The Subject. Part II. The Individual. Andy Blunden 2006
In modern philosophical writing, ‘subject’ is effectively a synonym for ‘individual’. Not quite, because ‘individual’ refers to a human being whatever her consciousness or social position, whereas ‘subject’ is a kind of ‘transcendental’ individual, referring only to the cognitive, agency and identity aspects of the individual.
Further, in all the above senses, the individual only becomes to some degree a subject, and remains so conditionally, according to the extent that they have a critical voice in the society of which they are a part, and exercise moral responsibility. Self-consciousness in the narrowest sense is not attained until the end of infancy, probably around the age of two, and the young person does not develop any real sense of their own identity until adolescence; a person is not a legal subject, deemed to bear moral responsibility for their actions, until they have reached the age of maturity and are of sound mind. And as we get older, we come to realise how throughout our life we may have been carried along by the spirit of our times, simply acting in ways typical of our social position.
However, the practice of identifying the subject with the individual (with the above qualifications), when combined with awareness that all aspects of subjectivity are socially, culturally and historically constructed, has led to the perverse conclusion that the subject does not exist, is an illusion or a reactionary fabrication.
The ‘problem of the individual’ is usually posed in the form of a problematic dichotomy – the individual and society: to what extent is an individual genuinely able to exercise self-determination, rather than being carried along by events and social movements within and alongside of which they are powerless; to what extent is an individual’s self-consciousness a product not of their own reflection, but rather a result of being inserted into a subject position in a socially constructed narrative; to what extent and how is an individual’s beliefs, knowledge, values, etc., a product of their own efforts, rather than being passively absorbed from the social position they occupy and the spirit of their times?
‘Society’ will be the topic of Part III. Here we will look into the problem of the individual, while remembering that an individual can no more be abstracted from a specific culture and definite social relations, than a society or culture can exist other than in and through the activity of individuals.
I will show that the nature of human individuals can only be grasped through the concept of ‘subject’. Secondly, subjectivity exists only in and through individuals. Thirdly, the individual-as-subject may be an enormous fallacy today and in any society that we can conceive of, but it remains a powerful, regulatory ideal in modern society. We all feel that a person ought to be a subject, even though, in the light of the insights of all serious contemporary social theory, the very idea is absurd.
It is worthwhile to look at just what an individual-as-subject would mean. The individual subject would be a person who exercises such control over their own body, their own psyche and their social position, that they are able to command the entirety of culture insofar as it hinders or facilitates their achievement of ends self-consciously formulated in the light of existing culture; it is further presupposed that social relations prevail which provide social positions in which a person is able to freely collaborate with others as equals so as to exercise collective self-determination without the exploitation or oppression, and that the prevailing culture provides the opportunity for all the relevant conditions to be transparent to the individual.
The notion of ‘subject’ does not entail god-like freedom-to-do-anything, or even to be free of the constraints imposed by respecting the self-determination of other subjects. What is entailed is neither more nor less than is entailed in the notion of self-determination when applied to a nation-state, within a regime of international law. It does not imply god-like omniscience, but rather sufficient knowledge to use the existing culture, free of manipulation by others. It does not entail infinite command of the forces of Nature, but only freedom from the deliberate or inadvertent domination of other subjects.
That such an ideal is utopian is self-evident. Nevertheless, it is sufficient to see how a free citizen of modern capitalist society is the embryo of a subject, that is all. The question as to how and to what extent individuals, in concert with others, exercise rational self-determination is subject to empirical investigation.
The key source on which I rely for an understanding of the individual, capable of providing empirical content for these problems, is Cultural-Historical Activity Theory, generally associated with the name of L S Vygotsky, but including both the tendency associated with the name of A N Leontyev which emphasises activity, Michael Cole’s Cultural Psychology, and kindred currents within this tradition; but I shall not be concerned with these differences, focussing instead on common foundations.
In focussing on psychology, I do not mean to imply that the individual is, for our purposes, just a psyche, and that the human body or a person’s actual social position is of no account. On the contrary. Nor do I mean to imply that subjectivity is the attribute of an individual. On the contrary. But the fact is that it is a current of psychology which provides the key insights which allow us the better understand the relation between the subject and the individual, including how a person’s body and social position contribute to subjectivity.
The story of Cultural Psychology begins in 1924. At the First Soviet Congress on Psychoneurology a year before, a prominent psychologist by the name of Kornilov had claimed to have applied Marxism to psychology and declared his version of Behaviourism the official Soviet psychology. At this time, Behaviourism was the dominant psychology in the U.S., and Ivan Pavlov was the young Soviet Union’s greatest natural scientific star. Behaviourism also neatly fitted the needs of the rising Soviet bureaucracy.
