By A.N. Leontyev
When I first started reading about activity theory, in graduate school in the mid-1990s, I found a classic text in the Iowa State library called Problems in the Development of Mind. It had a light green cloth cover and was intimidatingly thick. And, like Vygotsky's books, it recounted some unusual experiments. For instance, the first chapter described how research subjects could be sensitized to "feel" light. More on that in a minute.
PDM was a difficult read, and at that time it was difficult to sort out some of the principles with which I would later become familiar. Compounding the problem was the fact that PDM was a collection, so it tended to repeat lines of argument in different chapters, chapters that represented different times in the author's life.
Since PDM was out of print, I couldn't buy a copy. I think I have picked it up since, at the UT library, but if so, it was before 2003, when I began this blog. Fortunately for me (and perhaps for you), a newly typeset version (by Andy Blunden) is available at the link above—not at marxists.org, for some reason, but at http://marxists.anu.edu.au . (You can also buy a print-on-demand copy at marxists.org.)
The present version has an introduction by Mike Cole. It's about 400pp. long. Below, I summarize the chapters. This summary will pick out some of the things that interest me, while skimming over different interests (e.g., children's psychological development).
Chapter 1. The Problem of the Origin of Sensation
Leontyev asks: Where does the psyche originate? He outlines some unsatisfactory lines of thought (p.1) before concluding that "We shall thus take sensation, which reflects objective external reality, as the elementary form of the psyche, and treat the problem of the origin of the psyche in this concrete form as the problem of the genesis of a ‘capacity for sensation’ or (what is the same thing) sensitivity proper." (p.4). He contrasts this Soviet approach with bourgeois psychology, which he argues leads to Cartesianism. Skipping forward for a moment, here's how he frames bourgeois psychology:
It is impossible, however, to close one’s eyes to the fact that psychological science, restricted by the framework of bourgeois philosophy, has never risen above the level of a purely metaphysical opposing of subjective psychic phenomena to the phenomena of the external world, and could therefore never penetrate their real essence, and that both here and in psychology, the clumsy cart-horse of ordinary bourgeois thought stops every time, perplexed, at the ditch that divides essence from appearance, and cause from effect.
In reality the opposition between the subjective and objective is not absolute and a priori. Development generates their opposition, but mutual transitions are preserved between them throughout the course of development, eliminating their ‘one-sidedness’. We cannot, consequently, limit ourselves to a purely external comparison of subjective and objective data, but must discover and study this profound and concrete process whereby the objective is transformed into the subjective." (p.16)In Leontyev's characterization throughout this book, the bourgeoisie are continually perplexed while the Soviets have the inside track. (These Soviet authors are so scornful. It's wearing.) In the Soviet view—and we can say "in reality," since Leontyev takes the Soviet view to be a clear apprehension of reality—
Mind is a property of living, highly organised material bodies that consists in their ability to reflect through their states the reality around them, which exists independently of them. That is the most general, materialist definition of mind. Psychic phenomena, i.e. sensations, presentations, concepts, are more or less precise, profound reflections, images, pictures of reality. They are consequently secondary to the reality they reflect, which is, on the contrary, primary and determinant.
This general theoretical, philosophical proposition is basic for materialist psychology. (p.11)Elaborating on this materialist approach:
any reflection of the objective world in psychic phenomena is nothing other than a function of a material, corporeal subject which itself is a particle of that world, in other words, that the essence of the psychic lies in the world of objective relations and not, outside it. The task of scientific psychology is above all to find that way of concretely studying these subjective phenomena that would, figuratively speaking, penetrate beneath their surface and lay bare their objective relations. (p.12)Following that materialist approach leads us from the lone individual to social relations:
Thus, in order to reveal the necessity of the psyche’s origin, and its further development and change, we must start not from the features of the subject’s organisation taken by itself, and not from the reality, taken by itself, i.e. in isolation from the subject, that surrounds him, but from an analysis of the process that really links them together.
