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

From: Steve Gabosch (
Date: Sun Oct 30 2005 - 13:42:06 PST

In this post, let me take some bandwidth to offer
a comprehensive summary of what I see as the main
points Anna Stetsenko brings up in her paper
"Activity as Object-Related: Resolving the
Dichotomy of Individual and Collective Planes of
Activity." I summarize AS's main theses, the
major principles she works with, her criticisms
of Leont'ev and Ilyenkov, and many of the
suggestions she makes to resolve the issues she raises.

Critical commentary will follow in future posts.

The phrase from this paper that I think most
succinctly expresses its thesis is in the final
sentences: AS advocates that CHAT should create a
"materialist ontology of human subjectivity." I
thought Martin Packer very nicely summarized the
essential point of the paper in his posted
comment: "I completely agree with Stetsenko's
proposal that we need to understand not just the
way subjectivity is a product of history, but how
history is a product of subjectivity (to put it
in a simplified way)." Let's look into the
particulars of how Anna Stetsenko proposes we do this.

AS suggests that there has been a gap in the
thinking of many cultural-historical activity
theory (CHAT) theorists that underplays the role
of human subjectivity in human development, and
that these gaps must be overcome in order to
create the kind of materialist ontology that is
needed. She offers two kinds of reasons for the existence of these gaps.

First, AS explains that CHAT was a reaction to
the mentalist and behaviorist trends of the
early-mid 20th century, which were largely based
on Cartesian dichotomies. Its principle of
object-relatedness was an essential response to
these trends, which tended to see psychological
processes as isolated from real life
processes. In other words, CHAT itself was a
response to a huge gap in psychological theory.

However, the essential solution of CHAT, the
principle of object-relatedness - that human
consciousness is a product of human interactions
with objects and relations in the world - has
itself been largely applied in a one-sided and
one-way manner by CHAT. How social relations (in
the case of Vygotsky) and how productive
activities (in the case of Leont'ev) produce
subjectivity were analyzed, but how subjectivity
in turn acts upon activity and relations has
gotten much less attention in CHAT.

Second, according to AS, CHAT theorists,
including even Ilyenkov, have tended toward
embracing "vestiges" of dichotomous thinking
themselves, obscuring their ability to fully see
the agentive role of individual processes and of
human subjectivity - and how these subjective
processes play a central role along with
collective processes of material production and
social processes of collaboration in human development.

Significantly, AS sees the correction of these
gaps as being one of the tasks of CHAT. She
emphasizes that she sees this work as carrying on
the tradition of Vygotsky, Leont'ev, Ilyenkov,
etc. "Bridging these gaps can be seen as an
attempt to continue the overall CHAT tradition,
including A.N. Leont’ev's approach, rather than
by any means, to reject it." (pg 81)

AS also places this discussion in the context of
other schools of psychological thought that are
addressing this question. She makes the point
that unlike the earlier half of the 20th century,
when mentalist and behaviorist trends dominated
psychology and "either ignored the mental or
postulated it as a separated realm," recent
decades have produced an "alternative, profoundly
social and transactional, view of human
development [that] has now established itself
strongly enough in psychology and the neighboring
disciplines, such as social constructivism,
feminist approaches, cultural anthropology, and
research on learning and education.

AS goes on to suggest that CHAT is confronted
with some "truly new challenges" from these new
trends. AS emphasizes that "the major challenge
today is to conceptualize psychological processes
avoiding the extremes of reducing them either to
a separate individual mental realm (i.e., the
more traditional challenge) or, alternatively, to
the essentially sociological realm of collective
discourses and practices (i.e., the more recent
challenge as it is now emerging in research on
collective forms of activity; cf. Stetsenko & Arievitch, 1997, 2004b)."

In my opinion, Anna Stetsenko offers a useful
footing upon which to climb a little higher in
our understanding of these time-honored questions
of the relationship of human society and
individuality - toward understanding the
historical puzzle of human subjectivity, toward
taking on these challenges. She affirms the
shoulders she stands on, particularly Marx,
Vygotsky, Leont'ev and Ilyenkov, she allies
herself with the CHAT tradition in general, and
she offers an explanation of two important CHAT
principles to move forward with to begin the work
of bridging past gaps and constructing a more
rounded view of human development. In addition,
as I explain, she proposes a third principle to guide this work.


The first principle AS discusses is the principle
(AS does not specifically do so but I think this
can be called a principle) that human labor over
time generates increasingly complex regulatory
mechanisms that shape the material production
activities of human life. (A succinct name for
this principle would be helpful; I'll have to
think about that.) AS characterizes this
principle as "arguably the greatest insight of
Marxist thinking that the social
(inter-subjective) and the individual
(intra-subjective) forms of social life became
demystified as being derivative from (though not
reducible to) the processes of material
production of life." She defines this principle
as being a foundational premise of CHAT.

The second principle AS presents, and focuses on
especially in relation to Leont'ev, is the
principle of object-relatedness. She explores
how Leont'ev used this principle, and points out
what she sees as important gaps in both ANL's and EVI's theorizing.

