Intellectual tools mediating thinking

by Paul Maharg on 14/08/2009

Vygotsky's notion of intellectual development was based on the idea of 'emergence or transformation of forms of mediation' (Wertsch, 1985, 15).  Certain intellectual tools, in other words (ie 'forms of mediation'), give rise to certain forms of thinking.  The remarkable thing about Vygotsky's formulation is how it liberates our thinking about culture, and particularly educational history.  

The default mode for understanding the  process of legal education (or indeed any educational praxis) is to look for something in culture or history that is a cause of what happened in education.  Ramus, for instance, in his use of textual and rhetorical forms introduces certain ways of understanding text, and this affects Renaissance educational praxis.  And we can look to Ramus's involvement in Reformation politics, in the new science of printing and print design, and the effects that this and much else had on his pedagogic practices.  But perhaps we should turn to Vygotsky, and look for the mediating intellectual tool that enabled Ramus to generate new ways of understanding text as a cultural phenomenon and as a result the effect this had on educational practice.  What were the mediating ideas that Ramus took from other areas of cultural practice, and applied to the new domain of movable type production?  

This is one of the points I make in chapter five of Transforming.  In the thirteenth century, for example, the use of glossa as a way of understanding law is a cultural event, giving rise to forms of educational practice.  But what is important for legal educationalists is how this intellectual tool generated understanding that led to specific cultural practice and specific educational practice.  Here's a passage from Ian Maclean's fine book on Renaissance legal history that I've long wrestled with, in this regard:

A point should be made here about the threat of infinite rearrangement and interpretation which the Corpus Juris Civilis apparently offers.  It is divided into books, titles, rubrics, laws (leges) or rules (regulae), paragraphs; these can be cited in any sequence or selection.  The gloss which surrounds the text contains argument, inference and exposition which can be separately cited  […] .  This would seem to constitute a sort of syntax and to open up an infinity of possible combinations.  Yet, the more one reads of the interpretative and exegetical material, the more one is struck by the relatively small range of reference, especially where general points are at issue.  There are several reasons for this.  First, the material adduced and the way it is adduced are very derivative; a given corpus of rules and glosses seems tacitly to be accepted as applicable to a given issue.  Second, the rules for combining points into arguments are themselves icluded in the text of the Corpus Juris Civilis, and these inhibit certain combinations.  [Note: these rules are not grouped together, although the majority of them are to be found in D 1.3, D50.16 and D 50.17].  Third, the corpus of references is de facto restricted, so that even when lexica are produced which generate apparently new configurations of Roman law based on words rather than the gloss, these to not in fact open up new areas of enquiry.  Hidden in the glosses, commentaries and lexica is a tacitly agreed agenda of analysis, a pre-interpretative set of constraints on ‘open’ or ‘productive’ interpretation; they act in a similar way to the quaestiones which Edward Grant sees as constraining medieval scholasticism to a well-delimited area of enquiry. [Note to Grant]  This does not mean of course that there are not conflicting accounts, or that writers do not claim to be original or never disagree with predecessors, or that the results of consilia could be known in advance: only that institutional closure was in fact possible; that conservative forces were at work to preserve technical vocabulary and the terms of debate from change; and that the realm of law and legal interpretation operated as a coherent and recognizable practice. [my emphases]

This is such an interesting passage.  First it holds much for the history of literacy and the history of how a discipline changes and reinvents its methods and processes of education (in this regard the work of Stanley Fish on practice-based comunities is germane).  Second,  it sets out the hidden ways of interpretation in a discipline, which we try to teach students, where interpretation is also a matter of not seeing as well as seeing.  

But to return to the point of this post (!) Maclean's argument might at first glance seem to contradict Vygotsky's point, that certain tools give rise to certain forms of thinking.  However I don't think that this is the case.  Maclean argues for continuity here between interpretation in medieval and renaissance texts, between glossatorial and Ramist systems:  see pp.85; 103; 104; 107; 112; 122; 123.  The Ramist innovations are seen as part of a longer continuity of innovation.  Whether or not Maclean agrees with me that the real innovation in legal education occurred with the development of scholastic literacy and methodologies in the thirteenth century, it's certainly the case that these tools underlay the Ramist revolution.    

How does Vygotsky help us here?  Well, I think that he points us to the tools that Ramus himself used, mediated and transformed for his generation and his technologies.  I suspect that if faced with Twitter, Vygotsky would make the same response as Maclean does to Ramus.  Look at the underlying tool structure of the application: what does it do for us in literacy terms that we couldn't do before, how does it morph or replicate forms of literate practice, how does it transform comms (if at all) for us?


Maclean, I. (1992) Interpretation and Meaning in the Renaissance: The Case of Law, Cambridge University Press.

Wertsch, J.V.(1985) Vygotsky and the Social Formation of Mind, Cambridge, Harvard University Press 

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