Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Reading :: Lenin

Lenin: A Biography
By Robert Service


I read this thick (494pp. without notes) biography as part of my quest to better understand the Russian milieu in which activity theory developed. Service has also written biographies of Stalin and Trotsky; the latter was pilloried for multiple errors. The Amazon reviews for the Lenin book are generally positive, but some complain that the book is too full of trivia, speculates too much, and doesn't do enough context-setting to understand Lenin's decisions well; it reduces him to a megalomaniac.

My reading was not so harsh. The book certainly has flaws, but I found a lot to like in it. Some of the details were amusing—for instance, as a baby, young Vladimir "as a baby had short, weak legs and a large head. He kept falling over, apparently because he was top heavy" (p.32). At 10, his favorite book was Harriet Beecher Stowe's antislavery classic Uncle Tom's Cabin (p.43), which deeply impressed him (although later in life, he apparently could not see the parallel to the forced labor camps the Cheka would later set up). As a teen, he became infatuated with Chernyshevski's socialist novel What is to be Done? (p.65), which later furnished the title for one of his own books.

Service notes that Lenin's brother Alexander Ulyanov, as a university student in St. Petersburg, became involved in a plot against the czar and was hanged. This event was a turning point for the family: their climb into the nobility was reversed, their place in society was worsened, and the children had trouble finding their own places at universities. Lenin himself only made it through part of a semester at the University of Kazan before being implicated in demonstrations and expelled. (He later stood for exams after self-study and passed with high marks.)

Through the biography, we follow Lenin as he joins the socialists, gets arrested, is sent to exile in Siberia, marries an activist (in what Service implies is a marriage of convenience), leaves the country, and begins publishing his works.
Through Marx and Engels he 'knew' that the future would bring about a final and wonderful stage in world history. His life had purpose. Lenin clung to a rock of attitudes and assumptions, and on it he was able to construct almost any notions about politics and economics he wanted. Overtly he claimed that Marxism had a readily identifiable logic that permitted development of one single policy for any given situation. But this was pretence. What he really assumed by this was that his own version of Marxism was the sole authentic one. (p.237)
As Service tells it, Lenin was sure not that he was on the right side of history, but that history was on his side. Both in exile and after the Revolution, he was an inveterate splitter, inciting schisms within the Party; when people across the aisle disagreed with him on minor matters, he vilified them as being no better than capitalists and imperialists.

He was also indefatigable. For instance, when things went bad for the Bolsheviks after the February Revolution, he had to flee to the countryside and live with Zinoviev in a wooden hut in a hayfield. There, he resumed his work on Marxist political theory, The State and Revolution, which would eventually be published after the October Revolution.

One continual theme in Lenin's books and speeches was that the world was on the brink of a socialist revolution, and indeed one would have to happen if the Soviet experiment were to survive (cf. pp.315-316, 396). But this belief was not shared by others in the Bolshevik leadership, such as Kamanev and Zinoviev (p.304).

The way Service tells it, Lenin was inconsistent in his philosophy and arguments, an inveterate splitter, an absolutist, someone who was animated by hatred of the aristocracy even though he was accustomed to the benefits of being near it. Lenin lived out the end of his life, Service says, being shut out of Party leadership; the Party even considered printing up dummy issues of the party newspaper with Lenin's contributions so he wouldn't know that these contributions were not accepted (p.472). But the cult of Lenin was strong enough that, once he passed away, Stalin swiftly positioned himself as its high priest.

Should you read this book? I found it helpful, but I agree with the Amazon commenters who complain about its sometimes narrow focus. Still, if you're looking for an introductory biography, check it out.

Reading :: Dialectical Logic (second reading)

Dialectical Logic
By Evald Ilyenkov


The last time I reviewed this book, in 2005, a new copy was only available on marxists.org. But now the print version (Creative Commons license, of course) is available from the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute (you have to buy it via PayPal) as well as through Amazon. Insert ironic commentary here. I am not a fan of the amateurish page layout and typography, but the book is readable, sturdy enough, and more convenient than reading the text in pieces on marxists.org.

