Tran Duc Thao: Consciousness & Language. Report of the Centenary Conference


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d'Alonzo, Jacopo. Tran Duc Thao: Consciousness & Language. In: Acta Structuralica, 2018, 3 (1), pp.31-50 []

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d'Alonzo, J. (2018). Tran Duc Thao: Consciousness & Language. Acta Structuralica. 3 (1), pp.31-50. []

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d'Alonzo, Jacopo. "Tran Duc Thao: Consciousness & Language." Acta Structuralica, vol.3 (1)2018, pp.31-50. []



The International Conference “Tran Duc Thao philosophe: Conscience et langage” was held in Paris on the 24th and 25th November 2017 and offered an opportunity to focus on Thảo’s works, as well as to analyse the main concepts of his philosophical thought. As is well known, Thảo’s interests in anthropology, linguistics, psychology, biology or semiology coincided with his philosophical project aiming at an understanding of the origins of language and consciousness. As such, the conference brought together specialists from several different disciplines. At the same time, the main aim of the conference was to create a platform for researchers who will deal with Thảo’s philosophy in the coming years. For these reasons, a brief report of the contents of the Parisian conference can be of interest for scholars who are working on Thảo.

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If one asks to what extent Thao’s philosophical project has been effectively discussed in the  past fifty years, at least three points must be kept in mind. Firstly, it is clear from the very start that the problem of Thao’s Vietnamese period (1952–1991) is essential to determining the meaning of his works and especially of those he wrote between the 1960s and 1980s (see for instance Melançon 2016a). We shall also take note of the fact that an important part of the recent literature on Thao is eminently biographical and historical (see for  instance  Thao  1993,  2004  and  2013,  Hémery  2013,  Papin  2013  and Feron 2014). Secondly, over the course of the period in question, most of the interest in Thao’s works was extensively devoted to his writings on Husserlian phenomenology  (Neri  1966,  Rovatti  1970,  see  also  Tomassini’s  Italian translation  of  Phénoménologie  et  matérialisme  dialectique in  1970,  Picone 1972, Tomassini 1972, Brouillet 1975, Nardi 1994, Herman 1997, Benoist 2013, Feron  2013, Giovannangeli 2013, Melegari 2014, Melançon  2016b) and the role played by Thao among French students in phenomenology (see Brouillet 1970, Invitto 1985, Jarczyk & Labarrière 1990, van Breda 1962, de Warren 2009, Moati 2013, Feron 2017). Symptomatically, this literature is eminently introductive. Thirdly, several works have  been  devoted  to Thao’s reflection on politics and especially on Marxism and colonialism (see Federici 1970, McHale 2002, Majkut 2003, Espagne 2013, Melançon 2013, Simon- Nahum  2013).  Now  that  we  have  outlined  the  main  trends  of  secondary literature devoted to Thao’s life and work, let us mentiogenern a book of collected papers edited by Benoist and Espagne in 2013 which summarises the three main trends of secondary literature on Thao. It must be regarded as the first attempt to offer a comprehensive survey on Thao’s intellectual activity. What emerges  from  all  that  has  been  said  is  the  small  role  assigned  to  Thao’s philosophy  of  language.  Needless  to  say,  most  papers  devoted  to  Thao’s philosophy of language took the shape of reviews and brief articles (Drévillon 1973,  Caveing  1974,  François  1974,  Haudricourt  1974,  Trognon  1975, Schmitz  1978,  Baribeau  1986,  Tochahi  2013;  D’Alonzo  2016,  2017a  and 2017b). This fact is not surprising because the study of Thao’s writings is far from being highly selective and is still focused on some general issues.

