Andy Blunden December 2009
Rather than being built upon some special set of principles of its own, emancipatory science relies upon immanent critique of existing science, whatever its faults. Immanent critique is the method that Aristotle used, at the end of the period of the flowering of Greek philosophy. Goethe applied it in the form of self-criticism and a life-long struggle to develop himself. Hegel used it in “The Phenomenology” and then made it into a systematic method in the “Logic,” as a method for building all the sciences from their founding premises. Marx applied it to political economy in order to disclose the dynamics of bourgeois society and Vygotsky applied it to Behaviorism and European psychology in general.
In subjecting a current of thought to immanent critique, the critic places themself within that school of thought. This replicates the normal method by which a science develops. Writers rarely subject those who are morally or intellectually distant from themselves to serious criticism, or listen to criticism that comes from afar; critical dialogue is the very thing which constitutes an intellectual pursuit as a project and binds it together with common aims. Even when a current is shown to have arrived at an impasse, critique reveals a solution which answers to the problems addressed by the current.
Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) is the current of critical thought to which I belong, and my project, as part of building an emancipatory science, is to subject CHAT to immanent critique, thereby collaborating with those who have gone before and with those who currently work in the traditions of CHAT, hoping to overcome the most important contradictions and further our shared project.
One of the characteristics of CHAT and its predecessors in German thought is the continuous attention given to scientific method and in particular what Vygotsky called the unit of analysis; under one name or another, all the writers considered here have pondered the problem and given their own view on it. This on-going dialogue over the central problem of method is one of the characteristics constituting CHAT as a project. Because of this practice, we are all able to communicate with one another, even whilst there have been sharp differences between us. That is the nature of a collaborative project.
But CHAT is also part of larger projects: the human sciences, including medicine, psychiatry, linguistics, literary criticism, etc., and we need to be able to communicate with other currents within the larger project of science. And for communication it is not enough to able to speak the same language; there has to be also shared concern with common problems and shared concepts. There may be an interest in each other’s theoretical frameworks, but the existing fragmentation of all the academic disciplines is evidence that this is not enough. Only the catharsis brought about by the failure of the scientific project may create the conditions for a reassessment. A scientific practice which has proved successful in generating academic positions but has proved utterly ineffective in stemming the destruction of the biosphere may be due for critical self-examination. Goethe knew that he could not stem the tide of positivism in his own times, but the world can survive only so much abstract-empirical science. Perhaps now is the time to take up Goethe’s banner once again?
The central concepts of CHAT are activity and culture. In themselves, these are very general concepts, and not at all specialized concerns. Activity simply means people doing something, with a distinction between activity, which is purposive, as against the autonomous and unconscious processes of the body through which activity is realized, and with the understanding that activity is always pursuit of social ends by social means. Culture simply means a constellation of artifacts, that is, the material products of human activity of all kinds which people use in their activity with one another. But these concepts have accrued rich layers of meaning through their use in the work of CHAT, and others do not share these same layers of meaning. So the problem of mutual appropriation between CHAT and other sciences, requires attention to clarification of the meaning of these concepts.
Mutual appropriation between scientific disciplines is not the norm. But there are times when a sweeping critique makes such an impact in one branch of enquiry, that its effects become widespread. Changes in the Zeitgeist flow through all domains of thought and new directions taken by one science may be taken up by others. There is great scope today for reflection on the idea of emancipatory science. CHAT theorists are far from alone in their wish that their science should free people rather than enslave them, and in dissatisfaction with the mainstream tradition of abstract empirical science, but it is CHAT which has kept the essential ideas of emancipatory science alive for a century. However, it is suggested that certain contradictions which have arisen within CHAT’s concept of activity need to be resolved before we can expect to be able to appropriate (and not simply import) insights from the social sciences, and before we can expect our work to be useful to others trained in different traditions of science.
