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

From: Steve Gabosch <stevegabosch who-is-at>
Date: Wed Dec 31 2008 - 05:17:49 PST

Yikes! I did not realize I managed to send out two earlier versions
of what I was putting together. The last one is the one most worked
on. Please ignore the first two. Hopefully they don't have something

Thanks for your response, Sasha. Looking forward to hearing more from

Happy New Year to all from me as well,
- Steve

On Dec 30, 2008, at 4:50 PM, Alexander Surmava wrote:

> Thank you Steve,
> your summery of my text is absolutely adequate and your comments are
> inspiring to detailed answer.
> I try to write it as soon as possible, but...
> In new year :-)
> Thank you again
> And A Happy New Year to all XMCA'ers!!!
> Sasha
> -----Original Message-----
> From: [mailto:xmca-
>] On
> Behalf Of Steve Gabosch
> Sent: Wednesday, December 31, 2008 2:19 AM
> To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
> Subject: Re: [xmca] The belated reflections on Anna's and Peter's
> article
> 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
> 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 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
> 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 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
> movement.”
> “ … 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 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
> 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 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
> 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
>> article.doc>_______________________________________________
>> xmca mailing list
> _______________________________________________
> xmca mailing list
> _______________________________________________
> xmca mailing list

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