On the occasion of the centenary of Thao’s birth, it seems important to go beyond both the evocation of his biography and a general introduction to his intellectual activity. Research should also pay special attention to Thao’s varied  and  multi-faceted  interests  in  several  scientific  fields.  A  wide  perspective on Thao’s works must not only consider Thao’s writings against the background of the phenomenological tradition. As it is well known, Thao’s reading of Husserl’s philosophy had interfaced in multiple ways with current findings in empirical sciences such as psychology and biology. In addition, we cannot  forget  Thao’s  long-standing  interests  in  the  field  of  linguistics  and anthropology.  The  international  conference  “Tran  Duc  Thao  philosophe: Conscience et langage” brought together scholars who usually work in several different  fields  to  share  their  understanding  of  the  inner  logic  of  Thao’s philosophical insight. The conference held in Paris from  November 24 until November 25, 2017 was organized by Alexandre Feron and Jacopo D’Alonzo thanks  to the  financial  support  of  the  Ecole  Doctorale  268  Language  et langue  (Sorbonne  Nouvelle  –  Paris  3),  the  Research  Commission  of  the Sorbonne  Nouvelle  –  Paris  3,  the  Laboratoire  d’histoire  des  théories linguistiques  (UMR  7597),  the  Fondation  Gabriel  Péri,  and  the  Editions Sociales . Keeping in mind the general framework of the two-day conference, let us now look at the speeches in detail. The goal of the following paper is to introduce  the  reader  to  the  most  relevant  questions  that  arose  during  the conference.

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Thao’s  Phénoménologie  et  matérialisme  dialectique (1951,  henceforth PMD) is his most famous work. Contrary to the criticism of phenomenology that  Thao developed  in  the  1970s,  he  proposed  there  to  transcend  pheno- menology by way of a detailed analysis of Husserlian texts. For this reason, PMD  has  long  been  regarded  as  an  introduction  to  phenomenology. However, it was rather a manifesto against phenomenology. In this regard, it could  be  useful  to  notice  that  Thao criticised Husserl  for  detaching   con- scious  experience  from  real  life.  Thao argued  that  the  phenomenological analysis of the lived-experience must be integrated into the analysis of actual experience.  As  Guilherme  Costa  Riscali  described  in  his  talk,  Thao’s  re- evaluation  of  genetic  phenomenology allowed  him  to  show  to  what  extent phenomenology  could  actually  deal with  concrete  psychological  states. The psychological  standpoint  is  the  real  meaning  of  phenomenology.  Laurent Perreau’s talk explored to what extent phenomenology was truly overcome by Thao’s analysis. According to Perreau, the main point of divergence between Husserl and Thao can be seen in Thao’s misunderstanding of the peculiarities of the phenomenological approach. What Perreau put in question was Thao’s naturalism  and,  therefore,  the  fact  that  he  did  not  understand  the  way Husserl’s transcendental  account  and  his  notion  of  “genesis”  were  the  only available ways to justify every kind of  naturalism. The task of  phenomenology is to describe the processes and operations which are the preconditions for  having scientific  concepts.  Instead,  Thao’s  approach  took it  for  granted that the results of empirical sciences are the best starting point to speculate on the origins of consciousness.

This kind of remarks against Thao’s approach are widely discussed. Suffice it to recall that Ricœur (2004, 174) and Derrida (1990, 32) distanced themselves from Thao’s theory and regarded his approach as a return to the naïve attitude which took for granted the results of natural sciences. Against those interpretations, Lyotard (1954, 111) suggests that Thao’s point of view was a development of phenomenological analysis which had already described how scientific  notions  arose  from  operations  of  consciousness.  Thus,  Thao legitimately  rehabilitated  the  standpoint  of science.  Interestingly,  according to  Costa  Riscali,  Thao’s psychologizing  understanding  of  phenomenology risks falling back into a reductionist point of view.  Thao developed his own notion  of  “materiality”  against  the  background  of  his  criticism  towards Husserl’s “transcendental  phenomenology”.  But materiality  was  reduced  to the “natural thing” rather  than  being regarded as something which is always in  relation  to  the  human-specific  activity.  In  other  words,  Costa  Riscali argued that Thao’s naturalism thought of the materiality as an abstract origin of everything that exists, neglecting the different kinds of being.

