By A.N. Leontyev
This book is available for free in web and PDF versions at the Marxists Internet Archive, along with many, many others. It's a combination of Leontyev's 1977 essay by the same name (which is laid out as an unnumbered chapter at the beginning) and his 1978 book Activity, Consciousness, and Personality (which I've reviewed twice before). Andy Blunden did us the great service of typesetting the two works in a single volume, which I ended up reading on my tablet.
As noted, the book is a classic in which Leontyev lays out what is sometimes, from a Scandinavian or CHAT perspective, called second-generation activity theory. Whereas Vygotsky laid out the basic project of a Marxist social psychology, Leontyev and collaborators (such as Luria) developed that project, extending it beyond individual to collective phenomena. Unlike Vygotsky, who died early, Leontyev lived and was active until his death in 1979.
I'm revisiting Leontyev's writings now because I'm interested in further exploring how activity theory (AT) developed as well as in comparing Leontyev's understanding with that of Engestrom, who introduced AT to Western audiences and extended it in significant ways. I'm also interested in seeing how Leontyev anchors his work in orthodox Marxist texts, particularly the writings of Marx and Engels.
Activity and Consciousness
In this opening essay, Leontyev examines the question of consciousness: "we postulate that consciousness is determined by being, which, in the words of Marx, is nothing else but the process of the actual life of people." He continues:
But what is the actual or real life of people?
Being, the life of each individual is made up of the sum-total or, to be more exact, a system, a hierarchy of successive activities. It is in activity that the transition or “translation” of the reflected object into the subjective image, into the ideal, takes place; at the same time it is also in activity that the transition is achieved from the ideal into activity’s objective results, its products, into the material. Regarded from this angle, activity is a process of intertraffic between opposite poles, subject and object. (p.3)And on the next page:
The basic, constituent feature of activity is that it has an object. In fact, the very concept of activity (doing, Tätigkeit) implies the concept of the object of activity. The expression “objectless activity” has no meaning at all. Activity may appear to be objectless, but the scientific investigation of activity necessarily demands the discovery of its object. Moreover, the object of activity appears in two forms: first, in its independent existence, commanding the activity of the subject, and second, as the mental image of the object, as the product of the subject’s “detection” of its properties, which is effected by the activity of the subject and cannot be effected otherwise.
The circular nature of the processes effecting the interaction of the organism with the environment has been generally acknowledged. But the main thing is not this circular structure as such, but the fact that the mental reflection of the objective world is not directly generated by the external influences themselves, but by the processes through which the subject comes into practical contact with the objective world, and which therefore necessarily obey its independent properties, connections, and relations. This means that the afferent agent, which controls the processes of activity, is primarily the object itself and only secondarily its image as the subjective product of activity, which registers, stabilizes and carries in itself the objective content of activity. (p.4)Here, Leontyev is firmly grounding the study of consciousness in Marx's thought, in dialectics. We see a short summary of AT, including themes such as the object (which is both objective and projective), the structuring of the activity around that object, and the cycle of transforming the object. We also see that activity unfolds in a material world, not an ideal one: "Activity is bound to encounter man-resisting objects that divert, change and enrich it. In other words, it is external activity that unlocks the circle of internal mental processes, that opens it up to the objective world." (5)
Leontyev goes on to discuss the pairing of activity with motive and action with goal (6), discussing how actions/goals sometimes link indirectly to activity/motive, e.g., making a trap to indirectly satisfy hunger (7-8).
Yet this work still involves interpretation:
The indisputable fact remains that man’s activity is regulated by mental images of reality. Anything in the objective world that presents itself to man as the motives, goals and conditions of his activity must in some way or another be perceived, understood, retained and reproduced by his memory; this also applies to the processes of his activity, and to himself, his states and individual features.
Hence it follows that man’s consciousness in its immediacy is the picture of the world that unfolds itself to him, a picture in which he himself, his actions and states, are included. (9)Along with Marx and Engels, Leontyev argues that labor activity produces consciousness. "It is self-evident that the explanation of the nature of consciousness lies in the peculiar features of human activity that create the need for it –in activity’s objective, productive character. Labour activity is imprinted, perpetuated in its product. There takes place, in the words of Marx, a transition of activity into a static property. This transition is the process of the material embodiment of the objective content of activity, which now presents itself to the subject, that is to say, arises before him in the
form of an image of the object perceived."(p.10). (Remember that Solzhenitsyn notes this theme and claims that it provided the rationale for the Stalinist work camps.)
