The Concept of Man
Like language, the capacity to form concepts can be
allocated to biological hardware or to socialization. Much investigation
is taking place of both possibilities. Some say our ability
to recognize similar things must be a genetic endowment.
Others believe that we form concepts by a process of comparison
and generalization. For some, this process uses a prototype,
possibly the image of the first thing of a kind a child has seen,
or something of a kind, present in her immediate
environment. Through repeated comparisons some common qualities
are abstracted. An experiment which was conducted by
Soviet psychologist Lev Vigotsky1 in the 1920s originated the
prototype theory and Vigotsky is identified with that current of psychology.
Vigotsky described a number of stages of
concept development, leading up to a final 'one-many' stage, where
the prototype or 'sample' object acquired a stable 'one-many'
relation with a number of objects which were compared to it,
excluding objects which were different. The many objects also acquired
a common relation to each other by being compared to the
sample and found similar to it in the same ways. This generalized
the sample, and the common quality of the similar objects was
a reflection of that generality. The sample had a name, and
the objects that had the common quality also had that name.
The description usually given of Vigotsky's experiment
was provided by E. Hanfmann and J. Kasanin in their book Conceptual Thinking and Schizophrenia, 1942, pp. 9-10:
"The material used in the concept formation tests consists
of 22 wooden blocks varying in color, shape, height and size.
are 5 different colors, 6 different shapes, 2 heights (the tall
blocks and the flat blocks), and 2 sizes of the horizontal surface
(large and small). On the underside of each figure, which is not seen
by the subject, is written one of the four nonsense words: 'lag,'
'bik,' 'mur,' 'cev.' Regardless of color or shape, 'lag' is written on all
tall large figures, 'bik' on all flat large figures, 'mur' on all tall
small ones, and 'cev' on the flat small ones.
"At the beginning of the experiment, all blocks
(well-mixed as to color, size and shape) are scattered on a table in front of
the subject. The examiner turns up one of the blocks (the
'sample'), shows and reads its name to the subject, and asks him (sic)
to pick out all the blocks which he thinks might belong to the
same kind. After the subject has done so, the examiner turns up one
of the 'wrongly' selected blocks, shows that this is a block of
a different kind, and encourages the subject to continue
trying. After each new attempt, another of the wrongly placed blocks
is turned up. As the number of turned blocks increases, the
subject by degrees obtains a basis for discovering to which
characteristic of the blocks the nonsense words refer.
"As soon as he makes this discovery, the
'words' come to stand for definite kinds of objects (e.g. 'lag' for large tall
blocks, 'bik' for large flat ones), and new concepts for which the
language provides no names are thus built up. The subject is then able
to complete the task of separating the four kinds of blocks
indicated by the nonsense words. Thus the use of concepts has a
definite functional value for the performance required by the test.
"Whether the subject actually uses conceptual thinking
in trying to solve the problem can be inferred from the nature
of the groups he builds and from his procedure in building
them. Nearly every step in his reasoning is reflected in
his manipulation of the blocks. The first attack on the problem,
the handling of the sample, the response to correction, the
finding of the solution--all these stages of the experiment provide
data that can serve as indicators of the subject's level of
thinking." (See Figures 6 and 7.)
Figure 6. Visualizing Vigotsky's experiment.
The 'one-many' concept structure itself is important in cognitive psychology, while Vigotsky's experimental demonstration of possibilities of different ('wrong') kinds of uses of the sample lets us see what is not being done in one-many conceptual reasoning. Two of the possibilities of 'wrong' reasoning show this clearly: the 'family name' complex, in which the sample is held firm and the qualities by which the other objects are found similar to it vary; and the 'chain' complex, in which the one-many character is lost because an object is found similar to the sample by one characteristic, and the next is found similar to the second object by a different characteristic, and so on. The 'wrong' strategies show the importance of keeping the sample firm and trying to develop generality by repeatedly comparing objects to it with regard to the same similarities. At the end of the experiment, the sample itself is no longer necessary because a type of thing has been recognized as having one of the names that were given to the different kinds of things in the experiment.
I thought about this for a long time, and it occurred to me that the word actually takes the place of the sample and takes over its generality. This gave me a second characterization of words, which I could add to that of words as co-municative need-satisfying gifts. In fact, it was fitting that a word-gift could take the place of the sample, which could not itself always be given as such, and which could probably usually not remain stable for very long except as an image. The word, on the other hand, with its infinite repeatability, has the character of being 'the same thing,' even when every instance of it is actually a different event from every other instance. By taking over the one-many function of the sample, the word helps in the organization of the concept so that the concept's members were considered similar to each other because of their common relation to their name, as well as because of their common relation to the sample.