Reading the book ten years later, I have a better background for understanding it. I've read Marx and Engels more extensively, I've read Lenin, and I've read Bakhurst's survey of Ilyenkov and his Soviet philosophical milieu. And I am more aware of the author's constraints as a philosopher in a country in which philosophy was largely reduced to Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy, a country that had just recently emerged from Stalinism. Let's see if these new experiences get us somewhere different in terms of this second review.

From the first page, Ilyenkov seeks cover for his project from Lenin, from whom he also borrows his polemics:
The task, bequeathed to us by Lenin, of creating a Logic (with a capital ‘L’), i.e. of a systematically developed exposition of dialectics understood as the logic and theory of knowledge of modern materialism, has become particularly acute today. The clearly marked dialectical character of the problems arising in every sphere of social life and scientific knowledge is making it more and more clear that only Marxist-Leninist dialectics has the capacity to be the method of scientific understanding and practical activity, and of actively helping scientists in their theoretical comprehension of experimental and factual data and in solving the problems they meet in the course of research. (p.1)
Dialectical logic, he says, paraphrasing Engels, is the science of development of all things, material and spiritual (pp.2-3). In the first part of the book, he sets off to trace the development of dialectical logic through Spinoza (Ch.2), Kant (Ch.3), Fichte (Ch.4), Schelling (Ch.5), Hegel (Ch.6), and Feuerbach (Ch.7).

From Spinoza, he advances the propositions that (a) nature itself thinks through man (p.18) and "thinking is not the product of an action but the action itself" (p.19).

From Fichte, he lifts the insight that "either the principle of contradiction was absolute (but then no synthesis was possible in general, not uniting of different determinations) or there was development and a synthesis of the determinations of concepts (and they did not conform to the absolute requirements of the principle of contradiction)" (p.75)—that is, we can understand contradiction as possible because of development.

From Schelling, he continues this line of thought: activity is always open-ended; fixed, it ceases to be activity (p.78). He also endorses Schelling's idea that in two phases of a dynamic process, the two "objects" appear mutually contradictory even though they are actually the same, one developed more than the other (p.89). This argument becomes key later in the book. Alas, he says, "Schelling confirmed dialectics as the genuine theory of scientific knowledge, but then broke all its links with logic" (p.94).

In the second half of the book, Ilyenkov discusses problems of Marxist dialectics. One such problem is that of the ideal, which is more or less recapitulated from The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx's Capital:
The ideal existed immediately only as the form (mode, image) of the activity of social man (i.e. of a quite objective, material being), directed to the external world. When, therefore, we spoke of the material system, of which the ideal was the function and mode of existence, that system was only social man in unity with the objective world through which he exercised his specifically human life activity. The ideal thus did not boil down to the state of matter found in the cranium of the individual, i.e. the brain. It was the special function of man as the subject of social labour activity, accomplished in forms created by preceding development. (p.152)
Notice the familiar Marx-Engels origin story of man as self-made through social labor. This story is developed further in this book:
The ideal is therefore nothing else than the form of things, but existing outside things, namely in man, in the form of his active practice, i.e. it is the socially determined form of the human being’s activity. In nature itself, including the nature of man as a biological creature, the ideal does not exist. As regards the natural, material organisation of the human body it has the same external character as it does in regard to the material in which it is realised and objectified in the form of a sensuously perceived thing. Thus the form of a jar growing under the hands of a potter does not form part either of the piece of clay or of the inborn, anatomical, physiological organisation of the body of the individual functioning as potter. Only insofar as man trains and exercises the organs of his body on objects created by man for man does he become the bearer of the active forms of social man’s activity that create the corresponding objects. 
It is clear that the ideal, i.e. the active form of social man’s activity, is immediately embodied, or as it is now fashionable to say, is ‘coded’, in the form of the neuro-cerebral structures of the cortex of the brain, i.e. quite materially. But the material being of the ideal is not itself ideal but only the form of its expression in the organic body of the individual. In itself the ideal is the socially determined form of man’s life activity corresponding to the form of its object and product. To try and explain the ideal from the anatomical and physiological properties of the body of the brain is the same unfruitful whim as to try and explain the money form of the product of labour by the physico-chemical features of gold. Materialism in this case does not consist at all in identifying the ideal with the material processes taking place in the head. Materialism is expressed here in understanding that the ideal, as a socially determined form of the activity of man creating an object in one form or another, is engendered and exists not in the head but with the help of the head in the real objective activity (activity on things) of man as the active agent of social production. (pp.154-155)
Here we get an argument that is familiar to, or at least amenable to, activity theorists. In activity theory, the activity is the unit of analysis because it is the smallest meaningful unit. Here, Ilyenkov similarly argues that the ideal exists only in a unit of activity. Even traits that are encoded in the cortex—for instance, the speech center of the brain—emerge from and make sense only within human social activity. Indeed, "determination of the ideal is especially dialectical" (p.156): it exists only in the cyclic movement from thing to deed to word to deed to thing (p.157). As Ilyenkov says later in the chapter:
the ideal as a form of human activity exists only in that activity, and not in its results, because the activity is a constant, continuing negation of the existing, sensuously perceived forms of things, is their change and sublation into new forms, taking place in accordance with general patterns expressed in ideal forms. When an object has been created society’s need for it is satisfied; the activity has petered out in its product, and the ideal itself has died. (pp.162-163, his emphasis)
In Ch.10, Ilyenkov affirms with all Marxists that contradiction is the real nucleus of dialectics (p.189). "Dialectics as logic is the means of resolving these contradictions" (p.190).

