Vygotsky's tool-and-result methodology and psychology

Fred Newman and Lois Holzman

Originally published as Chapter 3 in Lev Vygotsky Revolutionary Scientist (Routledge 1993)

The search for method becomes one of the most important problems of the entire enterprise of understanding the uniquely human forms of psychological activity. In this case, the method is simultaneously prerequisite and product, the tool and the result of the study. (Vygotsky, 1978, p.65)

In their most scientifically and philosophically lucid moments, Marx and Vygotsky, his follower, reject much more than an ill-formed psychological paradigm. Their intellectual challenge is to the entirety of Western thought, including thought about thought. Marx's writings both assume and imply the invalidity of Aristotelian and scholastic philosophies that came before him, and world views that developed in his time, e.g. rationalism, empiricism, positivism and vulgar materialism (the latter being the simplification and distortion of Marxism that takes the material world as basic and therefore causative). Marx subjected the broad and varied families of concepts associated with these historically interconnected world views to intense scrutiny, using the method he developed - dialectical historical materialism - to challenge the fundamental epistemic (how we know) and ontic (what there is) categories of Western cognition.

Most notably, Marx took on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (out of which, as we have already noted, much of modern psychology grew). He exposed it as being no less metaphysical than any other 'philosophy' - German or otherwise. Indeed, Marx challenged the enterprise of philosophy itself, which was dominated in his youth by Hegel and the 'young Hegelians.' This was especially true in his early writings, where Marx put forth the premises and process of the revolutionary methodology he was developing (Marx, 1964; 1971; Marx and Engels, 1973).

'But isn't Marx's method of dialectical historical materialism simply another world view, another paradigm, another philosophy?' every critic of Marx since 1848 has asked. 'Isn't a challenge to philosophy, no matter how radical, still a philosophy?' The Marxian- Vygotskian answer to this apparent contradiction is radically methodological; it challenges how we challenge and introduces a qualitatively different (practice of) method.

For Marx and Vygotsky the object of study and the method of study are practical. By this they did not mean 'useful'; they were speaking of practical-critical activity, i.e. revolutionary activity (Marx, 1973, p. 121). The world historical environment ('scene') is both spatially and temporally seamless and qualitative, not quantitative; it can only be comprehended by a scientific practice free of interpretive assumptions, or premises. But this by no means implies that it is without premises. Such a scientific practice is, Marx explained, filled with the real premises that are 'men, not in any fantastic isolation and rigidity, but in their actual, empirically perceptible process of development under definite conditions' (Marx and Engels, 1973, p. 47). This Marxian method, the method of practice (if not yet the practice of method), not only redefines what science (or any other world view) is to be; it redefines what method is to be.


While the question of method has concerned philosophers since Plato, it was not until the emergence of modern science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that it took center stage in philosophical investigation. Bacon (1960) took method to be the key to knowledge as he attempted to subject the tools of observation associated with the newly developing modern science to philosophical scrutiny. Since Bacon's time, most traditional views on methodology treat or define method as fundamentally separate from experimental content and results, i.e. from that for which it is the method. Indeed, it is considered unscientific to do otherwise. Method is understood and used as something to be applied, a functional means to an end, basically pragmatic or instrumental in character. In sharp contrast, Marx and Vygotsky understand method as something to be practiced - not applied. It is neither a means to an end nor a tool for achieving results. Rather it is, in Vygotsky's formulation, a 'tool and result.' On this view, as Vygotsky tells us, the method is 'simultaneously prerequisite and product' (1978, p. 65).

But what does this provocative formulation of Vygotsky's mean? Indeed, to what are we to appeal in determining what it means? In the language of the early Cole laboratory, what sense of 'validity' (not to mention ecology) is (to be) understood in the search for ecological validity? After all, validity, like truth, proof, method, inference, explanation, concept and paradigm, is, so we are told, but one member of a broad family of concepts that are the ontological and epistemological core of Western cognition itself and/ or our understanding of Western cognition. Can we use these concepts to determine what tool-and-result means? If we cannot, then what else do we have at our disposal?