If  we  want  to  consider  Thao’s  philosophy  of  nature  in  greater detail,  a reference  to  the  debate  between  Thao  and  Alexandre  Kojeve  (1902–1968) seems  to  be  necessary.  It  could  be  useful  to  remember  that  in  1948  Thao wrote  a  review  of Kojève’s Introduction  à  la  lecture  de  Hegel  (1947).  The debate  between  the  two  philosophers  continued  in  their  private  corres – pondence (see Jarczyk & Labarrière 1990). Thao’s main contention regarded Kojève’s  existentialist  reading  of  Hegel.  Thao  remarked  that  Kojève  was influenced by a dualistic insight which led Kojève to support the ontological difference  between  nature  and  spirit,  animals  and  humans  (cf. Thao 1948, 495). As Ovidiu Stanciu’s speech stressed, the core of the debate had focused on  the  question  of  what  “negativity”  is : Should  it  concern  the  anthropo- logical dimension alone, as Kojève wanted? Or is it legitimate to attribute to it a universal extension, as  Thao argued?  If  the Hegelian  dialectics  and  the notion of “negativity” do not lay at the heart of natural reality, the universal value of dialectical materialism is thereby weakened.

According to Stanciu, Kojève’s “theory of desire” broke the unity of nature and  failed to  clarify the scientific value of  natural sciences. As Thao noted, Kojève’s  assumption  made  it  impossible  to  suggest  a  dialectics  of  nature which assumes the ontological unity of nature and history. Against Kojève’s dualism or “double monism”, Thao’s monistic project aimed at describing the way  the  human  dimension  cannot  be  separated  from  the  natural  world, although it has its own properties and cannot be reduced to a mere physical dimension.  In PDM, Thao  argued that we can observe a primordial form of consciousness already in simpler organisms. According to him, inhibition is the negative  principle  that allows the dialectical development of  consciousness from behaviour. He argued that consciousness is nothing but the result of the inhibition of a given behaviour through a more sophisticated one.

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For  Costa  Riscali,  Thao’s  view  of  materiality  led  him  to  dismiss  the dialectical  understanding  of  human  societies  and  human-specific  forms  of production. In a similar way, Perreau highlighted at the end of his speech the role Husserl’s notion of Lebenswelt could successfully play in a Marxist frame- work. We can simply observe that this perspective has been already suggested by  Italian  readers  of  Thao  since  the  1960s  (see  Neri  1966;  Rovatti  1970; Picone  1972,  Tomassini  1972). Along  this  line,  Timothée  Haug’s  speech pointed out some consequences of Thao’s naturalistic materialism in relation to the Marxist tradition. Returning to some implicit sources of Thao’s theory in some founding texts of Hegel, Marx and Engels, Haug tackled the pivotal function Thao attributed to the concept of “production” in order to solve the main  conundrum  of  Marxist  naturalism.  How  can  we  link the  ontological continuity of  nature and  the  human-specific  social life? This  point  allowed Haug to question the problematic status of the dialectic of nature. How can we suggest an anthropology aimed at understanding human-specific sociality without denying the natural origins of humans?

As  Perreau’s speech already pointed out, in PDM,  the role of mediation between the transcendental ego and material life was played by labour. According to Haug, the concept of production allowed  Thao to genetically think the  evolutionary  origin  of  consciousness  as  a  consciousness  of  productive activity. In this sense, Thao rejects a certain idealist view of production which is present in some of Marx’s writings. Production is not necessarily the result of an idea that precedes labour. Consciousness is not necessarily presupposed to production. On the contrary, consciousness emerges from the productive activity  itself.  That  means  that  the  behaviour  precedes  consciousness  and forms  its  contents. The  notion  of  “production” was  also  tackled  by  Jérôme Melançon’s  speech.  After  having  described  the  criticism  of  the  “pure  con- sciousness”  in  his  previous  works  (Melançon  2016b),  Melançon  retraced Thao’s theory of consciousness from his early writings until his last published works. Melançon’s emphasized  that for  Thao  consciousness is not a permanent state, but rather a response to practical situations. To put it another way, consciousness  is  always  consciousness  of  a social  practice  on  a  production- related  thing.  In  PDM,  consciousness  is  nothing  but  the  symbolic  trans- position of the material operations of production into a system of intentional operations.  In  this  way,  the  individual  ideally  appropriates  the  object  by reproducing it in their consciousness.

Andrea D’Urso suggested another way to take advantage of Thao’s theory of production. In the case of  Thao, as we have just seen, we can talk about the  homology  between  the  symbolic  behaviour  and  practical  and  manipulating skills. In a similar way, as D’Urso pointed out,  the Italian semiologist Ferruccio Rossi-Landi (1921–1985) suggested a theory of “the homology of linguistic production and material production”. Along the same line as Thao, Rossi-Landi focused on the importance of the role of human labour in the process  of  hominization.  To  him,  production  of  both  objects  and  signs (verbal and  non-verbal) is  what  makes  the  difference  between  humans  and other animals. And hominization must thus  be seen  as  the  slow process  of development of such a skill.