Once the relation of things to each other as similar according to the same qualities is established, the sample is no longer necessary and the word can bring them to mind as a kind by itself. The reason for this is that, in the 'one-to-many' relation, a
Figure 7. Visualizing Vigotsky's experiment.
polarity is established whereby the one is maintained as a point
of reference and the many are compared to it one-by-one. The
word, taking the place of the 'one,' maintains the polarity,
bringing forward the relation of the 'many' to each other, as well as
to itself. (See Figures 8 and 9.)
The sample or prototype must be kept firm with its
qualities. If not, a consistent kind or category cannot be constructed,
and our thoughts may wander from one association to the
next. However, any thing of a kind may be chosen as the 'one'
which will be held firm as the sample and, once the category has
been constructed, the sample can be demoted from its
'one-many' position and become again just a member of that kind. I make
a point of saying this because I think the one (or sample)
position has been misunderstood as constituting part of the
gender definition and, therefore, over-emphasized, invested with
special privilege and projected into the structures of the society as
self-similar patterns at many different levels.
The father and his family, the king and his subjects,
the general and his army, the CEO and his business, etc., embody
the one-to-many polar relation established in concept
development. The relation between money and
products2 is also an embodiment of the concept, and we can use this
polarized relation among objects to elucidate the one-many relation
among persons. Even the relation between a person and her/his
property can be seen as a one-many relation deriving from the
(gender-invested) concept structure. (Though perhaps it is more like
the 'family name' complex).
The Privileged One
Privileging the sample position is particularly
dangerous because the polarity and the concepts formed with its help
are themselves originally innocent, useful ways of organizing
our thoughts and perceptions. It is a very intimate and basic level
Figure 8. Schematized images of the stages of concept formation. (Continued on next page.)
thinking that becomes invested with the pernicious privileging
of the one position. Because it is so basic, this
'investment' is hard to investigate, and we project it outside ourselves so that we
can deal with it. Since we never think of tracing the origin of
our strange one-many behavior back to concept development,
we continue to act out the process at many different levels of
society, creating structures which then interact with each other,
compete, support each other, arrange themselves in one-many
Figure 9. More schematized images of the stages of concept formation.
again. Together these structures form the self-propagating
social systems which we call 'patriarchies.'3
At the root of these systems lies, once again, the question
of the male gender identity and masculation. Males have been
taken as the samples for the category 'human.' Boys' categorial
gender difference from their nurturing mothers has made males seem
to have to be 'samples' (in the 'one' position) if they were to
be included in 'humanity' at all. Women have nurtured them in
this, giving way, not appearing as the ones to whom the many would be compared to find their human identity. Therefore,
women have appeared to be lacking, deficient in the supposed
human characteristics which men have. Abstract
thinking, aggressiveness, individualism, leadership,
independence (qualities having to do with competitively achieving
the one position) appeared to be 'human,' and women seemed to be
'inferior humans' because that was not their focus.
In fact, the women continued practicing the gift
paradigm whenever that was not made impossible by scarcity, war,
and individual violence of various kinds. The concept 'human'
was interrogated for centuries for its meaning, while
philosophers considered women as 'inferior humans,' not appropriate
samples for that concept. Meanwhile, the gift paradigm (which
the women were practicing) was and continues to be the source
of meaning, community, and even of life itself.
What we have considered to be the defining characteristics
of the male gender are actually characteristics of the 'one'
position patched together with the patterns of taking-the-place-of
deriving from the role of the word in the definition and naming. They
are taken up by boys in order to carry out the self-fulfilling
of their gender concept, as different from their mothers. The
'one' position held by the father towards the family as many, appears
to be what the boy must achieve if he is to be called a 'man.'
The Oedipal injunction is thus not so much to kill the father as
to overtake his position as the 'one.'
The simple logical consideration that not everyone can
be the 'one' in a polar way, and that this is a relational not
a permanent characteristic, may not be clear to children at an
early age. The mandates of the male gender appear to say, "Be
different from women and grow to be equal to or larger than the father,
so as to be able to overtake his position and deserve the name man."
The boy appears to be related to the nurturing sample
himself before he understands the implications of his gender name.
Then the word 'boy' takes the boy out of the category of the
mother. Thus the father's role of overtaking and dominance may seem
to come from the word's ability to take the boy away from
his identity with the mother. The ability to put things into
categories appears to be a capacity of the father and an aspect of the role
of the 'one.' The father is the standard (like money), and
this standard has the capacity to speak and (because he takes
the place of the mother sample) to be the word, which categorizes
and divides. Every judgment resonates with the power he (or
his gender name) seems to have had--to divide male from female.
