From: “Elhammoumi”

Subject: Leontiev and the Sorbonne connection

Date: Tue, 26 Sep 2000


... I had the opportunity to attend a series of seminars between 1979-1987, in which Leontiev’s ideas were discussed by the close friends of Leontiev such as Rene Zazzo, Dimitri Voustsinas, Robert Pages among others. In his article “Homage to Leontiev”, Zazzo described in details the struggle of Leontiev as well as the problems within Soviet psychology (See, Zazzo, R. (1982). Nécrologie: Alexis Leontiev. Année Psychologique, 82, 537-546, as well as Dimitri Voutsinas seminal reflection of Marxist psychology in Bulletin de Psychologie between 1960-1992).

... Leontiev had close contact with Zazzo, and he shared with him the unofficial side of Soviet psychology. Zazzo was an active member of the French Communist Party. Zazzo was a student of Henri Wallon. As you know, Vygotsky drew heavily on Wallon’s work. Wallon was the first who elaborated a systematic Marxist psychology. His theoretical conceptualisation of a Marxist psychology shaped the works of Politzer’s Concrete Psychology and Vygotsky’s Cultural-historical Theory. Vygotsky was very familiar with the works of these two Marxist psychologists and he used many concepts developed by them.

In April and May 1955, the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences at Moscow invited three leading Western psychologists: Paul Fraisse, Jean Piaget and Rene Zazzo to Moscow. It was the first official invitation and open dialogue with Western psychology. During their visit to Moscow, Paul Fraisse, Jean Piaget and Rene Zazzo had engaging and fruitful discussions with Leontiev, Luria, Rubinstein, Smirnov and Tepov. At the end of the last meeting, Leontev told Paul Fraisse, Jean Piaget and Rene Zazzo that we need your help to make our views known in world psychology. Leontiev’s call was directed to Zazzo.

Back in Paris, Zazzo published a report about his visit to Moscow in the review La Raison in which he pointed out that Pavlovism was not the only force in Soviet Psychology; there were other forces with well-established theoretical frameworks within Marxist psychology. The reaction of Soviet Moscow was very bad. Leontiev flew to Paris and called Zazzo. During their conversations, Leontiev told Zazzo that his article irritated our comrades in Moscow and asked him to rectify his article. Zazzo told him that he had written exactly what they had discussed and agreed upon. Leontiev asked him to rectify his ideas because the article put him in hot water. Finally, Zazzo accepted and rectified some ideas in the article. Leontiev took the article back to Moscow and republished saying there had been a mistake in translation. Leontiev had good contact with the Sorbonne University. He lectured and published many papers in French. (Leontiev was very fluent in French).

I think the Sorbonne connection will help us to understand the unknown story of Soviet psychology and Leontiev theoretical framework. For example the 1966-1969 series of Lucien Seve’s articles (for example, Psychology and Marxism, 1966, no. 180, .... Marxism and theory of Personality, no. 26 ) in the review La Nouvelle Critique played major role in Leontiev’s fifth chapter “Activity and Personality”. The chapter was written in the light of Seve’s new conceptualisation of the Marxist theory of personality. The reader of Chapter 5 will find that Leontiev had successfully absorbed and integrated in his theoretical framework Seve’s formulations. More ideas will be added during the discussions.

Mohamed Elhammoumi

Date: Wed, 25 Oct 2000

Subject: rubinshtein and Leontiev/vygotsky

From: “Peter JONES(SCS)”


While we're still on this subject I thought I would add to the discussion of the differences between R & L. I think this may repeat some of the points from the very interesting posts from the archive and from general discussion, so apologies for that. Some of the points below are rather sketchy (I understand some of them more than others!). My understanding of the differences comes from reading some of the works of R and L, but also Mikhailov’s work (only in Russian unfortunately) ‘Social consciousness and individual self consciousness’ has a detailed examination and critique of the activity approach (and of R), and a lot of the work of A V Brushlinksy, one of the foremost continuators and developers of the Rubinshteinian approach.

So some differences as follows:

1) For R not activity as a whole but only the internal, mental (subjective) side of activity was the proper object of psychology (this is discussed in detail by L in section 3.3). Perhaps for this reason R talks about ‘the unity of activity and consciousness’ which for L, I guess, is an absurdity: activity is already conscious, ie activity includes consciousness as a necessary moment. This is discussed at length in Mikhailov’s book, where he suggests that one should indeed begin from activity in the sense of Marx’s ‘labour’ or ‘productive activity’ ie as a socially organised, purposeful practical transformation of nature according to human needs and show how human abilities and subjectivity in all its forms historically develop and differentiate themselves from this ‘cell’.

2) Rubinshtein objected to the notion of ‘interiorisation’ on the grounds that external activity was always (from the beginning) mediated through/by the internal mental states and processes of the individual; in other words he objected to the idea of the internal (mental) plane being completely FORMED ie CREATED through this process of wholesale ‘displacement’ of the external form of activity which he considered a mechanistic, undialectical and reductionist view. His own alternative was the so-called ‘principle of determinism’ which states that ‘the external cause acts only through the internal conditions’, ie that the ‘logic’ of external practical activity into which the human child is drawn always ‘works on’ (and due to) a particular state or condition of mental development which is a precondition and condition for the external activity in the first place. L criticises R’s approach directly in the book we are discussing — chapter 3 section 3.1. He says ‘if we understand as internal conditions the ongoing condition of the subject exposed to the effect, then it will contribute nothing essentially new to the formula S-R.The introduction of the concept of intervening variables undoubtedly enriches the analysis of behaviour, but it does not remove the postulate of directness [the fault of behaviourism which abstracts from the subject’s activity in the world]’. 3) A related point: Brushlinsky in particular criticises Vygotsky and L for their view of the human infant as only a ‘potential’ human being, animal-like in behaviour and capacity until the ‘penetration’ of ‘natural’ behaviour by social symbols etc. The infant is human from the very beginning -so that Vygotsky’s demarcation between ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ lines of development is wrong: there is a single, socio-cultural process of development of the human subject.

4) R saw Vygotsky’s approach not as an ‘activity’ one but as sign-centred in so far as it gave to language (and not activity) the key role in the formation of the human mind. This criticism of Vygotsky was accepted to some extent by members of the Vygotsky-Leontiev ‘school’. L himself orients towards this critique and rebuts it in section 3.4. He explains that Vygotsky’s focus may have been on meaning ‘in its reverse movement’, ie on the consequences to the whole system of activity of the mediating role of meanings and that this gave the impression (to some) that meaning ‘lies behind life and directs activity’ while ‘for Vygotsky an opposite thesis remained unshakeable: Not meaning, not consciousness lies behind life, but life lies behind consciousness’. My own view is that this is right: the criticism of Vygotsky’s approach as ‘sign-centric’ is undialectical: it is one question to ask (and keep on repeating) ‘what lies behind meaning’ but it is another (and relatively little studied) to ask: how does the system of activity change as a result of semiotic mediation? How does the ‘reverse effect’ of signs manifest itself and what is the logic of this dynamic? (I tried to look at this question briefly in my contribution to the recent collection of papers on Ilyenkov).