We all know how CHAT grew up as a school of thought under the inspiration of Marx and most serious works in this tradition will include some direct reference to Marx, continuously sustaining the connection with this much-misrepresented icon of revolutionary socialism. We all know that CHAT has incorporated ideas from Hegel, but since the master-servant has dialectic swamped almost all other readings of Hegel in recent decades, few are aware of the way Hegel was read by earlier generations of CHAT. And almost no-one seems to be aware of the origins of the key ideas in Goethe.
Goethe’s approach to science was largely drowned by the rising tide of analytical science, so Vygotsky and Luria were probably among very few scientists who carried a flame for Romantic science into the 1970s. But the tide turned a long time ago and the kind of concerns which Goethe expressed a century ago, about the uncontrolled side-effects of an exclusively analytical, quantitative style of science would now be widely shared.
The first expression of these ideas by Vygotsky was his rejection of the way behaviorists treated experimental subjects like objects; they excluded verbal communication between the subject and the researcher from the data of psychological research and denied the relevance of the subjects’ consciousness; the aim of their science was the prediction and control of behavior, essentially dehumanizing those who were to be the subjects of their science. Vygotsky on the contrary insisted on the centrality of the collaborative relationship between the subject and researcher and the necessity of regarding the subject’s consciousness as the key determinant of their behavior, and the subject’s speech as the most developed mode of their behavior. As with the psychoanalysts, talking was an essential part of the practice of psychology.
One of the manifestations of the failure to grasp phenomena as Gestalten is the elevation of distinctions to dichotomies. Foremost amongst dichotomies which have plagued psychology is the mind/body dualism. Vygotsky was brilliantly able to overcome this dualism, and drawing on the philosophical tradition of Goethe, Hegel and Marx, he was successful in overcoming a number of other dualisms. In experimental procedures, Vygotsky and his colleagues were able to break new ground by using experimental scenarios based on collaborative relationships with the experimental subjects. Luria’s ideographical methodology, where the focus was exclusively on the whole person, was another strand of CHAT’s commitment to Romantic science. In our own times, support for an approach to science like this is reflected in criticism of randomized, double-blind trials, the promotion of self-help groups as a legitimate style of knowing, the promotion of collaborative relationships in health and education, the promotion of the study and care of Nature as something in which everyone should participate, losing trust in specialists. This commitment to ‘emancipatory science’ is something which needs to be renewed today.
But the most powerful concept in Goethe’s approach to science was the Urphänomen. The Urphänomen is an empirically given thing, the simplest possible unit of a complex phenomenon which still has all the essential properties of the whole. As such it functions as an empirically given explanatory principle for the complex whole. This remarkable idea functions as the key methodological principle for Hegel, Marx and Vygotsky. It is the way in which it is possible to see the whole in every part, and therefore the key means for understanding a complex process as a whole, rather than dismembering it in the manner of analytical science. But the idea of the Urphänomen is not on its own sufficient to be able to understand a process as a Gestalt.
Although Vygotsky had not actually read Hegel, he turned out to be possibly the foremost Hegel interpreter of his times. Vygotsky himself, and the whole current of Cultural Historical Activity Theory was a product of the Russian Revolution. In the wake of the Revolution Hegel was in the air. Lenin had made a study of Hegel and made it clear that political leaders and scientists should read Hegel’s Logic if they were to understand Marx. Vygotsky read Marx, Engels, Plekhanov and Lukács, and during the 1920s he worked with, amongst others, Kurt Lewin, John Dewey and Deborin, all of whom were familiar with Hegel and in this environment Vygotsky was able to develop an approach to psychology which reflected such a profound understanding of Hegel, it is difficult to believe that he had not studied Hegel personally. But this is the point about collaborative projects. Vygotsky was better able to appropriate Hegel through his collaboration in a scientific project, saturated by the ethos of the Revolution, than he could have by private study.