At the Second Congress a year later, an unknown student called Lev Vygotsky stepped to the rostrum, denounced Kornilov’s behaviourism and won the day. Vygotsky’s school was suppressed after his death in 1934; behaviourism was restored to its dominant status and remains to this day the dominant current of psychology in Russia; the Vygotsky School continued as a minority current, surviving by the skin of its teeth to the present day.
Vygotsky, a student of linguistics, sociology, psychology and philosophy, was already acquainted with Lukács and had read Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts as well as being widely read in philosophy, literature and literary criticism. He was joined by a young Jewish doctor, Alexander Luria, and a student of Kornilov’s, Alexei Leontyev, and these three led a school of experimental and theoretical psychology in Russia which now extends across four generations to the present day.
Luria abandoned psychology for neuroscience as a survival strategy during Stalin’s purges and became world-renowned as a result of his work with brain-damaged war veterans. They were never allowed to travel however and their psychological work was not made available for publication overseas and remained unknown outside the USSR until 1958.
Vygotsky’s early works were concerned mainly with literary criticism; in 1924 he published several works on the education of disabled children; in 1925, he published his first major work, the Psychology of Art (Vygotsky 1925); in 1926, Vygotsky was commissioned to write a manual for Soviet teachers (Vygotsky 1926), continuing his involvement with educational psychology; in 1927, the group conducted a wide-ranging review in the Crisis of Psychology (Vygotsky 1927) and it is from this work that their distinctive approach to psychology can be dated.
John Dewey visited the USSR in 1928 (Prawat, 2001) and introduced the views of the Progressive Movement and its philosophy of Pragmatism into the melting-pot which gave rise to the Vygotsky School.
From this time until the present, their practical work has been chiefly focused on the education of disabled people (especially the deaf-blind) and disadvantaged children, but covers the entire range, including extensive laboratory work, anthropological expeditions to Soviet Central Asia in the 1920s and the treatment of brain injuries in the 1940s.
After the visit of Michael Cole to the Soviet Union in 1962, and the steady flow of translations from the Russian which followed, a following for Cultural Psychology has grown up in the US especially, with Britain, Finland and Portugal also being notable centres. Currently it has adherents across the globe, being particularly strong in educational psychology, child development, adolescence and social psychology.
The monicker “Cultural Psychology” indicates the variant led by Mike Cole, dropping the ‘historical’ as denoting a trace of the modernist notion of ‘progress’ and emphasising the role of cultural context. The variant of Alexei Leontyev, known as “Activity Theory,” emphasises activity rather than culture. The broader school is generally known as “Cultural Historical Activity Theory” (CHAT hereafter).
CHAT is a ‘materialist’ psychology, in that it rests on the conviction that mind is ultimately reducible to material interactions, whether internal to the human body or manifested in social practice, without the need for any extramundane ‘spirit’ or mental substance. It is consistently ‘non-metaphysical’. So the best approach to understanding CHAT is to begin where the current itself began, in its critique of behaviourism, especially that of Ivan Pavlov.
Pavlov’s behaviourism rested on the conditioned reflex. For behaviourism, the basic unit of behaviour is stimulus-response: S ? R. Learning simply involved the introduction of new stimulus-response connections, and intelligence is nothing more than a complex network of S ? R connections, some learned, some innate. For behaviourism, consciousness either does not exist or is not a proper object for scientific study. But it is obviously impossible to understand a person’s behaviour without access to the concept of consciousness. (This extreme form of behaviourism is out of favour nowadays, and most neuroscientists see consciousness as an ‘emergent property’ of the complexity of S ? R connections. These ideas are considered in the next chapter.)
Without challenging the fact that the organism is composed of nothing more than a complex network of S ? R connections, Vygotsky showed that S ? R fails to provide a basis for understanding consciousness, just as atoms fail to provide a basis for chemistry and metallurgy fails to provide a basis for understanding the operation of machines.
The key step for the founding of a science is to identify the smallest unit of analysis which displays all the properties of the whole relevant to the given science; in the case of chemistry, the molecule. Vygotsky proposed the inclusion of a mediating link, a ‘psychological tool’ or ‘stimulus-sign’ or just ‘sign’, between the stimulus and response to form the building block of consciousness. A N Leontyev characterised this idea in the following terms:
“The crux of Vygotsky’s idea is that only the tripartite schema, which cannot be further decomposed, can be the minimal unit of analysis which preserves the basic properties of the mental functions.” (LSV CW, v. 3 p. 24.)
