X-Activity Highlights


Activity and Mediation, Arne Raeithel., March 1990

What's An Action, David Ackermann, May 1990

Action and Activity, Yrjo Engestrom, May 1990

Action and Activity - Why the Distinction, Arne Raeithel., May 1990 

John Dewey and Dialectical Materialism, Charles W. Tolman and Brad Piekkola, Activity Theory, 1989, 1, Nr. 3/4, pp. 43-46

On Appropriation & Internalization,  K. Amano Chou , January 1991

Vygotsky's denial of Dewey (and of Feuerbach), Arne Raeithel, September 1991 

Activity and Mediation, Arne Raeithel., March 1990

In this note I try to distinguish several meanings of the two terms
"activity" and "mediation" that I consider important in our
discussion about the relation of Rubinshtein and Vygotsky. This is
all the more necessary because there are severe problems of
translating these concepts developed in the Russian language into
English. It seems to be somewhat easier to translate them into
German, maybe because they have been developed from originally
German texts (Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Marx, Engels).
Because I cannot read or speak Russian, I have to work from the
German or English translations.

I would like to start with this observation: In the works of
Rubinshtein "activity" (translated into German as "Taetigkeit") is
a very general term meaning essentially *process* and *interaction*
(Wechselwirkung). In one of his latest works ("Being and
Consciousness", 1957; German translation "Sein und Bewusstsein",
1963) he distinguished:

- "reflectory activity", a term borrowed from Pavlov to designate
neuronal processes realizing (complex) conditioned reflexes,

- "psychische Taetigkeit", a term that can be translated as
"mental activity" if "mental" is understood as broader than
"conscious", designating the material process "realizing the
relation between the individual and the world", and

- human activity in general - usually differentiated into
practical and theoretical - that produces the human world, and
is *regulated* by mental activity.

He defined the main task of psychology as "uncovering the internal
mental conditions that mediate the psychological effect of external
causes on the subject, and the internal lawfulness of externally
conditioned mental activity" (1963: 209).

In this wording Rubinshtein's well known "principle of
determinism" is apparent: External causes (the objects of activity)
determine the behaviour of the subject - not directly, but
"refracted through the prism of internal conditions". What is not
so apparent here is that Rubinshtein was mainly interested in
*epistemic behavior*: He wanted to explain thinking and scientific
practice as lawful processes determined *by the objects* to be
known while being mediated by the mental activity of the subjects.
In a simplified schema we can summarize Rubinshtein's concepts
of activity and mediation thus:

objects as external causes =>
mental activity as internal mediation =>
cognition of the world (Erkenntnis) as lawful result.

There is another very famous psychologist whose main goal was to
explain the epistemic abilities of humans: Jean Piaget. In contrast
to Rubinshtein, he stressed the internal structure of organic
activity as the main source of human knowledge. He has argued, for
instance, that mathematical knowledge is not abstracted from the
objects, but is generalized from the operative structure of actions
that is modified by the complementary processes of accomodation to
and assimilation of objects. Thus, in Piaget's theory the objects
function as mediators of the effect that the organism's actions
have on themselves. Piaget's schema (again much simplified) is:

organic activity as internal cause =>
objects as external mediators of self-development =>
cognition of the world as genetically determined result.

Both of these *process-oriented* meanings of "mediation" must be
contrasted with the meaning that Vygotsky has introduced into
psychology (e.g. in "Mind in Society" 1978: 54, written in 1930):
He proposed "mediated activity" as a general concept for both tool
use and use of signs, and explicitly based his proposal on Marx
analysis of the process of labour in chapter 5 of "Capital".
This is a *product-oriented* meaning of "mediation", to be sure,
because tools and signs both are not reducible to their momentary
use. They empower humans exactly because they have independent
existence, because they can be societally reproduced outside the
use situation.

Vygotsky also added a qualification that in a way puts together
both of the above schemata:

A most essential difference between sign and tool ... is the
different ways that they orient human behavior. The tool's
function is to serve as the conductor of human influence on the
object of activity; it is *externally* oriented; it must lead to
changes in objects. It is a means by which human external
activity is aimed at mastering, and triumphing over, nature. The
sign, on the other hand, changes nothing in the object of a
psychological operation. It is a means of internal activity
aimed at mastering oneself; the sign is *internally* oriented.
... The mastering of nature and the mastering of behavior are
mutually linked, just as man's alteration of nature alters man's
own nature. (1978: 55)

There has been much confusion about the meaning of the two
different "directions" of activity that Vygotsky named in defining
the different functions of tools and signs. But from the above
quotation it seems clear to me that it is not the topological
meaning (literally "inner" vs. "outer" regions, e.g. "private mind"
vs. "public world") that he wants to express so much as the
difference between directedness:

- at the material object to be transformed ("external"), and
- at the know-how and knowing-that of the persons ("internal").

"Internalization" of the structure of external activities then must
mean mainly an *increase in self-regulation* that is brought about
by building and using an "internal", i.e. *symbolic*, model of the
world to anticipate the resistance of the material objects, and to
overcome them somehow (nowadays the phrase "triumph over nature"
has a very bad ring) in order to ensure our reproduction on earth.
Vygotsky's assertion that "internal" activity "changes nothing
in the object of a psychological operation" is also somewhat
misleading, because "the" object may well be symbolic in a certain
phase, and if it is, this statement becomes non-sensical. It is
therefore necessary to distinguish between the *original* object of
some activity, and its various transformations and symbolic re-
presentations during the process of self-regulation.

