Andy Blunden December 2010

Vygotsky’s Concept of “Unit of Analysis”

Vygotsky and Luria on Romantic Science

After the Congress in 1924, Vygotsky joined Luria and Leontyev at the Moscow Institute of Psychology, and they began work under Kornilov, resulting in a stinging critique of Reactology, along lines not dissimilar to Vygotsky’s Congress speech. Vygotsky visited his home town of Gomel, married Roza Smekhova, and took steps to set up the Institute of Defectology, where he created conditions for continuation of his research somewhat out of the spotlight of Moscow. Early in 1925, five new students were recruited to the ‘troika’ in Moscow, swelling the team to eight, all of them young, and four of them female. In 1926, Vygotsky suffered another bout of tuberculosis, but once he returned to work, the group began to work their way through the literature of all the currents of psychology at the time, in Europe and America as well as in the Soviet Union, and at the same time, they worked out their own methods of experimental work.

There is an imperative in publishing nowadays to ascribe every text to a specific author, and this is frustrated by the manuscripts left by the Vygotsky School from this period, because they often failed to ascribe authorship to works which may have been written by one person, but describing the research of another, or may have been written collaboratively or left unsigned. The group met frequently and discussed issues while someone took notes. They had a thoroughly collaborative method of work inasmuch as they all shared a common project, and their individuality was immersed in that common project. At that period, the Bakhtin Circle was also working collaboratively, with little attention to attribution of authorship; it seems that the collaborative approach was embedded in the collectivist ethos of the whole social system.

Also, their experiments entailed a collaborative relationship between the researcher and the experimental subject. Elsewhere, psychological experimentation was founded on the positivist principle of ‘scientific objectivity'; this meant that the researcher must create a documented and repeatable experimental set-up and procedure, and then record the subject’s response without any ‘interference’ or ‘influence’ by the researcher, which would ‘corrupt’ the data. Nowadays, thanks to the impact on science of a number of anti-positivist currents in philosophy and social theory, there is widespread recognition of the validity of a variety of approaches to psychological testing and experimentation (Chow 2002), and the psychoanalytic tradition never accepted this stricture either. Nonetheless, the multiple-choice questionnaire, statistical sampling and standardized test procedure are as ubiquitous in psychological research today as ever. For almost as long as psychology has existed as a science in its own right, students of psychology have been inculcated with the idea of statistics as their principal research tool. Such methods have their place, but they are presaged on the assumption of indifference of the target population to the research objectives, the indifference of the researcher to the interests of the experimental subjects as individuals, and of a conception of the person as a social atom, whose normal condition is in isolation from others. Under these conditions, collaboration between researcher and subject is ruled out. The experimental subject is just a black box which converts input stimuli to output responses by some means.

If experimental subjects understand the idea of scientific research and what it means to be a research subject, they usually participate willingly as required by the researcher. When set a task, subjects will genuinely try to complete it. There are limits to this relationship to which we will return later on, but in the simplest case, all that is at issue is whether the researcher stands back and observes the efforts of the subject in isolation, or on the contrary, intervenes in some way so as to help the subject complete the task, these efforts then becoming part of the subject matter of the experiment.

So if the question is: how do people remember things? and how do people improve their memory? how do people attend to something? or how do people overcome fears? then the researcher can present the subject a task, and then assist them, and in that way learn about the relevant psychological function, be it memory or attention, or whatever. Talking to a person is an example, but speech is an exceedingly developed form of artifact, with multiple psychological ramifications, and there are many circumstances where such uncontrolled intervention would undermine research objectives. The simplest possible way of assisting someone in some task is to offer to them some useful artifact: a simple object, perhaps something of a certain shape or color or some kind of symbol or tool.

Thus arose the famous double-stimulation experiment (Sakharov 1994, Towsey & MacDonald 2009). It is called a ‘double stimulation’ experiment because the first stimulus is a task the researcher presents to the experimental subject, and to assist them in solving the task, the researcher offers a second, relevant stimulus, e.g., a card the subject has previously used as a cue. This scenario in which a person uses an artifact offered by another person in order to complete a psychological task is the simplest imaginable set up in which the use of culture in the formation of the mind can be represented.

In Vygotsky’s words:

“[In] the functional method of double stimulation ... we study the development and activity of the higher mental functions with the aid of two sets of stimuli. These two sets of stimuli fulfill different roles vis-ā-vis the subject’s behavior. One set of stimuli fulfills the function of the object on which the subject’s activity is directed. The second function as signs that facilitate the organization of this activity” (Vygotsky 1987: 127)

The double-stimulation experiment opens up a wide range of possible research strategies and problems to be investigated. As a broad generalization, the higher psychological functions, that is to say, the modes of psychological functioning which are peculiar to human society, all rest on combinations of the lower psychological functions, which are shared with our primate cousins. Learning to use cultural products in collaboration with others develops the range of psychological functions normal for adult human beings. There is a general form to this process: it begins with the use of an external object, such as a spoken word or a written numeral or ‘training wheels’, and gradually the external element of the process fades away, and the person is able to complete the relevant task ‘under their breath’ so to speak, apparently substituting something which exists only internally, subjectively, but nonetheless facilitates a mode of psychological functioning for which they formerly needed some kind of prop. While the subject’s behavior goes through this process of transformation, a researcher is able to observe the various stages of its ‘internalization’ and the conditions which facilitate or obstruct the learning process.

As an aside, it should be noted that the author of the canonical description of this experimental procedure, Leonid Sakharov, was a graduate student of the Vygotsky group, whose subsequent career has unfortunately been lost to us. But it is a measure of the collaborative nature of the work of the Vygotsky School, that an otherwise unknown student authored this seminal document.

Without elevating it into an epistemological absolute, the simple truth that in order to understand something one must be able to bring it into being out of its conditions (Engels 1990) has obvious merit. Vygotsky observed that the typical ‘objective’ experimental procedure ‘deals with the result of a previously competed process ... with a finished product, but does not catch the dynamics of this process, its development’ (Sakharov 1994), but when instead experimental work is designed to recreate the conditions under which psychological functions can develop, and to practically trace, step by step, the formation of the function and its successive transformations from the use of an external prop to an internally regulated function, then it is meaningful to say that one understands the function itself (Vygotsky 1994).

It should be observed that the double stimulation experiment requires collaboration between the experimental subject and the researcher at two levels. Not only will the researcher collaborate with the subject to assist them in completing a task which they cannot complete unaided (e.g. by offering a mnemonic cue), but the experimental subject must understand and collaborate in the researcher’s project. The People Living With AIDS experience in the 1980s brought out the fallacy of double-blind testing and placebos, competition for patents, and so on, and the fatal impact of disregard for the views and interests of the experimental subject (Epstein 1996). It is not just a question of ethical standards; only if the experimental subjects understand and solidarize with the research project can the research succeed.

Behaviorists also claim to study behavior by bringing it into being, that is, by controlling behavior (Chow 2002), but there is a profound difference between controlling another’s behavior and fostering the subject’s ability to control their own behavior. The two research strategies in fact result in two different kinds of knowledge, relevant to different social relationships in the world outside the laboratory.

By helping the experimental subject complete a task, the researcher gains immediate insight into the psychological processes at work and it is not necessary to repeat the experiment a thousand times and generate statistics. Statistics do not deliver understanding.

And there was a third way in which the work of the Vygotsky School was collaborative. Participation in science is always collaboration, inasmuch as every scientist participates in the common project of creating and documenting a shared corpus of scientific knowledge. However, this essentially collaborative relationship which embraces everyone who has contributed to scientific knowledge over the centuries, is often undermined by the ethos of professional competitiveness. Where science is dedicated to competition for funding, accumulation of intellectual property, rivalry over promotion, accolades and academic status, then cooperation is merely an unintended side-effect. On the other hand, where participants in the scientific project, review each others’ work and use the results and methods acquired from others towards a common objective of understanding, then science is genuinely a collaborative project. And this was the kind of work to which the Vygotsky School was dedicated. The large-scale theoretical collaboration took the form of immanent critique of all the existing currents of psychology at the time and appropriation of the insights provided by each. The irony is that world politics dictated that they would be banned and suppressed in their own country and isolated from the rest of the world by the ‘Iron Curtain’.

So collaboration was integral to the Vygotsky School’s method of work at three levels: amongst the research team, between researcher and experimental subject, and in relation to other researchers in the field. As we shall see, collaboration was not only central to their way of working, but also to the content of the theory of psychology that they developed.

Before moving on to review some of the psychological ideas and theories which are relevant to our project, there are a number of methodological concepts which the Vygotsky School established during the late 1920s which are central to this study.


Luria (1979) was an advocate of what he called, in an explicit reference to Goethe, ‘romantic science’. Luria saw romantic science, in contrast to classical science as follows:

“Classical scholars are those who look upon events in terms of their constituent parts. Step by step they single out important units and elements until they can formulate abstract, general laws. These laws are then seen as the governing agents of the phenomena in the field under study. One outcome of this approach is the reduction of living reality with all its richness of detail to abstract schemas. The properties of the living whole are lost, which provoked Goethe to pen, “Gray is every theory, but ever green is the tree of life.”

“Romantic scholars’ traits, attitudes, and strategies are just the opposite. They do not follow the path of reductionism, which is the leading philosophy of the classical group. Romantics in science want neither to split living reality into its elementary components nor to represent the wealth of life’s concrete events in abstract models that lose the properties of the phenomena themselves. It is of the utmost importance to romantics to preserve the wealth of living reality, and they aspire to a science that retains this richness.” (Luria 1979)

Along with his commitment to romantic science, Luria developed an interest in idiographic as opposed to nomothetic science, an interest which he claimed was shared by Vygotsky. Nomothetic science seeks to make generalizations from a large number of individual cases, formulating laws and explanatory principles on the basis of an exhaustive mass of data, but presumes that the explanatory principle is categorically different from the data itself. Following Kant, the principle or law itself is deemed not to be given in perception, but nonetheless governs the phenomenon to a greater or lesser degree of significance alongside other forces and principles. This is the approach which is most typical in classical science and often involves statistical validation.