The ‘psychological tool’ is also both a stimulus and a reaction, obedient to the laws of nature, but something which is constructed, a product of cultural activity:
“Artificial acts are natural as well. They can, without remainder, to the very end, be decomposed and reduced to natural ones, just like any machine (or technical tool) can, without remainder, be decomposed into a system of natural forces and processes. What is artificial is the combination (construction) and direction, the substitution and utilisation of these natural processes.” (LSV CW, v. 3 p. 85-6.)
Like any artefact, the nervous system so constructed is a social product, which makes its appearance only in and through the collaboration of the individual with others within some kind of social practice.
“[E]ach higher form of behaviour enters the scene twice in its development – first as a collective form of behaviour, as an inter-psychological function, then as an intra-psychological function, as a certain way of behaving.” (LSV CW, v. 3 p. 95.)
“the operation of using a sign, ... at the beginning of the development of each of the higher mental functions, initially has, of necessity, a character of external activity. At first, as a rule, the sign is an external auxiliary stimulus, an external means of autostimulation. This is due to two factors: first, to the origin of this operation from a group form of behaviour that always belongs to the sphere of external activity, and, second, to the primitive laws of the individual sphere of behaviour, which in its development has still not separated from external activity ...” (LSV CW, v. 6. p. 11)
Once, however, the process of internalisation is complete, the artefact, which may begin its life as an objective, material thing outside consciousness, albeit a thing endowed with social significance, has become integrated into the psyche itself, and cannot be said to be something other than the psyche. The same can be said of the activity of consciousness in relation to other people and an artefact; this activity ceases to be something that the psyche does, but rather is the psyche itself. In Leontyev’s words: “Man’s activity is the substance of his consciousness,” or as Johann Fichte put it: “The self is pure activity.” (Fichte 2000)
Lev Vygotsky’s key idea about the construction of consciousness is based on how we learn; learning takes place through the collaboration of the novice with an adult member of the culture using some artefact to allow the novice to complete some operation they need to become a competent member of the society. That artefact may be a sign or any other kind of useful thing provided by society for the achievement of social ends, or a role-model (a symbol, index or icon, in Peirce’s categorisation of signs). The child learns to coordinate their own activity using the artefact, and then gradually internalises that activity so that the use of a objective thing, spoken word, etc., may no longer be necessary, but is taken over by internal functions within their own body.
The essential components of this learning action are the individual child, the artefact and the ‘representative’ of society, who sets tasks for the child and assists them in achieving the tasks using the artefact. As the learning proceeds, the material thing, the artefact, is transformed into a kind of node within the psyche, a ‘psychological tool’. At this point, the learner has acquired the competency of an adult member of the society (skipping over here the long drawn out series of transformations that takes place during the process of internalisation or appropriation) so that the distinction between the material and mental aspects of the element of culture is secondary and relative; the artefact is an ‘ideal’ or ‘universal’. The outcome is not the insertion of the ideal into some kind of mental substance, but rather the restructuring of the nervous system with the individual coordinating their activity by means of the ideal, which remains an element of material culture. When we talk of activity then, we are talking of the coordination of the purposive activity of two or more individuals in some kind of social practice by means of socially constructed signs. This includes the coordination by the individual of their own body so as to act in relation to the entire society and its culture, irrespective of the immediate presence of any other person. In the limiting case of such activity then, the person acts in relation to their own body as a cultural product.
The unit of analysis for a subject as conceived of by Vygotsky is therefore an individual person (in particular their psyche), an element of culture (whether an internal sign-stimulus or a sign in the form of a material thing outside the body) and a social practice. In the process of development, these elements which begin as distinct components of psychic activity, become internalised and identified in the subject, as a single unit of behaviour. Vygotsky’s conception of subjectivity is consonant with the idea proposed here as a conception of subjectivity.
A N Leontyev was blessed with living much longer than his comrade Lev Vygotsky, and his activity theory represents a real development of the ideas generally associated with the name of Vygotsky. Leontyev’s activity theory is not in contradiction to Vygotsky’s ideas however and nor does his activity theory supersede Vygotsky ideas. In a strong sense, Leontyev’s approach complements that of Vygotsky. As mentioned above, a subject is defined as a ‘self-conscious system of activity’, and while this idea is consistent with Hegel’s conception of the subject, it is Leontyev that has given us modern explication of this idea in the science of psychology.