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In Thao’s Recherches sur l’origine du langage et de la conscience (1973 hence- forth RLC), the “labour” and “the language of real life” are both parts of the immediate human life. They must be seen as the most fundamental forms of both  material  relationships  to  things  and  working  relationships  among fellows. According to Etienne Bimbenet, the development of  the indicative gesture during both the phylogeny and the ontogeny,  such as it is described by  Thao  in  his  RLC,  solved  the  main  conundrum  of  PDM.  According  to Thao’s PDM,  language played a role but not a very relevant one because it was simply the mental reflex of social praxis. To him, conscious contents were nothing but the ideal and solitary reproduction of some features of the real human behaviour. His perspective changed in his RLC: language is no more a reflex of social life but rather an essential element of social practices. And the conscious contents language produces were considered intrinsically social. In 1973,  Thao  regarded the origin of  human intentionality as the result of the  gesture  of  the  indication.  In  doing  so,  according  to  Bimbenet,  Thao anticipated the discovery of the so-called “joint attention” in the psychology of the child and a certain primatology of the 1990s and 2000s.

For  Thao  ([1973]  1984,  5)  “the  indicative  gesture  marks  the  most elementary  relation  of  consciousness  to  the  object  as  external  object”.  The world is my world no more; it becomes the transcendent world which exists outside  me, independently of  my will, and  existing for  the  others. On  the contrary, animals perceive the object as part of their own behaviour. In this case, the object is nothing but the last physical extension of the own body. Of course,  Thao  admitted  that  primates  could  recognize  indicative  gestures  as such. But the “gestural activity of apes denotes feeling and action” (id., p. 20) rather than  the  “meaning of the object”. Thus, apes merely employ gestures as imperative means to satisfy immediate needs (this view is substantiated by recent studies: cf. Vauclair & Bertrand 2002: 309, 323-324; Vauclair 1992: 125,  134,  175;  Lestel  2001:  143;  cf.  also  Bimbenet  2011:  291).  The consciousness  of  the  object  as  mind-independent  thing  marks  the  most relevant  difference  between  humans  and  animals.  In  fact,  according  to Bimbenet, human language is simultaneously directed toward the reference as well as toward the others. The pointing, in other words, shows the thing as the  external  target  of  common  attention.  As  such,  the  thing  becomes  the object of several different perspectives, that is, the shared ground of human discourses  (cf.  Bimbenet  2011:  308-310;  cf.  also  recent  studies  concerning the  development  of  language  in  the  child:  Schaffer  1984:  79;  Camaioni 1993:  84;  Tomasello  1995:  106;  Eilan  et  al.  2005:  5;  Morgenstern  et  al. 2008).

The formation of a “semiotic consciousness” was at the heart of Antonino Bondì’s talk. According to Bondì, Thao’s theory highlighted the link between the  origin  of  consciousness  and  semiosis,  between  perception  and  the  in- trinsic sociality of both signs and forms of consciousness. In his RLC, Thao described  the  different  stages  of  signs  formation  –  and  therefore  of  the formation of consciousness – as a slow process (appearance, stabilization, use, and  deformation).  Bondì  argued  that  for  Thao  sociality  exists  before  every semiosis.  Specifically, signs  are  part  of  a  social-based  network  of  actions. Semiosis  is  therefore  a  field  of  forces  in  which  signs  are  taken  up  and ceaselessly transformed. And consciousness  is  something that  emerges from that kind of interactions. Within this original scene, as a matter of fact, the indicative  gesture  plays  a strategic  role. The  indicative  gesture  has  a triadic structure,  as  Bimbenet  had  already  pointed  out,  and  thus  concerns  an external object, the subject and a still anonymous collectivity. Bondì added that  the  indicative  gesture  is  the  device  that  Thao  used  to  describe  the perceptive nature of semiosis and the social nature of perception.