As far as I have been able to study Rubinshtein's work, this
latter distinction was glossed over repeatedly, but never taken
seriously. There is a tendency with Rubinshteinians, very marked in
Brushlinski's work "Psychology of Thinking and Cybernetics" (1970,
German 1975), to deny the importance of the symbolic products of
thinking -- in favour of stressing the fluidity and creativity,
i.e. the essential process character, of mental activity.
I strongly doubt that it is possible to fully understand the
power of human cognitive functioning without a product-oriented

Andrei Brushlinski has chosen to label Vygotsky's line of reasoning
as "non-activity approach". In the light of the above argument, I
can accept that only if I translate it as *non-process* approach.
But then I must add that the Marxist account of material production
also falls under this rubric, and thus my option is clear: For the
time being I will stick with the "product approach" to activity and

Arne Raeithel.


What's An Action, David Ackermann, May 1990

Dear collegueas,

I had a dream tonight: I wrote a new computer program for
a famous company (two letter acronym) and at the same
time I planted some indoor plants. Was that an activity,
an (or several) action(s) or a dream? What's the
difference? For the dreamer, "the dream is the world" (if
there is any doubt, please read D. v. Uslar "Der Traum
als Welt /The dream as world/) but there is a problem: I
miss now the program and where are the plants I planted?
And the dream happened to me, there was no intention to
dream and I could not even control the topic? (Something
about the Bahamas would have pleased me much more)
Perhaps this is an academic example and I will try to
bring the argument to the point.

What is an action? Are all actions created equal? I feel
that is the problem: We have to deal with very different
types of actions and we should distinguish them according
to their qualities and their features

observable - not observable
intentional - unintentional
conscious unconscious
complex - simple
task oriented
goal directed

For a meteorologist, there are many different types of
clouds. We are specialists in the field of psychology but
we treat a very complex phenomenon as one simple entity:
action. Perhaps you dont run into troubles when you use
"action" as an explanation and not as topic of
investigation (See the Amano / Grudin message some time

Some years ago I found in Lenk, "Handlungstheorien
interdisziplinaer" /action theories interdisciplinary/
Vol 1 - 4, Muenchen 1977-84) an interesting and very
helpful article about action. The aouthor distinguishes
among social actions, .... and instrumental actions. I
for my part, socialized in the field of work psychology
(Ulich, Hacker and so on) I found the term "instrumental
action" very helpful for my work in the field of

Instrumental actions can be defined e.g. by

- Intention /Goal directed
- observable by others (or how to deal with dreams?)
- hierarchical construction
- levels of action regulation (Skill based, rule based
knowledge based (Rasmussen, 1986 /english/ or Hacker,
- there should be an observable product/effect
(as in a work process)
- an abstract logical structure of the task can be

This allows a distinction what we have to investigate as
an "INSTRUMENTAL action". This singles out a specific
type of action, but I feel it is very close to what we
call in everyday German "action". (You know, action I
agree, that spoken language can be seen as (an
instrumental) action and I feel, that this perspective
makes sense. But I do not think that my (underlying)
thinking process, which generates the words can be
treated as an action because it has many unconscious and
uncontrolled aspects. How can we explain sudden ideas
with the concept of action? This may be seen as
comparable to the cause - effect dichotomy.

What to do about Lia Dibello's example of Hawkins? Do you
agree that in principle, he is performing "instrumental
actions" but without the ability to communicate them

The problem of identifying (instrumental) "action"

Don't worry, even with "instrumental actions" it is not
so easy to identify an action. There are two heuristics,
one derived by a concept of Hacker and one experimentally

a) Hacker formulated the concept of the "abstract logical
structure of the task" which can be described by assembly
plans, algorithms and so on. This abstract logical
structure is mentally decomposed (psychological
decomposition) and put into action. In the work process,
you have to formulate sequences of operations. They may
be limited by the structure of the task (e.g. complex or
long mathematical operations) or the human capabilities
(skills, individual differences and limits in short-term
memory /cognitive span/). For example in the equation

(a+b)*c - ((33x/(44y-z)*y) + (89v-9y(365a/b) = 0

there are identifiable points where you have to stop and
the process of decomposition is predetermined by
mathematical rules.

b) experientally, you can identify these sequences also
by measuring thinking times. In a sequence of operations,
an average time per operation can be calculated. Is this
average exceded by a certain percentage (we take two
ranges of 50 - 100% and above 100%) we take these points
as indicators for action boundaries. Experimental
investigations prove the usefulnes of this concept
(Ackermann, 1987, Doctoral Thesis in German).

These concepts work in about 80-90% of the investigated
cases but there still remain behavioural processes which
can not be properly structured into actions by our
methods. Nevertheless I'm happy to have at least these
two tools for identification.

I think that investigating "instrumental actions" can be
a way to understand more "general actions". I m not
against psychoanalyses and unconscious processes and in a
common sense dreams can be seen as action. But what is
the new evidence brought by Leontjev's conception of
action? A new description is applied for a process we do
not really understand and where we have no experimental
tools to investigate. (I rely here on Popper's notion of
"science", but have in mind, that psychology is also an

The term action/activity is too general to be of use for
its investigation. Action is useful as a means to explain
phenomena on a macro level. As soon as you start to
investigat the concept of the wonderful explanation...

Furthermore, the term action has to many meanings. The
German root of action "Handlung" means also "Grocery
Store". Perhaps a grocery store is a fine example for
instrumental actions. In German the verb for action
(handeln) means generally observable behaviour and is not
applied to thinking or planning or daydreaming......

To ease our problems, we need a taxonomy or context-
specific definition of actions e.g.

social actions
instrumental actions
Planing / Task related thinking

with the appropriate methodologies, but we distinguish
concepts like motivation, cognition as underlying
processes from "action". we can assume the following

motivation                            cognition
: :
          (sensorimotor processes)
action         a) represented by language

                  b) sensorimotor behaviour

Furthermore, we need a taxonomy of goals
(perhaps something like this)

- related to the abstract logical structure of the task:
           syntactic goals
           semantic goals
           (no motivational aspects)

- related to motivation (abstract logical structure)
            task related motivation

- related to the social context
             (syntactic) /perhaps doesnt make sense
              motivation / intentional goals
- social criteria / and norms

Perhaps we would be able to define a conception or model
of "action" represented in different psychological and
sociological phenomena.