Idiographic science on the other hand, entails the sustained and exhaustive study of just one case, or class of cases, which function as an archetype. During his career, Luria followed over decades, the development of certain individuals who possessed exceptional psychological characteristics, such as a photographic memory, and developed his understanding by a thorough familiarity with their development and all the associated characteristics of the personality of this individual. This approach is most common in ‘clinical’ medicine, as opposed to medical research as such. Rather than compiling a statistical survey of 10,000 people having variable mnemonic ability, ideographic science makes a really in-depth study of the whole personality of just one eidetic.

This is an interpretation of Goethe’s concept of Urphänomen, different from that of Hegel or Marx, but it does help to give us a feel for the shape of a ‘romantic science’, which is similar to the idea of an emancipatory science which is suggested here. The word ‘idiographic’ was coined by the Kantian philosopher Wilhelm Windelband, and introduced to psychology in the English speaking world by Gordon Allport (1897-1967) (Frank 1986). Vygotsky and Luria worked very closely together, so it is safe to assume that Vygotsky was familiar with the origins of this approach to science in Goethe and other German writers such as Verworn, Freud and Windelband.

The kind of knowledge developed by self-help groups, in which people suffering from a particular medical condition accumulate in-depth knowledge of just that one condition, in contrast to the medical practitioner or even scientist, who specializes, but nonetheless are required to have expertise across a range of conditions and can never develop the kind of knowledge acquired by self-help groups (Borkman 1999). People with AIDS had similar experiences (Epstein 1996).

It is worth recalling that Luria’s first love in psychology was psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis’s claim to science is questionable, but the young Luria’s very first idea was to design experiments to test it. Psychoanalysis has some claims to being an emancipatory approach to psychology. Firstly, it is a talking-cure; secondly, it is based on the idea that cure is to be the work of the patient themselves, and the psychiatrist’s job is to help the patient gain insight; thirdly, its ideas - the subconscious, interpretation of dreams, defense, repression, sublation, etc - entered the public consciousness and gave the mass of the population tools for gaining insight into their own psychological problems. These are elements that an emancipatory science, true to Goethe’s original idea, ought to emulate (See Zaretsky 2004).

Vygotsky on Units and Microcosms.

The idea of an exhaustive study of just one case which characterized Luria’s idiographic science also underlies another approach which stimulated Vygotsky’s methodological reflections. Vygotsky praised Pavlov for his study of just one reflex:

“Pavlov is studying the activity of the salivary gland in dogs. What gives him the right to call his experiments the study of the higher nervous activity of animals? Perhaps, he should have verified his experiments on horses, crows, etc., on all, or at least the majority of animals, in order to have the right to draw these conclusions? Or, perhaps, he should have called his experiments “a study of salivation in dogs"? But it is precisely the salivation of dogs per se which Pavlov did not study and his experiments have not for one bit increased our knowledge of dogs as such and of salivation as such. In the dogs he did not study the dog, but an animal in general, and in salivation a reflex in general, ... his conclusions do not just concern all animals, but the whole of biology as well. The established fact that Pavlov’s dogs salivated to signals given by Pavlov immediately became a general biological principle ... Pavlov maximally abstracted the phenomenon he studied from the specific conditions of the particular phenomenon. He brilliantly perceived the general in the particular.” (Vygotsky 1997)

The approach which Vygotsky admired here is not quite the same as the idiographic approach which studies one individual in all its concreteness. Here the object is a particular process or relation abstracted from everything connected to it. Pavlov saw that the susceptibility of a particular reflex to training offered to science a general principle of biology, now famously known as the conditional reflex. The training of the salivary gland in a dog an Urphänomen, since it remains a particular alongside innumerable other particulars. Nonetheless, it functions in biology as a universal archetype as it readily suggests a model relationship for all living organisms, which is represented in the concept of ‘conditional reflex’.

On the other hand, Vygotsky was sharply critical of Pavlov, in the words of his inaugural speech:

“... outside the domain of the elementary and primitive, reflexology was left only with its general bare claim - equally well applicable to all forms of behaviour - that they constitute systems of conditional reflexes. But neither the specific details of each system, nor the laws of the combination of conditional reflexes into behavioral systems, nor the very complex interactions and the reflections of some systems on others, were clarified by this general, far too general statement and it did not even prepare the way for the scientific solution of these questions. ... [He] reduces everything to a common denominator. And precisely because this principle is too all-embracing and universal it does not yield a direct scientific means for the study of its particular and individual forms.” (Vygotsky 1997)

The Reflexologists mistook their concept of the substance of organic life (the reflex) for an explanatory principle of universal scope. By ‘substance’ is meant the conception of the underlying reality of the science. The simple declaration that ‘everything is a conditional reflex’ provides a base upon which an explanatory principle can be built, but precisely because everything, all organic life, is a conditional reflex, it cannot constitute an explanatory principle for one kind of organic life, human consciousness. A simple unmediated identity of the universal and particular cannot form an adequate concept of the science; as an abstraction, it fails in ‘the romantic aim of preserving the manifold richness of the subject’ (Luria 1979).

Taking inspiration from this idea of Pavlov’s, Vygotsky developed the idea of microcosm. Vygotsky referred back to his study of Hamlet in his University days for the Psychology of Art, in which he tried to ‘deduce the laws of the psychology of art on the basis of the analysis of .. one tragedy’, quoting Marx’s aphorism that ‘the anatomy of man provides the key to the anatomy of the ape’ (Vygotsky 1997b). The idea here is that a science must address itself not to the most primitive but the most developed, since in the most developed particular or individual, phenomena can be studied in their purest and independent formations:

“When our Marxists explain the Hegelian principle in Marxist methodology they rightly claim that each thing can be examined as a microcosm, as a universal measure in which the whole big world is reflected. On this basis they say that to study one single thing, one subject, one phenomenon until the end, exhaustively, means to know the world in all its connections. In this sense it can be said that 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 1997)

This could be taken as an argument for the idiographic approach, but he goes on in what is the final paragraph of his most famous work:

“The consciousness of sensation and thinking are characterised by different modes of reflecting reality. They are different types of consciousness. Therefore, thinking and speech are the key to understanding the nature of human consciousness. If language is as ancient as consciousness itself, if language is consciousness that exists in practice for other people and therefore for myself, then it is not only the development of thought but the development of consciousness as a whole that is connected with the development of the word. Studies consistently demonstrate that the word plays a central role in the isolated functions but the whole of consciousness. In consciousness, the word is what - in Feuerbach’s (1972) words - is absolutely impossible for one person but possible for two. The word is the most direct manifestation of the historical nature of human consciousness.

“Consciousness is reflected in the word like the sun is reflected in a droplet of water. The word is a microcosm of consciousness, related to consciousness like a living cell is related to an organism, like an atom is related to the cosmos. The meaningful word is a microcosm of human consciousness.” (Vygotsky 1987: 285)

This quote comes from “Thinking and Speech,” the most well-known and influential of Vygotsky’s works, published in Russian for a short time just after his death, and then in several translations outside the Soviet Union beginning in the 1960s. He asks, in the context of a discussion of the subject matter of the title:

“What then is a unit that possesses the characteristics inherent to the integral phenomenon of verbal thinking and that cannot be further decomposed? In our view, such a unit can be found in the inner aspect of the word, its meaning. ...

“Is word meaning speech or is it thought? It is both at one and the same time; it is a unit of verbal thinking. It is obvious then, that our method must be that of semantic analysis. Our method must rely of the analysis of the meaningful aspect of speech; it must be a method of studying word meaning” (Vygotsky 1987: 47)

We will come to what precisely Vygotsky meant by ‘unit’ and a more detailed explanation of his idea of ‘unit of analysis’ presently, but to be clear about what Vygotsky is claiming here, we need to clarify the distinction between ‘microcosm’ and ‘unit of analysis’.

He says that word meaning is ‘a microcosm of human consciousness’ and also that word meaning is a ‘unit [of analysis] of verbal thinking’. If we make the mistake of putting an equals sign: microcosm = unit of analysis, then we also put an equals sign: consciousness = verbal thought. The conclusion is wrong. Verbal thinking is the highest development of consciousness, arising in human beings only at a certain point in ontogenetic and phylogenetic development, but consciousness is more ubiquitous and multifaceted; verbal thinking is tied up with the act of verbal thought; ‘its reflection of reality differs radically from that of immediate sensation or perception’ (Vygotsky 1987: 47). Verbal thought also differs from affect, from physical activity such as sport or dance, artistic creativity and so on, in how it reflects reality. The point is that because verbal thinking is arguably the highest conquest of the development of consciousness, the sine qua non of human society, and its study sheds light on the entire problem of human consciousness: ‘the sun is reflected in a droplet of water’. But contrary to the belief of the enthusiastic linguist, we do not live in a world of texts; human beings are suffering, feeling, laboring material organisms, and an understanding of human consciousness presupposes a study of all modes of human activity, not just verbal thought. But if - like Pavlov with his salivary reflex - we study this one phenomenon to the end, then we will unlock the entire domain of human consciousness for analysis. (The same idea goes to some extent also for Luria’s eidetic, in relation to memory, but these are not quite the same idea.)

So although Vygotsky’s research covered every imaginable domain of psychological research, he came to the conclusion that verbal thinking was “the key to understanding the nature of human consciousness.” But word meaning is not a ‘unit of analysis’ for human consciousness in general, but a unit of analysis for verbal thinking.

What did Vygotsky understand by ‘word meaning'?

“... word meaning is an act of speech. In psychological terms, however, word meaning is nothing other than a generalization, that is, a concept. In essence, generalization and word meaning are synonyms. Any generalization - any formation of a concept - is unquestionably a specific and true act of thought. Thus word meaning is also a phenomenon of thinking” (Vygotsky 1987: 244).

So even though we have good reason to believe that Vygotsky never studied Hegel, in coming to the conclusion that the unit of analysis for verbal thinking is the concept, he is in complete agreement with Hegel. We will later explore how far from verbal thinking this observation can be taken, but let us move on to the very important concept of unit of analysis.

Vygotsky approaches the problem of the concept of a science through the contrast between analysis by elements and analysis by units. For Vygotsky, word meaning, or concept, is an integral whole - a molecule in the sense of being a unity of elements just like water is a unity of hydrogen and oxygen, H20. Hydrogen and oxygen taken on their own demonstrate none of the properties of water, which can on the other hand, be observed in the water molecule, which is the smallest unit of water to exhibit the properties of the whole. Word meaning has two elements: the semantic and the phonetic. His claim is that verbal thinking, the highest development of human consciousness cannot be understood through the study of phonetics and semantics, the ‘elements’ of verbal thinking:

“In our view, an entirely different form of analysis is fundamental to further development of theories of thinking and speech. This form of analysis relies on the partitioning of the complex whole into units. In contrast to the term ‘element’, the term ‘unit’ designates a product of analysis that possesses all the basic characteristics of the whole. The unit is a vital and irreducible part of the whole. The key to the explanation of the characteristics of water lies not in the investigation of its chemical formula but in the investigation of its molecular movements. In precisely the same sense, the living cell is the real unit of biological analysis because it preserves the basic characteristics of life that are inherent in the living organism.” (Vygotsky 1986)

In order to explore this unit of verbal thinking, Vygotsky traced the origins of speaking and thinking:

“1. As we found in our analysis of the phylogenetic development of thinking and speech, we find that these two processes have different roots in ontogenesis.

“2. Just as we can identify a ‘pre-speech’ stage in the development of the child’s thinking, we can identify a ‘pre-intellectual stage’ in the development of his speech.

“3. Up to a certain point, speech and thinking develop along different lines and independently of one another.

“4. At a certain point, the two lines cross: thinking becomes verbal and speech intellectual.” (Vygotsky 1986)

Thus the designation of the semantic and the phonetic/lexical as elements of verbal speech was established by a painstaking experimental investigation of the development of speech and the development of thinking as children acquired the socially constructed practice of verbal thinking, through a series of distinct stages in which the relationship between speech and thinking goes through transformations. The discovery of the different roots of thinking and speech and the distinct trajectories of the development of each, and thus the creation of verbal thinking as a unique conjunction of two distinct psychological functions, was uniquely Vygotsky’s, a discovery which made possible a scientific founding of the science of verbal thinking.

The claim that verbal thought is a unique mode of behavior alongside other types of speech and other forms of intelligence, was established experimentally. Thus, unlike the reflexologists’ claim that ‘everything is a reflex’, it cannot be said that word meaning as a unit of verbal speech ‘reduces everything to a common denominator ... because [it] is too all-embracing and universal’ (Vygotsky 1997).

One final methodological point: all of Vygotsky’s observations, both theoretical and experimental, are focused on interactions between individual persons. The sociological aspect these interactions is implicit in the artifacts used (words of the national language for example) and the way they are used, by people already educated in their use. The only way in which generalized sociological conceptions play a role in his theory is in and through the cultural products (such as words and concepts) figuring in the practices of and interactions between individual people, and how these products are used. This gives Vygotsky’s work a particularly concrete character resting on real premises “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” (Marx 1975).

Vygotsky on Gestalt and Bildung.

The victory of Hitler in Germany and the crushing of the powerful German Communist Party heralded a turn away from the insane optimism of earlier Soviet foreign policy, but inside the Soviet Union it meant a ramping up of political repression. Everyone was in danger, and fear of denunciation by one’s enemies prompted pre-emptive denunciation of potential enemies. The various trends of Marxist psychology soon came under political ‘criticism’ under conditions in which only the most deadening conformism could hope to survive. The writing was on the wall.

Vygotsky’s creative life-time in psychology was very short. After bursting on to the scene in 1924, it was only in 1928 that he could be said to have shaped his own approach, tuberculosis was undermining his ability to work, and by the early ‘30s, the dark clouds of Stalinist repression threatened to make scientific work impossible. During the last years of his life Vygotsky worked frenetically, knowing that his time was running out, he prepared books, often in disconnected and unfinished chapters which would not see the light of day for 50 years, whilst students took notes of his lectures. The Moscow Trials condemned to death as saboteurs, all the leaders of the October Revolution and the Red Army. Although he died before they began, Vygotsky’s private papers show that he was preparing for an uncompromising defence of his work. In reading his papers from this period, we are presented with a comprehensive vision of psychology, but only in a series of glimpses, which the author had time only to illustrate, summarize and suggest principles and directions for further work.

How is human freedom is possible? How is that human beings can subject their behavior to their own control, while at the same time they remain natural beings, subject entirely to the laws of biology, physics and everything else?

The early physiologists of the nervous system established that the basic unit of the nervous system, is the stimulus-response reaction (S → R), a network of which forms the natural substrate of the psyche. These may be unconditional or conditional, but in either case they are the natural scientific foundation for psychology, in turn rooted in the basic laws of physics, chemistry and biology. Nothing in the human nervous system can contradict these laws. The artificial or constructed aspect of the human nervous system arises from the insertion of ‘artificial’ mediating links between stimulus and response, illustrated schematically with the diagram of a triangle with vertices S, X and R.

Both S → X and X → R are stimulus-response reactions just like S → R, but have been introduced into the natural system artificially. X is a means of achieving the object R, which entails to use of an element of culture, an artifact of some kind.

Just as every single component of a machine obeys the laws of physics, the machine nevertheless acts according to some human purpose for which it was designed. In just this same way, the human body is obedient to the laws of nature while at the same time serving human purposes. The human body is a natural organism, and at the same time an element of culture, and just as human beings are able to control material objects and subject them to their will, so also, we learn to master our own behavior and our own nervous system, by the inclusion of cultural products in our behavior.

In general X can be visualized as an artifact of some kind, with S → X meaning the use of the artifact, and X → R meaning the indirect achievement of the object. The subject (S) confronts two objects; one, the object (R) to which the act of behavior is directed, and the other (X) a means of achieving R. Both are material objects, but our relation to them is different. This mediating element can be visualized as a tool or symbol.

While ‘tool’ and ‘symbol’ have different meanings, there is no sharp line separating them. Consider the following series of means of opening a door: crow-bar, key, swipe card, PIN code, password, disguise to fool the doorkeeper. Isn’t it clear that all are artifacts used as a means of gaining access, and psychologically speaking play exactly the same role? At one end of the series the relation between the material properties of X and R is most pronounced, at the other, the ideal properties of X are more prominent. So tool and symbol form a continuum. Whether tool or symbol, the artifact always entails a relation, direct or indirect, to other people, in the example, a relation between the person responsible for controlling access and the person seeking to gain access.

Vygotsky introduced the idea of a ‘psychological tool’, a tool used for the purpose of directly realizing some psychological operation - a map or diagram, a calculation or word, a smile or gesture. The inclusion of the tool (X) in the behavioral process modifies the mental processes which were formerly mobilized around S → R and reconstructs the entire process, now mobilized around S → X. For natural science, the unit of analysis remains S → R, but the ‘instrumental act’ illustrated by S → X → R, ‘is the simplest piece of behavior with which [behavioral] research is dealing: an elementary unit of behavior’ (Vygotsky 1997).

So here we have the ‘unit of analysis’ for behavior, in general - an ‘instrumental act’. Clearly enough word meaning, or concept, is the most important and typical of all ‘psychological tools’ but a gun or a telescope is also just as much a psychological tool, through the use of which the psychological structure of a human being is transformed, though not only the subject’s psychology. The use of any artifact has the effect of restructuring the nervous system, turning the natural brain tissue into a product of cultural development, bearing the stamp of human activity, while obedient every moment to the laws of nature.

Thus the human psyche is shaped from the outside; individual human beings learn to control their own behavior only by using the tools introduced to them by those around them. The behavioral act is normally directed at some external state of affairs, but in using the artifact a person changes themself in a way consonant with the culture they draw upon. So human beings acquire freedom by appropriating it from other people, who, as Fichte put ‘summon us to exercise our freedom’ (2000) and give us the means of doing so.

We are born with a range of psychological functions which are rooted in biology and function according to the law of the conditional reflex, S → R: visual perception, vocal ability, practical intelligence, and so on. These psychological functions are rooted in distinct biological systems that we share with the animals. A human infant, when confronted, for example, with a task calling for the exercise of practical intelligence will approach the problem just like a chimpanzee, captive to the visual field, with eyes only for the object, until they begin to talk. Once speech enters the scene, children use speech to control their own behavior just as they would use it to control the behavior of others. Luria describes the following auto-dialogue recorded by Levina of a child who was endeavoring to reach a jar of candy:

“That candy is up so high. [Here the child climbs up on the divan and jumps up and down.] I have to call Mommy so she will get it for me [jumps some more]. There’s no way to get it, it’s so high. [Here the child picks up the stick, looking at the candy.] Papa also has a big cupboard and sometimes he can’t reach things. No, I can’t get it with my hand, I'm too small still. Better to stand on a stool [climbs on a stool, waves the stick around, which bangs the cupboard]. Knock, knock. [Here the child laughs. Glancing at the candy, she takes the stick and knocks it off the cupboard.] There! The stick got it. I'll have to take this stick home with me.” (Luria 1979)

So we see that the child mobilized speech to structure her perception of the entire field and instead of asking Papa and Mommy to fetch the candy for her, turns this ability to solving the problem through her own behavior. Speech - the use of a word-tool - here mediates between the child’s existing practical intelligence and the object, and in the process her own practical intelligence is being restructured.

