Re: Intentionality and Semiotics

From: Steve Gabosch (
Date: Sun Dec 19 2004 - 12:21:56 PST

I have excerpted the following 6 paragraphs (and a footnote) from the
Engestrom article Bill referred to because they struck me as relevant to
several points in this discussion. The use of the concept of contradiction
to understand development and activity seems especially important.

- Steve

Yrjö Engeström
University of California, San Diego and University of Helsinki

from page 6-8:

In cultural-historical activity theory, Leont’ev (1978) distinguished
between goal-oriented individual or group actions and object-oriented
collective activity. The latter is a product of division of labor.
Leont’ev’s classic example is a tribal hunt in which some individuals chase
the animals while others wait in ambush and kill them. The action of
chasing the game away makes no sense if separated from the overall activity
and its object. Leont’ev argues that there is no activity without an
object. The object carries or embodies the true motive of the activity.
Activities are systemic formations which gain durability by becoming
institutionalized. But activities only take shape and manifest themselves
through actions performed by individuals and groups.

In complex activity systems such as today’s work organizations, it is
difficult for practitioners to construct a connection between the goals of
their ongoing actions and the more durable object/motive of the collective
activity system. Objects resist and bite back, they seem to have lives of
their own. But objects and motives are hard to articulate, they appear to
be vague, fuzzy, multi-faceted, amoeba-like and often fragmented or
contested. The paradox is that objects/motives give directionality, purpose
and meaning to the collective activity, yet they are frustratingly elusive.
The activity of health care is a case in point. Without the object of
illness there would be no hospitals and health professionals. But despite
its pervasive presence, illness is very hard to define, it does not obey
the mental representations of professionals and patients, and it certainly
does not disappear no matter how well one does one’s work (Engeström, 1995;
Engeström, Puonti & Seppänen, 2003).

In practical actions, objects and motives are stabilized, temporarily
'closed’, by means of auxiliary artifacts – tools and signs. Vygotsky
described this artifact-mediated nature of intentional action as follows.
"The person, using the power of things or stimuli, controls his own
behavior through them, grouping them, putting them together, sorting them.
In other words, the great uniqueness of the will consists of man having no
power over his own behavior other than the power that things have over his
behavior. But man subjects to himself the power of things over behavior,
makes them serve his own purposes and controls that power as he wants. He
changes the environment with the external activity and in this way affects
his own behavior, subjecting it to his own authority.” (Vygotsky, 1997, p.
212) [see footnote 2]

Vygotsky (1997) pointed out that voluntary action has two phases, a design
phase in which the mediating artifact is (often painstakingly) constructed,
and an execution phase which typically looks quite easy and almost
automatic. Classic examples of mediated intentionality include the use of
an alarm clock to wake up early in the morning, to master the conflict
between motives of work and rest. Mediating artifacts such as an alarm
clock typically serve as signs which trigger a consequential action. They
are mediators of action-level decisions. But humans also need and use
mediating artifacts to stabilize future-oriented images or visions of their
collective activity systems. Language and various semiotic representations
are needed to construct and use such ‘tertiary artifacts’, as Wartofsky
(1979) called them. Human agency gains unusual powers when the two,
future-oriented activity level envisioning and consequential action-level
decision making, come together in close interplay (Engeström, Engeström &
Kerosuo, 2003).

In activity theory, contradictions play a central role as sources of change
and development. Contradictions are not the same as problems or conflicts.
Contradictions are historically accumulating structural tensions within and
between activity systems. The activity system is constantly working through
tensions and contradictions within and between its elements. Contradictions
manifest themselves in disturbances and innovative solutions. In this
sense, an activity system is a virtual disturbance- and
innovation-producing machine.

The primary contradiction of activities in capitalism is that between the
use value and exchange value of commodities. This primary contradiction
pervades all elements of our activity systems. The work activity of general
practitioners in primary medical care may serve as an illustration. The
primary contradiction, the dual nature of use value and exchange value, can
be found by focusing on any of the elements of the doctor's work activity.
For example, instruments of this work include a tremendous variety of
medicaments and drugs. But they are not just useful preparations for
healing - they are above all commodities with prices, manufactured for a
market, advertised and sold for profit. Every doctor faces this
contradiction in his or her daily decision making, in one form or another.

[2] Vygotsky’s examples of voluntary action are focused on individual
actors. This must not be interpreted as neglect of collective
intentionality. According to Vygotsky’s famous principle, higher
psychological functions appear twice, first interpsychologically, in
collaborative action, and later intrapsychologically, internalized by the
individual. The interpsychological origins of voluntary action – and
collective intentionality - would be found in rudimentary uses of shared
external prompts, reminders, plans, maps, etc.

<end of excerpt>


This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Sat Jan 01 2005 - 01:00:04 PST