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At  the  launch  of  the  conference, Dan  Savatovsky drew  attention  to the way in which Thao increasingly linked linguistics and auxiliary fields (philo- sophy  of  language,  linguistics,  psychology,  and  anthropology)  during his whole career. In this vein, Savatovsky made special points to the extent  that Thao’s  hypothesis  on  language  origins  transcends the  narrow  limits  of structuralist  linguistics. In  this  regard,  we  must  mention  Thao’s  articles written  for  the  Nouvelle  Critique between  1974  and  1975.  Jean-Jacques Lecercle’s talk tackled those articles and analysed them in great detail. Thao’s theory of the formation of language had to contend with the most influential available semiotic model. That was Saussure’s semiotics.  So Thao’s criticisms towards Saussure must be regarded against the structuralist understanding of certain hypotheses of the  Cours de linguistique général.  Thao disagreed with the primacy of arbitrariness and condemned the extension of the properties of linguistic signs to all kinds of signs. In this respect, Thao’s semiotic project revaluated symbols and partially motivated signs. He admitted the existence of  some fundamental signs that were the  precursors  of  developed linguistic signs.  Therefore,  he  suggested  to  transcend  the  representation  of  linguistic systems and analyse the bond between signs and the body, the link between symbols and reality, and the social origins of semiosis.

As Lecercle pointed out,  Thao regarded Saussurean arbitrariness more in terms of the conventional relationship between signifier and meaning than in terms  of  non-motivation.  But  conventionalism  must  necessarily  assume  a pre-existing communicational, cognitive and social layer. Such a remark may seem  trivial,  given  that  much  has  been  written  about  the  vicious  circle implicit  in  conventionalist  positions  since  Plato’s  Cratylus at  least.  As  indi- cated in the RLC, Thao was aware of this debate and what interested him is rather  to take  a position against  the tautologies and  pleonasms  typical of  a semiology  that takes a system of signs that refer to each other as its subject matter. Lecercle took seriously into account the need to evaluate the contri- bution that Thao’s approach can make to the project of a Marxist philosophy of language. This kind of philosophy of language must study the role played by labour, body, and social relations in the formation of both communication skills and consciousness. At the same time, this perspective indicates the need for  a  research  which  describes  Thao’s  approach  against  the  background  of other Marxist semiologists. Along this line, D’Urso compared Thao’s insight with  Valentin  Vološinov’s  (1895–1936)  semiology.  For  both  Vološinov  and Thao,  individual  consciousness  is  a  socio-ideological  fact.  Language  is  the semiotic material of the inner life of consciousness. Consciousness is indeed the language that individuals address to themselves, usually in the sketched form of inner language.

We  should  now  highlight  that  Thao  was  eminently  interested  in  the cognitive value of the language of real life. The language of real life conveys unconscious as well as preconscious significations. For this reason, it supports every  intellectual  activity.  Interestingly,  as  Savatovsky’s  opening  speech pointed  out,  if  the  language  of  real  life  is  the  basis  of  systems  of  arbitrary signs, we can reason that it is the base of scientific metalanguages, including that  of  linguistics.  Another  way  of  saying  this  is  that  the  scientific  meta – language of linguistics arises from linguists’ real working practice, along with ambiguities, inaccuracy, unconsciousness, and so forth.

This  point  leads  us  to  consider  the  role  Thao assigned  to  ideology. Although  not  presented  systematically,  a  sketch  of  a  materialist  theory  of ideology was at work in Thao’s writings. The problem of ideology is linked to that of the genesis of idealities. As  Yohann Douet highlighted, Chapter 2 of Part 2 of  PDM had tackled a critique of the ideologies of transcendence – which  arose  as  a consequence  of  private  property.  In  PDM, ideology  arose from  alienation,  i.e.  from  the  opposition  between  an  objectivity  which  is perceived as extraneous by the subject and the productive and creative subjectivity.  In  RLC,  Thao changed  his  perspective.  The  RLC  described  the genesis  of  conscious  contents  from  the  various  configurations  of  the  social division of  labour. However, ideology was still at work. It was the result of the internalisation of real contradictions and produces a mystification of the genesis of conscious contents. Examples of ideology are structuralism, pheno- menological idealism, and religion. In these cases, the subject is not aware of the social origin of  consciousness, thought, and language. The fact that for Thao the critique of ideology shows the social origin of conscious contents – which  arise  from  cooperation  and  social  relations  –  seemed  to  Douet  and Lecercle an important aspect that would integrate Althusser’s theory of ideo- logies. Contrary to what Althusser claimed, for Thao ideology is not a primary fact  but  a  distortion  that  can  be  overcome.  We  need  to  create  the  material conditions to enjoy the social origin of conscious contents. In the same vein, Thao’s theory would make it possible to generalize and deepen Althusser’s con- cept of “interpellation” as Thao’s materialist philosophy of language highlights how interpellation is rooted in material, bodily, and aesthetic processes.

