RE: [xmca] Helena's view of Andy's paper

From: <ERIC.RAMBERG who-is-at>
Date: Sun Jan 06 2008 - 09:22:19 PST


It does appear to be the consensus that idiographic/nomothetic distinctions
are not of much use to those researchers who focus their lens on societal
issues. I believe it to be more specific to the clinical psychological
realm. Thank you for your thoughtful response.

      To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <>
      Subject: RE: [xmca] Helena's view of Andy's paper
"Worthen, Helena Harlow" <>
Sent by:
01/06/2008 09:54 AM
Please respond to "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <font


I did not come out of a educational background that immersed me in the kind
of theory. My work is very practical. However, I have to use theories in
order to get anything done, and CHAT and Activity Theory and the
sociocultural approach generally work for me in ways that other theoretical
approaches simply do not. I look around in these theoretical discussions
like someone who is cooking looks for utensils or someone who is preparing
a legal brief looks for precedents and arguments. The question of what the
unit of analysis is is very important to me, for example -- because when I
encounter a complex situation, for example, a group of nurses who have, as
a result of a bad decision by the National Labor Relations Board, have been
re-classified as supervisors and lost their memberhsip in a bargaining unit
with the union protections that go along with that, and therefore become
"at will" employees -- I need to be able to discern what is going on. What
is the unit of analysis there? What is the activity system?

Note that I said "group." The collective subject is important to me, too,
since workers' rights are collective rights. This means I'm not so
interested in figuring out a way to envision an individual as a unit of

There has to be something like a rubber band between the actions I take
while doing labor education (whether it's teaching classes, doing research
or helping someone one-on-one who is in a bad employment situation or in a
bad union) and the theory that I go to to use for doing something. I go
back and forth, back and forth,with the reality testing the theory and the
theory testing the reality, all the time.If the theory doesn't help, I
don't use it. If the theory doesn't help, (if the rubber band snaps) I
don't use it.

Given the extreme practicality of what I need theories for, there are some
concepts that just don't help me much. Idiographic/nomothetic is one. I
have no idea what that means. I know there was some discussion on xmca
about it, but I skimmed it. Also, purely theoretical discussion that
appears to swim deeper and deeper into theory rather than connecting back
across the wall between theory and everyday reality does not help me.

Does this mean I'm sloppy and content with any "good enough" theory that
will fry eggs for me? You know, like the concept of a "good enough" mother?
I don't think so. I think the test of a good theory is its use as a tool --
as part of an activity system, maybe one of the cultural artefacts that
Andy talks about.


From: [] On Behalf
Of []
Sent: Wednesday, January 02, 2008 12:04 PM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: [xmca] Helena's view of Andy's paper

Very thoughtful post Helena:

You have provided me with great understanding of what andy's thesis
represents. I agree his thinking enriches CHAT but I too get lost in the
ethereal of his musings : ) My critique of his theory not presenting
both an idiographic/nomothetic methodology of psychological investigation
has been stymied by Andy claiming such a critique is a dichotomy and that
he disavows dichotomies. Any thoughts on this issue?


"Worthen, Helena
Harlow" To: ""
<>, "eXtended Mind,
<hworthen@ad.uiu Culture, Activity" <>> cc:
Sent by: Subject: RE: [xmca] Subject: Verb, Object

12/29/2007 07:37
Please respond
to "eXtended
Mind, Culture,

Hello --

I want to join in with some thoughts on Andy's paper. I've actually read it
about 3 times and came away with such different thoughts each time that I
kept losing confidence that I understood what he was getting at.

I really need some empirical content in a paper like this. When a paper is
entirely theoretical, I am always asking what a real-life example of
something would be. This slows me down and distracts me and I'm always
having to correct myself.

But here is what I see, on the third try:

The actual problem is the postmodern condition, which Andy describes (p.
262) as "There is no identification of the person with the state, or with
society as a whole or even a class...The endpoint of development is an
anomic individual who does not see in any institution a representation of
their own identity and aspiration."

This is a description of a "subject" (in the sense of an individual) that
is locked out of culture and society. Locked out whether he is a free agent
acting on society or a totally determined product of society. This is the
problem where the paper begins.

To liberate this "anomic individual", Andy goes back to the foundations of
CHAT and finds three trichotomies: The CHAT trichotomy (the
individual/collective subject, culture and society); Hegel's trichotomy of
the Individual, Particular and Universal, and Vygotsky's individual person,
element of culture, and activity or material practice.