Readers, I confess that I am often bored by philosophical discussions, so I found this book to be a tough read in the sense of keeping interested in the discussion. But I also found it to be a tough read for other reasons. First, the polemic tone wore on me; I think Ilyenkov was imitating Lenin here, and perhaps the style worked better for the Soviet milieu than it does for me. Second, the argument seemed stretched at points. Bakhurst does a good job of discussing the leaps involved, particularly the claim that logical contradictions simply don't take account of development. But I'm less interested in the question of whether the claim makes sense and more interested in what Ilyenkov thought it did for logic, which was to differentiate dialectical logic as a superior account to that of formal logic due to its commitment to materialism and its attention to development.

Beyond that, I was interested in how Ilyenkov's account laid some of the foundations for Engestrom's later work. I intend to review the 20th anniversary version of Learning by Expanding soon, so this review was useful. If you have also been influenced by Engestrom's work, definitely check this book out.

Reading :: The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx's Capital (second reading)

The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx's Capital
By Evald Ilyenkov

This is my second review of Ilyenkov's 1960 book. My first review was 10 years ago, written as I was doing research for Network, but for my current project on the history of activity theory, I wanted to reread Ilyenkov's major books in context. Of course, you can never get eough context. I reread this book about six months ago, and have been trying to catch up with some of its influences (such as Lenin) and history since then, as well as commentary on Ilyenkov's works. So this review is influenced by those readings and specifically interested in how Ilyenkov was trying to solve problems that also cropped up in relation to activity theory's development.