And that process is nothing other than the process of life. We have to start, consequently, with analysis of life itself. (p.17)He cites Engels here, then goes on: Mind is "a product of life’s increasing complexity" (p.18). Life is always in a state of self-renewal. "A philosophical, dialectical materialist exposition of this property was given by Engels, who was the first to regard life as a perpetually created and destroyed contradiction existing in things and phenomena themselves, which expressed the specific form of the motion of matter that began a new phase in the evolution of the material world’s relations." (p.21).
This brings him to the emergence of subject and object. When inorganic materials interact, he says, we can't say which acts on which. But when we turn to organic, one clearly acts on the other, and therefore there's a subject and object (pp.23-25). Here, he clarifies his use of the term, which should be familiar to people who have studied activity theory:
We shall also, accordingly, limit the concept of object. It is normally used in a dual sense: in the broadest one as a thing standing in some kind of relation to other things, i.e. as ‘a thing having existence’; and in a narrower sense – as something withstanding (German Gegenstand), resistant (Latin objectum), that to which an act is directed, i.e. as something to which precisely a living creature relates itself as the object of its activity – indifferently as outward or inward activity (e. g. object of nutrition, object of labour, object of meditation, etc.). From now on we shall employ the term object precisely in this narrower, special sense. (p.28)From here, he defines activity in an AT sense. In relation to individual organisms,
the principal ‘unit’ of a vital process is an organism’s activity; the different activities that realise its diverse vital relations with the surrounding reality are essentially determined by their object; we shall therefore differentiate between separate types of activity according to the difference in their objects. (p.29)To explore this question further, he set up an experiment:
We could test this hypothesis experimentally. To do so we had to deprive the process correlating the two influences with one another of the form of an inner search, or inner attention that it had had. We had to turn it first into an external act, i.e. the genetically initial form of any activity. Second, we had to remove any possibility of an appeal to the subject’s consciousness when analysing the facts, i.e. the test situation had again to be made entirely ‘clandestine’ by completely ruling out knowledge on the subjects’ part that they were being subjected to some special influence on which they could orient themselves in the experiments. (p.98, my emphasis)In the experiment, Leontyev constructed a booth into which a subject would put his hand. The subject could not see inside the booth and was unaware that it had a light that would shine on the subject's palm. The booth was constructed so that the subject couldn't feel heat from the light. Would people be able to sense the light? Could they be trained to become more sensitive to it without knowing what it was? The answers are yes and yes. Subjects were eventually able to detect when the light was on, although they didn't know what was causing the sensation and they had trouble even describing the sensation.
Chapter 2. The Biological and Social in Man’s Psyche
Leontyev asks: When did development of the psyche happen? The answer is drawn from Marx:
This new form of accumulation and transmission of phylogenetic (or rather, historical) experience came into being because the activity characteristic of man is productive, constructive activity. It is, above all, the basic human activity – labour, work.
The fundamental, truly decisive importance of this fact was discovered more than 100 years ago. The discovery was made by the father of scientific socialism, Karl Marx.
Labour, implementing the process of production (in both the forms of the latter, material and intellectual), is crystallised in its product. That which is manifested on the part of the subject in unrest or movement (Unruhe) appears in the product in the form of ‘a fixed quality without motion’ or ‘a fixed, immobile characteristic’ (ruhende Eigenschaft), in the form of being or a material object. (p.116, my emphasis)So we have two basic Marxist claims being incorporated directly into Soviet psychology: (1) the psyche emerged through human labor and (2) human labor is crystallized in tools. Regarding (1), Leontyev elaborates: "Intercourse in its primary form, in the form of joint activity, or of oral communication, is thus a second sine qua non of individuals’ mastering of the achievements of mankind’s socio-historical evolution" (p.118).
