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

From: Haydi Zulfei <haydizulfei who-is-at>
Date: Wed Dec 31 2008 - 01:44:19 PST

Dear Steve,
Thank you . Always being the first to help a complicated sensitive discussion to blossom let alone the nice excellent editing and exposition of ideas intertwined in an article . Sasha , of course , knows and is conscious of what he means . And [[“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.”]] I would think of it as being "in the least" . And on page 45 of the text Andy and Michael were so kind to donate as something invaluable (The Problem of ...) , we have this as a footnote
[[32 This hypothesis of the genesis and nature of sensitivity was developed
by the author jointly with A. V. Zaporozhets (1936).]] Is it available in English ? Where ? Jreep? Any  help ? Thanks in advance . Best   Haydi

--- On Tue, 12/30/08, Steve Gabosch <> wrote:

From: Steve Gabosch <>
Subject: Re: [xmca] The belated reflections on Anna's and Peter's article
To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <>
Date: Tuesday, December 30, 2008, 11:19 PM

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

“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 Leont'ev.”

“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 Vygotsky?”

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

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 Leontiev.

“… 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 activity.”

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

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 machine.

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

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

“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

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 principle.”

“ … 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 himself.

“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 Vygotsky.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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 thread:

“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
> xmca mailing list

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Received on Wed Dec 31 01:46:06 2008

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