Andy Blunden November 2012

Commentary on Yrjö Engeström’s
7-step process of Concept Formation *

1. What I did appreciate about Engeström’s paper was that he explicitly presents his concept of concept as “An ideal-typical sequence of epistemic actions in ascending from the abstract to the concrete.” This is profoundly correct, and is the first time I have seen this formulation apart from my video interview in January 2012. Further, Engeström is the only CHAT writer other than myself who has detailed this process of ascent from the abstract to the concrete. And he has done a job which is not half-bad.

2. Engeström claims that the concept is the product of a process of development, achieved when “a new stable form of practice” is arrived at. This is in contrast to Goethe’s observation that “German frequently and fittingly makes use of the word Bildung to describe the end product and what is in process of production as well.” This has the effect of reifying concepts as if they were things that once produced existed independently of the human activity which constantly reproduces them. I would rather say that concepts themselves are both process and product, since the only form of existence available to a concept is the line of development of actions it characterises.

3. Also, it is quite mistaken to suppose that the formation of a concept entails a once-for-all process of formation passing through these 7 distinct stages, which once completed remains stable. More likely the relatively stable form of practice is very soon disrupted and the process recapitulated, sublating the previous process in further development of the entire concept. The process of concept formation is interminable.

4. Engeström’s claim is that this 7-step process is an ideal-typical sequence of epistemic actions characteristic of concept formation in the wild. Doubtless there are different understandings of “in the wild.” In the first place a distinction is made from the formation of artificial concepts by subjects in a controlled laboratory experiment. But apart from that it appears from the language of this formulation and its context, that what Engeström is describing is ideal-typical of the formation of a concept in an organised intervention by consultants who take their work to be concept-formation. I take this to be in the same category as concept-formation by scientists in the course of their work, as described in the articles of Nersessian and Hall and Horn, as well as the failed process of concept formation described by Virkkunen and Ristimaki in the same issue of MCA. This is valuable in itself, since it is professionals in the business of concept-formation who are the major readership, but for problems of social policy, political action, and cultural/historical criticism, a distinct process of concept formation in the wild needs to be recognised.

5. The most serious flaw in Engeström’s 7-point analysis is the complete omission of objectification. It seems that Engeström takes objectification such as the inclusion of his concept of “sit-to-stand” in the “Helsinki Health Centre Strategy and Balanced Score Card” document for 2011-2013 simply as evidence of the sustainability of the concept. It is, however, itself an important part of the objectification of the concept, an action which should have been anticipated in the “expansive cycle.” A concept is a unit of a social formation and cannot be said to exist until it has achieved a degree of stability within that form of life, something which is ensured only by means of objectification. Further, a concept is subject to modification in the course of its objectification which must be taken as part of the concept formation, and not simply the ‘registration’ of the concept. Otherwise, we would have to say that Leonardo da Vinci invented the helicopter. The further development of a concept beyond the point at which the ‘germ cell’ first appears relies on conflict between the developing concept and its objectifications. So objectification plays a key role in both the stability and the ongoing development of the concept. That Engeström sees no significance in material, symbolic or practical objectification is further evidence that despite everything, Engeström still objectifies concepts.

6. Engeström’s presentation of the process in terms of 7 stages obscures the fact that in any real process of concept formation these stages are constantly recapitulated and overtaking one another. In particular, the formation of the germ cell may not be a single moment in the process, but may undergo a number of false-starts corresponding to misconceptions before settling into a more or less stable form, and even then may undergo refinement, qualification and further distinctions in later stages of the process.

7. The fourth, fifth and sixth actions seem to gloss over an important distinction. On the one hand there is the first discovery (possibly a more appropriate characterisation as compared to “constructing” and “modelling”) of the germ-cell, which then immediately becomes the focus for those immediately involved in the original problem-solving task referred to in action But then, quite aside from any further experiment or operation (though perhaps this is exactly what is intended in the fifth action) there is the proliferation of the germ cell, which brings it under critique in a wider circle of situations than were envisaged by the initiators, and this feeds back to the beginning process and causes recapitulation of the production of the germ cell. This may already be implicit in actions 4, 5 and 6, but the significant distinction is that if a concept is to really exist, and not prove to be illusory, it must move beyond the circle of those who initiated it and enter into circulation. But this process inevitably turns out to be a significant new phase of development itself.

8. Finally, there is no room in the process of concept formation as described by Engeström for misconception. I take misconception to refer to misrecognition of the germ-cell, generally by means of an inessential attribute of the germ-cell being taken as essential. This is something quite distinct from a concept which later turns out to be inadequate or fail to resolve the original problem, since it refers to the misconception of the concept under formation. Consequently, it becomes one of the driving factors in the process of concept formation in itself.

9. Finally, returning to action 1, “questioning” perhaps over-subjectifies the starting point of concept formation. Concept-formation is essentially a subjective process, a process of subject formation, in fact, but its starting point is an objective one. For the process of concept-formation to begin there must be some group of people sharing some social position for which some unforeseen problem or opportunity arises, before the circumstances of this problem/solution can be subject to questioning. This is an archetypically objective process, inhering in the social structure or institution which is the site of the concept formation.

* Engeström’s 7 actions of Concept Formation
Mind, Culture, and Activity, 19(3), July 2012, p. 288-289.

Ascending from the abstract to the concrete is achieved through specific epistemic or learning actions. Together these actions form an expansive cycle or spiral. An ideal-typical sequence of epistemic actions in ascending from the abstract to the concrete may be described as follows: