[xmca] operation, action, activity

From: Mike Cole (lchcmike@gmail.com)
Date: Wed Jul 06 2005 - 08:28:40 PDT

Eric-- I have been remiss in not finding a statement by Leontiev about
levels. There may be better ones. I found this
at marxists.org <http://marxists.org> where two Leontiev texts are
available. There are probably better statements, but this is what I had
time to grab. Others might do better. If you think about the example in this
passage in terms of your last example.it <http://example.it> might
be helpful.
There is frequently no difference between the terms action and operation. In
the context of psychological analysis of activity, however, distinguishing
between them is absolutely necessary. Actions, as has already been said, are
related to goals, operations to conditions. Let us assume that the goal
remains the same; conditions in which it is assigned, however, change. Then
it is specifically and only the operational content of the action that

In especially visual form, the non coincidence of action and operation
appears in actions with tools. Obviously, a tool is a material object in
which are crystallized methods and operations, and not actions or goals. For
example, a material object may be physically taken apart by means of various
tools each of which determines the method of carrying out the given action.
Under certain conditions, let us say, an operation of cutting will be more
adequate, in others, an operation of sawing; it is assumed here that man
knows how to handle the corresponding tools, the knife, the saw, etc. The
matter is essentially the same in more complex cases. Let us assume that a
man was confronted with the goal of graphically representing some kind of
dependences that he had discovered. In order to do this, he must apply one
method or another of constructing graphs he must realize specific
operation, and for this he must know how to do them. In this case it makes
no difference how or under what circumstances or using which material he
learned how to do these operations; something else is important
specifically, that the formulation of the operation proceeds entirely
differently from the formulation of the goal, that is, the initiation of

Actions and operations have various origins, various dynamics, and various
fates. Their genesis lies in the relationships of exchange of activities;
every operation, however, is the result of a transformation of action that
takes place as a result of its inclusion in another action and its
subsequent "technization." A simpler illustration of this process may be the
formation of an operation, the performance of which, for example, requires
driving a car. Initially every operation, such as shifting gears, is formed
as an action subordinated specifically to this goal and has its own
conscious "orientational basis" (P. Ya. Gal'perin). Subsequently this action
is included in another action, which has a complex operational composition
in the action, for example, changing the speed of the car. Now shifting
gears becomes one of the methods of attaining the goal, the operation that
effects the change in speed, and shifting gears now ceases to be
accomplished as a specific goal-oriented process: Its goal is not isolated.
For the consciousness of the driver, shifting gears in normal circumstances
is as if it did not exist. He does something else: He moves the car from a
place, climbs steep grades, drives the car fast, stops at a given place,
etc. Actually this operation may, as is known, be removed entirely from the
activity of the driver and be carried out automatically. Generally, the fate
of the operation sooner or later becomes the function of the machine.

Nonetheless, an operation does not in any way constitute any kind of
"separateness," in relation to action, just as is the case with action in
relation to activity. Even when an operation is carried out by a machine, it
still realizes the action of the subject. In a man who solves a problem with
a calculator, the action is not interrupted at this extracerebral link; it
finds in it its realization just as. it does in its other links. Only a
"crazy" machine that has escaped from man's domination can carry out
operations that do not realize any kind of goal-directed action of the

Thus in the total flow of activity that forms human life, in its higher
manifestations mediated by psychic reflection, analysis isolates separate
(specific) activities in the first place according to the criterion of
motives that elicit them. Then actions are isolated processes that are
subordinated to conscious goals, finally, operations that directly depend on
the conditions of attaining concrete goals.

The "units" of human activity also form its macrostructure. The special
feature of the analysis that serves to isolate them is that it does so not
by means of breaking human activity up into elements but by disclosing its
characteristic internal relations. These are the relations that conceal
transformations that occur as activity develops. Objects themselves can
become stimuli, goals, or tools only in a system of human activity; deprived
of connections within this system they lose their existence as stimuli,
goals, or tools. For example, a tool considered apart from a goal becomes
the same kind of abstraction as an operation considered apart from the
action that it realizes.

Investigation of activity requires an analysis specifically of its internal
systemic connections.

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