Knowing-How and Life’s Power to Act

Cause and effect relations are still the dominating explanatory paradigm within which much of Vygotsky’s legacy is assimilated in current educational psychol- ogy—both in quantitative and qualitative studies. Individual ideas cause people to act in particular ways, just as educational interventions are seen as having individual pieces of learning as their effect (Maxwell 2004). This scheme of thought corresponds to and derives from a classical epistemology that splits ideas from their objects. In Spinoza’s Ethics . however, as expressed in the sixth axiom of Part I, a true idea corresponds to its object, a notion that is central to the dialectical materialist conception of the unity/identity of categories and the corresponding aspects of the world. The thinking body thus moves in accordance with the things of the world, making unnecessary the existence of a priori (mental) schemas of actions.[1] In fact, the very idea of there being schemas that underlie and cause bodily movement—as suggested in current enactivist theories—takes us back to the body-mind dichotomy that Vygotsky attempts to escape by turning to Spinoza.

In the Spinozist view, ideas are the result of two very different phenomena: the form of worldly object and the form of the body. These two cannot be taken apart to get to the essence of the two forms, since their essence consists in their unity and mutual development. As soon as we take whatever we have received from the objects in the world through acting and sensing in isolation from the object, or from the acting and sensing, we are left with “nothing, no idea of any kind” (Il’enkov 1977: 68). In Vygotsky’s work, this aspect is reflected in the primacy of the social, whereby any higher psychological function was at some time a real relation with another person. That is, the individual participates in the production of soci(et)al relations, and these real relations become forms of individual behavior, which individuals eventually comes to produce on their own. This immediately makes unnecessary the notion of internalization so prevalent in current scholarship and textbooks of educational psychology, a notion that Vygotsky himself was in the process of abandoning in and with his turn to Spinoza. Thus, “in the relation between thinking and speech,” rather than internalization, “[there is] a continuous transition of the external to the internal and the internal to the external” (Vygotsky 2010: 94). As a result, movement creates the distinction between the internal and external rather than being caused by it. If the thinking body follows the external form, it already is taking the form and does not have to internalize it: the body and its thinking are one, the body being the organ of thinking. If that form is repeated, a form of resonance is created that constitutes remembering and the memory of the form. This is so whether the stimulation comes from the outside or from the thinking body’s movement.[2]

An idea is adequate, according to Spinoza, when it is a refraction of the coincidence of the form of the body and the form of the external thing. The idea of a circle, for example, is adequate when the thinking body produces a circle outside of itself, on a piece of paper or in some other medium. The idea of a circle is adequate when it is defined by means of an instruction for how to construct a circle in the real world, for example, by means of a line fixed at one end while the other moves in a way that holds the line taut. In this instance, “the nomical definition [arises] together with the real action of the thinking body along the spatial contour of the object of the idea” (Il’enkov 1977: 264). When, on the other hand, “a man says that the lines drawn from the centre of a circle to its circumference are not equal,” he not only “attaches a meaning to the word circle different from that assigned by mathematicians,” but also is proven incorrect by concrete actions in the world (Spinoza 1883). Adequacy, here, is tied to the activity of the thinking body in its world—the point expressed above that is so important in the Marxist diction that the power of thinking is expressed in practical action.

The point in the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach that philosophers only attempted to understand the world without transforming it (Marx and Engels 1978) has its equivalent statement in Spinoza: “the mind, inasmuch as it has inadequate ideas, is in certain cases necessarily passive” (1883: Part III, Postulate II, proof).[3] Thus, an idea is adequate when “my body (my hand) really describes a circle, and the awareness of this state (i.e. of the form of my own action in the form of the thing) is also the idea” (Il’enkov 1977: 69). The more varied the ways in which a thinking body acts on and perceives external things, the more in common it has with other bodies, and the greater is its power to act. This is the guiding idea in a Marxist critical psychology, where learning is defined as expansive when it is directed to the expansion of the power to act (Holzkamp 1993). If we can increase our power to act, in other words, if we can increase our control over the conditions, then it is rational that we do so. Indeed, it is in our interest to do so. The rational becomes then not only an analytical but also an ethical question.

