Re: Does no one read [between] Vygotsky's words?: reposting Victor's post

From: Steve Gabosch (
Date: Sun May 02 2004 - 09:31:51 PDT

I happen to have it handy, here is Victor's post again.
- Steve

These ideas are still in a somewhat formative state, but I'll give it a try.

Just a bit of background: about three months ago, P. Jones asked if I had
written something on Ilyenkov's concepts of Ideality, i.e. those he
presented in his 1977 article "The Concept of the Ideal." After reading the
article about 8-9 times and finding it no less clear at the 8th reading than
it was at the first reading I went through the corpus of Ilyenkov's works
(those translated into English that is) and reviewed all available
interpretations of EVI's works by D. Bakhurst's and of P. Jones. My general
impression was that the subjective idealist implications of the article of
1977 (I basically agree with Bakhurst here) were a striking anomaly when
compared to the rest of EVI's writings, both those preceding and following
the publication of the 1977 article (here I take exception to Bakhurst's
efforts to regard "The Concepts..." as an integral part of Ilyenkov's life
work). This raised the interesting question; how did EVI - one of the
sharpest critics of Logical Positivism of the last century - come to write
up what is in essence a subjective idealist theory of the ideal?! "The
Concept of the Ideal" was part of a collection of articles including Leont'
ev's important "Activity and consciousness" published as,(1977) Philosophy
in the USSR: Problems of dialectical materialism. I just finished
reading/rereading the available writings of Leontiev (reread his, (1978)
Activity Consciousness and Personality, and read and reread his, (1977)
"Activity and Consciousness," several times) and a respectable number of
links between "The Concept...," and "Activity and Consciousness," suggests
that the anomalies of "The Concept of the Ideal" might well be the
consequence of a theoretical expansion of Leont'ev's Activity theory.

-----------------------------On the Issues--------------------------------

As I wrote earlier Vygotsky's work is one of the most accomplished
adaptation of materialist dialectics to new issues. I can't say the same for
Leontiev. Leont'ev's theorizing represents a reversion to subjective
idealism; interesting because he succeeds in doing this without appearing to
reject official dialectical materialism. He manages to do this mainly by
refraining from writing about the general philosophic implications of his
ideas. It appears to me that Ilyenkov in his article of 1977 presents a
broad philosophical foundation for Leont'ev's Action Theory and collides
head on with the subjective idealism implicit to Leont'evs basic ideas. Our
differential evaluation of Vygotsky's work - especially his theories on the
production of language - from the Action model of Leont'ev is mostly based
on several basic features of material logic and its .

   First, a definition of terms: the abstract and the concrete; the
universal, the particular and the singular
(You can skip this if you're acquainted with these terms).
1. Abstract and Concrete: Materialist logic (and here my main reference is
Ilyenkov's 1960 work The *Dialectics of the Abstract & the Concrete in Marx'
s Capital* particularly Chapter 2 - The Unity of the Abstract & the Concrete
as a Law of Thought and Chapter 3 - Ascent from the Abstract to the
Concrete) regards abstract and concrete concepts as being equally linked to
the material world and distinguishes between them only in terms of their
relatedness to other concepts regarding that world. For example, primitive
exchange or barter represents the most elementary form of commodification
and can be regarded as both historically abstract and as a fairly abstract
feature of Capitalist economy. It is historically abstract because as a
pre-capitalist form of exchange it plays a rather minimal role, i.e. it is a
fairly isolated form of activity, in the general mode of production by which
men produced the conditions that perpetuate the life of their households
etc. It is abstract within the context of modern Capitalism because it is
only the basic cell of the whole system of the Capitalist mode of
production. To arrive at the latter, a great many other abstractions;
theory of surplus value, money, and so on must be added to the basic
abstraction of primitive exchange.
2. Universal, particular and singular (individual): The logical categories
of general, particular and singular (individual) are generally, though not
universally related to the distinction between the abstract and the
concrete. The Materialist version of universality (here I also rely
considerably on Ilyenkov's (1974) *Dialectical Logic* Chapter 11: Problem
of the General in Dialectics) is essentially one of shared origin rather
than one of shared properties (as it is in the case of formal logical
reasoning). Take, for example, the principle of exchange of commodities as
a universal feature of Capitalism. The contradictions implicit to commodity
exchange that so characterize the whole of the Capitalist mode of production
are as fundamental as primitive exchange itself, yet primitive exchange is a
most rare and marginal form of social relation in modern Capitalism.
Relations may and usually do develop from individual cases as singular
phenomena, become particular forms of social activity as limited but
recurrent events, and may as in the case of commodity exchange become
universal features of whole social systems.