Pragmatism, which has emerged as the dominant methodology of the twentieth century, has spent a good deal of energy seeking answers to these questions. Developed in the United States, pragmatism is particularly associated with Peirce and C. I. Lewis (who were oriented toward the philosophy of science) and with Mead, Dewey and William James (all oriented toward psychology and sociology). Pragmatism rejected the dichotomous terms of the two major philosophical traditions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One was empiricism, which took the world and mechanical biological processes to be dominant. The other was rationalism and/ or idealism; taking the human mind to be dominant, they ascribed to it enormous power in determining the universe. The pragmatists made a genuine break with the dichotomy of mind and matter by focusing their investigation on the connection between thinking and doing. The term pragmatism was coined by Peirce (1957) - from the Greek pragma - act or deed - to emphasize the fact that words acquire their meanings from actions. According to Peirce, meanings are derived from deeds, not intuitions. In fact, there is no meaning separate from the socially constituted conception of its practical impact; a word or idea is meaningless if we cannot conceive of any practical effect relative to that word or idea. For James, the commercializer of pragmatism ('you must bring out of each word its cash-value': 1916), pragmatism has no content, but is pure method. Oriented toward results and consequences—it is fundamentally instrumentalist—pragmatism does not specify any particular results. Ultimately, the meanings of theories are to be found in their capacity to solve problems.

The pragmatists' world view has become the principal paradigm of late twentieth-century capitalist science; their answer to the fundamental problems of methodology, particularly of validity, has become dominant in a world where decisions are based by and large on instrumentalist reasoning. This is the case not only philosophically but practically.

Quine offers a sophisticated formulation of pragmatism's philosophy/methodology in his seminal 1950s work, 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism.' He employs a 'core-periphery' image, in which world view is depicted as a web-like network, with logical and other fundamental ontic and epistemic concepts occupying a core (central) position and immediate sensory experiences (or reports thereof) occupying the most peripheral locations. In between are the complicated practical/ theoretical links which connect the two. The model is meant to illustrate several critical features of pragmatism: (1) the relativity of world views; (2) the relativity within world views (anything might be changed); (3) the interdependence of the varied elements of a world view; and (4) the pragmatic value of preserving the core (or elements closest to it) as opposed to the periphery. For Quine, perhaps the most eloquent of the pragmatist methodologists, decisions as to what alterations should be made to a current conceptual framework or world view in the face of new developments (both large and small) and/or the decision to retain or reject a world view altogether are entirely based on the pragmatic criterion of 'efficaciousness.' In an oft-quoted statement Quine succinctly sums up his own methodological world view:

As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future experience in the light of past experience. Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries - not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer. For my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer's gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter into our conception only as cultural posits. The myth of physical objects is epistemologically superior to most in that it has proved more efficacious than other myths as a device for working a manageable structure into the flux of experience (1961, p. 44)

On Quine's pragmatic account, then, the conceptual scheme of science (which is, most would agree, the hegemonic twentieth-century world view) is itself a tool, a tool applied to the 'flux of experience,' a tool deemed 'superior' by appeal to a pragmatic criterion (efficaciousness). It is, to employ an overused word, a tool that 'works' -- but not, make careful note, a tool-and-result.


What is a tool, anyway? And what is a conceptual framework, schema or world view? And whatever shall we employ and how shall we employ it in an effort to answer these kinds of questions? What method do we use in finding answers to these most fundamental questions of methodology? From our brief discussion thus far, it should be clear that Quine, Marx and Vygotsky, each in their own ways, appreciated the utter failure of nineteenth- and twentieth-century empiricism to answer such questions and attempted to develop alternatives. For while empirics - systematic observations - are obviously critical in the process of determining what is, empiricism's self-serving assertion that empirics alone can determine what is has failed to pass many valid tests, including, ironically, the test of empirics - the claim that all things can be tested by empirics cannot itself be tested empirically!

The first half of the twentieth century brought one last ditch effort by philosophers /methodologists to synthesize nineteenth-century empiricism and idealism in the pseudo-scientific criterion of verifiability put forth by the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle.2 Both pragmatism and practice - the only seriously viable alternatives to empiricism - also took shape. Yet revolutionary practice, the methodology created by Marx, was being deformed even in its infancy by revisionist philosophers and politicians who would turn it from a method for transforming all of social reality into a theory for guiding economic development. Pragmatism and the capitalist system with which it is associated have fared better, if not well, during these ninety years. Thus, as we move toward the twenty-first century, a methodological confrontation between the well-funded (albeit deformed) method of pragmatism and its poor relative, the (also deformed) method of practice, unfolds. Even as worse-for-wear capitalism now stands victorious over revisionist Stalinist communism in the domain of practical politics here in the prologue to the twenty-first century, the most basic practical-critical scientific issues of world view and method remain essentially unresolved, with practice and pragmatics the only important players left standing in the world historic contest.