A weakness in the work of Spinoza, however, is the fact that his thinking body, “moving along the given contours of natural bodies, took their shapes” (Il’enkov 1977: 224) without transforming them. In this way, Spinoza did not account for the creative activity of humans, which produces new shapes, needs, and desires, thereby changing the natural world. But in changing the world, in productive activity, the thinking body changes, and it further changes in becoming conscious of its new activity. Creativity is a central theme in Vygotsky’s thinking, and such emergence of qualitatively new forms of consciousness should become an important aspect of the psychologist’s distinction between quantitative changes (learning) and qualitative changes (development) in human behavior and consciousness (see Chaps. 2 and 6). That idea of humans changing the world, and, therefore, the idea concerning who and what they are (an idea elaborated in Chap. 13), is new to the Marxist reading of Spinoza and the pre-Marxist materialist philosophies (e.g. that of Feuerbach against which the “Theses” are directed).

Another important idea is that of investigating thinking through the determination of its function in a world of objects rather than focusing on its structural determination independent of that world—as it tends to be done in cognitivist theories. This idea moves the focus away from mental structures or functions in themselves, and brings thinking back into the real world of activity in which humans think and move in their everyday pursuits. Thus, “the real being of the living brain was also thought, and the real thought was the being of the living brain” (Il’enkov 1977: 216). In philosophical terms, this means that

the immediate unity of soul and body, which admits nothing in the middle, and leaves no room for a distinction or even contrast between material and immaterial being, thus is the point where matter thinks, body is mind, and conversely, mind is body, thought is matter. (Feuerbach 1866: 163)


This has the consequence that a functional determination of thinking can be found “only if you do not probe into the thinking body (the brain), but carefully examine the real composition of its objective activities among the other bodies of the infinitely varied universum” (Il’enkov 1977 : 73). The study of what is in the skull, Spinoza attributes to doctors and anatomists. There is nothing of relevance to thought that can be found in the structure of the brain because the functional determination arises in external and objective activity. Vygotsky later would conclude that “it is ridiculous to look for specific centers of higher psychological functions or supreme functions in the cortex” and that functions “must be explained . . . in external terms, on the basis of the fact that man controls the activity of his brain from without through stimuli” (Vygotsky 1989 : 59). He argues for a concrete human psychology where anything specifically human about our behavior—including thought—exists in and, more importantly, as societal relation. This is not to say that there is nothing relevant going on in our brains, but that what is to be found there is significant always in relation to a functional whole that includes individuals and their societal environments. Thus, Vygotsky’s ideas were indeed decisive in the foundation of neuropsychology, most saliently through the works of his colleague and disciple A. R. Luria.

To understand thinking qua mode of action requires us to investigate it in the course of the engagement of the thinking body in the system within which it functions. That is, we have to investigate the “systems of relation ‘thinking body and its object’,” that is, “in the system thinking body-nature as a whole (with Spinoza it is ‘substance,’ ‘God’)” (Il’enkov 1977: 52). Any investigation of an individual body, however, only gives us a partial and one-sided aspect of thinking. For this reason, Vygotsky is careful to identify the general in any specific case he investigates, because the general is true for all cases. Thus, in Psychology of Art (Vygotsky 1971), he requires only one example from one art form, the fable, to derive a psychology of all forms of art, not just a psychology of the fable. Not surprisingly, an epigraph with a quotation from Spinoza opens that book. Vygotsky’s is a specific attempt to arrive at a description of art as a manifestation of one substance, which, therefore, is common to all art forms.

Thought, taken as a mode of action of the thinking body, has to be investigated in comparison with the mode of action of a non-thinking body. Such a comparative method is crucial to a truly genetic approach. This also means taking a temporal perspective, for an inactive thinking body no longer is thinking but only a (material) body. The immediate consequence of this is that we cannot investigate structures (of thought)—as this occurs in investigations of mental structure—but only thinking- for-acting, which inherently is in movement. Vygotsky therefore points to the necessity to investigate thinking and speaking—more accurately, perhaps thinking- for-speaking and speaking-for-thinking—as intermeshing processes, two very dif?ferent manifestations of the same {person | environment} unit. That unit includes the sense of the situation as a whole.

  • [1] This fundamental insight also arises within phenomenological philosophy, where there is a primacy accorded to movement over schemas (e.g. Sheets-Johnstone 2011).
  • [2] That precise insight also was the result of an inquiry from a very different perspective, an inquirythat established the foundations of the person in its habitudes (Maine de Biran 1841).
  • [3] Vygotsky makes reference to Spinoza’s definition suggesting that it can be justifiably applied tochild development, where the “initial consciousness of the infant still completely lacks active [psychological (psixiceskie)] states, that is, [psychological (psixiceskix)] states internally determinedby the personality” (Vygotsky 1998: 233).
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