5) R differed from Vygotsky on the interpretation of egocentric and inner speech. While for Vygotsky egocentric speech was social in outward appearance but ‘inner’ in function (ie had the function of inner speech, the regulation and control of the child’s own behaviour) for R this was an illegitimate ‘intellectualising’ of egocentric speech. For R what he called ‘monologic speech’ (ie not ‘egocentric') has all the functions of speech in general (although these functions are realised in it a different form). It is saturated with emotionality for one thing and therefore cannot be equated with inner speech [i'm not defending this view, just reporting!]. For R ‘monologic speech’ has the function within the subject’s activity of rendering speech more tangible and more accessible to conscious awareness and checking. 6) For L thinking is conceived not as ‘activity’ but as the ‘regulator’ of activity which takes the form of uninterrupted processual movement and transformation which is always creative (and moves according to the law of ‘analysis by synthesis').

7) Brushlinsky argues that R was developing a ‘new philosophical paradigm’ which he calls a ‘third way’ between materialism and idealism (and therefore not Marxism).

8) As I remember, Brushlinsky also criticises Vygotsky for his conception of ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ as opposed to meaning and concepts etc. He argues that Vygotsky’s interpretation is a typical empiricist (and non marxist) understanding of the ‘concrete’ as something individual, something given to the senses, with the ‘abstract’ as something ‘generalised’ from all the data of sense. (To be contrasted with eg Ilyenkov’s conception of the abstract and the concrete).

Sorry, folks if this is a bit of a red-herring. There are, though, important issues in here which are rarely discussed (eg the egocentric speech thing to name one obvious point).

with best wishes to all


From: Dot Robbins

Subject: simple? growing weary!

Dear Friends,

Paulo Freire once stated that “theory is great, but friends are better.” This discussion group is really nice and I do hope that we are using “understanding as an activity,” the best idea ever. As well, many people are struggling to create a “stronger” bridge of understanding between Vygotsky and Activity Theory, not a weaker bridge. However, when I was trying to find out the specifics of Activity Theory (of A.N. Leontiev) when in Moscow, I felt like I did when talking to Catholics who grew up as Catholics, stating “we just lived it, we didn’t sit and discuss it as a theory.” Most of us, I think, are trying to reflect on-line in order to grow, and that thinking is surely open to change, and it is certainly not positioned in absolutes. At the same time, some of us are getting frustrated with all of this, and my frustration is located in the fact that I would like to have specifics about Activity Theory (here regarding A.N. Leontiev and the actual book we are reading. And perhaps the only person who could really help out here is A.A. Leontiev). However, there must be many people on-line who could give specifics and help us. Activity Theory a la A.N. Leontiev must contain more that views on “appropriation” (e.g., regarding teaching, learning, communicating), and A.T. must include more than discussions of “subject-object.” Almost all theories of communication deal with these aspects with or without mentioning them as such. I am growing so weary of the A.N. Leontiev book, and truly don’t know what I have learned at all. Could someone answer the following questions?: 1) What actually distinguishes Activity Theory (A.N. Leontiev) — with concrete points — from other similar theories (please go beyond act, action, goal, etc., and the triangle)? As we know, Radzikovski wrote a stinging critique of Activity Theory, stating that “however many times the word activity is repeated, there is not an activity approach here ... This approach, alas, actually boils down to merely the ‘proposed terminology’ ... Although this theory made no real progress, it spread unbelievably in the 1970s. The word activity became all but obligatory” (Radzikhovskii,1991, p. 93, in Soviet Psychology). I always assumed that this was an emotional reaction on the part of Radzikhovski, and it is something that I cannot accept; however, I am still not clear what constitutes A.T. as a THEORY, beyond the concrete situation, and how it actually goes beyond Vygotsky’s method to carry out research. The terminology “activity theory” alone means that we must transcend the concrete, or reach another level of understanding, or? 2) What exact tenets from Vygotsky were carried into Activity Theory ( via A. N. Leontiev), and which aspects were totally deleted, and why? I always notice the emphasis on the “social” regarding Vygotskian theory (also within A.T.) that is worrying. For example, Y. Engestrom in his 1999 edited book speaks of the following: “The idea is that humans can control their own behaviour — not “from the inside,” on the basis of biological urges, but “from the outside,” using and creating artefacts” (p. 29). This is indeed what Vygotsky stated on page 40 of Mind in Society. However, that was not the end. “In the initial phase reliance upon external signs is crucial to the child’s effort. But through development these operations undergo radical changes: the entire operation of mediated activity (for example) begins to take place as a purely internal process . . . The internalisation of socially rooted and historically developed activities is the distinguishing feature of human psychology, the basis of the qualitative leap from animal to human psychology” (pp.55-56). I see so many interpretations of viewing the internal as biological urges, and I apologise for picking on Engestrom, only used as an example of many thoughts I read. I would assume that the followers of Vygotsky would have worked out the misunderstandings and paradoxes of Vygotsky long ago so that there would be a clearer understanding of his intentions. While in Moscow I was overwhelmed at the fact that there were so few books directly related to Vygotsky, and so little in-depth analysis of Vygotsky in the interviews I conducted, and in personal talks with tons of people every day for five months. V.’s name was mentioned so often (if fact there was always a concatenation of famous names given), but I seldom found follow up analyses directly related to the theories of Vygotsky “in-depth”, often just lots and lots of words, with many exceptions of course, especially Akhutina, Zinchenko, Zuckerman, Umrikin, and some others. Certainly, I did not speak to all psychologists in Moscow, so perhaps my lack of understanding is totally my fault. What is the exact bridge of Vygotskian theory for A.N. Leontiev, and how was it implemented? 3) How do activity theorists (directly following the line of A.N. Leontiev) transcend dualisms via the dialectic (or whatever) to arrive at a sense of wholeness that is more specific than just focusing on concrete situations, or staying at the level of dialectical movement? (I think a general problem is that wholeness equals totality in the philosophical sense, and the term totality is sometimes viewed negatively by many who relate it to political systems of totality. Therefore, more open systems/theories (e.g. postmodern, phenomenology, etc.) are appealing, something I understand. However, we need to be clear about the philosophical meaning of “totality” that is really different, it means “holism.” Within Activity Theory (speaking of A.N. Leontiev, certainly not A.A. or Dmitry Leontiev) I don’t read about the tools that I can use as general principles in concrete situations (however, I do understand these principles within the thoughts of A.A. and Dmitry). In other words, I truly do not believe that we “normally” establish principles when we are in the middle of a concrete situation or problem for the most part (of course there are many exceptions), and that we need overarching principles to orient us to act appropriately in concrete situations (I don’t mean anything absolute, but principles that can help guide us through the relativity of everyday life). The old example of a car accident is used: Someone in the former East Germany, a Communist, was in a car wreck and suddenly cried out to God for help. He did not cry out to Marx for help, although he was an avowed Marxist. I first heard this as a joke, and then heard of it as a true story. At the same time, the concrete situation is the test or reflector measuring the actual appropriated or even internalised principle, and it also affects and changes that principle. That is the asymmetrical dynamic representing the fluidity of the dialectic, that is anchored, not just free flowing.

