Re: [xmca] The belated reflections on Anna's and Peter's article

From: Steve Gabosch <stevegabosch who-is-at>
Date: Tue Dec 30 2008 - 15:20:49 PST

I found myself taking a close look at Sasha’s Dec 28 post, and wound
up writing a summary of major points and quotes from his post to sort
them out for myself. Others may or may not find this summary helpful.

Some comments follow.

1. Sasha suggests that Anna and Peter take a cavalier and eclectic
methodological approach toward sociology.

Combining CHAT with “one or various types of sociology, based on
absolutely different philosophical backgrounds … demonstrates,” in
Sasha’s opinion, “some methodological unconcern.”

2. Sasha’s main concern in this post/commentary is not over CHAT and
sociology, however. It is over the relationship of Vygotsky and
Leontiev. He sees Peter and Anna’s “eclecticism” toward various
trends in sociology as being akin to what he sees as an eclecticism
toward CHAT theory itself, which arbitrarily and incorrectly combines
Vygotsky and Leontiev.

Sasha remarks that “eclecticism blossoms in the discussed text much
earlier than [when] the authors try to act as matchmakers between
psychology and sociology.”

“The very notion of so called Cultural Historical Activity Theory, or
CHAT,” according to Sasha, amounts to little more than “several
arbitrarily taken out of context separate ideas of Vygotsky and

“Even more naïve,” he comments further, is the “attempt to put forward
the distinction between "the first", "the second" and the "third"
generations” of what he sees as a “nonexistent theory.”

He acknowledges that “we use the term CHAT” as a way “to designate”
the tradition “rooted in Vygotsky and Leont'ev tradition,” but Sasha
emphasizes that “I'm afraid that it looks rather naïve to take it
literally as THEORY.”

3. Sasha asks “we have to put before ourselves the real question:
what, if anything, unifies psychological ideas of Leont’ev and

Sasha says with emphasis: “Near to nothing.”

4. Sasha acknowledges that both LSV and ANL were Marxists, but
dismisses Marxism as being a point in common between Vygotsky and
Leontiev **as psychologists.**

He explains: “One can find a lot of common motives, common ideas and
even the same words in both LSV and ANL. These common motives and
words are nothing but their common Marxist background, their Marxist
theoretic culture. And we will be the last who will deny or
underestimate this common cultural-historical root of both thinkers.
But the question was about their similarity as psychologists, not as
private persons with similar political and philosophical
weltanschauung [sg - world view].”

5. Sasha emphasizes they were Marxists, and furthermore, did not make
concessions to what some would call Stalinism.

“Did [these] two researchers, or even one of them, part from their
common Marxist general philosophical and social position?
“Surely not!

“Both remain sincere and passionate Marxists and communists.

“Did one of them accept or slightly move closer to Soviet official
quasi Marxist ideology?

“Surely not, as well!”

6. However, Sasha emphasizes, one cannot agree with both Vygotsky and

“… if one of them was right, the other inevitably was wrong.”

7. Sasha summarizes their basic theoretical positions in this way:

“As we know the basic theoretic idea of LSV was the idea of sign
mediation. He really believed that “cultural” (arbitrary) sign can
bridge the gap between two Cartesian substances.”

On the other hand, “ANL didn’t believe that [the] arbitrary sign can
help to solve [the] old psycho physical problem, and shift[ed] his
attention as a researcher from “cultural” sign to object oriented

As Sasha sees it, “Here, just in this point the ways of Vygotsky and
Leont’ev as psychologists divaricated. Leont’ev focused his attention
on activity as a means which can mediate a subject and his object,
while Vygotsky stayed on his old semiotic position.”

8. Sasha raises objections to points Peter and Anna raise about
“transformative change” being a theme in first but not second
generation CHAT. He uses this as a touchstone to a major point he
stresses - Vygotsky’s theory of sign mediation cannot play a role in
the emancipation (transformative change) of the wage worker.

Sasha says he “can hardly imagine how a sign can change anything both
in the real world and in the individual consciousness at least from
Marxist perspective.”

9. Sasha analyzes the plight of the wage worker to illustrate this.

“When a worker is self-employed say in subsistence production or in
creative work he acts as living object oriented and consequently
spontaneous creature. On the contrary, when a human sells his labor
power he alienates first of all his/her spontaneity.”

“ … as wage hand he needs to be specially stimulated to make any

“ … the wage worker turns into Cartesian dead, mechanical SèR machine
in the very capitalist reality.”

