Re: [xmca] more questions about Sawchuk and Stetsenko article: whose sociology???

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at>
Date: Thu Dec 11 2008 - 15:14:08 PST

Thinking and Speech Chapter Five, which Paula and I have been re-reading and re-rereading with such enjoyment, is really the size of a small book, and LSV organizes it that way. In his usual style, he tells us there are two ways to study concepts, and neither one works.
The first way is the use of definitions, something like this:
Uncle David: What’s a cyborg?
Luc (eleven years old): Well, it’s like the Terminator.
Andre (thirteen): It’s like a man who is part machine.
Uncle David: Oh, if I have an artificial heart and an artificial lung, am I a cyborg?
Andre: Well, it has to be like an arm or a leg or something like that.
Uncle David: If I have an artificial toe am I a cyborg?
Andre: Yes.
Luc: No.
Uncle David: What about an artificial tooth?

(from a conversation I had last summer)
The second way is the use of practical activity, the "synthetic-genetic" method of Ach and Rimat. Here's some data from a "model lesson" I just observed which I think illustrate this approach pretty well:
Teacher: Here’s a HOUSE. Here’s a FARM. What’s this?
Ss: Dog!
Teacher: Good. Shall we put it in the house or in the farm?
Ss: House!
(Teacher continues with pig, horse, goldfish, cat, chicken)
Teacher: Now, why do these go in the house and those go in the farm?
S1: These are clean and those are dirty.
S2: These are cute and those are ugly.
S3 (in Korean): These are money-eating animals and those are money-making animals.
Then, in his usual style, LSV presents what at first glance appears to be a synthesis: the method of Ach (Nazi psychologist who thought that fealty to the Fuhrer was intrinsic to the German mind).
The method of Ach uses BOTH the word (the method of definition) AND practical activity (the genetic-synthetic method). The subjects are taught words, and then they use them in different tasks (I imagine these to be something like those of Tomasello, e.g. "put the gatsun on top of the fal")
But remember, this is Vygotsky! He presents two wrong methods, then (drum roll!) he produces a synthesis...and shows that we have merely combined the weaknesses of BOTH methods!
When I FIRST read this, I thought he was just saying that Ach had it (if you'll pardon my Vygotskyism) ass backwards. Instead of beginning with the word (at least, the sound of teh word if not the meaning) and ending with the child handling sensuous material (well, blocks, actually), we need to begin with the child handling blocks and end up with word meanings.
But actually his criticism's a lot deeper than that. He sees that Ach has just added practical activity in the form of various tasks onto a method that is, at bottom, nothing more than the old method of definitions. AND he takes Ach and Rimat to task for their use of "determining tendency" to define an activity.
Here LSV's criticism is identical to Andy's. To say that human labor is reducible, without remainder, to the human desire to obtain objects is an absurd simplification; it leaves out the whole way in which this process is transformed by tools, signs, and other people until the original desires are practically unrecognizeable.
This makes MUCH more sense to me. First of all, it explains why LSV is not satisfied with just turning Ach's method around, so that it resembles the SECOND wrong method instead of resemblign the first. Secondly, it explains why, right there in Chapter Five, LSV insists on something called the functional method of double stimulation.
Why functional? Because the whole experiment is determined not by any imagined desire, but by the exercise of a particular function, the function of discriminating, generalizing, conceptualizing. Why double? Because...there are two types of "stimuli" and they are absolutely different.
How different? Well, one is a sign (the words "cev", "mur", "bik" and "lag") and one is a tool (the blocks). This alone shows that there is a key difference, for Vygotsky, between tool-based object related activity and sign-based signifying activity. This by itself shows that Leontiev's reductionist approach in "Problems of the Development of Mind" is a wrong turn.
David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

--- On Thu, 12/11/08, Steve Gabosch <> wrote:

From: Steve Gabosch <>
Subject: Re: [xmca] more questions about Sawchuk and Stetsenko article: whose sociology???
To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <>
Date: Thursday, December 11, 2008, 3:23 AM

Andy, this is a good question you ask - what did ANL think was "an"
activity. I am not suggesting we keep up this inquiry into Leontiev for now,
but hopefully these questions about his work and what he meant will come up on
xmca again, and we can continue.