Ilyenkov is interested in the abstract and the concrete. Why are abstract concepts considered different from concrete ones (p.13)? He reviews the history of the separation, from "logical treatises of medieval scholarship" (p.13) through Berkeley and Hume, Locke, Hobbes, Helvetius (p.16), Spinoza (p.17), Kant (p.24), Hegel (p.25), Mill (p.28), to Marx (p.32 et passim):
Marx defines the concrete as ‘the unity of diverse aspects. This definition may appear paradoxical from the standpoint of traditional formal logic: the reduction of the sensually given diversity to unity appears at first sight to be the task of abstract knowledge of things rather than of concrete one. From the point of view of this logic, to realise unity in the sensually perceived diversity of phenomena means to reveal the abstractly general, identical elements that all of these phenomena possess. This abstract unity, recorded in consciousness by means of a general term, appears at first sight to be that very ‘unity’ which is the only thing to be treated in logic. (p.32)
Ilyenkov explains that this definition makes sense dialectically:
When Marx defines the concrete as unity of diverse aspects, he assumes a dialectical interpretation of unity, diversity, and of their relationship. In dialectics, unity is interpreted first and foremost as connection, as interconnection and interaction of different phenomena within a certain system or agglomeration, and not as abstract likeness of these phenomena. Marx’s definition assumes exactly this dialectical meaning of the term ‘unity’. 
If one unfolds somewhat Marx’s aphoristically laconic formula, his definition of the concrete means literally the following: the concrete, concreteness, are first of all synonyms of the real links between phenomena, of concatenation and interaction of all aspects and moments of the object given to man in a notion. The concrete is thereby interpreted as an internally divided totality of various forms of existence of the object, a unique combination of which is characteristic of the given object only. Unity thus conceived is realised not through similarity of phenomena to each other but, on the contrary, through their difference and opposition. (pp.32-33)
That is, concreteness is defined through relations: the links rather than the node. Unity emerges from difference and opposition, which yield a unique combination (p.33). And this unity is not subjective:
The most important aspect of Marx’s definition of the concrete is that the concrete is treated first of all as an objective characteristic of a thing considered quite independently from any evolutions that may take place in the cognising subject. The object is concrete by and in itself, independent from its being conceived by thought or perceived by sense organs. Concreteness is not created in the process of reflection of the object by the subject either at the sensual stage of reflection or at the rational-logical one. (p.33)
Similarly, the abstract in Marx is not purely ideal, it's an objective characteristic. For instance, Marx calls gold the "material being of abstract wealth"; that doesn't make gold ideal, it simply describes gold's function within the capitalist formation (p.34). Ilyenkov argues:
‘The abstract’ in this kind of context, very frequent in Marx, assumes the meaning of the ‘simple’, undeveloped, one-sided, fragmentary, ‘pure’ (i.e., uncomplicated) by any deforming influences). It goes without saying that ‘the abstract’ in this sense can be an objective characteristic of real phenomena, and not only of phenomena of consciousness. (p.34).
Thus, Ilyenkov quotes Marx as saying, the abstract is a category of dialectics (p.35). It's not (necessarily) idealist, but rather something one can study materially. In fact, Ilyenkov suggests, we must: the concrete in thinking is a synthesis of numerous definitions, and it is realized in thinking through the abstract (p.37).

Indeed, he continues in the next chapter, for Marx and Engels,
definitions of concepts are nothing but definitions of different elements of the actual concreteness, that is, of the law-governed organisation of a system of relations of man to man and of man to things. Scientific study of this concrete reality must yield ‘abstract’ definitions of concepts expressing its structure, its organisation. Each abstract definition of the concept must express a discrete element that is actually (objectively) singled out in the concrete reality. The solution is very simple at first sight, yet it cuts it a stroke the Gordian knot of problems that idealist philosophy has so far been unable to unravel. (p.55)
 The idealist, mystical reading of the abstract is incorrect:
Marx uncovered this mystification by showing the reality of ‘the concrete’ as a whole system of interacting things, developing and resulting from development, as a whole divided in accordance with some law, rather than as an individual isolated thing. Given this interpretation, any shade of mystification disappears. 
The concrete (and not the abstract) – as reality taken as a whole in its development, in its law-governed division – is always something primary with respect to the abstract (whether this abstract should be construed as a separate relatively isolated moment of reality or its mental verbally recorded reflection). At the same time any concreteness exists only through its own discrete elements (things, relations) as their specific combination, synthesis, unity. (p.58)
Using this distinction, Ilyenkov later attempts a Marxist definition of man, grounded in Marxism's founding myth of mankind:
Nature as such creates absolutely nothing ‘human’. Man with all his specifically human features is from beginning to end the result and product of his own labour. Even walking straight, which appears at first sight man’s natural, anatomically innate trait, is in actual fact a result of educating the child within an established society: a child isolated from society à la Mowgli (and such cases are numerous) prefers to run on all fours, and it takes a lot of effort to break him of the habit. 
In other words, only those features, properties, and peculiarities of the individual that are ultimately products of social labour, are specifically human. Of course, it is mother nature that provides the anatonomic and physiological prerequisites. However, the specifically human form which they ultimately assume is the product of labour, and it can only be comprehended or deduced from labour. Conversely, all those properties of man that are not a product of labour, do not belong to the features expressing man’s essence (e.g., soft lobes of the ear, although they are a ‘specific feature’ of man and not of any other living being). (pp.71-72, my emphasis)
As I've noted elsewhere, this founding myth valorizes labor as what makes us human. Solzhenitsyn noted one of the moral problems with this account. But in this passage Ilyenkov even notes distinguishing physiological characteristics of humans and disallows them as markers of humanity, since they do not express the human essence as products of social labor. Now think through the implications for class (do the upper bourgeoise labor?) and contribution (do the severely disabled labor?).