“Once we acknowledge the common structure of external, practical activity and internal, mental activity we can understand the exchange of elements that constantly takes place between them, we can understand that certain mental actions may become part of the structure of direct practical, material activity and, conversely, external-motor operations may serve the performance of mental action in the structure of purely cognitive activity.” (1977)
Leontyev (1977) shows us how systems of activity develop according to their own dynamics, particularly in the elaboration of the division of labour, and how this process generates ever new ‘systems of activity’ along with the artefacts which come into being as a result of their special meaning in a specific system of activity and correspondingly in concepts or thought-forms.
“[C]oncepts are the result of a process of assimilation of ‘ready-made’, historically evolved meanings, and this process takes place in the child’s activity during its intercourse with the people around it. In learning to perform certain actions, the child masters the corresponding operations, which are, in fact, in a compressed, idealised form, represented in meaning.” (Leontyev 1977)
Leontyev focused on the object-relatedness of the activity of a subject, including motives and more immediate goals, fundamental to the emergence of the subject itself. Leontyev’s unit of analysis is subject-activity-object:
“[A]ctivity is a process of intertraffic between opposite poles, subject and object. ...
And indeed, the first relation of the subject, prior to the emergence of consciousness properly so-called (see Chapter 8 above), is the subject-object relation, the relation of the subject to Nature, mediated only by the subject’s own activity.
“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.” (Leontyev 1977)
These ideas bring into focus the social processes of change and development which lie somewhat in the background in Vygotsky’s analysis of learning, for which the division of labour figures as a given, ‘represented’ to the novice learner through her interaction with an adult member of society. Conversely, in Leontyev’s approach material culture moves somewhat into the background relative to the practical activity.
For example when Leontyev says:
“[A] problem that is always a stumbling block in the analysis of consciousness. ... is the problem of the specific nature of the functioning of knowledge, concepts, conceptual models, etc., in the system of social relations, in the social consciousness, on the one hand, and, on the other, in the individual’s activity that realises his social relations, in the individual consciousness.
it is altogether unclear exactly what is meant by “social consciousness” as opposed to “individual consciousness.” The contradiction between meanings implicit in social practice on the one hand, and on the other hand, meanings embodied in material culture is elided.
Leontyev further developed this conception of subject-activity-object with a six-way system of mediation, with instruments of production, rules and the social division of labour also involved in mediating the subject-object relation, opening the way for Activity Theory to a sociological theory.
To be sure, both Vygotsky and Leontyev are both concerned with sign- or artefact-mediated, objected-oriented activity. It is just a difference in emphasis. Taken together, these two bodies of theory constitute the foundations of CHAT and are fully consonant with the appropriation of Hegel sketched in earlier chapters. Instead of the concept of an extramundane Geist animating human history, following Marx, Vygotsky and Leontyev and their comrades and successors have given us a “pragmatic” interpretation which does away with the need for any extramundane and totalising spirit. CHAT is not a social theory however, and the forms of social practice and cultural entities which figure in the construction of the psyche have to be appropriated from social and cultural criticism.
The problem of understanding how individuals appropriate and practically critique the social formations of which they are a part depends on the use of an appropriate ‘unit of analysis’, or in Hegelian terms, ‘notion’. I argue that the appropriate unit of analysis is the subject, understood as a self-conscious system of activity, necessarily embodying a relative unity of agency, cogito and self-consciousness, with individual, particular and universal moments. Such a unit of analysis is not the property of psychology alone, but equally facilitates understanding how cultural objects and social formations change through the activity of individuals.
The concept of subject I am introducing has its roots in Hegel, but in the terminology of psychology, the trichotomy is: (1) the individual, i.e., the single, mortal human psyche, (2) culture, i.e., the mass of objects or artefacts which are inherited from the past, buildings, languages, crops, laws, libraries, technology, etc., etc., material entities which only spring into life when they are used by individuals, and (3) society, that is, the particular, continuing corporate activities in which individuals use culture in collaborative activities or conflict, and are taken up by one individual as another leaves off. The subject is a specific unity or identity of these three poles.
Each of these three aspects of human life can be the subject of sciences in their own right. Psychology is concerned with the individual psyche, natural science and the arts with culture, and the social sciences with society. The individual psyche can only be understood as an aspect of this larger, fundamental unit of analysis, the subject. The same is true of the study of social institutions like business enterprises, states, markets, social movements and so on, as much as it is also true of the study of language, art, technology, nature, etc., etc. The different sciences study the same object from different angles.
The following feature of this approach should be noted. The three moments mentioned above can in no way be conceived as distinct ‘levels’ or ‘spheres’ of activity. I am not suggesting for (1) a private sphere of personal activity or an internal world of feelings and beliefs, or for (2) a sphere of cultural activity, pursing science, literature and art, alongside (3) a public sphere or domain of institutions, movements, classes and so forth. On the contrary, every single activity, action, relation or thought is simultaneously partaking of all three moments. That is what is meant by a unit of analysis. If I say that the tree outside my window is a ficus, no-one would take this to mean that “tree” and “ficus” exist side by side with this individual tree.
