Re: Leont'ev-Vygotsky controversy

From: David H Kirshner (
Date: Fri Feb 13 2004 - 10:19:36 PST

Eugene asks: "What do you think?"
I think, Eugene, that this is a very tantalizing half-baked morsel you've
served up for us. I've often pondered the greater appeal to me of CHAT over
Vygotsky's semiotic complexities. I like the indexing of our taste for
complexity to the sociopolitical contexts in which we work. --and the
replies of Peter and Carol add some real spice to the stew. ...Good chefs
around here!

                      "Eugene Matusov"
                      <ematusov who-is-at udel.ed To: <>
                      u> cc: (bcc: David H Kirshner/dkirsh/LSU)
                                               Subject: Leont'ev-Vygotsky controversy
                      02/13/2004 11:14
                      Please respond to

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
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,
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
of cultural diversity have been used by white middle and upper classes in
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
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
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
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,
my view, Russian scholars pay much more attention to the V-L controversy
Mike knows very well - may be even more that he wants to know getting in
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
> 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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