Andy Blunden February 2010

Commentary on Editorial in MCA vol. 17, number 1.

Michael Roth’s Editorial in MCA 17.1 begins with a quotation from Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), the German Phenomenologist. As I read on, I was stunned to read of:

“a crucial distinction ... between two forms of consciousness that many CHAT researchers forget in the analysis of the systems they are concerned with: the consciousness of the subject of activity of interest and the consciousness of the researcher.” (p. 1)

My initial reaction was this: how can any researcher fail to make a distinction between their own consciousness and somebody else’s? Then I noticed the word “form.” So it was not a question of mistaking someone else’s consciousness for one’s own, but of a researcher not knowing that they have a different form of consciousness than anyone else. But what on Earth could be this privileged form of consciousness attainable only by researchers? Surely both are human beings? The writer seems to be saying, either, that it is possible to mix up one’s own (essentially immediate and private) consciousness with someone else’s consciousness (something inaccessible to observation, which has to be inferred from behavior). Or, the writer is claiming that researchers have some unique form of consciousness which is attainable only by researchers.

Both readings are so nonsensical that I was forced to think again!

Although I am untutored in Heidegger (I have always had trouble coming to grips with his pro-Nazi leanings), Martin Heidegger’s student, Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002), I have found useful in my work. Gadamer’s topic is Hermeneutics, the interpretation of texts, a science which has its origins in 18th century German Romanticism, just like CHAT, so he seemed to be just the person to turn to for an approach to interpreting the Editorial. The concept of ‘tradition’ is given a special place and specific meaning in Gadamer’s writing. According to Gadamer, every text arises from a certain tradition, that is, a form of life which includes various genres of writing, and a text can only be reliably interpreted in the light of knowing the tradition from which it arises.

Gadamer approaches the problem of how to interpret a text which comes out of a different tradition as follows:

“... When we try to understand a text, we do not try to transpose ourselves into the author’s mind but, if one wants to use this terminology, we try to transpose ourselves into the perspective within which he has formed his views. But this simply means that we try to understand how what he is saying could be right.” (Gadamer 2005: 292).

So this was my task, rather than dismissing Roth’s text as nonsense or trying to “get inside his mind,” I had to figure how what Roth was saying could be right. Gadamer goes on:

“The anticipation of meaning that governs our understanding of a text is not an act of subjectivity but proceeds from the commonality that binds it to the tradition. But this commonality is constantly being formed in our relation to tradition. Tradition is not simply a permanent precondition; rather, we produce it ourselves inasmuch as we understand, participate in the evolution of tradition, and hence further determine it” (Gadamer 2005: 293).

So Gadamer seems to be giving me the answer to my particular question here as well. Gadamer is dealing with text, i.e., the production and use of artifacts, more or less equivalent to the CHAT concept of ‘artifact-mediated action’. The concept of ‘a tradition’, i.e., “the perspective within which a writer has formed his views,” can be interpreted usefully as “an activity,” since it is the culturally and historically constructed activity of which an action is a part, and which provides the motivation and resources for the action. Tradition implies something more extended than is sometimes associated with the words ‘an activity’, somewhat closer to ‘cultural context’. But in this connection, I think ‘tradition’ can be validly interpreted as ‘an activity’ which I will refer to as ‘a project’.

I still can’t understand what Roth means by ‘form of consciousness’ in this sentence, and it seems that Heidegger never used the expression either, but Roth’s claim arises from problems of social research, and it is safe to assume that he is giving voice to problems that arise within this activity.

Gadamer may be making the very point that Roth was getting at, namely this: the researcher is engaged in a certain project, namely social/psychological research, whilst the experimental subjects are engaged in a different project, in this case, environmental research; the consciousness of each person is going to be conditioned by the project which is motivating their actions, and through which lens they interpret their experience. That makes sense to me! Researchers do need to remember that their research subjects are not necessarily motivated by the same project as the researcher, and indeed, may utterly misconstrue the researcher’s actions which are part of a project which may be foreign to them. And equally, researchers need to remember that their research subjects are not part of the same project in which they are participating. Measures have to be taken so that there is some commonality between both parties’ projects.

It seems to me that this mistake is not so common as it used to be when CHAT first emerged from its Soviet birthplace. There are at least half a dozen CHAT writers on the MCA Editorial Board alone who have investigated how cultural difference and context may lead to misunderstandings within experimental studies; ecological validity and context has been a major focus for many CHAT researchers in recent decades. The problem of people misunderstanding each others’ words, and actions more generally, is most often dealt with in terms of context or situation, but also often in semiotic or structuralist terms by contemporary CHAT researchers. I failed to understand the editorial, at first at least, because I wrongly presumed the editorial to have been written in the tradition of CHAT, and therefore failed to understand the words ‘form of consciousness’. But as I read on, the situation only gets worse. Let us just look at a few cases where word meaning (action) is dependent on the context (activity, project or tradition), in ways which are exemplified in this editorial.

In his 1929 foundational study, “The Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology,” Vygotsky (1896-1934) created the orientation of CHAT as a scientific current of thought, a central component of which was the determination of what is meant by ‘consciousness’. Vygotsky lays great emphasis on the distinction between scientific Psychology (whether that of Feuerbach or Vygotsky) and Phenomenology (i.e. Husserl and Heidegger). In this excerpt he is criticizing the ‘father of Russian Psychology’, Georgi Chelpanov (1863-1936), who combined Psychology and Phenomenology:

“We must be able to state the epistemological problem for the mind as well and to find the distinction between being and thinking, as materialism teaches us to do in the theory of knowledge of the external world. The acceptance of a radical difference between the mind and physical nature [in Phenomenology] conceals the identification of phenomenon and being, mind and matter, within psychology, the solution of the antinomy by removing one part - matter - in psychological knowledge. This is Husserl’s idealism of the purest water. Feuerbach’s whole materialism [by contrast] is expressed in the distinction of phenomenon and being within psychology and in the acceptance of being as the real object of study.

“... I venture, proceeding from this comparison, to cut the living tissue of psychology, cutting it as it were into two heterogeneous bodies which grew together [in Chelpanov] by mistake.” (Vygotsky 1997: 322-23)

To clarify what is being said here: everyone knows that there is a difference between a material object and how it appears to a person, but how does this translate into psychology, where the object of research is consciousness itself? Because Phenomenology bases itself on introspection as a means of ‘observing’ consciousness, they take the consciousness itself (i.e., Being) to be identical to how the introspecting ‘researcher’ sees it, i.e. the appearance or phenomenon. It is said that you have to be a horse to judge a horse, but according to scientific psychology, consciousness has to be ‘reconstructed’ from observable facts, and people are not the best judges of their own consciousness. Consciousness is not an object which can be ‘observed’ by some homunculus inside the brain; introspection is just another, very particular form of consciousness itself. This is why Vygotsky insists that Phenomenology and Psychology are two distinct projects with different methods, concepts and objects of research.

This is the point: Heidegger was involved in a completely different project from Psychology and the meanings of words within his project are several times removed from the meanings they have in CHAT. The subject matter of Phenomenology is the stream of subjective consciousness as revealed by introspection; the subject matter of Psychology is consciousness as reconstructed by the scientific observation of behavior and physiology. This by no means rules out the appropriation of concepts from Phenomenology, but it does mean that we must take care. One and the same word may have different meanings in different contexts and traditions!

I recall how after making a study of Hegel in order to improve my understanding of Marx, and then going on to a study of Husserl. It was a very confusing experience, because Husserl used all the same terms as Hegel, but in every single case they have an entirely different meaning.

Let us take for example the word ‘Being’.

I first came across the word ‘Being’ as a student of Marx (1818-1883): “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness,” Marx famously claims in the “Preface to the Critique of Political Economy.” Being here refers to the life, especially productive, activity and social position of human beings, whilst ‘consciousness’ refers in this passage to the “legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic - in short, ideological forms” (Marx 1987), also objective forms of life activity.