“… a worker is totally enslaved and the task of communist revolution
is to destroy this relation which turns an alive human into dead SèR

10. Sasha describes the alienation of the worker both in capitalism
and in the Soviet Union.

“ … the method of double stimulation (the notorious triangle) was the
basic method of "emancipation" of alienated labour in the Soviet Union

“… the basis of relation of wage labour lies naked S=>R relation …”

11. Sasha emphasizes that “signs” cannot liberate the worker, only
the elimination of wage labor itself can do this.

“… to mask this unattractive picture [wage slavery] capitalists
decorate the chain with paper flowers of every sort and kind of
"cultural" signs. The premise of this practice is an idea that
totally alienated wage worker will forget about his slave status and
imagine that he is free looking at false ideological quasi communist
or equally false ideological religious or liberal signs or slogans
hanging on the walls of his workshop or transmitting via mass media.

“… the way to the realm of freedom has nothing to do with so called
“sign mediation”.

“The fact is that we don't need false even highly "cultural"
decorations of the chain, we need to destroy the chains of wage labour
as it is.”

12. Better suited to this task is the theory of object oriented
activity than semiotic mediation.

“And the theory of object oriented (not alienated) activity in its
more developed variant as theory of dialectical psychology is more
suitable instrument for this task than all kinds of semiotic
conceptions with all kind of false artificial signs.”

13. The suggestion that Leontiev’s theorizing was connected to
Stalinism is unfounded.

“Surely Leont’ev (and Il’enkov) lived in more hard times than
Vygotsky, but that circumstance doesn’t give us a right to insult them
with unfounded inferences that his theoretic position has something to
do with the Soviet totalitarianism.”

14. At the same time, while LSV’s theory of semiotic mediation was
objectively reactionary, Sasha emphasizes that he is not accusing him
of being a political reactionary.

“To prevent any misunderstanding we want emphasize that criticizing
semiotic approach as objectively reactionary one we are far from
accusing Lev Semionovich in any political sins.”

“That is not his fault that the first outline of Marxist psychology
wasn’t entirely successful.“

“Even less we imply that Soviet authorities were in the list [in the
past? sg] guided by Vygotsky’s semiotic ideas, because similar more or
less articulated ideas were and still remain in the air.”

15. As an aside, Sasha discusses the way Anna translates a passage
from Vygotsky in a 2004 article. I will skip that.

16. Sasha then moves on to describe the crux of his critique of
Leontiev. He points out that Leontiev's theory of perception is
indicative of what is wrong with his theory in general.

“ … Leont’ev knew and insisted on social character of human activity,
but he failed in substantial psychological realization of this

“ … activity in Leont’ev’s theory is an activity of isolated person or
animal, a variant of Robinsonade. That comes home if we take for
example his and Zaporojets’ conception of perceptive activity.”

“ … both researchers analyzed the movement of eyes or hands of
isolated person in total abstraction from any social relation and from
any tangible tool, taking it in terms of Francis Bacon “with bare hand”.

17. Understanding the role of the human-created tool is crucial,
something Leontiev did not understand.

“In fact the omission of tool in the schema of human object oriented
activity is equal to omission of social context of this activity
because the attributive characteristic of human activity is that it
has to be armed with a tool given to him by another human.”

“Many of animals can make and utilize various tools. Only humans make
tools not for themselves, but for others, only humans don’t throw out
their tools after utilizing them, only humans teach their kids to use
this tools, only humans collect tools as tangible part of their
culture, only humans acquire an ability to deal with ideal meanings
embodies in those tools.”

18. Leontiev’s lack of understanding on the question of the human-
made tool means he cannot be credited with solving this crucial
problem in object oriented activity theory.

“Evidently that the shift of interest from “bare hand” (in Leont’ev
and Zaporojetz doctrine of perceptive activity) to hand armed with
cultural tool in object oriented activity belongs more to Alexander
Meshcheriakov and Il’enkov than to Leont’ev.”

19. Continuing his critique of Leontiev, Sasha explains that ANL’s
failure to understand the psychological nature of the cultural tool
paralleled Leontiev’s failure to theorize the psyche. Sasha refers to
sharp though friendly-in-form criticisms Leontiev made of Vygotsky
semiotic approach, but points out that Leontiev did not himself
surmount that “vulgar and evidently non-Marxist” semiotic approach

“In the same time he [Leontiev] totally failed in his attempt to give
a theoretic deduction of psyche.“

“In fact defining a psyche as an ability which emerges in the
situation when a (magically arise from nowhere) “subject” starts to
react on abiotic stimuli which acquires a meaning of sign which
indicates the presence of some biotic stimuli Leont’ev unintentionally
returned to the same vulgar and evidently non Marxist semiotic
approach which he sharply (though friendly in form) criticized in

20. Nevertheless, Sasha argues that Leontiev did make a fundamental
contribution, despite these other failures.

“What Alexei Nikolaevitch really did was the discovery of the essence
of life as it is (which in fact is nothing but an object oriented
activity) … though Leont’ev himself didn’t guess what was the real
subject of his really great discovery.

