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«Word Meaning is Important»: Andy Blunden

Perezhivanie as a word in the English language

The Russian language does not use definite or indefinite articles, so in appropriating a Russian word into the English language, and thereby giving perezhivanie an English meaning, the writer has to make a decision as to whether ‘perezhivanie’ is a countable noun or a mass noun. As a mass noun, it can be used in sentences like “Perezhivanie is the source of all personal development.” As a countable noun, it can be used in phrases like “A perezhivanie I had as a child changed my life,” or “The perezhivanie of being left on my own at such an age was traumatic,” or “Some perezhivanija have a profound effect on development.” We do not need John Dewey’s article “Having An Experience” to tell us that ‘an experience’ has a different meaning from ‘experience’. Every native English speaker knows this, except that very few English speakers indeed are consciously aware of the distinction between countable nouns and mass nouns; this is generally known only to experts in English grammar. Ordinary native English-speakers will become aware of the difference when the shop assistant, who is a Sikh, says “We have many equipments in this store”; even though the native English speaker will always use ‘equipment’ correctly, we do it without conscious awareness of the grammatical rule implicit in the usage. ‘Tool’ is a unit of equipment, ‘equipment’ is not a unit of anything. Given that the countable/mass distinction is absent from the Russian language and native English speakers are generally unaware of the distinction, it is not surprising that native Russian speakers will say things like “perezhivanie is unit of consciousness.” However, when a native English-speaker emulates this broken English they reveal that they do not understand the meaning of the word ‘unit’, which can only refer to a countable noun. It makes no difference if the neolog ‘experiencing’ is used instead of appropriating perezhivanie. As a neolog,  ‘experiencing’ can be countable or mass according to its usage, and being simply a translation of perezhivanie, those who use it always use it as a mass noun thereby depriving the word ‘unit’ of its meaning – both the scientific sense in which Vygotsky used it, and the everyday sense. ‘Perezhivanie’  is a countable noun and its plural is ‘perezhivanija’. Perezhivanija are units of consciousness in Vygotsky’s theory.

‘Experience’ on the other hand is a mass noun and is the source of consciousness for Empiricism. Category and kategoria The idiosyncratic use of ‘category’ in English, to refer to some kind of dramatic event or clash of personalities, we owe to Nikolai Veresov. Nikolai is fluent in English nowadays and has convinced some people that ‘category’ has this meaning, even though no-one else ever knew about it. Veresov is wrong in attributing this idiosyncratic meaning to Vygotsky. I think Vygotsky is quite unambiguous in his use of ‘category’ in the ordinary philosophical sense, in Chapter 7 of “Thinking and Speech.” But Veresov is not as wrong as many of his critics believe, nor as correct as many of his friends believe. The solution to the riddle lies in etymology. Originally there was a Greek word, transliterated as kategoria. This word merged three meanings which have given rise to three distinct words in the English language. For Aristotle, kategoria meant a predicate, that is, something which is attributed to a subject.

For Aristotle, logic, natural science and grammar were not distinct disciplines: the world existed just as it was cognised and expressed in language. Within his Rhetoric, kategoria took on a distinct meaning: kategoria and apologia were a pair of opposite modes of speech; one speaker accuses (ascribes a predicate to) the other (kategoria) and the other defends themself (apologia). In the development of logic, beginning from the idea of kategoria as a predicate of a subject, Kant took category (the transliteration of kategoria) to be a fundamental concept from which other concepts derived meaning.

In positivist and everyday usage this then took on the common meaning of a ‘pigeon hole’ into which things are categorised. The Kantian sense of the word ‘category’ continued in philosophy after Kant but was given a different content by Hegel and thus Marx, but is still evocative of the Kantian meaning. In grammar, the Latin translation of the Greek kategoria, predicate, has taken over this meaning, although ‘predicate’ still carries the more or less obsolete meaning of ‘accusation’ and is cognate with ‘predicament’. In Russian, category and kategoria are spelt the same.

So Veresov may be quite correct in claiming that kategoria (spelt this way in English when indicating the term in rhetoric) was appropriated by Russian drama theory, despite the fact that no evidence whatsoever can be found for this claim and no-one with expertise in Russian drama theory has ever heard of the book by Meyerhold which Veresov claims to have seen. Even though Russian speakers deny that kategoria has this meaning in Russian, one needs to ask a Russian expert in Rhetoric, not a psychologist.

It is a plausible claim and anyone who wants to build a theory of personal development around kategoria and apologia has a valid foundation. Further, I think there are aspects of Vygotsky’s thinking which would be open to such an interpretation. However, I have seen nothing in Vygotsky’s writing to substantiate the claim that he used the word in this way. But apart from all this, the word in English is ‘kategoria’, not ‘category’.

Continuous and discrete development The observation that Vygotsky understood perezhivanie as a unit of personal development, draws our attention to the fact that if all units are countable nouns, how then is it possible to understand ‘continuous’ development? It also raises the philosophical problem of the distinction between discrete and continuous development.

Is this just a question of the speed of development? Although Vygotsky did talk of periods of gradual development taking place within a stable social situation of development, and lytical development occurring during periods of crisis during which the social situation of development is transformed, it would be a mistake to suppose that gradual development is a continuous and not a discrete process. In the case of continuous development, we would have to suppose that a person undergoes development even while they are asleep and consequently it would draw into question whether the actions of those responsible for assisting a person’s development have any role in the process at all. Development may be gradual but it is still composed of a great many discrete ‘leaps’. What is gradual about the process is that the social situation of development remains stable. Generally speaking (though not universally), the lytical phase of development is characterised by the person adopting a subject position which is in conflict with the subject-position implicit in the activity of those with whom the person is collaborating. This is what generates the contradiction: everyone changes their activity, the subject develops, the social situation is transformed and the new subjectposition must be re-stabilised in a series of ‘minor crises’. It is also possible that the crises could be generated externally by a transformation of the social environment, but this is not the archetype of Vygotsky’s conception of personal development in a social situation. Where external changes force a person to adapt to a new environment we have the situation just as it is understood by ordinary empirical and behavioural psychology.
Units of the process and units of product Are perezhivanija units of consciousness or units of personal development? The point is that consciousness, as the end product of a process of personal development can only be understood, we are told, in and through its history or development. So if a unit is to reveal to us the nature of consciousness, then it must already reveal to us the dynamics of its development, but to reveal to us the dynamics of personal development, perezhivanija must be units of personal development. So the answer is both, necessarily.

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