Re: Leont'ev-Vygotsky controversy

Date: Thu Feb 19 2004 - 12:51:06 PST

Re: Leont'ev-Vygotsky controversy

Hi Ana,

The authorship of the texts has been disputed.  Long debates there.  I'm not a historian, but I think Gary Morson and Caryl Emerson offer a very clear discussion of the issues in Mikhail Bakhtin:  Creation of a Prosaics and come to the conclusion that it is unlikely Bakhtin wrote Marxism, or Freudianism or the 1926 essay "Discourse in Life".  They suggest that the influence to take a sociological perspective on dialogism ran the other direction, that Bakhtin was influenced to a more social, more linguistic analysis by seeing how Voloshinov and Medvedev worked out these ideas from a Marxist perspective.

In my own work, I began to notice key differences on the question of inner speech (or inner genre).  Bakhtin in "Speech Genres" argues that the utterance is the real unit of speech (actual discourse) because it is marked by the real boundary of the change of speakers.  He then tries to extend this to texts, so a book or article produced over days weeks years is equivalent to a turn at talk.  Because I'm interested in literate activity, this view is very problematic.  Voloshinov, however, writes:

"The process of speech broadly understood as the process of inner and outer verbal life, goes on continuously.  It knows neither beginnng nor end.  The outwardly actualized utterance is an island rising from the boundless sea of inner speech...."  (p.96, in the chapter on Verbal Interaction).

I see his clear call for a historical study of signs (including language) as very parallel to Vygotsky's call for a historical psychology.


Hi Paul,
Not to add one more controversy, but just as a curiosity, "Marxism and the Philosophy of Language" was published in Serbocroatian under the name of Bakhtin and with a very lengthy introduction explaining why it "really" was Bakhtin and not Voloshinov.
I think that it is a real case when it is not possible to know which person out of 2 or probably three was a real "author" of some thoughts. Apparently Bakhtin, Voloshinov and I think Medvedev (??) were another "troika" (threesome) who developed mutual ideas in a lively social interaction and then went on publishing books under their own or each other names.
However, since the Serbo-Croatian translation was published before the English translation, all my quaotations from "Marxism and the Philosophy of Language" are referrenced to Bakhtin.
Go figure.
(I don't have the book here to lookup the introduction and tell you that author's opinion why he thiught that the author was Bakhtin).
However, it is very clear in that work (Marxism and the pPhilosophy of Language) that language i all its aspects belongs to a social interaction situated in a particular social-historical moment and a particualr situation in which there are definite roles (dividion of labor) and relationships regulated by all kinds of norms (starting from grammar to all kinds of other normative behavior). Bakhtin/Voloshinov's text depicts language/speech clearly as a dynamic activity and not as a static structure. and the further claim that it represents the primary medium of the individual consciousness, makes it even more interesting, because then one has to think of consciousness and of identity as activities, i.e. processes, instead in terms of entities.
-----Original Message-----
From: pprior who-is-at []
Sent: Thursday, February 19, 2004 03:27 PM
To: xmca who-is-at
Subject: RE: Leont'ev-Vygotsky controversy
I think Voloshinov (Marxism and the Philosophy of Language) is a key figure here too (and not a pen name for Bakhtin).  Consider these examples:

"Consciousness becomes consciousness only once it has been filed with ideological (semiotic) content, consequently only in the process of social interaction." (p. 11)

"One other property belongs to the word that is of the highest order of importance and is what makes the word the primary medium of the individual consciousness.  Although the reality of the word, as is true of any sign, resides between individuals, a word, at the same time, is produced by the individual organism's own means without recourse to any equipment or any other kind of extracorporeal material.  This has determined the role of word as the semiotic material of inner life--of consciousness  (inner speech).  (p.14)

Woloshinov, however, always points back to the social activity (labor, schooling, commmunity life) as the source of semiotic means (language and other signs).  He does mention labor (and forms of labor quite specifically) as Leont'ev does and also talks of not only speech genres (which Bakhtin describes later) but of behavioral genres (which range from highly regulated and crystallized to fluid, fleeting, and vague).

His work, though limited to a few key texts, feels much closer to Vygotksy's, much more oriented to psychology and semiotics than Bakhtin's.  It has a strong semiotic orientation, but also emphasized the sociohistorically produced conditions of signs and he focused on affect and motives.  (I always had the sense that critical to Leont'ev's activity theory was his extension of Vygotsky's comment at the end of Thinking and Speech that he had yet to tackle the most fundamental problem of the affective and motivational dimensions of consciousess, which Leont'ev worked to develop through the motive/activity, action/goal, operation/conditions scheme.)

Paul Prior
Associate Professor, Department of English
Associate Director, Center for Writing Studies
pprior who-is-at
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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