When I turned to Marx’s predecessor, Hegel (1770-1830), however, I found that as the first concept of the Logic, ‘Being’ referred to the beginnings of philosophical thought, what Hegel confusingly called ‘pure thought’. Confusing because by ‘thought’ Hegel does not mean some subjective process in the head, but rather a whole ‘formation of consciousness’ (Gestalt des Bewußtseins, usually interpreted nowadays as ‘project’), which includes ‘thought objects’ (i.e., artifacts), social practices (or activity) and the individual actors participating in the relation – all objective. So even though Hegel is remembered as an ‘idealist’, ‘Being’ had the same kind of referent as the other categories in his system, i.e., whole forms of life, not something inside the head.

The German word for Being is Sein, and one of the concepts which arises from the critique of the concept of Being is Dasein, literally ‘being-there’, usually translated in Hegel as ‘Determinate Being’. The founder of Phenomenology was Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), and Husserl’s work was known to Vygotsky, the founder of CHAT. In Husserl, Dasein has an entirely different meaning again, as it refers to a state of subjective consciousness as revealed by introspection, something foreign to Hegel, Marx or Vygotsky. And when we come to Heidegger, a one-time student of Husserl’s, Dasein has such a specialized meaning, that it is usual to leave the word in the original German: like the word Gestalt, Heidegger’s Dasein is untranslatable.

So it is fair to suspect that many readers of MCA will not understand what Dasein means in the context of Heidegger’s theory, let alone what it means, if anything, in the context of CHAT. For Roth, Dasein is a state of the mind, something inward and accessible only by introspection: “The key concept is Dasein, the term for being – that in each and every case, I am. ... that which is (i.e., of what is present in consciousness)” (MCA p. 5). But it appears that for Roth, Dasein is something more than a subjective thought form! We read “Dasein is essentially care/concern,” and “what Dasein knows ...,” “its (i.e., Dasein’s) point of view,” that “Dasein encounters ...” and that “Dasein is always ahead of itself.” Dasein seems to be a fully-fledged subject, an actor in the world, some kind of Avatar (to borrow a term from Hindu theology).

At the same time that concepts foreign to CHAT have been introduced into CHAT via the MCA Editorial, concepts indigenous to CHAT have been mangled. For example, Roth refers to the famous “expanding triangle” of Yrjö Engeström as a ‘unit of analysis’. (p. 4). But Engström, the leading current proponent of Activity Theory, himself explicitly states that this ‘triangle’, a system involving 11 different concepts (not including Dasein or consciousness), is not a ‘unit of analysis’, but is rather a “root model” (Engeström 1987). So one of the key concepts of Vygotsky’s foundational work is here obfuscated. How can an open-ended system, incorporating 11 different concepts, each of which indicate on-going processes, be a ‘unit of analysis’? Such claims place a barrier before anyone trying to understand Vygotsky’s work. Engeström’s heuristic is a ‘root model’; Engeström does not rely on the concept of ‘unit’ in his work, but it is central to Vygotsky’s work.

And Roth tells us that ‘consumer’ is a concept of CHAT! ‘Consumer’ is a category belonging to neo-liberal capitalist ideology and has absolutely no place in CHAT or in MCA; it renders the person as a passive, unproductive recipient of another’s actions. I could go on, but I will finish with one final commentary. On p. 6, Roth cites Heidegger to the effect that:

“a distinction between an inside (mind) and outside (world) no longer is useful.” (MCA p. 6)

Lest there be any confusion, Roth indicates that by ‘mind’ he means what is inside the head, and since he is quoting Heidegger, he means by ‘mind’ the illusory object of introspection. Vygotsky referred to consciousness as a “phantom” produced by the interaction of two objective processes: human physiology and human behavior (Vygotsky 1997: 327-28), and which consequently can only be subject to scientific study by means of the observation of these objective processes. NB, a phantom, something unreal, merely apparent.

In the scenario Roth is discussing we have the researchers and environmental workers and others, that is, a number of different people, real people outside the researcher’s head, not just thoughts of people. So to say that it is “no longer useful” – for the researcher? for anyone? - to make a distinction between the thought of something (inside their head, so to speak) and something really existing in the world (such as other people or the environment) is to put oneself in a solipsistic dream world!

But again, I must remind myself of Gadamer’s dictum, that I must find some continuity between Roth’s project and my own project, so it is possible for me to make sense of how Roth’s claim that “a distinction between an inside (mind) and outside (world) no longer is useful” can be true, and perhaps we can make Roth’s actual claim stronger as a result.

