Re: [xmca] Self-Introduction and comment on Sawchuk/Stetsenko

From: Derek Melser <derek.melser who-is-at>
Date: Wed Dec 10 2008 - 20:26:46 PST

[XMCA] Steve, Andy,

Thanks for your responses. I will respond to the questions (some of them) in
reverse order.

I have not related the mirror neurons findings to Vygotsky's work on
imitation, mainly because of the amount of interesting new research being
done in this field. For me the most exciting finding is that of Nagy and
Molnar (2004):


N&M demonstrate that infants can, within hours (even minutes) of birth, not
only imitate simple actions (including facial expressions) as famously shown
by Meltzoff and Moore 1981, but also perform actions in such a way as to
actively solicit imitation of them by the observer. This shows, I think,
that the foundational social ability is not just imitation, but something
much more like my *concerted* activity. Newborns want to be imitated as much
as they want to imitate; they want to perform actions together with others.

  Steve, you say that "The classic behaviorist position [is] that there is
really no such thing as consciousness at all" and you suspect this may be my
view. My view is that consciousness being conscious or self-aware in the
act of doing something (including being self-aware in the act of perceiving
something) and thinking are very real indeed. But I say that consciousness
and thinking are actions, actions that children have to learn how to
perform. Consciousness and thinking are species of activity basically, as
Vygotsky says, species of concerted activity that the child learns to
perform, in abbreviated or 'token' form, on his or her own.

I also heed Wittgenstein's warnings about the power of everyday figurative
expressions (and especially nominalised verbs used in conjunction with
metaphor) to mislead. The use of 'mind' and 'subjectivity' as nouns implies
that there are entities existing apart from, and over and above, these
actions (such as being conscious of things, thinking, imagining, etc.) that
we perform, and are aware of performing, and see others performing, in the
everyday world. The use of these terms as nouns also due to their
inveterate association with metaphors of internality or inner-ness implies
that there is something essentially private about consciousness and
thinking. Certainly, someone's being conscious of something or their
thinking about something may be private in the sense that you can't see them
doing it. But that is just the way with these 'abbreviated' or 'token' or
'minimally rehearsed' actions. Basically, consciousness and thinking remain
public in the sense that anyone, given similar circumstances, would be
conscious of that little piece of bird shit on the windscreen. Anyone, in
those circumstances, would become conscious that they are walking a little
faster than necessary. Any uniqueness in 'individual consciousness' reflects
neither more nor less than uniqueness of the person's circumstances at the
time. If this is behaviourism (I think it's miles different) then it isn't
classic behaviourism, surely.

When you say, Steve, that CHAT needs to "sufficiently account for the
productive role of individual subjectivity in the activity cycle", are you
suggesting there is a need to account for the contributions that
individuals' thinking can make to discussions prior to collective action? If
so, and disregarding the fact that discussions are, ideally,
*constituted*by thought-out individual contributions, I agree. With
knobs on. For me, the
role of individuals' thinking is hugely important in cultural activity in
practically all areas.

I confess to being almost completely ignorant of sociology though I have
been delighted by long passages in Durkheim so my contribution will be
vanishingly small here. I would say though, that my concerted activity
theory could provide a philosophical foundation for sociology. Given that
people have a native ability to act in concert (which Nagy and Molnar seem
to have shown), it is relatively simple to go on to show how the other forms
of cultural activity solo action, cooperation (= concerting with division
of labour) and objective activity (exploitative, aggressive activity)
might have derived from prototype action in concert. Albeit objective
activity is more a travesty or pathology of concerted activity than an
intelligent adaptation of it.

My lack of interest in the historical is merely a reflection of my chosen
field of interest: namely, the prehistoric and modern-child-developmental
foundations of cultural activity, rather than its ten millenia or so of
historical (post-settlement, adult) adaptations. I am more interested in how
people can think at all, and in exactly what kind of activity thinking is,
than how their thinking is affected by their practical and cultural

  Andy, I realise that anyone as sensitive as I am to the misleading
reification of actions and activity (and actional concepts generally) must
expect a little boisterous chaffing. You are not alone in your sentiments
read Fred Adams' review of my book in *Mind. * I could reply in kind:
I could say I'll show you my subjectivity if you'll show me yours... No? Too
private? And so on. But I will instead attempt a brief explanation of my
coming out with such wacky statements.

