David S. Webster (1994) Sensory Modalities and Concept Formation. Psycoloquy: 5(31) Evolution Thinking (4)

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PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psycoloquy 5(31): Sensory Modalities and Concept Formation

Commentary on Sheets-Johnstone on Evolution-Thinking

David S. Webster
Department of Psychology
University of Durham
Durham DH1 3LE United Kingdom



Sheets-Johnstone (1994) propounds the view that tactile- kinaesthetic sense is more fundamental to the construction of concepts than of visual perception. The present commentary calls attention to the experience of teaching infants/children deaf (and therefore dumb) and blind from birth.


analogical thinking, animate form, concepts, evolution, tactile-kinesthetic body.
1. Sheets-Johnstone (1994) writes that communication, "is effected through corporeal representation... [and] animate bodies represent by symbolizing the spatio-kinetic dynamics of their own experience" (par. 11) It is on this view of communication and representation that I intend to focus through a description of the work of the Zagorsk school near Moscow.

 2. The approach to teaching deaf, dumb, and blind children at the
Zagorsk school is informed by the theoretical perspectives in Soviet Psychology and Pedagogy developed by L.S. Vygotsky, A.R. Luria, and other co-workers; the schools' principle worker and founder was A.I. Meshcheryakov. Karl Levitin (1979) graphically set the scene: "how to explain to a child that pangs of hunger can be quelled if he strains his larynx, places his mouth and teeth in a certain way, and emits a sound inaudible to the child himself, that someone invisible to him will hear and give food, or something to drink, cover him, or give him a bath... how can one explain all this to a creature who not only has no thoughts but even no conscious desires, and who simply ceases to exist if one did not continuously stuff food into him?" (Levitin 1979: 6).

3. What follows is a somewhat curtailed description of how the teachers of Zagorsk were eventually able to send their charges to university and beyond.

4. First, the child must be taught to perform the basic acts of self-care (feeding, dressing, etc.). The task of the teacher is to guide the child through the various operations involved, in such a manner, that each action (subroutine) is precise and controlled. Furthermore, the working with objects such as spoons or forks within a feeding routine, for instance, affords the introduction of new objects. But the child is found to be indifferent and inattentive to the new object if it is totally unfamiliar. The teacher's task is to introduce slightly changed but familiar objects that excite the child's interest; "the teacher traces out a dotted line linking a long series of different things, each of which is slightly different in some feature. The child develops a new need, the need to examine the surrounding world. What had seemed innate in the child had actually been created by the painstaking efforts of the teachers" (Levitin, 1979:37).

5. The joint activity of the teacher and child is gradually curtailed until the initial stages of the joint act serve as a prompt to the child to continue on its own. This "joint but separate act" as Sirotkin (1979) refers to it, acts as a primitive signal to the child. This joint act marks a division of labour between the child and teacher and it now has a communicative function; it is a primary gesture. The primary gestures composed of joint but separate acts do not as yet have an independent existence beyond the contexts of activity directed at the satisfaction of the child's elementary needs. This curtailed joint action must become an independent equivalent gesture; this next stage marks the move away from an iconic to an abstract symbolic form of representation.

6. To proceed to this next stage, it is necessary to transform the initial stages in joint but separate acts into independent actions directed towards other goals. These others are the goals of communication. The transformation of primary gestures into synonymous or equivalent gestures only become possible when, in the process of the gradual singling out and separation of the signal attributes from the original joint but separate acts, the child grasps the "idea of naming," in Meshcheryakov 's terminology. "This idea is nothing more than a model (a model of an act) occurring in the child's conscious mind on the basis of the signal (initial) component in the joint but separate act, that is, under conditions in which the child is already capable of envisioning this act before it is actually carried out" (Sirotkin, 1979:50). The primary gesture still has the form of the joint but separate act but now it connotes, for example, "to eat" rather than "start eating," that is, the child understands that the gesture now denotes a process ( i.e., "eating").

7. The abstraction of "symbolic equivalents" to the primary gestures is based on dactylic gestures (different combinations of hand and fingers movements). When a vocabulary of such symbolic synonymous (equivalent) gestures is built up around numerous activities (e.g., in self-care and during play), this helps to consolidate the idea of "naming" (i.e., when the child recognises a gesture as a gesture), although the primary gesture still retains within it the external aspects of designated objects and acts that are fused with the meaning of the gesture (i.e., "start eating" and "to eat" are shared by the same gesture). Together with the sign meaning of the gesture equivalent, the child, with perplexity, notes a new form -- the sequence of finger patterns that neither reproduces nor imitates anything externally; this is the contingent, arbitrary, dependent aspect of the new representational form. "It is just this perplexity of the child, however, that constitutes the mental precondition for transforming a gesture equivalent into a subjective word... Gesture equivalents become a kind of prism through which the child sees the real world."(Sirotkin, 1979:58)

8. The final transformation of symbolic equivalents into purely arbitrary signs takes place with the learning of speech. By copying the position of the teeth, lips, and tongue of the teacher while holding its hand on the teacher's larynx, the child (young adult?) posits a further equivalence between the symbolic gesture and a reproduced sounding.

9. The teaching of deaf, dumb, and blind children described above is symbol grounding with a vengeance and shows clearly what can be achieved on the basis of socio-tactile/tactile-kinaesthetic action alone. But the most important point is that there can be no thought, thinking, or abstract concepts without a certain form or matrix of joint engagement with others (the subtlest form being conversation). It is the nature of social activity that holds the key to the cognitive development of Homo sapiens, for it was another Australopithecine (or Homo habilis) that produced the first technological means and relations. Don Ihde (1979) draws attention to the non-neutral way in which the human-instrument-world relation is constructed. Technologies shape the perception we have of the world. In addition, technologies amplify some aspects of the world while simultaneously reducing others. With artefacts, we experience the world through a technology, "the artefact... extended my self or bodily self experience through it and I became 'embodied' at a distance and experienced this genuinely, although mediatedly" (Ihde, 1979:54).

10. When Australopithecus (or Homo habilis) used a stick to poke fruit down from a tree they experienced the act through the stick. To properly guide the infant through the same act, the mother must see the stick from the point of view of the infant; and, crucially, to be guided, the infant must see the stick from the viewpoint of the mother: "In cultural learning, learners do not just direct their attention to the location of another individual's activity, but rather they actually attempt to see a situation the way the other sees it - from inside the other's perspective" (Tomasello et al. 1993:496). The skill in seeing the other's perspective is grounded in the geometry of the act, jointly perceived in habitual joint participation or sharing in the same goals through the dialogical unfolding of the act.


Ihde, D. (1979). Technics and Praxis. In Robert Cohen and Mark Wartofsky (eds.). Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science. Vol. 24.

Levitin, K. (1979). The Best Path To Man: A Report from a Children's Home. Soviet Psychology; Vol. XVIII No. 1.

Sheets-Johnstone, M. (1990). The Roots of Thinking. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Sheets-Johnstone, M. (1994). Precis of The Roots of Thinking. PSYCOLOQUY 5(8) evolution-thinking.1.sheets-johnstone.

Sirotkin, S.A. (1979) The Transition From Gesture To Word. Soviet Psychology. Vol. XVII No. 3.

Tomasello, M., Kruger, A.C. and Ratner, H.H. (1993). Cultural Learning. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 16. pp. 495-552.

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