Hegel had taken an entire social formation - which he called a ‘formation of consciousness’ - as his object of study, a Gestalt. Every subject within a formation of consciousness was a unit of that whole, interconnected with every other subject; but Hegel conceived of the subject as a concept, not as an individual, and a concept has three moments: the individual, the universal and the particular. Hegel transformed Goethe’s idea into philosophical terms. The Urphänomen had become an abstract concept, understood as part of an entire formation of consciousness. Though expressed in arcane logical terms in Hegel’s exposition, what this essentially means is that a concept exists only through the particular activity of individuals with each other, organized around universal representations of the concept (i.e., artifacts which are part of the general culture).
Hegel made mind/matter dichotomies and problems of epistemology objects of critique, and felt no need to have his own version of such systems. He saw that any society operated with a range of artifacts that were products of their own labor, and this same range of artifacts was represented in their knowledge, so there was not a lot to be gained by trying to draw some line between the ‘thought-objects’ created by labor and knowledge of these ‘thought-objects’ produced by activity with them. As the practical activity of a social formation changes, so the artifacts they produce, and people’s knowledge of those artifacts change. In this way, the idea of mediation dispensed with the problem of dichotomy.
Each of the different sciences in Hegel’s “Encyclopedia” begins with a simple concept, such as ‘Being’ or ‘Reflection’ or ‘Right’ and the science is developed by interrogating what is in that concept. This meant that the entire science is developed as a ‘formation of consciousness’ in which every concept is genetically interconnected with every other. Hegel thus provided a model for the development of any science, albeit on an absolutely idealist foundation.
What is emancipatory about this approach to science is that the content is grasped as a whole, consistent with an ethical approach to all human beings as subjects in their own right. Further, the science begins from one Urphänomen whose nature and origins can be easily grasped, and which implicitly contains everything. There is therefore no recourse to dogmatic claims about ‘laws of nature’ or ‘the origins of man’ and so on. “All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.”
Marx’s was the emancipatory science par excellence: the raison d’être for Marx’s work was the liberation of humanity. This meant that his published work was very much directed towards a broad public where it would have an effect: “theory becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses” (Marx 1975c: 182), so we generally have to turn to manuscripts which were not published in his lifetime to learn about his methodology. But he makes it clear in the original preface to “Capital” that he uses the idea of Urphänomen as the foundation of his critique of bourgeois society. He criticizes Hegel for believing that the development of a science was the “product of thought concentrating itself” whereas, he says, the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete “is by no means the process by which the concrete itself comes into being” and “the subject, society, must always be kept in mind as the presupposition” (1986a: 38). This meant that an idea arises as a form of activity before it “appears in the head ... as a product of a thinking head.” This takes the idea of immanent critique a step further, for it is the activity of human beings, even as it develops in the business of daily life, which is creating the real abstractions which are later to be reflected in the head of the theorist.
In his appropriation of Hegel, Marx introduced the idea of ‘activity’ as a philosophical category, making the substances of his philosophy “the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity” (1975i: 31) from which it was possible to appropriate Hegel’s philosophy as a genuinely humanistic method of science. This allowed Marx to develop an approach which ruthlessly did away with all forms of metaphysics. “History does nothing,” he said, pointing out that “It is man, real, living man who does all that” (1975f: 93). It was precisely this refusal of the use of abstractions at the fundamental level which allowed Marx to develop a unique approach to the understanding of social formations as Gestalten.
It should be noted that just because he took as his premises “the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live,” this did not mean that he set off from individuals as the atomistic components of a society. On the contrary, in his analysis of bourgeois society, he set off from the empirically given archetypal relationship, the commodity, which characterized the whole of bourgeois society. Further, Marx correctly identified the commodity relationship as the most typical of bourgeois society, he did not claim this as a transhistorical truth or universal relationship.