This debate between pragmatism and practice, between method as a tool for result (the pragmatic method) and method as tool-and-result (the method of practice), cuts across the nationalistic, everyday politics of contemporary international society. It does not fit into any neat categories, certainly not the recently deceased dichotomy between capitalism and revisionist communism. The debate is not societal - it is historical. There is good reason to believe that its outcome will determine and be determined by whether or not our species will follow a progressive or regressive direction in the years ahead.3

What is the difference between tool for result and tool-and-result? At the risk of seeming ridiculously simplistic, we suggest that the difference may turn on the distinction between the words 'for' and 'and.'


We begin our discussion of the method of practice, seemingly indirectly, by investigating tool. Even in its simple dictionary denotative use (definition), the term 'tool' is exceedingly complex. In contemporary industrial society there are at least two different kinds of tools. There are tools that are mass produced (hammers, screwdrivers, power saws, etc.), and there are tools designed and produced typically by tool- and die-makers or toolmakers, i.e. tools specifically and uniquely designed and developed to assist in the development of other products (including, often, other tools). Because the distinction between these two kinds of tool is of such methodological importance, we want to make clear what it is and what it is not. The distinction we are making is not between mass-produced and hand-produced tools, nor between tools when used for the purpose intended by the maker (hammering a nail with a hammer) and tools when used for another purpose (hitting someone over the head with a hammer), nor between tools that remain unchanged in doing a job and tools that are transformed thereby.

Not everything that is needed or wanted by humankind can be made by simply using (applying) the tools that have already been mass manufactured in modern society. Often we must create a tool which is specifically designed to create what we ultimately wish to produce. The tools of the hardware store and the tools of the tool and die-maker are qualitatively different in a tool for result/tool-and-result sort of way. Hardware store tools, such as hammers, come to be identified and recognized as usable for a certain end, i.e. they become reified and identified with a certain function and, as such, insofar as the manufactured hammer as a social extension (a too1) of human activity comes to define its human user (as all tool use does), it does so in a predetermining sense. Marxists of all persuasions (and many others) accept that tool use impacts on categories of cognition. Tools for results are analogous to (as well as producers of) cognitive equipment (e.g. concepts, ideas, beliefs, attitudes, emotions, intentions, thought and language) that are complete (fully manufactured) and usable for a particular purpose.

The toolmaker's tool is different in a most important way. While purposeful, it is not categorically distinguishable from the result achieved by its use. Explicitly created for the purpose of helping to make a specific product, it has no reified prefabricated social identity independent of that activity. Indeed, empirically speaking, such tools are typically no more recognizable as tools than the product (often a quasi-tool or small part of a larger product) itself is recognizable as product. They are inseparable. It is the productive activity which defines both - the tool and the product (the result).

Unlike the hammer (the hardware store, manufactured, tool for result too1), this kind of tool- the toolmaker's tool-and-result- has no completed or generalized identity. Indeed, it typically has no name; it appears in no dictionary or grammar book. Such tools (or, semantically speaking, such a sense of the word 'tool') define their human users quite differently from the way hardware store tools, whether of the physical, symbolic or psychological variety, do. The inner cognitive, attitudinal, creative, linguistic tools developed from the toolmaker type of social tools are incomplete, unapplied, unnamed and, perhaps, unnameable. Expressed more positively, they are inseparable from results in that their essential character (their defining feature) is the activity of their development rather than their function. For their function is inseparable from the activity of their development. They are defined in and by the process of their production. This is not to say that such tools-and-results are without functions. It is, rather, to say that the attempt to define tools-and-results by their function (as is the case with tools for results) fundamentally distorts what they are (and, of course, in the process, what definition is).

This issue of tools - and the distinction we are taking such pains to put forth - is of great importance to understanding Vygotsky's work and the understandings and applications of his work by others. Every Vygotskian of both the revolutionary and reformist variety notes how important the concept of tool is for Vygotsky. But which tool (meaning of tool) do they employ?

In his prologue to the English edition of Volume 1 of The Collected Works of L.S. Vygotsky (1987) Bruner, who had written an introduction to Vygotsky's Thought and Language in 1962, addresses the matter of tools:

In the new lectures it is quite evident once again that instrumental action is at the core of Vygotsky's thinking - action that uses both physical and symbolic tools to achieve its ends. The lectures give an account of how, in the end, man uses nature and the toolkit of culture to gain control of the world and of himself. But there is something new in his treatment of this theme - or perhaps it is my new recognition of something that was there before. For now there is a new emphasis on the manner in which, through using tools, man changes himself and his culture. Vygotsky's reading of Darwin is strikingly close to that of modern primatology . . . which also rests on the argument that human evolution is altered by man-made tools whose use then creates a technical-social way of life. Once that change occurs, 'natural' selection becomes dominated by cultural criteria and favors those able to adapt to the tool-using, culture-using way of life. By Vygotsky's argument, tools, whether practical or symbolic, are initially 'external': used outwardly on nature or in communicating with others. But tools affect their users: language, used first as a communicative tool, finally shapes the minds of those who adapt to its use. It is one of the themes of Vygotskian psychology and his six lectures are dedicated to its explication in the context of human development. His chosen epigraph from Francis Bacon, used in Thought and Language, could not be more apposite: neither hand or mind alone suffice; the tools and devices they employ finally shape them. (1987, p. 3)

In our opinion, Bruner is correct in speculating that it is his own 'new recognition of something that was there before', rather than there being 'something new' in Vygotsky's treatment of the selfand species-transforming effect of the use of tools, which in fact is basic, although not unique, to Marxism - as Vygotsky was well aware. While Marx himself did not develop a new psychology that made use of this recognition, Vygotsky went a substantial way toward doing so. Fundamental to his work was the specification to psychology of the Marxist socio-methodological principle of self- and species-transformation through the use of tools. Tool-and-result psycho-methodology, or toolmaking, is precisely that specification.

Vygotsky's tool-and-result method is purposeful in the Marxian sense, not, contrary to Bruner's formulation, in the instrumentalist sense. Vygotsky's rejection of the causal and/ or functional methodological notion of tool or instrument for a purpose or result in favor of the dialectical notion of tool-and-result in the study of human psychology is new and revolutionary.4 Apparently, Bruner does not see this. Only the denial, whether intended or not, of Vygotsky as a Marxist revolutionary scientist (in contrast to the view of him as a psychologist who quotes Marx) by Bruner and so many others could lead them to miss what Vygotsky brings to his research and, therefore, to miss his advancement of Marxism as a methodology and humanistic science - the method and science of psychology as revolutionary practice.

For both Marx and Vygotsky, revolution was the driving force of history. Marx observes:

. . . all forms and products of consciousness cannot be dissolved by mental criticism. . . but only by the practical overthrow of the actual social relations which gave rise to this idealistic humbug; that not criticism but revolution is the driving force of history. (Marx and Engels, 1973, p. 58)

Vygotsky, in the passage quoted earlier, makes the following clear statement of what he takes the scientific revolutionary activity to be:

The scientific mind. . . views revolution as the locomotive of history forging ahead at full speed; it regards the revolutionary epoch as a tangible, living embodiment of history. A revolution solves only those tasks which have been raised by history: this proposition holds true equally for revolution in general and for aspects of social and cultural life. (Quoted in Levitan, 1982, inside front cover)

Marx, by no means a psychologist, was concerned with the sociology of history and the science of revolution. One of his most significant discoveries - that the nature of human activity is practical-critical - he took to be a socio-historical fact, not a psychological fact. His concern was the making of revolution. It remained for Vygotsky, in his quest to develop a Marxist psychology - a revolutionary practice that would transform human beings in a post-revolutionary period - to discover the methodological-psychological tool-and-result approach which identifies practical-critical revolutionary activity as what people do. Both the pragmatist Quine and his follower Kuhn, whose positing of 'paradigm shifts' as the central 'structure of scientific revolutions' has become the major explanatory principle in the history of science (Kuhn, 1962), regard changing an entire world view as a 'rare' revolutionary act. The revolutionaries Marx and Vygotsky consider it the practical-critical activity of everyday life.

In our view, the implications of thus standing Quine and the pragmatists on their heads are profound. A synthesis of Marx's discovery of practical-critical, revolutionary activity and Vygotsky's tool-and-result methodology yields a new understanding of the psychology of human beings consistent with Marxian and Vygotskian principles. It remains for us and other revolutionary Vygotskians to sketch out and develop this new mode of understanding.

Practical-critical activity transforms the totality of what there is; it is this revolutionary activity that is essentially and specifically human. Such activity' overthrows' the overdetermining empiricist, idealist and vulgar materialist pseudo-notion of particular 'activity' for a particular end - which in reality, i.e., society, is behavior. The distinction between changing particulars and changing totalities is vital to understanding tool-and-result methodology and, therefore, revolutionary activity.


The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice. (Marx, 1973, p. 121)

In the seventeenth century Leibniz first made plain that, from a naturalistic or spatio-temporal point of view, changing a single 'thing' (spatio-temporal point) entails changing everything (the totality). Indeed, the common sense notion of a particular action or event altering a single other or even several other states of affairs - but not the totality - is illusory; it is an abstraction beyond any type of verification.

