The following is excerpted from this
The roots of cultural psychology
can be traced back from Vygotsky to Marx and Hegel, and the differences
in the ontological assumptions underlying constructivist and sociocultural
perspectives on learning can be illustrated by comparing Hegel with
Kant. Hegel was deeply dissatisfied with Kants dualism of (experienced)
phenomena and (unknowable) things-in-themselves; of empirical and
transcendental; of subject and independent reality. Hegel maintained
that Kant had erred in taking for granted the character of the knowing
subject; his response was an attempt to formulate a very different
ontology. His efforts influenced Marx and subsequent dialectical materialists,
including Vygotsky and Ilyenkov, as well as phenomenologists, including
Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, such post-modernists as Derrida, Foucault,
Deleuze and Lacan, post-structuralists such as Bourdieu and Latour,
as well as Dewey.
Rather than attempt an exhaustive survey
of how the non-dualist ontology has been taken up by each of these
people, we shall describe six themes that seem key, appearing in the
work of many of them, sometimes all. And although we explore these
themes here primarily from a theoretical angle, the reading and reflection
leading to this paper occurred simultaneously with empirical investigation;
our account of the themes developed as reading informed empirical
inquiry and vice versa. This paper thus flattens out what was a circular
and dialectical process of discovery.
The Person is Constructed
The first theme is that the human person
is not a natural entity but a social and historical product. The person
is made, not born. Human infants are incomplete animals; the world-openness
introduced by this neoteny (Berger & Luckmann, 1967, p. 47) means
we must continually remake ourselves, and in doing so we make society
and history. That man himself appears to resemble an artifact,
as it were, a product of civilization trained to speak and to act
in ways foreign to his nature, is cultures crowning achievement
(Loewenberg, 1965, p. 210).
In Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807/1967)
Hegel described a series of forms or levels of the changing human
subject.1 Unlike his immediate philosophical predecessors (Kant, Locke,
Descartes), Hegel did not assume the existence of the individual knowing
and learning self. For Hegel, contrary to most of the history
of modern philosophy, the individual self is in no sense an immediately
given element of consciousness (as Descartes claims of his cogito)
but a socially created concept, and a most peculiar concept at that.
The peculiarity is that, even as it is society and the social order
that teach us to think of ourselves as individuals in the first place,
they thereby teach us to ignore the fact that we are wholly social
products and social participants. It [sic] teaches us to think of
ourselves as ontological atoms for whom the formation of society is
a puzzle and a mystery (Solomon, 1983, p. 514).
For Marx, too, man... is an animal
which can develop into an individual only in society (Marx,
1904, p. 268, cited in Ollman, 1976, p. 105). Similarly, Lacan saw
the symbolic order not as constituted by man, but
rather as constituting him (Lacan, 1956/1968, p. 141), and as
leading to the creation of such imaginary objects as the
ego (Fink, 1995).
...in a Social Context
The second theme is that this formation
and transformation of the person can occur only in a social context
that is constitutive of being (cf. Taylor, 1971/1987). Variations
of this theme can be found in Foucault, Lacan, Marx, Heidegger, even
Kuhn, and in Habermas, Bourdieu and Latour, as well as Hegel.
Foucault (1969/1972, p. 26) insisted
that a discursive formation forms a field,
a totality, a background against which facts
and events stand out. Bourdieu employs concepts of social field
and habitus to capture the interrelationship of social
context and person. Habitus and field are linked... by a relationship
of ontological complicity--that is to say, each determines the
being of the other (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 273). Habitus is the embodied
way in which we engage the world: a system of durable, transposable
dispositions which functions as the generative basis of structured,
objectively unified practices (Bourdieu, 1979, p. vii). Social
fields are history objectified, each is a multidimensional space of
positions, defined by the distribution of forms of capital.
Similarly, Kuhn (1970; 1977) saw the
paradigm as central to an understanding of scientific
activity. It is the disciplinary matrix that defines a
community of scientific practitioners and the world inhabited
by its members.
In another variant, Latour (1997) invokes
a network-like ontology, an irreductionist and relationist
ontology in which actors are not conceived of as fixed
entities but are a new ontological hybrid, world making
entities. The old distinction between things and representations,
between material and texts, is dissolved: both have the same ontological
status. Society, argues Latour, has a fibrous, thread-like,
wiry, stringy, ropy, capillary character; it is a global
entity--a highly connected one--which remains nevertheless continuously
local. And Habermas (1981/1984) similarly insists that lifeworld
is a necessary part of any social analysis.
Each of these is an analysis of people
and things as parts of a whole, in a philosophy of internal
relations, (Ollman, 1976, p. 26). The whole is a public, intersubjective,
taken-for-granted context, within which people and artifacts are posited:
in terms of which their being is defined.
How does context--whether conceived
of as field or as root-like network--have this ontological power?
In short, because the being of an entity--colloquially speaking, what
it is--is not a timeless, essential property but is determined by
the human practices in which it is encountered, grasped, and comprehended.