The individual human psyche forms as a person grows up and is shaped by culture and society; society evolves through conquest, trade, migration of peoples, class struggles, shaped by technical innovation, concentration of capital, religion, etc., etc., and the culture created by people in the various historical forms of their association is accumulated and passed on, modified or lost in its own specific ways. Different concepts are required to theorise each of these processes. But in no case do we have anything other than individual human beings using artefacts inherited from the past (or newly created) to collaborate and compete with other human beings in specific social formations, i.e., subjects.
Cultural psychology is an adequate theory for giving us access to the process of formation of the individual psyche. If it suffers somewhat from a tendency towards objectivism, from emphasising the ‘internalisation’ of cultural norms as opposed to the construction of one’s own life, this is partly a result of the very communitarian ethos from which the founders of the movement came, but mainly because of objectivist deficits in the notions of society and culture which are appropriated into psychology. Psychology ought not to be separated from cultural and social theory. The task at hand is not the theorisation of an individual ‘level’ of behaviour alongside a cultural-historical ‘level’, but rather to abolish all objectivist, structuralist and reified conceptions of society by renovating them along the lines that they are the activity of individual human beings utilising artefacts as a means of collaborating with (or fighting) one another.
The chief barriers to overcoming the persistent dichotomy between a supposed individual subject on one hand, and social subjects or processes on the other are: (a) the conditions of late modernity which create the appearance of such a dichotomy in social life, and (b) an elision of the distinction between culture and activity.
(a) Modernity is characterised by the carrying through of the commodification of social relations, culture and activity to an exhaustive degree. This fragmentation of the social fabric has led to the demise of social movements, the loss of legitimacy of states, and the destruction of social cohesion and community. The result is that, on one hand, those institutions which are supported by capital take on an aura of supernatural powers governing social life, but expressing the ideals, aspirations and identity of no-one, themselves governed by quasi-natural laws of globalised economics, and on the other hand, a pathological narcissism – anomic individuals guided only by the pursuit of pleasure, celebrity and the accumulation of goods, living in fear of catastrophe in a world of unknown dangers and alien powers. In this context, “agency” has been transformed into a parody; postmodern writers talk of agency mainly in terms of niche markets and free trade.
(b) At first sight, the division of ‘the social’ into culture and activity may seem arbitrary. I have justified, I believe, the use of a trichotomy (individual-culture-activity) as the necessary fundamental conception of a subject. It is usual to begin consideration of the question of an subjectivity from the dichotomy (individual-social). This beginning is itself inscribed in modern society through the combination of individualist ideology and the concentration of capital. From this beginning, the concept of ‘society’ is separated from the notion of ‘individual’ and each are considered as things in themselves, the object of different sciences, obedient to different laws. But such a procedure is problematic because there can be no society without individuals.
It might seem that the first step in an analysis of society would be to divide society into two basic forms of activity, such as the economic base, on one hand, and the ‘superstructure’, on the other. But if there was a time in the past in which it was possible to conceive of production as a special mode or level of activity in some way distinct from other activities, that time has passed. Modern capitalism has abolished all such distinctions. But secondly and more importantly, the division of social life into two or more domains or forms of activity is not a fundamental of the order we are dealing with here. A unit of analysis is to be the smallest unit of the thing (here a subject) which preserves the properties of the whole, so this presupposes that in the beginning at least, we are not looking for separate things or activities at all. We are looking for aspects of one and the same thing which allow an understanding of subjectivity.
If we include, along with the psyche of the individual actors who implement social activity, both culture (the inheritance of the past) and activity (the living movement itself), then we have what is required: a basic unit of social subjectivity. What happens if we leave one of these moments out: no human life is conceivable without the individual psyche, animal life perhaps, but not human life; without the products of the labour of past generations in the form of languages, customs, means of production, technology, and the culturally evolved human body, etc., etc., once again, human life is inconceivable, animal life perhaps, but not human life; if we have individuals and cultural products but these individuals do not have the benefit of collaborating with other people in order to learn the significance of these artefacts and use them, then once again, human life is impossible. So all three elements are necessary.
It could be asked then, does it make sense at all to talk of these three moments separately, if they are, after all, inseparable. But they are not inseparable, and in fact these three moments inevitably and continuously come into conflict with one another and the contradictions they manifest are crucial to understanding the dynamics of human life.
