When I first started reading about activity theory, in graduate school in the mid-1990s, I found a classic text in the Iowa State library called Problems in the Development of Mind. It had a light green cloth cover and was intimidatingly thick. And, like Vygotsky’s books, it recounted some unusual experiments. For instance, the first chapter described how research subjects could be sensitized to “feel” light. More on that in a minute.
PDM was a difficult read, and at that time it was difficult to sort out some of the principles with which I would later become familiar. Compounding the problem was the fact that PDM was a collection, so it tended to repeat lines of argument in different chapters, chapters that represented different times in the author’s life.
Since PDM was out of print, I couldn’t buy a copy. I think I have picked it up since, at the UT library, but if so, it was before 2003, when I began this blog. Fortunately for me (and perhaps for you), a newly typeset version (by Andy Blunden) is available at the link above—not at marxists.org, for some reason, but at http://marxists.anu.edu.au . (You can also buy a print-on-demand copy at marxists.org.)
The present version has an introduction by Mike Cole. It’s about 400pp. long. Below, I summarize the chapters. This summary will pick out some of the things that interest me, while skimming over different interests (e.g., children’s psychological development).
Chapter 1. The Problem of the Origin of Sensation
Leontyev asks: Where does the psyche originate? He outlines some unsatisfactory lines of thought (p.1) before concluding that “We shall thus take sensation, which reflects objective external reality, as the elementary form of the psyche, and treat the problem of the origin of the psyche in this concrete form as the problem of the genesis of a ‘capacity for sensation’ or (what is the same thing) sensitivity proper.” (p.4). He contrasts this Soviet approach with bourgeois psychology, which he argues leads to Cartesianism. Skipping forward for a moment, here’s how he frames bourgeois psychology:
It is impossible, however, to close one’s eyes to the fact that psychological science, restricted by the framework of bourgeois philosophy, has never risen above the level of a purely metaphysical opposing of subjective psychic phenomena to the phenomena of the external world, and could therefore never penetrate their real essence, and that both here and in psychology, the clumsy cart-horse of ordinary bourgeois thought stops every time, perplexed, at the ditch that divides essence from appearance, and cause from effect.
In reality the opposition between the subjective and objective is not absolute and a priori. Development generates their opposition, but mutual transitions are preserved between them throughout the course of development, eliminating their ‘one-sidedness’. We cannot, consequently, limit ourselves to a purely external comparison of subjective and objective data, but must discover and study this profound and concrete process whereby the objective is transformed into the subjective.” (p.16)
In Leontyev’s characterization throughout this book, the bourgeoisie are continually perplexed while the Soviets have the inside track. (These Soviet authors are so scornful. It’s wearing.) In the Soviet view—and we can say “in reality,” since Leontyev takes the Soviet view to be a clear apprehension of reality—
Mind is a property of living, highly organised material bodies that consists in their ability to reflect through their states the reality around them, which exists independently of them. That is the most general, materialist definition of mind. Psychic phenomena, i.e. sensations, presentations, concepts, are more or less precise, profound reflections, images, pictures of reality. They are consequently secondary to the reality they reflect, which is, on the contrary, primary and determinant.
This general theoretical, philosophical proposition is basic for materialist psychology. (p.11)
Elaborating on this materialist approach:
any reflection of the objective world in psychic phenomena is nothing other than a function of a material, corporeal subject which itself is a particle of that world, in other words, that the essence of the psychic lies in the world of objective relations and not, outside it. The task of scientific psychology is above all to find that way of concretely studying these subjective phenomena that would, figuratively speaking, penetrate beneath their surface and lay bare their objective relations. (p.12)
Following that materialist approach leads us from the lone individual to social relations:
Thus, in order to reveal the necessity of the psyche’s origin, and its further development and change, we must start not from the features of the subject’s organisation taken by itself, and not from the reality, taken by itself, i.e. in isolation from the subject, that surrounds him, but from an analysis of the process that really links them together.
And that process is nothing other than the process of life. We have to start, consequently, with analysis of life itself. (p.17)
He cites Engels here, then goes on: Mind is “a product of life’s increasing complexity” (p.18). Life is always in a state of self-renewal. “A philosophical, dialectical materialist exposition of this property was given by Engels, who was the first to regard life as a perpetually created and destroyed contradiction existing in things and phenomena themselves, which expressed the specific form of the motion of matter that began a new phase in the evolution of the material world’s relations.” (p.21).
This brings him to the emergence of subject and object. When inorganic materials interact, he says, we can’t say which acts on which. But when we turn to organic, one clearly acts on the other, and therefore there’s a subject and object (pp.23-25). Here, he clarifies his use of the term, which should be familiar to people who have studied activity theory:
We shall also, accordingly, limit the concept of object. It is normally used in a dual sense: in the broadest one as a thing standing in some kind of relation to other things, i.e. as ‘a thing having existence’; and in a narrower sense – as something withstanding (German Gegenstand), resistant (Latin objectum), that to which an act is directed, i.e. as something to which precisely a living creature relates itself as the object of its activity – indifferently as outward or inward activity (e. g. object of nutrition, object of labour, object of meditation, etc.). From now on we shall employ the term object precisely in this narrower, special sense. (p.28)
From here, he defines activity in an AT sense. In relation to individual organisms,
the principal ‘unit’ of a vital process is an organism’s activity; the different activities that realise its diverse vital relations with the surrounding reality are essentially determined by their object; we shall therefore differentiate between separate types of activity according to the difference in their objects. (p.29)
To explore this question further, he set up an experiment:
We could test this hypothesis experimentally. To do so we had to deprive the process correlating the two influences with one another of the form of an inner search, or inner attention that it had had. We had to turn it first into an external act, i.e. the genetically initial form of any activity. Second, we had to remove any possibility of an appeal to the subject’s consciousness when analysing the facts, i.e. the test situation had again to be made entirely ‘clandestine’ by completely ruling out knowledge on the subjects’ part that they were being subjected to some special influence on which they could orient themselves in the experiments. (p.98, my emphasis)
In the experiment, Leontyev constructed a booth into which a subject would put his hand. The subject could not see inside the booth and was unaware that it had a light that would shine on the subject’s palm. The booth was constructed so that the subject couldn’t feel heat from the light. Would people be able to sense the light? Could they be trained to become more sensitive to it without knowing what it was? The answers are yes and yes. Subjects were eventually able to detect when the light was on, although they didn’t know what was causing the sensation and they had trouble even describing the sensation.
Chapter 2. The Biological and Social in Man’s Psyche
Leontyev asks: When did development of the psyche happen? The answer is drawn from Marx:
This new form of accumulation and transmission of phylogenetic (or rather, historical) experience came into being because the activity characteristic of man is productive, constructive activity. It is, above all, the basic human activity – labour, work.
The fundamental, truly decisive importance of this fact was discovered more than 100 years ago. The discovery was made by the father of scientific socialism, Karl Marx.