In any case, Ilyenkov goes on to argue that
In other words, all those features the sum of which makes up the much talked-of essence of man, are results and products (ultimate ones, of course) of socio-human labour activity. Man does not owe them to nature as such, still less to a supernatural force, whether it be called God or by some other name (e.g., the Idea). He owes them only to himself and the labour of previous generations. This is even more true of the more complex forms of human activity, both sensual and objective (material) and spiritual, than of straight walking. 
Mankind’s culture accumulated throughout history appears to a modern individual as something primary, determining his individual human activity. From the scientific (materialist) point of view the individual, the human personality should therefore be regarded as a unitary embodiment of universal human culture, both material and spiritual. This culture is naturally realised in the individual in a more or less one-sided and incomplete manner. The extent to which an individual can make the riches of culture into his property does not depend on him alone; to a much greater degree it depends on society and on the mode of division of labour characteristic of society. 
Actual assimilation of some area of culture or other, some form of human activity or other, means assimilating it to such an extent as to be able to develop it further in an independent, individual, and creative manner. Nothing can be assimilated through passive contemplation – that is like building castles in the air. Assimilation without active practice yields no results. That is why the form of assimilating universal human culture by the individual is determined by the form of the division of labour. Of course, there is one-sidedness and one-sidedness. The principal achievement of Marx and Engels in the solution of this problem was their careful and concrete study of the contradictions of the bourgeois division of labour. (pp.72-73)
That is, the essence of man is the product of sociohuman labor activity and thus owed to past generations (not God). The human personality is the unitary embodiment of universal human culture. The assimilation of a specific culture or activity happens not through contemplation but through the division of labor. Contra Feuerbach:
According to the logic of Marx and Engels, a concrete theoretical conception of man, a concrete expression of the essence of man could only be formed in the diametrically opposite way, through considering exactly those differences and oppositions (class, professional, and individual) which Feuerbach ignores. The essence of man is real only as a well-developed and articulated system of abilities, as a complex system of the division of labour which, in accordance with its needs, moulds the individuals – mathematicians, philosophers, entrepreneurs, bankers, servants, etc. 
In other words, a theoretical definition of the essence of man can only consist in revealing the necessity which gives rise to and develops all the multiform manifestations and modes of socio-human activity. (pp.73-74)
 Ilyenkov immediately appeals to Engels' account of how humans arose from animals:
 Man, as is well-known, becomes separated from the animal world when he begins to work using implements of labour which he himself created. Production of labour implements is exactly the first and in time, logically and historically) form of human life-activity, of human existence.  
Thus the real universal basis of everything that is human in man is production of instruments of production. It is from this basis that other diverse qualities of the human being developed, including consciousness and will, speech and thinking, erect walk and all the rest of it. 
If one were to attempt a universal definition of man in general, a short definition of the concept, it would sound like this: ‘man is a being producing implements of labour’. That will be a characteristic example of a concrete universal definition of a concept.
The production of labor implements is the "simplest, elementary form of man's human being," realized in individual acts (p.75). Yet "the social act of the production of labor implements" has internal contradictions, resulting in "speech, will, thought, artistic feeling, and further, class division of the collective, emergence of law, politics, art, philosophy, state, etc." (p.75). Here, the universal is not opposed to the particular and individual; the unity of universal, particular, and individual are opposed to other unities in the same concrete, historically developed system. That is, the object has internal relations in its aspects (p.75).

Let's skip a bit. In Ch.2, Ilyenkov discusses the "spiral-like character of development of reality and its theoretical reflection" (p.114). Quoting Marx, he argues that the circular nature of interaction is a universal law of dialectics: a "spiral-like" development of systems of interacting phenomena (p.116), a system of mutually conditioning aspects (p.117). Ilyenkov's discussion of this point leads to Ch.3, "Ascent from the Abstract to the Concrete," in which he argues with Marx that one should begin with abstract definitions, then reproduce the concrete by way of thinking (p.135). In this approach, analysis and synthesis are interwoven (p.141). Concreteness, he says later, is linked with dialectical development: "self-development through contradictions" (p.155); longtime readers of this blog will recognize a theme that third-generation activity theorists in particular make a central tenet.