This causal, 'a for b' paradigm (derived from and inextricably linked to tool for result methodology) has been outgrown in the physical sciences, yet persists within so-called common sense and the so-called social sciences. Why? The answer is exceedingly complex and to spell out the circumstances and process of its overthrow is beyond the scope of this chapter - indeed, of this book. Yet the overriding reason seems clear and simple. In modern times, an understanding of physical phenomena no longer demands that a moral-ideological and/ or economic-political account be implicit or explicit in the explanation, as was the case in pre-feudal and feudal times when Aristotelian and scholastic physical science made just such a demand. This demand was overcome by the rising bourgeoisie's need for knowledge that was quantifiable, measurable and right here on earth, and by the radical discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo and others. It was then that the natural sciences were mathematicized, technologized and, thereby, fully liberated from the feudal constraints of teleology and God. To this day, however, the social sciences are fettered by 'deistic' dogma; they remain in the service of the dominant ideology. On the one hand that ideology and the class for which it speaks require accountability and responsibility (the law must know, for example, what was done - in particular - and who - in particular - did it). On the other hand, the ruling ideology eschews revolutionary activity (the concept and, especially, the practice). That is why Marx's insistence that revolutionary practice is the 'peep stone' required to comprehend the ordinary practical-critical activity of people changing circumstances which are changing them, and Vygotsky's tool-and-result psychological practice, are still regarded as esoteric. In fact they are the nineteenth- and twentieth-century analogs to Galileo's revolutionary Two New Sciences;5

But do we human beings engage in revolutionary activity? What does the practical-critical activity of everyday life look like? Doing something in particular, a, to bring about a certain particular end, b, is real enough behavior relative to our societal definitions and identity, but is, historically speaking, illusory. We are employing here the critical distinction (not a dichotomy) between society and history as human life spaces. As human beings, we all live simultaneously in history (the open-ended, seamless totality of existence) and in society (the name given to a specific spatio-temporal institutional arrangement 'within' history); we all live in history/ society.6 All societies necessarily adapt their members to this dual location and dual identity, but they vary widely in the degree to which they require adaptation just to themselves or to history as well. Modern liberal-religious industrial societies, the ultra-pragmatic United States in particular, adapt their members to society to such an extent that most people do not even know that they are in history - or that history is something to which one can adapt. This deprivation of historical identity leaves us vulnerable to both reactionary political change (fascism) and psychopathology (e.g. depression) (Holzman and Polk, 1988; F. Newman, 1987). In speaking of the US experience, Newman says:

Our sensibility, such as it is, is mediated by an incredible barrage of words and images carefully shaped in such a way as to not simply create a certain picture, but to explicitly create a certain sense of alienation from the sources and objects of that picture. That is, to destroy our sense of history. There is ample evidence to suggest that as a people, we have not simply been alienated from the historical process of work and production but we have been alienated from the historical process of our own historical development. We have been denied the possibility of history as well as the actuality of history. (1987, p. 20)

Life is lived from one day's 6 o'clock news to the next - governed by what we might well call radical chauvinism!7

Adapting to history means engaging in the revolutionary activity of changing totalities; adapting to society, in the case of the societies in which we currently live, means carrying out certain acts, behaviors and roles appropriate to and having exchange value within the narrow confines of this particular time and place (moment) in world history. Thus, our day-to-day societally determined and commodified 'activities' are not activity at all in the Marxian, historical sense. Just like economic commodities under the socioeconomic-ideological system known as capitalism, they are simultaneously real (societally) and illusory (historically).

Why is this so? Because the process of commodification totally misrepresents and radically distorts by alienation the actual historical process of production. As Marx points out, commodification occurs under the domination of the process of producing for exchange (which means, in the final analysis, for profit), not for use. Virtually all of the things that get produced under capitalism - cars, houses, food, books, diplomas, ideas, feelings - are not produced because they are useful (although they may be useful) but in order to be distributed and sold on the market. This activity of producing what we use in a manner which has less to do with our own needs as human beings and more to do with the need of some to make a profit has the effect of separating, in a profound way, the activity of production from the product of production. This social phenomenon is what Marx (1967) termed 'alienation.'