Action and Activity, Yrjo Engestrom, May 1990

David Ackermann wrote a very interesting message, titled 'What's an
action'. Here are a couple of reflections on that message.

Firstly, David Ackermann seems to use the terms 'action' and 'activity'
interchangably, as if they were synonyms. At least from the viewpoint of
the cultural-historical theory of activity (inspired especially by
Leont'ev's work), the crucial distinction is between activity and action.
When this distinction is eliminated or ignored, Leont'ev's ideas don't
make much sense. Perhaps it is symptomatic that David Ackermann asks:
"But what is the new evidence brought by Leontjev's conception of action?"
My reading of Leont'ev says Leont'ev was not primarily trying to create
a new conception of 'action' - he did create a theory of activity.

This confusion or blurring between concepts is evident when Ackermann
concludes: "The term action/activity is too general to be of use for its
investigation." Please, which one of those terms are you talking about?

David Ackermann seems to seek answers by classifying actions and related
terms. As valuable as good classifications may be, I subscribe to the old
wisdom that classification is not a viable substitute for theory. As
Davydov would say, classification is a form of empirical thinking - it
does not tell us anything about the origination or 'genesis' and inner
dynamic relations of the phenomenon we are investigating. In that sense,
attempts to model the structure of action are more interesting (Ackermann
refers to a couple - there are very many around). In my opinion, these
models reveal time and again that action is not really a very fruitful 
unit of analysis - at least if it is separated from activity. Most of
the models of the structure of action have the following characteristics:
(a) they remain at the level of the individual - collective and interactive
processes are very difficult to analyze with the help of such models; (b)
they do not take artifacts (tools and signs) as fundamental components
of human action - in other words, they disregard the mediated nature of
action, its cultural character; (c) they describe action in more or less
'algorithmic' terms, as something having a discrete beginning and end,
related to a given goal or task - thus they are incapable of analyzing 
the fundamentally continuous, evolving and self-generating nature of
actions, unable to address the decisive question of goal formation and
problem finding. 

Obviously Vygotsky's triangular model of mediated action is a radical
exception from the mainstream models characterized above. In my opinion
it should be seen as the beginning of formulating a concept of activity,
rather than as just another model at the level of action. 

As to the problem of thinking as activity, I recommend the recent book
'The Psychology of Thinking' (Moscow,Progress, 1988) by Oleg Tikhomirov.
Especially the chapter 'Thinking and Goal-Formation' is valuable in the
framework of the present discussion. I cite one short passage:

"We believe it important, using the overall pattern of the structure of
human activity (activity, action, operation), to distinguish between the
level of analysis of action and of activity (...). The problems of
posed by goal-formation are located between these two levels." (p. 113)


Action and Activity - Why the Distinction, Arne Raeithel., May 1990

Dear David Ackermann,

These comments of mine travel on a strange loop, from the north of
Germany via California to you in Switzerland. Since we both met at Walter
Volpert's "Institute for Human Sciences in Work and Education" at the
Technical University of Berlin (in 1985 ?) this is the first chance to
exchange our views on action theory.

Like my Berlin colleagues five years ago, you did not recognize the
necessity of a distinction between action and activity (Handlung und
Taetigkeit), instead you made valuable and well-taken comments on a
taxonomy of *actions* (not activities), and stressed empirically useful
criteria in this respect. This means that you opened another field of
discussion: Differences between the many variants of action theory and
Leontyev's General Psychology that builds upon the tripartite scheme of

- "motivated" (beware of special meaning|) activities,
- goal directed actions, and
- operations adaptive to physical conditions.

No doubt, you have heard this distinction so very often that it sounds like
a litany to you, recited by "disciples of Alexei Nikolaievitch" but never
adequately explained.

The discussion in XACT upto now was centered on the various different
interpretations of the general approach to the human sciences labeled
"activity theoretical", our main concern being to make explicit the
difference between Rubinshtein's and Leontyev's formulations.
I think that King Beach in his addendum of May 1st has given an excellent
reason for Leontyev's introduction of "concrete activity" as the uppermost
process level in his scheme, distinguished from the level of action:
Leontev ... seems to use activity to expand what is deemed as a
legitimate object of psychological study. Here I think particularly of
the movement between different structural-functional levels and the
development of an activity.

Since King did not anticipate the necessity to explicate these levels and
the "movements" between (e.g.) activity and action, I will try to do that
now for the benefit of all the listeners to XACT whose doubts you, David,
have voiced.

There is no dissent between action regulation theory and activity theory
that the process level of goal directed action makes up the *center* of the
object domain of psychology. Further, both "schools" agree that actions may
be decomposed into (are realized by a chain of) operations, and recognize a
kind of "movement" between actions and operations (with practice an action
will become "automatic", will turn into an operation, etc.).
In a general way there is even no dissent that we have to look also at
the *contextual* processes in which actions are embedded (one item on your
list of distinctions). To fixate this generally accepted view, I propose
the following scheme:

- contextual processes (yet to be defined)
:- spatiotemporal biggest scale
- focussed processes (= goal directed, consciously regulated action)
:- middle scale (span of local awareness of the actor)
- realizing sub-processes (= embodied, "automated" operations, "skills")
:- finest scale in time and space.

As Yrjo Engestrom has noted in his "Learning by Expanding" (1987 p. 154),
such a tripartite scheme has been proposed independently by at least three
(groups of) authors, to which I can add a fourth: Rainer Oesterreich
(1981), and a fifth: Norbert Groeben (1986).

