Inicio > Psicología marxista > “Language for the Other: Constructing Cultural-Historical Psycholinguistics”: Marie-Cécile Bertau

“Language for the Other: Constructing Cultural-Historical Psycholinguistics”: Marie-Cécile Bertau

Cultural-historical psycholinguistics addresses language activity in its social as well as in its psychological function with corresponding verbal forms. Language is thus situated within the life activity of situated and positioned, mutually oriented societal individuals, it is not abstractable from these individuals, nor from their activity. This notion of language is at the core of the proposed ‘psycholinguistics of alterity’ (Bertau 2011), constructed firstly through a historical and conceptual analysis, secondly in a theoretical way involving empirical results from diverse fields of language investigation. The aim of our contribution is to introduce the main elements of this construction, we will hence follow the same rationale. In a first step, Humboldt’s language philosophy and its reception by Russian linguists is addressed. Dialogicality of language and thought processes is the core notion which is taken up and developed in Russia and in the Soviet Union by several thinkers. Vygotsky’s specific language psychology is seen within this context of ideas, constituting the framework for considering the relation between language and thought. Building on Humboldt’s philosophy of language, Russian dialogical linguistics and cultural-historical psychology as formulated by Vygotsky, the theoretical system addressing language as activity of socially organized and self-other positioned individuals is presented in a second step.

1. Introduction

Psycholinguistics was founded as discipline in the USA in the early 1950s (Osgood & Sebeok 1954) at the crossroad of three different approaches to the language process: (1) a linguistic conception as a structure; (2) a psychological conception of language as system of habits; and (3) on the grounds of information theory, a conception of language as means to transmit information.1 The scholars agreed that “one of the central problems in psycholinguistics is to make as explicit as possible relations between message events and cognitive events, both on decoding and encoding sides” (Osgood & Sebeok 1954, p. 2).2 Since this unusually explicit foundation and task formulation for a discipline, several changes in the leading paradigm
occurred, forming psycholinguistics to a pronounced cognitive science, where language is seen as achievement of an individual cognitive processing system.

In this regard, O’Connell and Kowal (2003) speak of the “monologistic epistemology” of mainstream psycholinguistics.3 From the perspective of a cognitive processing system, language is basically looked at as an object of processing – be it in production or in perception. In this modern discipline of the language process, language has lost its function as means for the development and workings of the human psychological system with consequences for both communication and thinking. As it were, language is, in the psycholinguistic mainstream, set apart from thinking, i.e. is not supposed to have any formative but rather a transmitting function.

This view is in accordance with several basic notions of our Western culture. To be brief, the point of departure, or the taken-for-granted basic ideology, is that of the autonomous, self-contained subject who is in full power and control of himself or herself, especially of his or her cognition and thereout resulting actions, nonverbal as well as verbal ones. Further, this subject is culturally and historically ‘indifferent’, hence principally independent of any social, historical and cultural influences. We have to add that the subject is also bare of any influences by others: fellow human beings or consociates (Schütz 1967), who are sharing and coconstructing a common social space, an environment in Gibson’s (1977) understanding.
Language plays only a subordinate role for the self-contained subject, it is the vehicle to transmit ready-made thoughts, conceived along the notion of information. We could trace back this package of ideas to Enlightenment, and thereby acknowledge the emancipatory power the focus on the subject had for our culture. Nonetheless, this focus has detached the subject in too deep a way from its conditions of life, to which language as transmitted and performed practice is to be counted. As such a practice, language comes from others and is for
others, within social and public spaces which emerge by these very practices in
specific ways.

The detached subject is hence also an a-political subject, and this seems to be particularly important in the light of the current dominant politics in our globalized world, privileging precisely a detached and self-contained subject.

In the last decades, several critiques of the idea of the self-contained subject became accurately formulated within the humanities, especially by linguists and psychologists:
Linell (1998, 2009) offers a linguistics based on a dialogic approach to language, thinking and cognition, following a line of thought one can find in Rommetveit (Rommetveit & Blakar 1979), and Markovà and Foppa (1990); the work by Hermans and his colleagues (Hermans, Kempen & van Loon 1992; Hermans & Dimaggio 2003; Hermans & Hermans-Konopka 2010) approaches the issue of the self-contained subject from a psychological stance: the Dialogical Self Theory holds that the self is developed in and by dialogues, and is itself dialogically structured (Hermans & Gieser 2011). Interestingly, these new approaches refer to theories from the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century viewing the subject as fundamentally social, in exchange, and in a constant dialogic process (William
James, George Herbert Mead, Mikhail Bakhtin, Valentin Voloshinov). Remarkably, cultural-historical psychology developed around the same time, building on the notion of activity (Leont’ev), and stressing the sociality of consciousness, and the formative power of exchanged language for the developing individual psychological system (Vygotsky). Even more interestingly, one can link the Russian, then Soviet, notion of language and its workings back to a framework that was influential for some times, but rapidly passed over by subsequent modern sciences: Wilhelm von Humboldt’s philosophy of language (Bertau in press).

Reclaiming the formative function of language for communicative and psychological processes within the perspective of a cultural-historical psycholinguistics, it is our aim in Bertau (2011) to construct a notion of language which is adequate for the framework of cultural-historical psychology as well as for the notion of a related subject. This is done in two steps. First, through a historical and conceptual analysis of the core terms needed, particularly ‘language’, ‘thinking’, and ‘the other’.

The second, theoretical, step comprises in the first place a theory of speakingand- thinking built up in seven axioms, in the second place a set of four elements corresponding to concrete phenomena: addressivity and positioning, form, repetition and time, voice. Historical analysis and theoretical construction are here presented according to the same rationale: Humboldt’s language notion will first be sketched, followed by its influence on Russian dialogic notion of language and thinking. Vygotsky’s view of language will close the historical reflections. The proposed psycholinguistics of alterity will then be summarized by focusing its axioms, which are briefly commented.

Language for the Other: Constructing Cultural- Historical Psycholinguistics

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