On pp.119-122, he describes an experiment that suggests that people who are raised in a culture with a tonal language develop pitch sensitivity and do not suffer from tone deafness. The experimenters then developed ways to teach people perfect pitch. This experiment leads him to discuss the concept of functional organs:
Their first feature is that, once formed, they then function as a single organ. The processes that they effect, therefore, seem, from the subjective, phenomenological angle, to be manifestations of elementary innate capacities. Such, for example, are the processes of directly grasping spatial, quantitative, or logical structures (‘gestalts’).
Their second feature is their stability. Although they are formed through the closing of cerebral links, these associations do not fade, like ordinary conditioned reflexes. ...(p.134)
A third feature of the functional organs with which we are concerned is that they are formed differently than simple chains of reflexes or ‘dynamic stereotypes’. The associations constituting them do not simply trace or copy the sequence of the external stimuli but unite independent reflex processes with their motor effects in a single complex reflex act. These ‘compound’ acts at first always have developed, external motor components that are then inhibited, while the act as a whole, in changing its original structure, is curtailed and made more and more automatic. As a result of these successive transformations a stable constellation also arises that functions as an integral organ, as allegedly innate capacity.
Finally a fourth feature consists in the point, as was specially emphasised by our last series of experiments, that, while corresponding to one and the same task, they may have a different structure, which explains the almost unlimited capacity for compensation that has been observed in the sphere of the development of specifically human functions.(p.135)He concludes: "man’s biologically inherited qualities do not govern his psychic capacities. Man’s capabilities are not virtually contained in his brain. Virtually the brain includes not certain, specifically human capacities of some kind or another, but only the capacity to form these capacities" (p.135). And as a coda, he explains: "I chose the problem of the biological and social because there are still views that affirm a fatalistic conditioning of people’s psyche by biological inheritance. These views spread ideas in psychology of racial and national discrimination, and the right to genocide and destructive wars. They threaten mankind’s peace and security, and they are in flagrant contradiction with the objective findings of scientific psychological research" (p.136).
Chapter 3. An Outline of the Evolution of the Psyche
This chapter turned out to be the most fruitful for me in trying to understand activity theory, so my write-up is rather long and includes several block quotes copied from the PDF.
Leontyev begins by discussing stimulus-response work with animals. When there's a barrier between fish and food, they learn by trial and error how to get around that barrier. When the barrier is removed, they retain the learned behavior for a while. Mammals in the same situation, however, go directly to the food. Leontyev relates this illustration to the levels of activity:
This means that the influence to which mammals’ activity is directed no longer merges with influences from the barrier in them, but both operate separately from one another for them. The direction and end result of the activity depends on the former, while the way it is done, i.e. the mode in which it is performed (e.g. by going around the obstacle) depends on the latter. This special make-up or aspect of activity, which corresponds to the conditions in which the object exciting it is presented, we shall call operation.
It is this distinguishing of operations in activity that indicates that properties affecting an animal, which previously seemed to be all of a muchness to it, begin to fall into groups: on the one hand interconnected properties emerge that characterise the object to which the activity is directed, while on the other hand properties emerge of objects that determine the mode of the activity itself, i.e. the operation. Whereas differentiation of the affecting properties was linked at the stage of the elementary sensory psyche with their simple uniting around the dominant stimulus, the integrating of the affective properties into a single integral image, and their unification as the properties of one and the same thing now arise for the first time. The surrounding reality is now reflected by the animal in the form of more or less separated images of separate things. (p.155, my emphasis)That is, the object and operations are dialectically related, defining each other.
Let's get beyond fish to more complex forms of life:
When we pass to the third, highest stage of animal evolution we thus observe a new complication in the structure of activity. The activity previously merged in a single process is now differentiated into two phases, one of preparation and one of accomplishment. The existence of a preparatory phase also constitutes a characteristic feature of intellectual behaviour. Intellect arises for the first time, consequently, when preparation of the possibility to perform some operation or habit commences. (pp.169-170, my emphasis).Those who have read much on AT will recognize these two phases as corresponding to two aspects of the object: projective and objective. This distinction is extended and refined in human activity, he says, again justifying his claim in Marx and Engels:
When man enters into any relation with a thing, he distinguishes between the objective subject-matter of the relation on the one hand and, on the other hand, his relation to it per se. And that division does not exist in animals. ‘The animal,’ Marx and Engels said, ‘does not “relate” itself to anything, it does not “relate” itself at all.