The different definitions for the topmost level are:

* Harre, Clarke & DeCarlo (1985): Deep structure of mind, social order.
* Bateson (1972): Tertiary Learning (restructuring the way to learn).
* Leontyev: Concrete activity; "motivated" by the (societally co-defined)
concrete *products* of the chain of actions that are possibly discrepant
from anticipated goals, and not necessarily conscious.

* Groeben (1986): Doing ("Tun") something without full awareness, while
pursuing possibly discrepant goals.
* Oesterreich (1981): Coordinating different spheres or "fields" of action,
understood as a planning process (we might suppose that this happens also
as a self-organizing process without global awareness).

I have ordered these conceptions of the contextual level according to the
reflexive effort that the actor has to invest to become aware of it in the
opinion of the respective authors.

None of these authors consideres an alternative interpretation of
"contextual process": the interacting group to which the actor belongs.
This shows that King has indeed hit the point when he stated that such
formulations of the contextual level expand the scope of usual main-stream
experimental psychology that focusses mainly on the level of operations,
while occasionally also considering actions, but never the *personal
context*, that is: the spatiotemporal connectedness of conscious actions of
*one and the same actor*.

Leontyev's formulation now focusses on the fact that this connectedness
is not only produced by the actor himself, but is also heavily constrained
and influenced by the societal definitions of what the results of action
chains *should* be to ensure reproduction of the social order (Harre et al.
do also take this into account, but additionally stress -- in a Freudian
vein -- other determinants).

Lia DiBello's formulation: "Activities as psychological entities and
activities as social constructs co-exist, develop in parallel and
dialectically transform one another" beautifully captures also the
subjective side of these contextual forms in which our action chains are
embedded. But this is also a very optimistic formulation, because not every
actor is able to muster the reflexion effort necessary to become aware of
them -- and, sadly enough, too many psychologist also shy away from the
conceptual work necessary to produce social instruments that are helpful in
achieving a more global awareness of one's own activities.

Arne Raeithel


John Dewey and Dialectical Materialism, Charles W. Tolman and Brad Piekkola, Activity Theory, 1989, 1, Nr. 3/4, pp. 43-46

John Dewey and Dialectical Materialism:
Anticipations of Activity Theory in the Critique of the Reflex Arc Concept

Charles W. Tolman and Brad Piekkola
Department of Psychology
University of Victoria

The historical relationship between Dewey's evolutionary
naturalism and dialectical materialism has been a turbulent one. 
It has been both confusing and confused. A major source of this
state of affairs was Dewey's attitude toward the Soviet Union. 
In 1947, for instance, Corliss Lamont (1947) advanced the
argument in New Masses that "American naturalism and dialectical
materialism are in accord..." on many significant points such as
the priority of physical events in constituting the cosmos, the
priority of matter over mind, and the evolutionary emergence of
mind at the human level. According to Lamont, naturalism was
just a "polite" name for materialism. Howard Selsam (1947)
disagreed vigorously with Lamont. For Selsam, Lamont had failed
to address the "real question," namely, "does or does not Dewey's
hostility to the Soviet Union and everything Marxist bear a
direct relation to his philosophical thought?" Selsam's answer
was that it does. No matter how materialist- or dialectical-
appearing naturalism might be, it could only in fact be the "left
flank of supernaturalism and philosophical reaction."
It cannot be denied that Dewey's position vis-.-vis the
Soviet Union was highly problematic. Immediately following the
1917 revolution and through the 1920s Dewey was widely read and
highly regarded in Russia. During this period, for example,
Albert Pinkyevich, a prominent Russian educator of that time,
"regarded Dewey as the foreign thinker closest to the spirit of
Marxism and Russian Communism" (Brickman, 1959). Dewey visited
Russia in 1928 and his resulting observations were "sympathetic
enough to earn him the label of 'Bolshevik' in some American
newspapers" (Brickman, 1959), although he did express concern for
what he took to be a confounding of education and propaganda in
Russian schools. 

Dewey was described in 1931 by the Great Soviet Encyclopedia
as "an outstanding American philosopher, psychologist,
sociologist, and pedagogue" (quoted in Brickman, 1959). In the
1952 edition this had changed to "a reactionary bourgeois
philosopher and sociologist." In the same year a book by Shevkin
described Dewey as the "henchman of contemporary imperialist
reaction" and "wicked enemy of...all freedom-loving peoples on
our earth" (quoted in Brickman, 1959). There had begun a
deliberate withdrawal of overt interest in Dewey and all foreign,
non-Marxist influences in philosophy and the social sciences by
virtue of a decree of the Central Committee of the CPSU(B) in
January, 1931, but the real cause of the hostility voiced later
was Dewey's outspoken condemnation of the Moscow Trials and
Stalinism in general. The final straw for both sides came with
Dewey's chairmanship of the Trotsky Inquiry in Mexico in 1938. 
>From that time onward Dewey was an avowed opponent of Soviet

Dewey's views on Marxism appear to have followed the same
course as his attitude toward Russia and the Soviet Union. An
initially cautious sympathy turned overtly hostile in the 1930s
and remained that way. It appears to be the case, however, that
Dewey's views on Marxism were never based upon first hand
acquaintance with the works of Marx, Engels, or Lenin. The most
important source of the negative appraisal was his personal
contact with Trotsky (Cork, 1945; Moreno and Frey, 1985). 
But none of this, as Corliss Lamont rightly recognized,
touches in the least on the epistemological status of Dewey's
evolutionary naturalism. The evidence is overwhelming that
Lamont was right; Dewey's naturalism distinctly qualifies as a
materialism, even if not always consistently so. It is
surprising that Lamont, in making this point in his debates with
Selsam (1947, continued in 1958), failed to cite the article by
Dewey, Sidney Hook, and Ernest Nagel that appeared in The Journal
of Philosophy in 1945. This was a reply to W. H. Sheldon (1945)
who had "accused" naturalists of being materialists. Dewey and
his colleagues responded by pointing out that there are two types
of materialism. The first was identical to what Engels had
called "metaphysical materialism." If this is what one means by
materialism, Dewey wrote, then "naturalists are not
materialists." He went on to describe a second type, a non-
reductive form that bore a remarkable resemblance to dialectical
materialism. "Accordingly," Dewey wrote, "if materialism
signifies a view something like the one just outlined, Mr.
Sheldon is not mistaken in his accusation of naturalists as
materialists." J. Cork (1949) made a comparison of Dewey and
Marx which confirms this general conclusion in considerable