Labour, implementing the process of production (in both the forms of the latter, material and intellectual), is crystallised in its product. That which is manifested on the part of the subject in unrest or movement (Unruhe) appears in the product in the form of ‘a fixed quality without motion’ or ‘a fixed, immobile characteristic’ (ruhende Eigenschaft), in the form of being or a material object. (p.116, my emphasis)
So we have two basic Marxist claims being incorporated directly into Soviet psychology: (1) the psyche emerged through human labor and (2) human labor is crystallized in tools. Regarding (1), Leontyev elaborates: “Intercourse in its primary form, in the form of joint activity, or of oral communication, is thus a second sine qua non of individuals’ mastering of the achievements of mankind’s socio-historical evolution” (p.118).
On pp.119-122, he describes an experiment that suggests that people who are raised in a culture with a tonal language develop pitch sensitivity and do not suffer from tone deafness. The experimenters then developed ways to teach people perfect pitch. This experiment leads him to discuss the concept of functional organs:
Their first feature is that, once formed, they then function as a single organ. The processes that they effect, therefore, seem, from the subjective, phenomenological angle, to be manifestations of elementary innate capacities. Such, for example, are the processes of directly grasping spatial, quantitative, or logical structures (‘gestalts’).
Their second feature is their stability. Although they are formed through the closing of cerebral links, these associations do not fade, like ordinary conditioned reflexes. …(p.134)
A third feature of the functional organs with which we are concerned is that they are formed differently than simple chains of reflexes or ‘dynamic stereotypes’. The associations constituting them do not simply trace or copy the sequence of the external stimuli but unite independent reflex processes with their motor effects in a single complex reflex act. These ‘compound’ acts at first always have developed, external motor components that are then inhibited, while the act as a whole, in changing its original structure, is curtailed and made more and more automatic. As a result of these successive transformations a stable constellation also arises that functions as an integral organ, as allegedly innate capacity.
Finally a fourth feature consists in the point, as was specially emphasised by our last series of experiments, that, while corresponding to one and the same task, they may have a different structure, which explains the almost unlimited capacity for compensation that has been observed in the sphere of the development of specifically human functions.(p.135)
He concludes: “man’s biologically inherited qualities do not govern his psychic capacities. Man’s capabilities are not virtually contained in his brain. Virtually the brain includes not certain, specifically human capacities of some kind or another, but only the capacity to form these capacities” (p.135). And as a coda, he explains: “I chose the problem of the biological and social because there are still views that affirm a fatalistic conditioning of people’s psyche by biological inheritance. These views spread ideas in psychology of racial and national discrimination, and the right to genocide and destructive wars. They threaten mankind’s peace and security, and they are in flagrant contradiction with the objective findings of scientific psychological research” (p.136).
Chapter 3. An Outline of the Evolution of the Psyche
This chapter turned out to be the most fruitful for me in trying to understand activity theory, so my write-up is rather long and includes several block quotes copied from the PDF.
Leontyev begins by discussing stimulus-response work with animals. When there’s a barrier between fish and food, they learn by trial and error how to get around that barrier. When the barrier is removed, they retain the learned behavior for a while. Mammals in the same situation, however, go directly to the food. Leontyev relates this illustration to the levels of activity:
This means that the influence to which mammals’ activity is directed no longer merges with influences from the barrier in them, but both operate separately from one another for them. The direction and end result of the activity depends on the former, while the way it is done, i.e. the mode in which it is performed (e.g. by going around the obstacle) depends on the latter. This special make-up or aspect of activity, which corresponds to the conditions in which the object exciting it is presented, we shall call operation.
It is this distinguishing of operations in activity that indicates that properties affecting an animal, which previously seemed to be all of a muchness to it, begin to fall into groups: on the one hand interconnected properties emerge that characterise the object to which the activity is directed, while on the other hand properties emerge of objects that determine the mode of the activity itself, i.e. the operation. Whereas differentiation of the affecting properties was linked at the stage of the elementary sensory psyche with their simple uniting around the dominant stimulus, the integrating of the affective properties into a single integral image, and their unification as the properties of one and the same thing now arise for the first time. The surrounding reality is now reflected by the animal in the form of more or less separated images of separate things. (p.155, my emphasis)
That is, the object and operations are dialectically related, defining each other.
Let’s get beyond fish to more complex forms of life:
When we pass to the third, highest stage of animal evolution we thus observe a new complication in the structure of activity. The activity previously merged in a single process is now differentiated into two phases, one of preparation and one of accomplishment. The existence of a preparatory phase also constitutes a characteristic feature of intellectual behaviour. Intellect arises for the first time, consequently, when preparation of the possibility to perform some operation or habit commences. (pp.169-170, my emphasis).
Those who have read much on AT will recognize these two phases as corresponding to two aspects of the object: projective and objective. This distinction is extended and refined in human activity, he says, again justifying his claim in Marx and Engels:
When man enters into any relation with a thing, he distinguishes between the objective subject-matter of the relation on the one hand and, on the other hand, his relation to it per se. And that division does not exist in animals. ‘The animal,’ Marx and Engels said, ‘does not “relate” itself to anything, it does not “relate” itself at all.
… We can observe the activity of a few, sometimes of many, animals together, but we never observe joint activity among them, i.e. joint in the sense of the word as we employ it when speaking of men’s activity. (p.176, my emphasis).
Animals, he says, do not establish a division of labor. Instinct doesn’t count (e.g., bees) (p.177).
The transition to human consciousness, which is underlain by a transition to human forms of life, and to human labour activity, social by its very nature, is not simply associated with a change in the fundamental structure of activity and the rise of a new form of reflecting reality; man’s psyche is not only emancipated from those features that are common to all the stages of animals’ psychic evolution that we have considered, and has not only acquired qualitatively new features, but (and this is the main point) the laws themselves that govern its evolution were altered with the transition to man. While the general laws governing the laws of the psyche’s evolution were those of biological evolution throughout the animal kingdom, with the transition to man the evolution of the psyche began to be governed by laws of socio-historical development. (pp.179-80, my emphasis).
“The transition to consciousness,” Leontyev goes on, “is the beginning of a new, higher stage in the evolution of the psyche. In contrast to the psychic reflection peculiar to animals, conscious reflection is reflection of material reality in its separateness from the subject’s actual attitudes to it, i.e. reflection that distinguishes its objective stable properties.” And again, quoting Engels, he traces this transition to labor:
The cause underlying the humanising of man’s animal-like ancestors is the emergence of labour and the formation of human society on its basis. ‘Labour,’ Engels wrote, ‘created man himself’. Labour also created man’s consciousness. The origin and development of labour, this first and basic condition for the existence of man, led to a change in his brain, his organs of external activity, and his sense organs, and their humanisation. (p.181).
Man’s sense organs were also perfected through labour and in connection with the development of the brain. Like the organs of external activity they acquired qualitatively new features (p.183).