Now, this is my problem: I did “internalise” Vygotskian thought from the side of German and Spinozian philosophy, but only “appropriated” Activity Theory. And I seem to stand totally alone in one aspect:: My understanding is in contradistinction to Anna’s statement (“This dichotomy [externalisation/internalisation] is nothing but an instrument that can help in thinking about certain issues and achieving some specific goals, an instrument that makes sense in some concrete contexts but not others.”) This is not true for me, as that would represent a subject-object relationship (of course, all relationships incorporate subject-object). First, I keep hearing and reading (over and over) in articles, books, and on-line that: a) Vygotsky’s thoughts are implied to be some type of absolute, an implicit correlation to the impersonal world of German Idealism (implying that A.T. is the antidote). There is nothing farther from the truth for me personally at this point in time. b) that Activity Theory can only be discussed in a “concrete” situation (used in opposition to the problems of “totality” and “abstract,” I think), implying that the same is not true for Vygotsky. And yet, for me at least, I find that Vygotskian thought does not need to be located within totally concrete examples, and at the same time, his “overall” philosophy is indeed concrete but in a different sense (and this is in line with the educational-Marxist philosophy of Paulo Freire). I take Vygotskian and Spinozian thought into the classroom and use it everyday as a(n) heuristic in dealing with students, colleagues, in creating projects, and in working with the Mexicans, etc. It is a METAPHOR (and meta-principle), it is not always CONCRETE for me personally; however, ironically it ends up as a semi-concrete principle (Bernd Fichtner once wrote:"As a modeling idea, the metaphor orients the learner to totality. Two heterogeneous spheres are transformed into components of a new, systematically organised total meaning.” In Engestrom’s book, p. 323). With the externalisation/internalisation METAPHOR (not understood as something concrete) I actually attempt to speak to people linking into their internal reality and to the external reality (once again as a metaphor) as a whole----knowing I cannot really do that-- (perhaps the words are also simple dignity, real listening to their context, not judging so much, listening from a holistic point of view, all of which is also based in part on Paulo Freire’s thinking). This does not always work and I fall short of this everyday, but the principle (derived from the social) guides the concrete experience, not the reverse. The concrete experience can sometimes drive the principle and strengthen it or weaken it, but ultimately it is the principle (simply our inner beliefs that create much change, either personally or even socially). In the end, thoughts create much of our reality [not all], and thoughts used as overarching principles can completely shape our external, concrete realities (example of Victor Frankl). At the same time, the concrete constantly reshapes and refocuses the principle. And I use this method (and others from Vygotsky) in many concrete situations, as well as using the very same principles of Vygotsky for my research, especially related to Chomsky. Without this feeling of wholeness, I would not be so linked to Vygotsky. I have not captured the same feeling within the Activity Theory of A.N. Leontiev and truly want to. I just cannot feel the mind and heart working together with A.N. Leontiev, as compared with Vygotsky. Therefore, Vygotskian aspects such as genetic-development, dialectics, synthesis — unity, concept development, viewing history as change, inner speech, self-regulation are very real psychological tools that I use in very real concrete experiences. What are the exact holistic tools in the Activity Theory of A.N. Leontiev, that guide by principle (and I truly don’t mean absolutism)?

Post modernity (here viewed somewhat as philosophical relativity): For me (and many other friends who totally grew up in post modernity), having a sense of grounding (i.e., traditional thoughts, philosophy) is very beneficial, as long as it is used as a tool to grow, and is not viewed as an absolute. I sincerely feel that this is why Vygotsky is so popular in many parts of the postmodern world (e.g., his grounding as opposed to postmodern theories). I have heard various stories of people who have actually cried when reading Vygotsky for the first time, stating that they had found their own voice and theory (and grounding) through him. It is also interesting that the serious Marxist writers I know of (writing directly and explicitly on Marxism) live in post modernity; once again I assume that this focus is a search for the theoretical grounding not always present in post modernity. Now, I love life in post modernity, because of the lessening of the voice of the “expert” and the ascension of more equality in most realms of life (something evident on this listserv).I feel very young in postmodern society, and much older when visiting other societies. However, there is a real need for a balanced position (in both life and theory) of tradition/postmodern, concrete/abstract, relative/absolute. The danger is in lending too much weight to one side or the other. Within Vygotsky’s thoughts I completely find this balance. I am asking specifically for help in finding the same balance within A.N. Leontiev’s Activity Theory. In my understanding, Vygotsky’s theories are not absolute, nor are they “out there” somewhere drifting within German Idealism.

And I would also like to better understand the specific meaning of “activity as epistemological principle.” Anna, is this a guiding principle, or can it only be discovered within a concrete activity? Perhaps this is a good way to start to go deeper, much deeper, into the understanding of what Activity Theory (of A.N. Leontiev and this book) really means. Chapter 5 was just as frustrating as the other chapters. It tended to view the whole of personality without looking at the parts, and of course, the reverse seems to be evident in much of Western psychology. If asked what I had learned from the entire book, I really would have very little to say. But, have learned from all of you and a big thanks.

We are a group of people interested in the same ideas and I value all of your thoughts, and moreover, you as people. Most of all I value the friendship with people like Peter Jones and Anna Stetsenko more than any discussion of any theory. I hope that all of our friendships can grow deeper through these thoughts we have, all of which are different for each person. I wish those of you who have grown up with Vygotsky and A.T., or have studied these areas for many years (and have written on these topics) could explain things with very specific, yet in-depth answers that would help some of us who are relatively new to all of this. I do understand that Activity Theory in general has a focus on real change and transformation within the concrete situation(and it seems to truly focus on development in some areas). However, what tools are offered for that to “really” happen on both the individual/societal level (apart from the simplicity that I cannot breakthrough)? We were asked to “become part of the same activity that he [A.N. Leontiev] was involved in while developing his theory.” This is where I and others need help from Anna, Victor, Igor, and many others who actually studied with A.N. Leontiev, worked with him, and understood him. As well, many of the works we read are only in English (and sometimes with poor translations, as Peter pointed out). I am certainly going to go back to some of the truly brilliant authors on this topic in German, J. Lompscher, G. Ruckriem, Berndt Fichtner and W. Jantzen. I think that they can also offer pivotal answers to the questions asked. I also wish that Mohamed would offer thoughts on the French thinkers he mentioned related to A.N. Leontiev. Thanks! Have a wonderful weekend!


Date: Sun, 29 Oct 2000

From: Mike Cole


Concerning the context, Victor or Anna could help more than I can in answering, for example, the question of the erasure of Rubinshtein while the Vygotskians were in power and the reciprocal erasure when the power started to shift in the late 1960’s-mid ‘70’s. My strong suspicion that the quality of ideas was not the main factor involved.

There is probably an entire book of relevant articles to be brought together from Soviet Psychology/JREEP, some of which have been mentioned.

In the Rubinshtein/Leontiev discussion, I keep wondering which of the arguments have empirical consequences. Some of them ought to, but perhaps only in a wider network of theoretical/ methodological considerations that make it hard to pin down whether, for example, appropriation is an acceptable psychological term and what it provides that internalisation (under its 101 spotted interpretations) does not.

I come away still bedevilled by the issue raised early on about “activity of the individual” versus “individual activity” and more convinced than before that CHAT is an INTERDISCIPLINARY approach whose issues are not usefully reduced to existing disciplines, whose crises have only gotten worse in the past 100 years.

Date: Tue, 31 Oct 2000

From: Helena Worthen

Subject: Re: Leontiev: externalisation/internalisation

... When I read something that’s new and hard to understand, I go for grasping just enough of it to carry back something useful to my own work; if there is more there, especially things that seem excessively focused on something I don’t worry much about, I just let it float on past. I proceed with this system as long as it doesn’t generate contradictions in the pile of knowledge that I use for my work. After a few years have gone by and I've read a bunch of things and talked with a bunch of people and the contradictions are only coming in at distant intervals, I begin to think I know something about the subject at hand.

This is actually a confession that some of you may find shocking!