Such causal and societal, a for b, commodified 'activity' is best understood as fetishization (Marx, 1967, pp. 71-83). Marx took pains to understand commodities not just economically but also ideologically and/ or subjectively. To Marx, commodities are fetishized, i.e. their very existence and character have the property of being structurally disengaged from the process by which they were created, while appearing, in society, otherwise. In this, they are much like gods - created by us to be incomprehensible to us.8 Just as the fetishized commodity appears, within society, to have an existence and a motion independent of the social process of production that gave rise to it, so societal a for b 'activity' (behavior) is god-like and overdetermined, i.e. seeming to be lawfully (causally, functionally) connected independent of active human agency and, even more, unchangeable. For example, this book you are reading is, while useful (we hope!), a commodity; it was produced for exchange; it has the characteristic of being fetishized, i.e. it exists and is related to independently of the social process of production that gave rise to it (which includes the complex conjuncture of many processes of production, including but not limited to the process of production of human language, written language, printing presses, mass-produced books, educational institutions, publishing institutions and the discipline of psychology). So, too, societal a for b 'activity,' or behavior - the things we do every day - appear to exist (and do so, societally) and are related to in a way that separates them from the process of their production - in particular, from the actual human activity that produced them. (We created these words using language created by people historically speaking; the book was printed on presses built and operated by workers, etc.).

The seemingly lawful connections of a for b 'activity' (behavior) independent of historical, active human agency is one of the primary ways that an essentially religious world view - including notions of predeterminism, overdeterminism and, indeed, vulgar determinism - have been incorporated into capitalist ideology and bourgeois scientific methodology as causality or functionalism. Kant went so far as to glorify causality as one of the a priori synthetic categories (conditions) necessary for the human experience itself. During the two centuries since Kant, traditional physical science has pretty much abandoned the notion of cause. Nevertheless, a for b, means-end instrumentalism, or functionalism, remains within 'common sense' syntax and embedded in the pre-scientific study of what is traditionally called psychology.

While causality - as both an explanatory principle and a topic to be investigated - permeates all of psychology, it is perhaps most pernicious and distorting in developmental psychology. No less renowned a developmentalist than Piaget is little more (or less) than a supplier of evidence for the 'psychological reality' of Kant's a priori categories of experience. For Piaget development consisted of the means by which the child, acting upon the world (in societal reality, behaving in the world), moves her /himself through stages in the acquisition and use of the basic human epistemological tools by which it is possible to understand 'our' world. These tools are Kant's categories of experience - the concept of the object, relation, temporality and causality. According to Piaget, the concept of causality develops slowly; he made great use of what he saw as the child's lack of correct (adult) usage of causal terms such as 'because' and 'so,' the primitive 'why' questions young children ask and the animistic answers they give when asked 'why' to provide evidence for both Kant's contention that the mind is structured to see causality and for his own stage theory of intellectual development. This he did without ever questioning the particular causal connections a specific culture has produced nor, what is methodologically even more problematic, the socio-cultural-historical notion of causality itself!9

Thus, while the natural science community has shaped a methodology suitable to its own development in the process and practice of its own development, psychology grafted an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century methodology onto itself and, to this day, has not fully discovered the human methodology necessary for a uniquely human psychology. In our view, Vygotsky and Marx made significant contributions to such an effort. To complete our sketch of their work on this project, we would do well to summarize the complex relationship between: (1) revolutionary (practical-critical) activity; (2) a and b (tool-and-result) as opposed to a for b (tool for result) methodology; and (3) changing particulars vs changing totalities.


Revolutionary practice or activity (not to be equated with the particular revolutionary activity of making a revolution)10 is ordinary day-to-day, hour-to-hour, human (historical) activity: it is a particular action, a, changing the totality of circumstances (historical 'scenes') of human existence B, C, D,... and combinations of circumstances {B, C, D,... }, etc. The distinctly human quality of our species is its capacity to practice revolutionary activity, a capacity, as we have said, that is, unfortunately, only sometimes self-consciously manifest. Instead, our ordinary activity (so-called) is non-revolutionary; in fact, it is not activity at all. Rather, it is either societally determined behavior or the motion of natural (physical, chemical) phenomena; it is, thereby, neither uniquely nor specifically human. What we are calling human activity, in all its infinitely complex variations, is always changing that which is changing, which is changing that which is changing. . . It is changing the historical totality (or, more accurately, the many totalities) that determines the changer. Indeed, this radically non-dualistic dialectic-in-practice is what changing - i.e. activity - is.

As a species, we are distinguished from other species, as far as we can tell, by the fact that we are never fundamentally changed, as human beings, except insofar as (by our revolutionary activity) we fundamentally change other things. What our species changes are the circumstances of our continued historical existence.

