RE: [xmca] Vygotsky ´ s historicism

From: Alexander Surmava <monada who-is-at>
Date: Wed Apr 02 2008 - 13:54:21 PDT

Hi Martin,

>Hi Sasha (if I may),

(Surely you may!!!)

You are absolutely right denoting more than one definition of thinking in
LSV’s texts. Vygotsky was constantly developing thinker so it is exciting to
observe a progress of his theoretic approach. But, I have to repeat, it is
pity, but Vygotsky left us on the first steps of his way and at least in his
interpretation of thinking he stay on his “first” sensualist and formal
logical position.

Sure he felt some discomfort inside this position and tried to overcome it.
But all his absolutely true critical declarations from “the Pedology of the
Adolescent” stayed unrealized good intentions.

If we will judge according not only to intentions and “methodological”
declarations, but real theoretic deeds, we will have to come to conclusion,
that the analysis of thinking in “Thinking and speech” which is one of the
latest works of LSV was entirely based on the same “formal logical” position
with its <file:///E:\Users\MAPASON%20VISTA\AppData\Local\Temp\Word_2>
Achilles' heel of verbalism. It's more than enough to take notice of so
called “artificial concepts” from Sakharov-Vygotsky experiments to prove it.

For those, who is not a stranger to dialectical logic the very term
“artificial concept” has a taste of something utterly false. It sounds as
“understanding” of nothing (noting substantial). Evidently that the
procedure of ascribing a special “name” to some meaningless group of
cardboard figures has nothing to do with the real process of thinking.

The problem with interpretation of Vygotsky’s theoretic heritage is very
complicated. Most of Russians grounding on their own soviet experience are
inclined to estimate LSV’s Marxist declarations as standard for soviet
citizens ideological hypocrisy. On the contrary, westerners mainly believe
in Vygotsky’s sincerity (we entirely share this belief) and consequently
regard him as an ideal example of Marxist thinker. Neither one nor the other
even try to compare Vytgotsky’s theorizing with the most developed form of
Marxist logic.

Andy Blunden in his first post concerning your article put very exact
question about historical or logical (he somehow calls it “normative”) form
of theoretic critic. We do regard the logical one the real key to Vygotsky’s
heritage. It means that we have to compare real logic of LSV (not only his
methodological reflections) with dialectical logic of Evald Il’enkov. Not
with deborinits, mechanists or bolshevizers. We are sure that if Vygotsky
was among us now he would probably accept this approach corresponding to his
favourite aphorism about the anatomy of a human as a key to the anatomy of
an ape.

Thus from dialectical perspective (at least as we interpret it) it is
evident that we can hardly estimate conceptual thinking as “a new way of
seeing things, a transformed kind of perception, a transformed consciousness
in which multiple psychological functions work together”. To correspond this
statement with dialectical logic we have to turn it upside down and state
something like this: perception is an abstract form of conceptual thinking
while “multiple psychological functions” do not “work together” because they
do not exist anywhere beyond multiple psychological theories. (By the way,
A.Leont’ev in his late years realized the necessity of formulation basically
new, monistic, not knocked together from different “psychological functions”
psychological theory but let this task to us – his successors.)

But I have to interrupt my arguing because it is quite senseless prior to
understanding what we imply as dialectic, as materialism or as Marxism? Do
we differ Hegelian dialectic from Marxist one? Do we believe that Marxism do
exist as definite philosophy or we suppose that it’s enough to clime
yourself Marxist to become Marxist?

There is an objective difficultness in acquiring the Marxist philosophy. You
are quite correct insisting that: “Just as Kant has been a tremendously
important figure who people return to again and again, in part to understand
the work of those who came after him, in my view there is much we can learn
by returning to Vygotsky”. But this statement contains only a half of the
full truth. The other half is in the cited above Marxist idea about a human
and an ape. When the fact of development take place, when after Kant do
appear firstly Hegel and lately Marx we have only one chance to understand
both later thinker and his predecessor starting from the later, more
developed theory. It sounds as paradox, but that is objective dialectical
paradox of the process of cognition.

You can object that we can’t understand more developed theory if we don’t
cope with more elementary one that we can’t grasp the more developed whole
immediately without knowing of all leading to it stages.

We (I use plural “we” instead of “I”, because that is not the peculiarity of
my own position, but the position shared by all members of our group of
Il’enkov’s disciples) are sure that this “reverse” way is the only
practicable pass not only to some highly developed theory but to the
elementary perception.

You surely know specific childish riddle pictures. A child is asked to find
say a hunter in the drawing of a bush or tree. The task is easy to solve
when a child knows what to search, and it is absolutely unsolvable if he/she
hasn’t a hint. Thus after Newton each schoolchild understands that a
dropping apple is a good illustration of the gravity law. On the contrary to
notice it before Newton one had to be genius Newton-class scientist.