Oh well...So now I'll try to respond to Peter’s struggle with the “external/internal” issue. Tell me if this helps, or if I'm just ironing out all the interesting complexities of his/your contribution. Here is what passes for sufficient for me, to help me understand what all the fuss is about internal/external:

It’s from Bakhurst’s Consciousness and Revolution in Soviet Philosophy: from the Bolsheviks to Evald Ilyenkov, page 63:

“Vygotsky believed that psychology was trapped between two approaches to the mind that, though they appeared to be the only alternatives, were both unsatisfactory. Russian psychology, for example, was divided between the “objectivist” approach of the behaviourists and reflexologists, and the instrospectionism of the “subjective-empirical” school. The former sought to explain al human behaviour in “stimulus-response” terms, which made no essential reference to mental phenomena. They held that talk about the mental, insofar as it is relevant to the explanation of behaviour, can be reduced to talk in terms of responses. In contrast, the subjective-empirical school, while recognising the significance of the stimulus-response framework for the explanation of behaviour, argued that no purely objective account can capture consciousness, the inner dimension of mental life. They insisted that this inner realm remains a legitimate object of psychological investigation even though it is in principle beyond the reach of scientific method, accessible to the psychologist on through the introspective reports of the subject.”

So these are the two camps. Vygotsky “internalisation” concept was a way of thinking about how the outside gets in and how the inside gets out (or, better, how the two interact). But these ideas were offered in a context of high stakes debate.

So, forty (?) years later, this is still the multi-fold problem that Leontiev is facing — how to justify the study of consciousness and how to explain it as a central focus of psychology — and then, how to talk about consciousness within psychology, how to think about its development in history and its function in the world. That’s what we're reading now.

Have I got it right enough? (Anyone know the concept of the “good enough mother” -- the mother who may not be a star, but at least doesn’t drive her family nuts and hurt them? I'm asking if this is right ENOUGH?)

Helena Worthen

From: “Stetsenko, Anna”

Subject: Leontiev versus Vygotsly?

Date: Wed, 1 Nov 2000

Dot, thank you for your thoughts. There is such a wonderful and natural personal flavor to them. There is also this amazing congruence in what you write about and how you write about it. I feel that your thoughts come as a reflection of some very wholistic experiences and hence they are also truly ‘wholistic’ — a feature that you seem to value and espouse in so many ways. Yet, at the same time, it also makes it so much more difficult to answer... because so many issues are raised AT ONCE.

Let me at least try to address some of your thoughts. I know I will only touch upon some peripheral ones, but they constitute the context without which it is hard, I believe, to get to more substantive issues.

I might be completely wrong, and please correct me, but it appears to me that Dot’s perception of AT entails the idea that it has to be taken in contradistinction to Vygotsky’s theory. These two theories seem to be thought of not only as different but as opposite ones. Just as an example, what I wrote in my attempt to spell out few things about how to understand understanding as an activity (I'll come back to this later), Dot perceived as related ONLY and exclusively to AT, and in her perception of my logic, consequently NOT to Vygotsky. As if saying something about Leontiev automatically has to become opposite if applied to Vygotsky. My point was general about theories and concepts (I took example of L simply because we are in the discussion of AT right now) and yet was perceived as me drawing an opposition between Vygotsky and Leontiev.

However, from all I know as someone who studied and worked at the Moscow University — the hotbed of AT — from mid-1970s and into early 1990s, there has been hardly anyone who would put AT and Vygotsky into opposition. The general discourse in these years was about THE CONCEPTION OF VYGOTSKY-LEONTIEV-LURIA in this specific sequence. This is how things were presented to the students and in hundreds of publications by Leontiev and Luria (thank you, Vera, for reminding of his importance) and by many many other immediate followers and colleagues, importantly, by Galperin and Davydov — perhaps the two most brilliant of them. There has never been a wall placed between Vygotsky and Leontiev and the emphasis was on general premises and assumptions of this school of thought. Volumes have been written on what are these premises and assumptions. This does not mean that no distinctions have been made, they were, and this is reflected, again, in so many works...(I don’t want to bombard you with names). The bulk of these works has been written in 60s, 70-and early 80s. So called rounds of discussions (all published) on AT have taken place in these years reflecting real arguments and disagreements among the Vygotsky’s followers who nevertheless saw themselves as representatives of the same school...

Interesting in this respect is that Brushlinskij, Lomov and others from outside this school criticised Vygotsky AND Leontjev AND Luria (and the whole school) for much the same things, primarily, for too much emphases on social to the neglect of internal (in their terminology) individual processes (see Peter Jones’ eloquent message on Rubinstein and Leontiev. By the way, there was one typo in that message, Peter: Point 6 about ‘analyses through synthesis’ relates to R, not L).

Why bothering about all this? Because the context is important, as we all agree. And also because this illustrates yet another issue: whether people ‘lived AT’ like Catholics, without challenging or criticising it? Dot, please excuse me, but this is a misunderstanding, as this is in such a contradiction with so many published discussions and critiques and conferences (not to mention my own personal experiences) that reflected real struggle and fights and disagreements WITHIN AT. If some in Moscow say that ‘they lived with AT’ — or rather ‘V-L-L approach’ — there are so many meanings in here. You took this to mean that there was a blind, un-reflecting acceptance of AT on their parts (hence the analogy with catholics, I guess?). Yet another meaning is that yes, indeed, AT was an important part of their lives in the sense of engagement but also challenge. AT was taken very seriously (but not uncritically) as most people believed they were engaged in developing foundations for a NEW (objective or marxist or materialist) psychology and many devoted their whole lives to this goal. Hence emotions were so high and fights were so common. And criticism so stinging — like example you gave citing Radzikhovskij and I could give many many more.

So, what was it on the whole? I think, the life and dynamics of Vygotsky-Leontjev-Luria school of thought were quite representative of what a development of any school in science might be — the life full of struggle and contradictions, mutual respect and disagreements, devotion and doubts (perhaps even betrayals), conflicts and challenges, leaps forward and periods of stagnation. Isn’t this the only way any development can possibly take place?

From: “Stetsenko, Anna”

Subject: Historical notes on AT context

Date: Thu, 2 Nov 2000

Dot asked:

1) What distinguishes A. N. Leontiev’s activity theory beyond actions? What were the other theories of psychology at that time in Russia (beyond the Vygotskian paradigm), not including Rubenshtein?

I'll answer to the second part.

There were theories — and indeed whole schools of thought — at the time when Leontiev developed his AT. These theories had their own distinct foundations, developed their own distinct systems of arguments and, generally, took a completely distinct course that often collided with that of CHAT.

First, the theory of so called ‘ustanovka’ (’set’, as it is usually translated but I am not sure if this is a good translation) by Dmitrij Uznadze and his many colleagues and followers in Tbilisi (Soviet Georgia). This school still exists and there are interesting people working in it (in very desperate conditions, by the way, no comparison to those in Moscow). There have been many conferences held and works published on where and how exactly Uznadze and L disagree and generally relate; e.g., Alexandr Asmolov has written a lot about the relationships between L and Uznadze.

Second, there was so -called Leningrad school of psychology (e.g., Lomov, Bodalev, Klimov) that completely disagreed with L and V, were clearly opposed to all the cultural-historical views and fought fierce battles with L, Davydov and Zinchenko on academic, political and administrative ‘fronts’ all the way through 70s and 80s (and perhaps as early as 60s). Leontiev’s lenin’s prize did not give him much protection from this, actually.