Like Engels, Leontyev sounds a bit teleological here and in some other points of his work:
The rise of labour was prepared by the whole preceding course of evolution, of course. The gradual transition to an upright posture, rudiments of which are distinctly observed even in the anthropoid apes that now exist, and the forming in connection with that of specially mobile anterior extremities adapted to grasping objects, and more and more freed from the function of walking, which was due to the mode of life led by man’s animal forebears – all created the physical preconditions for the possibility of performing complicated labour operations.
The labour process was also prepared for from another aspect. It was only possible for labour to emerge in animals that lived in whole groups and which had sufficiently developed forms of joint life, although those forms were, of course, very remote even from the most primitive forms of human, social life. (p.184, my emphasis)
Labor, then, becomes critical for us to understand if we are to make any headway on mind (pun intended).
The two following features are above all typical of labour. The first is the use and making of tools. ‘Labour,’ Engels said, ‘begins with the making of tools.’
The second feature of the labour process is that it is performed in conditions of joint, collective activity, so that man functions in this process not only in a certain relationship with nature but also to other people, members of a given society. Only through a relation with other people does man relate to nature itself, which means that labour appears from the very beginning as a process mediated by tools (in the broad sense) and at the same time mediated socially. (p.185)
human labour is social activity from the beginning, based on the co-operation of individuals, assuming a technical division, even though rudimentary, of labour functions; labour consequently is a process of action on nature linking together its participants, and mediating their contact (pp.185-86).
Here, Leontyev gives an account of how the division of labor arose at dawn of man. He provides the famous illustration of division of labor, in which hunters, bush-beaters, and cooks divided the complex labor of hunting for food (p.186). Here’s the frequently quoted passage:
When a member of a group performs his labour activity he also does it to satisfy one of his needs. A beater, for example, taking part in a primaeval collective hunt, was stimulated by a need for food or, perhaps, a need for clothing, which the skin of the dead animal would meet for him. At what, however, was his activity directly aimed? It may have been directed, for example, at frightening a herd of animals and sending them toward other hunters, hiding in ambush. That, properly speaking, is what should be the result of the activity of this man. And the activity of this individual member of the hunt ends with that. The rest is completed by the other members. This result, i.e. the frightening of game, etc. understandably does not in itself, and may not, lead to satisfaction of the beater’s need for food, or the skin of the animal. What the processes of his activity were directed to did not, consequently, coincide with what stimulated them, i.e. did not coincide with the motive of his activity; the two were divided from one another in this instance. Processes, the object and motive of which do not coincide with one another, we shall call ‘actions’. We can say, for example, that the beater’s activity is the hunt, and the frightening of game his action.
How is it possible for action to arise, i.e. for there to be a division between the object of activity and its motive? It obviously only becomes possible in a joint, collective process of acting on nature. The product of the process as a whole, which meets the need of the group, also leads to satisfaction of the needs of the separate individual as well, although he himself may not perform the final operations (e.g. the direct attack on the game and the killing of it), which directly lead to possession of the object of the given need. Genetically (i.e. in its origin) the separation of the object and motive of individual activity is a result of the disarticulating of the separate operations from a previously complex, polyphase, but single activity. These same separate operations, by now completing the content of the individual’s given activity, are also transformed into independent actions for him, although they continue, as regards the collective labour process as a whole, of course, to be only some of its partial links. (p.187, my emphasis)
A beater’s frightening of game leads to satisfaction of his need for it not at all because such are the natural conditions of the given material situation; rather the contrary, these conditions are such in normal cases that the individual’s frightening of game eliminates his chance of catching it. In that case what unites the direct result of this activity with its final outcome? Obviously, nothing other than the given individual’s relation with the other members of the group, by virtue of which he gets his share of the bag from them, i.e. part of the product of their joint labour activity. This relationship, this connection is realised through the activity of other people, which means that it is the activity of other people that constitutes the objective basis of the specific structure of the human individual’s activity, means that historically, i.e. through its genesis, the connection between the motive and the object of an action reflects objective social connections and relations rather than natural ones (pp.188-189, my emphasis).
Now the link between the object of an action (its objective) and what stimulates it (its motive) is revealed for the first time to the subject. It is revealed to him in its directly sensory form, i.e. in the form of the activity of a human work group. This activity is also now no longer reflected in man’s head in its subjective oneness with the object but as the subject’s objective, practical relation with it (p.190).
Labour not only alters the general structure of man’s activity, not only gives rise to goal-directed actions, but in the process also qualitatively alters the content of the activity, what we call operations.
This alteration of operations takes place in connection with the origin and evolution of tools. Man’s labour operations are remarkable in fact in that they are performed with the aid of tools or instruments of labour. (p.191, my emphasis)
a tool is not only an object that has a certain form and possesses certain physical properties, but it is, at the same time, a social object, i.e. an object that has a certain mode of use developed socially in the course of collective labour and reinforced by same. When we look at an axe, for example, as a tool and not simply as a physical body, it is not only two interconnected parts (the part we call the helve, and the one that is the working part proper), but is at the same time a socially developed means of action, namely the labour operations that have been given material shape, are crystallised, as it were, in it. That is why to handle a tool means not simply to hold it but also to know how to use it. (p.192, my emphasis)
What is this concrete form in which men’s consciousness of the objective world around them really occurs? It is language, which is, in the words of Marx and Engels, men’s ‘practical, real consciousness’.37 Consciousness is therefore inseparable from language. Language, like man’s consciousness also, arises solely in the labour process, and together with it. Language, like consciousness, is a product of men’s activity, a product of the group; only therefore does it also exist for the individual person” (p.194)
We have seen that the transition to this higher type of psyche comes about as a consequence of the emergence of men’s production relations. The features of men’s psyche are also determined by the features of these relations and depend on them. We know at the same time that production relations alter, that the production relations of primitive society are one thing and those, for example, of capitalist society are quite another matter. It can be taken, therefore, that with a radical change in men’s production relations their consciousness is also altered in a radical way and becomes qualitatively different. The task is to find the concrete psychological features of these different types of consciousness (p.199).
The doctor who buys a practice in some little provincial place may be very seriously trying to reduce his fellow citizens’ suffering from illness, and may see his calling in just that. He must, however, want the number of the sick to increase, because his life and practical opportunity to follow his calling depend on that.
This dualism distorts man’s most elementary feelings. Even love proves capable of acquiring the most ugly forms, not to mention love of money, which can become a veritable passion. (p.228)
We do not call every process activity. By this term we mean only those processes which, by realising man’s relations with the world, meet a special need corresponding to it. We do not properly call such a process as, for example, remembering, activity, because it does not, as a rule, in itself, realise any independent relation with the world and does not meet any special need.
By activity we mean processes that are psychologically characterised by what the process as a whole is directed to (its object) always coinciding with the objective that stimulates the subject to this activity, i.e. the motive. (p.363, my emphasis)
“We distinguish the process we call action from activity. An act or action is a process whose motive does not coincide with its object (i.e. with what it is directed to), but lies in the activity of which it forms part. …
Because the object of an action does not itself prompt to act, it is necessary for action to arise and to be accomplishable, for its object to appear to the subject in its relation to the motive of the activity of which it forms part. This relation is also reflected by the subject, moreover, in a quite definite form, namely in the form of awareness of the object of the action as a goal. The object of an action is therefore nothing other than its recognised direct goal. …
There is a particular relation between activity and action. The motive of activity, by being shifted, may pass to the object (goal) of the action, with the result that the action is transformed into an activity. This is an exceptionally important point. This is the way new activities and new relations with reality arise. This process is precisely the concrete, psychological basis on which changes in the leading activity occur and consequently the transitions from one stage of development to another.” (p.364, my emphasis).
