RE: [xmca] Stetsenko- Material practice, human subjectivity, intersubjectivity

From: Alexander Surmava (
Date: Sun Nov 06 2005 - 07:09:53 PST

Hi Steve and everybody,
Anna's article has provoked the XMCA community to a meaty discussion and
this alone is enough for us to appreciate Anna for her good work. I can add
that Anna Stetsenko displays great courage choosing one of the most
fundamental problems of CHAT as a subject of her criticism.
I agree with AS that if we really want to be guided by the approach
developed by Vygotsky and his followers, we must not just repeat their
classical definitions but develop and update them ourselves; especially
since neither Vygotsky, nor Leont'ev have left us an accomplished theory.
Vygotsky has made the first and the most difficult steps to Marxist,
dialectical psychology, but his bold attempt was interrupted by his untimely
death in the very beginning, he literally stopped in the middle of a
sentence. Leont'ev who succeeded him did his best to elaborate a consistent
activity theory, but at the end of his life publicly confessed (in "Home
discussion") that AT is still facing serious difficulties, that he say can't
explain how external activity transforms into internal activity. That frank
confession, more than anything else, testified to his high theoretical level
and his honesty as a researcher. Dealing with theoretical heritage of such a
high value we have to be accurate as we need to move CHAT approach forward
to the status of a consistent theory which will be more effective in diverse
forms of practice and escape the danger of losing the critical passion of
its core ideas.
I'll be frank, I find Anna's article extremely ambiguous, not to say
dangerous in the abovementioned meaning.
Anna pretends to fix certain gaps
                        "in initial formulations of activity theory (also
taken up by many followers of this school)" for the purpose to resolve them
and "to move to new levels of a consequentially materialist and
nonreductionist theory of human development that would not exclude human
subjectivity from the dialectical account of social life."
I fully agree with this statement. Let's see how she realizes her goal and
let's start with a short definition.
The principal distinction between materialism and idealism lies in what we
put as the starting point of our theoretical movement. Materialists try to
explain the most complex forms of objective reality starting from the idea
of a material Nature or substance as the only and fully all-sufficient basis
of existence and comprehension for all developed forms. Idealism finds this
task insoluble and puts forward some supplementary, extra principles like
"soul" or "spirit", "consciousness" or "will", "thinking" or "psyche",
"sensation", "creativity" or "socially organized experience" as equally
basic and substantial forms.
It's easy to see that the last sentence is simply a summary of Anna's
article. She only adds to the abovementioned list a new term "human
subjective ness" or "human subjectivity (in its various aspects)". It's
obvious that it ranks with the abovementioned terms being according to goals
of AS's article renamed from "psyche," "psychic reflection". Thus she starts
her movement "to new consequentially materialist. theory" from declaring a
consequentially idealist one.
Surely she repeatedly asserts that this human subjectivity is derivative
from human activity and social practice, but here we have to make things
1. If so called human subjective ness is an entirely derivative form in
relation to the object related activity, if it is not a causa sui but only a
modus of object related activity then Anna is pushing against an open door
(with her extra principle) and doesn't add any novelty to classical AT. It
is awkward to recall that a development in dialectical tradition was never
understood as being derived solely from material activity, but we are
dealing with real (not only formal) development when a social (derivative)
form turns into active form, itself a form that actively reshapes its own
material basis. That is an old and well known dialectical principle and all
the classics of CHAT knew it well enough. So, if Anna's "human subjective
ness" is an entirely derivative principle (from the object related activity)
we are staying in old good AT. But the content (I mean something relatively
novel) of her article disappears before our eyes as morning fog under the
2. If not, if her new principle comprehends at the slightest degree as causa
sui or a substance (I mean as something containing all its casualty inside
its own realm), if she supposes that there is any side or feature of "human
subjective ness" which cannot be derived from object oriented activity and
has its own independent background, we are immediately leaving even
inconsequential materialism, and as it plays a principal role for CHAT
theory, we leave CHAT itself.
Anna indicates that
                        "a broad-and powerfully materialist-formulation is
clearly emphasizing a one-sided dependence of human subjectivity on the
processes of material production (especially in A.N.Leont'ev's works) and on
associated societal forms of exchange between people (especially in
Vygotsky's works). Namely, human subjectivity is conceptualized as
originating from, and subordinate to, the collective exchanges and material
Here she should better say IN besides AND because concerning so-called
"societal (why not social?) form of exchange," Anna repeats the same blunder
as with "human subjective ness". Social relations according to Marxist (and
CHAT) tradition have to be comprehended as derivative forms from human's
material production of their life. So we can hardly estimate "the collective
exchanges and material production" as two-fold system of interactions. Even
less we can adopt her further argumentation.
                        "This formulation is lacking one important idea that
was implicitly present in Marx's works-the idea that in human history there
exists not only an interdependence and co-evolution of the material
production on the one hand, and the societal (i.e., collective,
inter-subjective) forms of life, on the other."
Here we again meet with a serious error. "Social" (I don't know anything
about a "societal") in Marx doesn't mean collective or inter-subjective.
Thus a human personality for each of CHAT founders was an individual,
non-collective phenomena and at the same time 100% social in essence. As for
Marx's comprehension of subjective ness we will discuss it a little later.
                        "One other aspect of human life also co-evolves
together with these two processes."
"These two processes" are presenting a good example of false abstractions
just like Cartesian two substances. "Material production" at least human
"material production" can't be imagined in abstraction from society. So it
doesn't need to be completed with another abstraction of the same false sort
as "societal ness" interpreted in abstraction both from material production
and from human subjective ness."
                        Namely, the subjective mechanisms allowing for
individual participation in collective processes of material production are
also implicated in the functioning of what essentially is a unified
three-fold system of interactions. That is, the idea that still needs to be
spelled out is that all three processes at the very foundation of human life
and development-the material production of tools, the social exchanges among
people, and the individual mechanisms regulating this production and these
exchanges-all co-evolve, interpenetrating and influencing each other, never
becoming completely detached or independent from each other."
Under dialectical logic to understand something we have to move, to ascend