AS explains that "A.N.Leont’ev (1983) developed
his idea that human psychological processes
("psychic reflection," in his terminology) are
object-related in opposition to conceptualizing
them as a solipsistic internal mental realm" (pg
75). She also points out two additional aspects
of this principle that ANL explored. First,
"objects are turned into facts of mind (i.e.,
become presented in subjective images) only
through active processes of humans relating to
these objects, that is, through activity." pg
75. Second, ANL emphasized "the processes of
activity at the foundation of "reflection" are
never merely individual but absorb the collective experiences of people."

Restating the above, three points are made that
affirms essential assumptions in ANL's approach to object-relatedness:
      a) human psychology is object-related,
      b) object-relatedness only occurs through activity, and
      c) activity is collective, never merely individual.


Here is a list of many of the gaps AS identifies
in ANL's theoretical work on pgs 77-78.

1. ANL focuses on psychological processes being
derivative of, but not the generator of social practice.
2. ANL employs a "twofold" transition conception
of how nature generates human activity and human
activity generates human subjectivity that AS
suggests should be reframed as a "manifold" transition.
3. ANL's emphasis on the acquisition of
cultural-historical experience of previous
generations is at the expense of emphasizing the
role individuals also play in this process.
4. ANL placed the fact of the necessary adaption
of activity to objects far above human potential
to change the world and its objects.
5. ANL elaborated much more on the concept of
internalization than externalization.
6. ANL gave motives and meanings more
significance than goals and personal senses.

Summing up these gaps, AS says "Taken together,
these imbalances in A.N.Leont’ev's (1983) account
(for a similar analysis, see Engestrom, 1999) can
be summed up as positing society above the
individual and seeing the latter as produced by,
subordinate to, and molded by reality, and
especially society, at the expense of emphasizing
individual agency­the ability to produce, create,
and make a difference in social practices."

AS also offers a brief critique of Ilyenkov's
writings on his theory of ideality, where AS
argues that EVI incorrectly states that ideality
"resides" in artifacts, and understates the role
individual agency places in the production of the
ideal and social practice as a whole.


The final section of AS's paper offers ideas for
overcoming the gaps and dichotomies that hold
CHAT back from a fuller grasp of human
development, ideas for developing a
conceptualization that fully takes into account the role of human subjectivity.

At the heart of her suggestions is what could be
articulated as a third principle to accompany the
two she earlier affirmed. This third principle
could be stated in the following way: individual
human subjectivity is an essential component of
all human activity, both as a derivative of
collective processes, and as a vital ingredient
in carrying them out. This principle or concept
flows throughout AS's suggestions.

Here is a list of many points she touches on in the last sections of her paper.

1. Activity is a "constantly developing complex
dynamic process" that always involves social
dimensions such as "social status, power, prestige," etc.
2. A three-fold unified dialectical
conceptualization is needed to take into account
the major components/dimensions/planes of human development.
3. These three components/dimensions/planes are
given numerous descriptions in the text, including:
     a) material production, practical activity,
human labor, processes of the material production of human existence
     b) intersubjective exchange, social
collaborative processes, collective processes of
social exchange, inter-psychological processes
     c) individual subjectivity, intra-subjective
processes, agency, individual functioning,
mechanisms that allow for individual functioning
[Note: a possible source of confusion in this
paper might be interpreting the meanings of terms
that tend to combine two of the above planes,
such as activity, collective and social, which
could be construed refer to a) and b) together,
or to just one or the other, or perhaps all
three. It is possible that this is sometimes a
source of confusion in other writings in activity theory.]
4. These three components/dimensions are aimed
at actively transforming the world.
5. Human subjectivity must be seen on a par with
the other two components/dimensions to adequately
understand how humans transform the world.
6. Human subjectivity should not be seen as a
"final destination" but as "another form of
participating and contributing to social practice."
7. Psychological processes never belong to some
separate mental realm - they are always part of
human activity, always part of the object-related actions of humans.
8. No subjective practice, including "armchair"
scientific theorizing, is exempt from the
principle of the essential belongingness of
subjectivity in all human activity, and the
essential object-relatedness of all human activity in human subjectivity.
9. Human subjectivity, because it is always
engaged with the world through human activity, "inevitably changes the world."
10. The world created by humans constantly
emerges as humanized, and is therefore imbued with human subjectivity.
11. Internalization and externalization are human
mechanisms of interaction with the world that are
equally and simultaneously necessary.
12. The individual and society are both emergent
properties (transformations) of the same reality,
the social practice of material production.
13. Human subjectivity is agentive, and is
endowed with the capacity to generate new cycles of activity.
14. Human subjectivity and society are on
different poles of the same continuum of diverse regulatory mechanisms.
15. Individuals, including their subjectivity,
are simultaneously molded by society while they themselves mold society.
16. The practical relevance of human
subjectivity and the human relevance of social
practice are equally important aspects of activity.
17. Motives and goals do not exist separately.
18. The work of Vygotsky and Leont'ev and others
could be viewed as a "humanist ontology of material practice."
19. At the same time, Anna Stetsenko is
advocating that CHAT should build upon the work
of Vygotsky et. al. a "materialist ontology of human subjectivity."

- Steve Gabosch

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