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László Garai Theoretical Psychology Vygotskian Writings Теоретическая психология Выготскианские тексты contents


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The theory of activity and the problem of social factors


The “discovery” of the social relation did not first enable psychology to go beyond the logic common to nativism and environmentalism. This possibility also exists in the psychological theory of activity.

Activity, in the conception of A. N. Leont’ev [11-14] and P. Ya. Gal’perin [2,3], is not a function of some strictly internal mental or physiological mechanism, but a process organized by objects in the external environment. On the other hand, an object is not a source of strictly external, physical or cultural, influences on the organism: only that aspect of only that factor of the external world that may be included in the structure of an activity at a particular stage of phylogeny and ontogeny can function as an object.

Thus, object-related activity is not the manifestation of a priori internal genetic properties of the organism or an effect of external influences of the environment. Nor is it a “dialectic” unity of these two factors.

Leont’ev has written:

...The principal distinction underlying classic Cartesian-Lockean psychology, a distinction between the external world, the world of extension to which external material activity belongs, on the one hand, and the world of internal phenomena and processes of consciousness, on the other, must yield its place to another distinction: between objective reality and its idealized, transformed forms (verwandelte Formen), on the one hand, and, on the other, the activity of the subject, which includes both external and internal processes. But this means that the split of activity into two parts or aspects, presumed to belong to two completely different spheres, is eliminated. [14. Pp. 99-100]

Both possibilities of surmounting the logic common to both nativism and environ­mentalism were present in Vygotsky’s theory [1] of the development of thought and language. He related the origin of thought to the development of object-related activity, but the origin of language to the development of social relations, demonstrating that these two genetic roots were independent of one another in phylogeny, but were mutually dependent on one another in ontogeny (for more details on this, see L. Garai [40. Pp. 112-42]). The representatives of Vygotsky’s school went on successfully to develop the psychology of object-related activity, and its relationship to the psychology of social relations was assumed to be self-evident. 5

Thus, in developing the general theory of activity, Leont’ev stressed that the activity of a particular person is always part of a system of social relations and does not exist independently of those social relations. In society man does not simply find external conditions to which he must adapt his activity; social relations themselves contain the motives and the goals of human activity, its means, and its methods. Leont’ev pointed out:

Marx’s discovery, a discovery that was radical for psychological theory, was that consciousness is not the manifestation of some cosmic capacity of the human brain...but the product of those special, i.e., social, relations into which people enter... Furthermore, the processes generated by those relations posit objects in the form of subjective images in the human brain, i.e., in the form of consciousness. [14. P. 31-Emphasis added.]

Leont’ev ascribed major importance to the circumstance that “a person’s relation” to the objective world around him is mediated by his relations to people, in particular, the relations of the child to the world of objects is initially always mediated by the actions of an adult.



The possibilities of development of the higher mental functions of a human being are defined by the place, independent of him, he occupies in the system of social relations. Theoretical postulates regarding the significance of a person’s involvement in social relations are generally accepted by Soviet psychologists, but these relations themselves have rarely been the object of specific psychological studies.

A considerable number of attempts have been made in the last decade to reconceptualize the social relation as a psychological problem that had to be resolved once and for all to overcome the barrier posed by the logic common to nativism and environmentalism. The key concept in these attempts for Soviet psychology has been the concept of communication.

This concept was first developed in the sphere of activity, i.e., it was conceptualized as a variety of object-related activity: “Communication, like all activity, is objective. The subject or object of the activity of communication is another person, a partner in joint activity” [15. P. 237].

But we must regard as somewhat exaggerated Leont’ev’s assertion that ‘soviet psychologists are agreed in their conception of communication as a type of activity” [10. P. 112]. This, in our view, is difficult to bring into accord with, say, the following statement by B. F. Lomov, quoted in the above-cited article by Leont’ev [10. P. 107] :

The actual material life-style of a person, which determines his mental makeup, is not totally exhausted by his object-related practical activity, which is only one aspect of the life-style or behavior of a person in the broad sense. Another aspect is communication as a specific form of interaction of a person with other people. [16. P. 18]

And further we read:

The concept of “activity” comprises only one aspect of man’s social being: subject-object relations ... but is the material life of a person, his being, completely and wholly defined by the system of subject-object relations? Evidently not. A person’s social being includes not only his relations to the objective world (the natural world and the world created by mankind) but also his relation to people with whom he is in direct or mediated contact... In his individual development, a person acquires what mankind has accumulated not only in the process of activity but also in the process of communication, in which the system of subject-subject relations is formed, developed, and expressed. [17. Pp. 125-26 Emphasis added.]

Thus, Lomov supports the position that communication is not a variety of activity, but exists parallel with it on an equal footing. The argument in this regard is interesting: social being is not exhausted by the system of subject-object relations, i.e., relations to the world of objects, but also includes relations of “this person” (to people) (persons other than “this person”), i.e., subject-subject relations. But is it valid to identify the object with things, but “this (individual) person” and other (individual) “people” with the subject? We think not.

Let us look at the definition given in the [Philosophical encyclopedia]: “Object-that which stands counterposed to the subject, toward which the object-related practical and cognitive activity of the latter is directed” [23. P. 123]. According to this definition, since it is not the world of objects, but “people” that stand counterposed to the subject, these people will also be an object toward which “the object-related practical and cognitive activity of the latter will be directed.”

On the other hand, subject is defined as follows: ‘subject-the vehicle of object-related practical activity and cognition (the individual or social group), a source of activeness directed toward the object” [23. P. 154]. According to this definition, “other people” can function as a subject with regard to “this person,” but only when they, as a “social group,” function together as a ‘source of activeness directed toward the object.”

But whether or not “other people” are counter-posed as an object to “this person” or form a general collective subject with him, the question of the subject may still merely be one of a “relative” concept. This means that in speaking about the subject, it is necessary to indicate the factor with regard to which the individual or social group alone can function as a subject. This may be an object that (according to the above definitions) is the target of the activity (object-related practical or cognitive) of the particular subject. The concept of communication fits completely into such a conceptualization since communication is not a fundamentally new factor in terms of activity.

There is also another way to conceptualize the concept of the subject, and it truly does go beyond (as Lomov requires) the categorical framework of the theory of activity, although this second possibility will require focusing on the ‘subject-predicate” relation rather than on ‘subject-object” interaction.

A predicate is what is ascribed to the subject in a logical statement. A property (in particular, a social property) characterizing the subject in itself (for example, “Ivan is Russian”) may be ascribed; or a relation (in particular, a social relation) characterizing two or more subjects relative to one another (for example, “Ivan is subordinate to Andrei” or “Ivan thinks Andrei is Anna’s husband”) may be ascribed.

We should observe that the subject-predicate relation is an element of philosophical (logical), not psychological, conceptualization. This comment also applies to subject-object interaction. Nonetheless, we are familiar with such a psychological conceptualization of a philosophical theory (namely, the one we find in the works of Karl Marx) of subject-object interaction, which appears in the theory of object-related activity.

A research team working at the Institute of Psychology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in the ‘70s undertook the task of working out a psychological conceptualization of the philosophical theory (implicit in the works of Marx) of the ‘subject-predicate” relation, and thus to devise a psychological theory of the development of the individual social relation, conceiving of it as a an extrapolation of activity theory in Vygotsky’s conceptual system (for more details of this undertaking see [42]).

Let us attempt in general outline to show how a theory of the social relation that complements the theory of activity can help to overcome the flawed logic common to both nativism and environmentalism.


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