By operations we mean the mode of performing an act. An operation is the necessary content of any action but it is not identical with the latter. One and the same action may be performed by different operations, and conversely, one and the same operation may sometimes realise different actions. That is because an operation depends on the conditions in which the action’s goal is given, while an action is determined by the goal. (p.369, my emphasis)
An action, on being converted into an operation, is reduced as it were in the rank it occupies in the general structure of activity, but that does not mean that it is simplified. In becoming an operation it falls out of the round of conscient processes, but retains the general features of a conscious process, and at any moment, for example with a difficulty, may again become conscious. (p.375).
The advances of human historical development were reinforced and passed on from generation to generation in a special form, namely in an exoteric, external form.
This new form of the accumulation of phylogenetic (or rather socio-historical) experience arose in man because the activity specific to him is productive activity. Such, above all, is men’s main activity, their work. (p.383)
Every object made by man – from a hand tool to the modern electronic computer – embodies mankind’s historical experience and at the same time also embodies the mental aptitudes moulded in this experience. This point conies out even more clearly perhaps in language, science, and works of art. (p.383)
The child does not adapt itself to the world of human objects and phenomena around it, but makes it its own, i.e. appropriates it.
The difference between adaptation in the sense that the term is used in regard to animals, and appropriation, is as follows: biological adaptation is change of the subject’s species properties and capacities and of its congenital behaviour caused by the requirements of the environment. Appropriation is another matter. It is a process that has as its end result the individual’s reproduction of historically formed human properties, capacities, and modes of behaviour. In other words it is a process through which what is achieved in animals by the action of heredity, namely the transmission of advances in the species’ development to the individual, takes place in the child. (p.384)
The basic, constituent feature of activity is that it has an object. In fact, the very concept of activity (doing, Tätigkeit) implies the concept of the object of activity. The expression “objectless activity” has no meaning at all. Activity may appear to be objectless, but the scientific investigation of activity necessarily demands the discovery of its object. Moreover, the object of activity appears in two forms: first, in its independent existence, commanding the activity of the subject, and second, as the mental image of the object, as the product of the subject’s “detection” of its properties, which is effected by the activity of the subject and cannot be effected otherwise. (p.397, my emphasis)
The main thing that distinguishes one activity from another lies in the difference between their objects. It is the object of activity that endows it with a certain orientation. In the terminology I have been using the object of activity is its motive. Naturally, this may be both material and ideal; it may be given in perception or it may exist only in imagination, in the mind. (p.400)
At the same time activity and action are both genuine and, moreover, non-coincidental realities, because one and the same action may realize various activities, may pass from one activity to another, thus revealing its relative independence. This is due to the fact that the given action may have quite different motives, i.e., it may realize completely different activities. And one and the same motive may generate various goals and hence various actions. (p.401)
Historically the need for such a “presentation” of the mental image to the subject arises only during the transition from the adaptive activity of animals to the productive, labour activity that is peculiar to man. The product to which activity is now directed does not yet actually exist. So it can regulate activity only if it is presented to the subject in such a form that enables him to compare it with the original material (object of labour) and with its intermediate transformations. What is more, the mental image of the product as a goal must exist for the subject in such a way that he can act with this image – modify it according to the conditions at hand. Such images are conscious images, conscious notions or, in other words, the phenomena of consciousness. (pp.402-403, my emphasis)
This book is available for free in web and PDF versions at the Marxists Internet Archive, along with many, many others. It’s a combination of Leontyev’s 1977 essay by the same name (which is laid out as an unnumbered chapter at the beginning) and his 1978 book Activity, Consciousness, and Personality (which I’ve reviewed twice before). Andy Blunden did us the great service of typesetting the two works in a single volume, which I ended up reading on my tablet.
As noted, the book is a classic in which Leontyev lays out what is sometimes, from a Scandinavian or CHAT perspective, called second-generation activity theory. Whereas Vygotsky laid out the basic project of a Marxist social psychology, Leontyev and collaborators (such as Luria) developed that project, extending it beyond individual to collective phenomena. Unlike Vygotsky, who died early, Leontyev lived and was active until his death in 1979.
I’m revisiting Leontyev’s writings now because I’m interested in further exploring how activity theory (AT) developed as well as in comparing Leontyev’s understanding with that of Engestrom, who introduced AT to Western audiences and extended it in significant ways. I’m also interested in seeing how Leontyev anchors his work in orthodox Marxist texts, particularly the writings of Marx and Engels.
Activity and Consciousness
In this opening essay, Leontyev examines the question of consciousness: “we postulate that consciousness is determined by being, which, in the words of Marx, is nothing else but the process of the actual life of people.” He continues:
But what is the actual or real life of people?
Being, the life of each individual is made up of the sum-total or, to be more exact, a system, a hierarchy of successive activities. It is in activity that the transition or “translation” of the reflected object into the subjective image, into the ideal, takes place; at the same time it is also in activity that the transition is achieved from the ideal into activity’s objective results, its products, into the material. Regarded from this angle, activity is a process of intertraffic between opposite poles, subject and object. (p.3)
And on the next page:
The basic, constituent feature of activity is that it has an object. In fact, the very concept of activity (doing, Tätigkeit) implies the concept of the object of activity. The expression “objectless activity” has no meaning at all. Activity may appear to be objectless, but the scientific investigation of activity necessarily demands the discovery of its object. Moreover, the object of activity appears in two forms: first, in its independent existence, commanding the activity of the subject, and second, as the mental image of the object, as the product of the subject’s “detection” of its properties, which is effected by the activity of the subject and cannot be effected otherwise.
The circular nature of the processes effecting the interaction of the organism with the environment has been generally acknowledged. But the main thing is not this circular structure as such, but the fact that the mental reflection of the objective world is not directly generated by the external influences themselves, but by the processes through which the subject comes into practical contact with the objective world, and which therefore necessarily obey its independent properties, connections, and relations. This means that the afferent agent, which controls the processes of activity, is primarily the object itself and only secondarily its image as the subjective product of activity, which registers, stabilizes and carries in itself the objective content of activity. (p.4)
Here, Leontyev is firmly grounding the study of consciousness in Marx’s thought, in dialectics. We see a short summary of AT, including themes such as the object (which is both objective and projective), the structuring of the activity around that object, and the cycle of transforming the object. We also see that activity unfolds in a material world, not an ideal one: “Activity is bound to encounter man-resisting objects that divert, change and enrich it. In other words, it is external activity that unlocks the circle of internal mental processes, that opens it up to the objective world.” (5)
Leontyev goes on to discuss the pairing of activity with motive and action with goal (6), discussing how actions/goals sometimes link indirectly to activity/motive, e.g., making a trap to indirectly satisfy hunger (7-8).
Yet this work still involves interpretation:
The indisputable fact remains that man’s activity is regulated by mental images of reality. Anything in the objective world that presents itself to man as the motives, goals and conditions of his activity must in some way or another be perceived, understood, retained and reproduced by his memory; this also applies to the processes of his activity, and to himself, his states and individual features.
Hence it follows that man’s consciousness in its immediacy is the picture of the world that unfolds itself to him, a picture in which he himself, his actions and states, are included. (9)
Along with Marx and Engels, Leontyev argues that labor activity produces consciousness. “It is self-evident that the explanation of the nature of consciousness lies in the peculiar features of human activity that create the need for it –in activity’s objective, productive character. Labour activity is imprinted, perpetuated in its product. There takes place, in the words of Marx, a transition of activity into a static property. This transition is the process of the material embodiment of the objective content of activity, which now presents itself to the subject, that is to say, arises before him in the
form of an image of the object perceived.”(p.10). (Remember that Solzhenitsyn notes this theme and claims that it provided the rationale for the Stalinist work camps.)
Leontyev adds (p.11) that activity includes a cycle in which the subject, object, and activity adjust to each other. Over time, activity allows consciousness to develop further. “Of course, the above-mentioned conditions and relations which generate human consciousness characterize it only at the earliest stages. Subsequently, as material production and communication develop, people’s consciousness is liberated from direct connection with their immediate practical labour activity both by the isolation and subsequent separation of intellectual production and the instrumentalization of language. The range of what has been created constantly widens, so that man’s consciousness becomes the universal, though not the only, form of mental reflection.” (p.12). (Cf Boyd on OODA involving constant expansion.)
This leads us to societal contradictions. As he says on p.22: “Under certain conditions the discrepancy between personal meanings and objective meanings in individual consciousness may amount to alienation or even diametrical opposition.” His example is the alienation of labor “In a society based on commodity production.” He adds, “The abolition of private property relations does away with this opposition between meaning and personal meaning in the consciousness of individuals; but the discrepancy between them remains.” (Meanwhile, Leontyev’s fellow citizens in the USSR were developing double consciousness to deal with the widening gap between public, official demands and private life.)
On p.26, Leontyev concludes: “To sum up, man’s consciousness, like his activity, is not additive. It is not a flat surface, nor even a capacity that can be filled with images and processes. Nor is it the connections of its separate elements. It is the internal movement of its “formative elements” geared to the general movement of the activity which effects the real life of the individual in society. Man’s activity is the substance of his consciousness.”
The main thing that distinguishes one activity from another, however, is the difference of their objects. It is exactly the object of an activity that gives it a determined direction. According to the terminology I have proposed, the object of an activity is its true motive. It is understood that the motive may be either material or ideal, either present in perception or exclusively in the imagination or in thought. The main thing is that behind activity there should always be a need, that it should always answer one need or another. (p.98)
Thus the concept of activity is necessarily connected with the concept of motive. Activity does not exist without a motive; ‘non-motivated’ activity is not activity without a motive but activity with a subjectively and objectively hidden motive…. We call a process an action if it is subordinated to the representation of the result that must be attained, that is, if it is subordinated to a conscious purpose. Similarly, just as the concept of motive is related to the concept of activity, the concept of purpose is related to the concept of action. (p.99)
As I recently mentioned, I’m reading (and in most cases rereading) early works in the lineage of activity theory. Since AT grew out of the milieu of the Soviet Union, that means reading Soviet psychology and philosophy.
This book, Luria’s Cognitive Development, is an interesting example. As Luria explains in the preface,
All of its observational material was collected in 1931-32, during the Soviet Union’s most radical restructuring: the elimination of illiteracy, the transition to a collectivist economy, and the readjustment of life to new socialist principles. This period offered a unique opportunity to observe how decisively all these reforms effected not only a broadening of outlook but also radical changes in the structure of cognitive processes. (p.v)
The specific research was conducted in Uzbekistan and “Kirghizia” (p.v), which Luria characterized in this way:
the masses had lived for centuries in economic stagnation and illiteracy, their development hindered among other things by the religion of Islam. Only the radical restructuring of the economy, the rapid elimination of illiteracy, and the removal of the Moslem influence could achieve, over and above the expansion in world view, a genuine revolution in cognitive activity.
Our data indicate the decisive change that can occur in going from graphic and functional—concrete and practical—methods of thinking to much more theoretical and abstract modes brought about by fundamental changes in social conditions, in this instance by the socialist transformation of an entire culture. Thus the experimental observations shed light on one aspect of human cognitive activity that has received little scientific study but that corroborates the dialectics of social development. (p.vi)
In his foreword, Michael Cole contextualizes the book further. Luria met Lev Vygotsky at a conference in 1923, and began collaborating with him in 1924, where they worked toward developing a psychology along Marxist lines. Vygotsky’s focus was on mediation in individuals’ psychology (xii), but the two psychologists later published a monograph suggesting that the principles could be applied to sociocultural development too (p.xiii). They saw the opportunity to study this question in places where enormous social changes were taking place—specifically, places that were being collectivized (p.xiv). They could not only develop sociocultural theory but also (ideally) find “evidence of the intellectual benefits of the new socialist order” (p.xiv). Unfortunately for Luria, “critics pointed out that his data could be read as an insult to the people with whom he had been working” (p.xiv), and that this sensitive time in the USSR’s formation, that could not be allowed. The book was left unpublished for 40 years, until 1974.
I think we can understand why. When I first read this book, in graduate school, I was fascinated by the data but disturbed by the Soviet program—Luria spoke so casually of denying people their way of life and religion. I’m still disturbed by it, especially reading it alongside The Gulag Archipelago and its accounts of forced exile of entire populations. (For context, Luria’s expedition started the year after Stalin gained power.) Let’s keep this in mind as we go through the rest of the book.
Before the revolution, the people of Uzbekistan lived in a backward economy based mainly on the raising of cotton. The kishiak (village) dwellers displayed remnants of a once-high culture together with virtually complete illiteracy, and also showed the pronounced influence of the Islamic religion.
When the socialist revolution eliminated dominance and submission as class relations, people oppressed one day enjoyed a free existence the next. And for the first time, they experienced responsibility for their own future. Uzbekistan became a republic with collective agricultural production; industry also began to develop. The appearance of a new economic system brought with it new forms of social activity: the collective evaluation of work plans, the recognition and correction of shortcomings, and the allocation of economic functions. Naturally the socioeconomic life of these regions underwent a complete transformation. The radical changes in social class structure were accompanied by new cultural shifts.