The perception (no matter is the object of perception something elementary
or we are trying to recognize something developed like Marxist theory)
regarding from dialectical perspective is not a process of synthesis of
elementary psychological functions or modalities, but an object oriented
process. The object has to be given us, or better we have to posit this
object ourselves from the very beginning as a simple wholeness. And it is
possible for artistically and morally developed consciousness.

Thus Karl Marx found the image of his future theory of money in
Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens”

What is here?

Gold? yellow, glittering, precious gold? No, gods,

I am no idle votarist: roots, you clear heavens!

Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair,

Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant.

Ha, you gods! why this? what this, you gods? Why, this

Will lug your priests and servants from your sides,

Pluck stout men's pillows from below their heads:

This yellow slave

Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed,

Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves

And give them title, knee and approbation

With senators on the bench: this is it

That makes the wappen'd widow wed again;

She, whom the spital-house and ulcerous sores

Would cast the gorge at, this embalms and spices

To the April day again. Come, damned earth,

Thou common whore of mankind, that put'st odds

Among the route of nations, I will make thee

Do thy right nature.

Surely we don’t assert that Das Kapital is mere afterword to William
Shakespeare’s plays. It is based on the profound theoretic analysis of “Mont
Blanc” of facts. But in the process of analysis one has to keep the right
direction, and implementation of this task is impossible without an image of
the whole as “hovering premise” while art and moral gives us such an ability
to see the whole earlier than details.

In our case we insist on starting in the analysis of Vygotsky (or Kant) from
the most developed (surely, in the same theoretic culture) concept.
Otherwise we can only stick in Kantianism or marked with dead end of
semiotics narrowly comprehended “cultural-historical” approach and will
never understand what made Leont’ev to shift the focus of his research
interest from mere “sign mediation” to the idea of object oriented activity
and why in his late years Leont’ev confessed that he has met a fundamental
difficultness in understanding of interrelation of so called “external” and
“internal” activities (vneshnei i vnutrennei deyatel'nost'yu).

Both your articles are really very interesting as demonstration of
facilities of interested and in the same time open-minded approach to
theoretic heritage of Vygotsky as a Marxist thinker. Such analysis evidently
couldn’t appear in post Soviet Russia. That is why we – recently organized
in Moscow group “Dialectical psychology” – are interested in detailed
analysis of them and are going to discuss them during the forthcoming
Il’enkov’s readings conference. (Now I’m finishing the Russian abstract of
two your articles for my colleagues.)




-----Original Message-----
From: [] On
Behalf Of Martin Packer
Sent: Sunday, March 30, 2008 9:01 PM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: [xmca] Vygotsky ´ s historicism


Hi Sasha (if I may),


On 3/29/08 9:26 PM, "Alexander Surmava" <> wrote:

> Vygotsky realized the very first steps in

> critical overcoming of old metaphysical psychology so that we can compare

> his role in the history of psychology with the role of Emmanuel Kant in

> history of philosophy. You surely know that overcoming of the old

> philosophical metaphysics needed in additional theoretic work, in insights

> of such great figures as Fichte, Shelling, Hegel and Marx. The same

> situation we meet in psychology.


I think I can understand the frustration for people who have been working

for years in a program of research which Vygotsky merely initiated 80 years

ago, when those of us in the west focus mainly on Vygotsky and seem to

ignore what has developed since.


But at the same time your analogy with Kant captures something important.

Just as Kant has been a tremendously important figure who people return to

again and again, in part to understand the work of those who came after him,

in my view there is much we can learn by returning to Vygotsky. Speaking for

myself, I am not yet at all clear on what he was trying to do, and I find

returning to his texts very rewarding. They offer us something fresh and



> What Vygotsky understood as thinking?

> It¹s absolutely evident that he shared the sensualistic interpretation of

> thinking well-known in formal logic as a process of bringing of sensually

> perceived single instance under general concept. From this point of view a

> dull schoolchild who thoughtlessly acquire the skill of formal operations

> with words and can easily make formal group from words like ³aryk²

> (irrigation ditch in Central Asia), ³water², ³hoe² and ³melon² has a more

> developed thinking, a thinking approaching the ³scientific concepts²,

> whereas an illiterate peasant stands ³on more primitive² stage so that his

> thinking can be estimated as only ³thinking in complexes².


I can't agree that this is the interpretation of thinking that Vygotsky

offers us. Several weeks ago I posted a hasty message on concepts, and I'm

going to copy some of it here with a bit more detail. I mentioned that I can

see (at least) two accounts of concepts in V's writing. In Crisis and in

Educational Psychology he presents the first account. Later (in Pedology of

the Adolescent for example) he rejects this account and substitutes a

second. The first seems to be exactly what you are describing: that concepts

are a form of abstraction, facilitated by naming. In Crisis he writes:


³Everything described as a fact is already a theory. These are the words of

Goethe to which Munsterberg refers in arguing the need for a methodology.