21. The final part of Sasha’s commentary is a table comparing the
three trends of psychological theorizing represented by Vygotsky,
Leontiev, and Ilyenkov/A. Meshchariakov. He lists the authors and
names of the three theoretical trends, and compares them along three
criteria: their units of analysis, whether they solved the “essence
of life” question, and whether they solved what might be called the
“human tool sharing in culture and history” problem.

Vygotsky’s theory, “Cultural-Historical theory,” using the Vygotskian
triangle of sign mediation as its unit of analysis, did not solve
either problem.

Leontiev’s theory, “Theory of Activity,” using the Subject and Obect,
or vital relation as its unit of analysis, solved the essence of life
problem (activity is object-oriented), but not the human tool sharing
in culture and history problem (human psychology is based on the use
of shared tools in human activity).

Ilyenkov/Meshchariakov’s theory, “Dialectical Psychology,” or what
Sasha says can be called simply CHAT, uses as its unit of analysis
“collaborative object oriented activity of minimum two persons
mediated by cultural tool (not mere sign!)” and successfully solves
both problems.

22. As part of his presentation of this table, Sasha comments on
Vygotsky. He is critical of Vygotsky’s SèR schema, his triangle of
mediation, as being mechanical. He rejects the idea that culture and
history can be found in this scheme with arbitrary [conventional]
signs. He also suggests that culture and history cannot be found in
the “artificial concepts” theorized in the Sakharov-Vygotsky experiment.

Vygotsky “tried to deal with stimulus reactive creatures as a starting
point of his theorizing (e.g. in the basis of his triangle of
mediation), while the SèR schema is totally mechanical principle which
has nothing to do even with alive subjects not to speak of subjects of
psyche or human consciousness …”

“Culture is something that is growing and crystallizing and passing
from one alive hands to another one for ages and that has little to do
with taken by agreement arbitrary signs.”

“ … in the scheme of mediation with arbitrary signs we can find no
more “culture and history” than in Sakharov-Vygotsky experiment with
so called “artificial concepts”.”

23. At the same time, before he closes, Sasha feels strongly obliged
to point out Vygotsky’s vital contributions.
“I feel that I can’t put a dot without appreciating Vygotsky’s
contribution to CHAT …”

There is no question that “Vygotsky’s role in foundation of CHAT as a
researching school can’t be underestimated.”

“It was Vygotsky who clearly formulated the criteria of scientific
character of our discipline: “Donauchn. t.zr. —
vzaimodeistv.” (prescientific point of view – interaction <of soul and
body – A.S.>).”

“It was Vygotsky who said: “Centr. problema vsei psihologii –
svoboda.” (The core problem of entire psychology is freedom)”

“… and this: “Grandioznaya kartina razvitiya lichnosti: put' k
svobode. Ojivit' spinozizm v Marks. psihol.” (The grandiose picture of
personality development: the way to freedom. Revive Spinozism in
Marxist psychology.)

“We can continue the list of such brilliant insights.”

24. Sasha finishes off with a big nod to the contributions of
Leontiev and others.

“But probably his [Vygotsky’s] biggest scientific result was inducing
the field of greatest voltage around himself as a researcher, the
field that attracted and inspired such brilliant thinkers as Luria and
Zaporojets, as Elkonin and Leont’ev and many many others.

And among these, “ … first of all Alexei Leont’ev, who not only
continue[d the] Vygotsky’s project, but make [made] fundamentally new
step[s] in the development of CHAT psychology.”

25. And a final comment by Sasha to return to the general discussion

“To summarize my feelings from Anna’s and Peter’s article I can repeat
that it touches essentially actual problems and just therefore it must
be appreciated as a starting point of big discussion concerning social
dimensions of CHAT psychology.”

COMMENTS by Steve:

I appreciate Sasha’s contribution and criticisms. He raises important
issues for CHAT about how to understand Vygotsky, Leontiev and
Ilyenkov’s theories, and use them as a basis to move forward. I find
myself having a few critical remarks on Sasha's commentary.

I don’t agree that Vygotsky and Leontiev had “near to nothing” in
common in their psychological theorizing, and I am especially
unwilling to have to choose between their two lines of theorizing. I
believe the two can be highly integrated, even more so than has been
done, at least in English, so far. (Obviously, that belief needs to
be put into practice!)

On Sasha’s critique of the theory of sign mediation, I do not
recognize Vygotsky’s actual theory in his commentary. I am also quite
uncomfortable using this theory as representative of Vygotsky's
overall theorizing. I think it misses out on the strong Marxist
approach Vygotsky worked with.

I applaud Sasha’s call for emancipation from wage labor and alienated
work conditions, but I do not believe Vygotsky was talking about
political signs adulating capitalist industrial practices when he
talked about psychological signs, as Sasha seems to interpreting the
theory of sign mediation to be about. Perhaps I am misreading Sasha.
To understand his critique, I would have to ask Sasha to point to
actual things Vygotsky wrote.