The Leningrad school of psychology was basically an ideal example of a positivist empiricist science with all the typical attributes of it. It was always a challenge to participate in big national conferences as a representative of CHAT because these would typically be a minority, often attacked by more numerous representatives of the positivist psychology. The latter ones concentrated mostly in Leningrad first but certainly had a lot of influence around the country (positivists are influential everywhere in the world more than CHAT, I guess...) Then Lomov moved to Moscow and established his own big Institute of Psychology (IPAN) and later Bodalev moved to Moscow too and CHAT people were pushed out from many important places including even the Moscow State University and Davydov’s Institute (NIIOPP). It was the general knowledge that because Lomov was directly involved with military research and had many connections at the high party levels, he was more influential than Leontiev and caused the latter many real headaches and troubles (e.g., the system of Academy of Science was the one best supplied and supported financially and L was said to have wanted to be involved in it but he wasn’t allowed anywhere close by Lomov). I think, a good example for all this is that during the 70s and early 80s, to the best of my knowledge, very few (at least very rarely even in case of L, although Luria has had more chances) of the AT people could represent Soviet Psychology at International conferences, they were simply not allowed to travel internationally (this all changed when Gorbachev took off travel restrictions, starting from app.1987...). Instead, Lomov and his close colleagues were the only proud representatives of this country, for example, at the World Psychological Congresses. Incidentally, Lomov tragically died during one of his trips abroad for such a conference (I believe, it was Brussels) from a heart attack...

By the way, speaking of Davydov, and relating to what Yrjo once wrote. Davydov’s trouble with the communist party was allegedly inspired by Bodalev and Lomov and had more to do with their struggle for power in the Academy of Education than with any pure ideology. Formally, Davydov was expelled from the party for some financial violations with budget spending at the Institute that he directed at the time (he was in fact a very sloppy administrator, as far as I know... he was a real scientist, a bit absent-minded and a bit naive in financial aspects, this is my personal view). He was actually quite promptly rehabilitated and restored as a party member but replaced as the director by Alexej Matjushkin.

Then there was Rubinstein and his followers such as Brushlinskij...this has been covered already.

There were other, less prominent theories as well, but I think this is enough to make a point: Leontiev has never had a status of an official and single authority in psychology (beyond the walls of psychology department that he headed and those who chose to follow him, such as many at Davydov’s Institute). CHAT, or if we take AT in isolation, both were not more that one of the many perspectives developed in Soviet psychology that went through periods of fierce fights between them. Alex Kozulin did not get it right, I am sorry. Ironically, when I wrote about Vygotsky-Leontjev in my previous message, I wanted to mention that, in my view, Kozulin played a role in mis-representing AT as an opposition to Vygotsky and I thought it could influence Dot’s views (I deleted this passage as many others to avoid being too detailed).

Luckily, there are historians of psychology who have documented a lot of this, although not all and not in full scope — Yaroshevskij, Umrikhin, Zhdan, AA Leontjev. Yaroshevskij is now somewhere in the US, does anybody know where? Now Elena Sokolova writes a lot about Soviet psychology and V and L, drawing from archives and letters, publishing unpublished previously manuscripts by V and L and many others. It will take time to re-construct all of this in more detail but it comforts me that many people are working on that and also that many people are interested — like the xmca discussants. Thank you for your interest — it will help to get to a more objective picture, I am sure.

Date: Sun, 5 Nov 2000

From: Mike Cole


I will touch on some issues raised in the discussion. The long summaries and provision of historical background have been very helpful and I might be able to contribute a little here.

First, on the social--individual thread. Last heard from I was asking where Dewey’s reflex arc paper was in the discussion in connection with the assertion of the primacy of the social and ANL starting his “psychic cycle” with the external acting on the internal. Andy and Peter(?) provided further, to my mind very helpful, comments. I was especially glad when the word “cultural” got into the bio-social formulation because I think that overcoming the seeming contradiction between starting the cycle from the outside and presupposing an actively appropriating organism can best be resolved by inclusion of the cultural. As Andy(?) pointed out, the individual is an individual only by virtue of being a member of a social group and in this sense, not only a social-individual dichotomy but a social-biological dichotomy is pure confusion. All humans, the human “socium” is a biological formation!

As I tried to argue (I don’t think we ever got this far in the discussion of cultural psychology “the book”) the artifact-saturated world we refer to as culture is constituted of material that is NOT exclusively biological and does not change at the same rate or according to the same principles as homo sapiens. Darwinian evolution (random production of variation, and natural selection) are complemented by NON-RANDOM production of variation and natural selection (to put it in short hand). The result is a hybrid of the sort we know as humanity.

The helpless newborn has no source of knowledge of the cultural resources that will be needed to become a (re)productive adult other than those who create an environment which enables that child’s development in/through culture. IN THIS SENSE, the “social” is “primary.” Social others are the necessary carriers of the cultural world which is the route to re-covering the past and creating the future.

The first movement of the human embryo is the beginning of the beating of the (very) primitive muscles that will become the human heart. In that beginning we see “in the begining is the deed.” But hearing infants are born already having learned to recognize, and prefer, the sound envelope, the tune, of their native language. In that beginning we see “in the beginning is the word.”

On context. As a post doc in Moscow in 1962 and a frequent visitor in subsequent years I was witness to both the unity forged by Leontiev and Luria and the frictions between them. I conducted a gathering of all the Vygotsky students I could find, in 1966, and tape recorded their conversation (Davydov took a copy home with him after a visit, but where the original is I have no idea). At the Lurias’ flat. Everyone came but Leontiev: Levina, Morozova, Elkonin, Zaporozhets, Bozhovich, and Luria himself. The “old ladies” sang songs they had made up when Leontiev’s thesis was printed with a disclaimer from the publishers as a frontpiece for its dubious political correctness. They talked about the time spent in Kharkov (see 1981 issues of Soviet Psychology for relevant articles). It was not just Leontiev who went.

Later, I spent a pleasant evening with Alexei Nikolavich [Leontyev] and his charming grandson, aka Dima Leontiev whose work can also be found in Soviet Psychology.

So there was tension alright. But it was tension born of living through terrifying times when people, in terror and weakness, might confuse what they believe is scientifically correct for the possibility of breathing, or saving a spouse or a child, or....

There may well have been principled scientific disagreements, but my overall impression was/is that there was, during the late ‘20’s and early ‘30’s a genuine division of labor and co-laboration of people who were tremendously excited about the new psychology and the new society they were struggling to build.

In the 1930’s the external pressures motivated the move to Kharkov and Leningrad (for some). LSV commuted by train among all three locations I believe.

The Kharkov work is important and worth reading. The work of P.I. Zinchenko and his criticisms of LSV are, to my mind, particularly noteworthy, but so were the interesting “anti-Piagetian” experiments.

During the war many of these people worked together in rehabilitation, not just Luria.

In the late 1950’s, when they could regain their seats of original academic power they did so. I do not understand the origins of the hard feelings (as opposed to academic arguments) between Rubenshteinians and Vygotskians, but dollars to donuts it was about power and political betrayal. But despite published disagreements with some aspects of LSV s approach (co-authored with Luria) there was always a clear co-identification with Vygotsky.