Being is not essentially mind or matter, but varies with the historical
and societal context. Heidegger argued that It is not the case
that human being is, and then on top of that has a relation
of being to the world which it sometimes takes upon itself
(1927/1996, p. 53). Rather, the totality of involvements
of world exerts a constitution on human being,
and discloses entities. His fundamental ontology
in Being & Time is a detailed cultural analysis of human being.
Being is an answer to a human concern; humans have an ontological
priority; we have an understanding of being (p.
34) that is rooted in our way of life. Man is not only a being
that thinks [but also] the being that reveals Being.... He reveals
in addition... the being that he himself is (Kojève,
1947/1969, p. 36). Not just our knowledge but we ourselves, and the
objects we know, are constructed: what counts as real varies culturally
and changes historically.
Consider Marxs (1867/1977) central
example: the commodity is a kind of entity--a way for
something to be--that becomes possible only in a particular kind of
society, at a particular period in history. The same can be said of
other objects we find around us--tools, signs, money,
food, music, art, clothing--each is a cultural artifact. To say that
each is, at bottom, material is, first, false (since some are immaterial)
and, second, unhelpful (since material is itself no natural category).
As Engeström and Cole (1997) point
out, the concept of context or situation is not unproblematic (what
is its width, where are its boundaries, how are multiple contexts
related?) but it is surely unavoidable.
...Formed through Practical Activity
Our third theme: this relationship between
social context, people and things is sustained and transformed in
practical activity. Any social context--a classroom, for example--is
itself the product of human language and social practice, not fixed
but dynamic, changing over time, in what we call history. As Berger
and Luckmann put it, man is capable of producing a world that
he then experiences as something other than a human product.... [T]he
relationship between man, the producer, and the social world, his
product, is and remains a dialectical one.... The product acts back
on the producer(1967, p. 61).2 Hegel, too, described the mutual
constitution of person and social context, and the dynamic of contradiction
In Hegels account, however, these
transformations unfold in a somewhat mysterious way. Marx insisted
that they are consequences of human praxis, open-ended and contingent,
and should be studied in their concrete particularity. Human activity
has a central ontological significance here. Labor, crucial to the
reproduction of human existence, transforms natural objects into artifacts
and physical forces into sources of power, and also transforms the
laborers nature. For Marx, like Hegel, social being is distinct
from natural organic and inorganic being, but the natural and the
social are related dialectically. Labor produces an ontological
leap (Lukács, 1978, p. 6), giving rise to social forms
and categories, to new forms of objectivity. These dont rise
above inorganic and organic being, they must reproduce themselves
in it, but there is a progressive move, an ontological development,
of abstraction: social forms become increasingly less dependent on
materiality--consider for instance the move from barter to money to
credit. Objective being does not exist only in concrete things; whether
or not we are conscious of them, abstract forms have facticity
in practical life. A drop in the stock market has the
same ontological rigor of facticity as a car that runs you over
(Lukács, 1978, p. 40). In such an ontology, objectivity is
not the result of cognitive activity, as it was for Kant and Piaget,
but the product of practical, social activity. [O]bjects are
not merely given or discovered by the subject, but rather are made
objects by the subjects activity.... But they are not constituted
out of nothing, that is, they are not merely projections of the subject.
Rather, the subject works on that which is given to it, as external
to it or other than it (Gould, 1978, p. 41). It might be objected
that Piaget saw the child as actively transforming the world. But
in fact Piaget saw the childs action as merely displacing
objects in the spatio-temporal field, not as constructing objects
or producing artifacts. Action for Piaget is instrumental activity
that manipulates a pre-existing, independent reality, neither creating
nor consuming--knowledge of the world is constructed, but not the
The activity of labor in which objects
are transformed is also a process in which the subject is transformed.
The agent thus recognizes him or herself through this objectification
of his or her capacities and needs.... Furthermore, the agent becomes
different through this objectification in that the circumstances of
his or her agency, that is, the world in which he or she acts, have
been transformed and now present the agent with a different range
of problems and opportunities which give rise to new purposes and
new modes of action (Gould, 1978, p. 42).
Other analyses (e.g. Lacan, Foucault,
Habermas) stress the ontological role of communicative action as well
as labor. As Hanks (1996, p. 237) puts it, the referential process
is one in which subjects, objects, and social relations are simultaneously
produced in the course of even the most mundane utterances.
To speak is not just to represent the world but also to occupy it;
and we do many things through language--we realize
ourselves; effect changes in our worlds; connect with other people;
experience beauty, rage, and tenderness; exercise authority; refuse;
and pursue our interests (p. 236).
...and Formed in Relationships of Desire
If the previous themes are familiar
to readers of writing on social construction, the next three are probably
less so. The first is that the person is formed not only in practical
activity, but in the human relationships this activity sustains (ONeill,
1996). Hegel sought to demonstrate the radical view that, without
interpersonal interaction and the mutual demand of what he calls recognition,
there is no self and no self-consciousness
(Solomon, 1983, p. 430). The self is not a purely cognitive construction,
let alone the transparent source of action and cognition; it is formed
in desire, conflict and opposition, in a struggle for recognition.