Vygotsky pointed out that speech develops in two directions at this point; in its communicative use speech is becoming more sophisticated, but as it enters as an element into an internal psychological function, it becomes at first more primitive, reduced to the level of the infantile practical intelligence. Thus a child’s egocentric speech like that above, gradually becomes more abbreviated and ultimately incomprehensible as it becomes a subordinate part of practical intelligence, a psychological function of the child which rested hitherto on very primitive faculties. In the process, the child’s practical intelligence is restructured and transformed, no longer relying just on the visual field.

This is a general pattern: psychological functions develop by subordinating and incorporating other psychological functions so that they operate in a mediated way. The S → X → R relation illustrated above then applies to whole systems of reflexes.

Here Vygotsky appropriates the conception of the psyche promoted by the Gestaltists. The psyche cannot be conceived of as a set of independent functions but is at every point in its development, a whole, a Gestalt; when the faculties of speech and visual-practical intelligence merge with one another, visual perception is changed as is the intellect. Similarly, at a certain age, the child ‘thinks’ by remembering; but at a later stage, she remembers by thinking. There is a faculty of memory, a natural faculty not dissimilar to that of any other mammal, but ‘natural memory’ is inferior in its capacity and operates by quite different laws as compared to the memory of a normal adult human being. The mnemotechnique doesn’t really ‘improve’ natural memory, which in fact remains just as it was, but incorporates it into a new function of intellectual/verbal memory. Thus even though we can talk of memory or intelligence as distinct human faculties that an individual may exercise with greater or lesser skill, both faculties are remote from the common endowment with which we were born, and can only be understood as different aspects of a single Gestalt.

But how does this happen? How does the infant become a self-determining adult member of this or that culture? It is not true to say that the child is born free but is everywhere in chains. On the contrary, the child is born utterly dependent on those around her, and growing up is s struggle to free herself from this dependence. Initially she is physically, biologically, psychologically, materially, socially and culturally dependent on her immediate system of support, and in that sense an undifferentiated and subordinate part of that system. Each mode of dependence has to be overcome in turn.

The Social Situation of Development

At the time of his death, Vygotsky was working on a new book on child development (Vygotsky 1998), in which he sketched the dynamics of this development through a series of stages from birth to adulthood. We are all born much the same, and as independent adults we differ from each other along the axes of culture and character, but in between, but the whole structure of the path from newborn to adult differs markedly according to cultural and historical conditions and the person’s social position. Understanding how it is that a child grows up to fit a certain social position in a certain society and not some other, surely contributes a great deal to understanding why the world we live in is like it is. Only the general idea can be indicated here.

The key concept that Vygotsky presented in this work is the social situation of development. In the context of cultural psychology it would be a truism to state that the social situation determines the course of child’s development, but what does this mean? what attributes of the social situation are important? and is the process of development determined solely by the social situation or does the child herself determine the course of development in some way? Vygotsky resolves this problem brilliantly and in the spirit of Goethe, Hegel and Marx as follows.

At any given moment, the social situation in which the child finds herself constitutes a predicament, a predicament from which the child can only emancipate herself by making a development, that is to say, by a qualitative transformation of her own psychological structure and the structure of her relationship with those who are providing for her needs, a transformation which frees her from the constraints in which she was trapped. The new type of psychological functioning which the child attains is not implicit in the (former) social situation of development; on the contrary, development towards the new formation is actually an escape from and termination of the social situation of development. This self-emancipation is only possible if the child manifests a need which transcends the limits of her situation; absent this need, and there can be no development.

This is the basic concept of the social situation of development: a predicament from which the child emancipates herself by developing. Note that this concept is radically different from the conception of social advantage/disadvantage used in positivist social science, made up of a list of factors to be added up for and against development. Rather than a list of attributes, Vygotsky gives us the concept of the social situation.

At any given point in the child’s development, the child’s needs are met in and through a system of social relations and activity which constitutes a Gestalt: a concept of the child which is embedded in both the expectations of the adults around the child and the level of development of the child’s physical and psychological functions, together with some gap between the two and the actions in which this relation is objectified.

For the members of any society, reproduction of its culture and institutions from generation to generation is an imperative and historical experience ensures that the norms to which a child is subject are to some degree rational with respect to the developmental capacities of a child of the given age. All societies to some degree build age-level expectations into their institutional practices, and the children of a society are motivated to conform to these yardsticks. So the developmental process is conditioned by these cultural-historically inherited expectations which the adults bring to the social situation of development: the concept of a child of such-and-such stage of maturity.

The fact of development of infants into adult citizens can be made intelligible only by the fact that beginning with birth itself, individuals strive to emancipate themselves from barriers to their self-determination, barriers to their full participation within the horizons of their own expectations. Although this drive takes on uniquely human forms which are culturally constructed, it is reasonable to presume the existence of such a drive even in a newborn child. That is to say, at any stage in development, the child will normally strive to emancipate itself from whatever frustrates or threatens control over their own conditions of existence insofar as they are capable of perceiving them.

Broadly speaking, Vygotsky’s approach to development is that any given social situation of development, meeting the child’s needs in a manner consonant with the level of development of the various physical and psychological functions of the child, is also a constraint on the child’s self-determination and may be described as a kind of trap. Once a key psychological function has developed within this social situation of development beyond a certain limit, the child finds that she has outgrown the situation and the role she is obliged to play in that situation. This faces the child with a kind of predicament: she does not yet have the capacity to adopt a different role, nor can she really conceive of such a role, but she finds her present position a continual insult and offence (Bozhovich 2004). The result is a period of crisis where by an exercise of will, at whatever stage of its development, the child refuses the role in the only way open to her and thereby creates conditions for a new social situation of development in which her needs can be met in a way freed of the former constraint and free of the threats suffered during the transitional period of crisis, thus opening up a new period of stable development. The period of crisis is often traumatic for both the child and her carers; the child has no aim in mind, just a blind refusal, or rebellion against the confinement of her activity within oppressive bounds; her carers have to construct a new concept of the child and accommodate themselves and the child to a new set of relationships. If the adult carers fail to make an appropriate adjustment, then there may be a developmental pathology.

The child starts life with very little of what she needs to become a fully participating citizen of the society into which she has been born. Each of the Gestalten through which the child and her social situation pass constitutes a viable form of life, and at each step along the way different psychological functions develop in response to the social situation of development, building on what has been constructed in previous phases of development and each with different psychological functions playing a central role.

The child’s mental and physical life entails numerous psychological functions which are successively differentiated from one another and gain increasing independence from each other in the course of development. For example, although speech and intellectual rest on distinct biological bases, they cannot be mobilized independently by the child. To the extent that the child develops cultured forms of speech and intellect, she is able to mobilize them as independent faculties. The psychological functions become independent only insofar as they remain aspects of a unitary psychological structure in which the biological bases are subordinated to the whole Gestalt.

The social situation of development is generally unitary; the child is treated by adults as a single, unitary individual and the social arrangements through which the child’s needs are met are normally though not necessarily integral. (As the child’s horizons broaden, such as when the child attends school, there is a possibility for the social situation of development to be internally differentiated and contradictory.) The child’s development takes place along a number of different lines of development at any given age, all within a single system of relations through which the child’s needs are met, and in which at each stage, one line of development is central, central to the completion of that stage of development and the initiation of the next.

In general, the social situation of development presupposes a certain mode of dependence of the child, namely, the way in which the child’s needs are met. During a period of stable development the central function develops to a point where the child senses that it is capable of transcending this mode of dependence; but the mode in which their needs are being met entails restrictions presaged on the immaturity of the given function. So it is the child, by an act of will, who responds to their frustration by refusing the existing relations of dependence, often displaying a characteristic kind of negativism. There may be no intention on the part of the child to change the social situation; it is just that the child now finds the situation insufferable.

The general schema of development from newborn to adult is that the child begins life physically, biologically, psychologically, materially, socially and culturally dependent on their immediate social system of support and mode of life, and in that sense they are an undifferentiated and subordinate part of the Gestalt. Equally, the child’s psychological structure begins as an undifferentiated whole, and in passing through a series of Gestalten, the psychological structure of the child undergoes a series of differentiations in which a given psychological function and role within the Gestalt, differentiates itself and gives rise to a new formation. This process continues up to adulthood, the child gaining independence along successive axes, and once the process of development is successfully completed, the person is fully socialized and qualifies as a free agent operating within the norms of the culture. Only as a fully independent citizen does she become a fully integrated member of the society. Internally, this process of socialization corresponds to the successive differentiation of psychological functions, articulated within the individual’s psychological structure: perception is freed from handling, thinking is freed from remembering and vice versa, intelligence is freed from speech, and so on.

The mode of social interaction and the corresponding mode of psychological functioning, created by the child’s exercise of will during a period of critical development which marks the transition from one period of stable development to another, reshapes the relationships of the social situation of development and normally the child demonstrates to her carers and herself her capacity to play a different role, around which a new social situation is constructed, new expectations and a new role for the child, and an entirely new kind of development ensues.

Thus we see that Vygotsky captures the developing individual as a Gestalt, in which the individual and their social situation is perceived as a concept. Vygotsky does not begin from an inside/outside dichotomy, but on the contrary, the self-conscious and independent individual confronting an external world of social structures, emerges as the outcome of a long drawn out process of differentiation of a mode social interaction and mode of psychological functioning constituting a Gestalt. This Gestalt hinges around the interchange of needs and the means of their satisfaction through an unfolding system of social practices and the developing psyche which is at the heart of the process. The individual is constituted by the expectations of those around them in unity and conflict with the emerging will of the growing personality. The raising of the child is a joint project in which the child is both project and participant, both concept and subject.