What, then, is the relationship between changing particulars vs changing totalities and tools? Recall that the toolmaker's tool-and-result is that tool specifically created to assist in the development of something that we wish to create. Tools of this sort are paradigmatically 'prerequisite and product' in that the creation of the product is not limited by the pre-existent, societally determined manufactured tools (linguistic, cognitive or store bought) available for its conceptualization and its actualization.11 Indeed, it could not be so limited, for the tool, not yet made, is a precondition for the product. It is not linearly in advance of the product, either conceptually or materially. Tool and product of tool are therefore, of necessity, a produced unity. The toolmaker and the poet (by contrast with the users of manufactured tools and/or ordinary language) do not begin with tool for product and move to product; rather, the toolmaker and the poet create the unity (totality) tool-and-product, since tool is materially defined by product as much as product is defined by tool. (The product makes the tool every bit as much as the tool makes the product.) The toolmaker must create the totality tool-and-result just as the poet must create meanings as she/he creates the poem. Unlike the user of hardware store tools who is defined and predetermined by the particular behavior of using those tools which are made for a particular (and also predetermined) function, the toolmaker is neither defined nor predetermined. As the producer of the totality tool-and-result, the toolmaker is a changer of historical totalities. She/he is engaged in revolutionary (human-historical) activity.


We have taken pains to explain the significance of Marx's notion of revolutionary activity as being central to an understanding of Vygotsky as a revolutionary scientist and of Vygotsky's foundational discoveries in psychology and methodology (in particular, tool-and-result methodology). Yet no less a thinker than Marx himself was vulnerable to the dominance of tool for result methodology and causal and/or functional models. In an oft-quoted section of Capital, Marx exposes a functionalist bias:

We presuppose labor in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in theconstruction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labor process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the laborer at its commencement. He also realizes a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. (1967, p. 178)

The above statement delineates what Marx took to be the essential characteristic of human labor as opposed to animal labor. (Many have used it -- erroneously and opportunistically, we think -- to justify their own denial of revolutionary activity and as the basis for claiming that Marx took labor to be the essentially human activity.)12 But Marx's tool for result, functionalist description is both philosophically (analytically) and empirically (descriptively) inaccurate. If the structure is 'raised in imagination' before it is 'erected in reality,' i.e. if the process is linear, then what and where is the dialectic of this human process? If, as Marx teaches us, 'life precedes consciousness' (not the other way around), then how is imagination to precede its actualization or materialization? To be sure, one might imagine Marx arguing that the imagining activity associated with any labor process could derive from a prior process and/ or set of material circumstances. But this simply puts off our question; it does not answer it. For we should still wish to know if the process or set of circumstances that 'yielded' the prior labor process had an imagining associated with it. And if not, from what did it come? This reification of imaginings and the reintroduction of purpose as a psychological construct allows the old philosophical-theological argument of first cause back into play even as the early methodological Marx had ruthlessly eliminated it.

As is so often true with Marx, the corrective to this mistake is to be found in his own writings, portions of which we have already quoted. We point out this misleading inaccuracy on his part because it is useful in illustrating how we understand Vygotsky's revolutionary scientific understanding of thought, language and meaning as revolutionary activities.

In the beginning the human species (anthropologically and psychologically) is neither word nor imagining, neither thought nor language - we are, Marx has said, without propositional or mentalistic premises.13 In the beginning is the revolutionary activity of reorganizing the totality or totalities of human circumstance. The unique quality of human labor is not to be found in the realization of preconceived purpose but in the meaningfulness (the practical-criticalness, the revolutionariness) of human activity. The bee may very well have something in mind before it moves ahead, and the human worker, particularly with advances in the use of computers in the labor process (but even before), may have nothing in mind. But the bee knows and cares nothing of meaning. Meaning has no meaning in the life of the bee! No doubt, there is communication among (and perhaps even between) the bees and spiders, but there is no meaning. Animals communicate (some make honey) but they don't make meaning. For us, meaning is to be located precisely in the human capacity to alter the historical totality even as we are determined (in our societal particularity) by it. The activity of making meaning is a fundamental expression of revolutionary activity. It is the toolmaker (our species) making tools-and-results using the predetermining tools of the hardware store variety (including nature and language) and the predetermined tools of mind developed by them to create something - a totality - not determined by them. It is the meaning in the emerging activity, not the preconceived imagining followed by its realization, which is transformative, revolutionary and essentially human.14

Vygotsky provides valuable insight into meaning-making as revolutionary activity in early childhood in his discussion of concept development. He identifies the pseudo-concept as a 'critical moment in -the development of the child's concepts, a moment which simultaneously separates and connects complexive and conceptual thinking' (1987, p. 142). In discussing the value of experiments which investigated pseudo-concepts, Vygotsky reveals the process of meaning-making (concept formation) as the activity of utilizing what we just called the predetermining tools of the hardware store (language) and the predetermined tools of mind developed by them to create something not determined by them.