Skipping a couple of decades. At the 1986 Activity theory congress in Berlin I believe mine was the only paper that took Vygotsky as its starting point (Yrjo will correct me if I am wrong I am sure!). It was all Leontiev except for the Russians (who were all Rubenshteinians-- they now had power, including the all important power to travel and bar others from travelling). But there was no repudiation of Vygotsky! In fact, it was in conversations started at that time with Yrjo, Arne, and others that the idea of referring to the general theoretical position as CHAT (rather than any of its many alternatives, including V-L-L which would be pretty hard to export from Moscow) began.

Bottom line. There is a natural unity of semiotic mediation and human activity that make it seem, to this admittedly naive and partially educated observer, to make the idea of chat very comfortable. I do not feel the need to “reconcile” CH and AT because, despite internal contradictions and tensions (we are talking about life here, right?) they provide a rich medium for developing the idea that culture is central to the constitution of human nature.

Sorry that got so long. Now I will go back to preparing for the many classes I teach next week! mike

From: “Stetsenko, Anna”

Subject: disembodied AT?

Date: Mon, 6 Nov 2000

I have noticed that a lot of activity in this discussion happens to go over the weekend... Which tells me that perhaps not all of you have 5-year-olds around you who have not seen you during the week and hence want to catch up on that by engaging you in their activities which, in its turn, also happen to change your chemical balance completely (in a positive way, mostly) thus leaving you with much less time and propensity to contribute to the discussion.

And then, by Monday, one is faced with this overwhelming diversity of views and issues to react to.

Regarding AT as disembodied: actually, what is not reflected in L’s book but is certainly reflected in his other works is the concept of the functional systems. This concept is the legacy of diverse sources varying from Anokhin and Sechenov to now popular Nikolaj N. Bernstein — another Russian ‘revolutionary scientist’ (quote from a recent article about him) who is making his way into Western psychology some 50 years after his works were written — and, importantly, Luria. The idea behind the concept of functional systems is that any activity is realised through the complex systems involving the brain and the whole body — systems formed within the life time and geared towards specific goals and tasks (and hence activities). So, the brain and the body are not ignored but they are viewed as included into broader activities and thus as not having an ultimate and unique power over human beings separated from the contexts of real life activities. The brain is viewed as an organ of activity and not as a source of it (Diane, does this makes sense to you?). Like in the example with a 5-year-old child who literally can make an impact on your brain (as well as many other things can — such as a change in the whether conditions, for example) — but not directly, rather through engaging you in different types of activities. To begin the analyses of any meaningful life event from the level of a brain chemistry isolated from broader real life contexts would be an enormous simplification. Broader activity dynamics is exactly what ultimately counts...

Hence, it does come as a surprise to many mainstream scientists but not to those from the CHAT-perspective that, as recently has been shown, brain cells can grow during the life time and, in fact, can respond to how the specific life activities are structured (findings that are now presented as breaking news). We certainly do not know how the chemical balances and disbalances come about in all the details — but there are two different possible paths to pursue the answers (CHAT and mainstream) with the locus of causality being so different in these two psychological perspectives.

Anna Stetsenko

From: “Carl Ratner”

Subject: Re: Leontiev’s Cultural Psych.

Date: Mon, 06 Nov 2000


I am surprised at your comment that Leont., and presumably the other activity theorists Luria & Vyg., felt that they were already living in a classless workers’ democracy and therefore felt no need to address concrete social problems. From my limited understanding, I have heard that Vyg. and Luria felt quite oppressed by the CP though they did believe in the ideals of socialism. I've heard that Vyg. was in imminent danger of persecution and that only his early death prevented this. And I understood that Luria was bitter about the CP and felt so politically threatened that he turned from socio-historical studies to medical studies to avoid any political persecution. Is all that wrong?

And in any case, I can’t imagine that anyone could be so naive as to think that a mere 10 years after a political revolution all social problems had been solved and that people were happily on the road to a new social existence. Of course, if these activity theorists did, in fact, have such a belief then your explanation for their ignoring concrete social questions makes sense. But I always thought that the reason involved political threats. I know that this is the case in China where I lived for 2 years in the early 80’s. No social scientist in China could touch political questions because the CP kept these for itself. So all Chinese social science became concerned with simple, atheoretical questions like population growth, or they turned to abstract Western psych. with its emphasis on abstract variables, individual processes, etc. I assume that because the Chinese system was modelled on the Russians, similar forces were at play in subverting a genuine cultural psychology.

I'd be interested in your comments.

Carl Ratner

From: “Stetsenko, Anna”

Subject: RE: Leontiev’s Cultural Psych.

Date: Mon, 6 Nov 2000

Carl, yes, you are right in many ways. One little thing, however, needs to be taken into account, I believe. This thing is the kind of society Leontiev was working in (but not from the point of view of Stalin’s persecution, which you mentioned but which is just part of the story). Although I am charting a somewhat risky territory, I will note that, in L’s AND MOST OF HIS CONTEMPORARIES’ PERCEPTION, they were living and working in a classless society that had already broken away with alienation, inequality and various forms of exploitation, that had tried to implement (and was trying still in L’s times) the most radical social project ever undertaken in the history of humankind. By virtue of living and working in this society, L’s could see himself as participating in this dramatic social project and this would automatically mean he could not see himself as “ignoring the concrete social relationships of people”, even if he did not address them when charting the foundations of his theory. Because, as he probably saw it, he was participating in creating NEW social relationships. Does this change anything in your perception? What if I add that the goal of the ‘betterment of human condition’ was so much part of the typical discourse of those times that even each and every Ph.D. thesis in psychology had to speak directly to this... The belief being that instead of addressing the existing conditions (as you seemed to want L to be doing), what is needed is the work towards understanding how to change them. I guess I am also implicitly objecting to what seems to be a black-and-white picture of ‘repressions-society versus political-freedom-society’ that lurked in your message. As any other dichotomy, this one would probably not sustain a close analyses either, I suspect.

Anna Stetsenko

From: “Stetsenko, Anna”

Subject: CHAT as collaborative enterprise

Date: Mon, 13 Nov 2000

Dear all, just in case you also feel some of the themes need to be continued... and coming back to the historical context. I do not have a smoking gun that would put things upside down. However, I do believe that some misperceptions of Vygotsky and Leontiev and others from this school of thought have to be addressed. The reasons for these misperceptions, in my view, cannot be attributed to anybody’s deliberate attempts at distorting things. Rather, they are largely caused by objective difficulties of reconstructing the extremely complex dynamics of how this school emerged and developed in the extremely complex socio-cultural-political context that involved at least three revolutions, two world wars and one cold war (and several completely different epochs. Most importantly, this very context is still now in the midst of a profound transformation for which no history has yet been written — as reflected, among other things, in difficulties of even naming things that occurred in the last 10-15 years in the ‘former Soviet Union’ (to use one of the many bad expressions... because there cannot be a ‘former’ SU). The transformations that are occurring in Russia (and the whole world) right now are certainly not neutral to how we are able to reconstruct the context of Vygotsky’s school, because they change the very standpoint from which we attempt to evaluate the events of the past and to infer their meanings for the future. Oddly enough, the current confusion with elections in this country also plays into the same context...

Some of these misperceptions have been already addressed in the course of the present discussion in a wonderful collective effort that gave rise to many exciting new points of view which, ultimately, I believe, will help achieve a much more contextualised and deeper understanding of not only Leontiev but the whole CHAT perspective. This is a task of enormous difficulty and I can only hope of adding a small modest piece to the whole puzzle.

