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Activity Theories and the Ontology of Psychology: Learning from Danish and Russian Experiences

Abstract

Psychology has permanent problems of theoretical coherence and practical, analytic and critical efficiency. It is claimed that Activity Theory (AT) with roots in a long European philosophical tradition and continued in Russian AT is a first step to remedy this. A Danish version of AT may have a key to exceed some, mostly implicit, ontological restrictions in traditional AT and free it from an embracement of functionalism and mechanicism, rooted in Renaissance Physics. The analysis goes back to Aristotle’s understanding of the freely moving animal in its ecology and introduces some dualities in the encounter between subject and object which replace the dualistic dichotomies traditionally splitting Psychology in Naturwissenschaft vs. Geisteswissenshaft. This also implies a “Copernican turn” of Cartesian dualism. The perspectives are to give place for a phenomenology of meaning without cutting human psyche out of Nature and to open Psychology to its domain.

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Notes

  1. “There’s nothing more practical than a good theory” (Lewin 1952, p. 169).

  2. Smedslund and Ross are discussing the usefulness of empirical research, and empirical “evidens”, for psychological practice with clinical work as key example. In different degree they agree that empirical studies of functional, parametric correlations and “influences” are of little value when dealing with specific and often unique clinical cases. The value, if any, is an attention towards contextual factors influencing the client and potentially biasing the practitioner, and in some cases correcting pre-scientific lay knowledge. What they don’t discuss is the value of theoretical reflections and conceptual enrichment which could educate the practitioner to be sensitive to phenomena and “dimensions” not covered sufficient in lay knowledge, although they touch this subject when (p. 374) talking of “existence proofs”. Smedslund and Ross focus on psychological theories as containers of knowledge and not very much as analytical tools, which is in focus of the present paper, and in relation to which we are a little more optimistic, as we hope to promote here.

  3. It should be stressed, however, that pure empiricism is an unattainable ideal, and that nobody in practice can clear his mind for a priori assumptions interacting with or framing data, or derive theories by pure induction from data frequencies. There will always, alone from logical reasons, be other theories which also fit the data. In practice induction is mixed with some “intuitive” Bayesian Logic, with hidden assumptions. The unattainable ideal of empiricism is in contrast to the situation in rationalism, to be discussed below, which is both attainable and practicable on a common sense level, but has serious problems when confronted with the ideals of modern science, as we shall see.

  4. On the one hand, philosophical empiricism as an “epistemology” is based on sense impressions from which all knowledge and concepts should be derived and explained, including physical-chemical processes. On the other hand, when adopted by psychology, the physical-chemical processes in the sense-organs are declared to be sources of, and explanations of, sense-impressions. The pure inductive or mechanistic understanding of the basis for knowledge in this way unites the two contradictory ontologies behind psychological empiricism.

  5. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm

    Der Hauptmangel alles bisherigen Materialismus (den Feuerbachschen mit eingerechnet) ist, daß der Gegenstand, die Wirklichkeit, Sinnlichkeit, nur unter der Form des Objekts oder der Anschauung gefaßt wird; nicht aber als sinnlich menschliche Tätigkeit, Praxis; nicht subjektiv. Daher die tätige Seite abstrakt im Gegensatz zu dem Materialismus vom dem Idealismus—der natürlich die wirkliche, sinnliche Tätigkeit als solche nicht kennt—entwickelt. Feuerbach will sinnliche—von den Gedankenobjekten wirklich unterschiedne Objekte: aber er faßt die menschliche Tätigkeit selbst nicht als gegenständliche Tätigkeit. Er betrachtet daher im “Wesen des Christenthums” nur das theoretische Verhalten als das echt menschliche, während die Praxis nur in ihrer schmutzig-jüdischen Erscheinungsform gefaßt und fixiert wird. Er begreift daher nicht die Bedeutung der “revolutionären”, der “praktisch-kritischen” Tätigkeit. (Marx 1845, Marx’ emphases)

  6. It should be noted, that Ivan Pavlov died long before and this session was nothing but using his name.

  7. An essential thesis of Marx’s theory is that evolution of society is determined by labor productivity. Socialism was expected to overcome capitalism for labor productivity would be higher.

  8. Since 1938—State Institute for Brain Research named after Bekhterev; in 1948 renamed as Institute for Physiology of the Central Nervous System of the Academy of Medical Sciences of the USSR; since 1950 – part of the Physiological Institute of the USSR Academy of Sciences named after Pavlov.

  9. Kierkegaard’s concept of the “leap”, of courage and uncertainty, has perhaps a theoretical cousin in Niels Bohr’s concept of spontaneous and discontinuous leaps in Physics. In both cases a phenomenon, a choice or an act in Kierkegaard’s case, and a physical event in Bohr’s, is happening without sufficient (but perhaps with some necessary) causation or reason. There is even a cousin in modern Mathematics after the introduction of the Axiom of Choice where a selection or a choice from some source takes place without a sufficient defining criterion. There is a discontinuity or “gap” between act and premises, and this is not considered as a deficiency, as it should be in a mechanistic understanding, but as an ontological condition. To take a more everyday example well-known from clinical psychological practice, to stop smoking it is not sufficient to be motivated and have the full insight in the negative consequences of continuing. Premises are never sufficient, you simply have to decide to stop. And back to the philosophical classics: In the triple of Wissen, Wünschen and Willen, the last can’t be reduced to the first two, to paraphrase the Danish-Holstein philosopher and psychologist Johan Nicolai Tetens (1738–1807) who heavily influenced Immanel Kant and Danish philosophy and psychology.

  10. There are many of these “Numskull” tales in other cultures also, e.g. about “Numskull Ivan” and “Numskull Emelya” in Russian folklore and literature, and of course the famous old Persian fairy tale of “The three princes of Serendip”.

  11. In some way Descartes was right in his distinction between a punctiform Res Cogitans and an extensive Res Extensa. But instead of the first representing psyche and the second the physical world, it should rather be opposite if we focus on what is the defining context of phenomena. This is the “Copernican turn” needed in ontology!

  12. To prevent possible misunderstandings it should be stressed that entanglement between distant particles is not an example of causal interaction and that entanglement can’t be used as a carrier of information from one particle to another in which case it would also be in contradiction with Theory of Relativity, which it is not, despite some popular interpretations. So, we must disappoint those who think entanglement opens for Extrasensory Perception, interactions exceeding the speed of light, and the like. In the same way breaking of the principles of universality and proximal causation in Psychology is not in any way in contradiction with the laws of Physics and does not open for any “supernatural” phenomena. That these principles apply to some domains in Reality, and not to others, is no contradiction if the domains are well defined. And once more: Because both entanglement and Psyche are not restricted by principles of mechanicism, this does not in itself mean that Psyche has anything to do with entanglement. Here the latter is just used as a counterexample of the hegemony of mechanicism.

  13. This is in fact taken seriously in modern Mathematical Logic which cannot be grounded without imagination of so-called “models” (Crossley et al. 1972). That imagination of the counterfactual is a necessary tool in so-called indirect proofs in Mathematics has been known since Antiquity.

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Mammen, J., Mironenko, I. Activity Theories and the Ontology of Psychology: Learning from Danish and Russian Experiences. Integr. psych. behav. 49, 681–713 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12124-015-9313-7

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Keywords

  • Activity theory
  • Psychology in Germany, Russia, Denmark
  • History of psychology
  • Ontology
  • Dualism
  • Rationalism vs. empiricism
  • Mechanicism
  • Functionalism
  • Phenomenology
  • Human psyche vs. animal psyche
  • Set theoretical topology
  • Sense categories and choice categories