Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Reading :: Activity, Consciousness, and Personality (supplemental notes on dialectic)

Originally posted: Tue, 04 Jan 2005 22:40:35
I've reviewed this book before, but I reread it with an emphasis on dialectical materialism, just as I have recently done with Vygotsky's books. Some fumbling observations:
First, Leontiev is writing considerably later than Vygotsky. Vygotsky's books were published in the 1930s; Leontiev's conclusion cites a journal from 1974. In the space of those four decades Soviet psychology had changed quite a bit due to the work of Leontiev, Luria, Rubenstein, etc. World War II, the Cold War, and the Stalinist years all happened. So it's a little surprising -- but on the other hand, perhaps not surprising at all -- that Leontiev is still working on many of the same problems and tying his work even more closely to Marx's and Engels' work. Take this passage from the introduction: "Here, however, we are concerned with something else: with the working out on a Marxist philosophical basis of the special problems of the methodology of psychology as a concrete science. This requires penetration into the 'internal economics,' so to speak, of theoretical thought" (p.3). This analogizing of psychology with economics is more than protective coloring for the censors, I think; it also suggests to me that Marxist psychology had trouble developing beyond Marx's original ideas.
Foremost among those ideas is dialectical materialism. Of that, Leontiev says: "Not only concepts but also our sensory representations are dialectical. For this reason they are capable of fulfilling a function that cannot be reduced to the role of set standard models corresponding to the effects received by receptors from isolated objects. Like the psychic image, representations exist insepearable from the subject's activity, and they fill it with the riches accumulated in them and make it alive and creative" (p.43). In case we don't get the message, in his conclusion he approvingly cites the English authors of the journal Cognition (1974): "The only alternative to reductionism is dialectic materialism." "This is actually so," he adds. "Scientific resolution of the problem, biological and psychological, psychological and social, is simply impossible outside the Marxist system of analysis" (p.142). Consequently, throughout the book we see the same sort of on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand, look-let's-put-the-hands-together (dialectical) reasoning that Vygotsky used throughout Thought and Language. For instance, on p.61, the distinction between internal and external activity is portrayed in these terms.
Clearly Vygotsky has had a deep impact on this work. In addition to the occasional cites, Leontiev uses concepts that seem genetically related to Vygotsky's. For instance: Thought and Language is still fresh on my mind, so when Leontiev says that "Human activity does not exist except in the form of action or a chain of actions" (p.64), I realized that there's quite a bit of similarity between Leontiev's three-level scheme of activity (operation-action-activity) and Vygotsky's discussion of complexes vs. concepts. Just as concepts are "higher" forms of thinking that provide unity at a level of abstraction and represent a higher level of development, actions are "higher" principles of goal-directed organization. Just as complexes can be in chains, so are operations essentially chains. Actions and operations might appear identical, but the difference is that one is goal-directed and the other is not, one is conscious and purposeful while the other is unconscious and reactionary, one is related to goals and the other is related to conditions (p. 65); compare to concepts vs. pseudoconcepts. And also compare these to Vygotsky's take on dialogue as a chain of reactions.
But Leontiev has developed this notion of developmental levels into a hierarchy and has also developed the notion of tool mediation quite a bit more. Here, I think Marx is his guide, as when he says that tools are "obviously" where methods and operations are crystallized, not goals or conditions (p.66).
Although Leontiev is keenly interested in tools, most of his work has to do with connecting individual and societal activity. Of this activity, he says, "The activity of man historically does not change its general structure, its 'macrostructure.' At all stages of historical development, it is realized by conscious actions in which a transition of goals into objective products is accomplished and which is subordinated to the modives that elicit it. What is radically changed is the character of the relationships that connect goals and motives of activity" (p.91). These relationships don't just form activity, they form consciousness. "Thus man's consciousness, like activity itself, is not additive. It is not a plane, nor even a volume, filled with images and processes. It is not connections of his separate 'units' but an internal movement of his formers, activities included in total movement realizing the real life of the individual in society. The activity of man makes up the substance of his consciousness" (p.95).
And here we get back to the dialectical reasoning that we see throughout much of the book. Leontiev criticizes psychology for dividing psychological factors into heredity and environment (nature and nurture) (p.101). When we examine individuals, we find that the two factors have a dialectical relationship: "The personality, like the individual, is a product of the integration of processes that realize the life relationships of the subject. There exists, however, a fundamental difference of this special formation, which we call personality. It is determined by the nature of the very relationships that form it: the social relations specific for man into which he enters in his objective activity." And "like these activities themselves, the process of their unification -- origin, development, and disintegration of the connections between them -- is a process of a special type, subject to special laws" (p.109). Again, we see this focus on "integration of processes" that we saw in Vygotsky, and this integration is conceived as dialectical.
(Note to myself: Go back and compare this notion of mediation with Latour's account from Pandora's Hope. How thoroughly is dialectic integrated into activity theory's account of mediation?)
Back to personality formation. Leontiev criticizes the "fetishism" that dominates psychology, in which personality is attributed to the nature of the individual, whereas its manifestations change "under the influence of external environment alone" (p.109). This fetishism "is the result of ignoring that most important position that the subject, entering into society in a new system of relationships, also acquires new -- systemic -- qualities that alone form the real character of the personality: psychological when the subject is considered within the system of activities realizing his life in society, social when we consider him in the system of objective relationships in society as their 'personification'" (pp.109-110). He says that the principal methodological problem is "the problem of duality of qualities of social objects, which is engendered by the duality of the objective relationships in which they exist." But "the true way to investigate personality lies in the study of those transformations of the subject ... which are the result of the self-movement of his activity in the system of social relations" (p.110).
In terms of personality, "'knots' that connect separate activities are tied not by the action of biological or spiritual forces of the subject which lie within him but by that system of relationships into which the subject enters" (p.114). Leontiev here is talking about the interrelated activities into which the individual enters, not the interrelationship of chained activities -- the latter has been underdeveloped in activity theory until recently. His example: A child is asked to get an object that was out of reach, without leaving his place. "As soon as the child began to solve the problem the experimenter went into an adjoining room from which he continued the observation, using the optical apparatus that is usually used for such observations. After a series of unsuccessful attempts, the child got up, approached the object, took it, and quietly returned to his place. The experimenter immediately came to the child, praised him for success, and offered him a piece of chocolate as a reward. The child, however, refused it and when the experimenter began to question him the youngster quietly began to cry." Leontiev says that the child wept because he found himself in a conflict or "collision" between two activities (p.114). These sorts of coordinations -- and conflicts -- among activities are evidence of the forming of personality (p.115). "Behind the relationship of activities there is a relationship of motives" (p.115).
Leontiev discusses the development of the child's personality through relationships to things and people -- two different types of relationships that are initially merged, "but later they separate and form various, although interconnected, lines of development merging one with another." These transitions "are expressed in alternating phases": practical and cognitive phases alternating with societal phases. "As a result, there appear those hierarchical connections of motives that form the 'knots' of personality" (p.126). Compare to Bakhtin's explanation of dialogue, which is developmentally less rich and well grounded, but which also doesn't rely on dialectic and allows for "unmerged" aspects of personality.

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