Why “collective” is the wrong word
for social phenomena like perezhivanie.

Some qualifications to begin with. I do not wish to tell anyone “what Hegel thought.” The guy lived a long time ago, I have never seen inside his head and plenty of what he wrote is quite alien to me and would be to any of us. So secondly, I will offer an interpretation of his ideas and I will express myself in terms appropriate to my interpretation because if I were to stick to the terms in which Hegel expressed himself no one would understand what I was talking about. Thirdly, Hegel’s ideas are very difficult to understand and explain. I have established a reputation for being able to do that (thanks largely to CHAT) but it is still difficult.

Finally, the subject matter of Hegel’s Logic (on which I am relying) is human activity en masse. Hegel did write a psychology, and it is pretty good for the 1820s, but it is rarely alluded to and is not pertinent to what I want to say. His theory of psychology did not underlie his study and understanding of human activity en masse. More the other way around.

Hegel did not see human activity en masse (a.k.a spirit) as an aggregate of the actions of individual persons. Individual humans and their actions were not his “unit of analysis.” He saw activity (i.e. human activity en masse) as a developing and contradiction-ridden whole, made up of social practices or activities. He studied it as a process of development and his unit of analysis was what CHAT theorists call activities but Vygotsky called “concepts.” Concepts are form of human action, and this is how Vygotsky saw them too. So what Hegel does is demonstrate how what begins as a bare idea, an embryonic new form of human activity develops internally (and here is where individual, universal and particular come in) and in interaction “merging” with all the other forms of activity in the wider social formation (other concepts, projects), ultimately becoming an integral part of the life of the concrete whole.

Now I am not and Hegel did not deny the reality of abstract groups. Asians, old white men, white collar workers, etc., do exist, but these conceptions are not forms of self-consciousness (at least not in their origins) and are only forms of human activity in their capacity as objects of activity. These observer forms of activity are dealt with in the first of the three books of the Logic. It is self-conscious forms of activity which constitute concepts, i.e., the forms of human activity, which Hegel takes up in the third book of the Logic, the Concept Logic. It is the concept logic which expresses the point of view which I am drawing on here. (This is the same as the way Das Kapital begins with talking about commodity production but only later comes to capital, which is the title and real subject matter of the book). Groups are made by others who see people in terms of their qualities and quantities and label then and treat them in this or that way. Probably we all begin like that (with pseudoconcepts) but it is not how people conceive of their own action. Of course, this abstract way of thinking has its effects and casts the objects of this kind of thinking into certain kinds of social position, and as a result of being in some social position, self-conscious activity may arise on that basis. Seemingly the same condition is thereby transformed into an emancipatory concept/movement/form of activity (“Black is beautiful”). But this is not the only way that ideas, new forms of activity, projects get going. Let’s just skip over the various ways in which a new idea is gradually formulated and begin from the Aha! moment when a new idea is launched.

A further qualification about the subject matter of Hegel’s Logic. He is not talking about actual actions (as recorded in history books and diaries). Like any other science, he is talking about the “laws” of his subject matter, approaching real activity by beginning from what is lawful, necessary and predictable, not given empirical patterns and statistics.

When Hegel talks about “thoughts” he means norms, norms of action, norms of meaning and norms of belief. In an given action, of course, such a myriad of conditions go into its determination, we can aim only to gain a “rational insight” into the action, not a complete determination. This is how science works - the ‘concrete’ is reconstructed by the concentration of many ‘abstractions’.

Hegel sees a concept as the unity of three moments, the Universal, the Individual and the Particular. I will retain Hegel’s terms, which belong to Logic, because they do OK as a first grab on understanding this idea.

A concept doesn’t really exist unless it has all three moments, and contradictions between the three moments drive the internal development of the concept. It is only thanks to the individual action that the activity exists at all, but as we know from CHAT every meaningful action is done for a reason, i.e., as part of some activity, and it is the universal which the particular aims at, so to speak, which mediates the activity such that it is a coherent whole of an activity at all.

This is Hegel’s conception of human life, expressed in CHAT terms, but it is Hegel’s idea which he expresses in logical terms, in which the logical terms make sense only if you understand that the “thoughts” are not forms of activity of synapses or dreams, but realised thoughts that both instantiate and change norms and are guided and rendered meaningful by norms. Norms are “objective thought forms” and are quite amenable to logical analysis.

Nothing has been said above about an individual person.

Only after we have the above do we come to consider the individual person. The (individual) person is both the series of their actions, and the identity whose body mediates this series of actions, and the process of concept development can just as much happen in the life of a person as it can within the life of a social movement or institution or in the life of a whole social formation. All are aggregates of actions and activities.

Psychology studies what we would better call “persons,” rather than “individuals.” So we know about “personal perezhivaniya.” In the conception sketched above it is self-evident that this is a social practice, a social phenomenon. All the component actions are individual actions within particular projects and their universals; individual actions, and therefore the actions of persons, are just moments in essentially societal forms of action.

Nothing has been said about groups (after the initial qualifications about how people can be objects of activity, but it is as subjects of activity that we are interested in people). What was mediating between the individual actions (which could be the actions making up a person’s perezhivanie) was particular activities or projects, not membership of a “group.” So the next kind of perezhivanie we would consider is the transformation of a project, of the particular moments of a concrete concept.

The particular is one moment of any concept. If printing ceases to be a trade and becomes something which clerical workers do with their computer as part of their clerical work this will generate a perezhivanie in the particular activity of printing. If printing is integral to a person’s life, there will likely be a personal perezhivanie for those print workers.

It’s a clumsy expression, but what we are talking about is “project perezhivaniya,” the crises and transformations of forms of practice, “particular perezhivaniya.”

Now, if many people have the same particular social position (that is, they not all the assistant blockmaker in IMB’s Miami print shop – an individual social position, but simply print workers), and some crisis arises which will affect all of those people in that particular social position, that kind of role, then there may be – may be – a perezhivanie for each of the persons in that kind of role. But it may not. Only when the persons in question become self-conscious with respect to this crisis and the need for a response, do we begin to move from a social non-movement to a social movement, from the personal to the societal. Otherwise we remain stuck in the first book of the Logic, so to speak, in which people are objects of activity and not its subjects.

I don’t know what to suggest about language, but I think that the words “collective” and “individual” leave us mired in abstractions and formal conceptions which can never resolve our scientific task.

(Part of an email discussion in October 2021, by Andy Blunden)