Perhaps I could approach it by drawing on my reading of Hegel’s teaching on the concept. For Hegel, a concept is the unit of a ‘formation of consciousness’ (project, tradition?). Here the distinction between inside and outside the head could be said to have been transcended, though not actually “no longer useful.” Vygotsky’s idea of the concept is adapted from Hegel, and the same comments apply.

It seems that Roth may be trying to say that a concept (or other ‘thought-form’) does not exist simply “inside the head.” This is undoubtedly true. The content of thought is always something which exists already outside the head (Vygotsky 1998), and everything found in consciousness existed outside the head, in social practice, before it was to be found in consciousness (Marx 1986: 38). Vygotsky also insisted that the actions of the researcher form a part of the research scenario equally as much as the actions of the researcher subjects (Vygotsky 1997a). Note that Vygotsky does not talk about the distinction between the researcher’s consciousness and that of the research subjects, but quite simply insists that the behavior of the researcher, as well as that of the research subjects, be taken as data for objective, scientific consideration.

But it is neither true that the concept exists only outside the head (in the object), or solely inside the head (in the psyche), and nor is a concept indifferently (as if distinctions were no longer useful) spread between physiological formations, human behavior and material artifacts. On the contrary. The material form of the neurological substratum of the psyche, of social practice and of cultural artifacts and parts of the human body not directly implicated in psychic activity, each of these material forms is quite different. A neuron is not a social practice, etc., etc. So it is absurd to say that the distinction between inside and outside is not useful, but quite rational to say that thought-forms transcend the dichotomy between inside and outside.

I think the kind of confusion into which Roth descends in his effort to overcome the real disciplinary and ideological boundaries between Psychology and Phenomenology are the result both of an imperfect understanding of both currents of thinking, and a lack of care in tracing the concepts underlying and conditioning the use of a word in one or the other tradition (to use Gadamer’s word), leading to the kind of eclectic mixing up of concepts that Vygotsky criticized in Chelpanov in his time. Vygotsky was concerned to draw a sharp and clear line between Phenomenology and Psychology because unclarity about the subject matter and concepts of the two disciplines was causing confusion in the Soviet Union of the 1920s. This confusion was due to the thoughtless mixture of two distinct ‘traditions’ of thought, two different projects, under conditions when one and the same word would have sharply differing meanings in the one or the other tradition. The concepts of scientific psychology are actually quite difficult to grasp, and it is easier for people to grasp the concepts of Phenomenology, if only they are clearly explained, for the simple fact that the subject matter of Phenomenology is given immediately to every person. So the concepts of Phenomenology easily ‘swamp’ an understanding of Psychology.

MCA has a responsibility to facilitate the understanding of the various traditions of Psychology emanating from the work of the Vygotsky School in the 1920s. Before I could appropriate Gadamer’s idea of interpretation I had to settle the meaning of ‘text’ and ‘tradition’ as found in Hermeneutics, and determine the sense in which this subject matter and these concepts could be compatible with the subject matter and conceptual framework of CHAT. If MCA is to become a vehicle for Heideggerian Phenomenology, then this preparatory work has to be done. Personally, I think MCA has plenty of work to do in promoting the development of CHAT.


Marx, K., (1987 [1859]) Preface to the ‘Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, MECW vol. 29, London, UK: Lawrence & Wishart, pp. 261-266.

Marx, K., (1986 [1857]) ‘The Method of Political Economy’, MECW vol. 28, London, UK: Lawrence & Wishart, pp. 37-44.

Vygotsky, L. S., (1997 [1927]) ‘The Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology: A Methodological Investigation’, Collected Works, Volume 3, New York: Plenum Press, p. 233-343.

Vygotsky, L. S., (1997a [1924]) ‘The methods of reflexological and psychological investigation’, Collected Works, Volume 3, New York: Plenum Press, p. 35-50.

Vygotsky, L. S., (1998 [1931]) ‘Pedology of the Adolescent’, Collected Works, Volume 5, New York: Plenum Press, p. 3-186.

Gadamer, H.-G. (2005 1960]). Truth and Method, London, UK: Continuum.