Three distinct contradictions are involved here. (a) The subjective conceptions of individuals may be at odds with both the social practices they are engaged in, and (b) the cultural norms and products they use to both perform and understand what they do, even though both activity and culture are the very foundations of consciousness, and (c) materialised cultural norms may in turn may be in contradiction with social practice.
In the case of (a) and (b), the contradiction between the psychology of an individual and material practices or cultural norms, may be either a failure of internalisation or creative appropriation, or a manifestation in the psychology of an individual of contradictions inherent in the culture and social practices themselves. In either case, it is clear that the only way in which culture and social practices change is by means of the conflicting psychology of individuals, and the contradictory action and cultural production which flows from this.
It could be asked whether such contradictions are possible. The question as to whether the individual psyche is anything other than a replication of existing social practices and cultural norms, lies at the heart of the problem of the individual, and of subjectivity in general. But the existence of such contradictions is inevitable, for two reasons. Firstly psychology has demonstrated that the process of internalisation of group activity is itself a contradictory series of transformations which bears no resemblance to a process of simply copying from the external domain into the internal domain. It is an everyday experience that each person’s internalisation of forms of practice depends on the use of culture and the process of internalisation does not always follow the same path. Secondly, since there is always a relative contradiction between activity and culture, contradictions are inevitable in the process of internalisation and appropriation.
The point of interest is whether changes in cultural norms and social practices brought about as a result of innovation by individuals, can without residue be traced to contradictions within culture and society, leaving nothing to ex nihilo creation on the part of the individual.
The observation that some change in social life (e.g. the introduction of a new idea into pubic debate) has been brought about by the action of one individual neither proves that ‘individual agency’ exists, nor can be traced simply to pre-existing contradictions within culture and society. Concrete examination of a social or cultural change requires investigation of the coordination of the actions of many people, mediated by cultural conditions and existing forms of social intercourse. In other words, I think the notion of subjectivity, tracing the real connections between individual psyches, social practices and cultural norms, is inevitable.
Re (c) above, although posed somewhat differently and more broadly here, the most illustrious example of a contradiction between materialised cultural norms and social practice is that proposed by Marx:
“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto.” [Marx, Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859]
All social practices experience crises of this kind. All institutions (understood in the broad sense of self-reproducing forms of social practice) operate by means of some set of laws, regulations, systems of reward and punishment, technology, property relations, encoded lines of responsibility and its own specialised language, discourse and shared beliefs; these constitute the ‘culture’ of the institution. What people actually do is something distinct from this culture – rules are subverted, lines of authority change without recognition, technical methods enjoy innovation or suffer degeneration, etc. – forms of activity evolve. The contradiction between what people are supposed to be doing (encoded in official jargon, shared ideology and policy) is in contradiction to what they are actually doing, and this contradiction manifests itself in various forms of contradiction in the psyche of individuals engaged in the relevant practices. And ultimately it is only at the point at which these contradictions are manifested in the psychology of relevant individuals that the contradiction becomes real.
The problems of how contradictions within and between culture and social practice lies outside the ‘problem of the individual’ and will be dealt with in Part III. What is important here is how contradictions in culture and social practice are manifested in the individual psyche, of how artefacts mediate the perception of social practice, and social practice mediates the perception of culture (including rules and norms, the body, technology, law, language, etc.)
It is Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotics (See Chapter 10 above) which, I believe, gives us the best fundamental approach to understanding how artefacts (or signs) mediate perception. In Peirce’s theory of the subject, signs are categorised according to how they are connected with their object in the trichotomy interpretant-sign-object:
The common structure of external activity and internal activity referred to by Leontyev was also a feature of Peirce’s semiotics. This categorisation of signs can be used as an approach to understanding the structure of behaviour represented by Vygotsky as stimulus-sign-response. I have emphasised ‘role model’ as the most important case of icon, because the meaning of artefacts lies in how they are used, so without some kind of role model at some point in the process of learning, symbols and indexes are inaccessible.
In the same way, ‘symbol’ indicates not just words, but the entirety of the ‘symbolic register’, ideals in the narrow sense of the word, and ‘index’ indicates not just tools in the narrow sense of the word, but the entirety of material culture in the narrow sense of the word – means of production, crops, buildings, etc., etc.
When an individual perceives the world, a humanised world, almost entirely worked up by human activity, i.e., artificial, they orient to the object behind that immediate perception by orienting to indexes, symbols and icons. Social life is semiotic activity; all signs (in the Peircean sense) are material things, and there is nothing of idealism in the statement that human life is semiotic activity. Conversely, a person’s actions are perceived by others by means of signs.