When we meet what is called a cow and say: 'This is a cow,' we

add the act of thinking to the act of perception, bringing the given

perception under a general concept. A child who first calls things by their

names is making genuine discoveries. I do not see that this is a cow, for

this cannot be seen. I see something big, black, moving, plowing, etc., and

understand that this is a cow. And this act is an act of classification, of

assigning a singular phenomenon to the class of similar phenomena, of

systematizing the experience, etc. Thus, language itself contains the basis

and possibilities for the scientific knowledge of a fact. The word is the

germ of science and in this sense we can say that in the beginning of

science was the word² (47)


This idea that we "add" the act of thinking *to* the act of perception is a

very common view of how concepts work. It can be found widely in cognitive

psychology. It's an interpretation of thinking as separate from perception,

as logical classification, as generalization, based on linguistic

categories. Thinking gives 'form' to a 'content' that is provided by the



But the second account is quite different. In the Pedology of the Adolescent

Vygotsky rejects this view that concepts are abstract and mental (again

citing Goethe, this time critically):


³Here we come close to establishing one of the central points that must be

explained if we are to overcome the usual error relative to the break

between form and content in the development of thinking. From formal logic,

traditional psychology adopted the idea of the concept as an abstract mental

construct extremely remote from all the wealth of concrete reality. From the

point of view of formal logic, the development of concepts is subject to the

basic law of inverse proportionality between the scope and content of a

concept. The broader the scope of a concept, the narrower its content. This

means that the greater the number of objects that the given concept can be

applied to, the greater the circle of concrete things that it encompasses,

the poorer its content, the emptier it proves to be. The process of forming

concepts according to formal logic is extremely simple. The points of

abstracting and generalizing are internally closely connected with each

other from the point of view of one and the same process, but taken from

different aspects. In the words of K. Bühler, what logic terms an

abstraction and generalization is completely simple and understandable. A

concept from which one of the traits is taken away becomes poorer in

content, more abstract and augmented in scope, and becomes general."


So he is now rejecting the model of thinking as a formal, logical process of

categorization and abstraction. In its place he proposes that using a

concept is a process that penetrates deeply into the concrete character of

reality, in a complex unity of judgment, apperception, interpretation, and



"The concept begins to be understood not as a thing, but as a process, not

as an empty abstraction, but as a thorough and penetrating reflection of an

object of reality in all its complexity and diversity, in connections and

relations to all the rest of realityÐ. Thus, we see that for the

psychologist, the concept is an aggregate of acts of judgment, apperception,

interpretation, and recognition. The concept taken in action, in movement,

in reality, does not lose unity, but reflects its true nature. According to

our hypothesis, we must seek the psychological equivalent of the concept not

in general representations, not in absolute perceptions and orthoscopic

diagrams, not even in concrete verbal images that replace the general

representations ­ we must seek it in a system of judgments in which the

concept is disclosed² (54-55).


In other words, conceptual thinking is a new way of seeing things, a

transfomed kind of perception, a transformed consciousness in

which multiple psychological functions work together. Judgment, perception,

recognition all work together to enable us to see something in its complex,

diverse linkages within a totality. I was thinking about this passage one

day while sitting in a garden filled with agave cactus. My scientific

knowledge of these plants is limited, but I was able to *see*, albeit dimly,

their hidden roots, their invisible interactions with surrounding plants,

their microscopic use of water and air.... To think scientifically is to

have a transformed perception of the world, one which involves interacting

(talking and working) with others.


> Generally the dialectic never deals with ³unities² of two different

> but only with identities of oppositions. An alive single whole splitting

> opposite contradictory sides is inevitable basis of dialectical movement,

> its condition sine qua non.


I won't try to offer a reading of V's position on language for the simple

reason that I don't yet fully understand it! But I suspect it's equally

dialectical. Can't we read Vygotsky as trying to write about the way that

each child today has to work within ontogenesis to reconcile two seemingly

distinct practices, speaking and thinking, which phylogenetically were

rooted together in human practical activity but which have developed and

split? Ontogenesis does not recapitulate phylogeny: because each child has

to start at a new and different moment in human history, ontogenesis is

constantly facing new tasks. Adult thinking is not ahistorically logical, it

is the particular synthesis of higher psychological functions that is

possible at a particular point in phylogenesis.






xmca mailing list

xmca mailing list
Received on Wed Apr 2 13:56 PDT 2008

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Thu May 01 2008 - 17:14:13 PDT