... We can observe the activity of a few, sometimes of many, animals together, but we never observe joint activity among them, i.e. joint in the sense of the word as we employ it when speaking of men’s activity. (p.176, my emphasis).Animals, he says, do not establish a division of labor. Instinct doesn't count (e.g., bees) (p.177).
The transition to human consciousness, which is underlain by a transition to human forms of life, and to human labour activity, social by its very nature, is not simply associated with a change in the fundamental structure of activity and the rise of a new form of reflecting reality; man’s psyche is not only emancipated from those features that are common to all the stages of animals’ psychic evolution that we have considered, and has not only acquired qualitatively new features, but (and this is the main point) the laws themselves that govern its evolution were altered with the transition to man. While the general laws governing the laws of the psyche’s evolution were those of biological evolution throughout the animal kingdom, with the transition to man the evolution of the psyche began to be governed by laws of socio-historical development. (pp.179-80, my emphasis).
"The transition to consciousness," Leontyev goes on, "is the beginning of a new, higher stage in the evolution of the psyche. In contrast to the psychic reflection peculiar to animals, conscious reflection is reflection of material reality in its separateness from the subject’s actual attitudes to it, i.e. reflection that distinguishes its objective stable properties." And again, quoting Engels, he traces this transition to labor:
The cause underlying the humanising of man’s animal-like ancestors is the emergence of labour and the formation of human society on its basis. ‘Labour,’ Engels wrote, ‘created man himself’. Labour also created man’s consciousness. The origin and development of labour, this first and basic condition for the existence of man, led to a change in his brain, his organs of external activity, and his sense organs, and their humanisation. (p.181).And
Man’s sense organs were also perfected through labour and in connection with the development of the brain. Like the organs of external activity they acquired qualitatively new features (p.183).Like Engels, Leontyev sounds a bit teleological here and in some other points of his work:
The rise of labour was prepared by the whole preceding course of evolution, of course. The gradual transition to an upright posture, rudiments of which are distinctly observed even in the anthropoid apes that now exist, and the forming in connection with that of specially mobile anterior extremities adapted to grasping objects, and more and more freed from the function of walking, which was due to the mode of life led by man’s animal forebears – all created the physical preconditions for the possibility of performing complicated labour operations.
The labour process was also prepared for from another aspect. It was only possible for labour to emerge in animals that lived in whole groups and which had sufficiently developed forms of joint life, although those forms were, of course, very remote even from the most primitive forms of human, social life. (p.184, my emphasis)Labor, then, becomes critical for us to understand if we are to make any headway on mind (pun intended).
The two following features are above all typical of labour. The first is the use and making of tools. ‘Labour,’ Engels said, ‘begins with the making of tools.’