The individual person, as a subject-in-embryo, instantiates these relations. A person’s own body is an artefact which relates to their psyche as a sign of themselves. It is an index inasmuch as it is the material substance of their psyche, which after all, has no other substance than the individual human body. It is an icon in that it is a likeness of the person, representing the person to the world and themself. It is a symbol in the sense that a person’s body and movement is always interpreted symbolically according to social conventions. Lucky is the person whose own body is such that they are seen for what they really are, that is index, icon and symbol coincide.
Although Peirce has an approach to how activity mediates perception as well (Qualisign-Sinisign-Legisign), I find Hegel’s concepts clearer (as outlined in Chapter 7 above). The concepts embedded in socially constructed artefacts enter consciousness through and only through the participation of the individual in some particular form of activity. Hegel categorises the three aspects of this relation by means of the trichotomy universal-individual-particular:
As an artefact, the person’s body mediates between the psyche and a person’s activity in the world. The person’s social activity gives reality to their ideas while being the only real basis for the formation of their knowledge of the world, the only means a person has for exercise of their agency, and the only real basis for the formation of an identity. The self-relation is of course mediated through the mirror of relations to other people, both person-to-person relations and their net result in terms of participation in all kinds of institutions and social activity.
I have mentioned in passing that the human body is a cultural product, an “artefact” in a sense broadened appropriately. A word or two of clarification may be in order. Of course I do not mean that the human body is from beginning to end solely a product of human culture with no remainder which can be ascribed to Nature. All artefacts are fashioned by use in social activity out of the material provided by Nature. A hammer is a cultural product, but the hardness of steel is possible only because of the properties of iron and the other materials of which a hammer is fashioned. Artefacts are cultural products in multiple ways: they serve a socially-produced purpose with socially produced components and materials to be used in conjunction with other cultural products. But they are also natural objects, materially connected with all other natural objects.
The human body is a cultural product in more than one sense. As will be suggested in Chapter 14 below, the biological genotype of homo sapiens sapiens is the outcome of culture accumulated by hominid activity over a period of 4 million years, beginning with the genetic material inherited from our simian forebears. As demonstrated by Pierre Bourdieu, the size, shape, disposition and capabilities of the human body are formed within a habitus associated with one of the various class fractions eking out a living in some niche in the social division of labour. The social expectations imposed on women and men, youths and elderly people, people of the various nationalities and ethnicities within a given society, are known to strongly determine the shape, size, disposition and capabilities of the human body.
So the proposition that the human body is a cultural product is strongly substantiated in the positive sense of this claim. But the human body is also a biological entity existing only by means of an intricate system of biological processes which are universal and inseparable from Nature as a whole.
The age-old question of division of labour between nature and nurture cannot be solved by philosophy or social theory, whether deconstructionist or humanist: only empirical, scientific investigation can resolve this question.
The issue of the human body as a cultural product raises the more general issue of culturalism versus constructivism (See Holland et al, 2001, p. 14) That is, on one hand, theories which see the individual as a passive carrier of dominant cultural values and ideology, and on the other hand, theories which see the individual as capable of freely choosing subject positions and theoretical paradigms from the myriad of narratives made available in a modern society, constructing for themselves their own biography. As suggested by Dorothy Holland et al, what is needed is a “third position” which avoids the one-sided extremes expressed on each side of these contradictions. The key to such a “third position” is a concrete investigation of the real capacity of an individual to modify the social structures and discourses constraining the development of their own practice and identity-formation. This concept is well captured in Amartya Sen’s concept of “critical voice.”
It has long been a truism of orthodox Marxism that it is a mistake to theorise society and history in terms of the laws of individual behaviour. (e.g., “life of the individual organism is subject to quite different laws from those of the social life.” Kautsky 1896) History, economy and society, it is said, obey social and historical laws, not the laws of the individual psyche. What is left out of this dichotomy is culture. Fashioned out of what is given by nature, culture is subject to objective constraints. Among such material constraints are the “rules” which are manifested in the behaviour of institutions such as the market, the state, technological innovation, and so on, as well as the objective constraints imposed on the human body, which is as much a cultural product as our domestic animals and our clothes, fashioned from the material provided by nature to fit in with other artefacts in a definite form of life.
The dichotomy implied in the ban on the theorisation of society (economics, class struggle, discourse, etc.) in psychological terms forgets that a social law must of necessity also equally be a law of individual action. And Marx himself demonstrated this in founding his critique of political economy on the commodity, that is to say, on the relation of exchange between just two subjects. The problem is to be able to theorise culture and social formations, not solely as context and resource, but also as manifestations of the psyche. So long as social formations and culture are viewed simply as something ‘given’ and ‘available’ for the individual, the individual-social dichotomy will persist.
