Learning from the Soviets


In my library I have several psychology books published in the 1970s by publishers of the German Democratic Republic and their Western partner publishers. Born in the GDR, with relatives there, my family paid regular visits and had to exchange D-Mark, with few uses of the GDR currency obtained. As a youthful book aficionado, I spent much money on books, and became aware of the East German literature.

One of these books shaped my own thinking about this matters as student in the 1980s when I started to work on philosophical issues of economics in its relationship to other sciences: It is written by the great Soviet psychologist Alexej Leontev and outlines his approach to psychology, entitled as ‘Activity – Consciousness – Personality’. I think that this book is still highly relevant today, especially when thinking about mechanistic explanations that might combine economics and the neurosciences. Many people would doubt that, as the book contains many citations from Marx and Lenin! Yet, even these citations point towards a very important issue, namely what is a ‘materialistic’ explanation?

I think that most thinking about relating economics via psychology to the neurosciences is ‘materialistic’ in the sense that the claim is made that ultimately the constituents of causal mechanisms would be certain elementary physical entities, such as certain neurophysiological structures and processes. This idea also seems to underlie many conceptions of mechanistic explanations, thus suggesting a strong reductionist stance. As I argued in my first INSOSCI blog post, I do not think that mechanistic explanations need to be reductionist in this sense – however, as our Finish friend Jakko argues, reduction can be also seen differently, namely as a complex causal explanation that would not assign any kind of primordial status to certain elementary constituents but allows for ‘elementary’ phenomena of different levels of complexity. In this sense, crude neuroscience reductionism would reflect the long Western tradition of atomism in approaching nature.

Leontev’s approach clearly anticipates this view, and interestingly, his ‘Marxist materialism’ is not reductionist at all, and therefore appears to be a sort of ‘emergentist materialism’. Therefore, I learn a lot from him. On a deeper philosophical level, the Marxist tradition is shaped by Hegel, of course, and so it is obvious why I can make much sense of Leontev’s approach against the background of my own work on Hegel. What are the basic claims made by Leontev?

The ‘Marxist’ version of materialism resides in the thesis that all perception is action, thus vigorously refuting simple stimulus-response theories of action and more complex ones that would stick to an isolation of sensory inputs as primary elements of cognitive processes. In this respect, Leontev has already all components of more recent theories of ‘grounded cognition’ at hand. He argues that external phenomena only become ‘objects’ because they are objects of action, and hence perception is not a one-way road, but a complex and recurrent feedback circle between efferent and afferent processes. This comes close to modern ‘interactionist’ ontologies such as proposed by Karen Barad: An ‘object’ is always a conjunction between subject and object – and, of course, Leontev uses the term ‘dialectics’ here.

I think that this has very strong implications, because we would focus on the nature of the action taken when explaining certain behavioural phenomena, and not primarily on the ‘objects’ in the naïve sense. For example, consider experiments in economics, which face a big challenge in transferring experimental results to the field: Indeed, we would need to ask whether the actions in the laboratory are really the same ones as in the field. Most experiments naively establish a mapping between certain kinds of incentives or stimuli in the lab and in the field (the ‘objects’). But the real issue is whether the actions that create the perception of the stimuli in the first place (possibly building on earlier processes of interiorization of meaning, Leontev refers to Vygotsky, of course) would be the same. In an earlier blog, drawing on a paper by Ross and Hamilton, I showed that this is by no means the case: The experiment may define a setting in which the action has a different meaning, even if formally looking the same, in terms of ‘objects’ in question (see May 29, 2017, Prospect Theory – Empirically Indeterminate and Conceptually Self-defeating?).

This is another fundamental tenet maintained by Leontev: There is no ‘atomistic action’, meaning, all activities are part and parcel of systems and sets of related activities. Leontev also refers to language as an essential medium by which the meaning of actions is created, which directly establishes this form of holism. In (vulgar) Marxist terms, all this may be simply covered in notions such as the ‘social conditioning of action’ – but Leontev’s views are much richer and detailed, especially in terms of psychological and neuroscientific content.

There is also a strong affinity to Mead here, as for Leontev consciousness is not an ‘inner state’ of the individual but, again, a state emerging from continuous interactions with the environment, both social and natural. Creativity and consciousness necessary go along with each other. This implies, contra all prejudices about Marxist materialism, Leontev has a rich conception of personality: A personality is neither given by birth (‘nature’) nor exclusively shaped by the environment (‘nurture’), but it is created by the individual. The materialist aspect is ‘work’ here’: We continuously work ourselves out, so to say, in interaction with the surround material and social world (I think that there is a connection to the notion of ‘care of the self’ here, see my previous blog on Foucault).

To pick up my ongoing discussion of addiction here: Just to approach addiction as a phenomenon by which a sick brain responds to external stimuli would be as wrong as explaining it just as a rational and free choice of the individual. In Leontev’s approach, addiction is a sequence of activities that have a meaning and are creative acts by which the individual tries to cope with the environment, and eventually creates her or his addicted personality, in social interaction with others. This matches with my earlier comments on the role of identity in maintaining states of addiction.

What are the implications of Leontev’s approach for our conception of mechanistic explanations? Take, for example, the question of the boundary of a mechanism. On first sight, an ‘activity’ in the sense of Leontev is a mechanism, that combines afferent and efferent processes into one closed feedback circuit. That would correspond to the simplistic neuropharmacological view on addiction, which accordingly suggests categorically similar interventions into the respective neurophysiological processes. However, if activities are only meaningful in the context of other activities, the motivation of the action becomes a much more complex phenomenon: Motivation is not just responding to a given ‘need’ (such as the craving of an addictive state), but it is the activity that creates the motivation, hence another feedback circuit. Accordingly, the boundaries of mechanisms would include not only inner neurophysiological states processes, but would demarcate systems of activities that directly tie up with external phenomena via the external actions taken.


The book by Leontev is available online:


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