The second feature of the labour process is that it is performed in conditions of joint, collective activity, so that man functions in this process not only in a certain relationship with nature but also to other people, members of a given society. Only through a relation with other people does man relate to nature itself, which means that labour appears from the very beginning as a process mediated by tools (in the broad sense) and at the same time mediated socially. (p.185)And
human labour is social activity from the beginning, based on the co-operation of individuals, assuming a technical division, even though rudimentary, of labour functions; labour consequently is a process of action on nature linking together its participants, and mediating their contact (pp.185-86).Here, Leontyev gives an account of how the division of labor arose at dawn of man. He provides the famous illustration of division of labor, in which hunters, bush-beaters, and cooks divided the complex labor of hunting for food (p.186). Here's the frequently quoted passage:
When a member of a group performs his labour activity he also does it to satisfy one of his needs. A beater, for example, taking part in a primaeval collective hunt, was stimulated by a need for food or, perhaps, a need for clothing, which the skin of the dead animal would meet for him. At what, however, was his activity directly aimed? It may have been directed, for example, at frightening a herd of animals and sending them toward other hunters, hiding in ambush. That, properly speaking, is what should be the result of the activity of this man. And the activity of this individual member of the hunt ends with that. The rest is completed by the other members. This result, i.e. the frightening of game, etc. understandably does not in itself, and may not, lead to satisfaction of the beater’s need for food, or the skin of the animal. What the processes of his activity were directed to did not, consequently, coincide with what stimulated them, i.e. did not coincide with the motive of his activity; the two were divided from one another in this instance. Processes, the object and motive of which do not coincide with one another, we shall call ‘actions’. We can say, for example, that the beater’s activity is the hunt, and the frightening of game his action.
How is it possible for action to arise, i.e. for there to be a division between the object of activity and its motive? It obviously only becomes possible in a joint, collective process of acting on nature. The product of the process as a whole, which meets the need of the group, also leads to satisfaction of the needs of the separate individual as well, although he himself may not perform the final operations (e.g. the direct attack on the game and the killing of it), which directly lead to possession of the object of the given need. Genetically (i.e. in its origin) the separation of the object and motive of individual activity is a result of the disarticulating of the separate operations from a previously complex, polyphase, but single activity. These same separate operations, by now completing the content of the individual’s given activity, are also transformed into independent actions for him, although they continue, as regards the collective labour process as a whole, of course, to be only some of its partial links. (p.187, my emphasis)and
A beater’s frightening of game leads to satisfaction of his need for it not at all because such are the natural conditions of the given material situation; rather the contrary, these conditions are such in normal cases that the individual’s frightening of game eliminates his chance of catching it. In that case what unites the direct result of this activity with its final outcome? Obviously, nothing other than the given individual’s relation with the other members of the group, by virtue of which he gets his share of the bag from them, i.e. part of the product of their joint labour activity. This relationship, this connection is realised through the activity of other people, which means that it is the activity of other people that constitutes the objective basis of the specific structure of the human individual’s activity, means that historically, i.e. through its genesis, the connection between the motive and the object of an action reflects objective social connections and relations rather than natural ones (pp.188-189, my emphasis).
Thus, he says, the psyche emerges from joint labor: "together with the birth of action, this main ‘unit’ in human activity, there also arises the main unit, social in nature, of the human psyche, i.e. the rational meaning for man of that which his activity is directed to" (p.189). And here's something I missed in my earlier readings: The subject emerges from the tension between object and motive:
Now the link between the object of an action (its objective) and what stimulates it (its motive) is revealed for the first time to the subject. It is revealed to him in its directly sensory form, i.e. in the form of the activity of a human work group. This activity is also now no longer reflected in man’s head in its subjective oneness with the object but as the subject’s objective, practical relation with it (p.190).
Leontyev traces development of consciousness to this point.
If you're keeping score at home, you'll note that Leontyev has discussed the following elements of an activity system: the object (which defines the activity), the motive (which orients the activity), the subject (which emerges from the tensions between the object and motive), and the division of labor (which defines the subjects' roles and relates them to the object and motive). Now we move to another element, tools:
Labour not only alters the general structure of man’s activity, not only gives rise to goal-directed actions, but in the process also qualitatively alters the content of the activity, what we call operations.