Self-consciousness is not the result of the individual reflecting
on him- or herself, but emerges in the relationship with another.
Dreyfus and Rabinow (1993) point out that Bourdieus notion that
people seek symbolic capital is influenced by Hegels
emphasis on recognition.
As Kojève put it, the man
who attentively contemplates a thing, who wants to see it as it is
without changing anything... forgets himself... [But] when man experiences
a desire... he necessarily becomes aware of himself (1947/1969,
p. 37, original emphasis).3 Desire, especially desire for recognition,
creates a lack, an absence, a hole, in the human subject. And desire
directed towards another person, another greedy emptiness
(p. 40) seeks recognition that gives not just consciousness of self
but self-consciousness. The self is for itself only by being
for another (Williams, 1997, p. 49).
The struggle with a more powerful other offers one form of recognition.
The famous master-slave dialectic is not an exercise in psychology
or sociology but is in brief an ontological theory about the
nature of selfhood in which the whole history of philosophy,
and in particular the Cartesian-Leibnizian vision of the fully formed
individual ego is summarily rejected (Solomon, 1983, p. 428).
The struggle for prestige, to define who is master and who slave,
eventually produces a free and historical individual, conscious
of his individuality, his freedom, his history, and finally, his historicity
(Kojève, 1947/1969, p. 6). And it is the slave, the one who
works, who becomes civilized and educated, sublimating the drive of
desire, giving form to objects and finding self in the product, the
real, objective..., cultural, historical, human World
(p. 26). But recognition need not require such struggle (Williams,
...that can Split the Person
The fifth theme is the insistence that
the person, constituted in activity and relationship in social context,
is fundamentally split, estranged from him or herself--alienated,
inauthentic, and divided. To become human is to be split; to become
a participant in community is to be divided. The persons relation
to self, to others, to activity and to the world is constituted and
mediated by discourse and social practices; community defines the
modes of appropriation and recognition that obtain, and the kinds
of relationship in which recognition can be achieved: in doing so,
it transforms desire and comes between the self and itself (Ricoeur,
1992). The result is the cultural knotting of [the] subject
who must split, so to speak, in order to become a social
subject (ONeill, 1996, p. 2). As Lacan saw it, The
subject is nothing but this very split (Fink, 1995, p. 45);
only the psychotic lack the split between ego and unconscious. Alienation
represents the instituting of the symbolic order--which must be realized
anew for each subject--and the subjects assignation of a place
therein.... separation, a neither/nor involving the subject and the
Other, brings forth being (Fink, 1995, p. 52). Power acts
on the subject [in] a splitting and reversal constitutive of the subject
itself (Butler, 1997, p. 15).
The oppositions of thought and action,
conscious and unconscious, self and other, subject and object are
created, not natural. There is a double movement to culture
(Hyppolite, 1946/1974, p. 378)4: our activity produces a social context
that defines who we are. But that context also confronts us as something
alien, so we are divided from ourselves and need to discover ourselves.
Man is, as such, the objectifying being who creates outside
supports for himself and... incongruities result between the petrified
objectivation and his living desires and will, which run in a different
direction (Landmann, 1975/1978, p. 189).
In other words, there are costs to membership
in a community, to participation in a social context, as well as benefits.
To cultivate oneself is not to develop harmoniously, as in organic
growth, but to oppose oneself and rediscover oneself through a rending
and separation (Hyppolite, 1946/1974, p. 385).
...Motivating the Search for Identity
If the person is divided in and from
herself, she is not self-same--she lacks identity. Our final theme
is that the person strives to achieve identity. This search is an
effort to overcome division; not to root out or eliminate it so much
as to transcend it.
It might seem that identity is just
a matter of membership of a community, and indeed in societies
with very simple division of labor and minimal distribution of knowledge...
everyone pretty much is what he is supposed to be. In such a society
identities are easily recognizable, objectively and subjectively
(Berger & Luckmann, 1967, p. 164). But typically membership is
the start of a struggle for identity, an attempt to overcome division
and achieve wholeness, unity--to become self-same. And since human
identity is achieved in practical activity, in desire and often in
struggle, this identity is not simply equality with itself but negating-negativity
(Kojève, 1947/1969, pp. 5, 213n). Human being is becoming--striving
to be what it is not (yet).
To be posited by the public practices
of a community is not all it is to be human, and it is not enough.
Human being is always positing as well as posited--always pushing
beyond the identity conferred by a community of practice. People actively
strive to come to terms with the practices of their community, adopting
an attitude, taking a stand on the way membership of a community has
positioned them. As they do this their activity acts on that community,
reproducing it or transforming it. In Hegels account the person,
confronted with an apparently objective social order, seeking to overcome
alienation, accomplishes this positively in philosophy, art, religion
and other forms of representation, and negatively in the revolutionary
destruction of their own creation. For Lacan, psychoanalysis aims
to help the analysand assume responsibility for what brought them
into existence as split subject, through signification of that cause,
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