Later in the chapter, Ilyenkov quotes Engels in Dialectics of Nature to demonstrate the movement from the abstract to the concrete in Carnot; see my previous review for more on this aspect of Ilyenkov.

In Ch.4, "Logical Development and Concrete Historicism," Ilyeknov describes logical development as an expression of concrete historicism in investigation: "a historically posterior result arising from the entire preceding development does not remain merely a passive result, merely a consequence. Each newly arisen (higher) form of interaction becomes a now universal principle dominating all historically preceding forms, transforming them into secondary external forms of its specific development, into ‘organs of its body’, as Marx put it in connection with one instance of this kind. They begin to move according to laws characteristic of the new system of interaction in which they now function" (p.209). That is, the system is a developmental spiral in which one level of development becomes the new normal, setting the stage for the next:
In this case, too, development takes the spiral-like form which we analysed in the first part of the work as a most characteristic feature of internal interaction, of concreteness in the genuine sense of the concept. 
The necessarily assumed condition of historical emergence of the object becomes in this case the necessarily posited consequence of its specific development. 
In this form, the historically necessary conditions of the emergence of the object are preserved in its structure throughout its development, its specific movement. All those moments which, though present at the birth of the new form of development, were not absolutely necessary conditions of this birth, are not, in the final analysis, preserved or reproduced. These forms are not observed at the higher stages of development of the object – they disappear in the course of its historical maturing, becoming lost in the darkness of the past. 
For this reason, a logical consideration of the higher stage of development of an object, of an already developed system of interaction, reveals a picture in which all the really necessary conditions of its emergence and evolution are retained and all the more or less accidental, purely historical conditions of its emergence are absent. (p.210, his emphasis)
One can see why he asserts in the next section that "A concrete understanding of reality cannot be attained without a historical approach to it. The reverse is also true – historicism devoid of concreteness is pure fiction, pseudohistoricism" (p.212). The latter leads to attempting to trace every preceding condition, which he terms "bad infinity" (p.213). (I just want to go on record as suggesting "Bad Infinity" as a great book title.)

On to the next and last chapter, "The Method of Ascent from the Abstract to the Concrete in Marx’s Capital." Here, he discusses the dialectical understanding of contradiction as opposed to the logical understanding, a topic that he undertakes in more detail in his later book Dialectical Logic. (Bakhurst argues that Ilyenkov's argument is weak here, if memory serves, although that part of the book didn't make it into my review.) Here, Ilyenkov argues that while logical contradictions are disallowed,
Dialectics proceeds from a diametrically opposite view. Its solution of the problem is based first of all on the assumption that the objective world itself, the objective reality is a living system unfolding through emergence and resolutions of its internal contradictions. The dialectical method, dialectical logic demand that, far from fearing contradictions in the theoretical definition of the object, one must search for these contradictions in a goal-directed manner and record them precisely – to find their rational resolution, of course, not to pile up mountains of antimonies and paradoxes in theoretical definitions of things. 
The only way of attaining a rational resolution of contradictions in theoretical definition is through tracing the mode in which they are resolved in the movement of the objective reality, the movement and development of the world of things ‘in themselves’. (p.244, his emphasis)
So, rather than being disallowed, in dialectics we can see "Contradiction as a Principle of Development of Theory" (which is the title of the last section in this chapter). He argues:
Dialectics consists exactly in the ability to discern the inner contradiction of a thing, the stimulus of its self-development, where, the metaphysician sees only an external contradiction resulting from a more or less accidental collision of two internally non-contradictory things. 
Dialectics requires in this case that external contradiction of two things be interpreted as a mutually necessary manifestation of the inner contradiction of each of them. The external contradiction emerges as an inner identity of mutually exclusive moments mediated through a relation to something else and reflected through something else, as an internally contradictory relation of a thing to itself, that is, as a contradiction in one relation and at one and the same moment in time. Marx proceeds from an external manifestation of a contradiction to establishing the inner basis of this contradiction, from the appearance to the essence of this contradiction, whereas the metaphysician always tries to act in a precisely reverse manner, refuting the theoretical expression of the essence of a thing from the standpoint of external appearance, which he believes to be the only reality. (p.266)
For Ilyenkov, inner contradictions are crucial for understanding development. Interestingly, he argues that "external contradiction of two things be interpreted as a mutually necessary manifestation of the inner contradiction of each of them"—that is, external contradictions are important for development primarily because they exacerbate inner ones. Although Ilyenkov became crucial to Engestrom's third-generation understanding of activity theory, 3GAT focuses on interactions between activity systems and provides a fourfold typology of contradictions, including those between activity systems. It's a bit startling to read that external contradictions spark development primarily by exacerbating internal ones, and I'm not sure that I want to follow Ilyenkov here.

