RE: Motives and goals: Leont'ev and Axel

From: Eugene Matusov (
Date: Tue Feb 03 2004 - 12:24:36 PST

Dear everybody-

Thanks a lot, Peter, for the useful article. I extracted the article and
captured the text (see attached). I also put the full text of Axel's
description of Leont'ev's example and analysis along with Axel's interesting
critique of Leont'ev below (I'd recommend reading his entire article

I think Leont'ev's example and analysis is great. I *somewhat* forget about
it. It is much better than my examples. I want to comment the example,
analysis, and Axel's critique of them.

In my view, Leont'ev introduced (at least) three related important issues
related the notion of motive. First, what is the motive and when is the
motive: when actions are mobilized by the environment (its affordances) and
when they are mobilized people through mediation? Second, what is the social
nature of the motive? Third, what is the difference between the motive and

Let me start with the third issue. In my view, Leont'ev's example can make
easier to envision how motive can exist with goal and how goal can exist
without motive. Motive without a Goal: imagine a group of inept hunter went
to hunt motivated by hunger. When the saw a prey, they started chase of it
without any plan. They were coordinated by the prey (shared affordance) but
not by a goal. Now Goal without a Motive: Imagine a group of skilled hunters
coming back from visiting a friendly tribe bumped into a prey. Seeing this
opportunity, they decided to organize a skillful hunt described by Leont'ev.
In this case, they had goal without a motive.

I think Leont'ev is right claiming that motive has its social nature because
it is mediated by social activity (and social discourse - we can plausibly
assume for the collective hunt described by Leont'ev to occur people have to
negotiate it and develop an agreement).

Now, Axel raised an important issue about an observer. Axel is right
pointing at relativistic nature of Leont'ev's analysis. However, I disagree
with Axel's characterization of the relativism and his solution of it. Axel
claims that Leont'ev's relativism is subjective and Axel wants to make
objective judgments about other people's motives. I argue that Leont'ev's
relativism, correctly noticed by Axel, is not subjective but discursive and
communal and cannot be objective (or subjective for that matter). As I tried
to argue in my past message, motives comes out of communal discourses (an
observer can initiate a new communal discourse in a relation with the
observed community).

What do you think?


> -----Original Message-----
> From: Phil Chappell []
> Sent: Tuesday, February 03, 2004 10:12 AM
> To:
> Subject: Re: Motives and goals
> Thanks for that link, Peter. It looks very worthwhile (when a minute is
> spare!)
> Phil
> On Feb 3, 2004, at 4:39 AM, Peter Smagorinsky wrote:
> > An article posted at by
> > Erik Axel discusses the motive/goal time to comment,
> > must teach a class in a few minutes. The article is also in Mind,
> > Culture, and Activity: seminal papers from LCHC (eds Cole, engestrom,
> > vasquez) which we're discussing in class tonight. p
> >
> >
One Developmental Line in European Activity Theories
By Erik Axel LCHC Newsletter 1992


.We shall introduce them by using Leont'ev's example of primeval collective
hunt, which is, at the same time, an instance of cooperative interaction in
activity. Collective hunting is the activity, the prey is its object, and
hunger for the prey is its motive. When beaters make noise to frighten the
game, the clapping of their hands is an operation, and the beating as a
whole is an action within the hunting activity, motivated by the hunger to
be fulfilled by the realization of the activity. This noise making action
has as its goal the frightening of the game. However, the goal contradicts
the object and motive of activity, which is to catch the animal and
distribute and consume the food. The beaters' action is part of the activity
on the basis of their conscious knowledge that they frighten the game so
that it can be caught. This implies that human consciousness has an engaging
and a mediating representational aspect. The beaters' action is only
possible on condition that they represent the link between the goal of their
action and the motive of the cooperative activity. They must be able to
represent relations between objects, irrespective of their actual needs, or
else they would simply go for it themselves and therefore in many instances
fail to obtain the object. Their specific and particular consciousness is
constituted through its content, which has meanings as elements. Through the
meanings they are able to represent the connection between the motive and
the goal of action, in this way they are engaged in the activity, it makes
sense to the beaters.

