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On the proper treatment of microgenesis

Abstract : The aim of this paper is to present an overview of the original theory of microgenesis and to evaluate its relevance for an integrative bio-cultural framework for the study of language, culture and mind. This may be useful because recent literature abounds in impoverished or blatantly mistaken uses of the term microgenesis and given that a number of contemporary theories present concepts that are similar to, and sometimes even originated in, microgenesis (cf. ‘naturalized phenomenology', enactive theories, dynamical complex systems). It will be suggested that in actuality microgenesis provides a common ground for psychology, socio-semiotic studies and cognitive semantics.
The term microgenesis was initially coined by Heinz Werner (1956) to provide a genetic characterization of the structure and temporal dynamics of immediate experience, and, more generally, of any psychological process (Werner, 1957). The genetic framework to which this term referred actually emerged in the mid-1920s in the context of Werner's work in Hamburg and, to a certain extent, of the work of the Ganzheitspsychologie group in Leipzig led by Friedrich Sander. Microgenesis is often associated with the method of genetic realization (Aktualgenese) which sought to externalize the course of brief perceptual, or other cognitive processes by artificially eliciting ‘primitive' (i.e. developmentally early) responses that are normally occulted by the final experience (Sander, 1930; Werner, 1956). However, for Werner, microgenesis was part of a larger socio-genetic framework which also played an important role in the work of Vygotsky where it acquired a historical dimension.
The concept of microgenesis refers to the development on a brief present-time scale of a percept, a thought, an object of imagination, or an expression. It defines the occurrence of immediate experience as dynamic unfolding and differentiation in which a ‘germ' of the final experience is already embodied in the early stages of its development. Immediate experience typically concerns the focal experience of an object that is thematized as a ‘figure' in the global field of consciousness; this can involve a percept, thought, object of imagination, or expression (verbal and/or gestural). Yet, whatever its modality or content, focal experience is postulated to develop and stabilize through dynamic differentiation and unfolding. Such a microgenetic description of immediate experience substantiates a phenomenological and genetic theory of cognition where any process of perception, thought, expression or imagination is primarily a process of genetic differentiation and development, rather than one of detection (of a stimulus array or information), transformation, and integration (of multiple primitive components) as theories of cognitivist kind have contended. Importantly, the theory leaves room for a certain degree of indeterminacy: the intermediate phases (Vorgestalten) of development may comprise ‘figures' or ‘motives' that will not show up in or otherwise be in variance with actual experience, and even when they are in tune with final experience they never predetermine it fully.
Gestalt and Microgenesis. It may be convenient to view microgenesis as a rectification of the Berlin School of Gestalt theory especially in regard to its overly structural and agenetic character. Microgenesis shared some of the basic tenets of Gestalt theory (e.g. the concept of field, the idea of stabilization) and its phenomenological orientation. However, it proceeded in directions neglected by the gestaltists: it focused on fine-grained temporal dynamics of psychological processes and on the categorial character of meaning and perception; postulated that perceptual experience is directly meaning-laden and intrinsically emotional, that forms are inherently semantic and value-laden, and not merely morphological constructs. Moreover, early work on microgenesis was highly concerned with language and language development, and with cognitive disorders due to brain damage. The advantage of viewing microgenesis as an enhanced and dynamicized version of Gestalt theory (from which it inherits the idea of stabilization in dynamical systems) is that it offers a genetic and phenomenological alternative to the information-processing metaphor, an alternative that reunites mind and nature and restores to cognition its cultural and hermeneutic dimensions.
Value, meaning and form. (i) Form, meaning and value are not deemed separate or independent entities: whatever acquires the phenomenological status of individuated form acquires, ipso facto, value (expressive, emotional, motivational) and meaning – a form has of necessity semantic and axiological extensions. (This stands in contradiction with the standard cognitivist idea that meaning-value and form are separate and independent entities. And it contrasts with certain Gestalt-inspired theories in which forms are mere morphodynamic units in space). (ii) Perception is directly meaning and value-laden, with actual meaning developing along the global-to-local (indefinite/general-to-definite/specific) dynamics of microgenesis. This signifies that meaning is already involved in the very initial phases of microgenetic development.
Thematic organization of the field. The field of experience is not only spatial (receptacle for morphologies) but also temporal and practical (embodying interests, means of access, motivations, instrumental mediations). This field is by no means homogeneous: it has thematic organization, typically illustrated by figure/ground structure (where a ‘figure' embodies a focal theme, and a ‘ground' is never phenomenologically or semantically empty). Microgenetic development brings to this field stabilized, differentiated structure and thematic focalization, thereby conferring value and meaning to it. Microgenetic concepts of theme and thematization bind together rapidly fading precocious phases of development with practical, intersubjective and normative levels of experience spanning over longer time scales, more easily accessible to consciousness.
Categorical dimensions of experience. (i) Categorical dimensions do not only refer to presentational (denotative) aspects of experience, they induce readiness for action (whether externalized or not). (ii) The dynamics of categorization evolves from general to specific, from vague and global to more precise and local. (iii) Categorical principles at work vary according to temporal phases of microgenesis, and depend on co-active modes of thematic organization.
Physiognomic and synesthetic character of experience. Synesthesia should be viewed here in a broad sense encompassing motor, emotional and axiological aspects. In contrast to popular theses which represent synesthesia as interaction of separate sensory modalities, the basic microgenetic thesis is that the early stages of experience are characteristically synesthetic and that initial synesthetic experience predates the differentiation of modal fields. This view is inseparable of physiognomic characterization of experience. Physiognomic means here that we perceive objects as “directly expressing an inner form of life” (Werner). The perceptual world is directly invested with values by virtue of the same dynamic principles that confer ‘interiority' on perceived objects and dynamic configurations, and urge perceivers on to action (viz. expressive character of percepts and conative dimension of perception).
Coexistence of various phases. Phase refers here both to temporal stage and mode of organization (see phase transition in thermodynamics). The basic dimensions of the early phases of microgenesis (whether occulted by final experience or not) are similar to diffuse, coalescent states which nevertheless are accessible to conscious experience (ambience, physiognomic impression, or impressions due to metaphor). The coexistence of various phases in the same developmental process provides the ground for coexistence of qualitatively different regions in the field of consciousness and accordingly for open, multifaceted and ever revisable thematic organization of the field.