On his example of wage labor, I question the one-sided way it seems
that Sasha suggests that at “the basis of relation[s] of wage labour
lies naked S=>R relations.” It is certainly true that social
relations and physical conditions can deteriorate to terrible lows in
capitalist industry, but humans, except in the most extreme
conditions, are rarely fully divested of their upper mental functions
and reduced to just animal reactions, naked S=>R relations. When this
happens, of course, humans can’t work. Not that one doesn't feel like
that at the end of the work day sometimes! Such a situation could
indeed happen in a concentration camp, conditions of prison torture,
etc., where people can truly “lose their minds” for the moment, maybe
for a while. But it is precisely the (contradictory) meditational
aspects of human psychology and social reality that makes it possible
for workers and anyone to be human – not to mention up for and fight
for their humanity - isn’t it? It is that mediational element between
the Stimulus and the Response that gives us the power to be human, and
even the power just to do even menial work. The capitalists impose a
mode of production that seeks to completely ignore this mediational
element it - but at their peril. In reality, compromises are worked
out on shop floors and all workplaces day by day, minute by minute.
Workers can get treated like semi-animals (with language and skills!),
but they don't become animals.

When Marx talked about the task of the emancipation of workers being
the task of the workers themselves, I think he was talking about
taking our humanity (despite the capitalist's exploitation of it) on
the job and generalizing that toward creating a new kind of society.
The first step is to see the humanity that does exist in the work
process, including the capitalist work process. Sasha's descriptions
seem to lose sight of that first step.

I believe that Ilyenkov’s theory of the ideal solves important
problems with the instrumental level of analysis Vygotsky was using to
distinguish tools and signs, and to understand and describe the
fundamentally meditational character of human upper mental functions.
The theory of the ideal in my opinion is still only tentatively being
integrated into CHAT – it has important contributions still to make.

Similarly, Leontiev’s theory of object-oriented activity solves some
very important limitations that first generation CHAT was facing
trying to analyze the complex subject-object relations that psychology
must address. This theory is also only tentatively accepted and
integrated into mainstream CHAT today. Some question whether it even
belongs in CHAT.

As for the history of CHAT, rather than draw a picture of reactionary
errors and complete failures, as Sasha seems to (and others sometimes
do, too), I prefer viewing these theoretical developments a little
less dramatically and more cerebrally, in terms of lines of
development, obstacles, wrong directions, and new leaps. Sasha takes
pains to emphasize the good intentions of both Vygotsky and Leontiev.
I see no reason not to maintain this spirit in our historical analyses
of both their accomplishments and their shortcomings, and those of
others in the CHAT tradition. Even in errors are important seeds of
progress, which should not be lost sight of. Phraseology like
“reactionary” and “totally failed” creates a one-sided view of serious
work that can obscure vision of actual development. An effective
dialectical criticism needs above all to show where things are going,
not just where they have stalled.

Sasha’s criticism of Leontiev on viewing activity and perception only
in terms of the “bare-handed” individual is interesting. For me,
specific passages where Leontiev does this are needed for me to
understand this criticism. As for the ideas about the shared cultural
tool Sasha attributes to Ilyenkov and A. Meshcheriakov, these ideas
certainly seem worth explaining and having appropriate writings on
this referred to.

Finally, Sasha’s table offers an interesting look at how he sees CHAT
as developing. Despite his sharp rhetoric and negative assessments
about Vygotsky and Leontiev, when all is said and done, I don’t see
the sense of the direction of CHAT as radically different from most
others in CHAT, at least judging from this commentary.

I see a lot of work still laying ahead of us in the CHAT world just
grasping what Vygotsky, Leontiev and Ilyenkov said, and putting it
together into an integrated theory of psychology – or rather, part of
the basis for such a theory. These three writers of course are only
the top of a pyramid of researchers, philosophers, sociologists,
psychologists, thinkers that need to be critiqued and integrated.
Underlying all this effort is the desire and hope for a new kind of
psychology – which is what Vygotsky called for, and I think in one way
or another, unites us.

I hope Sasha continues to share the work he and his colleagues have
been doing. If he has a chance to elaborate on some of his specific
readings of Vygotsky and Leontiev and others, all the better.

- Steve

On Dec 28, 2008, at 7:06 PM, Alexander Surmava wrote:

> Dear XMCA'ers,
> Because the text with my reflections contains a table and some other
> difficult for reproduction in "plain text" formatting I attach the
> MSWord
> file to this post.
> Cheers,
> Sasha
> <About Anna's and Peter's
> article.doc>_______________________________________________
> xmca mailing list

xmca mailing list
Received on Tue Dec 30 15:25:50 2008

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Tue Jan 06 2009 - 13:39:39 PST