Vygotsky’s argument with Behaviorism had led him to the conclusion that conversation between the researcher and the subject had to be central to the research data. He further recognized that speech was the most highly developed mode of human activity, and he therefore concentrated attention on the relationship between speaking and thinking to gain the key insights for a science of consciousness. He expressed this in the aphorism that the word is a microcosm of consciousness. His study of child development led him to the conclusion that there was pre-intellectual speech and pre-lingual intelligence; at a certain point, the two trajectories intersect, and speech becomes intelligent and intelligence becomes verbal. Speech modifies thinking and behavior, as children use language at first expressively, then indicatively and communicatively, but then to issue commands to themselves and narrate their own actions. He summed up his study of thinking and speech with the claim that the meaningful word is the unit of analysis for this study. However, he did not claim that word meaning was a unit of analysis for all the phenomena of behavior and consciousness. Close study of his work led to the conclusion that Vygotsky took the ‘joint artifact-mediated action’ as the unit of analysis for the study of consciousness. This is important, because it marks Vygotsky off from, for example, recent philosophy which goes beyond the study of language-use as the microcosm of human life to claim that language is the sole determinant of human behavior. But this is not the case.
One important thing about Vygotsky’s methodology is that his concern to focus scientific work on the simple and empirically given was not limited to the idea of Urphänomen or ‘unit of analysis’ but characterized his approach more broadly. It was absolutely central to the work of Vygotsky and his colleagues that the individual human psyche was a moment of the whole social formation (Gestalt), and could not be made sense of except through the understanding of a person in the context of their social practice. Nonetheless, Vygotsky consistently refused to introduce into his scientific work abstractions to represent societal phenomena and generally avoided reliance on speculative narratives about the past to explain the way things are today. “Each person is to some degree a measure of the society, or rather class, to which he belongs, for the whole totality of social relationships is reflected in him” (Vygotsky 1997b:317). Rather, Vygotsky represented how societal products, such as language, ideology and institutions, enter the psyche, not as abstractions, but through interactions with other people (adults already part of the wider culture) mediated with the use of artifacts (which are drawn from the wider culture). He had a very concrete conception of action. Only those empirically given entities - behavior, other people and things - entered into his reasoning, not invisible ‘objective’ motives or other abstractions used to represent societal forms of activity. Just as a word was a microcosm of a culture, every artifact conveys hard information about the wider world and every individual is a microcosm of the entire society of which they are a part, a fact of significance not only for the researcher, but also for the growing child with whom the adult interacts.
Later on, Vygotsky was subject to criticism by Leontyev for failing to represent the social sources of the motivation for people’s activity. Experimental scenarios in which people sort colored blocks hardly shed light on the motivation of people’s significant life activities.
In his unfinished studies of child development, Vygotsky made a definition of ‘social situation of development’ which gave us a clue to how Vygotsky would approach the more general problem of representing societal phenomena in the development of the individual’s psyche. Vygotsky captured a child’s social situation of development as a predicament, represented in a contradiction between the mode of satisfaction of a child’s needs on the one hand (including social expectations on the child at its stage of development) and the actual mode of perception and psychological functioning of the child. At a certain point, the specific mode by means of which their needs are met becomes an ‘offence’ and the child wants to escape from this mode of interaction in which it is trapped, but they are not yet able to function at the higher level which is needed to operate outside this mode of interaction: thus the predicament, and the predicament is the driving force for the child’s development and transformation of their mode of interaction with adults. Likewise, the formation of a concept of an action-in-context is required to represent the motivations animating a person in their activity in society. The situation cannot be represented in abstracto.
The key criticism that Leontyev made of Vygotsky’s psychology was that because of division of labor, the goal of a person’s action was not generally the same as the motive of the social activity of which it is a part. So long as goals and motives were at odds with one another, analysis of their actions could not fully reveal their psychology. The same goes for the formation of concepts: that a set of blocks are all red-squares, hardly represents the full depth of word meaning in the spoken language, with its myriad of interconnections and shades of meaning. So Leontyev developed an activity-based representation of social life, a view which went a long way towards an activity reading of Hegel’s Spirit. Artifacts are objectifications of human powers, which in turn mediate activity. Marx insisted that concepts were formed in social activity before they came to be reflected in someone’s head and incorporated in theory. So it would seem that a theory which could grasp the creation of concepts in activity, rather than in the head, was a useful avenue to take.