Leontyev adds (p.11) that activity includes a cycle in which the subject, object, and activity adjust to each other. Over time, activity allows consciousness to develop further. "Of course, the above-mentioned conditions and relations which generate human consciousness characterize it only at the earliest stages. Subsequently, as material production and communication develop, people’s consciousness is liberated from direct connection with their immediate practical labour activity both by the isolation and subsequent separation of intellectual production and the instrumentalization of language. The range of what has been created constantly widens, so that man’s consciousness becomes the universal, though not the only, form of mental reflection." (p.12). (Cf Boyd on OODA involving constant expansion.)
This leads us to societal contradictions. As he says on p.22: "Under certain conditions the discrepancy between personal meanings and objective meanings in individual consciousness may amount to alienation or even diametrical opposition." His example is the alienation of labor "In a society based on commodity production." He adds, "The abolition of private property relations does away with this opposition between meaning and personal meaning in the consciousness of individuals; but the discrepancy between them remains." (Meanwhile, Leontyev's fellow citizens in the USSR were developing double consciousness to deal with the widening gap between public, official demands and private life.)
On p.26, Leontyev concludes: "To sum up, man’s consciousness, like his activity, is not additive. It is not a flat surface, nor even a capacity that can be filled with images and processes. Nor is it the connections of its separate elements. It is the internal movement of its “formative elements” geared to the general movement of the activity which effects the real life of the individual in society. Man’s activity is the substance of his consciousness."
In the introduction of the book proper, Leontyev overviews his project, which covers his working lifetime. He again grounds this work in Marxism, contrasting the Soviet approach with bourgeois ones. We get a sense, even here in the late 1970s, of how the Soviet enterprise was understood (or at least portrayed) as the one scientific path:
On p.33: "Soviet scientists countered methodological pluralism with a unified Marxist-Leninist methodology that allowed a penetration into the real nature of the psyche, the consciousness of man." He adds, "this was the way of continuous purposeful battle – a battle for the creative mastery of Marxism-Leninism, a battle against idealistic and mechanistic biologizing concepts in one guise or
another." In contrast to other approaches to psychology, "We all understood that Marxist psychology is not just a different direction or school but a new historical stage presenting in itself the beginnings of an authentically scientific, consistently materialistic psychology. We also understood something else, and that is that in the modern world psychology fulfills an ideological function and serves class interests; it is impossible not to reckon with this."
(Yes, and passages like this one remind us that Soviet psychology clearly fulfilled an ideological function as well.)
Yet, Leontyev recounts, there was a breakdown in connection between theory and empirical research, so Soviet psychologists had to develop methods in line with theory (p.34). The rest of the book attempts to rectify this breakdown.
Chapter 1: Marxism and Psychological Science
In this first chapter, Leontyev discusses how psychological science developed along Marxist principles. Marxism sparked a revolution in the social sciences, he says, but they didn't impact psychology for over 50 years. "Only at the beginning of the 1920s did scientists of our country recognize for the first time the need to consciously structure psychology on the basis of Marxism. Thus it was that Soviet scientists discovered Marx for world psychological science." (p.38).
"Originally the task of creating Marxist psychology was understood as a task of criticizing ideological, philosophic views entertained in psychology and introducing into it certain positions of Marxist dialectics," he continues, but that task changed under Vygotsky and Rubenshtein, who were both dedicated to developing a psychology based on Marxist principles. And not just principles: "we turn again and again to the works of Karl Marx, which resolve even the most profound and complex
theoretical problems of psychological science" (p.39). He grounds this Marxist psychology in Marx's Theses on Feuerbach: activity, not contemplation. "For Marx, activity in its primary and basic form was sensory, practical activity in which people enter into a practical contact with objects of the surrounding world, test their resistance, and act on them, acknowledging their objective properties. This is the radical difference of Marxist teaching about activity as distinguished from the idealistic teaching that recognizes activity only in its abstract, speculative form" (pp.39-40). And for Marx, "human practice is the basis for human cognition" (p.40).
In this Marxist understanding, the social and psychological are part of the same system: "Acting on the external world, they change it; at the same time they also change themselves. This is because what they themselves represent is determined by their activity, conditioned by the already attained level of development, by its means and the form of its organization." (p.41). And specifically work activity: "The basic position of Marxism on consciousness is that it represents a quality of a special form of the psyche. Although consciousness also has its own history in the evolution of the animal world, it first appears in man in the process of the organization of work and social relations. Consciousness from the very beginning is a social product." (p.41)
Marx realized that consciousness was the result of social relations—and could disintegrate because of social relations as well. This is the scourge of capitalism from which socialism would save us—not just from human misery, but from the very dissolution of our consciousness! "Engendered by the development of private property, economic alienation leads to alienation and to disintegration of human consciousness" (p.48). And "This disintegration of consciousness is eliminated only when the attitudes toward private property that gave rise to it are eliminated with the transition from a class society to communism." (p.49).