I believe that people's actions and activities are not susceptible to
objective (e.g., scientific) scrutiny in the way that natural phenomena are.
There is an exactly parallel argument in Ilyenkov relating to the difference
in our manner of perceiving of man-made vs. natural objects, but I will
stick to my one about our perceptions of activity, because I think the
situation is simpler with regard to actions. Here goes. Our primary recourse
when witnessing others' actions is empathy. We imagine performing that
action ourselves and we organise our perceptions of what we are seeing in
accord with the action we are imagining performing. Empathy is incipient, or
(better) inhibited acting in concert with the other. Empathy is essential
not only for understanding others' actions, but for identifying them. It is
essential, in fact, for perceiving them at all.

So what? Well, empathy happens to be explicitly antithetical to the kind of
objectivity that is integral in the scientific method. If you view actions
objectively (in terms of macrophysiological activity of homo sapiens, or
whatever) the action simply disappears. It is not accessible to an objective
view. Only fellow-performers or would-be fellow-performers of action X, only
people with the right know-how, are capable of seeing, identifying and
understanding person P performing action X. [P happens to be engaged in
tidying up the facial expression on his drawing of Mickey Mouse. In the
ontology of what science does 'Mickey Mouse' feature?] Basically, to
understand everyday actions, a scientist has to take off his white coat and
become an everyday citizen.

Unfortunately, empathic knowledge (although it is obviously just as
important as objective knowledge) is not as susceptible to verbal
communication as objective knowledge is. Therefore, when we are talking
about actions, to give us the impression at least of the kind of ease we
have in talking about objects, we tend to objectify actions. We talk about
actions as if they were things in the world. We use the gerund instead of
the infinitive, we nominalise verbs, we cement the nominalisation with
sympathetic metaphors and thus reify the action or activity in question. It
may sound bizarre that we do all these things, that we use these rhetorical
dodges in everyday speech, but we do Andy, we do. We like to conceive of
actions and activities in terms of things, we define them with reference to
things relevant to them. We mythologise actions (such as thinking) by
inventing supernatural agents or mechanisms (the mind) and attributing the
action in question to their machinations.

OK, so some reifications society, football, language, natation, sex,
labour, alienation, reification, the world are indispensable for everyday
purposes. And it sounds funny, wacky, when you try to do without them, or
say they are not really the names of things, when you mean that the
underlying reality is an actional one, not any kind of object. For my part I
say, for everyday purposes, let the mind metaphors thrive. But if you want
to establish a serious, disciplined, theoretical, generalising-type study of
people's activity, especially their joint activity, their cultural activity,
you must first be aware of the multifarious colloquial ways we have of
objectifying activity, and the metaphors which 'corroborate' these
objectifyings and which further confuse our perception of the underlying
activity. Then you must be prepared to dispense with these rhetorical
devices because after all you want yours to be a disciplined study. And
finally you confront the fact that our knowledge of actions and activities
is primarily empathic, that, ultimately, we cannot specify activity except
by demonstration. What we are interested in and fair enough, too is
something that we ourselves do. So you have to take the white coat off to
see it.

Anyone want to dance with me on this one?