The adult person has to be considered in the same way, together with their social situation, as a Gestalt constituted by the contradiction between the expectations attached to their social position(s) and the ways in which their needs are met. We are both products and producers of society and culture of which we are a part.


Vygotsky said of the Gestaltists, that “having smashed atomism, [they] replaced the atom by the independent and isolated molecule” (1997e) and was able to show how the person can be conceived together with their social situation as a Gestalt in which the inside/outside dichotomy is genuinely transcended. Psyche and forms of practical activity emerge through a process of internal differentiation of an integral whole: the child in their social situation. Taken together with his concept of the ‘instrumental act’, Vygotsky has given us a definite, empirical form of Hegel’s idea of a Gestalt as a system of concepts. Through this concept we see that the sovereign individual is not the presupposition, but the outcome of a collaborative project. Vygotsky’s conception of this process of becoming a person reproduces the ‘manifold richness of the subject’ rather than the reducing the person and their situation to just so many contingent attributes.

This ends the first part of this book, presenting in the form of an historical narrative the foundations for an emancipatory human science. Vygotsky was a product of the Russian Revolution, and both directly, and mediated through others around him, he was able to appropriate the ideas of Goethe, Hegel and Marx in an immanent critique of the entirety of psychological science of his time, and created a series of concepts which indeed form the foundation for a psychology which is genuinely humanist and emancipatory. The individual human being was always the focus of Vygotsky’s attention; he was no kind of sociologist or political science. But it is the claim of this book that he laid the foundation for a much broader science.

Next we must turn to the efforts of those who survived Vygotsky to develop the concept of activity, which we claim, is the key which opens the possibility for an interdisciplinary and emancipatory human science. The concept of activity was the special focus of the work of Vygotsky’s youngest colleague, Alexei Nicolaevich Leontyev, but the concept of activity was developed by others after Leontyev’s death and our critical review of Activity Theory will bring us up to the present day.

Activity as the Substance of a Science

Each science defines the specific character of its subject matter or the approach it takes to the subject matter with a basic principle or concept. But not all such concepts are of the same kind. In the opening paragraph of Vygotsky’s 1924 speech on Reflexology with which we began, Vygotsky pointed out that:

“outside the domain of the elementary and primitive, reflexology was left only with its general bare claim - equally well applicable to all forms of behavior - that they constitute systems of conditional reflexes. ... Classical reflexology sticks to its elaboration of the universal scientific principle ... and reduces everything to a common denominator. And precisely because this principle is too all-embracing and universal it does not yield a direct scientific means for the study of its particular and individual forms.” (Vygotsky 1997).

Both Pavlov and Bekhterev claimed reflexology as a ‘universal science’, but Vygotsky contrasted Bekhterev with Pavlov, who had made a genuine scientific discoveries. As was observed above, Vygotsky admired Pavlov precisely because the way Pavlov had investigated the concept of reflex and did so by means of an exhaustive study of just one reflex. The contrasting method demonstrated by Bekhterev of which Vygotsky was so dismissive was the propensity to ‘explain’ complex phenomena with a readiness to simply declare them to be this or that kind of reflex: the speech reflex, the joy reflex and so on, without any concrete investigation of the pathway by means of which the specific experience came about. The reflexologist adopted an empty reductionism, whereas Pavlov practised a method of concrete investigation. But the two kinds of science shared a common basic principle: “Everything is a reflex.”

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains ‘substance’ as follows:

“the substances in a given philosophical system are those things which, according to that system, are the foundational or fundamental entities of reality.” (Robinson, 2004)

The conception that the researcher has of the ultimate reality which underlies the domain of phenomena which the researcher seeks to understand is called a ‘substance’ of the researcher’s philosophy; there may be more than one substance. For Bekhterev, the substance of behavioral science is reflexes. Reflexes were the focus of Pavlov’s study, but Pavlov’s research into reflexes constantly led him into the study of other phenomena of the organism. This question is not generally understood amongst Activity Theorists, but if the important questions of unit or analysis and microcosm are to be properly understood, then we must be clear about the difference between these concepts and the different notion of ‘substance’.

When Marx says his premises are: “the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live” (Marx 1975), this is the same concept, and I will use the terms ‘premises’ and ‘substance’ interchangeably.

The same notion of substance will underlie any number of distinct enquiries and sciences, within the broad scope of a world view. Let us look at the premises or substances used in a variety of approaches.

The kind of naīve realism which underlies most natural scientific research presumes the existence of matter existing independently of human activity, obedient to natural laws which are to be the subject of investigation. It is not a question of whether this ‘belief’ is true or well-founded - actually it certainly is well-founded - but simply that the whole idea of natural science is to describe the world of Nature, outside and beyond all labor processes. The substance of naīve common sense and natural science, gave us the meaning of the word ‘substance’ which has flowed over into the natural language, that is as kinds of matter. But it is self-evident that such a conception of the substance of science cannot suffice for the social and psychological sciences since the entities with which the social sciences are concerned are not obedient to natural law, but subject to the human will. As is well-known, the solution of the problem of what are to be the substances of the human sciences, both psychological and social, has troubled philosophers for 400 years. For Descartes, thought and matter were two different substances. Spinoza wanted a single substance with different attributes. Spinoza’s system did not however generate a scientific solution to the problem, despite inspiring many generations of humanist research.

For Kantian skepticism, science deals with a subjective domain of appearances, manifesting things-in-themselves which are beyond perception and cannot be the subject matter of science. So only objects of possible experience are the substance, while ‘matter’ and ‘things-in-themselves’ are deemed not to be legitimate objects for science. For Kant, the other substances are those categories such as causality, space &c., which are acquired directly with the faculty of Reason.

For Hegel, the premises were Spirit (Geist) alone, which he described as “the nature of human beings en masse,” (Hegel [1822] §264) but which he conceived of as pure thought unfolding out of itself alone; for Hegel even Nature was a manifestation of Spirit.

So far as this writer knows, no writer in the CHAT tradition has broached the issue of substances, beyond the conviction that Spinoza was right as against Descartes, so it is quite impossible to say what the substances of CHAT are. Vygotsky was quite clear that the concept of ‘consciousness’ had a central place in psychology, but rather than being a distinct substance, he saw consciousness as an attribute of an organism for which indirect methods of investigation had to be developed. Vygotsky’s response to the Reflexologists at long last gave a genuinely scientific meaning to Spinoza’s brilliant intuition.

This work does not aim at a critique of psychology however, but is concerned with the use of Activity Theory that impinges on the ‘hermeneutic circle’ where the psychological insights of CHAT interact with the sociological sciences. For this it is sufficient to take as our substance individual people, together with all the internal process of an individual person.

If we are to critically appropriate concepts from other sciences, rather than uncritically importing them into CHAT we need to be clear on the underlying reality implied in the use of concepts from other disciplines. The same would apply whether or not our aim was limited to appropriating concepts from these other disciplines. But even more importantly, no critical science is possible without determination of a unit of analysis, and generally speaking Activity Theorists mix up the notions of substance and unit of analysis, resulting in various kinds of confusion.

In this case however, we can take our lead from Marx. Marx was clear about the ‘real premises’ of his work: they were “the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live” (1845b p. 31). ‘Activity’ is to be taken as an interdisciplinary concept, because for Marxists it is part of the premises for all science, including even the natural sciences. Activity Theory needs not only the concept of activity, but to recognize that the researcher is given a definite population of individuals and the constellation of material culture. These substances cannot be equated with activity, however much we may believe that individual human beings and their products are products of activity, the fact is that what is given to us is not just activity, but definite individuals and definite conditions, and these must form the starting point of our science. That’s what Marx meant by real individuals. Speculating about the origins of the human species is an interesting topic, as is the origins of our culture. But what is given to us is definite human individuals with all the mysteries they may yet reveal to us, their activity, and all the material conditions, both natural and cultural, which they create or find around them. These substances underlie all the human sciences; only when we are investigating the biological basis of human life, scalpel and microscope in hand, will we prefer the substances natural science.

Leontyev makes subject, object and activity his premises. With respect to ‘subject’, this differs from ‘person’ because Leontyev aimed to include the study of primitive organic life into his study of activity. With respect to ‘object’, I think it is fair to say that this concept is a generalization of Marx’s concept of ‘material conditions’. All said, there is not a substantial difference between Marx and Leontyev on the question of substance.

The way in which activity functions for natural science became clear with the advent of quantum physics and relativity, in which the relevant entities cannot be described independently of the human activities through which they are made objects of experience. For example, prior to Einstein’s formulation of the theory of Special Relativity, everyone believed that space existed and was describable by Euclidean geometry independently of the human activity entailed in actually measuring it, even if that space was empty. Einstein’s ‘thought experiments’ showed that when one examined in careful detail the operations entailed in measuring an object under the special condition that the object was moving relative to the observer, and one allowed that to make measurements of the moving object, the observer would have to rely on the transmission of light. If the laws of electromagnetics were to be independent of steady movement through empty space (the ‘inertial frame’), as the objectivity of all the laws of physics demanded, then it turned out that Euclid’s geometry would have to be modified to take account of this relative movement. What this meant was that the natural scientific approach of endeavoring to describe a world beyond our labor processes independently of human practice became untenable at a certain limit. In order to describe the natural world, one had to introduce human activity into the picture. So taken to its limits, the natural scientific paradigm with its substances fell into contradiction, and could only be rescued by resort to the substances of human science. Of course, Nature exists independently of man, but if you want a science which can describe Nature with human concepts like space, time, matter, electricity, wave, particle and so on, then you have to bring activity into the picture.