This alteration of operations takes place in connection with the origin and evolution of tools. Man’s labour operations are remarkable in fact in that they are performed with the aid of tools or instruments of labour. (p.191, my emphasis)
Leontyev discusses tools at some length:
a tool is not only an object that has a certain form and possesses certain physical properties, but it is, at the same time, a social object, i.e. an object that has a certain mode of use developed socially in the course of collective labour and reinforced by same. When we look at an axe, for example, as a tool and not simply as a physical body, it is not only two interconnected parts (the part we call the helve, and the one that is the working part proper), but is at the same time a socially developed means of action, namely the labour operations that have been given material shape, are crystallised, as it were, in it. That is why to handle a tool means not simply to hold it but also to know how to use it. (p.192, my emphasis)
Again, we see the Marxist idea of the tool as crystallized labor, specifically the embedding of operations. I'll briefly note here that this account is problematic for understanding improvisational and innovative repurposing of tools.
Like Vygotsky, Leontyev sees language as the substrate of consciousness, developing from labor activity:
What is this concrete form in which men’s consciousness of the objective world around them really occurs? It is language, which is, in the words of Marx and Engels, men’s ‘practical, real consciousness’.37 Consciousness is therefore inseparable from language. Language, like man’s consciousness also, arises solely in the labour process, and together with it. Language, like consciousness, is a product of men’s activity, a product of the group; only therefore does it also exist for the individual person" (p.194)
He quotes Marx and Engels on the point and claims that language developed as people coordinated labor (p.195).
Yet, he acknowledges, labor relations change, and that must mean that the psyche changes:
We have seen that the transition to this higher type of psyche comes about as a consequence of the emergence of men’s production relations. The features of men’s psyche are also determined by the features of these relations and depend on them. We know at the same time that production relations alter, that the production relations of primitive society are one thing and those, for example, of capitalist society are quite another matter. It can be taken, therefore, that with a radical change in men’s production relations their consciousness is also altered in a radical way and becomes qualitatively different. The task is to find the concrete psychological features of these different types of consciousness (p.199).
He takes this chance to lay into capitalism for portraying psyche as immutable. But he also goes on to speculate on p.217 that primitive and modern psyches are different. He cites the example of Indians who lay a deer on a sheaf of wheat because they believe that deer came from wheat. "The resemblance of the meanings ‘deer’ and ‘wheat’ is obviously, from this point of view, only the form of comprehending the carrying over of their sense, i.e. the transfer of the group’s practical relations from deer to wheat. This transfer, which reflects the transition from a predominance of hunting and herding to a predominance of plant growing (which leads to an important change of mutual relations within society – which is now already tribal), is also consolidated ideologically in the ceremony described" (p.217). (Alert readers will recognize this thesis from Luria's 1930s experiments in Kazakhstan, but may also recognize some difficulties with this thesis.)
In capitalism, he says, the form of labor relations (specifically, capitalism's essential contradiction between use value and exchange value) creates a dualistic psyche:
The doctor who buys a practice in some little provincial place may be very seriously trying to reduce his fellow citizens’ suffering from illness, and may see his calling in just that. He must, however, want the number of the sick to increase, because his life and practical opportunity to follow his calling depend on that.
This dualism distorts man’s most elementary feelings. Even love proves capable of acquiring the most ugly forms, not to mention love of money, which can become a veritable passion. (p.228)
Indeed, in class society, "Man strives to eliminate the disintegrated nature of his consciousness. He does not strive for adequacy and truthfulness in his consciousness, moreover, in any way from an abstract love for truth. It is his striving for true life that is expressed in that; that is why it is so intent, and why it sometimes imparts such a really dramatic character to the processes of becoming conscious – to the most cherished processes of man’s ‘inner life’. " (p.234). Leontyev sees communism as the cure for this divided consciousness. He of course does not discuss the Soviet phenomenon of "double consciousness."
Chapter 4. The Historical Approach to Study of the Human Psyche
I'll be brief with this chapter. Leontyev distinguishes the individualistic, biological strain of psychology with the sociohistorical strain that he represents. "Psychological work that regards man primarily as a social being and seeks the answers to his inherent mental features in the history of society has a different approach in principle. This work constitutes a sociological, historical trend in psychology, in contrast to the naturalistic, biological trend." (p.248). He discusses Vygotsky's contributions as an important part of this development (pp.252-253).