2008/12/11 Steve Gabosch <>

> Welcome to xmca, Derek. I took a peek at your website - really nice job.
> There really are a lot of valuable resources there, such as the links. I
> had not seen the Vygotsky site at which is
> awesome and there is lots more. A quick browse of your Vygotsky on Thinking
> essay and biblio shows how seriously you have been studying "CHAT"
> literature in your work.
> Your theory of "token concerting" is interesting. Recent (not that recent
> anymore, I guess) research on mirror neurons would seem to strongly
> underscore that conception. How have you related this to Vygotsky's
> discussions of imitation?
> Btw, the position Stetsenko (2005) takes is that Leontiev's account of
> activity did not sufficiently account for the productive role of individual
> subjectivity in the activity cycle, but that CHAT needs to do so. The
> classic behaviorist position that there is really no such thing as
> consciousness at all seems to have little to offer this kind of inquiry,
> which is chasing that imaginary ghost, the "psyche." To the extent you have
> that perspective, when reading authors like Sawchuk and Stetsenko, and
> perhaps Vygotskyists in general, you must sometimes feel like an atheist in
> a Bible study group! LOL
> What I find most powerful about CHAT is its high level of consciousness
> about methodology, always seeking to avoid one-sidedness, always seeking
> ways to look at things from all sides, all angles, from all disciplines,
> from all possible perspectives. That is the essence of the dialectical
> method, which by its nature is a collective process. What this means is
> that on a certain level, all points of view in science are authentic and
> valuable contributions, yours included, but it takes a dialectical approach
> to synthesize all these views into a full comprehension of the thing under
> inquiry.
> Speaking to the core idea in the Sawchuk/Stetsenko paper, wanting to bring
> ideas and theories in sociology to bear on CHAT, I take this in the context
> of believing that CHAT has the potential to play a special role in social
> science. Armed with its methodological ideas, and centering itself on
> **activity**, a highly potent and centralizing way of looking at human
> affairs, I think that CHAT is learning how to look at the accomplishments
> and limitations of both psychology - and sociology - and develop ways to
> move social science forward along a new kind of path, the one Vygotsky
> envisioned when he spoke of constructing a "general psychology." CHAT has
> the potential to play a significant synthesizing and systematizing role in
> social science, which to date has been badly fragmented and disorganized
> throughout its history.
> In that spirit, how does your theory of concerting relate to sociology?
> More specifically, how does it compare with and relate to the points
> Sawchuk and Stetsenko made about the various theories of social conduct that
> they surveyed?
> Also, I am curious: why do you say the H of CHAT, the historical, is of no
> interest to you?
> Thanks for joining us on xmca, Derek.
> - Steve
> On Dec 9, 2008, at 8:51 PM, Andy Blunden wrote:
> Wonderful to hear from you, Derek. If only we could have more dialogues
>> across parties and disciplines!
>> That said, as I read you, you are adopting that wonderful kind of
>> "ruthless reductionism," that "shameless behaviourism", the kind of position
>> that leads to wonderful performative contradictions like the philosophy of
>> mind which declares that mind does not exist, people that believe that
>> subjectivity is an illusion, and participate in activity while believing
>> that society requires inverted commas and so on.
>> If mind and subjectivity do not exist, and behaviour is imitation, how did
>> you come to write this email? Was a kind of conditioned reflex? you saw
>> someone else writing the same idea so you found yourself compelled to do it
>> too? And were you aware of what you were doing when you were doing it? Or
>> was it, like mind, society, subjectivity, but an illusion. And if it was an
>> illusion, do you expect we share that illusion?
>> What say, instead of declaring that subjectivity does not exist, what if
>> we discussed what it means and how it is constituted? Because really, I
>> could only agree with you if I had a subjectivity so as to perform and
>> experience agreement. And then I would be forced to disagree with you.
>> :)
>> What do you think, Derek?
>> Andy
>> Derek Melser wrote:
>>> I come to XMCA as a philosopher of mind convinced that 'mind' (and
>>> related
>>> metaphor-based notions such as 'internalisation') can be explained in
>>> terms
>>> of (a) people's natural tendency to act in concert (do the same thing,
>>> together) and (b) various derivative, subtler, but still
>>> in-principle-observable, skills that children acquire. My account,
>>> developed
>>> from those of Ryle, Vygotsky and Hebb, has acting in concert as the basis
>>> of
>>> culture. Solo action, cooperation, and objective practices (in which the
>>> empathic, side-by-side stance characteristic of concerted activity has
>>> given
>>> way to objective attitudes) are learned adaptations of acting in concert.
>>> Unfamiliar concerted (and solo, cooperative and objective) activity must
>>> usually be preceded by preparatory educative activity, the prototype of
>>> which is the demonstration-and-imitation procedure. The immediate goal of
>>> demonstration-and-imitation is for teacher and pupil to perform the
>>> action
>>> in concert. After the pupil's participation has improved, perhaps after
