Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Reading :: The Practical Essence of Man

The Practical Essence of Man: The 'Activity Approach' in Late Soviet Philosophy
Edited by Vesa Oittinen and Andrey Maidansky

As long-time readers of this blog know, activity theory was developed by A.N. Leontiev, a Soviet psychologist, building on acknowledged influences such as Vygotsky as well as unacknowledged or lightly acknowledged influences such as Rubinshtein and Lewin. It was picked up in the West in various manifestations, including by Finnish education researcher Yrjo Engestrom, who extended it to better account for organizational and cross-organizational interactions. Readers of this blog also know that AT was in many ways a product of its time and place — its tenets were, if not entirely based in orthodox Marx-Engels-Leninism, wrapped in that orthodoxy, and Leontiev in particular was sensitive and reactive to the political environment in both Stalinist and post-Stalinist USSR.

But AT was taken up beyond psychology, specifically in philosophy and most famously in Ilyenkov (from whom Engestrom borrows the implementation of “contradiction” that now characterizes Engestromian AT analysis). This collection explores that philosophical tradition.

(A brief aside here: I am generally uninterested in philosophy, which I find to be tedious, low-stakes, and uninteresting. But I am interested in how philosophy impacts other spheres of human activity.)

In the introduction, the editors acknowledge that although the psychological AT is now known globally, “its sibling, the philosophical activity theory, which arose among Soviet philosophers in the 1960s, remains virtually unknown outside Russia” (p.1). Partially, the authors say, that is because people inside and outside Russia have written off the entire 70 years of the Soviet Union as an intellectual loss, a period in which nothing of philosophical value could arise. But, the authors argue, thinkers such as Bakhtin and Ilyenkov have proven differently. The activity theory approach is similarly an “innovative undercurrent” that “is worthy of reception and critical assessment even today” (p.1).

The “scope of the activity approach is wider than that of Marxist philosophy, as it repeatedly contested the received ideas of Soviet Marxism-Leninism” (p.1). Specifically, the authors charge, the vulgarized Diamat (dialectical materialism) understanding of praxis was overly pragmatic, “de facto identified with ‘success’ in action” (pp.1-2). In reaction, the AT approach broke with these ideas, a “Soviet analogy to the Western ‘Praxis’ Marxism” (p.2). The AT approach developed “independently from Western theories of action” such as Weber’s, and consequently had a broader understanding of action: “they understood activity as the fundamental trait of man’s relations with the surrounding world” and thus as “forming the methodological basis of all human and social sciences” (p.2). The AT approach was based on Aristotelian praxis and poesis (p.3), but extended to other non-Soviets such as Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel (p.4).

Ilyenkov wrote “the first manifesto of the activity approach in philosophy” in 1962, in his discussion of the ideal, which in his estimation was not just a “reflection” but “an attribute of human activity; it is the special, cultural-historical dimension of man as an active being” (p.4). (I’ve reviewed Ilyenkov’s books elsewhere.) This concept of the ideal was taken up by other philosophers in the early 1960s, during the “short ‘thaw’ period of Khrushchev’s so-called de-Stalinization” (p.7). The authors provide summaries of some of these philosophers’ ideas.

“In the 1970s, the Soviet state became slack and inactive” and “the activity approach lost its popularity” (p.14). Yet some philosophers continued to develop it.

With that background in mind, let’s get to a selection of chapters.

David Bakhurst. “Activity and the Search for True Materialism.”
In this chapter, Bakhurst recounts how, when he began studying the USSR’s philosophical culture, his mentors told him the key concept was activity. Yet “I gradually began to realise that there was no settled view within the Russian tradition of what the so-called ‘activity approach’ amounted to” (p.17). Everyone agreed that the first of the Theses on Feuerbach was the starting point, but no one seemed to agree on what it meant (p.17). In psychology, Vygotsky’s followers used the concept of activity to insulate themselves from charges of idealism, “and thereby succeeded in saving much of Vygotsky’s legacy, albeit in transmuted form” (pp.17-18). In philosophy, it directed attention to philosophically interesting parts of Marx’s thought (p.18). “In this way the concept served as a conduit for philosophical creativity in a  difficult and repressive philosophical culture” (p.18).