from abstract to concrete, tracing the development of a single germ cell to
the reach the variety of mature, developed forms. This way is rather
difficult as it requires us to find in the very reality the notorious germ
cell and then follow it in its fully contradictory path of development. The
contradiction itself is something hardly endurable which demands from an
investigator all his intellectual as well as moral resources. Much easier as
well as nonproductive way is to multiply initial principles or germ cells.
Here AS follows VPZ, who is trying to invent a substantially new CHAT
liberated from Marxism, and by no means after LSV, ANL or EVI.
But what about the principle of subjective ness as such?
The most curious is that a principle of activity, or more precisely the
principle of object determined activity or principle of "predmetness,"
doesn't need to be enriched by Anna's newly invented principle of human
subjectivity especially since the principle of activity and the principle of
subject ness (in a case of animals and human beings it appears in it more
developed form as principle of subjective ness) one and the same principle
for Il'enkov, as well as for ANL and LSV.
The second curious detail is that both AS and Lois are quite right
connecting the human possibility to change a world with his/her
subjectivity, but what kind of subjectivity they are going to deal with: an
abstract subjective ness well-founded in a). human soul (Farewell to LSV,
ANL, EVI) or b). in human's physiology (Farewell to LSV, ANL, EVI as well),
both listed variants are leading us back at best to Piaget or Freud with
their autistic subject adversarial to a misunderstood and aggressive outer
world. The alternative choice is a subjective ness interpret as a form of
human object determined activity.
Let's recall the first thesis on Feuerbach:
                        1. The main defect of all hitherto-existing
materialism - that of Feuerbach included - is that the Object [der
Gegenstand], actuality, sensuousness, are conceived only in the form of the
object [Objekts], or of contemplation [Anschauung], but not as human
sensuous activity, practice [Praxis], not subjectively. Hence it happened
that the active side, in opposition to materialism, was developed by
idealism - but only abstractly, since, of course, idealism does not know
real, sensuous activity as such. Feuerbach wants sensuous objects [Objekte],
differentiated from thought-objects, but he does not conceive human activity
itself as objective [gegenstandliche] activity. In The Essence of
Christianity [Das Wesen des Christenthums], he therefore regards the
theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is
conceived and defined only in its dirty-Jewish form of appearance
[Erscheinungsform]. Hence he does not grasp the significance of
'revolutionary', of 'practical-critical', activity.
Here is the answer to the discussed problem.
Let's try to expound the process of genesis of subjectivity.
First of all we have to recall three logical as well as natural historical
stages of development of Nature, I mean mechanism, chemism and organism.
>From the logical point of view there is only three stages, three levels in
organization of interaction: the mechanism, the chemism and the organism.
Modern Physics as a science is not equal to mechanism. (Newtonian Physics
Logically the essence of mechanical type of interaction characterized by
principal symmetry. I mean that in mechanical interaction anything interacts
with everything. And we can't distinguish the acting side from passive one.
In chemism the interaction remains symmetrical; we still can't point the
active side of interaction. But now one (chemically) interacts only with the
specific "partner" in Hegelian terms called "it's own other" (svoye -
inoye). For example an acid can chemically interact only with an alkalis or
metals. Otherwise the interaction will have only mechanic character.
But the most advanced, the highly organized type of interaction is organic
type. Here and now we can and have to distinguish acting side = "subject"
and passive side "predmet". In contrast to mechanism and chemism living
subject needs in specific interaction partner not only to have a possibility
to manifest its specific (mechanical or chemical) qualities, but to remain a
living subject.
So the subject ness appears on the stage with the life as its essential
Surely when we deal with an abstract life we haven't any reason to identify
this subject ness with subjective ness or psyche. On this stage we meet with
subject ness "in itself".
The next stage is the transition to the specific form of object directed
activity characterized for multi-cellular animals. Here we meet with
reflexive form of object directed activity, a psyche or subject ness "for
Finally, only in human history the subject ness can transform itself into
the highest form which possesses a logical form "in and for itself" which
means that the very subjective ness starts to be a subject for itself and
thus liberates itself from any external boundaries, comes to real self
I want to underline that this third and highest stage is not a gift from on
high. That is something that mankind and each of us has to win in our
permanent historical struggle with overwhelming forces of Nature and with
alienated forces of mankind itself.
To win in this severe competition with ourselves (we keep in mind that
Nature as well as historically developing and inevitably imperfect society -
are a human itself) we have to understand ourselves (in both Natural and
social dimensions). And to realize this task we need to comprehend an
objective truth. That's why I can hardly agree with Lois in her statement:
                        "I don't think of Vygotsky's search for method as a
search for truth, but as a step in the process of changing the world."
Here some extra comments are necessary.
Nowadays the very idea of searching for a truth is unpopular. The idea of
absolute truth is usually associated with unilateral and obstinate dogmatism
and as a sole alternative to dogmatism a total relativism is expanding.
Meanwhile in classical philosophy, I mean in the very philosophy which armed
Vygotsky and his followers the philosophy marked by names of Plato,
Aristotle, Spinoza, Hegel, Marx and Il'enkov, the absolute truth is not
only a cause for being horrified but a sharp dialectical instrument. It's
inappropriate to continue this argumentation so I'll add only that Vygotsky
himself can't be understood properly from the relativistic stance. To prove
it one has just to cast a glance into his "Historical meaning."
He regarded his investigations as a search of truth and was certain of
feasibility of this mission as a necessary condition of liberation of a
human, of transformation them into real subjects.
I'll repeat that we can try to approach to the problem of real subjective
ness from two opposite directions. We can depart the stage of CHAT
reproaching it with the lack of interest in subjective ness and simply
postulate it as something substantial, something independent from object
determined activity power. In this case all complaints against the
insufficient ness of real subjective ness we'll be able to bring only for
Nature or God.
On the contrary if we are regarding a subject ness as a historically
developing essence and without a blinkers of political correctness, are
looking at the actual state of affairs as for instance that in modern
society the intellectual, ideal and material work is divided among different
persons and the very subjectivity of a human being is substantially
suppressed and distorted by the great amount of alienated social forces like
School for the masses, Mass media and advertisement then the hope for better
future still emerges.
Finally I anyway want again to appreciate Anna's work for its stimulating
role of our discussion.

