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

From: Ana Marjanovic-Shane (
Date: Sun Nov 06 2005 - 23:05:53 PST

Dear all,
discussion of Anna Stetsenko's paper looks like it is going in circles.
Sasha Surmava rises a set of very critical questions, critical of the
arguments that Stetsenko is making in her paper. This critique is in a
way very similar to Andy Blunden's one -- they look more like Sasha's
own fights with some assumptions, that are not actually in Stetsenko's
paper, or are also explicitly discussed and also rejected in her paper.
The main struggle here seems to be around the concept of subject: or
"subjective ness" and/or "subject ness". Sasha sharply criticizes AS for

"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."

In other words -- he implies that AS has not moved forward in developing
CHAT, but that she actually revoked "principles" of materialist
philosophy in order to introduce or reintroduce a non-materialist, an
philosophically rejected idealist principles. (read the whole discussion

However, I have not seen Stetsenko's arguments in that light at all. In
fact I have seen them as being exactly consistent with the philosophical
principles and assumptions of materialist dialectics. For instance she
says that "human subjectivity is revealed as existing only within the
broader processes of ever expanding and ultimately practical activities
that are stretching both "behind" and "ahead" of human subjectivity (and
therefore, co-evolving and co-dependent with them). Human subjectivity
then ultimately appears as just another form of participating and
contributing to social practice, of changing and advancing this
practice, and thus, as the form that realizes practical ties of humans
to themselves, to other people, and to their world." She then goes on to
add that "Psychological processes need to be conceptualized as phenomena
that never belong to some separate mental realm. Psychological processes
need to be conceptualized as actions, and not in the classical Piagetian
sense of mental acting, but as object-related actions out in the world,
making a difference in the world and participating in its construction
and development."

Stetsenko's argument and its concrete illustrations seem to me very
grounded in reality and material existence of real, tangible issues and
conflicts. In fact, I find it in some way much more idealist to talk
about activity as a social practice without subjects, or people who
carry out that practice -- as it seems to me to be Surmava's arguments
against "human subjectivity" as "soul" or "spirit" or "will"... etc.

I also think that Anna Stetsenko was not trying to "entirely derive"
human subjectivity from the object related activity in the sense that
Surmava is implying -- i.e. "that the content of her article disappears
before our eyes as morning fog under the sun." The issue of human
subjectivity, of the nature of the "psyche", of "individuals" or
sometimes mentioned as "agents" and their difference from the other
elements of the CHAT model has often surfaced as an issue and a problem
in CHAT. In fact, I think that she was trying to stress the human side
of the CHAT and give a stronger meaning to the personal, subjective and
individual products and processes than it was ordinarily been a practice
among CHAT theorists. And the reason to introduce (or reintroduce) human
subjectivity into the model of CHAT is not only to recognize it as a
distinct product and a specific form of activity itself, but rather to
recognize its role in creating a dialectical relationship between
various aspects of the social material production. So it seems to me
that human subjectivity is not just some "end product" that can be
entirely explained and derived from the "object related activity", but
that Anna Stetsenko was introducing a very essential link in the
explanation of precisely "object related activity".

These posts are getting longer and longer and are very hard to follow.
So I will stop here and repeat my remark from the beginning: Surmava's
critique of Stetsenko's paper, does not look like plausible: the
assumptions he is criticizing are not the assumptions that Anna is
assumes at all.

There is, however, something that I just could not understand in
Surmava's post, and that is his last paragraph that I quote here again:

"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 than the hope for better
future still emerges."

I am not sure what Sasha is trying to say here. I do not understand from
it what exactly is he referring to as the reason to feel the hole for
the better future. Please, Sasha elaborate on this point!!

Ana Marjanovic-Shane

Alexander Surmava wrote:

>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
>it's 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 production."
>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
>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
>"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" (svoje -
>inoje). 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 it's 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 independent from object determined activity power
>or substance. In this case all complaints against the insufficient ness of
>real subjective ness we'll can 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 than 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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Ana Marjanovic-Shane

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