The important theoretical achievement of Vygotsky is a thoroughly material
and dialectical theory of the production of a special kind of object; the
object produced strictly as a means for information transmission. This kind
of object emerges from a dialectical union of material production (in the
case of spoken language this is the production of speech), with the
formation of the notion or logic. No less brilliant are the means whereby
LSV demonstrates the processes whereby this union is first achieved and
develops. LSV's scientific research shows is that the production of objects
for transmission of information (let's call them semiotic objects) enables
1. Objectification of the notion at any and all stages of its development
2. The objective representation of the structures of simple and complex
stages of the notion: syntax and logic.
3. Interaction between the production of semiotic objects and the
development of more complex forms of the notion.
Though LSV's research is realized through structured examination of
individual activity, its aims are to determine and test general -
universal - laws of the production of semiotic objects (see the definitions
of universal, particular and singular (individual) using the same scientific
approach as that used by Marx to determine the laws of production and their
manifestation in the Capitalist mode of production.

Leont'ev's "Activity and Consciousness," makes no explicitly philosophical
observations and appears on the surface to be what its author asserts it to
be; a materialist theory of personality. However, a careful reading raises
some pretty pointed questions concerning the materialist character of Leont'
ev's version of Activity Theory. For example, Leontiev in "Activity and
consciousness", and Ilyenkov in "The Concept of the Ideal." describe the
object as representing the ideational "image of the object" presumably in
the mind of the observer. This is a very peculiar assertion for
materialists and even for objective idealists. Ideation - the formation of
the Notion - is ideality because it involves the development of knowledge -
that of recurrent relation - that cannot be immediately sensed by human
perception (by the active spirit for Hegelians). Both Idealist realism and
Materialism firmly assert that the object itself is immediately detectable
by sensual means. The various forms of subjective idealism; Kantian,
Logical Positivism and so on, do argue that perception is as ideational as
relation and that immediate access to the material world is beyond human
abilities. The assertion that the object represents an image of the object
is much more consistent with how subjective idealists regard the relation
between the mind and the world than it does either objective idealism or
Marxist materialism.

Leontiev aim; the formulation of laws of individual behaviour, is a direct
challenge to objectivist logic. In objectivist logic; Idealist and
Materialist there can be no laws of individual behaviour. Individuals'
behaviours are singular manifestations of laws involving relations on the
scale of communities, social system, humanity, and life forms in general.
Leontiev does not even make an effort to justify the formation of a general
theory of personality. He just makes one, and ignores the broader
ontological and epistemological implications. I think Ilyenkov's 1977
article may well have been an attempt to deal with the philosophic problems
posed by Leont'ev's general theory of personality. It's an interesting but
unconvincing effort. Bakhurst, (1991) "The Problem of the Ideal."
Consciousness and Revolution in Soviet Philosophy: From the Bolsheviks to
Evald Ilyenkov, makes a considerable effort to distinguish between
Ilyenkov's concept of the ideal and the general run of subjective idealist
philosophy; but ultimately comes to the conclusion that Ilyenkov's writings
on the ideal are neither clear nor decisive. No great wonder! Ilyenkov was
trying to find some way of reconciling a philosophical argument at least as
ancient as the first publication of Aristotle's logics.

Enough for now.

Addendum: the place of psychology as a scientific discipline.
As I wrote above, there is a general or rough correspondence between
development towards the concrete and the development of less general
concepts. Simple statistics is sufficient to show that the more concrete
the concept, the more relations are incorporated in its formation, and so
the more likely that at least some of the relations that contribute to its
formation will differ from other similarly concrete concepts. The
individual case, be it a person, a movement or whatever will, by definition
be one that contains some or many relations or combination of relations to
the material world that are entirely its own. Such an individual or
singularity may serve as the subject of analysis as a manifestation of more
general laws governing human activity in the case of the individual, but it
is worthless as a basis for the formation of a general theory. For this way
of thinking psychology and research into individual personality is an
important application of theory to real problems (like the engineer who
concentrates all the general and particular knowledge about bridge building
to actually construct a bridge in an actual location having specific -
unique - material conditions etc.), but it cannot form the basis for general

----- Original Message -----
From: "Mike Cole" <>
To: <>
Sent: Wednesday, April 28, 2004 9:55 PM
Subject: Re: Does no one read [between] Vygotsky's words?

> Victor-- Could you elaborate on the comment about the differences between
> LSV and his students/colleagues? Davydov, for example, was a big champion
> of Ilyenkov and a critic of LSV's ideas on concepts on, I believe, their
> marxist foundations. Leontiev is used by a lot of current AT people as a
> guiding light. What differences that make a difference do you see?
> mike

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