One form of the individual-social dichotomy is the idea of two ‘levels’ or ‘domains’ of activity, one social and the other individual, in some way. A well-argued form of this dichotomy is that of Habermas (1987) and others: on the one hand, activity in the public sphere, in which the actors are institutions and other social formations, governed by laws, rules and social expectations; on the other hand, individual activity, manifested for example in the ever-shrinking private sphere. While a dichotomy between private and public spheres has merit, it cannot provide a foundation to resolve the ‘problem of the individual’, because it leaves out the cultural landscape which condition the relations between public and private spheres.
Another form of the dichotomy is that formulated by Agnes Heller (1988) and Robert Putnam (2000) among others, between the ‘thick ethos’ which pervades and regulates the activity within institutions, and the ‘thin ethos’ which extends across the entire society, regulating interactions between strangers.
Both these dichotomies make important contributions to social theory but have little to do with ‘social’ and ‘individual’ domains of activity, and will be dealt with in Part III.
A practical-critical appropriation of social and cultural theory, which can contribute to a resolution of the ‘problem of the individual’ can best be effected by relying on ‘intermediate concepts’, such the system of wage determination, the legal system, corporate structure, mode of regulation, etc., without supposing that these institutions are determined without mediation by grand ensembles such as the ‘mode of production’. Such an approach is adopted by Regulation Theory (Boyer 1990) which theorises capitalism in terms of such finite entities, rather than being deduced from a grand synthesis. If the prospects for an individual to have realistic expectations for the modification of the social conditions of their own life, it is necessary to have access to such finite, intermediary concepts of social activity.
The individual is a concrete abstraction; the individual human psyche is absolutely confined to one organism separate from all others. And yet, the entirety of human history is present in it. Every time I use the English language and choose either an Anglo-Saxon or a Latin word, I continue the battle of Hastings. No one system of activity exhausts the individual psyche. Individuals bring all the past experiences into any institution in which they participate. This fact could mislead people into overestimating the capacity of the individual to modify social structures. The mistake arises from taking some finite institution, in abstraction, in the place of social conditions as a whole. Of course individuals can have an impact on any institution or activity that they enter into, but in doing so they are carriers of wider social forces, rather than ‘individual agency’. The capacity of individuals to shape the activities they are participating in equally demonstrates that systems of activity interpenetrate and are only relatively independent one another, and that every artefact belongs to a larger culture and is materially connected to every other artefact. The unique experience that every individual brings into a particular interaction is equally evidence of the heterogeneity and indivisibility of society and culture, and of itself proves nothing about ‘individual agency’.
The finite entities which can form the basis for a theorisation of modern capitalism and which can form a bridge between a notion like ‘capitalism’ and the actuality of daily life, must be universal moments of an ensemble whose interaction is subject to cultural and historical analysis, rather than particularities.
Every particular system of activity (whether self-conscious or not) is always a relative abstraction. You can’t draw a line between one system of activity and another or isolate it from the larger systems of activity of which it is a part. But whereas the individual psyche is trapped within its body, one and the same system of activity is instantiated in different individuals from one moment to another. The particular (for example some institution) is not really an existing thing at all, because its existence rests on individuals using culture in a particular way. Discourse theory takes the first (sceptical) step in understanding the conditionality of institutions, but overlooks the sedimented activity deposited in material culture which gives dogmatic force to the existence of institutions as material things. Naďve understanding, on the other hand, mistakes institutions for material things because it fails to recognise that the artefacts which give it material existence may be subject to a different interpretation. Structuralism forgets that institutions gain their force thanks to the praxis of the individuals involved, and cannot be deduced from some totalising abstraction existing apart from individual actors.
Even though the Universal, culture, is lifeless until used by an individual, it is the universal which mediates all human activity. Culturalism overestimates the independence of the Universal in governing social life, because for all sorts of reasons the practical activities which gave life to an element of culture may cease and what was a powerful ideal become nothing but a dead lump of matter or an ‘empty word’. Constructivism overestimates the element of free will in the use of culture because it forgets that the universal is not only ideal but also material. Culture imposes itself on those who would disregard it by the hard force of dead matter.
To show that this or that current of theory takes a one-sided standpoint is not to discount its achievements. Rather, this observation facilitates the appropriation of the insights of the various schools of social theory.
The problem of the individual cannot be resolved by theory alone, but requires concrete investigation, but I argue that the concept of subjectivity is the key notion to resolving this problem.