Derry on LSV, Piaget, Buridan's ass, & mediating artefacts

From: Tony Whitson (
Date: Mon Jan 24 2005 - 09:44:31 PST

here is on page from the Derry article:

[p.] 118 J. Derry

mind moves and is moved in activity. Self-determination is not possible
through a pure act of will, but arises in (indirect) mediation—the mind is
steered towards its intention.

Vygotsky cites the case of Buridan’s ass where the animal is unable to
choose between the stimuli of two equal bales of hay and thus starves. He
uses the tale to distinguish the possibility of freedom in human activity
through the use of mediating artefacts. In the simple case of an inability
to decide, a human may toss a coin. No matter that the point is trivial, the
human has an additional means of interaction with external determination;
the ass lacks such a means (Vygotsky, 1997). For Vygotsky, following
Spinoza, the basis of freedom is man’s ability to separate himself from his
passions, from the contingencies of nature, and to make for himself a space
within which he can determine his actions. Such actions are determined not
by external and independent causes but by those that lie within ones sphere
of efficacy.

It is possible to discern this concept of freedom in Vygotsky, as for
instance when he discusses the sense in which consciousness is just assumed
by Piaget (Vygotsky, 1987). For Piaget, consciousness occurs in the child
once the bankruptcy of his own thinking is evident, whereas for Vygotsky
consciousness arises through a subject’s changing location to external forms
of determination. Vygotsky looks to the unfolding mediation of consciousness
rather than its arbitrary positing in relation to what Piaget took to be the
evaporation of egocentric speech as egocentric thought atrophies. Vygotsky
takes issue with the way that ‘Piaget represents the child’s mental
development as a process where the characteristics of the child’s thought
gradually die out’ (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 175). He finds the genesis of
consciousness in the development of scientific concepts and contrasts his
research with Piaget’s, arguing that Piaget sees only the
difference/opposition between the child’s spontaneous and non-spontaneous
concepts (scientific concepts) but not their identity (Vygotsky, 1987, p.
177). Vygotsky criticizes Piaget’s failure to understand that a child’s lack
of conscious awareness is affected by his position in relation to what he
was asked to understand rather than to a conflict between his own childish
concepts and those which gave him access to reality. Human behaviour
according to Vygotsky is neither controlled nor directed by immediate means
based on pure acts of will, but is moved indirectly through the use of signs
and tools. The modification of the world by human activity creates an
artificiality (or ‘artefactuality’) of conditions. Within such artificial and
man-made conditions volition can be directed/mediated (caused), but in these
circumstances the cause of an action arises through man’s own
creations/artefacts and not merely in response to external determinations.
The ‘ability to conform to the dictates of no particular situation, but to
any’ (Bakhurst, 1991, p. 251) provides for human beings the possibility of a
universality not available to animals which do no more than respond directly
to environmental determinations, i.e. without conscious mediation or
reflection. What is significant in the analysis of these issues in Vygotsky’s
work, is the symbiotic relation between the development of consciousness and
scientific concepts, the ability to operate actively on matter rather than
being its passive subject.

Vygotsky followed Spinoza, in asking crucial questions: how to free
ourselves from our concrete circumstances, from our passions; how to be
free, not determined by external causes but to be a cause of ourselves
(causasui). A key point of Spinoza’s Ethicswas the rejection of a
‘disembodied’ will. According to Spinoza we are not able to control
ourselves directly through a will not tied to matter:


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.





From: willthereallsvpleasespeakup who-is-at
[mailto:willthereallsvpleasespeakup who-is-at]
Sent: Sun 1/23/2005 8:13 PM
Subject: Re: Scaffolding


This reminds me of Buridan's Ass,

I do remember Vygotsky mentioning it, but Valsiner's diagrams really
bring out the significance of the reference for mediation.


Ana Marjanovic-Shane wrote:

> It would be fascinating to compare concepts like Skinner's "shaping"
> to "scaffolding" to ZPD.
> >From the little quote by Skinner about how they taught a pigeon to
> bowl, and from the descriptions of the mother-child interactions
> (further down), there seems to emerge at least one big difference in
> the two types of learning:
> Pigeons learn within almost closed feedback loop between their
> behavior and the "reward" -- it is learning in a given situation and
> by "blind" trial and error.
> Children (people) have the "third" component, which mediates between
> the behavior and its "outcome" -- symbolic behavior -- language and
> other symbolic devices.
> I think that the process of mediation, or in other words, symbolic
> tools are that what is being constructed in ZPD. The learning is not
> direct -- ZPD is a "place" where you focus on construction of tools
> for a particular knowledge domain -- tools that can be used to
> actually get a grip on a particular domain of the reality. That is why
> it so often seems that children and adults already can do/understand
> something in play while it is still impossible in "reality".
> The question is -- can we observe learning through construction of
> symbolic tools in animals?? Or some animals? Ability to construct and
> use symbolic tools becomes an interesting evolutionary difference
> between humans and other species. The question is, is there an
> intermediary step between learning by a direct feedback loop and
> learning through a mediated ZPD? How does this new way of leaning and
> understanding come into existence in the evolution?
> Ana

Email: willthereallsvpleasespeakup who-is-at

"The zone of proximal development defines those functions that have not yet matured but are in the process of maturation, functions that will mature tomorrow but are currently in an embryonic state. These functions could be termed the buds or flowers of development rather than the "fruits" of development. The actual developmental level characterizes mental development retrospectively, while the zone of proximal development characterizes mental development prospectively." - L.S.V.

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