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Guillaume Dechaffour suggested a comparison between Thao’s approach to  language  development  in  the  child  and  Piaget’s  psychology  and  episte – mology. Although Piaget is quoted by Thao only as a source of examples and not  as  a  theoretical  model,  Dechaffour  believed  that  Piaget  and  Thao had shared  methods  and  points  of  view.  In  particular,  their  two  theories  of knowledge  share  a  certain  idea  of  intelligence  as  the  fruit  of  a  process  of development.  Knowledge  is  a  concrete,  collective,  cumulative  process,  an activity that is constantly renewed. They therefore shared the idea that truth must  be  seen  as  the  result  of  development.  For  this  reason,  both  aimed  at studying the history of knowledge, the development of intelligence, the evo- lution of cognitive abilities, the phylogeny and ontogenesis of intelligence (in this regard, Gould 1977 was mentioned several times during the conference).

We  have  now  to  wonder  if  the  same  criticism  we  can  apply  to  Piaget’s approach could be also applied to  Thao’s theory (for instance Marion et al. 1974). According to  Thao, symbolic skills are inherited structures. Thus, he admitted  the  innateness  of  at  least  a  part  of  modern  human  symbolic abilities. Against Behaviourism, language acquisition is not totally explained as the result of learning. The child is not a passive learner who responds to environmental stimuli but rather reactivates certain skills which depend upon a  genetically  predetermined  maturational  process.  The  same  nativist  pre-determinism  has  been  suggested  also  by  some  neo-Piagetian  psychologists (Pascual-Leone 1970, Case 1985, Karmiloff-Smith 1993). Moreover, it seems that Thao was suggesting that the formation of language in the child depends upon more general cognitive skills that enable the child to organize his/her experience  of  the  world.  In  the  same  period,  this  was  the  insight  of  the psychologist Sinclair de Zwart (1967), for instance. But ultimately, this was one of the main assumptions of Piaget’s development psychology – for whom Sinclair de Zwart and Thao developed a great admiration.

One  could  suggest  that  Thao  and Piaget  have something more  in  com- mon.  As  a  matter  of  fact,  both  of  them  stated  that  symbolic  skills  arise through  stages  which  are  the  same  for  all  children  in  the  world.  But  this assumption  implies  the  need  to  explain  why  and  how  all  children  in  the world  show  the  same  development  by  stages.  Thao’s  answer  was  that  all children share the same phylogeny. The fact that the essential condition that determines  the  emergence  of  symbolic  behaviour  in  the  child  should  be sought in the phylogeny justified  Thao’s choice to analyse a limited number of  examples.  Methodologically,  Thao  mentioned  observations  concerning a few toddlers who are observed regularly every day for a few years. In effect, the fast development of linguistic skills of children entails the impossibility of obtaining  a  sufficiently  large  number  of  observations  concerning  a  given symbolic  behaviour  from  the  observation  of  a single child. For this  reason, Thao analysed the symbolic behaviour of some children who were the same age.  This  method  had  been  employed  by  a  wide  range  of  scholars  (for instance:  Bloch  1913,  Cohen  1925,  Grégoire  1937,  Leopold  1939-1949, Piaget  1923,  1024,  id.  1936  and  1945).  But  the  age  classification  of  the linguistic skills in the child is not without certain difficulties. First, Drévillon (1973, 281) remarked that  Thao’s hypothesis lacked a solid basis of experi- mental  data.  Second,  as  Cohen  (1925)  had  already  remarked,  a  child language  that  could  be  classified  by  age  does  not  exist  because  one  can observe a quick development and the coexistence of several skills that theo – retically  belong  to  different  stages.  Another  conundrum  of  the  age  classifi – cation is the fact that the choice of the subject is made on the basis of the age independently  from  the  social  and  cultural  milieu  of  origin.  This  lack  is interesting especially since, in the same period, sociolinguistics took its first steps in Western countries (see Hymes 1962, 1964, 1974, Labov 1966, 1969, Fishman  1970,  Gumperz  1971,  Haugen  1972)  after  having  had  a  great success in the USSR in the 1920s and 1930s (for more details see Brandist 2003, 2006,  Simonato  2014).  Lastly,  Thao repeatedly  told  us  that  the  linguistic  function  of  the  child  must  be  analysed  independently  from  the language of the adult. But we cannot deny the fact that the language of the adult is the culmination of the process of linguistic development of the child. The two poles of that antinomy – autonomy of the language of the child and adults’ language-oriented description – is maybe a conundrum relating to any other investigation into the language of the child.