In any case, this book was even more thought-provoking the second time around. I'm glad I read it, and I'm also glad I took the time to read some of the other background around it. If you're interested in activity theory, contradictions, or Soviet philosophy, check it out.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Reading :: Language and Cognition

Language and Cognition
By A.R. Luria


Here's another book that I won't be able to review adequately. The material is thick and draws across many disciplines (Luria began in psychology, then studied neurology, then drew from linguistics and a number of other areas). But I'll hit what I think are the highlights for my current project.

First, the introduction, which James Wertsch wrote for this 1981 English edition. Wertsch asserts that "one can identify the origins of almost every aspect of Luria's approach in Vygotsky's writings of the 1920s and 1930s. However, that does not mean that Luria simply added a few minor details to a complete theoretical framework. His development of Vygotsky in light of modern linguistic and neurophysiological research constitutes a major accomplishment" (p.2). Wertsch notes that Luria acknowledged his debt to Vygotsky (p.2) and identifies three themes that characterize their research:
(1) the use of genetic (or developmental) explanation, (2) the search for the social origins of human psychological functioning, and (3) an emphasis on the role of sign systems in mediating social and individual processes. These three themes provided the cornerstones of Vygotsky's attempt to reformulate psychology on Marxist foundations. They have guided the research of Luria as well as the research of Vygotsky's other followers (e.g., D.B. El'konin, P.Ya. Gal'perin, A.N. Leont'ev, and A.V. Zaprozhets). (p.3)
Note that this claim papers over the differences between Vygotsky and the others, specifically in point (3). It's not inaccurate, but it does portray the relationship in the same way that Leont'ev chose to portray it after winning the Lenin Prize in 1963 and as Luria later portrayed it in his autobiography. Wertsch follows this line in describing Vygotsky, Leontiev, and Luria as the "troika," with the latter two developing the ideas of the first. Luria "developed Vygotsky's ideas in the areas of neurophysiology, neuropsychology, developmental psychology, neurolinguistics, and cross-cultural studies" and Leontiev "developed the philosophical foundations of a general Marxist psychology" (p.8). And Wertsch notes that Luria was deeply influenced by Leontiev's work, using terms such as "activity," "action," and "operation" the same way that activity theorists do (p.8).

Now to the book itself. The sixteen chapters cover a range of material: the problem of language in consciousness (Ch.1), words and word meanings (Ch.2-3), concept development and semantic fields (Ch.4-5), speech, inner speech, and thought (Ch.6-7), sentences, complex utterances, and speech utterances (Ch.8-11), comprehension, language, and discursive thinking (Ch.12-16).