One activity is mainly distinguished from another by its object or motive.
This can become a key to accounting for the development of activity in the
following way. If, for example, a beater discovers it is fun beating, if he
starts beating for its own sake, be is motivated by the beating, the beating
is an appropriated object, he has produced a new activity from the old
action. An action can thus develop into an activity by acquiring a motive,
and the new activity might itself become subdivided into a set of actions.
On the other hand, an activity can become an action if its motive wanes, and
can become integrated into another activity. Likewise, an action can evolve
into an operation, capable of accomplishing various actions.

Having thus determined the elements of activity, it is important to stress
that they must be understood as potentials which constitute a unity of
social, personal and organismic aspects, and the actualization of the
potentials must be conceived of as a specific developmental process, which
is beyond their determination as potentials.

The motive of activity is thus an individually constituted unity of an
originally nonspecific biological "push" and previously socially produced
objectified "pull." Biological functions, which express the arousal of the
body, cannot themselves direct activity. Only when desires meet a socially
produced object meant for human satisfaction do they become objectified, get
their specific direction Likewise the goal of an action is an individually
produced unity of what the objective social circumstances have made possible
and the process of actions actualized. Furthermore, meanings are the unity
of what appears to the subject on the one hand as relations of the world
unveiled through activity, independent of its conscious- ness and on the
other hand as an instrument to become conscious of objective relations.
Lastly, sense is established as a unity when the social meanings unveil the
relation between goal and motive to the subject and thus release the
engagement or commitment of consciousness.

Such elements constitute each kind of activity, and the recognizable unity
of the ever changing activities of the subject constitutes the personality.
Personality is the transformations of the subject, which comes about as a
result of the development of its activities in the system of social
relations. The emotions are seen as a constituent of personality, they
reflect the relations between the motives of the personality and the
possibility for their positive realization in the social world through
activity. With the concepts of meaning, sense, and emotion we recognize a
movement in the theoretical constructions of Leont'ev towads a localization
of the individual in the knots of the system of activities.

The advantages of Leont'ev's position are evident even from this summary

Human nature does not determine specific activities, but it does determine
the set of possible activities which can be realized. This is because human
beings are active social agents who produce objects for the satisfaction of
their needs and thereby develop the elements of their psyche and internal

It is in accordance with this line of thought to state that the system of
activity as presented is to be understood as a material as well as
theoretical seminal core. It is common to all kinds of actualized historical
activities, be they cultural, producing, or reproducing. Each particular
activity, then, has a history which has developed through contradictions in
different sets of concrete realizations of the elements emotional,
conscious, operational, musical, instrumental, etc.

However, there are also several problems with Leont'ev's position:

His "babushka" system of activity, action and operation is not straight
forward to work with. There are two conspicuous reasons for this. First,
Leont'ev sometimes writes as if activity, action, and operation constitute
three independent levels. This allows for a hierarchical structural
conception of activity, which can be identified in some of his followers.
Second, it is difficult to set up guidelines for the categorization of
activity in a particular study. The unequivocal determination of individual
motives is decisive in order to differentiate between an action and activity
and between activities, but it is not possible. Leont'ev's aim is to
describe objective activity, but his conception of activity thus easily
becomes subjective and relativistic: Activity is what the researcher
perceives as motivated.

Leont'ev merely talks about an activity system, not about social
organizations and formations. His combination of social theory and
psychology remains too abstract and is only rudimentarily and inconsistently

The final problem we shall look into is also the one with which we will draw
a line of development produced by Critical Psychology. Leont'ev's theory of
activity is- as already stated-meant to grasp individual development as
socially produced, and thereby as an attempt to realize a not yet fulfilled
promise within Marxist tradition. A central assumption with which to
accomplish this is the conception of how needs and interests have a
determining and indispensable function in producing knowledge through
practice. Objective knowledge can be realized not by abstracting from, but
by taking into account the contradictory class interests in which one is
embedded. However, although Leont'ev presents the first elements to locate
the subject and thus to demonstrate the unity among needs, interests, and
knowledge, the picture presented is not totally coherent. As argued, there
are tendencies toward structuralism, ahistoricism, etc., and it therefore
becomes difficult to go beyond the demonstration of how a certain social
position will typically produce a specific consciousness. In order to
understand the specific and particular personal development we must
systematically formulate a historical science of the subject. Critical
Psychology set itself this task.

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