Friday, February 13, 2015

Reading :: The Development of Mind

The Development of Mind
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, for some reason, but at . (You can also buy a print-on-demand copy at

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).
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)
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)
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.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Reading :: Activity and Consciousness

Activity and Consciousness
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.