The Sociogenesis of Language and Human Conduct

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Michael Cole To the unwary reader, even the table of contents of this book will appear incon- gruous. What notion, let alone set of principles, could bring coherence to the follow- ing concepts: playing peekaboo with small children, aging, human alienation, con- versations with Uzbeki peasants, toolmaking, sexism, the world of the deaf, the ecology of hunting groups? After sfhe has had a chance to scan the entire set, the reader can see that this book seems to center on language. But it clearly is not a book about linguistics. It is about a notion that combines two other notions that we usually find located in very different kinds of books, language and human nature. There is no widely accepted term for this combined notion. It does not fit into those ways of thinking of the world that have gotten us where we are. Walker Percy, philosopher- novelist, succinctly nails the source of our problem: The importance of a study of language, as opposed to a scientific study of a space-time event like a solar eclipse or rat behavior is that as soon as one scratches the surface of the familiar and comes face to face with the nature of language, one also finds himself face to face with the nature of man. (1975, p. 10) Once we reinvent this insight, its implications begin to work into our lives; our central problem becomes to figure out how to deal with the dilemmas it implies.