>>> repeated demonstration-and-imitation sessions, to the point where he can
>>> perform the action on his own, rehearsals may still be necessary prior to
>>> performance.
>>> To rehearse an action or activity is to go through a
>>> demonstration-and-imitation session in a streamlined and abbreviated way.
>>> There are many different ways of abbreviating the
>>> demonstration-and-imitation procedure, some involving two or more
>>> participants, others for the solo agent. Verbal communication,
>>> consciousness
>>> and thinking are all forms of rehearsal all ways of rehearsing actions
>>> and
>>> activities before (or indeed whilst or instead of) performing them and
>>> they are all 'derivatives by abbreviation' of the
>>> demonstration-and-imitation procedure.
>>> A child acquires these various rehearsal skills in much the same way he
>>> acquires other skills by watching and listening to other people
>>> demonstrating them, by attempting to join in, and by practising them on
>>> his
>>> own. In *The Act of Thinking* (MIT Press 2004) I retrace some of the main
>>> steps in the child's (and perhaps early man's) mastery of verbal
>>> communication, consciousness and thinking.
>>> My feeling about the Sawchuk/Stetsenko paper is that it is insufficiently
>>> purist. It embraces concepts which are actually antithetical to, and
>>> compromise, a pure activity approach. For example, there is
>>> 'subjectivity',
>>> which we are said to be in danger of 'undertheorizing' (p.340). What can
>>> subjectivity be if not 'private experiencing'? Activity theory casts all
>>> experiencing as public, or incipiently public. Subjectivity is a
>>> mentalist
>>> concept. Listed among 'the specific principles of human development' on
>>> p.341 are 'the social origin of mind' (which implies there is such a
>>> thing
>>> as mind) and 'internalisation' (implying the existence of an inner,
>>> presumably mental, dimension). Vygotsky fell in here too, which is why we
>>> need Ryle. Activity does not internalise, it does not disappear into the
>>> mental, as it becomes familiar. Nor is mind 'extended'; it does not
>>> extend
>>> from the 'inner' to embrace 'outer' phenomena: mind is a fiction.
>>> Sawchuk and Stetsenko characterise activity as 'reciprocal interaction
>>> with
>>> the world' (339), as a process of 'engagement with the world' and as
>>> 'transforming the world' (343). However, the world need not stay in the
>>> picture. It is required neither as a venue nor as a patient or product of
>>> people's activity. The notion of the world, and things in the world, is a
>>> teaching aid invented to assist our acquisition of the perceptual skills
>>> we
>>> need to employ in the course of our activities.
>>> If we want to concentrate on the activity, then the 'selves' that Sawchuk
>>> and Stetsenko say people's activity creates ('as they create their world'
>>> (343)) are also dispensable. Selves disappear, they get absorbed, in
>>> concerted activity. Even 'the social order', with its reification of
>>> activity as the 'social structure' or 'society' that sociology is
>>> predicated
>>> on, may be a distraction. And what about 'historical'? Personally, I am
>>> most
>>> interested in the foundational human activities concerting,
>>> cooperation,
>>> verbal communication, consciousness, thinking, etc.). These practices
>>> were
>>> almost certainly established more than a million years ago, so history
>>> played no part in their development, though evolution did. History
>>> becomes
>>> relevant only in connection with the great increase in objective
>>> practices
>>> that accompanied the relatively very recent transition from small-group
>>> nomadic life to our settled agricultural existence if that counts as
>>> history.
>>> Should I have presumed to list with XMCA and to comment on a review of
>>> CHAT,
>>> when the XM is anathema to me, the H of no interest? My C would be
>>> 'concerted' rather than 'cultural' too, though, since I conflate these,
>>> that's a quibble. Is this where I belong? An activity purist like myself
>>> has
>>> at least the AT in common with others in this forum, surely. Well, no.
>>> I'm
>>> not at all sure about the T. It has always seemed to me that our
>>> knowledge
>>> of activities is irreducibly empathic. When we witness or imagine an
>>> activity, in order to comprehend what we are seeing we must imagine
>>> engaging
>>> (if not actually engage) in that activity. There is no possibility of any
>>> truly objective or 'scientific' observation of activity (behaviour,
>>> conduct,
>>> action, things we do). Cultural activity is not a natural phenomenon. It
>>> is
>>> not even a phenomenon. It is something* we* do. We are participants,
>>> players
>>> or incipient, would-be players. We cannot get outside it, hold it at
>>> arm's
>>> length, make a scrutinizable object of it. If we do, it vanishes. We must
>>> empathise even to perceive activity. Certainly, we can be self-aware in
>>> the
>>> act of doing something, alone or with others, and this self-awareness
>>> need
>>> not impede (or not too much) our participation. But what can 'theory'
>>> amount
>>> to in this context?
>>> Derek Melser
>>> **
>>> _______________________________________________
>>> xmca mailing list
>> --
>> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
>> Andy Blunden <>+61 3 9380 9435 Skype andy.blunden
>> Hegel's Logic with a Foreword by Andy Blunden:
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Received on Wed Dec 10 20:27:51 2008

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