In the meantime, the section linked below, "3.5. The General Structure of
Activity" of AC&P seems helpful toward grasping what ANL would see as
"an" activity. I quote one passage here, there are numerous others.
In this passage, ANL is saying that a given process can be viewed as either an
"activity" or as a "chain of actions," the former as viewed
in relation to motive, the second in relation to purpose. So, according to ANL,
"an" activity is, in part, a purposeful chain of events. The whole
section seems helpful.

- Steve
quote is from
3.5. The General Structure of Activity

"Correspondingly, actions are not special “units” that are included in
the structure of activity. Human activity does not exist except in the form of
action or a chain of actions. For example, work activity exists in work actions,
school activity in school actions, social activity in actions (acts) of society,
etc. If the actions that constitute activity are mentally subtracted from it,
then absolutely nothing will be left of activity. This can be expressed in
another way: When a concrete process is taking place before us, external or
internal, then from the point of view of its relation to motive, it appears as
human activity, but when it is subordinated to purpose, then it appears as an
action or accumulation of a chain of actions."


On Dec 11, 2008, at 2:05 AM, Andy Blunden wrote:

> Steve, ANL never spells out what would be *an* activity, i.e., the unit of
analysis of activity, but this one from AC&P comes close:
> “A basic or, as is sometimes said, a constituting characteristic of
activity is its objectivity. Properly, the concept of its object is already
implicitly contained in the very concept of activity. The expression
‘objectless activity’ is devoid of any meaning. Activity may seem
objectless, but scientific investigation of activity necessarily requires
discovering its object. Thus, the object of activity is twofold: first, in its
independent existence as subordinating to itself and transforming the activity
of the subject; second, as an image of the object, as a product of its property
of psychological reflection that is realized as an activity of the subject and
cannot exist otherwise.”
> As I understand it, ANL is using the word "subject" in the
Kantian sense, i.e., an individual organism, so activities are objective with
respect to the individual. He seems to say that the activity has a double
existence, both the objective existence in which it is *given* to the
individual, and in the form of the image by which the individual organism
orients its actions, i.e., as its motive.
> But prior to that, every activity has its object, the object is the
defining characteristic of "an" activity. So if we want to know about
the Mafia, MiraMax, MacDonald's or the NBL we have to begin by asking
"what's if for?" or "what is the object of this
> Now, this would make perfect since in the USSR of the Stalin era, every
branch of the administered society is "for" something. Perhaps ANL did
not mean for us to interpret "an activity" this way. He actually never
clarifies what "an" activity is, and specifically rejects the idea of
a "unit of analysis."
> For the purposes od psychology, I think this is al fine, but for
sociology, ... if we put this approach alongside Parsons, I'd say they are
both varieties of Functionalism, but Parsons looks more sophisticated. Let alone
Foucault, or Giddens, Weber, Bourdieu, ... Engstrom of course deals with this
because of the process of repeated mediation produces activities which are
connected only remotely with human needs.
> BTW, Hegel (1800s) and Thomas Carlyle (1830s) has both worked out the idea
of production of "tools" as the root of human culture, but these
writers wrote before the publication of "Origins of Species" (1859).
Engels' "Ape to Man" (1876) was published a mere 17 years after
Darwin's book. Remarkable. But that was 100 years before ANL's A,C&P
> Andy
> Steve Gabosch wrote:
>> Andy wrote:
>>> The idea of the individual simply chasing after the object of
their desires and activities being a manifestation of a human need, is laughably
uncritical and simplistic. That's why I say it can't be taken seriously
by sociologists.
>> Andy, as time goes on, if you run across any passages where Leontiev
actually argues along these lines, please point them out if you can.
>> As for finding Leontiev in print, all that I have ever seen myself is
what is on MIA (some of which is copied on LCHC), plus a picture .pdf of the
middle part of Problems of the Development of Mind, about a 150 pages worth,
that we used in an xmca class a few years ago.
>> Haydi has stressed that we need to get Problems of the Development of
Mind online, and I totally agree. All Leontiev should be in print, in English,
and on line. And maybe with new translations if possible.
>> In my opinion, Problems of the Development of Mind, more than anything
else of Leontiev's that I have seen, is foundational for CHAT. It not only
offers an in depth analysis of the evolution of activity from its earliest
animal origins, but it also deals at a high level on what is new and different
about human activity, which ushers in an entirely new dimension and new kind of
activity, social production. Activity becomes an entirely new entity that is
now no longer a product of biological evolution, but a product of social
evolution. This transformation from biological activity to social activity is
rivaled, in my opinion, only by the transformation of the inorganic to the