With a three-level anatomy of activity - operations, actions and activities - Leontyev aimed to develop a notion of activity which had psychological, interpersonal and societal aspects to it. This looks like an interdisciplinary concept of activity. But Activity Theory never fulfilled this potential, and there are reasons for this failure.
One of the problems with Leontyev’s approach was that he used a false historicism. The whole problem of the phylogenetic origins of consciousness is always an intriguing one. Leontyev developed a painstaking study of non-human life-forms with the idea that in some way this would shed light on human consciousness. But, for all this labors, this is unlikely; the opposite is rather the case, that is, that a better understanding of human consciousness will shed light on the consciousness of non-human life-forms. The tendency to seek an explanation for what is immediately given in entities beyond our horizons, characterized other parts of his work as well. He supposed that the motivation of the activity in which a person was involved could be represented as an objective societal object. This meant firstly taking ‘society’ as a subject which could have needs and motives, distinct from that of the classes, groups, individuals, etc., of which a society is composed. It also meant that the theorist takes a “God’s eye view” from which such needs can be determined. Thirdly, it implied that human motivation in all its grades, can be theorized as a passive response to stimuli.
On all these counts, Leontyev was wrong. But he was quite right in his claim that Vygotsky’s psychology needed support from an activity theory which could deal with the motivation for social action and its sources in social life. Also needed was an activity-representation of concepts in the institutions and social movements of the wider society. Leontyev’s diagnosis was correct, but his remedy left room for improvement. The strength of Vygotsky’s method was his insistence on grounding his work on the empirically-given actions of human individuals, just as Marx had done. “History does nothing,” and nor do the abstract, objectivist conceptions which Leontyev invented to provide motivation for human action.
Also, the representation of human motivation in terms of fulfillment of needs is inadequate. Granted, Leontyev holds that human needs are the product of human activity, not simply natural drives. But this acknowledgement of the cultural-historical origin of a need in social production, does not bear on the nature of human motivation as such. Human beings are not (always) led by the nose; we project our aims forward. It may be a tautology, but it needs to be said: activity is active.
What is not emancipatory about Leontyev’s approach is firstly the ascription of the ultimate motivating forces to remote abstract entities, motivations which are supposed to be objective. This is a form of functionalism which denies the autonomy of human individuals. In addition to this, the conception of motivation as essentially passive, a response to an objective stimulus, also denies the capacity of human beings to create and change their own material conditions. These concessions to functionalism arose because Leontyev did not have clear concept of his subject matter, not a concept in the exact sense which Goethe, Hegel, Marx and Vygotsky had all insisted upon. Once he felt free to invent objectivist abstractions to overcome the difficulties of forming a concrete conception of societal phenomena, the approach of emancipatory science was inevitably abandoned.
So the problem remains. How can we represent the source of the motivation of human actions? How can we represent the objective existence of concepts in forms of activity, prior to their reflection in consciousness? How can we represent the social context of human action in such a way that the cognition of actions and artifacts can be theorized? The long-standing interest of philosophers and psychologists in child development is because personality and consciousness comes into being as a child grows into adulthood. A more modern form of this problem is cross-cultural phenomena: how can people understand each other across cultural boundaries, and thereby gain a concept of something? In Leontyev’s system based on objective societal needs, it is impossible even to represent such a problem, let alone solve it. It was this problem which was the impulse for the particular contribution of Michael Cole which we need to mention.
Mike Cole confronted the problem of context in his work 40 years ago, studying difficulties children had learning mathematics in school in Liberia. Cole was able to demonstrate that in their daily life, children displayed the normal level of ability in all those base-level cognitive skills which we associate with facility for mathematics, and yet the children just did not seem to get it when mathematics was presented to them in the context of formal schooling.
