualities more than compensated for our lack of physical and sensory abilities. That brain created a notion of a future, even though the only reality is the present and our memories of the past. And because that brain invented a future, we recognised that we could affect that future by what we do in the present.” (David Suzuki: The Guardian, Society Guardian, Environment, 12.03.08: 9.)

That “what we do” is at the core of Marx’s conception of development that runs through my argument, a conception that belies crude mechanical interpretations of Marx’s work. Very careful reading of just one of Marx’s theses on Feuerbach reveals the richness and humanism that is contained with in us all and revealed dialectically in Marx’s writing.

“The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men that change circumstances and that the educator himself needs educating. Hence, this doctrine is bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society (in Robert Owen, for example).

The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionising practice.”

(Marx, 1976: 7)


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