According  to  Dechaffour,  Piaget  shared  with  Thao the  postulate  that ontogeny  recapitulates  phylogeny.  This  point  represents  one  of  the  most delicate  aspects  of  Thao’s  theory.  It  is  not  our  intention  to  deal  with  that point in the present paper. What we want to emphasize is the fact that there are two ways to address Thao’s theory of recapitulation. Both were addressed during  the  conference.  In  the  first  case,  the  theory  of  recapitulation necessarily poses the problem of a human nature shared by all human beings. Against the alienation of capitalist societies and every cultural revolution and re-education  supported  by  Maoist  and  Stalinist  regimes,  Thao  claims  the existence  of  a human nature  resulting from the evolutionary history of  the species and to which everyone participates. Alienation or the consequences of radical  nurturism  make  human  nature  –  which  coincides  with  sociality  – something foreign to individuals.

Along  with  political  consequences,  the  recapitulation  theory  also  poses some  epistemological  problems. Of  course,  Thao assumed  the  findings  of anthropology and psychology as empirical foundations of his own hypothesis on the origins of consciousness. But it does not mean that he employed the methods  of  sciences  to  develop  his  theory.  To  him,  in  fact,  dialectical materialism alone could offer the methodological tools to correctly speculate about the origins of consciousness. In other words,  Thao did not apply the methods  of  anthropology and  psychology to his philosophical research. He rather employed the findings of those sciences in order to empirically justify and check his own hypothesis.  Dialectical materialism offers neither imme- diate results nor an empirical starting point to make detailed hypothesises on the  origins  of  consciousness.  Instead,  dialectical  materialism  is  the  method that  compensates  the  lacunae of  anthropology  and  psychology.  As  Didier Samain  showed  very  well, we  must  wonder  to  what  extent  unconstrained speculations  about  the  origins  of  language  can  be  considered  epistemo- logically effective. Samain reasoned that what is missing in Thao’s approach is indeed  a  scientific  adherence  to  the  description  of  observable  data.  To  de – monstrate  this,  Samain  mentioned  some  results  of  previous  interventions. Given  that  it  is  not  possible  to  reconcile  phenomenology  and  empiricism, transcendental genesis and empirical genesis, Thao was forced to decide and chose  to  eliminate  phenomenology.  However,  Thao  fails  to  propose  an empiricist  theory of  language  and spent his energy adding fiction  to empi- rical  data. One  could  affirm  that  Thao was  a  supporter  of  a  moderate scientism – the belief that sciences alone can yield true knowledge about the natural  world,  humans,  and  society.  But  one  must  also  remark  that  Thao took  dialectical  materialism  more  for  granted  than  scientific  findings.  We must  ask  the  question:  What  kind  of  knowledge  can  emerge  from  an approach of this kind? This is a problem that concerns the theory of Thao, of course, but which also involves recent research into the origin of language.

