Andy Blunden January 2019
I came to CHAT late in life, and my life situation bars me from doing research in the proper sense of the word.
My interest is in social change and social theory which not only makes social change comprehensible but can serve as a guide to interventions aimed at achieving social change. My focus is therefore not on psychology as such and nor is it on structuralist (e.g. Bourdieu) and other interpretations of history which see social change as a purely objective process. Though both these strands of research inform my work.
My contribution flows from my virtually unique position as someone who has made a serious study of the conceptual foundations of three particular research traditions, namely, Hegel, Marx and Vygotsky.
In particular, it is Vygotsky’s concepts of ‘unit of analysis’ and its later development by Soviet Activity Theorists with the idea of ‘germ cell’, and Vygotsky’s concept of ‘artifact mediation’ which are central for my work. Surprisingly perhaps, although both of these concepts originated from Vygotsky’s original reading of Marx’s Capital, and both have their origins in German Idealism, they are unknown and not understood in the tradition of research focused on Marx on the one hand and on Hegel on the other.
I appropriate the concept of ‘activities’ as ‘projects’. That is, I take projects as units of analysis for both the study of and the real transformation of social life. My difference with Mike Cole on this question is that while we both focus on projects as a meso-level unit of analysis, I see projects as the unit of analysis for the analysis of the context as well as for the research subject itself. (This position is actually implicit in Mike’s work, but the concept of ‘unit of analysis’ has been so degraded that this is unclear.)
The CHAT community is relatively small; our practical and research aims can only be realized, I believe, by winning over a substantial section of the Marxist and Hegelian traditions (both of which are much larger than we are) to the basic concepts of CHAT, especially those I mentioned above.
I leave it to others to try to win a leading position in the fields of psychology and learning theory. But we cannot complete the project of CHAT within the confines of schooling and the academic departmental structure.
When Mike Cole tried to investigate the effect of good schooling in the US in the past he said:
“I found a number of accounts of schools built along principles I thought appropriate. The curriculum in these schools was ... an excellent embodiment of Dewey’s ideas about making authentic experience the foundation of education. And the schools seemed to work, those who ran them reported that the children mastered the curriculum, including its more traditional European-based aspects. But when I sought to determine what had subsequently happened to these schools, I found that they had, without exception, ‘gone back to the bush.’”
Cultural Psychology. A Once and Future Discipline, p. 287-8
and as the Hillbilly Marxist educator Myles Horton recalled:
“they made the same speeches when I graduated from grammar school, high school, and college. They always said when you get out of school then you can use what you've learned and the world will be yours and the future is for the young people. And when I got out of college, out of graduate school, and everything I tried to do they said no, no, no, you can’t do that. ... So I thought the job of the school was to pass on the past and fit people into the existing system ... So I decided I didn’t want to work in that system at all; I wanted to work with people who had a chance to change the system. .... I decided to work with adults old enough to vote and poor or disadvantaged people.”
Myles Horton Reader, p. 59
and Horton went on to educate adult activists struggling for social change.
This would be no surprise to Vygotsky who said that:
“tasks that are posed for the maturing adolescent by the social environment – tasks that are associated with his entry into the cultural, professional, and social life of the adult world ... are an essential functional factor in the formation of concepts.”
As Vasily Davydov said, “the concept of activity is interdisciplinary by nature.”
So much has changed in the character of the labor process since Marx or Hegel lived, that their ideas can only be appropriated at the deepest conceptual level. Further, such an appropriation can only be successful and useful if we incorporate Vygotsky’s insights. Additionally, I don’t believe Marx can be of use to anyone without the aid of Hegel, and vice versa.
Further, I believe that in order to clarify our own ideas it is a matter of urgency that CHAT scholars make a serious study of Hegel. Back in the 1820s, Hegel already knew that our consciousness and our perceptual field is structured by words, that all actions are artifact-mediated, that all ideas developed through the concretization of germ-cells and that Mind is objective (i.e., cultural) as much as it is subjective. But in Hegel these ideas are elaborated as part of a vast though arcane conceptual structure of which most of us know very little.
So my project is three fold: (1) assist Vygotsky scholars and Activity Theorists to study Hegel, (2) encourage Marxists, particularly Critical Theorists, to study Vygotsky, and (3) help Hegelians to use Vygotsky to recover key parts of Hegel’s theory.
That is, CHAT needs a strategy for interdisciplinarity.
We can’t do it ourselves. It requires collaboration and winning over mavericks in other disciplines.
My means of progressing these projects is quite modest: writing (my “Hegel for Social Movements” is in press) and teaching, mainly my Hegel reading group. My political perspectives are represented in a short talk I gave in Sydney last year: “Capital and the Urpraxis of Socialism.”