Near the end of the chapter, he positions Marx as an obligatory passage point for all psychology: "At present great changes have taken place in the psychology of thought. Development of this area of psychological knowledge led to the fact that many Marxist ideas objectively found their concrete embodiment and development in it inasmuch as some psychologists, even those who are far removed in their own philosophical views from Marxism, have begun to cite Marx, but not without a certain coquetry" (p.56).
Chapter 3. The Problem of Activity and Psychology
I'm skipping Chapter 2, on psychic reflection, to get to this one, which is more interesting for my purposes. Leontyev begins by contrasting the "old" psychology, which focused on stimulus-response, with the insight of mediation. The stimulus-response approach "excludes from the field of research the cogent process in which real connections of the subject with the object world, his objective activity, are made" (p.79). The preferred alternative is "a trinomial formula including a middle link (“middle term”) the activity of the subject and, correspondingly, conditions, goals, and means of that activity – a link that mediates the ties between them." (p.83). The implication is hammered home with another Marx cite: "activity appears as a process in which mutual transfers between the poles “subject-object” are accomplished. “In production the personality is objectivised; in need the thing is subjectivized,” noted Marx." (p.84). And this formulation is thoroughly social: "In all of its distinctness, the activity of the human individual represents a system included in the system of relationships of society. Outside these relationships human activity simply does not exist." He emphasizes that he isn not just describing a relationship between man and society: "In this the main point is lost – the fact that in society a man finds not simply external conditions to which he must accommodate his activity, but that these same social conditions carry in themselves motives and goals of his activity, his means and methods; in a word, society produces the activity of the individuals forming it." (p.85)
Leontyev, like Vygotsky, looks to language as a substrate of thought. "Consciousness is co-knowing, but only in that sense that individual consciousness may exist only in the presence of social consciousness and of language that is its real substrate. In the process of material production, people also produce language, and this serves not only as a means of information but also as a carrier of the socially developed meanings fixed in it." (p.95). And "Meanings in themselves do not give rise to thought but mediate it– just as tools do not generate activity" (p.96).
He credits Vygotsky for the roots of the approach: "The idea of analyzing activity as a method of scientific human psychology was proposed, as I have already said, in the early works of L. S. Vygotskii. The concept of tooled (“instrumental”) operations, the concept of purposes, and later the concept of motive (“motivational sphere of consciousness”) were introduced. Years passed, however, before it was possible to describe, in a first approach, the common structure of human activity and individual consciousness.28 This first description now, after a quarter century, appears in many ways unsatisfactory and too abstract. But it is exactly owing to its abstractness that it can be taken as an initial departure point for further investigation." (p.98).
And he develops the activity theory approach beyond this initial departure point. First, the object:
The main thing that distinguishes one activity from another, however, is the difference of their objects. It is exactly the object of an activity that gives it a determined direction. According to the terminology I have proposed, the object of an activity is its true motive. It is understood that the motive may be either material or ideal, either present in perception or exclusively in the imagination or in thought. The main thing is that behind activity there should always be a need, that it should always answer one need or another. (p.98)
And, related, the motive; action; and purpose or goal:
Thus the concept of activity is necessarily connected with the concept of motive. Activity does not exist without a motive; ‘non-motivated’ activity is not activity without a motive but activity with a subjectively and objectively hidden motive.... We call a process an action if it is subordinated to the representation of the result that must be attained, that is, if it is subordinated to a conscious purpose. Similarly, just as the concept of motive is related to the concept of activity, the concept of purpose is related to the concept of action. (p.99)
He connects the separation of activity and action to the emergence of the division of labor. "The appearance of goal-directed processes or actions in activity came about historically as the result of the transition of man to life in society." People in activity, he says, have their own needs satisfied via collective activity. Here, he uses the example of fishing (p.99).
Actions, he adds, are not a kind of unit in activity; they collectively constitute it (p.100).
He touches on the transformation of the object: "the role of the general purpose is fulfilled by a perceived motive, which is transformed owing to its being perceived as a motive-goal." (p.100).
On p.102, he gets to the third level of the structure of activity. "I call the methods for accomplishing actions, operations." "Actions, as has already been said, are related to goals, operations to conditions. Let us assume that the goal remains the same; conditions in which it is assigned, however, change. Then it is specifically and only the operational content of the action that changes."
And we get this very Marxist take on tools: "the non coincidence of action and operation appears in actions with tools. Obviously, a tool is a material object in which are crystallized methods and operations, and not actions or goals." (p.102). (Obviously! But this account seems to leave out idiosyncratic, deliberate misuse of tools.)
Later on the page, he explains the relationship between actions and operations: "Actions and operations have various origins, various dynamics, and various fates. Their genesis lies in the relationships of exchange of activities; every operation, however, is the result of a transformation of action that takes place as a result of its inclusion in another action and its subsequent “technization.”" Here, he uses the example of driving a car.
But, he adds, operations constitute actions in the same way actions constitute activities. (p.103). His rationale for this coconstitution view is that "The “units” of human activity also form its macrostructure. The special feature of the analysis that serves to isolate them is that it does so not by means of breaking human activity up into elements but by disclosing its characteristic internal relations." (p.103). "For example, a tool considered apart from a goal becomes the same kind of abstraction as an operation considered apart from the action that it realizes." (p.104; D.R. Russell calls this a tool-in-use.)
These units are fluid: "activity represents a process that is characterized by continuously proceeding transformations. Activity may lose the motive that elicited it, whereupon it is converted into an action realizing perhaps an entirely different relation to the world, a different activity; conversely, an action may turn into an independent stimulating force and may become a separate activity; finally, an action may be transformed into a means of achieving a goal, into an operation capable of realizing various actions." (p.104)
"Thus," he concludes, "a systemic study of human activity must also be an analysis according to levels. It is just such an analysis that will make it possible to overcome the opposition of the physiological, the psychological, and the sociological, as well as the reduction of any one of these to another." (p.113).
Chapter 4. Activity and Consciousness
I suppose that if I truly wanted to follow Leontyev, I would have to be more interested in this chapter. But consciousness per se doesn't interest me much, so I'll just note that Leontyev discusses individual consciousness and the internal plane here.
Chapter 5. Activity and Personality
I'm not that interested in personality either, but here Leontyev says a couple of things that are interesting to me.
The Marxist approach, he says, "necessarily leads to a position on the social-historical essence of personality. This position means that personality originally arises in society, that man enters into history (and a child enters into life) only as an individual given determined natural properties and potentials, and that he becomes a personality only as a subject of social relations. In other words, as distinct from the individual, the personality of a man is in no sense preexisting in relation to his activity; just as with his consciousness, activity gives rise to personality." (p.149).
And "The formation of personality presupposes a development of the process of goal formation and, correspondingly, the development of actions of the subject. Actions, becoming ever richer, outgrow that circle of activity that they realize, and enter into a contradiction with the motives that engender them." (p.175).
Okay, that's it for this relatively short book. I've piggybacked on Andy Blunden's hard work to copy and paste lots of quotes. Now let's see what we get out of it.
On re-rereading this book, I'm even more struck by how much he has cited Marx and Engels as the basis for his approach. Marx was brilliant (I'm less certain of Engels), but neither of these authors was a psychologist, and I find Leontyev's tendency to justify everything through them to be disturbing. Certainly quoting Marx, Engels, and Lenin was a good way to stay healthy during the Stalinist terror, when Leontyev was establishing his career and thought, but I think that Leontyev genuinely founded his work on theirs. Certainly doing so helped him to get to some significant insights. But as Latour says, translation involves betrayal. And whether it was by personal conviction or ideological pressure, Leontyev could not "betray" Marx by visibly differing from his insights.
I think this fact led Leontyev and collaborators to push psychology in a more sociological direction. And today, that sociological direction has (interestingly) led some to translate/betray AT and apply it in ways that are much more sociologically and anthropologically oriented than they are psychologically. Engestrom does this to an extent, I think, especially in incorporating dialogism; Nardi, trained as an anthropologist, does; people working in my area do. In fact, this morning I reread a strong article by Wolff-Michael Roth in which he argues that the North American interpretation of Leontyev misunderstands some key points of this book. True, but that interpretation also translates the book (in a Latourean sense), and consequently we apply it (unironically, perhaps bizarrely) to the task of understanding and improving workplace communication and HCI in capitalist organizations. What would Leontyev say?
In case you haven't guesses: Yes, if you are even slightly interested in activity theory (in any flavor), you should read this book. At least three times.