7 |

At this point, we would like to shift attention to the most relevant results of  the  conference  and  other  further  perspectives.  One  of  the  main  contri – butions  to  the  conference  was  the  special  attention  paid  to  Thao’s unpublished  writings.  Archival  documents  refute the  view  that  Thao  was alone  and  isolated in Vietnam. Let  us mention  just three examples.  At the Department of Applied Philosophy, Sociology, Pedagogy and Psychology of the  University of  Padua, there  is  the  Rossi-Landi Fund.  In  this  found  it  is possible  to  consult  the  exchange  of  letters  between  Rossi-Landi  and  Thao taking  place  from  1971  until  1973  (see  D’Alonzo  2017b).  The subject of the letters is the editorial project of a volume titled  L’Origine del linguaggio e della coscienza (The Origin of Language and Consciousness) that would collect the Italian translation of some of  Thao’s articles that appeared in  the  previous  decade  in  the  French  review correspondence  concerning  theoretical  as  well  as  practical  topics  existed between Thao and the French philosopher Lucien Sève  (born in 1926) and which took place between 1971 and 1986 at least. In the case of Rossi-Landi and  in  that  of  Sève,  several  books  and  reviews  were  sent  to  Thao  (see D’Alonzo 2017b). From 8 March to 27 May 1982, Thao was in East Berlin as  a  visiting  scholar  at  the  German  Academy  of  Sciences  (Akademie  der Wissenschaften)  under  the  supervision  of  Vincent  von  Wroblewsky.  The three examples we have mentioned show very well that Thao was not alone and  isolated  but  rather  was  up-to-date  on  recent research.  However,  the conference also showed the need for a closer understanding of the material conditions in which Thao lived and worked between the 1950s and 1980s. Further research concerning this point will be warmly welcomed.

The part played by Thao in the history of Marxism emerged as one of the main concerns of the debate during the conference. It is important to expand the  debate  which  was  launched  during  the  conference.  In  addition,  the moment  has  arrived  to  discuss  novel  and  innovative  approaches  to  Thao’s intellectual  activity  beyond  the  narrow  limits  of  the  history  of  the  pheno – menological movement. In this way, there is an increasingly urgent need to study the way Thao’s theory interfaced in multiple ways with several different fields of research. During the conference, the need to compare Thao’s theory with sciences emerged repeatedly. Likewise, D’Urso and Samain offered the first elements for a comparative study of Thao’s semiology with other Mar – ist models. The work to be done is still significant and any contribution is welcome. At the same time, Bimbenet  highlighted the fruitfulness of  Thao’s thinking  compared  to some  contemporary research  on  the  development  of intelligence in the child. Thao’s suggestions would allow in fact to integrate some  theoretical  deficiencies  of  current  research.  The  fertility  of  Thao’s thought was  also recognized  by Lecercle and Douet but in a very different context.  According  to  Lecercle  and  Douet,  Thao’s  thought  is  particularly  La  Pensée.  A  wider x  44 | J. D’Alonzo,  Tran Duc Thao philosophe useful for anyone who wants to propose a materialist philosophy of language and open up a Marxist theory of ideology.

The last points afford us the opportunity to further develop the problem every naturalism must face. Simply put, we can address the question of what constitutes  the  explanatory  power  of  language  evolution  research.  We  can also ask if Thao held a linear theory of both natural and social evolution or if he  admitted  the  importance  of  historical  contingency.  In  other  words,  the question  is  whether  he  was  a  determinist  or  believed  in  the  possibility  of diverse  trajectories  of  historical  development?  How  did  he  avoid  the biological  reductionism  and  the  culture-historical  relativism?  Even  if  he admitted that being has an ontological priority over thinking, did he accept the idea that they were mutually constitutive of one another? What is the role of  transhistorical attributes of  the  human  being in  Thao’s  theory? Is  Thao’s theory of the formation and the development of the self still useful for today’s research  in  psychology?  Is  his  theory  of  the  way  human  beings  distinguish themselves  from  the  world  in  which  they  live  by  way  of  the  gestural indication a go d support The list could extend much further.

Lastly,  we  can  note  that,  after  having  described  the  way  Thao’s  RLC analysed  the  development  of  cognitive  skills  among  our  ancestors  in  great detail, Melançon’s talk focused on Thao’s latest writings and showed the new forms  Thao’s  theory  took  over  the  years.  Unfortunately,  the  attention Melançon  paid  to  Thao’s latest writings  was an isolated attempt during the conference.  Further research will have to deal with this point in so far as a more comprehensive view of  Thao’s work cannot neglect an important part of his career. And, as  Melançon showed, that part of  Thao’s career is full of ideas, analyses and proposals which transcend the question of the origins of language  and  consciousness.  Further  research  concerning this  point  will be warmly welcomed.


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