Even though children left school with no significant skill in mathematics, schooling did have an impact on their thinking. Another study showed that exposure to the kind of relationships and interactions characteristic of schools and other institutions in Western bureaucratic societies did allow women to improve their ability in dealing with these institutions and apply this knowledge in raising their children, and it was this second generation which benefited. What this implied was that it was the location of teaching within the context of the highly structured and formalized system of schooling which made incomprehensible the same content which was transparent to the children when it appeared in day-to-day activities in their own lives.
Clearly then, Vygotsky’s ‘joint artifact-mediated action’ did not contain all that was essential in human consciousness and behavior. The context was an essential element of the microcosm of activity, and if actions and/or artifacts are taken out of their social context and dropped into an alien context, they do not make sense and are incomprehensible to people trying to appropriate them.
In his research efforts to resolve this problem, Cole took up Vygotsky’s belief that the researcher had to engage in a collaborative relationship with the research subject. In the case of learning, this meant, rather than ‘observing’ people teaching and learning, his researchers had to roll up their sleeves and try to help children learn. This was the only possible foundation for a fruitful research environment. Further than this, Cole discovered that all the progressive education initiatives which he could trace in the US had failed. The source of these failures, he diagnosed, was the inability of the initiatives to gain support, not only from teachers and pupils, but from all the parties involved in the provision and support of schooling in the community.
What this meant, in summary, was that learning could only effectively take place in the context of all the relevant people being committed to the school and its work as a shared collaborative project. This discovery was in fact not just a pragmatic observation but contains the essential philosophical insight which is implicated in the original problem of the sources of motivation, or to put in Cole’s terms, in the context of learning.
The problem is that ‘context’ is an open-ended totality. How do we conceive of this totality? Cole has a diagram (credited to Bronfenbrenner) in his book (1996: 133) showing the learner in the center of a series of concentric rings: lesson, classroom organization, school organization, community organization, in order to represent an approach to analyzing this totality as ‘that which surrounds’. But this is a description which seems only to represent the infinite regress posed in trying to solve this problem. Cole also includes an approach to context as ‘that which weaves together’ which is perhaps a richer and more fruitful metaphor for context. Cole has investigated a number of writers in search of a way of conceiving of the act-in-context. But none of these metaphors and visual images gave us concepts of the act in its context, or allowed us to conceive of a definite unity of the two in one and the same concept, rather than the act on one hand added to the context on the other.
Vygotsky came up against the same problem in child development. How to represent the ‘context’ into which a child grows up. Of course, in order to fully understand even a single grain of sand it is ultimately necessary to understand the entire universe. But this is not the point, is it? How can we represent the child in its social situation as a concept or unit through which we can theorize their development? Vygotsky theorized this social situation in a concept which captured the relation between their needs and the means of their satisfaction in the form of a definite concept: a predicament. We need something similar for cross-cultural learning. In fact, we need a concept through which we can represent the intelligibility of actions in which mediating culture cannot be taken for granted. Leontyev had a point when he talked of the goals of an individual’s action being the personal meaning of a societal object. This insight needs to be retained. In theorizing a person’s motivation, the teleology of action, we theorize at the same time their cognition. We tend not to understand something in which we have no interest. So the learning process is inextricably bound up with motivation, and cross-cultural learning entails people sharing aims in an appropriate way.
The concepts proposed to resolve these problems are ‘collaboration’ and ‘project’. These mutually constituting concepts represent individual actions within on-going societal processes and the motivations underlying people’s actions and relationships.
‘Project’ is a concept which is sometimes preferred by Hegel scholars to represent ‘formations of consciousness’. A project can be a single thread in the fabric of society, and does not have the connotation of being an entire ‘social formation’. It is somewhat similar to the notion of ‘community of practice’, but rather than suggesting a closed system of self-reproducing actions, ‘project’ carries connotations of projecting itself forward to some ideal - a different concept of object than Leontyev’s needs. It also implies that the individual and their acts are saturated with the ideal towards which the project is directed. But consistent with the conceptions of both Marx and Hegel, the ideal is not an objectively valid, better world waiting to be realized, but rather is immanent in the activity itself, and is ultimately objectified in a residue which becomes an integral part of the life of the whole. A project is inclusive of all the cultural artifacts which mediate its activity, and is sustained by definite forms of collaboration.