For the natural scientist, the wave-particle nonetheless remains matter in the philosophical sense of the word. Natural scientists can accommodate recourse to the language of activity as a method of description of Nature, while maintaining matter as the substance. But for the human sciences, activity is crucial. This fact is illustrated with the notion of ‘hermeneutic circle’, for the objects of human life are both constituted and perceived by activity, and this is the key aspect of activity which an interdisciplinary concept of activity must address.

A ‘science of activity’ would be a misconception because it would amount to subsuming all the human sciences under one concept, just as a ‘science of matter’ would be a totalization of the natural sciences. That is the same mistake that the reflexologists made when they simply declared: “Everything is a reflex.” In investigating the basis for an interdisciplinary concept of activity, the aim is (1) to construct a richer definition of activity as premises for both psychological and sociological sciences, and (2) focus on those problems lying on the boundary between psychology and sociology where the ‘hermeneutic circle’ operates by developing a ‘unit of analysis’ appropriate for the solution of problems in this specific domain.

To define this relation a little more precisely, we should note that psychology takes as given the forms of social practice and the artifacts constituted by the culture within which an individual psyche develops, unconcerned with the nature and causes of social change. On the other hand, the sociological sciences take as given individuals who are adapted to and reproduce the culture in which they are active. But the viability of these acts of abstraction has its limits, just as the viability of natural science’s abstraction of natural entities from activity has its limits. We need a conception of activity which is equally adapted to the problem of the constitution of forms of practice as to the problem of the constitution of the psyche.

According to Leontyev, activities are the various aggregates of actions making up the social life of humanity, each activity wholly reducible to the actions of which it is composed. But activities are also distinct from any its actions, being oriented to a socially constructed object, which differs from the goal of the actions through which it is realized. The Gestalt is not equivalent to the sum of its parts. So more precisely it is these actions (and operations) which are the substances in Activity Theory. The idea is that use of artifacts has historically brought about the separation of goal-directed actions and the activity which is the motive of the action, and the division of labor and class divisions have led to even further differentiation of action and activity. So we know that: ‘Everything is an action’, but this does not answer the question of what is an activity other than being an aggregate of actions. However, it is only actions which are empirical, observable entities; what constitutes an activity must at the very least be admitted to be open to interpretation, but by observers and by participants. The whole point of Activity Theory is the non-identity of action and activity, so having a clear concept of action does not obviate the need for a concept of what constitutes an activity.

Activity does answer this question, but does it do adequately?

In §20 it will be shown that Activity Theory as so far developed, fails to provide a basis for appropriation of sociological concepts precisely because it does not have an adequate concept of ‘an activity’. The source of this problem could be put this way: actions are a substance, not a unit of analysis for Activity Theory. This goes some way to explain why some of Leontyev’s interpreters have either rejected the idea that a ‘unit of analysis’ is needed or failed to formulate a satisfactory ‘unit of analysis’. An action may be a ‘unit of analysis’, but not for Activity Theory.

The point is just this: ‘activity’ does not provide a concept of the subject matter of any science, or what is the same thing, a ‘unit of analysis’. It is simply a concept of the ultimate reality of human social life, along with individual human beings, their material conditions, including those they have created themselves. This is the case whether one is doing psychology, political science, archaeology, history, economics or any other human science. This was Davydov’s point, and this is how Marx understood matters.

We will come back later on to a more detailed consideration of what is the heart of the problem: how Leontyev saw the structure and anatomy of activity. But first we have to clarify what is needed for a science which deserves to be counted in the tradition of Goethe, Hegel, Marx and Vygotsky, a science which begins from a conception of the whole not the part, and is consistent with the demands of an emancipatory science.

If we are to formulate an interdisciplinary concept of activity, then following Marx, we must:

(1) take the individuals and the material conditions, i.e., the constellation of material artifacts, along with activity, as our premises.

(2) form a clear conception of the essential problem of the mutual constitution of social life and individual consciousness.

Central to both problems is the conception of what constitutes ‘an activity’, that is, of what constitutes a unit of social life, from the standpoint of Activity Theory. The objects of social life are institutions, cultures, discourses, norms, industries, communities, classes, and so on. Activity theory suggests that these objects are constituted by activity, but what, from the standpoint of activity theory is the basic unit, the ‘unit of analysis’, from which we can elaborate the constitution of the objects of social science through activity?

Vygotsky on joint artifact-mediated action

Before moving on to an examination of Leontyev’s Activity Theory, we should review what can be learnt from Vygotsky’s concept of activity. Vygotsky is remembered for his psychological work: formation of concepts in adolescence, child development, learning disabilities, educational psychology, memory, attention and so on. Activity Theory, on the other hand, is marked by its effort to extend the scope of problems dealt with beyond the boundaries of psychology narrowly understood, using the notion of activity to describe the dynamics of social interactions and societal phenomena, and explicitly taking account of societal phenomena in its psychology. Vygotsky, on the other hand, never attempted to make any critical inroads into social theory. But this does not at all mean that Vygotsky did not have a concept of activity. Vygotsky did not develop the differentiation between action and activity which we owe to Leontyev, however, but Vygotsky most certainly had a concept of action and his concept of action shall play a crucial role in the critique and reconstruction of the concept of activity.

Let us summarize what we have learnt from Goethe, Hegel, Marx and Vygotsky in the earlier parts of this work about the idea of ‘unit of analysis’ (under its various names) as the starting point for a science. By its very nature, there can be no formula for the determination of the unit of analysis which arises, ultimately, from insight into the subject matter of the science, but three requirements for a unit of analysis may be elaborated as follows.

(1) It is the conception of a singular, indivisible thing (not a collection or combination of distinct things) (Hegel 1830 §86), but it is typically a particular genus of some universal (such as word meaning, commodity relation, private property, conditioned reflex).

If we make a start from what is a collection of things, this simply means that we have not started at the real beginning, having already uncritically accepted as given the component concepts and their relation with one another. But the beginning may certainly be the intersection of two concepts, that is, a particularization of something more general. Although the concept must be a singular thing, for it to be the basis of a science, some internal tension or contradiction must be discovered within the concept.

(2) It exhibits the essential properties of a class of more developed phenomena.

The point is to discover which thing exhibits the essential properties of the class of phenomena. The discovery of the ‘cell’ is always the outcome of a search for the essential relation behind a persistent series of problems or relations. As a cell, it is not a typical relation, but rather the most primitive of its type, a prototype (Hegel 2009 §163). The unit of analysis poses the key problems which can be examined without presuppositions. Historical or developmental investigation helps differentiate the essential from the inessential, but the concept must be the logically first, not the first in time.

But the ‘cell’ originates from outside the science in question (Hegel 1952 §2), so as to make a finite beginning, while having its foundation in the universal. Wertsch (1985) wrongly demands the opposite, taking meaning to be a property of a closed system of signs, which, being therefore foreign to consciousness, “is not be a unit for analysing human consciousness itself.”

(3) It is itself an existent phenomenon (not a principle or axiom or hypothetical force or such like non-observable), in Goethe’s term, an Urphänomen (Goethe 1996).

A science can only base itself on something real and empirically given. But the existent thing must be captured as a concept because it is the starting point both for a real development and for the development of understanding. For example, if we understand a child’s ‘social situation of development’ simply as a collection of factors capable of influencing the prospects for a child’s development we have nothing more than an excuse to do some statistics. On the other hand, when we grasp the situation as a predicament, a trap from which the child must emancipate herself (Borozhov 2004), then we have what is both a concept and an existent reality. Vygotsky’s (1997: 318) discussion of Pavlov’s study of salivation in dogs confirms that Vygotsky used this same conception of ‘unit of analysis’. This requirement also rules out ‘origins stories’, taking as one’s starting point some situation supposed to have existed in the past. The requirement that the Urphänomen be an observable, is that it be observable in principle. The molecule and the cell were not visible under any kind of microscope at the time they were proposed, but they were in principle observable with the use of instruments. According to Wertsch (1985) Zinchenko agreed with this criterion.

Davydov wrongly held that the ‘unit of analysis’ must be the historically first, which is not true; the unit of analysis is the logical first, not the first in time. But he agreed that the ‘cell’ must be empirically real:

“The aforementioned requirements can be met only by an entirely real relationship that is given in a form that can be contemplated by the senses. As an aspect of something concrete — that is, having its particular form — it at the same time functions as a genetic basis for another whole (and in this sense it functions as a universal). Here the real, objective unity of the individual (particular) and the universal, their connection, which mediates the process of development of the whole, is observed.” (Davydov 1990: 282)

So the ‘unit of analysis’ remains simply a ‘building block’ of a larger more complex phenomenon, with all its emergent phenomenon, but the ‘cell’ must be conceived and chosen so as to provide the building block for conception as well as actuality.

Vygotsky’s Unit of Analysis for Consciousness

Vygotsky made a number of investigations in different domains of psychology, but the work we are concerned with here is his approach to the central category of psychology, consciousness.

What, in very broad outline, was Vygotsky’s approach to a science of consciousness?

The first problem which faced anyone wishing to create a genuinely scientific psychology was the problem of the inaccessibility of consciousness to direct observation. The subjective psychologists had accepted the method of introspection to ‘observe’ consciousness, which the behaviorists had (rightly) rejected as unscientific. But the behaviorists had (wrongly) rejected the observability of consciousness altogether. Vygotsky likened the problem to that of the historian who can access the facts of the past only by the documents and traces they leave, “nevertheless in the end they study the facts that have been, not the traces or documents that remained and were preserved. Similarly, the psychologist is often in the position of the historian and the geologist. Then he acts like a detective who brings to light a crime he never witnessed.” But although consciousness is therefore accepted as the central concept of psychology, it cannot serve as the starting point. Psychology had to set out from the observation of behaviour, but the actions of the researcher as well as the research subject and their interaction had to taken together as the research data and controlled. The behaviorists were wrong in thinking that the behavior of the research subject could be taken as a unit in isolation from the researcher’s questions, instructions, research aims and so on. The research which would disclose consciousness would have to be interactions.

