Inicio > Psicología marxista > “Vygotsky, Bakhtin, Goethe: Consciousness as con-scientia, as witnessable knowing along with others”: John Shotter

“Vygotsky, Bakhtin, Goethe: Consciousness as con-scientia, as witnessable knowing along with others”: John Shotter

ABSTRACT: All our higher mental functions are mediated processes, says Vygotsky (1986), and signs are the basic means used to master and direct them. But how can this be if our words and other signs work only in a purely representational, ‘picturing’ fashion, for they still need interpreting as to their meaning? The ‘inner observation’ problem remains unsolved. Our significant expressions must also work on us in another way: by the living expressions of others producing spontaneous bodily reactions from us. Thus the relation between thought and language is not to be found in patterns discoverable in transcripts of already spoken words, but in the dynamic influences exerted by our words in their speaking. Vygotsky (1986) speaks of our utterances as having an affective-volitional intonation, while Bakhtin (1993) talks of them as having an emotional-volitional tone. This means, as I will elaborate in my talk, that not only it is possible to possess a transitional understanding of ‘where’ at any one moment we are placed in relation to another person’s expressions, but to possess also at that moment an action guiding anticipation of the range of next ‘moves’ they may make. Thus, as I see it then, thinking and consciousness is a socially responsive elaboration of our animal sensitivities to, and awareness of, events occurring in our relations to the others and othernesses in our surroundings. Thus, far from it being a special, private, inner theater or workshop of the mind, its emergence depends completely on the dynamical intertwining or intermingling of our ‘inner lives’ with the ‘inner’ lives of those around us. This view of thinking chimes in with Goethe’s [1749-1832] views quoted below, as well as with his account of a special kind of thinking he calls exact sensorial imagination. In this view, our thinking and consciousness becomes no more strange to us than the fact of our ‘livingness’ – a fact that is at once both ordinary, in the sense of being very familiar to us in our daily practical lives, as well as being quite extraordinary to us in our intellectual lives, due to the current inappropriateness of our academic modes of thought and talk. My talk, then, will be just as much concerned with an exploration of the move away from mechanical modes of thought to those appropriate to living processes, as it will be about thinking and consciousness.

Man knows himself only to the extent that he knows the world; he becomes aware of himself only within the world, and aware of the world only within himself. Every new object, well contemplated, opens up a new organ of perception in us” (Goethe, SS, p.39, quoted in Amrine, p.47; Cottrell, p.257).

The highest thing would be to comprehend that everything factual is already theory… One should not seek anything behind phenomena: they themselves are the theory” (quoted in Brady, p.98, HA, p.432).

At the end of his great work, Thought and Language, Vygotsky (1986) remarks: “We cannot close our study without mentioning the perspectives that our investigation opens up. This is even more momentous a problem than that of
thinking; what I mean is the problem of consciousness” (p.255).

And he continues this remark by noting that: “If language is as old as consciousness itself, and if language is a practical consciousness-for-others and, consequently, consciousness-for-myself, then not only one particular
thought but all consciousness is connected with the development of the word. The word is a thing in our consciousness… that is absolutely impossible for one person, but that becomes a reality for two. The word is a direct expression of the historical nature of human consciousness… A word relates to consciousness as a living cell relates to a whole organism, as an atom relates to the universe. A word is a microcosm of human consciousness” (p.255).
In this, I think Vygotsky is absolutely right, and today I want to explore the whole idea of our consciousness as being relationally structured. Thus, it is from within the context of our living of our lives together that I want to explore what he means in his claim that a word – which becomes “a reality for two” (or more people), but is an impossibility for one – constitutes a microcosm of human consciousness.


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