Rosenthal, V. (2004). Microgenesis, immediate experience and visual processes in reading. In A. Carsetti (ed.), Seeing, Thinking and Knowing – Meaning and Self-Organisation in Visual Cognition and Thought, (pp. 221-243). Kluwer Academic Publishers.
On-line accessible at:
Sander, F. (1930). Structures, totality of experience, and gestalt. In C. Murchinson (Ed.), Psychologies of 1930 (pp. 188-204.). Worcester, MA.: Clark University Press.
Werner, H. (1956). Microgenesis and aphasia. Journal of Abnormal Social Psychology, 52, 347-353.
Werner, H. (1957). Comparative psychology of mental development. (Rev. ed.). New York: International Uni¬versities Press.
Werner, H., & Kaplan, B. (1956). The developmental approach to cognition: its relevance to the psychologi¬cal interpretation of antropological and ethnolinguistic data. American Anthropologist, 58, 866-880.
Werner, H., & Kaplan, B. (1963). Symbol formation: an organismic-developmental approach to language and the expression of thought. New York: Wiley.
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Contributor : Victor Rosenthal <>
Submitted on : Monday, January 22, 2007 - 1:06:33 PM
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  • HAL Id : halshs-00125699, version 1


Victor Rosenthal. On the proper treatment of microgenesis. Second Language, Culture and Mind Conference (LCM 2006), Jul 2006, France. pp.117-118. ⟨halshs-00125699⟩



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