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Re: [xmca] Is Activity Theory unique OR is it one among a family of approaches?

Of course I am bound to get into trouble with any such ultra-broad generalisations. Gadamer certainly, as you say, has a "molar" unit, I read it as "tradition," but Gadamer's subject is hermeneutics, he studies texts, not the human mind as such. Dewey is very complex. He was brought up as a Hegelian as became the foremost pragmatist of the 20th century. I have yet to find a book by Dewey which allows me to really thoroughly explore his thinking. Some secondary sources, yes, but not original. Maybe Mike Cole or Tony Whitson could recommend me something. But though i find it difficult to ground my speculations in text, Dewey seems to have anticipated Vyotsky and Activity Theory in many ways, and may break my generalisation. That's fine. I am happy to be proved wrong by the example of Dewey. But among the schools of theory competing for the right to theorise the human mind in our time, I think CHAT is unique in (1) having a clear concept of artefact-mediation, (2) a theory of concepts and (3) both a molar unit of actyivity, (an activity) and a theory of action, as well as a theory of mind. My thesis is that these 3 features go together.

Asd you know Larry, I have been collecting theories of concepts recently and they are many and diverse. Brandom tells me that analytical philosophy, before himself, does not really have a theory of concepts at all because they don't know what a concept is, and insofar as we are tlaking about the efforts of Cognitive Psychology in the psychology of concepts he is, in my opinion, quite correct (for this Psychology of Concepts, concepts are things that a parrot or a thermostat can have, but Brandom correctly says that surely concepts are things that only rational creatures use). And as Jay Lemke explained on this list a while back, Linguists cannot really accept "concept" as a concept in their science, and see it as more or less a part of "folk psychology" (if I could borrow a term from the neuroscientists), because as I see Jay's explanation, contemporary linguistics is absorbed in the pragmatics of language games. There are various others. The "conceptual change" people are possibly breaking my rule, as they certainly join a theory of action to ideas of concepts and history, and I would just say that they lack a coherent theory, but like Dewey they are probably close to CHAT. Then there is a whole range of people including Wittgenstein, Bakhtin, all those who use an interactionism to appropriate a pre-Encyclopedia Hegel, which is a wide and diverse collection of people, all of whom, contra-Hegel, have no role for artefact-mediation in their theories of interaction, or a long-duration unit of analysis (whose place is taken by empty generalities), or an explicit theory of concepts. Brandom seemed to break this mold and in a number of ways he does. But he (1) has no clear concept of artefact-mediation, and (2) no molar unit of activity. He takes his unit of analysis to be a proposition and "concept" is an property of a proposition, a subsentential entity in fact, and as a philsoopher, he has no place for context. He has an interesting theory of conceps, but it is entirely located within a Kantian philosophy of normativity, and explicitly excludes psychology and sociology from its territory.

Interestingly Brandom takes meaning as an action. His foundation is, as I see it, a Pragmatic appropriation of Kant, which he has tried, in vain in my view, to extend this to Hegel. So everything is an action. His appropriation of Oliver Wendell Holmes's theory of law (though he does not name Holmes, but presents himself as making this idea up himself) as a way of understanding culture is interesting. But the way Holmes saw this was as an alternative to having a unit of activity, as an alternative to the idea of really existent norms, trying to reduce history to a theory of molecular dynamics, so to speak. And I suspect that is where Brandom is stuck. Hegel on the other hand explictly talks about this in the Philosophy of Right (1821, so it is off Brandom's radar) and rejects the idea of entirely unwritten law. (NB the role of artefact mediation in Hegel)

Does that clarify my thesis, Larry?


Larry Purss wrote:
Hi Andy
I thought it was time to start a new thread with this last reflection on
Brandom. I pasted your reflections to this new thread. You wrote:

 I'm reading Robert Brandom at the moment. Brandom is someone who uses the
notion of "unit of analysis" and does us the favour of telling us what the
UoA is for various writers (such as Kant, Frege and Wittgenstein). I have
long been troubled by what is the nature of the gulf which separates us
Vygotskyans and Activity Theorists from all those various "interactionists"
which makes it possible for Vygotsky alone to have a theory of concepts.
There is a vast literature of those who talk about the "social" but have no
real place for the "societal" in their theories. It is Hegel who gave us an
approach to including the societal in theories of knowledge and action, and
therefore a theory of concepts. Brandom is known for being some kind of
Hegelian. But in reality he gets his Hegelianism from recent pragmatic
readings of Hegel as a theoretician of recognition, people like the American
"Hegelian," R W Williams. So, like the others, he tries to have individuals
inventing concepts in the process of interacting with others in dyads.
Untenable. The whole point is that in Activity Theory we have a unit of
analysis, a "molar" unit, a unit of mass action, as well as the
artefact-mediated action and the operation. It is this third level which
makes it possible to have a theory of concepts. Brandom, like so many
others, takes actions (such as meaning and judgment) as the ultimate
reality. The Activity (the large-scale unit) is represented in interpersonal
interactions in Vygotsky's work mainly through its objectification as a
mediating artefact, but also as a "long duration activity", but this is
hardly developed by LSV. So this is why interactionist theories, such as
theories of recognition, decision-theories and so on, have no concept of
mediation, AND no theory of a societal Activity, and therefore no theory of
concepts. Brandom tries,  but in my view he fails.
Vygotsky-like artefact-mediation, Leontyev-like object-oritened Activities,
and Concepts rather than just meanings, all go together.

You are making a distinction between
1] scholars who privilege "individuals inventing concepts in the process of
interacting with others in dyads [the "social" is derived from individuals
interacting] Recognition is also an individual action which is derived from
this same source in individuals interacting. [merely interactional]
In contrast are scholars who
2] privilege "activity" [a large scale unit that  has a "long duration"]
For Vygotsky this societal activity is expressed through interactional
actions becoming objectified as mediating artifacts. This obectification
process is the process where JUST meanings produce societal concepts of long

Andy, this distinction seems central to your project and I'm trying to
locate my interest in "recognition" and the "alterity of the other" [the
interactional experiential moment] within a historical process of "long
duration".  It is why I try to bring in Taylor's notion of "way of life" as
a philosophical hermeneutical perspective. [which is a continuation of
Gadamer's notion of way of life]  Dewey's "system of meanings" also is a
system of long duration.
Where do you locate Taylor, Gadamer, Dewey, and others who are exploring
"traditions" or "frameworks" of long duration that are the "surrounding
context" for taking actions [such as meaning and judgements]

Do activity approaches to understanding and locating actions and operations
recognize the insights of these other approaches which are reflecting on
historical processes of long duration [but use different terminology].  Are
they exploring what you refer to as the "third level".  It seems that
Gadamer  may be responding to his teacher Heidegger, Dewey is responding to
William James etc., in this "general recognition" that this third level is
under theorized in Heidegger or James as they focus on individual actions. I
wonder if continental philosophy, American pragmatism, and other traditions
are all engaged with this general tension between explanations which
"privilege social interactionalism that may be dialogical" and the
alternative explanations that privilege the third level.

In other words, how unique is the notion of "activity approaches" in
contrast to the alternative notion that there is a "family of approaches"
which are engaged in exploring this "third level"

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*Andy Blunden*
Joint Editor MCA: http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/title~db=all~content=g932564744
Home Page: http://home.mira.net/~andy/
Book: http://www.brill.nl/default.aspx?partid=227&pid=34857

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