organic, the origin of life itself.
>> The main point I am making here is that understanding the animal
aspects, origins, and evolution of activity is necessary to fully understand the
human and social content of human activity, and how human activity itself has
evolved (which makes it an important question for sociology and not just
psychology). Leontiev to my knowledge was the first to seriously explore how
the structure, function and evolution of activity in animals laid the basis for
human activity. As the passages I sent demonstrate, Leontiev's work on
activity doesn't make full sense without taking into account his approach to
 theorizing animal activity - that activity itself is what all animals must do
to survive - and which humans do a very special and unique way.
>> The main theme in Part II of PDM is his tracing of animal psychic
evolution from the pre-psychic (simple stimulus and response, irritability), to
the sensory (detecting properties of objects, e.g. insects), the perceptual
(detecting objects, e.g. amphibians), the relational (detecting relations
between objects, higher mammals) and the meaningful (detecting the social
meanings of properties, objects and relations). I think his application of the
concept of **meaning** in this line of development is extremely important, very
Vygotskian, and possibly one of Leontiev's most important insights into the
nature of human activity.
>> Losing sight his work on the evolutionary side of activity and its
origins in animal biology could be a step toward losing sight of the
specifically human aspects of human activity. That could be a consequence of
folding together and not distinguishing the biological from the social side,
thereby "compressing" the biological into the social.
>> The distinction between animalness and humanness has always been a
core issue in the materialist view of human evolution, and in social science as
a whole. A common mistake many make is to look only to biological
characteristics (such as brain size, bipedalism, hand, language capacity) for
the answer. Leontiev's focus on activity adds new insight not only on the
essential difference between humans and animals (social production), but also
differences and similarities between animals themselves over the eons.
>> The distinction Leontiev makes between upper mammals and humans, the
processing of the relations between objects on one hand, versus processing the
meanings of objects on the other, was made by Vygotsky in one of his discussions
about Kohler's work with apes. This concept, born in first generation CHAT,
became a cornerstone of one of the most important contributions of second
generation CHAT.
>> Who else besides Leontiev in CHAT has written on these matters over
the years? I don't actually know. It seems that this is a side of CHAT
that needs more development - more evaluation and critique of Leontiev's
work in this area, more expansion on how the evolution of animal activity and
psychic processes is foundational to and interwoven in human social evolution
and transformation, etc.
>> ~ Steve
>> On Dec 10, 2008, at 9:02 PM, Andy Blunden wrote:
>>> Steve Gabosch wrote:
>>>> ...
>>>> A central idea I think Leontiev is trying to get at here is
that needs do not just have a subjective content. ...
>>> Of course. I found ANL useful in getting my head around this
topic, but I do find all I need about the objecvtivity of needs in the Young
Hegel and the Young Marx, without the problems I find in ANL. ANL did not
discover that needs are objective after all!
>>>> ... Three, I always worry if scanned text posted on the
internet is exactly correct
>>> Unfortuntely these texts on MIA are the only copies of ANL that I
have. His books are unavailable new or secondhand in Australia and even my
University library does not stock him. Any help in proofreading his writings on
MIA would be appreciated. Seriously!
>>>> A possible problem, by the way, of substituting the concept of
"project" for "activity" is this could sever the
zoopsychological side of activity theory. Only humans have projects, but both
humans and animals engage in activity. Interestingly, the zoological aspects of
cultural-historical activity theory rarely get discussed in third generation
CHAT literature. ... compressing the biological up into the social is as
erroneous as reducing the social to the biological.
>>> Well, for me that is the advantage not a problem. Operations and
actions, it seems to me, capture all that is necessary for non-human psychology;
it is the fact that human motives usually have their origin in
cutlural-historical projects which is what needs to be understood.
>>> If we have an arrow coming from the outside world into the
individual organism marked: "motive < -object- > need" or
something, then that's fine, but we can't leave it like that. For
example, as a trade union and party organiser I will tell you that the motive
for people joining in an activity (party, union, strike, campaign, ...) may be
very diverse and is usually not the "Aims" emblazoned on the union or
party banner. EG people join parties for reasons of friendship, join unions for
narrow self-interest or for party reasons as well as for solidarity. The idea of
the individual simply chasing after the object of their desires and activities
being a manifestation of a human need, is laughably uncritical and simplistic.
That's why I say it can't be taken seriously by sociologists.
>>> Andy
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