So requirement (3) obliged Vygotsky to look to the joint action of the two subjects (the researchers themselves as well) for a unit of analysis for psychology, not a thought-form, state of consciousness or some such metaphysical entity, even though consciousness is a legitimate, indeed the central, concept for scientific psychology. Because it has to be imputed from data of a different kind a thought-form cannot itself be a unit of analysis.

Taking note of Pavlov’s success in the exhaustive study of just one reflex, and his widely-shared conviction that speech is the most highly developed mode of activity, Vygotsky decided that to resolve the key problems of psychology he should take the word as a ‘microcosm’:

Thinking and speech are the key to understanding the nature of human consciousness. ... Consciousness is reflected in the word like the sun is reflected in a droplet of water. The word is a microcosm of consciousness, related to consciousness like a living cell is related to an organism, like an atom is related to the cosmos. The meaningful word is a microcosm of human consciousness.” (Vygotsky 1987)

Here Vygotsky follows Marx’s dictum: “Human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape” (Marx 1986a), but this is not a claim that the meaningful word is a unit of analysis in general. It is a claim that word-meaning is a unit of analysis for the relation of thinking and speech, or ‘intelligent speech’, which is the microcosm of consciousness.

Marx may also have agreed with Vygotsky here:

“One of the most difficult tasks confronting philosophers is to descend from the world of thought to the actual world. Language is the immediate actuality of thought. Just as philosophers have given thought an independent existence, so they were bound to make language into an independent realm.” (Marx 1975)

Note the double edge to this observation by Marx: “Language is the immediate actuality of thought,” and therefore perhaps a starting point for psychology, but he goes on to ridicule philosophers who were “bound to make language into an independent realm.” Theses on Feuerbach had talked exclusively of activity and had not a single word to say about language. So Vygotsky would have been very clear that he was following Marx in focusing on word meaning in order to find the key to consciousness, but not claiming that word meaning was a unit of analysis for consciousness in toto, because he understood that language does not constitute an ‘independent realm'!

So I disagree with Kozulin (1990) who seems to conflate microcosm and unit of analysis when he quotes the paragraph on the ‘microcosm of human consciousness’ to show that for Vygotsky “To study human consciousness means to study this sensible structure and verbal meaning is the methodological unit of this study.” Wertsch (1985) reads Vygotsky in exactly the same mistaken way, but ascribes the obvious error to Vygotsky, rather than to his own misreading of Vygotsky.

Next we need to clarify exactly what is meant by ‘word meaning’. Vygotsky is taking a little poetic license here. He does not literally mean ‘word’, as in ‘the’ or ‘of’, or ‘social’ and ‘movement’ but not ‘social movement’. With ‘word’ he means the conventional sign for a concept. ‘Word’ is a special kind of artifact, that is, a material thing with ideal properties, functionally dependent on the language of which it is a part, and thereby of the entire culture. It is also essentially a product and medium of human action. Meaning is simultaneously subjective and objective, it has both categorical sense and reference to an object. Meaning can only be interpreted as a species of action. A word in-itself has potential for meaning, but meaning is only manifested when it is used by a person in a social context where it is meaningful. Word meaning is a concept-in-action.

Hegel understood a social formation as a ‘formation of consciousness’. We have made Hegel intelligible by interpreting spirit as activity in Marx’s sense. For Hegel, the unit of analysis of a ‘formation of consciousness’ is the concept. If we were to make the mistake Marx referred to above, of making language an independent realm, then ‘word meaning’ corresponds precisely to this reading of Hegel. Word meaning is a unity of the word, a material artifact with ideal properties, a person using the word and the social action of enacting the word in a given social context. This is the same universal-individual-particular form of concrete concept which we identified in the work of Hegel, Marx and Vygotsky earlier, which facilitated these writers to theorise a Gestalt without fragmenting the whole from the outset. Norris Minnick (1997) noted that in using the expression ‘word meaning’, Vygotsky “rejected the use of scientific constructs such as ‘concept’ and ‘language’ in this context,” and I think this point is well made.

V. P. Zinchenko (1985) was right when he said that:

“one can consider tool-mediated action as being very close to meaning as unit of analysis.”

In fact, I would say that word-meaning is a special case of joint artifact-mediated action.

I disagree with Roth and Lee, citing Kozulin, advocates Activity Theory who claim:

“At the risk of oversimplification, Vygotsky privileged sign or semiotic mediation, especially in the form of speech, whereas the activity theorists succeeding him widened the scope to view object-related practical activity as the proper unit of analysis (Kozulin 1986)” (Roth & Lee 2007).

This is like criticizing Marx for privileging the commodity as against money. One begins from the simplest form of the most highly developed relation. And in reality, Vygotsky by no means restricted himself to speech and language in the short span of his work in psychology. For example, his study of child development, much of which concerns pre-lingual infants, and the ‘double stimulation’ experiment cited above, in which Vygotsky demonstrates how artifact-mediated collaborative action generates forms of consciousness, satisfying requirement (2) above.

By choosing as his starting point, word-meaning or artifact-mediated joint action, Vygotsky’s intention was to determine a single thing, as per requirement (1) above.

“Word meaning is a phenomenon of thought on insofar as thought is embodied in speech, and of speech only insofar as speech is connected with thought and illuminated by it. It is a phenomenon of verbal thought, of meaningful speech - a union of word and thought.” (Vygotsky 1987)

Vygotsky traced the development of speech and of thinking and determined that thought and speech have different genetic roots and the two functions develop along different lines and independently of each other, but at a certain point, the two trajectories intersect and verbal thought arises (Vygotsky 1987). This is a classic demonstration of the inner contradiction in the unit, how the unit arose out of its conditions as both a finite thing and a definite concept.

The ‘double stimulation’ scenario is very explicit. The researcher is able to observe the creation of a psychological function in a child by setting the subject a task she can’t quite manage, and then offering her an artifact so that the subject is able to complete the task by using the artifact. The ‘double stimulation’ experiment shows clearly that the unit which may be used to study the development of consciousness is the collaborative use of an artifact. The scenario is an artifact-mediated collaborative action, or as it is often expressed, ‘joint mediated action’ and ‘tool’ may be substituted for ‘artifact’, as in ‘joint artifact-mediated action’ or ‘joint tool-mediated action’, etc.

So the conclusion is that Vygotsky determined the unit of analysis for psychology to be ‘joint artifact-mediated action’. Let us briefly review the conclusions that a couple of other writers have come to in respect to Vygotsky’s ‘unit of analysis’ for the study of consciousness. Quoting Vygotsky’s article “The instrumental method in psychology,” Engeström (1987) says:

“According to Vygotsky, the instrumentally mediated act ‘is the simplest segment of behavior that is dealt with by research based on elementary units’.”

In the context of Engeström’s Activity Theory approach, ‘act’ and ‘action’ are effectively synonymous, and are used appropriately in preference to ‘activity’ which suggests a societal aggregate of actions. But in Engeström’s reading, Vygotsky recognized a dichotomy of artifacts: signs used in communicative acts, and tools used in instrumental acts (following Habermas’s (1987) terminology), leading to two distinct ‘units of analysis’. I don’t accept that such a dichotomy is either sustainable in its own right, or can be ascribed to Vygotsky. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that in specialized domains of investigation, different types of artifact, and therefore different ‘units of analysis’, are needed. The notion of ‘artifact’, a category which includes symbols and tools and everything in between, provides a truer reflection of Vygotsky’s approach. It is not clear to me whether Engeström’s omission of ‘joint’ or any equivalent term is deliberate. Engeström goes on to cite Leontyev in a manner which suggests he agrees with a criticism to the effect that Vygotsky saw actions as inherently individual. If, for example, I am planting potatoes with my hoe, this appears to be an individual action. But the seeds, the soil and the hoe are all social products and my motivation is social: I grow potatoes for sale. Activity Theorists claimed to have solved this problem, but I would say that Vygotsky was closer to a solution than he is given credit for.

Michael Cole (2000) reads Vygotsky’s unit of analysis for psychology as “joint artifact mediated activity.” Following Vygotsky, Cole does not make a distinction between ‘action’ and ‘activity’. Absent the specialized meaning given to ‘activity’ as opposed to ‘action’ by Leontyev, this is not an issue of principle. For his own work, Cole extends this unit of analysis to ‘joint, mediated, activity in context’.

Wertsch (1985) concluded that since ‘word meaning’ failed to prove to be adequate unit of analysis for conscious in general, having failed to observe the difference between microcosm and unit, then a foundation for the investigation of conscious had to be sought in Leontyev’s activity theory. But Wertsch does conclude that “tool-mediated, goal directed action is the appropriate unit of analysis in Vygotsky’s approach.” (1985)

Leontyev’s Criticism of Vygotsky’s ‘Unit of Analysis’

The core of Leontyev’s criticism of Vygotsky’s psychology was this: when a person is carrying out some action, for example if he is a beater in a collective hunting group, his aim is to get food, but in the light of this aim, the goal of his action, to scare the game away, is senseless from the psychological point of view. It is only when account is taken of the beater’s participation in a division of labor can it be seen that the group’s goal of catching the game and thereby satisfying the group’s aim, is achieved by the beater’s action, and that as a result of the beater behaving according to the norms of the group, his personal need for food will be met by the group according to the appropriate norms. Thus according to Leontyev, there is a huge gap in Vygotsky’s analysis since the very goals which motivate a person’s actions remain out of view in the scenario of artifact-mediated action. The task is just given to the subject; why? and why does the subject carry out the given task? Clearly these are psychologically crucial facts, and yet there is no place for them (it appears) in Vygotsky’s unit of analysis.