The extensive network of schools opened up in outlying areas that had been virtually 100 percent illiterate for centuries. Despite their short-term nature, the literacy programs familiarized large numbers of adults with the elements of modern technology. Adults in school took time-out from their everyday activities and began to master elements of simple but “theoretical” pursuits. In acquiring the rudiments of reading and writing, people had to break down spoken language into its constituents and encode it in a system of symbols. They mastered the concept of number, which had been used only in practical activities, but now became an abstract entity to be learned for its own sake. As a result, people became acquainted not only with new fields of knowledge but also with new motives for action. (p.13)
Luria and his people “selected remote villages of Uzbekistan and also a few in the mountainous regions of Kirghizia” (p.14). The society was feudal, generally illiterate, and dependent on agriculture, mostly cotton. Islam was prevalent. Yet the region was transitioning, with “the beginnings of collectivization and other radical socioeconomic changes as well as the emancipation of women” as well as rudimentary education (p.14). Luria’s team compared illiterate people with people of very modest literacy (p.15).
In Ch. 2, Luria details experiments on perception in which he showed cards with various geometric figures and asked participants to group them. Interestingly, illiterate participants did not seem to perceive based on Gestalt principles: for instance, they would not group a triangle made of lines with a triangle made of dots—but literates did (p.33). Similarly, Luria found that perceptual illusions can depend on cultural development, with literates seeing illusions that illiterates did not (p.41). “Optical illusions are not universal. … the data clearly show that optical illusions are linked to complex psychological processes that vary in accordance with sociohistorical development” (p.43).
Ch.3 moves to the question of generalization and abstraction. Luria presented pictures of objects and asked which ones went together. Examples:
- glass – saucepan – spectacles – bottle
- hammer – saw – log – hatchet
- dagger – bird – rifle – bullet (p.75)
The main group of subjects classified objects not according to verbal or logical principles, but according to practical schemes. Nonetheless, such concrete thinking is neither innate nor genetically determined. It results from illiteracy and rudimentary types of activity that have prevailed in these subjects’ daily experience. When the pattern of their lives changes and the range of their experience broadens, when they learn to read and write, to become part of a more advanced culture, the greater complexity of their activity stimulates new ideas. These changes, in turn, bring about a radical reorganization of their habits of thinking, so that they learn to use and appreciate the value of theoretical procedures that formerly seemed irrelevant. (p.79)
In Ch.4, “Deduction and Inference,” Luria discusses conceptual thinking as advanced and providing the ability to “abstract the essential features of objects and thus assign these objects to general categories [and thus] leads to the formation of a more complex logical apparatus” (p.100). He tested deduction and inference by asking participants to repeat syllogisms such as this one:
White bears exist only where it is very cold and there is snow. Silk cocoons exist only where it is very hot. Are there places that have both white bears and cocoons? (p.105)
Participants did not literally repeat these syllogisms, instead producing utterances such as these:
“There is a country where there are white bears and white snow. Can there be such a thing? Can white silk grow there?”
“Where it is cold, there are white bears. Where it is hot are there cocoons? Are there such places on earth?” (p.105)
Later, Luria asks other participants to draw inferences based on syllogisms. For instance, he asks:
In the Far North, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zemlya is in the Far North and there is always snow there. What color are the bears there? (p.108)
Well, it’s like this: our tsar isn’t like yours, and yours isn’t like ours. Your words can be answered only by someone who was there, and if a person wasn’t there he can’t say anything on the basis of your words. (p.109)
(Do you think Luria is correct in believing that this person is unable to draw inference because he is unable to escape the frame of concrete experiential thinking? Or do you think it’s possible that this person is staying within the bounds of cultural politeness or even resistant to Luria’s game?)
We see similar things in the next chapter, “Reasoning and Problem Solving,” in which Luria gives people word problems, deliberately making them different from reality. Here’s an example:
It is twenty versts from here to Uch-Kurgan, while Shakhimardan is four times closer. [In actuality, the reverse is true.] How many versts is it to Shakhimardan? (p.127)
Participants don’t want to play this game:
“What! Shakhimardan four times closer?! But it’s farther away!”
“Yes, we know. But I gave out this problem as an exercise.” (p.127)
“How should I know how long it would take? If I had gone, I could say, but I wouldn’t want to lie to no purpose, you know.” (p.128)
(Does this last line sound like a veiled accusation to you?)
Let’s skip to Ch.7, “Self-Analysis and Self-Awareness.” “This chapter attempts to determine the extent to which our subjects were able to treat their own inner life in a generalized fashion, to single out particular psychological traits in themselves, to analyze their interior world, and to evaluate their intrinsic qualities” (p.144). In the introduction to this chapter, Luria says,
There is every reason to think that self-awareness is a product of sociohistorical development and that reflection of external natural and social reality arises first; only later, through its mediating influence, do we find self-awareness in its more complex forms. Accordingly, we should approach self-awareness as a product of consciousness of the external world and of other people, and should seek its social roots and traits in the stages through which it is shaped in society.
The notion that self-awareness is a secondary and socially shaped phenomenon was formulated by Marx: “At first, man looked at himself as if in a mirror, except that it is another person. Only relating to Paul as one like himself can Peter begin to relate to himself as a person.” Despite the fact that the notion of the social origin of self-awareness arose more than a century ago in materialistic philosophy, there have not yet been adequate attempts in psychological research to show that this view is correct or to follow the specific stages through which this phenomenon is shaped socially. (p.145, my emphasis)
The italicized portion again makes me cautious about Luria. Is Luria relying on Marx—a brilliant philosopher, but not a psychologist—to provide a psychological explanation that Soviet psychologists now only need to validate? Or is this the sort of cliche that Luria had to employ in order to be published in the Soviet Union?
As you should be able to tell, I’m ambivalent about the book. On one hand, it opens up intriguing speculation and some interesting data about cross-cultural psychology and psychological development. On the other hand, I don’t like some of the premises and the methodology often seems questionable. But as a classic in the lineage of activity theory, it’s an important read.
I first read this book the summer after my 16th birthday. It details the author’s experience in the Stalinist work camps, but it also details the experience of many others who communicated with the author in the work camps or, after his release, in secret conversations and letters. Taken all together, the book recounts the history of the work camps from 1918 (before they were officially formed under Stalin in 1930) to 1956 (after Stalin’s death in 1953). And it is horrifying.
There’s no way I can adequately summarize the book. But I picked it up again after two things happened.
First, a fellow researcher, who had been born in the Eastern Bloc, remembered its propagandic education and asked me whether this propaganda constituted the Soviet roots of activity theory.
Second, to better understand the roots of the notion of contradiction in activity theory, I read one of Evald Ilyenkov’s books, The Dialectics of the Abstract and Concrete in Marx’s Capital, which was published in 1960—four years after the timespan covered in the Gulag Archipelago, two years before Solzhenitsyn published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Ilyenkov’s book, like others during the time, quotes Marx, Engels and Lenin fervently and describes opposing viewpoints contemptuously. Was he a true believer, the kind that ascribes to this trio the sort of infallability a fundamentalist Christian does to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Was he trying to make sure that his books would pass the censors, as Bakhtin allegedly tried to do? Or was he — frightened?