It is also certainly the case that the dialectics of Dewey's
naturalism was not merely a matter of appearance. He began his
philosophical career as an avowed neo-Hegelian, and was converted
from that position after reading James's Principles of Psychology
(1890). This book appears to have reinforced the growing
influence on his thinking of Darwinian evolution, which,
according to White (1964) "...meant the surrender of Dewey's
idealism" (p. 151). But in the resulting naturalism the
dialectical logic was preserved more or less intact. Dewey may
have been unique among American neo-Hegelians for his grasp of
the logical aspect of Hegel's system. Indeed it is very likely
that it was just his appreciation of dialectical thinking that
attracted Dewey to James in the first place. There can be no
question that James's thinking was naively dialectical (see
Tolman, 1989). And the implicit dialectics of Darwin's theory of
evolution is well-known. 

As evidence of Dewey's dialectics, we cite his position on
freedom: "The place of natural fact and law in morals brings us
to the problem of freedom. We are told that seriously to import
empirical facts into morals is equivalent to an abrogation of
freedom. Facts and laws mean necessity we are told. The way to
freedom is to turn our back upon them and take flight to a
separate ideal realm. Even if the flight could be successfully
accomplished, the efficacy of the prescription may be doubted. 
For we need freedom in and among actual events, not apart from
them. It is to be hoped then that there remains an alternative;
that the road to freedom may be found in that knowledge of facts
which enables us to employ them in connection with desires and
aims. A physician or engineer is free in his thought and his
action in the degree in which he knows what he deals with. 
Possibly we find here the key to any freedom" (Dewey, 1922, p.
303.) This bears a more than coincidental resemblance to similar
passages in Hegel (1975, p. 55) and Engels (1947, p. 140ff). 
We conclude that the assessment of Dewey's naturalism should
not be obscured by his troubled relationships with communism, the
Soviet Union, and what he took--falsely--to be Marxism. The
position itself, whatever other difficulties it may contain, is
fundamentally materialist and dialectical. If Dewey was
consistent in developing his ideas on psychology, this fact
should be evident there as well.

Activity theory is explicitly based upon dialectical and
historical materialism. A test, therefore, of any psychological
theory claiming to be dialectical and materialist would be to
examine the extent to which it coincides in its most fundamental
claims with those of activity theory. We intend to show here
that Dewey's psychology passes such a test with ease. 
Fundamental to activity theory is a reconceptualization of
the subject-object relationship as activity along the lines
suggested by Marx in his theses on Feuerbach. In pre- and non-
Marxist psychology, Leontyev found that "activity is interpreted
in either an idealist framework or a natural-science, materialist
framework as a response of a passive subject to an external
influence, in which the response is guided by innate organization
and learning" (Leontyev, 1979, p. 41). This is the "two-part
scheme" that "found direct expression in the well-known formula
S-R" (p. 42).

According to Leontyev: "The unsatisfactory nature of this
scheme consists of the fact that it excludes the process that
active subjects use to form real connections with the world of
objects. It excludes their objective activity" (p. 42). 
Leontyev went on to point out that the problems with this
formulation could not be solved by inventing a third, middle term
such as an intervening variable. This "creates the illusion" of
having overcome the problem: "A simple substitution has occurred:
the world of real objects is replaced by a world of socially
elaborated signs and meanings. Thus, we once again have a two-
part scheme, but now the stimuli are interpreted as 'cultural
stimuli'" (p. 44). 

Leontyev concluded that to find a real solution to this
problem "we must replace the two-part scheme of analysis with a
fundamentally different one..." (p. 45). This requires a
rejection of the old "units" of stimulus and response--which were
not units at all, but abstract elements--for a new unit, a unit
of life, of actual existence in the world. This new unit was
that suggested by Marx, namely activity. Leontyev defined
activity as follows: [It] "...is the nonadditive, molar unit of
life for the material corporeal subject. In a narrower sense
(i.e., on the psychological level) it is the unit of life that is
mediated by mental reflection. The real function of this unit is
to orient the subject in the world of objects. In other words,
activity is not a reaction or aggregate of reactions, but a
system with its own structure, its own internal transformations,
and its own development" (p. 46). Leontyev went on to point out
that a basic characteristic of activity is its "object
orientation" and that all forms of development, ontogenetic and
phylogenetic, "can be adequately understood as the history of the
development of the object content of activity" (p. 48). There is
of course much more to Leontyev's theory of activity, but these
are its most fundamental claims. 

Dewey's well-known article on the reflex arc published in
1896 made essentially the same argument, and for essentially the
same dialectical reasons. He began by showing how the new
scientific psychology was deluded if it thought that by importing
the reflex arc, the sensori-motor circuit, into psychology it had
sidestepped the old metaphysical dualism of mind and body. This
old dualism, Dewey maintained, found a "distinct echo" in the new
dualism of stimulus and response, based as it was on
"preconceived and preformulated ideas of rigid distinctions
between sensations, thoughts, and acts." "As a result, the
reflex arc is not a comprehensive, or organic unity, but a
patchwork of disjointed parts, a mechanical conjunction of
unallied processes. What is needed is that the principle
underlying the idea of the reflex arc as the fundamental
psychical unity shall react into and determine the values of its
constitutive factors" (p. 358).