Because I cannot and do not want to be too detailed, I'll just try to formulate what appears to me to be the major issue here. Vygotsky’s theory, for the most part, has been taken in isolation from the development and dynamics of the whole CHAT perspective (great credit has to be given to whoever was the first to come up with this extremely pointed abbreviation, was it you, Mike?). This is an unfortunate perspective, because V’s work and research have been right from the start very much a COLLECTIVE, COLLABORATIVE ENTERPRISE that included efforts by a whole group of people (Luria, Leontiev, Morozova, Elkonin, Zaporozhets, Galperin, Slavina, Bozhovich, Zinchenko, Levina). This group of people (all of whom assigned the leading role of a Teacher to Vygotsky) constituted a unique example (to my knowledge) of what indeed can be called a ‘school of thought’ that shared common goals, assumptions and commitments and, generally, pursued an outstanding common agenda — that of developing foundations for a new psychology as an objective science.

In this sense, the works of Vygotsky and his followers embody the very spirit of their approach that puts such a great emphasis on exactly the collective and collaborative nature of any activity.

The collaborative spirit of V-L-L school is evident from many different features of how it started and evolved. Many initial ideas were developed in collective discussions between the members of the group and research was carried out to substantiate these collective claims, as in Leontiev’s research on memory, Luria’s expedition to Central Asia and so forth. More importantly, Vygotsky’s insights have been developed after his death by members of his collective to produce more elaborated accounts of many psychological issues (e.g., the relationship between lower and higher psychological processes, the role of activity in the development of mind etc.). It has been a gross distortion in the literature to ignore the development of cultural-historical ideas after V’s death by his followers not only because they elaborated these ideas but also because they helped — in various forms — to propagate these ideas and, specifically V’s contribution, to several generations of psychologists in Russia and, ultimately, across the world. I don’t think V’s works would have ever made it to the fore of Western psychology if not for Mike’s and others’ efforts in the US that were, in their turn, mediated by Luria’s and others’ efforts in Russia to reinstate their significance.

This collaborative nature of CHAT sheds light, I believe, on several peculiarities of this school that are otherwise difficult to grasp and explain. For example, it explains why so few works have been written in the Soviet Union on Vygotsky’s TEXTS per se after his death by his followers: precisely because they did not take these texts as remnants of the past that needed to be interpreted, but rather as the working tools for developing the same research agenda further. Hence, often so little care has been taken of making ‘proper’ (proper only from a perspective of a different, more historical, genre) references to Vygotsky, and so much confusion has arisen even in terms of authorship of some texts (e.g., was it V and Luria who wrote the “Tool and Sign"? or just V?). The letters that the members of this group wrote to each other is a great testament to the unique atmosphere in which they worked and lived and to the fact that they were clearly aware of the collaborative nature of their efforts. Just one illustration: Luria’s daughter quotes from V’s letter to Luria, on the occasion of Luria’s reporting on his expedition to Fergana, in Asia (my sloppy translation):

“Dear A.R., I am writing literally in such an excitement that is rare to be experienced in one’s life. I cannot remember of a day with more joy and light. This is literally a key to so many problems in psychology... That this study is of primary significance is out of any doubt, and OUR NEW PATH IS NOW ASSERTED (BY YOU) not merely theoretically, but also practically and experimentally” (dated July 11, 1931; see E. Luria, My father A. R. Luria, 1994, Moscow: Gnosis, p. 65; emphasis added by AS).

In addition, what united V-L-L and the others from the same school, I believe, was the common horizon that they all had (and Paul H. Dillon stated this in a very concise and adequate form). We cannot read their minds but we can read their memoirs and autobiographies, memoirs of their children and colleagues as well as archival materials, correspondence etc. (more and more of this is being published as we speak, in Russia, thanks to efforts of several YOUNG psychologists — Sokolova, Umrikhin, D. Leontjev and others who do not seem to think, by the way, that the CHAT representatives somehow had discredited themselves).

From all we know, I do not think that anyone of the V-L-L immediate school could be described as a dissident... They were obviously quite engaged in political life, and held positions of high societal responsibility and esteem, both L’s were members of the CP (I believe). It is clear that they — as almost the majority of intelligentsia of that times — were opposed to Stalin’s repressions. But do not forget that these purges and repressions were condemned in a very clear way by Khrushchev in early 1960s, that Gulag was abolished, that millions of prisoners were set free or rehabilitated posthumously at exactly the same time. When I wrote that they perceived the society they lived in as classless etc., I referred to 1960 and 1980s, not to the times when V lived. I would not be surprised at all that V, L and L had many critical views about the Soviet regime on the whole too, but this would not change the argument that they did have a certain very specific horizon that guided a lot of their research...To judge their position of not being directly in opposition to the Soviet regime — this is exactly a kind of question that depends on where one stands in the here-and-now context. I can only say for myself that my own standpoint has undergone such rapid changes in the last 10 years (and continues to do so) that I would hesitate to make judgments at this point in time.

I believe that the collaborative nature of V-L-L school of thought defies many traditional ways of how to look at and how to reconstruct their ‘texts'; a different, new methodology should be applied in this case.

Anna Stetsenko

From: “Vera John-Steiner”

Subject: Re: CHAT as collaborative enterprise

Date: Mon, 13 Nov 2000


I found your account very exciting. I tried to describe very briefly the collaborative nature of Vygotsky’s work in my book Creative Collaboration. But I did not have your detailed knowledge of the correspondence, etc. between these coworkers. I am leaving for Denver tomorrow, and will not be able to return to this conversation for a few days. But I want to thank you specifically for including the women collaborators in your list. I have always found Levina’s article on inner speech, for instance, very helpful.



From: “Stetsenko, Anna”

Subject: CHAT as collaborative enterprise and Moscow

Date: Wed, 15 Nov 2000

Dear Vera and all,

I have not seen the book but will definitely look it up now! and I greatly appreciate your warm feedback. Let me just also add that I think that establishing and describing the collaborative nature of CHAT is just a starting point, a tool, for something bigger — for developing a new methodology of recosntructing what this whole school of thought was and is about, for looking at Vygotsky’s views through the prism of later writings within AT (just an example), and generally, for continuing the same agenda of trying to further develop psychology as objective science... Anyway, the consequences could be quite significant, I believe. Certainly, this should be also a collective effort and I am glad I had a chance to mention several times some of the names of those in Moscow who are working in exactly this direction right now.

That is why, I believe, the efforts of promoting contacts with these and other Russian scientists cannot be overestimated. After all, Vygotsky was ‘discovered’ so late partly because of the Iron Curtain, so shouldn’t we try to make sure that an analogue of this curtain does not continue to overshadow the ways of how we do science, where we go to conferences, whose voices we want to listen to etc. Many people have contributed to dismantling this shadowy curtain (Mike again and Yrjo, and many others) but I still so much feel its presence. Hence, I cannot tell you how important, I believe, are Dot’s efforts at organising and nurturing these contacts. And I see her efforts as helping to improve not just the interactional aspects but also as adding, ultimately, to our understanding of CHAT’s substantive issues. I know I have not answered all of Dot’s questions (and it is not that I have them all), but I tend to believe she'll find these answers on her own because she has taken this path already... through her wonderful work with her students and her courageous efforts to promote contacts to Russian researchers and through other of her many important endeavours. I wish I could do more justice to Dot’s work but at least I hope I make clear how much it is appreciated by myself and many others whom I know in Moscow.