I’m going to be reading and reviewing several Soviet-era books over the next few weeks, including some that were written during Stalin’s time in power, so I wanted to ground myself in the historical background. I don’t want to forget that these researchers had ample reasons to quote Marx et al often, reasons that did not necessarily have to do with free inquiry. And I wanted to remember how much of the infrastructure they enjoyed, how many of the programs in which they were involved, benefited indirectly from the unfree labor in these horrid labor camps. And that’s why I decided to read The Gulag Archipelago a second time.
The book deserves far more attention, but here I’ll just pull out a few quotes relevant to my particular investigation.
On p.29, Solzhenitsyn discusses how no one was safe from arrest by the secret police, who had to fulfill their quotas, and who were under no obligation to provide a trial. “Just as the intelligentsia had never been overlooked in previous waves, it was not neglected in this one. A student’s denunciation that a certain lecturer in a higher educational institution kept citing Lenin and Marx frequently but Stalin not at all was all that was needed for the lecturer not to show up for lectures any more. And what if he cited no one?” (p.29)
In discussing the Gulag’s “‘discovery’ that the personal confession of an accused person was more important than any other kind of proof or facts” (p.42), Solzhenitsyn describes how Vyshinsky, “availing himself of the most flexible dialectics … pointed out in a report which became famous in certain circles that it is never possible for mortal men to establish absolute truth, but relative truth only. … Therefore, when we sign a sentence ordering someone to be shot we can never be absolutely certain, but only approximately, in view of certain hypotheses, and in a certain sense, that we are punishing a guilty person.” The solution was, rather than seeking absolute evidence (it’s all relative) or witnesses (these are changeable), the interrogator could find such relative proof without even leaving his office, just by making the prisoner confess. (p.43). “In only one respect did Vyshinsky fail to be consistent and retreat from dialectical logic: for some reason, the executioner’s bullet which he allowed was not relative but absolute …” (p.43)
On p.215: “Engels discovered that the human being had arisen not through the perception of a moral idea and not through the process of thought, but out of happenstance and meaningless work (an ape picked up a stone—and with this everything began. Marx, concerning himself with a less remote time (‘Critique of the Gotha Program’), declared with equal conviction that the one and only means of correcting offenders … was not solitary contemplation, not moral soul-searching, nor repentance, and not languishing (for all that was superstructure!)—but productive labor.” (p.215) Solzhenitsyn cites this claim as the rationale for the work camps—and he also says that Marx never had to work!
On p.325: He argues that the lie has become the form of existence. “There exists a collection of ready-made phrases, of labels, a selection of ready-made lies. And not one single speech nor one single essay or article nor one single book—be it scientific, journalistic, critical, or ‘literary,’ so-called—can exist without the use of these primary cliches.”
Read it? Definitely. I’m glad I did at 16, and I’m glad I did again, to remind myself to look for those cliches in the next few weeks.
A few days ago, I reviewed Daniel Ford’s slim book on John Boyd, A Vision So Noble, which grew out of his MA work. It referenced this book, which was evidently Osinga’s dissertation. Osinga was an F-16 pilot and served in the Royal Netherlands Air Force.
Osinga’s focus is on another former pilot, John Boyd. As discussed in the earlier review, Boyd was a pilot who went back to school to become an engineer, then became an autodidact military theorist whose readings included Tzu and Clausewitz but also Maturana, Bateson, Polanyi, Kuhn, and Popper. “Some regard Boyd as the most important strategist of the twentieth century, or even since Sun Tzu,” Osinga tells us (p.3), although “on the other hand, his work has invited dismissive critique” (p.1). Complicating this legacy is the fact that Boyd’s body of theoretical work is made up of “four briefings and an essay”; the briefings are slide decks that Boyd revised throughout his life. (You can see the originals at the John Boyd Compendium.) The slide decks are meant to be presented rather than read as standalone documents, and thus pose a problem for those who want to better understand Boyd’s thought.
To preserve Boyd’s thought, Osinga takes on the task of contextualizing these primary texts: he contextualizes the challenges that Boyd addressed; digs into archives such as interviews with Boyd; and uses the archives to identify some of Boyd’s sources (Boyd was not meticulous about citing) so he could read those sources himself. It’s a lot of work, and the result is—based on my limited understanding of the subject—a strong account of the major claims Boyd made and an argument for taking these claims seriously.
Osinga starts by orienting us to terms of art in military theory: military theory itself (“the aggregate of theories, doctrines, and beliefs belonging to a particular individual, community or period,” pp.8-9); operational art (“the body of knowledge dealing with the use and behavior of military forces in a military campaign aimed to achieve strategic or operational level military objectives,” p.9); doctrine (“the aggregate of fundamental methods of fighting, often tacit or implied,” p.9); and strategy (referencing Clausewitz, “the use of tacit and explicit threats, as well as of actual battles and campaigns, to advance political purposes,” which “provides the conceptual link between action and effect and between instrument and objective,” p.9).
Strategy, he adds, “concerns both organization and environment”; “affects overall welfare of the organization”; “involves issues of both content and process”; exists on different levels (e.g., corporate strategy and business strategy in the same firm); and “involves conceptual as well as analytical exercises” (p.10). And “Strategy abhors a vacuum; if the strategic function is lacking, strategic effect will be generated by the causal, if perhaps unguided and unwanted accumulation of tactical and operational outcomes” (p.10). Strategic theory involves four levels:
- “a level that transcends time, environment, political and social conditions and technology”
- “a level that explains how the geographic and functional complexities of war and strategy interact and complement each other”
- “a level that explains how a particular kind of use of military power strategically affeects the course of conflict as a whole”
- “a level that explains the character of war in a particular period” (p.12)
Colonel Boyd observed that in any conflict all combatants go through repeated cycles of an observation – orientation – decision –action (OODA) loop […]The potentially victorious combatant is the one with the OODA loop which is consistently quicker than his opponent (including the time required to transition from one cycle to another). As this opponent repeatedly cycles faster than his opponent, the opponent finds he is losing control of the situation […] his countermeasures are overcome by the rapidly unfolding events and become ineffective in coping with each other. He finds himself increasingly unable to react. Suddenly, he realizes there is nothing else he can do to control the situation or turn it to his advantage. At this point he has lost. In essence his command circuits have been overloaded, thereby making his decisions too slow for the developing situation […] all that remain are uncoordinated smaller units incapable of coordinated action. The enemy’s defeat in detail is the eventual outcome. (qtd on p.49; my emphasis)
The method requires “continuous high-tempo operations, a focus on creating and exposing flanks and rears, and on weaknesses instead of enemy’s strengths … [and] mission tactics of Aufragstatik, for the party which can consistently operate the longest without new orders will inevitably have the greater advantage over an opponent awaiting orders after every action” (p.49). (cf. Alberts and Hayes.)
In Ch.3, Osinga tackles “Science,” specifically examining OODA’s roots in Polanyi, Kuhn, Popper, Godel, Weiner, Skinner, Heisenberg, Prigogine, and Piaget. Osinga notes the move away from Cartesianism and toward systems thinking.