Chapter 5. The Development of Higher Forms of Memory
Leontyev undertakes a study of memory in sociohistorical terms. In contrast to a purely biological account, "modern man’s memory is the same product of his cultural, social development as his speech, writing, or counting" (pp.295-296). Echoing Vygotsky, he argues that higher forms of memory are mediated. Indeed, "The difference between an instrument of labour and the instrumental aid primitive man fashions for his memory is simply that while the former is always directed at external nature, he masters his own behaviour by means of the latter. This difference, however, is of tremendous fundamental significance" (p.297). Also like Vygotsky, he discusses external memory aids such as knots, then describes a card-mediated memory experiment similar to Vygotsky's (pp.307-326).
He concludes: "Man, by interacting with his social environment, reconstructs his behaviour; assimilating the behaviour of other people by means of special stimuli, he acquires the capacity to master his own behaviour as well; previously interpsychological processes, for instance, are converted into intrapsychological ones" (pp.327).
Chapter 6. The Psychological Principles of Preschool Play
I'm not interested in preschool play, so let's skip it.
Chapter 7. The Theory of the Development of the Child’s Psyche
I'm not terribly interested in children's psyches either, but let's pull out a couple of passages that apply more generally. Regarding the term activity, he again emphasizes that an activity is that which is oriented to the object:
We do not call every process activity. By this term we mean only those processes which, by realising man’s relations with the world, meet a special need corresponding to it. We do not properly call such a process as, for example, remembering, activity, because it does not, as a rule, in itself, realise any independent relation with the world and does not meet any special need.
By activity we mean processes that are psychologically characterised by what the process as a whole is directed to (its object) always coinciding with the objective that stimulates the subject to this activity, i.e. the motive. (p.363, my emphasis)
Similarly, he again defines action, and makes the point that actions can become activities:
"We distinguish the process we call action from activity. An act or action is a process whose motive does not coincide with its object (i.e. with what it is directed to), but lies in the activity of which it forms part. ...
Because the object of an action does not itself prompt to act, it is necessary for action to arise and to be accomplishable, for its object to appear to the subject in its relation to the motive of the activity of which it forms part. This relation is also reflected by the subject, moreover, in a quite definite form, namely in the form of awareness of the object of the action as a goal. The object of an action is therefore nothing other than its recognised direct goal. ...
There is a particular relation between activity and action. The motive of activity, by being shifted, may pass to the object (goal) of the action, with the result that the action is transformed into an activity. This is an exceptionally important point. This is the way new activities and new relations with reality arise. This process is precisely the concrete, psychological basis on which changes in the leading activity occur and consequently the transitions from one stage of development to another." (p.364, my emphasis).
He revisits operations:
By operations we mean the mode of performing an act. An operation is the necessary content of any action but it is not identical with the latter. One and the same action may be performed by different operations, and conversely, one and the same operation may sometimes realise different actions. That is because an operation depends on the conditions in which the action’s goal is given, while an action is determined by the goal. (p.369, my emphasis)
And "More precisely, the operation is determined by the task, i.e. the goal, given in conditions requiring a certain mode of action." Operations arise as actions (p.369), but operations can turn back into actions:
An action, on being converted into an operation, is reduced as it were in the rank it occupies in the general structure of activity, but that does not mean that it is simplified. In becoming an operation it falls out of the round of conscient processes, but retains the general features of a conscious process, and at any moment, for example with a difficulty, may again become conscious. (p.375).
Chapter 8. Child Development and the Problem of Mental Deficiency
Leontyev argues here that mental deficiency is often the result of neglected or poor development, and can be reversed. This argument goes back to his general argument that the psyche is a sociohistorical phenomenon:
The advances of human historical development were reinforced and passed on from generation to generation in a special form, namely in an exoteric, external form.