Then he proposes a new trichotomy as the unit of analysis: this one is the
individual, culture and society, all of which is the subject. Andy says
that the unit of analysis is "the activity of individual human beings
utilizing artifacts as a means of collaborating with (or fighting with) one
another (p. 256 in MCA). I'm not sure how this differs from the unit of
analysis that Jim Wertsch talks about in Vygotsky and the Social Formation
of Mind, quoting Leont'ev (p. 203 -- "the nonadditive, molar unit of
life....the unit of life that is mediated by mental reflection") or
Zinchenko ("tool mediated action" - Wertsch p.205). I don't see these as
inconsistent with each other. This doesn't bother me -- they enrich each

But two other pieces of Andy's paper catch my eye. One is the suggestion
that the commodification of parts of the trichotomy is a way to understand
the paralysis (anomie?) of the individual in postmodern society. This makes
sense to me. Think of how the price of access to cultural artifacts
determines who can use them. I pay $110 per month for my cellphone/internet
package in Illinois -- how many people can afford that? But that's a key
artifact with which I engage with my family and my social world. This is
like the price of accessing myself. Within the subject, as Andy proposes
it, commodification has intervened to set prices and manage exchanges. Kids
in rich schools do business plans in math class; kids in poor schools get
farmed out to "work" trade shows as "interns" -- I'm not kidding. I can
think of more examples of ways that the essential mediating artifacts of
culture shape people's activity through their commodification.

The second is about the view through the scope of Andy's trichotomic unit
of analysis, individual-culture-society. When all three lenses are lined up
so that there is one sightline from the individual through what culture is
available to him (or can be created by him) into the landscape of society
where he is engaged, it sounds like an adequate description of or account
of consciousness. We are also shown how sharply different the possibilities
are for different people and how stark are the differences between what is
supposed to be out there and what is actually experienced. These are both
important aspects of consciousness. This seems like something we could come
back to.

But I don't accept Andy's view of the world today as adequately described
by the capitalist postmodern condition. I would say that some -- possibly
many -- experience their lives that way. I have in my files a handwritten
10-page autobiography of a young black man who was a death row prisoner in
Texas, whose story is "I was in the wrong car with the wrong person at the
wrong time." He died of AIDS before his execution date. Looking out (via
his autobiography) through the three lenses of Andy's trichotomic unit of
analysis, you'd have to say he saw nowhere "in any institution a
representation of [his] own identity and aspiration."

But just as Andy re-enacts the Battle of Hastings every time he chooses an
Anglo-Saxon or Latin word in speaking English, every time someone clocks in
at work or cashes a paycheck (or accepts cash under the table), he
re-enacts the transition from feudalism to capitalism (or the French
revolution, or the Flint sit-down, take your pick). It's not surrender,
it's re-enactment. If you keep in mind that resistance, criticism and
struggle are also engagement, identity and aspiration, then you don't need
to unseat postmodernity as the framing context. We can still use the three
lenses of individual-culture-society as the subject as a unit of analysis
that enables us to approach consciousness.

Helena Worthen, Clinical Associate Professor
Labor Education Program, Institute of Labor & Industrial Relations
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
504 E. Armory, Room 227
Champaign, IL 61821
Phone: 217-244-4095

-----Original Message-----
From: [] On
Behalf Of Mike Cole
Sent: Saturday, December 29, 2007 4:02 PM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: Re: [xmca] Subject: Verb, Object

Leontiev, you mean, Peg. And in the book that David K was reading last time
(My spelling is attributable to the use of the "whole word" method of
reading instruction and perhaps
to the fact that I am left handed. Glad it also pushes at the
skill/knowledge issue as a bonus.

I picked on the same phrase Peg did, but mostly the firs part where you ask
the question of whether
the object of activity can be defined in advance. This sparked two
lines of thought. First,
that Yrjo speaks of the object of activity always being over the horizon.
Which is related to a line from
Tennyson's Ulysees quoted by Dewey:

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.I take this metaphor to include listening
to what other's say and seeing where it leads,
and to point to a process in time (a developmental process?) by which a
merely understandable
motive (having been imagined by others who describe it to you) and a
effective" motive,
e.g., one that now guides your action and its (future) direction.

It also fits with an understanding of the ideal and material aspects of
objects being wildly interwoven.


On Dec 29, 2007 8:05 AM, Peg Griffin <> wrote:

> Interesting work, Andy, thanks for what you have done and pointing to
> is yet to be done!
> I am particularly moved to reply to a little point at the end with a
> question. When discussing immanent critique, you write "But I think we
> can't
> define the "object" of activity in advance. To start with, we have to
> it as a whole. We have to listen to what subjects say and accept to a
> certain extent what they say the object is, and see where it leads."
> Here is my question: Do you see here any connection with Leonie's
> distinction and relation between "really effective" and "merely
> understood"
> motives?
> PG
> -----Original Message-----
> From: [] On
> Behalf Of Andy Blunden
> Sent: Friday, December 28, 2007 6:14 PM
> To:; eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
> Subject: Re: [xmca] Subject: Verb, Object
> That remark is really to signal that I don't as yet have a worked-out
> response to the issues David has been raising in relation to ANL's
> of "activity" only some criticisms of my own. But at the moment, I
> that "immanent critique" holds the key. Here is how I understand the idea
> of "immanent critique".
> "Immanent critique" was first developed by Hegel in his Phenomenology.
> See
> where Hegel explains it. The Phenomenology is the canonical example of
> "immanent critique". Hegel does not back sit back and look at the various
> forms of consciousness which have succeeded one another in history, and
> "criticise" tehm from his own superior point of view, but "enters into"
> them, adopts and follows their logic and asks questions of a way of
> thinking from its own standpoint. That is, he follows the path of its own
> critique, until the "ideology" itself leads to an impasse. Subsequently,
> sometimes after an interval, sometimes directly arising from the
> self-scepticism, a new way of thinking arises, which is able to cope with
> or avoid the contradictions into which the previous one fell. And so the
> process goes on. Americans will recognise shades of Thomas Kuhn here, and
> we should all recognise Marx's obsession with political economy. (For
> example, if you look at how capital worked up until 1883, i.e. before
> Taylor's experiments in scientific management, you will see that Marx's
> concept of value was just how capitalists worked. Taylor made a critique
> of
> this business of lengthening the working day and keeping wages down. Marx
> was following capital's own critique, but he died in 1883 and his
> followers
> didn't know what to do next)
> So "immanent critique" means critiquing an object by following its own
> logic:
> "So my friend you say that ..., so doesn't that mean that ... and
> didn't you say you were against that?"
> What does it mean to say that social psychology should adopt "immanent
> critique" as an approach to defining the subject-object relation and its
> concept of "activity"? Well, as I said, this is work in progress, OK? But
> we have to see a subject (its opinions, its strengths, its psychoses, its
> "standpoint", its identity, etc.) as one of many or several possible
> subjects which are part and parcel of a certain way of life. The activity
> which a subject is involved in is defined *by the subject* (and to a
> certain extent vice versa) and becomes something else as a result of the
> working out of that system of activity (and the subject's own critique of
> it).
> So for example, the subject might say "I am a tradesperson. Everyone will
> always need a plumber. I don't have to beg for my money. These
> paper-pushers could disappear tomorrow and we wouldn't miss them ...etc
> etc" - the collected prejudices of a randomly chosen figure in our
> society.
> He is involved in the practice of a trade which guarantees her a
> respectable living standard. The question is, how do contradictions arise
> in *that* way of thinking as the trade become more and more one of
> plugging
> in integrated components, work that can be done by a kid, but work
> requires the use of all sorts of computers, etc., etc., and altogether
> the assumptions his or her way of life is predicated on change. ...
> I am only guessing with the above. But I think we can't define the
> "object"
> of activity in advance. To start with, we have to take it as a whole. We
> have to listen to what subjects say and accept to a certain extent what
> they say the object is, and see where it leads.
> Andy
> At 10:09 AM 28/12/2007 -0800, you wrote:
> >I follow you right up to the last paragraph in this note, Andy, where
> >write:
> >
> >I want to go back to Hegel methodologically and work on the claim that
> >*immanent* critique of the categories of activity is the only viable
> >approach. Otherwise, we are just pulling pre-determined categories out
> >our own heads. The latter is the usual approach in my view.
> >
> >Probably this means that I need to go back and read your article more
> >carefully.
> >What is an *immanent" critique?
> >
> >mike
> >
> >On Dec 27, 2007 2:35 PM, Andy Blunden <> wrote:
> >
> > > Re Leontyev's concept of "activity'. I wanted to leave this to a kind
> of
> > > "stage two" but since I want to use a category of activity too I have
> to
> > > get to it.
> > >
> > > So far as I can see, for ANL, "activity" is paradigmatically but not
> > > exclusively the "external" activity, of an individual organism. So it
> is
> > > the same category of "activity" as Fichte used in his critique of
> Kant,
> > > which Hegel picks up on. And for ANL it is "instrumental" to use
> Mike's
> > > word (instrumental allows the object to be another subject, treated
> an
> > > object though), or "purposive", though I think inclusive of
> or
> > > non-conscious components of the actions. So it must be very similar
> the
> > > category of "practice" insofar as theory and practice are
> differentiated.
> > >
> > > The problem comes for me when you have to get "stuck into" this
> category
> > > and work out the appropriate way of elaborating the various *forms*
> > > activity. With some good reason, ANL I think moves to a Marxist
> paradigm
> > > of
> > > "mode of production", practice-as-labour, in order to mobilise a
> series
> of
> > > categories through which activity can be grasped. This leads to the
> > > problem
> > > that David identified, namely, that the dichotomy between labour and
> > > communication is a false one. In fact this dichotomy has caused havoc
> in
> > > the whole stream of Cultural Psychology over the past 200 years, from
> > > Hegel
> > > to Marx to CHAT to contemporary contintental philosophy. Hegel
> the
> > > paradigm of labour in favour of a paradigm of critique around 1805,
> the
> > > same time as he adopted a monological concept of Spirit. Marx
> to
> > > a
> > > paradigm of labour in 1844. Then in the anti-Marxist tide of the
> post-WW2
> > > period everyone from French philosophers to critical theorists
> abandoned
> > > labour for communication as the paradigm. Some also turn to aesthetic
> > > acitivity as the paradigm (subject-object, subject-other or
> subject-self
> > > are the three possible relations here).
> > >
> > > It seemed to me that the position of LSV which I so valued was that
> > > held that it was the WHOLE of social practice (not just labour), and
> the
> > > WHOLE of culture (not just means of production) which were the
> operative
> > > concepts for psychology.
> > >
> > > The problem remains though, if we are not to simply adopt and take
> over
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