Ch.4, “Completing the Shift,” overviews Boyd’s move to a new worldview, drawing a contrast between “traditional” and “emerging” views (see table on p.88, or if you don’t have a copy, p.124 of Osinga’s dissertation). Essentially, Boyd moved from a modernist to a postmodernist viewpoint, examining self-organization and non-linear interconnectedness (p.88). Boyd is influenced by Prigogine here, and later—deeply—by Maturana and Vela (p.92), particularly their discussions of autopoeisis and structural coupling (p.94). Boyd writes: “Orientation is the schwerpunkt. It shapes the way we interact with the environment. … Orientation shapes the character of present observations-orientation-decision-action loops —while those present loops shape the character of future orientation” (p.94).
Halfway through this chapter, Osinga draws the threads together, arguing that Boyd presented a unifying vision.
- At the grand strategic level, it presented a unifying vision, a coherent paradigm, and an “agreeable ideology which fosters internal unity and offers a ‘moral high ground’ for creating alliances. It favors cooperation” (p.100).
- At the next level, the strategic aim is to “Diminish adversary’s capacity while improving our capacity to adapt as an organic whole, so that our adversary cannot cope while we can cope with events/efforts as they unfold” (Boyd qtd in Osinga p.101).
- At the grand tactical level, Boyd argued for operating inside the adversary’s OODA loops, creating mismatches between the adversary’s observations and the conditions to which it must react. Doing so makes one appear unpredictable, keeping the adversary from adapting or coping with the unfolding strategic design (p.101).
- At the tactical level, Boyd said that units should “OODA more inconspicuously, more quickly, and with more irregularity” and “repeatedly and unexpectedly penetrate vulnerabilities and weaknesses exposed by that effort” (qtd in Osinga p.101).
Now Osinga gets to Ch.5, where he overviews Boyd’s “Core Arguments.” Here, he follows the structure of the slide decks in Boyd’s A Discourse on Winning and Losing. Essentially, he tries “to provide the content of his slides in reasonable prose” with little commentary (pp.128-129). As a side note, I sometimes had a hard time distinguishing between Boyd’s original text from the slides and Osinga’s interpretation throughout; I would have liked to see these set off visually. Rather than march lockstep through this section, let me pick out some of the more important things.
In Patterns of Conflict, Boyd synthesizes principles of guerrilla warfare and Blitzkrieg, arguing that one should avoid battles, instead focusing on shattering cohesion, generating surprise and shock, and paralyzing effort (p.164). Forces must be able to maintain internal harmony, operating in “a directed yet more indistinct, more irregular and quicker manner than one’s adversaries,” concentrating and dispersing inconspicuously and/or quickly (p.164).
Boyd also emphasizes moral conflict, arguing that a force must “create, exploit, and magnify” menace, uncertainty, and mistrust in the enemy, generating “many non-cooperative centers of gravity” and magnifying internal friction (p.171). Simultaneously, he argues that the force should set up internal “counterweights” of initiative, adaptability, and harmony (p.172). Adversaries must be isolated from allies and each other, morally, mentally, and physically (pp.178-179).
In Ch.6, “Exploration and Refinement,” Osinga presents the other five briefings, again presenting rather than commenting on these briefings. As in the last chapter, I’ll hit what I thought were the highlights.
In Organic Design for Command and Control, Boyd argues (in Osinga’s paraphrase) that “interactions in various forms are the glue that binds the various nodes of a social system together” (p.192). In Boyd’s own words, “interactions represent a many-sided implicit cross-referencing process of projection, empathy, correlation, and rejection” (qtd in Osinga p.192). Osinga argues that “this insight into the nature of interactions is the first step toward a definition of orientation” (p.193). Boyd again: “Orientation, seen as a result, represents images, views, or impressions of the world shaped by
genetic heritage, cultural tradition, previous experiences, and unfolding circumstances.” (qtd in Osinga p.193).
Boyd then synthesizes the two statements: “Orientation is an interactive process of many sided implicit cross-referencing projections, empathies, correlations, and rejections that is shaped by and shapes the interplay of genetic heritage, cultural tradition, previous experiences and unfolding circumstances.” (qtd in Osinga p. 193).
Orientation, as Boyd says elsewhere, is the Schwerpunkt or center of gravity. He argues that if a force can “create many non-cooperative centers of gravity” in the adversary, that force can magnify friction because the adversary must focus inward, thereby creating confusion and disorder (qtd in Osinga p.195). Thus, as Boyd argues in Strategic Game of ? and ?, “The Strategic Game is one of Interaction and Isolation” (qtd in Osinga p.209, Boyd’s emphasis).
Yet, just as Engestrom argues that contradictions are engines of change, Boyd argues that “The presence and production of mismatches are what sustain and nourish the enterprise of science, engineering, and technology, hence keep it alive and ongoing — otherwise there would be no basis for it to continue. (qtd in Osinga p.225).
Orientation, clearly, is a critical part of the OODA loop. And since this chapter is called “Exploration and Refinement,” we can see a refined version of the OODA loop on p.231 (or see the dissertation p.270). Unlike the simplified OODA loop that we usually see in secondary literature—a loop that seems to simply focus on tempo as it cycles in lockstep—this one elaborates feedback loops at each state and details subcomponents of Orientation. The entire loop is a “cross-referencing process” (Boyd, qtd in Osinga p.232).
In Chapter 7, “Completing the Loop,” Osinga provides the commentary that he withheld from Ch.5-6. The OODA loop, he argues,
represents and means more than a decision process, and the model contains more for victory than information superiority and speed. The OODA loop is much less a model for decision-making than a model of individual and organizational learning and adaptation in which the element of orientation—made up of genetics, experience, culture—plays the dominant role in the game of hypothesis and test, of analysis and synthesis, of destruction and creation. (p.235, my emphasis)
He goes on to address misconceptions. First, yes, one usually wants to get “inside” the adversary’s OODA loop; but this doesn’t just mean “out-looping,” it also means “altering the tempo” (p.235) because “Changing OODA speed becomes part of denying a pattern to be recognized” (p.236).
Second, focusing on speed misses the critical interrelationship between “physical action and the mental and moral component”: if one has access to more timely information, but cannot react as quickly, the advantage is lost. (e.g., imagine an army with up-to-the-minute intelligence but a bureaucracy that makes operational decisions hourly or daily). (p.236)
Third, tempo is not the only control dimension. (p.236).
Beyond that, Osinga argues, narrow interpretations of OODA miss the critical issue of “developing, maintaining and reshaping one’s orientation” (p.236). Osinga argues that “it is essential to have a repertoire of orientation patterns and the ability to select the correct one according to the situation at hand while denying the opponent the latter capability. Moreover, Boyd emphasizes the capabilityy to validate the schemata before and during operations and the capability to devise and incorporate new ones, if one is to survive in a rapidly changing environment” (p.236, Osinga’s emphasis).
(Related note: I’ve noted in recent studies that participants sometimes relate to rapidly changing environments by developing relatively stable patterns and stable sets of transformations.)