Collaboration is a rich concept which expresses the jointness of actions, but in collaboration the action is always conceived of as directed towards a shared end. There is a normative concept of collaboration which implies cooperation towards the common end, combined with conflict over the means of attaining the end, with cooperation and conflict sustaining one another and merging. Another important distinction is that although collaboration is a normative concept, it contains within it a range of limiting modes of collaboration, namely, division of labor, mutual instrumentation through exchange, and hierarchical command. Different modes of collaboration are also differentiated by attribution. All these different modes of collaboration have significant psychological implications precisely because collaboration is a normative concept, and people have expectations: about being consulted, about sharing objectives, about solidarity, about privacy, and so forth, which means that deviations from the norm, and from expectations, will have a psychological impact.
The suggestion is that instead of looking at the classroom or the market place as different contexts in which measurement skills are mobilized, or looking at the classroom and the school ecologically, as an environment, we could look at the relevant projects. If a teacher relocated themselves into the market place, but still spoke to the children in the manner of a school teacher, we would not expect much progress. The point is: what project does the child see the actions as part of? The child has to figure this out to make sense of the actions and mobilize its own intellect to carry out the actions required of them. There is in fact a style of schooling in which children choose a project, usually a relatively complex and protracted project in which the child already has an interest, and then the teacher helps them complete the project and in one or another way, works the curriculum material the child will need to know for adult life, into solving the problems that arise in the course of the project.
But Cole identified deeper problems. It is not enough that the child has to integrate the learning material into a meaningful project for themselves, this has also to be a meaningful project for the teacher, the school and the supporting institutions. So this remains a difficult social problem to be resolved, but perhaps the concept of project can be of use here. This concept of project is not just suggested as a cover for promoting a specific style of pedagogy. These concepts are meant in the first instance as a means of conceptualizing the place of individual actions in wider social life.
We need an ‘interdisciplinary’ concept of activity, rather than the increasingly popular ‘transdisciplinary’ because we need to penetrate work going on within a number of different silos, and it is my aspiration that work currently fragmented by academic silos might be transformed. There is a danger that transdisciplinary work could become trapped itself in a silo marked by a specific kind of work distinct from any existing tradition of research. Nonetheless, those practicing transdisciplinary research, more than anyone, should find this concept of use. which could facilitate the representation of societal entities, as well as individual behavior and interactions. We have called on the concept of hermeneutic circle to indicate the specific type of problem which can be illuminated by this concept of activity. In the hermeneutic circle, an action is meaningful only in relation to the project it is furthering, whilst the project is comprehensible only through the actions of which it is composed. So the aim of the project is immanent in the actions, rather than in some imagined future state of affairs. This was Marx’s conception of communism: “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence” (1975i: 49). This is how all projects need to be understood; this is how Marx understood activity.
The functional method in sociology rests on the idea that every institution in society has some regulatory function: “What is the state for? It is for maintaining law and order. What is marriage for? It is for raising children,” etc., etc. Ultimately, this method is not scientific, but is nonetheless an example of how teleology is used in social science. Teleology also arises in nature: creatures strive to stay alive and questions like “Why does a peacock have such colorful feathers?” are meaningful questions that can be answered functionally on the presumption that natural selection takes care of the underlying mechanism. The question is: in what sense can we talk of the teleology in projects, and how do they give motivation to people in their actions, or is it the other way around, that projects are purpose-driven because the actions of which they are a part are purposive? There is no simple answer to these questions; projects do work towards ends and people do strive for something. Individual ends are certainly derived and fulfilled in social life, and institutional ends exist only insofar as they are pursued by individual people. But the notion of project gives us a tool with which to interrogate people and their associations and look for their meaning, just as people seek meaning in the same way. ‘Project’ is a suitable unit for the study of sociological problems, especially where what is at issue is the very constitution of social entities (rather than being limited to interactions between existing societal entities) and the ability of institutions to mobilize people (rather than just taking people as given members of a collective).