This new form of the accumulation of phylogenetic (or rather socio-historical) experience arose in man because the activity specific to him is productive activity. Such, above all, is men’s main activity, their work. (p.383)
Every object made by man – from a hand tool to the modern electronic computer – embodies mankind’s historical experience and at the same time also embodies the mental aptitudes moulded in this experience. This point conies out even more clearly perhaps in language, science, and works of art. (p.383)
For children, this world of objects isn't determinate but appropriable:
The child does not adapt itself to the world of human objects and phenomena around it, but makes it its own, i.e. appropriates it.
The difference between adaptation in the sense that the term is used in regard to animals, and appropriation, is as follows: biological adaptation is change of the subject’s species properties and capacities and of its congenital behaviour caused by the requirements of the environment. Appropriation is another matter. It is a process that has as its end result the individual’s reproduction of historically formed human properties, capacities, and modes of behaviour. In other words it is a process through which what is achieved in animals by the action of heredity, namely the transmission of advances in the species’ development to the individual, takes place in the child. (p.384)
In the rest of the chapter, he applies this argument to children's mental development and especially delayed development.
Chapter 9. Activity and Consciousness
In this final chapter, Leontyev discusses the phenomenon of consciousness. He describes activity as a unit: "Activity is a non-additive unit of the corporeal, material life of the material subject. In the narrower sense, i.e., on the psychological plane, it is a unit of life, mediated by mental reflection, by an image, whose real function is to orientate the subject in the objective world." (p.397).
He revisits the idea of activity again, emphasizing once more (in an often-quoted passage) how an activity is oriented to an object:
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. (p.397, my emphasis)
Again, the distinguishing characteristic of the activity is its object:
The main thing that distinguishes one activity from another lies in the difference between their objects. It is the object of activity that endows it with a certain orientation. In the terminology I have been using the object of activity is its motive. Naturally, this may be both material and ideal; it may be given in perception or it may exist only in imagination, in the mind. (p.400)
And activities and their actions are coconstitutive, yet separable:
At the same time activity and action are both genuine and, moreover, non-coincidental realities, because one and the same action may realize various activities, may pass from one activity to another, thus revealing its relative independence. This is due to the fact that the given action may have quite different motives, i.e., it may realize completely different activities. And one and the same motive may generate various goals and hence various actions. (p.401)
Notice that this is a potential opening to discuss multiplicity, but mainly in terms of interpenetrating activities. I don't think Leontyev would entertain multiplicity in the sense of authentically overlapping social realities, given his anchoring to Marx and Engels. Seriously entertaining multiplicity would entail setting some limits to the foundational claims of Marxism.
Later, we get more on the objective vs projective nature of the object:
Historically the need for such a “presentation” of the mental image to the subject arises only during the transition from the adaptive activity of animals to the productive, labour activity that is peculiar to man. The product to which activity is now directed does not yet actually exist. So it can regulate activity only if it is presented to the subject in such a form that enables him to compare it with the original material (object of labour) and with its intermediate transformations. What is more, the mental image of the product as a goal must exist for the subject in such a way that he can act with this image – modify it according to the conditions at hand. Such images are conscious images, conscious notions or, in other words, the phenomena of consciousness. (pp.402-403, my emphasis)
And here's the last word: "Labour activity is imprinted, perpetuated in its product" (p.403).
This book is as interesting—and as thick—as I remember. But in the intervening 20 years (!), I have read far more broadly and am seeing different connections. Some of those connections are noted here, but more broadly, I am seeing both the brilliance and the limits of Leontyev's work. Specifically, the work's anchoring in Marx and Engels is as disturbing to me here as it was in my review of Leontyev's other major work: an anchor can keep the boat steady, but it can also cause problems when the tide comes in, and the ideological conditions of the USSR meant that Leontyev could allow no slack in the anchor chain. Consequently, the work has a large dose of monoperspectivism and at least hints of teleology, posing problems when applying it to current problems.