Engeström (1987), make the following commentary on Leontyev’s observation:

“These lines, originally published in 1947, demonstrate the insufficiency of an individual tool-mediated action as a unit of psychological analysis. Without consideration of the overall collective activity, the individual beater’s action seems “senseless and unjustified” (Leontyev 2009, 187). Human labor, the mother form of all human activity, is co-operative from the very beginning. We may well speak of the activity of the individual, but never of individual activity; only actions are individual.

“Furthermore, what distinguishes one activity from another is its object. According to Leont'ev, the object of an activity is its true motive. Thus, the concept of activity is necessarily connected with the concept of motive. Under the conditions of division of labor, the individual participates in activities mostly without being fully conscious of their objects and motives. The total activity seems to control the individual, instead of the individual controlling the activity.”

The idea is that over history, and the evolution of humankind, action and activity which are initially identical, became separated from one another. Originally needs were satisfied immediately, but with the deferral of satisfaction and the development of division of labor there developed a labor process, means of production and cultural mediation of all social processes. This distinction between action with its immediate goals, and activity with its social motivation, is not touched upon by Vygotsky. This is the criticism of Vygotsky which laid the basis for what became known as Activity Theory.

I think that the issues which are opened up by these observations are completely valid and pose problems which are indeed unsolved in Vygotsky’s work, however the view that will be developed below is that Vygotsky had created the best methodological foundation, and that there are difficulties in Leontyev’s solution. Wertsch put it this way:

“The debate over whether Leontyev’s work represents a legitimate extension or a misappropriation of Vygotsky’s work has been going on for several years now (cf Davydov & Radzikhovskii 1985, Kozulin 1984, Minick 1986). It is my opinion that Leontyev did not understand, or at least did not incorporate into his own approach, many of Vygotsky’s most powerful insights about semiotic mediation and interpsychological functioning. However, as I have argued elsewhere (Wertsch 1985, ch. 7), I also believe that Vygotsky’s approach can be extended in important respects by incorporating some of Leontyev’s ideas into it. ...” (1997)

A brief answer to Leontyev’s criticism would be as follows. In the ‘double stimulation’ experiment, the subject does not simply discover the artifact to complete a task of their own choosing, but on the contrary. The task and the relevant artifact are presented to the subject by the research subject. According to Vygotsky, the researcher, with their aims and their access to artifacts are as much part of the scenario as the subject himself. This is the point: Vygotsky does not look to abstractions to represent ‘society’ or ‘social goals'; the actions of the researcher and the artifacts that they have at hand are the actual existing entities by means of which the culture and wider spheres of social practice are presented to the subject’s experience as stimuli for her actions. Vygotsky always focused his scientific work on interactions between individuals, rather than using representations of societal phenomena and institutions abstracted from their constitution in specific forms of activity. This is his strength, and does not detract from the significance of his work for understanding societal activities. After all, societal institutions exist only in and through individual actions and interactions between individuals.

All the essential aspects of the concept of activity are present in Vygotsky’s concept of joint artifact-mediated action. Well, almost. We will return to this question later. In the meantime, we will look briefly at the work of Alexander Meshcheryakov, which demonstrated the potential of Vygotsky’s theory in practical application.

Meshcheryakov’s Work

Alexander Meshcheryakov was a student of A R Luria, and an associate of the leading philosophers of the third generation, Feliks Mikhailov and Evald Ilyenkov. In his application of Vygotsky’s ideas, he was able to respond in practice to criticisms of Vygotsky’s concept of activity.

Meshcheryakov (2009) developed Vygotsky’s conception of learning in his work in the education of deaf-blind children. A child who is deaf and blind from infancy will generally not develop a fully human consciousness without scientific intervention. This work gave Meshcheryakov’s staff the opportunity to bring consciousness into being where it did not previously exist. Further, the teacher is not just ‘experimenting’ on the child, but assisting the child in achieving something it needs to achieve: helping the child gain access to a genuinely human life.

In Meshcheryakov’s scenario, the teacher manually helps the novice complete a task using an artifact taken from the cultural life of society, and then gradually withdraws that assistance, in such a way that the novice is able to take over the teacher’s actions and complete the task autonomously.

In using a spoon to eat, the child does not just satisfy its immediate need for nourishment, but by mastering practical-sensuous actions with the spoon, forms an internal image which contributes to a reconstruction of the whole universe of social conventions and practices with which the spoon, its shape and its presence at dinner time is associated. Meshcheryakov takes us through the process whereby his students learn, step by step, the skills of self-care, play and communicating with others, learn the lay-out of their home, their neighbourhood and the activities which go on in the various buildings, learn a daily timetable, a calendar, the important national holidays and their meaning, learn to grow and prepare food, learn to travel by public transport and explore the country and so on and so forth; in other words, to reconstruct in their own consciousness and activity the entire sweep of the culture of their society.

Meshcheryakov calls the unit of analysis ‘shared object activity’ (Meshcheryakov 2009, 294).

“A kind of vicious circle develops: in order to know how to act with the tool the child has to know it, and in order to know the tool it is essential that the child act with it. The vicious circle is broken when the adult begins to teach the child to act with the tool in the process of satisfying its needs. This instruction is only possible in the form of joint object action shared between the adult and the child” (Meshcheryakov 2009).

By means of finite interactions with people and artifacts which are part of a definite cultural-historical society, a person gradually learns the ways of this society and very soon develops their own will, their own life-goals, and become a full and equal member of the society. I take this as a practical demonstration that Vygotsky’s scenario contains what is necessary to represent societal phenomena in the psychology of human beings.

Vygotsky’s Cultural Psychology

The great strength of Vygotsky’s psychology was that he did not begin from abstractions, “just-so” tales or metaphysical entities, but made the foundation of his work individual human beings, their activity and the material conditions and artifacts (including words) that they used. His conviction was that all that was required for a psychology which reflected the formation of the individual by their participation in the ever-changing social life of society was contained in these elements.

Further, Vygotsky began not from the behavior of mollusks searching for food, but from the highest development of social life, including art and literature and literary criticism.

Cultural practice is built into the artifacts a person uses and the actions of those with whom they are collaborating. Neither Meshcheryakov nor Vygotsky, however, went on from these ideas of interpersonal collaboration to develop an approach to understanding societal phenomena on a broader scale, that is to say, a critical social theory. And this is the problem which Leontyev tackled, to which we will turn shortly.

The fact remains that actions do differ from the activities of which they are a part. What appears to lie over the horizon of Vygotsky’s vision is how the aims of the action are interpreted by the acting subject. It cannot be taken for granted that the aims of the action can be inferred by the subject from the actions of those they are interacting with or the nature of the artifact mediating the action. There is room for misunderstanding and non-recognition. Many writers (for example Wertsch and Cole) hold that the context of the activity conditions what and how the subject may experience interactions and perceive the artifacts being used. Principally, the teleological aspect assumes a context in which it all makes sense, and this has to be known. Further, the word ‘joint’, in ‘joint mediated activity’, is not as well defined as it seems at first sight. What precisely does it mean to say that an action is ‘joint'? These matters will be dealt with later.

Also, what is meant by ‘context’. The context is potential an open-ended infinity of social, physical and historical circumstances. Just as the understanding of ‘social situation of development’ entailed forming a concept of the situation which captures the way in which the situation determines social interactions and psychological development, so in this more general context, we need to determine a concept of ‘context’.


Mikhail Bakhtin was a contemporary of Vygotsky’s with whom we see a number of similarities, although Bakhtin was no Marxist. For Bakhtin (1986) the unit of analysis was the utterance. Being the entire speech act between ‘turn taking’, rather than a ‘word’, this is a more pragmatic unit than Vygotsky’s. Also, Bakhtin developed the idea of genre. To be intelligible, an utterance must be taken to belong to this or that genre. The genre characterizes the manner in which an utterance is to be interpreted. The genre is not the context in which the utterance is uttered, but is rather a property of the utterance itself, which places it in a family-like relationship with other utterances. Like the words and concepts, the utterance is adopted by the speaker from those made available by the culture.

Posed in this way, the relevance of the ‘hermeneutic circle’ is immediately obvious. That is, a utterances gets its meaning in large measure from the genre it is taken to be part of, and the genre is communicated by a wide range of techniques many of which are not linguistic as such.

Bakhtin uses the word ‘unit’ and it is clear enough that the concept he is evoking is the same as Vygotsky’s ‘unit of analysis’. Utterance is a unit which may include many word meanings, much as a molecule can include may atoms. So what we have is two different conceptions of human behavior and consciousness which will clearly shed light on different groups of problems but there seems to be every reason to believe that the concepts of the two sciences are distinct but compatible, in the same way as are those of chemistry and physics. It would seem that Bakhtin’s approach is particularly strong in the study of interpersonal action rather than consciousness.

The idea of turning-taking marking the objective and unambiguous beginning and end of an utterance forces us to reflect on what marks the beginning and end of an action. There would seem to be some merit in taking a similar approach in our understanding of action. We do not immediately think of actions in a context for which turn-taking makes sense, but on reflection, when we consider that all actions are carried out within some social context of personal initiative, command, cooperation, collaboration, the idea of utterance would seem to be admissible to a generalization. In action we take turns, too.

The aim of this book is an immanent critique of Activity Theory, so it would divert us from our project to go to far into Bakhtin’s theory, but it does seem that elements of his approach ought to be appropriated by Activity Theory, as part of a resolution of its own problems.

In conclusion, we can say that Vygotsky’s unit of analysis for the science of consciousness (i.e., psychology) was joint, artifact-mediated action, meeting all the requirements which are appropriate for science in the tradition of Goethe, Hegel and Marx. There are however some problems in the way in which this unit of analysis captures or fails to capture the narrative context. These are the problems which motivated Leontyev to found Activity Theory.