Thursday, October 30, 2003

Reading:: Activity, Consciousness, and Personality

Originally posted: Thu, 30 Oct 2003 22:33:42
Activity, Consciousness, and Personality
by Aleksie Nikolaevich Leont'ev
I usually link to's listing for each book I read, but this book has been out of print for a long time. Fortunately, it's available online in two versions: the HTML version at and the PDF scans at the MCA website (complete with someone's notes in the margin). That's a very good thing, because this book is a synopsis of much of the "second stage" development of activity theory.
As with most Soviet texts of this era (1978), the book contains many glowing references to the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, etc. -- especially in the first chapter and near the beginning of each chapter, where the censors would look. In works such as Mikhail Bakhtin's, these sorts of references tended to be subterfuges meant to smuggle in the non-Marxist or anti-Marxist ideas he wanted to talk about; here, Leont'ev is clearly a Marxist and has based his work squarely on Marxist insights. (So did Vygotsky, but his books were banned in a later era because they took Marx's work as a starting point rather than as the final word.) Starting with familiar ground such as historical materialism, mediation, and division of labor, and building on Vygotsky's pioneering work in the field, Leont'ev fleshes out the theory of activity in ways that scale it up from individual to organizational activity. Here, for the first time, we see most of the familiar components of activity theory: the levels of activity; the structure of an activity system; the separation of activity from motive, action from goal, operation from conditions. We see the famous (well, famous in AT circles) illustration of shifting gears as an example of actions becoming operations. Chapters 3 and 4 are the pivotal ones here, and they shed quite a bit of light on these important elements. No, Leont'ev doesn't use a lot of triangles -- the archetypical AT triangle was an innovation by Engestrom -- but you can see how Leont'ev's work inspired those triangles.
The book isn't perfect. For one thing, it's a summary of years and years of research, so you don't see the detailed empirical cases upon which Leont'ev bases his conclusions. Unlike his book Problems of the Development of Mind, which details several imaginative and fascinating experiments along with statistical tables, this one speaks in generalities. The many references to the superiority of Soviet psychology in Ch. 1 get tiresome. The references to essential differences between simians and humans are dated and not borne out by contemporary research. And in many cases the text is fairly dry. But those drawbacks shouldn't keep us from treasuring this important and insightful book and blessing those good folks who put it online. Thanks.

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