Dewey thus saw the need for a new unit, which was a
"concrete whole," and which he called a "coordination." He cited
the familiar case of the child who sees a candle, reaches for it,
and gets burned. "Upon analysis," he wrote, "we find that we
begin not with a sensory stimulus, but with a sensori-motor
coordination, the optical-ocular, and that in a certain sense it
is the movement which is primary, and the sensation which is
secondary, the movement of body, head and eye muscles determining
the quality of what is experienced. In other words, the real
beginning is with the act of seeing; it is looking, and not a
sensation of light. The sensory quale gives the value of the
act, just as the movement furnishes its mechanism and control,
but both sensation and movement lie inside, not outside the act"
(pp. 358-359).

When seeing is followed by reaching, there is not one
separate thing followed by another. It is instead "...an
enlarged and transformed coordination; the act of seeing no less
than before, but it is now seeing-for-reaching purposes. There is
still a sensori-motor circuit, one with more content or value,
not a substitution of a motor response for a sensory stimulus"
(p. 359). And this whole process can be characterized as both
movement and sensation. They form an identity, a unity, yet they
are distinct. The distinction is a "teleological" one in terms
of "function, or part played, with reference to reaching or
maintaining an end" (p. 365). In short, the coordination always
has an object, and it is this object that "gives the value of the
act," is its "content." It is this "end," further, that
"furnishes the motivation" (p. 368). 

An essential component of Dewey's analysis is the
recognition that stimuli and responses do not simply lie around
waiting to be connected. The process under examination is
precisely one of "constituting" stimuli and responses: "The real
problem," wrote Dewey, "may be equally well stated as either to
discover the right stimulus, to constitute the stimulus, or to
discover, to constitute the response" (p. 367). 
Although the language differs, there is a striking
similarity between Leontyev's and Dewey's accounts. In every
way, Dewey's coordination was, to use Leontyev's words, "...not a
reaction or aggregate of reactions, but a system with its own
structure,its own internal transformations, and its own
development" (Leontyev, 1979, p. 46) We maintain that this
similarity is no coincidence. Both were guided by the
materialist epistemological requirement for an objective
description of the reality in question. They both therefore saw
clearly the inadequacy of the mechanical account and the need to
replace it with a more "processual" one. And in both cases the
resulting processual account bore the obvious stamp of consciuous
dialectical thinking. There can be no doubt that in 1896 John
Dewey was anticipating important aspects of what we now know as
activity theory.


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Lehrer (Eds.), John Dewey: Master Educator. New York:
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Dewey, J. (1896). The reflex arc concept in psychology. 
Psychological Review, 3, 357-370. 
Dewey, J. (1922). Human Nature and Conduct. New York: Henry
Holt and Company.
Dewey, J., Hook, S., & Nagel, E. (1945). Are naturalists
materialists? Journal of Philosophy, 42, 515-530.
Durkheim, E. (1956). Education and Sociology. Glencoe, IL: The
Free Press.
Engels, F. (1947). Anti-D.hring. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
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University Press.
James, W. (1890). Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry
Holt & Company.
Lamont, C. (1947). Materialism and John Dewey. New Masses,
Feb. 25, 17-20.
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Science and Society, 22, 56-62.
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In J. V. Wertsch (Ed.), The Concept of Activity in Soviet
Psychology. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.
Moreno, J. D., & Frey, R. S. (1985). Dewey's critique of
Marxism. Sociological Quarterly, 26, 21-34.
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Feb. 25, 20-23. 
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Science and Society, 22, 62-68.
Sheldon, W. H. (1945). Critique of naturalism. Journal of
Philosophy, 42, 253-270.
Tolman, C. W. (1989). Pluralistic monism: William James as
closet-Heraclitean. Psychological Record, 39, 177-194.
White, M. G. (1964). The Origin of Dewey's Instrumentalism. 
New York: Octagon Books, Inc..


On Appropriation & Internalization,  K. Amano Chou , January 1991

I am afraid a little that some are discussing 
the problems of appropriation, taking the idea
(not concept) of "pricvoenie" (appropriation) 
of A.N. Leontiev as, as if, one corresponding to 
(or comparing to) the idea of "internalization " 
of Vygotsky interpretted in the framework of 
A.N.Leontiev .

If we consider the both theoretical frameworks 
of A.N.Leontiev and Vygotsky, I think that we should
set the idea of " appropriation" of A.N.Leontiev 
againt the idea of "sign mediation" or more exactly
"genesis of consciousness(higher mental function) 
through mediation by signs(speech) and psychological tool"
Of course one origin of the idea "appropriation "
of Leontiev came from the idea of social-historical
origin of higher mental function of Vygotsky(or Marx), 
but A.N.Leontiev began to abandon or to think little 
of the idea "sign mediation" of Vygotsky, when he 
introduced the idea "appropriation" into psychological 
theory (A.R.Luria and his followers held this idea of

This difference of view points of both great scholars
appears also in the understanding of processes of 
internalization or of the role of internalization in
mental development.

Vygotsky analyzed fairly enough the process of 
internalization in the experiments on development
of selective reaction,attention and speech and so on,
and single out the four stages of development{
(1)primitive and natural stage,(2)the stage of naive 
psychology,(3)the stage of external sign and external 
operation, (4) the stage of evolution(or internalization;
in Russian "vrashivanie" (the stage of "rooting" in 
the translation by N.Minick)} and three type of 
internalization(see the chapter 4 of "Thinking and Speech 
" and the chapter 5 of " History of development of higher 
mental function").

