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

From: Derek Melser <derek.melser who-is-at gmail.com>
Date: Tue Dec 09 2008 - 20:21:36 PST

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

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

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

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Received on Tue Dec 9 20:22:12 2008

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