Re: Leont'ev-Vygotsky controversy

From: Peter Smagorinsky (
Date: Fri Feb 13 2004 - 09:53:56 PST

Thanks for the summary Eugene. It makes me wonder, if Leont'ev's move to
activity/labor rather than verbal (ideal) signs represents a gravitation to
the Marxist norms as postulated by Stalin and company as opposed to
Vygotsky's more radical semiotic vision, why do current scholars in the US
generally regard Leont'ev's work as a progression from Vygotsky's ideas? I
think that we tend to regard more recent developments as examples of
progress, but still there must be other reasons why we hold this general
sense that activity theory is more advanced than Vygotsky's
[socio-cultural/whatever] psychology. I think I've heard Luis Moll ask,
why is Vygotsky becoming so popular in the US now, when the general
political trends are toward conservatism? (this was long before GW
Bush....maybe during the GH Bush presidency). Why would an activity-based
conception of human development have such appeal in present-day USA? Peter

At 12:14 PM 2/13/2004 -0500, you wrote:
>Dear Mike and everybody-
>One "meta-comment". I'd also keep in mind the third, #3, issue as a very
>interesting case of a dialogic relation between two national sciences: US
>and Russian. I think we should use CHAT to approach that issue. For me, #3
>is the key to #1 (and #4). Let me elaborate on that...
>I remember reading in 1995 two articles in two journals on basically the
>same issue of Vygotsky's notion of internalization and educational
>inequalities addressed so differently by a South African scholar Jan Mole
>and a US scholar Peter Smagorinsky (hi, Peter!). Reading these articles, I
>was amazed how much through the authors' conceptualizing and talking about
>Vygotsky, different national issues emerged: how to liquidate the oppressive
>consequences of the apartheid in South Africa versus how to diversify the
>educational system to make it sensitive to needs of diverse cultural and
>social groups in US. In Jan's article, Vygotsky was used to undermine the
>notion of cultural diversity by focusing on Vygotsky's emphasis on the
>universal nature of historical processes; while in Peter's article, Vygotsky
>was used to embrace the notion of cultural diversity by focusing on
>Vygotsky's emphasis on cultural tools. Taken out of the national (local)
>historical contexts, Jan and Peter strongly contradict each other about
>Vygotsky: Jan pushed forward historical universalism so strong in Vygotsky
>while Peter utilized cultural contextualism that can be traced in Vygotsky
>as well. However, taking into account the national (local) historical
>contexts, the picture becomes much more complex. The cultural diversity
>argument was used by leaders of white minority in South Africa for
>justification of apartheid and racial oppression. The meritocracy and denial
>of cultural diversity have been used by white middle and upper classes in US
>to deny equity of education (and not only education) minority and other
>social and cultural groups. Knowing these national (local) historical
>contexts, I saw a deeper consistency in Jan's and Peter's articles that to
>some degree transcends the issue of whether Vygotsky was a historical
>universalist or a cultural contextualist.
>With regard to Vygotsky (and Leotn'ev and Luria for that matter), we need to
>reconstruct their local historical contexts and pay attention to ours as
>well in order to fully explore differences and similarities in their/our
>conceptual frameworks. Using Sartre's terminology, we need to take into
>account "existential projects" that the targeted scholars under our
>investigation and we have been involved.
>My 2 cents gut feeling about the Vygotsky-Leont'ev controversy is that
>Vygotsky's emphasis on sign, semiotics, and culture somehow afforded more
>independence and opposition to Stalinist totalitarianism than Leont'ev's
>focus on tool, activity, and society. My reasoning can be circular but there
>is historical evidence that Stalinist regime did not tolerate scholars
>focusing on semiotics and culture but it did tolerate scholars with
>instrumental and managerial orientation. (Institutions, corporations, and
>states may love Activity Theory helping them to solve inefficiencies and
>unproductive contradictions and thus help to project more power but they may
>be threatened by semiotic and cultural analysis that can undermine their
>power. Do not take me wrong, AT can be dangerous for the powerful as well
>but it can be domesticated while semiotics/cultural analysis are too wild).
>I think it is interesting to explore this observation and my half-baked
>If my hypothesis is correct, it becomes clear why the V-L controversy is
>such a big deal in Russia and bewilderment in US. Since scholars in US are
>not threatened by a totalitarianism - it is not their problem, not their
>project, - this difference between V and L seems to be a minutia. But
>totalitarianism is still a big practice and threat in Russia that is why, in
>my view, Russian scholars pay much more attention to the V-L controversy (as
>Mike knows very well - may be even more that he wants to know getting in the
>middle of some Russian fights ;-). This can be very vulgar socioligm and
>historism - but hey, we have to start with something...
>What do you think?
>PS I know almost nothing about Vygotsky-Luria conceptual disagreements (or
>rumors about them) beyond the fact/rumor that they existed and I would
>appreciate Mike or anybody else elaborating on them. Please discuss #4
> > -----Original Message-----
> > From: Mike Cole []
> > Sent: Thursday, February 12, 2004 10:18 PM
> > To:
> > Subject: RE: Motives and goals: Leont'ev and Axel
> >
> > Sure, Eugene. By all means lets separate all three issues. I am primarily
> > interested in #1. What are the substantive differences between approaches
> > and their implications. I concede without flinching that MANY people,
> > Russian and non-Russian understand Vygotsky better than I do or ever will.
> >
> > I also admire the historical investigations of van der Veer and Valsiner.
> > I wish I had had access to such information when I was actively working
> > on such issues.
> >
> > We might add a fourth issue, since you raise it via your citation of
> > Jim Wertsch's recent work.
> >
> > #4: Is there such a thing as direct remembering which does not deal with
> > conflicting data?
> >
> > But if we were voting, I would stick to question #1. What differences in
> > theory have implications for current theory and practice? Given my
> > preferences, I would add Luria to the discussion, but you have classes to
> > teach and I have some overdue work to get through to meet other
> > professional obligations. With limited time, lets choose our topics well.
> > mike

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