The book's debt—or perhaps careful obesiance—to Marxism-Leninism is evident from the first page of the first chapter, in which Luria approvingly quotes Lenin: "Lenin pointed out repeatedly that the study of cognition, and hence of science, is not so much a study of things in and of themselves, as the interrelationship among them" (p.17). Lenin said a lot of things, and many of them contradicted each other, but Luria expertly uses this quote to frame the problem of cognition in Vygotksy's terms:
What was Vygotsky's proposal? His basic position sounds paradoxical. It is as follows: In order to explain the highly complex forms of human consciousness one must go beyond the human organism. One must seek the origins of conscious activity and "categorical" behavior not in the recesses of the human brain or in the depths of the spirit, but in the external conditions of life. Above all, this means that one must seek these origins in the external processes of social life, in the social and historical forms of human existence. (p.25, his emphasis)
Luria asserts that
humans differ from other animals because, with the transition to sociohistorical existence, to labor, and to the forms of social life associated with it, all basic categories of man's behavior undergo a radical change. Human activity is founded on social labor and the division of social labor. These aspects of human life give rise to new forms of behavior that are independent of biological motives. Direct, instinctive behavior yields to complex, indirect behavior. (p.26)
He goes on to cite Leontiev on the structure of activity. Notice that although the origin of man is consonant with both Vygotsky's and Leontiev's accounts (which are both drawn from Engels), the interpretation is Leontiev's: labor, not sign systems, is taken to be the crucial foundation. But Luria also gives language its due, again drawing from the Engels origin story:
As Engels correctly pointed out, it was in the process of social labor that the need arose for people to say something to each other, to specify the situation in which they are participating, and to convey the information which emerges as a result of the division of labor. ... The birth of language led to the appearance of a whole system of codes signifying objects and actions. ... (pp.26-27)
That system of codes came to assume a decisive importance for the further development of human conscious activity. ... (p.27)
Language, in the course of social history, became the decisive instrument which helped humans transcend the boundaries of sensory experience, to assign symbols, and to formulate certain generalizations or categories. That is, if humans had not possessed the capacity for labor and had not had language, they would not have developed abstract, "categorical" thinking. (p.27)
No language, no labor, no abstract thought or categorical behavior. So, Luria counsels us, seek their origins "in the social forms of human historical existence"; this is "the basic position of a Marxist psychology" (p.27).

Throughout the rest of the book, Luria repeatedly credits Vygotsky with advances: understanding that "word meaning" and thus the structure of consciousness "develops even after the object reference of the word is stabilized" (p.53); formulating the zone of proximal development (pp.64-65); understanding voluntary acts when superficial Pavlovians and behaviorists couldn't (p.89); truly understanding inner speech when the Piagetans couldn't (p.104); and understanding a thought as completed in, not simply embodied by, speech (p.150). He sometimes explains Vygotsky's observations from Luria's own vantage point as a neurologist (ex: p.108).

Luria contrasts monologic and dialogic speech in Ch.11, but not in a Bakhtinian sense. He argues (implausibly to my mind) that written speech is always monologic, clarifying, and without an addressee (p.166)—"written speech... always remains speech in the absence of an interlocutor" (p.167).

Overall, the book constitutes such a broad sweep, and Luria delves into fields that are unfamiliar enough to me, that I had a hard time getting my arms around this book. I think I'll return to it. And of course I recommend it to those of you who are interested in activity theory.

Reading :: The Wide Lens

The Wide Lens: What Successful Innovators See That Others Miss
By Ron Adner


Let's take a short break from all of the Soviet-era readings I've been doing lately and instead look at a contemporary book on innovation ecosystems.

This short book, frankly, could have been even shorter. The author has a worthwhile idea—helping people to understand and map the innovation ecosystems that can make their innovations a success. But, in the style of many business books, it overexplains the concept and provides so many examples that the book feels less substantial than it really is.

In short, the author argues the following. In an interdependent world, "the success of a value proposition depends on creating an alignment of partners who must work together in order to transform an idea to a market success" (p.4). That means making sure that those partners can also innovate so that your own innovation can matter, and that others have to adopt the innovation before the customer can assess the value proposition (p.7). An easy example is the success of the iPod, which depended on iTunes, which had to strike partnerships with music labels to sell singles online; without the partnerships, the iPod's value proposition was much diminished (Ch.6).

So far, so familiar. But the author articulates the challenges involved by producing a set of terms, concepts, and heuristics to help innovators achieve aligned innovation ecosystems. For instance, the author advocates going beyond value propositions to "value blueprints," maps of the actors (suppliers, intermediaries, complementors, end customers) and links that make up the innovation ecosystems, as well as the risks involved. Colors indicate each actor's level of adoption within the system: green=in place, yellow=a plan to be in place, red=not in place, no clear plan (pp.85-87). For ecosystems that aren't well configured, the author suggests five levers for reconfiguring them: relocate, separate, add, subtract, and combine (p.178). And, borrowing the term "minimum viable product," the author argues that we should think in terms of "minimum viable ecosystems" (p.198) that allow you to "build collaboration and achieve scaled deployment" (p.202, footnote).

In all, it's an engaging and clearly written book with helpful heuristics. If you have an innovation that requires an ecosystem, take a look.