-----Original Message-----
From: [] On
Behalf Of Steve Gabosch
Sent: Saturday, November 05, 2005 8:26 PM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: Re: [xmca] Stetsenko- Material practice, human

The xmca discussion of Anna Stetsenko's paper shows this paper to be
highly stimulating for discussing and possibly re-thinking the basic
concepts of CHAT. Things that especially impress me about this paper
as a stimulus for advancing CHAT's theoretical work include its
affirmation of the basic Marxist sociological and philosophical
premises at the foundation of CHAT, its applications of the principle
of object-relatedness to all levels of activity, its criticism of
gaps in the previous work of CHAT theorists and researchers, and its
pointing toward a new materialist ontology of subjectivity that
emphasizes the role of human subjectivity in human activities.

As I see it, what is precisely new and potentially path-changing in
this paper are two core ideas. In core idea one, AS advocates
accurately seeing the co-evolutionary, interpenetrating, mutually
influencing, and dialectically connected character ... of the cause
and effect relationships among three emergent levels (my term) of
regulatory mechanisms that she identifies human labor and activity as
generating - (in my terms) socio-economic processes, socio-cultural
activity, and subjectivity. Saying this core idea again because it
is in some ways a major leap in conceptualization, human activity is
conceptualized by Stetsenko as a generator of increasingly complex
levels of regulatory mechanisms that are intrinsically interconnected
and co-developing - namely, the socio-economic, the socio-cultural,
and the subjective. In core idea two, she elevates the idea of
object-relatedness to a foundational principle of CHAT and advocates
applying this principle to all three of these levels of human
activity to explore how they interpenetrate and co-evolve. Her
criticisms of Vygotsky, Leont'ev, Ilyenkov and trends within CHAT in
general, and her suggestions for improving the CHAT research project,
illustrate how she sees her ontological outlook being applied, and
how past CHAT efforts in specific ways fell short of their potential
because the ontological outlooks they employed were incomplete and

But if this new ontological conceptualization makes new demands on
what and how CHAT should be researching human activity, then,
conversely, there are also high demands on this restructured CHAT
ontology to deliver the goods. One place it may need to begin would
be to produce convincing empirical evidence for the existence, nature
and interconnectedness of these levels of "regulatory mechanisms"
(keeping in mind BTW Bill's wise caution that the term "mechanism" is
a reductionist metaphor - which raises the question, just what is a
"regulatory mechanism"?). Another beginning place is meeting the
necessary challenge of developing practical applications that flow
from this increased ontological understanding of how these levels of
human activity work together. And then there is the challenge of
reviewing previous research work in the CHAT tradition with these new
lenses, looking for deeper insights than previously possible. In the
same vein, if CHAT is destined to give birth to a general psychology
that can unify the science of human subjectivity and human activity
as a whole - as Vygotsky hoped - then AS's suggested improvements to
the conceptualizations employed by CHAT should contribute to better
explanations of research work from many other schools of psychology
in ways not as possible for CHAT researchers before.

I see Anna Stetsenko's paper as an exciting step forward toward
meeting these historic challenges.

- Steve

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