It is very interesting that Vygotsky did not use the 
term "internalization"("interiozastuya" in Russian) and 
used term "vrashivanie", when he spoke of his own theory, 
although he used term "internalization" when he dealt with 
other theory of internalization. And "vrashivanie" for 
Vygotsky always designates either the process in the above-
mentioned stage(4) or the process of transformation from 
interpsychological functions to intrapsychological 
functions, that is, the process of reconstruction of 
higher mental functions by internalization of sign(speech).
Moreover,he stresses that higher mental function are 
qualitatively restructured by "vrashivanie".

Vygotsky writes: "On "vrashivanie", that is, on conversion
of functions insides, a complex transformation of all 
structure of functions takes place. As experimental analysis
shows it needs to mention the following as the important 
moments of it's transformation: (1)substitution of function,
(2)change of natural function( of elemental processes which
are the basis of higher mental function and become a 
component of higher mental function),(3)generation of new 
psychological functional systems(or systematic functions), 
which take a role played before by individual functions in 
the structure of behavior."(from "Orudie i znak v razvitie 
rebenka", Sobranie sochinenii,tom 6, p15 ). 

When we examine the idea of "appropriation" and the 
concepts "internalization" and "externalization " of 
A.N.Leontiev and his followers, we can easily find that 
the concept of "vrashivanie" of Vygotsky was enlarged to 
a great degree by them. Of course the long-term works of 
P.Ya.Galiperin, N.F.Talizina and others contributed much to 
elaboration and development of the concept of 
internalization. A.N.Leontiev writes; "The interiosations 
of actions,i.e.the gradual conversion of external actions 
into internal,mental one, is a process that necessarily 
takes place in man's ontogenetic development. Its 
necessity is determined by the central content of a child's 
development being its appropriation of the achievements of 
mankind's historical development, including those of human
thought and human knowledge. These achievements come to him
as external phenomena(objects,verbal concept,knowledge).".
As far as we consider that "internalization " is to be 
a psychological mechanism of realization of appropriation 
of the achievements of mankind's historical development 
for Leontiev and we take into account the theory of 
Galiperin, not only conversion of actions of external 
speech into internal, but also the transformation of 
objective (or materialized) action into verbal plane, 
and even the shaping or organizing actions in objective 
social action stage should be regarded as a process of 
internalization. This difference in understanding of 
internalization between Vygotsky and Leontiev is also 
refleted in understanding of the relationship between 
external and internal structure of activity(or actions). 
Leontiev's hypothesis on the isomorphism between external
and internal structure of activity does not agree with 
that of Vygotsky.

Now we can answer Denis Newman's question "when the baby 
appropriates the cup, is something also interiorized? ". 
(XACT, Yes, the action with a cup has been already 
internalized in the baby, as far as he/she can use a cup 
with him/herself for drinking milk or water. In the case of 
motor skills with a folk and a knife or with a bicycle 
etc.,, of course,the execution of an action always remains 
external, but orientation and control part of it are 
internalized in the process of acquisition of skills in 
the stage of objective social action according to the 
theory Galiperin and Leontiev. At the stage when a baby 
begin to observe how mama or papa use a cup and want to 
use a cup, it should be considered that something begin to 
be internalized. 

But the main problems seems not to be here. The problem 
seems to concern with whether theoretical framework of 
Leontiev with the concept "appropriation","internalization" 
and "internalization" is enough for explanation and for 
the study on psychological development from the point 
of view of activity theory or not.

I think much problems remain unsolved. For example,
problem of relationship between external and internal 
structure of an activity or an action. According to
the Leontiev's hypothesis on the isomorphism between 
external and internal structure of activity, all of
the content and structure of activity formed in the
social objective activity stage is to be kept in the
internal mental stage, when it is internalized into it's
stage. It may be possible, when the process of 
internalization is well organized. But is it not possible
that a some new moment will happen to arise in the process
of internalization when we change the condition of it ?
I suppose that it is possible.

The second example of problems is the relationship between
internalization and externalization. In the process of
internalization of an action or an activity does this 
process proceed without any externalization ? Or may the 
process of externalization appear also ? I can not say
anything about it, but this relationship may depend upon
the way of organization of activity. But how do they
relate ?

The third example of problems is one concerning the
relation of "internalization"(or appropriation) of
an activity (or an action) with the conditions of an actor.
According to the theory of A,N,Leontiev and Galiperin, any
one can acquire any activity created by people of proceeding
generations and can reproduce their activity and abilities, 
(on condition that he/she does not have a special damage in 
the brain) when we can organize their activity well. 
It may be right. But the effect of acquisition of the 
activity for the future development will be not same 
with different actors(for example, the effect of acquisitionof speech of a certain language by a child will be extremely
different from the effect in the case of an old man).
This third example reminds me of the discussion on the 
problems of human abilities between Leontiev,A.N. and 
Rubinshtein. Rubinshtein criticised the application of idea
"appropriation" of Marx into psychology by Leontiev in his
paper "Problem of abilities and problems of psychological
theory, Problems of psychology 1960". Now I have no 
time to explain his criticism in detail. I write here
only points of his criticism: (1) The concept "pricvoenie"
(appropriation) of K.Marx will not serve as the basis of
the idea that human abilities are the result of 
appropriation of achievements of human socio-historical 
development. (2) The idea of Leontiev of psychological 
development with the concept of "appropriation",
"internalization" and "internalization" is a sort of 
mechanical determinism in the sense that it always 
neglects the conditions of subjects of human activity.

Please some one, in Moscow or anywhere, would take a 
trouble to explain Rubinshtein's criticism to Leontiev's 
idea of "pricvoenie" ? 