But here, Bakhurst is interested in activity’s general philosophical significance beyond the Soviet milieu. He focuses on Ilyenkov, who argued that a relation between mind and world is only possible through activity (p.19). He summarizes Ilyenkov’s approach through ten theses (pp.19-21), then reviews some friendly objections. For instance, Batishchev characterizes the activity approach as “substantialism”: by elevating object-oriented activity to a supercategory, the approach becomes instrumental and fails to account for fundamental concepts such as communication and community (pp.21-22). He also claims that the approach as radically anthropocentric (p.22).

Bakhurst acknowledges that some activity theorists, such as V.P. Zinchenko, were vulnerable to the criticism, but Ilyenkov is not (p.23). Yet “the ‘environmental’ [anthropocentric] objection is spot on” (p.24). He thinks that this is a repairable problem.

Bakhurst then contemplates the question of normative authority in the activity approach, a “live philosophical issue” (p.27). He concludes with “a radical, even heretical, suggestion”: the activity approach’s problems generally “issue from the idea that activity is a category from which we can deduce the relation between subject and object, thinking and being”—but what if we instead construe our work as attempting “to express the terms in which we must think human activity, the terms in which human activity must understand itself” (p.27)?

Versa Ottinen. “‘Praxis’ as the Criterion of Truth? The Aporias of Soviet Marxism and the Activity Approach”
Here, the author argues that praxis is not the same as activity. Praxis was a cornerstone of Marxism-Leninism, and thus became “ideologically overcharged” (p.29), partially due to Plekhanov, whom Ottinen charges was “the real founder of dialectical materialism” (p.31). Plekhanov indiscriminately conflated the praxis arguments of the young Marx and the old Engels, and the result was that “the idea of praxis became a seemingly omnipotent argument” (p.31). Praxis in Soviet philosophy became “a confused concept” (p.33)

Andrey Maidansky. “Reality as Activity: The Concept of Praxis in Soviet Philosophy”
Maidansky also takes a crack at the concept of praxis. He notes that Marx and Engels considered themselves “practical materialists” and understood world history as built upon labor; “For Marx, every human thing is nothing other than objectified labour—the condensed and hardened lava of Action” (p.42). In contrast, the author argues, Lenin’s Materialism and Empirocriticism defines matter as “an objective reality given to man by sensations” (p.43)—the kind of materialism that Marx had criticized.

Following the Marxist rather than the Leninist understanding, the author further notes that according to Marx, nature is an acting subject. Ilyenkov, along the same lines, says that labor is the subject, thought is the predicate (p.45). And in the same tradition, Batishchev argues that “in the process of practical activity, a human being changes not only an object but himself as well, his own personality, and even human nature itself” (pp.46-47).

Sergei Mareev. “Abstract and Concrete Understanding of Activity: ‘Activity’ and ‘Labour’ in Soviet Philosophy”
Mareev argues that “activity” is too broad a concept to apply methodologically. He advocates replacing the abstract “activity” with the concrete “labour” (p.96):

In any case, we should start with the notion of labour, because only through labour can we explain the origin of all ideal senses and meanings that may be produced later in all fields of scientific and artistic activity. Evald Ilyenkov played an outstanding role here, showing how the ideal, as such, is produced directly within material activity, that is, in the labour-process. This link was missing in the works of A.N. Leontiev, the well-known psychologist, which is why he supported Ilyenkov so warmly. (p.97)

He also notes that “The essence of speech follows from the essence of labour, and it can be deduced from and explained by it only. This is the general idea and general method of the Vygotsky-Leontiev school” (p.99).

Overall, this book was helpful in understanding the uptake of the concept of activity from psychology to philosophy in the late Soviet Union. I found some chapters helpful, especially Bakhurst’s and the Introduction, but overall this book is more geared to those who have a more active interest in philosophy. If that’s you, certainly pick this book up.