Toward an Organic Theory for the Cultural-Historical Sciences

  • Wolff-Michael RothEmail author
Regular Article


In present-day cultural-historical sciences, explanations of activity are provided in terms of thing-like, independent, and self-actional entities including subject, object, tool, sign, mind, culture, meaning, and community. In this theory-building contribution, I instead suggest an organic theory to theorize activity in terms of events, characterized by actuality and becomingness. Organic theories have radical consequences for the cultural sciences in that cherished notions—e.g. mediation, identity, intersubjectivity, and cause–effect relation—no longer have a place in organic theories of human activity. This study describes the foundations of an organic approach, provides an analysis exemplifying an organic view, and develops some of its implications for the cultural-historical sciences.


Organic theory Event Transaction Occasion Pragmatism James Whitehead Mead 



  1. Akkerman, S. F., & Bakker, A. (2011). Boundary crossing and boundary objects. Review of Educational Research, 81, 132–169.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). Dialogical imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press.Google Scholar
  3. Bakhtin, M. M. (1993). Toward a philosophy of the act. Austin: University of Texas Press.Google Scholar
  4. Bateson, G. (1979). Mind and nature: A necessary unity. New York: E. P. Dutton.Google Scholar
  5. Bergson, H. (1908). L’évolution créatrice [Creative evolution]. Paris: Félix Alcan.Google Scholar
  6. Bertau, M.-C. (2014). Inner form as a notion migrating from west to east: Acknowledging the Humboldtian tradition in cultural-historical psychology. In A. Yasnitsky, R. van der Veer, & M. Ferrari (Eds.), Handbook of cultural-historical theory (pp. 247–271). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cole, M., & Engeström, Y. (1993). A cultural-historical approach to distributed cognition. In G. Salomon (Ed.), Distributed cognitions (pp. 1–46). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Dayton, A., & Rogoff, B. (2013). “On being indigenous” as a process. Human Development, 56, 106–112.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Dewey, J. (1929). Experience and nature. London: George Allen & Unwin.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dewey, J. (1938). Logic: The theory of inquiry. New York: Henry Holt.Google Scholar
  11. Dewey, J. (2008). Later works vol. 10: Art as experience. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University press. Google Scholar
  12. Dewey, J., & Tufts, J. H. (1936). Ethics (rev. ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.Google Scholar
  13. Dewey, J., & Bentley, A. F. (1999). Knowing and the known. In R. Handy & E. E. Hardwood, Useful procedures of inquiry (pp. 97–209). Great Barrington, MA: Behavioral research council. Google Scholar
  14. Engeström, Y. (2014). Learning by expanding: An activity-theoretical approach to developmental research (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Ercikan, K., & Roth, W.-M. (2014). Limits of generalizing in education research: Why criteria for research generalization should include population heterogeneity and users of knowledge claims. Teachers College Record, 116(5), 1–28.Google Scholar
  16. Garrison, J. (2001). An introduction to Dewey’s theory of functional “trans-action”: An alternative paradigm for activity theory. Mind, Culture and Activity, 8, 275–296.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Gutiérrez, K. D. (2008). Developing a sociocritical literacy in the third space. Reading Research Quarterly, 43, 148–164.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Hegel, G. W. F. (1807). System der Wissenschaft: Erster Theil, die Phänomenologie des Geistes [system of science: Part 1, the phenomenology of spirit]. Bamberg: Joseph Anton Goebhardt.Google Scholar
  19. Il’enkov, E. V. (1977). Dialectical logic: Essays on its history and theory. Moscow: Progress Publishers.Google Scholar
  20. James, W. (1890). The principles of psychology (Vol. 1). New York: Henry Holt.Google Scholar
  21. James, W. (1907). Pragmatism: A new name for some old ways of thinking. New York: Longmans, Green.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. James, W. (1909). A pluralistic universe. New York: Longmans, Green.Google Scholar
  23. James, W. (1911). Some problems of philosophy: A beginning of an introduction to philosophy. New York: Longmans, Green.Google Scholar
  24. James, W. (1912). Essays in radical empiricism. New York: Longmans, Green.Google Scholar
  25. Kant, I. (1956). Werke II: Kritik der reinen Vernunft [works vol. 2: Critique of pure reason]. Wiesbaden: Insel.Google Scholar
  26. Leont’ev, A. N. (1978). Activity, consciousness and personality. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  27. Levinas, E. (1978). Autrement qu’être ou au-delà de l’essence [Otherwise than being or beyond essence]. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.Google Scholar
  28. Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1962). Werke Band 23 [Works vol. 23]. Berlin: Dietz.Google Scholar
  29. Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1978). Werke Band 3 [Works vol. 3]. Berlin: Dietz.Google Scholar
  30. Mead, G. H. (1932). Philosophy of the present. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  31. Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945). Phénoménologie de la perception [Phenomenology of perception]. Paris: Gallimard.Google Scholar
  32. Miettinen, R. (2001). Artifact mediation in Dewey and in cultural-historical activity theory. Mind, Culture and Activity, 8, 297–308.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Nietzsche, F. (1922). Nachgelassene Werke: Zweite Abteilung Band XVI [Unpublished works. Part 2 vol. 16]. Leipzig: Alfred Kröner Verlag.Google Scholar
  34. Peirce, C. S. (1878). How to make our ideas clear. Popular Science Monthly, 12, 286–302.Google Scholar
  35. Rogoff, B. (2016). Culture and participation: A paradigm shift. Current Opinion in Psychology, 8, 182–189.PubMedCrossRefPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  36. Roth, W.-M. (2018). The invisible subject in educational science. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 50, 315–332.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Roth, W.-M. (2019). Transactional psychology of education: Toward the social in a strong sense. Cham: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Sacks, H. (1992). Lectures on conversation 1964–1972, Volume I & II. Malden, MA: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  39. Varela, F. J. (1999). The specious present: A neurophenomenology of time consciousness. In J. Petitot, F. J. Varela, B. Pachoud, & J.-M. Roy (Eds.), Naturalizing phenomenology: Issues in contemporary phenomenology and cognitive science (pp. 266–329). Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  40. Vološinov, V. N. (1930). Marksizm i filosofija jazyka: osnovnye problemy sociologičeskogo metoda v nauke o jazyke [Marxism and philosophy of language: Application of the sociological method in linguistics]. Leningrad: Priboj.Google Scholar
  41. Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky, vol. 1: Problems of general psychology. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  42. Vygotsky, L. S. (1989). Concrete human psychology. Soviet Psychology, 27(2), 53–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Vygotsky, L. S. (1994). The problem of the environment. In R. van der Veer & J. Valsiner (Eds.), The Vygotsky reader (pp. 338–354). Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  44. Vygotsky, L. S. (1997). The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky, vol. 3: Problems of the theory and history of psychology. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  45. Waldenfels, B. (2006). Grundmotive einer Phänomenologie des Fremden [fundamental ideas of a phenomenology of the alien]. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt/M.Google Scholar
  46. Whitehead, A. N. (1919). An enquiry concerning the principles of natural knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  47. Whitehead, A. N. (1920). The concept of nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  48. Whitehead, A. N. (1926). Science and the modern world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  49. Whitehead, A. N. (1978). Process and reality: An essay in cosmology. New York: The free press. Google Scholar
  50. Zavershneva, E. J. (2010). The way to freedom. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 48(1), 61–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Zavershneva, E., & van der Veer, R. (Eds.). (2018). Vygotsky’s notebooks. Singapore: Springer.Google Scholar
  52. Zinchenko, V. (2008). Living memory. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 46(6), 80–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of VictoriaVictoriaCanada

Personalised recommendations