Anna Stetsenko

PS. however, I also cannot keep from wondering about certain things... Dot, you wrote: “German philosophy, for me, is the basis of Vygotskian psychology-philosophy, and I don’t mean Marxism alone; in fact, that is only one part of the German philosophy I am referring to. This type of very deep philosophy was banned in Russia, apart from short chapters and talks of a synopsis approach”. Why do you think it was banned? NO, it wasn’t banned. Not many psychologists had this deep knowledge but for reasons other that being banned from gaining this knowledge, that is for sure (I mean 70 to 90s, the time I know about first-hand). Excellent translations were made and many books written about German philosophers as diverse as Spinoza, Hegel, Feuerbach, Kant was all there if one wanted to gain the knowledge.

From: “Elhammoumi”

Subject: Personality is an ensemble of social relations

Date: Tue, 14 Nov 2000

Dear colleagues

Why it took (and will take) so long to bake the scientific psychology (Marxist psychology as Vygotsky put it) cake: Some historical analysis of the recipe and its ingredients

In the history of philosophical thought, no philosopher has succeeded in putting his entire oeuvres in two pages than Karl Marx. By that I mean the Theses on Feuerbach. I am convinced that these two pages are of equal importance to Descartes’s Discourse on Method, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind. These two pages pose in uncompromising manner the premises of a scientific psychology (synonymous to Marxist psychology as Vygotsky put it). Let me remind our colleagues that Leontiev’s chapter 5 was rewritten (here I need Anna’s help), the first version was radically modified in the light of the discussions which took place in Paris.

In the mid 1960s (1965-1975) there has been a wide open debate about the concept of personality in Marxist psychology. The Marxist discussions of the concept of personality was triggered by the use of false concepts in Marxist psychology. These concepts were integrated blindly by psychologists inspired by Marxism in the West and Soviet Union. What we learn from that extensive discussions which was centred on The six thesis on Feuerbach is that “personality is the ensemble of the social relations” (Carl stated this in a very precise and adequate form in his extensive works on activity theory and cultural psychology). Leontiev was at that time in Paris and he followed closely that debates. The chapter Five absorbed many ideas from that debates ( for more information about the evolution of Leontiev’s concept of personality see his communication to the 16th International Congress of Psychology, Bonn 1960, his lecture at Henri Pieron Institute of Psychology, Paris, May 8, 1967, his speech of inauguration to the 18 International Congress of Psychology, Moscow, 1966, his paper to the 14th International Congress of Psychology, Montreal 1954 and the most important his extensive discussions with Henri Wallon and Rene Zazzo) In their last postings Mike and Anna give us a good insight to the historical development of CHAT. What Mike said is very accurate, the same ideas were reported by Rene Zazzo in his article “remembering Leontiev”.

Vygotsky and the Sixth Thesis on Feuerbach

[Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations. Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence, is consequently compelled:

To abstract from the historical process and to fix the religious sentiment as something by itself and to presuppose an abstract -- isolated -- human individual.
Essence, therefore, can be comprehended only as “genus”, as an internal, dumb generality which naturally unites the many individuals. ]

Vygotsky argued that “personality — an aggregation of social relations” (1989) and he added that “Personality is a totality of social relations”. Vygotsky’s theory of personality is grounded in the theoretical framework of The six thesis on Feuerbach. The six thesis on Feuerbach became the center of a heated debates between the different fractions of Marxism in the 1960s. The debate was very intense particularly between three trends of Marxism: Marxism humanism speculative represend by Roger Garaudy, Adam Schaff, and Leszek Kolakowski; and marxism structuralism anti-humanism represented by Louis Althusser; and Lucien Seve’s marxism which rejected the two above and claim to return to Marx original writings. For more information about these stimulating debates between Adam Schaff and Lucien Sève concerning the translation of The sixth thesis on Feuerbach see: Schaff, A. (1971). Au sujet sur la traduction française de la VI thèse de Marx sur Feuerbach. L'Homme et la Société [Man and Society]. No. 19/20, pp. 156-167. (in French) Sève, L. (1971). Mise au point: La VI thèse de Marx sur Feuerbach. L'Homme et la Société [Man and Society). No. 20, pp. 264-267. (in French) Schaff, A. (1971). Au sujet sur la traduction des thèses de Marx sur Feuerbach. L'Homme et la Société [Man and Society). No. 22/23, pp. 25-51. (in French) Sève, L. (1972). Réponse à Adam Schaff sur la traduction et le sens de la VI thèse de Marx sur Feuerbach. L'Homme et la Société [Man and Society). No. 24/25, pp. 97-107. (in French) Schaff, A e Sève, L. (1975). Marxismo e umanesimo: Per un'analisi semantica delle “Tesi su Feuerbach” di K. Marx,. Dedalo, Bari, 182 pp. (in Italian) Ponzio, A. (1975). Il problema dell'individuo umano e la traduzione e il senso delle Tesi di Marx su Feuerbach, introduzione. In Adam Schaff e Lucien Sève, “Marxismo e umanesimo per un'analisi delle Tesi di Marx su Feuerbach” (pp. 5-48). Dedalo, Bari. (in Italian, I think It will be a good idea for our colleague psycholinguists who are working within the Vygotskian framework to pay attention to the writings of Augusto Ponzio, large part of his work is available in English).

That heated debate on the translation of Karl Marx’s sixth Theses on Feuerbach is now worth remembering in the light of our discussion of Leontiev’s activity, consciousness and personality. It involved, directly or indirectly, a large number of Marxist psychologists, philosophers, and intellectuals at that time. I believe that the sixth Thesis on Feuerbach is the key to a Marxist psychology of personality. Personality according to Vygotsky “is a totality of social relations.” Concrete human psychology. And he added that “We cannot master the truth about personality and personality itself so long as mankind has not master the truth about society and society itself. In contrast, in the new society our science will take a central place in life” Collected works, V.3. Vygotsky was familiar with the Theses on Feuerbach as this statement shows “I am a social relation of me to myself.” Concrete human psychology, “Genetically social relations real relations between people, underlie all higher functions and their relationships.” Concrete human psychology, “Personality ... arises as a result of cultural development because “personality” is a historical concept.” Collected Works, Vol.4, “A change in the human personality and an alteration of man himself must inevitably take place. The first... consists of the very fact of the destruction of the capitalist forms of organisation and production. Along with the withering away of the capitalist order, all the forces which oppress man and which cause him to become enslaved by machines and which interfere with his free development will also fall away, disappear and destroyed. Along with the liberation of the many millions of human beings from suppression, will come the liberation of the human personality from its fetters which curb its development” Vygotsky Reader, “We become ourselves through others.” Concrete human psychology, “The personality becomes a personality for itself by virtue of the fact that it is in itself for others. This is the process of the development of the personality” Concrete human psychology.

In this respect, Marx argued that

“Individuals have always built on themselves, but naturally on themselves within their given historical conditions and relationships” (German Ideology).

Leontiev asserted that

“In all its varied forms, the activity of the human individual is a system set within a system of social relations ... Human activity is not a relation between a person and a society that confronts him ... rather, these very social conditions bear themselves the motives and goals of his activity, its means and modes. In a word, society produces the activity that shaped its individuals” (1974).

CHAT is an extension of the materialist conception of history. Many colleagues have been interested to know more about cultural-historical theory, activity theory and socio-cultural theory, relation between Leontiev and Vygotsky, Leontiev’s legacy, etc which created confusion in the debate. We spent more energies in interpreting Vygotsky differently but the point is how to fulfil his dream “To create one’s own Capital”.

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