The rich content of the notion of collaboration also brings to light more complex relationships. The notions of hierarchy, command, division of labor, cooperation, exchange, service, attribution, exploitation, dependence, solidarity, and more can all be studied in the context of just two individuals working together in a common project. And yet almost all the mysteries of social science as well as a good part of psychology are contained in this archetypal unit: two people working together in a common project.
Whether the concept of activity developed through a critique of Cultural Historical Activity Theory is taken up and proves useful in other disciplines only time will tell. But we must make a beginning. The fact is that as things currently stand there are as many mutually independent theories as there are academic posts in the average university. Every new writer produces a new theory. That is just as it should be. Original and creative thinking is not according to a template. But we do have a problem.
The global economic crises and uncontrolled climate change taking place at the time of writing are as extreme a demonstration of the failure of our institutions to grasp problems as a whole, as Gestalten, as it is possible to imagine. It would not be drawing too long a bow to say that the destruction of the natural and economic conditions for life on Earth as a direct outcome of the planned and scientific development of these resources is the result of fragmentary and blinkered methods of work which cannot see the forest for the trees. Our political institutions, our research and education institutions and our entire economic system are geared towards isolating every issue from every other issue and trying to resolve each one at a time without any means of grasping each problem as a whole, let alone grasping the whole of which every problem is but a part.
Now had the reader started reading from here, they would be forgiven for heaving a sigh of boredom at this point, for how often have we been read these lessons, of the blind man holding the elephant’s tail and so forth? The point is, of course, exactly how is one to grasp the whole? Although I am writing within a specific current of thought, Cultural Historical Activity Theory, the problems of scientific method raised are equally applicable to any scientific discipline. We have shown how the researcher must proceed in an effort to grasp problems as a whole. Most of the observations we have made with respect to psychology and related disciplines can be extended directly to any of the human sciences.
The problem of the fragmentation of the sciences between a thousand and one disciplines unable to effectively communicate with one another, is the same as the problem of each science being unable to grasp the problem which defines their subject area as a whole. It’s macrocosm and microcosm. The analytical, abstract-empirical methods of scientific thinking, and the corresponding hierarchical, compartmentalizing and competitive methods of organization of the sciences, leads to a social consciousness which is atomistic, destructive and narcissistic. Such methods are structurally incapable of grasping and proceeding from the whole.
Many serious minds are endeavoring to solve these problems at the global level. The ‘science’ is relatively straightforward, at least each bit of the science taken on its own is well enough understood. But at the time of writing, the consensus seems to be that there is little chance of actually forestalling catastrophe. Science can describe the crisis, but cannot resolve it. Because the whole, that is, human activity taken together with the natural and artificial conditions for human life and the state of consciousness of the six billion people involved in this problem, cannot be grasped in its full complexity by any one person or any one theory.
But if in each discipline we are able to identify the nature of the specific problem as a whole, then we can make progress. We can all learn to speak a common language.
There is an increasing interest in transdisciplinary work, and this is essential. But there is a danger that transdisciplinary scientific work could become just another discipline, leaving existing disciplines just as they are. That is may be unavoidable. But it is necessary to make a beginning with the critique and transformation of each branch of science (human and natural), from inside each discipline. So long as there is an effort in each of the disciplines to critically review their concepts with a view to breaking from abstract-empirical methods in favor of the kind of approaches we have described as emancipatory science, then interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work takes on more significance.
But we cannot continue as we have been. Goethe was right. With the very conditions for human life under threat, surely it is time to change.