I will put this mail into Xact, expecting that some
one in Moscow will responce to it. But if necessary,
please put it into XLCHC.
K.Amano, Chou University, Tokyo


Vygotsky's denial of Dewey (and of Feuerbach), Arne Raeithel, September 1991

In their article on the relation between Dewey's psychology and
Leontiev's Activity Theory, Charles Tolman and Brad Piekkola
(1989, Multidisciplinary Newsletter for AT, No 3/4) showed that
there is a clear break with Dewey in the Soviet Union after 1931.
In 1931 he was still described as "an outstanding American philosopher,
psychologist, sociologist, and pedagogue" (Great Soviet Encyclopedia),
afterwards as a "reactionary bourgeois philosopher and sociologist"
(1952 edition) or even as "henchman of contemporary imperialist

Tolman and Piekkola also judged that Dewey's engagement against the
growing Stalinist terror, later his chairmanship of the Trotsky Enquiry
in Mexico in 1938 was one of the most important factors in this change,
a facet of the general rupture in the mutual relations of the American
Left to Soviet Russia in the Thirties.

Thus, Vygotsky's denial of any deeper similarity of his own and Dewey's
use of the term "instrumental" might reflect the ukas of the
Central Committee of the CPSU (B) in January 1931 concerning the
philosopher Deborin (editor of "Pod snamen Marksima") and all "like
him". Among these surely were Dewey and other "foreign ideologists",
but also the Russians Plechanov, and especially Bogdanov whom Lenin had
already put into a ban in 1908 (in "Materialism and Empiriocriticism").

This means, Mike, that Vygotsky might have been writing slave's talk, as
Antonio Gramsci called his own style of writing in disguise so that his
jailors/censors might not suspect the real content or intent.

For those who read German there is a wealth of evidence for this thesis
in Peter Keiler's 1991 article "Gegenstaendlichkeit, Sozialitaet,
Historizitaet -- Attempt at a reconstruction of the Feuerbach-
Vygotsky-line in psychology" (Forum Kritische Psychologie 27, pp
89-168). Even if the special case of the Dewey denial should turn out to
be a genuine distinction that Vygotsky wanted to make, there is the more
general case of denial of Feuerbach which Peter has established by a
painstaking analysis of the temporal sequence of Vygotsky's texts: In
the later texts, especially in "Thinking and Speech", some arguments,
based on Feuerbach in earlier text of the late Twenties, now appear with
references to more acceptable authors and without mentioning Feuerbach
or Bogdanov. This is understandable as a reaction to Bogdanov's ousting
and the subsequent wave of dictatorship in science, oppression of
opponents, and so on in this state-terroristic constricting cycle.

Peter Keiler also shows that Lenin had read Bogdanov (who explicitly
built on Feuerbach like Lenin) not as expanding Feuerbach and Marx
when stressing "the social organisation of knowledge" (might as well
be a phrase of Dewey), but as smuggling "idealist Machist philosophy"
into materialism.

Consider this short piece of Lenin (my translation from German
translation) from the work mentioned above:

Bogdanov believes the talk of social organization of experience to be
"epistemological socialism" (Book III, p xxxiv). This is sheer madness.
If one approaches socialism in this way, then the Jesuits are ardent
followers of "epistemological socialism"; since the starting point of
their epistemology is the Deity as "socially-organized experience".
And doubtless, catholicism is a socially organized experience; only
it is not reflecting objective truth (which is denied by Bogdanov,
and is reflected by science), but reflects the exploitation of the
ignorance of people by certain classes of society (ch. iv, section 5,
LW 14:228)

Shep White has sent a brillant and most interesting note on the links of
Dewey to Hegel. In parallel and partly in response I wrote the following
paragraphs of a book chapter, which might also serve to clear up Mike
Cole's original question:


There is another thread of working with Hegel's ideas, however, that
needs to be explained to an international, mostly anglophile readership.
This is the path of the Left Hegelians in Germany and Russia, where
the most important names for me are those weaved into the following
short story with a sad ending.

Ludwig Feuerbach criticized Religion and explained the idea of God as
the communal essence transferred and distanced in the heavens
("verhimmeltes Gemeinwesen"). The solipsist and anarchistic turn of "Der
Einzige und sein Eigentum" by Max Stirner was countered with great
force of argument by the young duo of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in
their writings from Brussels. They showed that there is a multiplicity
of social minds, held together by common ecological, economical or
political interests. Sociologists have turned most of this into present
day science. But Marx and Engels proceeded to charter the Communist
movement with the 1848 Manifesto, believing that it is humanly possible
to learn from the French Revolution in order to redo it, this time
really for the good of mankind. They thought of and planned for a
Dictatorship of the Proletariat, which they saw as one of the most
powerful historical subjects in the making at their times. Socialist
parties sprung up who discussed these and other related ideas. They made
a big impact by strengthening reformist and liberal counterforces with
different institutional results in the industrialized nations. Then
there was Wladimir Ilyitsh Lenin in Switzerland, studying Hegel after
having read through most of the Socialist literature. He invented the
political theory and strategy Q wrongly called Bolshevism, i.e. ideas
of the majority Q of the "democratic centralism of the political
avantgarde party". After the October Revolution the social technology of
feudal and oppressive rulership within Russia at the turn of our
century was subsequentially used in more and more totalitarian ways, in
a sinister competition with Nazism (Dutschke 1977). Today even a
majority of former German Stalinists see clearly how very wrong and
cruel the political practice following these ideas really was.

The Hegelian idea of totality was very hierarchic, a creature or spirit
developing itself through an unending sequence of the triad of Hegel's
dialectics (position, negation, overarching generalization of position,
cf. Kesselring 1984). The Leninist idea of the "party of the new type"
was a very direct and linear transformation of this idea into social
technology, designed for dominance of societal development. Coupled with
centralized planning economies, this type of social science experiment
now is finally proven unable to realize the democratic and welfare
hopes of its inventors -- not in competition with market economies and
liberal democracies.


I am not sure that this helps with the original question.
But there certainly is a need to understand the respective period in
Vygotsky's life and thinking from as many perspectives as possible.