The relation of a boy to his father becomes one of
inferiority, of many to one, of property to owner, of things to a word
or sample (a sample which is not giftgiving). Masculation is a
kind of original de-humanization because the father model
is objectified, like a non-human thing. Then women are defined
as not (even) that, while the relation among male concept
members is over-valued.
The Bible story of Joseph and his brothers deals with
a situation in which the many brothers vie with each other for
the one position to be inherited from the patriarch. Joseph's
dreams about the many sheaves of corn and the sun, moon and
stars bowing down to him express this relation symbolically. When
a boy takes on the father as the sample for his own concept, he
part of the real or potential many with regard to the 'one.'
His gender identity may appear to be that of striving
competitively with others of the same gender for the 'one' position. His
father may be doing this himself in his work life.
'Taking-the-place-of' may also seem to be a mandate of his gender role as males
take-the-place-of females, and the male sample (and
word) takes-the-place-of the female sample and its giftgiving way.
Thus, what little boys perceive as their gender role at an
early age is the incarnation of the sample position itself and a
partial incarnation of the word. Being equal to or like the sample
and taking-the-place of others become important in the male
identity, while other-orientation and giftgiving remain principles of
the female identity. Making the male the sample for the concept
of 'human' cancels the perceived importance of giftgiving.
Females (and other males) nevertheless continue to give to the
males whose identities are constructed in this way,
over-privileging them and especially rewarding those who do achieve the
one position. Thus giftgiving supports this identity-construction,
even while being is canceled by it and judged by it as 'inferior'
(even less than human) 'instinctive' behavior. Giftgiving
permeates human activities and is still the way we transmit goods
and messages, co-municate and form our co-munity. We have
altered and distorted it, however, using it for the 'ones' and against
the many. We are all taught from our earliest days to
mis-recognize the giftgiving way, and we give it other names
('activity,' 'housework,' 'leisure,' 'surplus value,' 'profit'). As we begin
to recognize the dynamics of the two paradigms, we can give
the appropriate value and the appropriate names to giftgiving.
The Incarnate Word
In masculation, males incarnate themselves as the
substitute gift, taking-the-place-of the mother, taking the father as
sample, and giving-up giving.4 This is the moment of the Fallwhen
boy child realizes he cannot participate in the material
giftgiving co-municative way because of the definition of his gender.
Perhaps the greatest (and smallest) mistake humanity
has made is to give our babies opposite gender names--such
an innocent but terrible mistake, heavy as a second feather on
the scale of Maat. Do we sometimes wonder why the Spirit of
Good has not destroyed us, given all the horrors we
commit--genocide, rape, genocidal rape, child rape and battery, the
rape and pollution of land and sea, murder of species and
of individuals, physical and mental torture? Perhaps it is
because the origin of all this horror is such an
innocent misinterpretation, so easy to make.
We have incarnated the word, the process of naming
itself, and the word we have incarnated is 'male.' It was only a
word, but we have let it dominate our psychology and our
social structures. We have used it to alienate half of humanity from
the giftgiving norm.
After alienating our sons into the non-giving category,
we (mothers and fathers) over-privilege and reward them, give
more to them than to our daughters. Later, we try to teach
them altruism through authoritarian morality or religious
precepts coming from the Law. We wonder why this is so difficult
to achieve and explain the difficulty by thinking that
'human nature' is cruel.
A communicative need has arisen now for all of
humanitythe need for a new term to mediate our human relations
with regard to our babies. We need a new word-gift for all of
those small creatures who are our greatest gifts to each other, to
the future and to themselves. Using this new word-gift, one term
for both genders, we could stop recreating the problems that
are destroying our species, our mothers and our Mother Earth.
1See L. S. Vigotsky, Thought and Language, Edited and translated by
Eugenia Hanfmann and Gertrude Vakar, The M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1962.
2See Marx's discussion of money as the 'general equivalent' in the first book of Capital, (1890), translated by Eden and Cedar Paul, J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd. London, 1962, Chapter 2.
3Vigotsky's experiment showed children being able to consciously identify concepts
and use conceptual thinking strategies at puberty. More recent developmental
psychology work has shown that children appear to be using the prototype relation from infancy.
I believe that Vigotsky's experimental situation tested a certain conscious level of
the concept's use. Interestingly, Carol Gilligan et al have written about the choice girls
make at puberty between two modes, which appear to me much like the gift and the
exchange modes. See Making Connections: The Relational World of Adolescent Girls at Emma
Willard School, edited by Carol Gilligan, Nona P.
Lyons and Trudy Hanmer, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1990. Perhaps both 'one-many' thinking and the privileging
of the male arrive at a new level of emphasis at puberty.
4This transition itself looks a lot like exchange as we shall see in the chapter
on "Market and Gender."