Maidansky on LSV, "Buridan's ass" and signs as mediating artifacts

From: Tony Whitson (
Date: Mon Jan 24 2005 - 09:31:24 PST

Here are two pages from the Maidansky article:




The famous Russian psychologist Lev Semënovich Vygotskij (1896-1934) was
carried away with Spinoza’s philosophy when studying it at the
historian-philosophical faculty of the Shanjavskij Moscow University. He was
attracted first by Spinoza’s strict causal explanation of mind by the
principle of action of the human body. Being guided by this principle,
Vygotskij established that the cultural mental functions originate as forms
of human activity, which is directed to the outer (social) world. The
distinctive feature of cultural mental functions in comparison with the
natural ones is that the former are mediated by artificially created stimuli,
signs. Using signs, a “thinking being” actively regulates its own behaviour.
This idea, as Vygotskij believes, allows us “to demonstrate empirically the
origin of human free will.”18

The traditional model of free will is a “Buridan’s ass” situation, where an
ass is forced to act by two different stimuli in equal extent. Its soul
cannot perceive anything except the states of body, caused by these stimuli,
thus the ass turns out to be unable to act in this or that way and dies.

According to Spinoza, a man does not merely perceive the states of his own
body, which are caused by external stimuli. The human body is able to “move
and dispose” external things,19 thereby imparting to itself various states,
which are adequate to (or conform with) the nature of other bodies.
Perceptions of such states of the body constitute the contents of human
intellect. The power of causes, which are perceived adequately by a
“thinking thing” (rescogitans), infinitely exceeds the power of any external
stimuli immediately affecting the human body. Therefore, the better one
knows the nature of things, the smaller is the danger of dying like Buridan’
s ass because of external causes. Herein lies the real freedom. It is
directly proportional to our knowledge of causes of the things we come
across or, more precisely, to our capacity for acting reasonably on external
things and, by means of these things, on our own body and mind.

Spinoza, however, gives only a general solution to the problem of free will.
Admitting his complete agreement with this solution,20 Vygotskij makes a
series of experiments with children to verify it.

[p. 205]

He creates a state of the equilibrium of motives and comes to the following

A man placed in the situation of Buridan’s ass throws lots ...Here is an
operation impossible for an animal, the operation in which the whole problem
of free will manifests itself with experimental distinctness.21

What is the nature of lot? It is a neutral stimulus, to which man transfers
the function of choice between two equally possible actions. By means of the
neutral stimuli, signs, he acts upon his own behaviour making it reasonable,
precisely like he acts with material tools upon an external nature. Whence,
however, does man receive this amazing ability to direct his own actions
reasonably, i.e. by means of signs? Here occurs a decisive turn of
Vygotskij’s thought: signs originally appeared as instruments by means of
which one man acted upon another; and human behaviour becomes reasonable
when someone begins to apply towards himself the same instruments by which
formerly other people directed his actions. Signs are ideal ‘clots’ of
social relations, so the individual internalizes the human mind in the
course of communication. Therefore, all human forms of mental activity are
of social origin; the individual absorbs them from outside, viz. from his
cultural surroundings.

Vygotskij strictly adheres to a key thesis of the psychological theory of

The object of an idea constituting the human mind is a body ...and nothing

Meanwhile, there is a distinction in the human mind between the idea of an
individual organic body and the idea of its collective, social “quasi-body”
(quasicorpus,nempesocietatis, as Spinoza expressed once23). The organic body
is the substance of natural forms of mental activity, and the social
“quasi-body” is the substance of cultural mental forms. Further, Vygotskij
undertakes an inquiry of the “natural history of signs” or, in other words,
of the development of cultural psychical functions from natural ones.

Spinoza solved this problem on a purely logical plane, as the problem of
correlating imagination (vague ideas of the states of the organic body) with
intellect (clear and distinct ideas about the nature of things). Spinoza
considers these two forms of thinking as



From: Tony Whitson [mailto:twhitson@UDel.Edu]
Sent: Monday, January 24, 2005 10:30 AM
Subject: Spinoza, Buridan, & LSV -- RE: Scaffolding


I think Buridan is best known for his ideas about intellect and will. The
role in LSV’s thinking (via Spinoza) is suggested in the two articles
referenced below.


Title: The unity of intellect and will: Vygotsky and Spinoza

Author(s): Jan Derry

Source: Educational Review Volume: 56 Number: 2 Page: 113 -- 120

DOI: 10.1080/0031910410001693209

Publisher: Carfax Publishing, part of the Taylor & Francis Group

Abstract: Jerome Bruner points out in his prologue to the first volume of
the English translation of The Collected Works that Vygotsky flirts with the
idea that language creates free will. This article attempts to consider the
influence of the Dutch seventeenth-century philosopher Spinoza on Vygotsky.
An account of Spinoza's anti-Cartesian conception of will is given, to which
Vygotsky recognizes his indebtedness. We will consider elements of Spinoza's
philosophy that were important to Vygotsky's theory of the development of
intellect, and claim that an appreciation of the philosophy informing
Vygotsky's theory of the development of intellect is necessary if the full
implications of his project are to be grasped.

© 2005 Educational Review



Export Citation: Text RIS

Studies in East European Thought

55 (3): 199-216, September 2003

Copyright © 2003 Kluwer Academic Publishers

All rights reserved

The Russian Spinozists

Andrey Maidansky

Department of Humanities Taganrog Institute of Economics and Management
Dzherzhinskogo 154 kv. 8 Taganrog 347931 Russia


The article deals with the history of Russian Spinozism in the 20th century,
focusing attention on three interpretations of Spinoza's philosophy – by
Varvara Polovtsova, Lev Vygotsky, and Evald Ilyenkov. Polovtsova profoundly
explored Spinoza's logical method and contributed an excellent translation
of his treatise De intellectus emendatione. Later Vygotsky and Ilyenkov
applied Spinoza's method to create activity theory, an explanation of the
laws and genesis of the human mind.


philosophy of Spinoza, Spinozism, Polovtsova, Vygotsky, Ilyenkov, Russian
Marxism, activity theory, logical method

Article ID: 5122509




From: Michael Glassman []
Sent: Monday, January 24, 2005 7:48 AM
Subject: RE: Scaffolding


I thought Jean Buridan was a logician and a (French) contemporary of William
of Occam? It seems to me Buridan's Ass is a variation on Occam's Razor and
the idea that we use logic to force choice, part of the philosophical
trajectory of the time. Applying mediation to this idea seems something of
a stretch. I don't really get what Valsiner is getting at (why the
supposedlys?) and I am wary that Vygotsky would use this as a reference for


On the other hand I am really interested as to where Vygotsky did use this
and would really appreciate it if you had the reference. It might suggest
that there was at least a small sliver of Vygotsky interested in logic in
the same way the Pragmatists (especially Pierce) were interested in logic.



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