According to Vygotsky, concepts develop in a dialectical manner, not 'freely or spontaneously along lines demarcated by the child himself'; however, the adult cannot simply 'transfer his own mode of thinking to the child' (1987, pp. 142-3). Rather, there is an internal contradiction in pseudo-concepts in that they look just like adult word meanings yet they are constructed in an entirely different manner from adult word meanings. A child's language (word meanings, concepts, generalizations) is produced using word meanings predetermined by the adult language, but the child's language is not the adult language: 'the speech of those who surround the child predetermines the path that the development of the child's generalizations will take. [But] it links up with the child's own activity' (p. 143). This activity produces the pseudo-concept, something new, something not determined by the tools used to produce it. The child's language learning activity is, then, one of making meaning. To use Wittgenstein's rich description (1953), it is the activity of playing language games.

While there is no evidence that Vygotsky had such a formulation in mind, his arguments for the dialectical character of pseudo-concepts and the significance of experiments which reveal this process are strikingly supportive of precisely this understanding:

The experiment. . . allows us to discover how the child's own activity is manifested in learning adult language. The experiment indicates what the child's language would be like and the nature of the generalizations that would direct his thinking if its development were not directed by an adult language that effectively predetermines the range of concrete objects to which a given word meaning can be extended.

One could argue that our use of phrases such as 'would be like' and 'would direct' . . . in this context provides the basis for an argument against rather than for the use of the experiment since the child is not in fact free to develop the meanings he receives from adult speech. We would respond to this argument by noting that the experiment teaches more than what would happen if the child were free from the directing influence of adult speech, more than what would happen if he developed his generalizations freely and independently. The experiment uncovers the real activity of the child in forming generalizations, activity that is generally masked in casual observation. The influence of the speech of those around the child does not obliterate this activity. It merely conceals it, causing it to take an extremely complex form. The child's thinking does not change the basic laws of its activity simply because it is directed by stable and constant word meanings. These laws are merely expressed in unique form under the concrete conditions in which the actual development of the child's thinking occurs. (1987, p. 143)

How did Vygotsky discover that what makes thinking and speaking uniquely human is the revolutionary activity of making meaning? We think it was his practical-critical understanding of Marx's radical non-propositional historical monism, whose premises are 'men. . . in their actual, empirically perceptible process of development under definite conditions.'

Vygotsky speaks further about the inseparability of the human capacity to make meaning (to engage in revolutionary activity) from speaking and thinking. He makes plain that thinking and speaking are not linearly, causally, teleologically, purposefully or functionally related; they are dialectically unified by meaning. Unlike functionalist or causal/linear theorists (such as Piaget, for example), Vygotsky (speaking and thinking dialectically) says that meaning belongs not only to the domain of thought but to the domain of speech... A word without meaning no longer belongs to the domain of speech. One cannot say of word meaning what we said earlier of the elements of the word taken separately. Is word meaning speech or is it thought? It is both at one and the same time; it is a unit of verbal thinking. It is obvious, then, that our method must be that of semantic analysis. Our method must rely on the analysis of the meaningful aspect of speech; it must be a method for studying verbal meaning. (1987, p. 47)

The study of thinking/speaking as activity exposes the meaning-making essence of humankind and, thereby, the revolution-making essence of our species. Thinking and speaking do not make us human. Rather, thinking and speaking are uniquely human in that their dialectical unity derives from the ability of the species to make meaning, which is nothing more nor less than the ability to make revolution, to make tools (-and-results). Verbal behavior (the computer-like use of language as a tool for result by tool for result-determined thinking) may dominate societally fixed intercourse, precisely as exchange value in general dominates within an economically commodified society. But the sometimes manifest ability to use such tools for result to create meaning and thereby reorganize thinking/ speaking and much else (potentially everything else) is the essentially human, essentially revolutionary activity. In its absence, there would be no thinking/ speaking at all. As Wittgenstein took great pains to teach us, the essence of language is not that it refers but that people refer (and do much else) using it (1953). What is fundamental is the activity. Unsegmented and timeless history in which we all live makes possible the uniquely human activity of transforming all of history at any historical moment.

Those who seek to study human activity by somehow eliminating the experimenter are indistinguishable from those who would study birds as if they could not fly. One can do so but only at the cost of no longer studying birds. As the Vygotskian-informed Rockefeller researchers noted, the 'proper unit of analysis for an ecologically valid psychology' is not the individual, but the 'person-environment interface' or 'the scene.' Yet while 'the scene' takes into account the socialness of the human being, it does so in a way that hardly distinguishes the human being from the bee or spider. While Cole, Hood and McDermott were splendidly sensitive to the overdetermining categories and language of society and sometimes they were even concerned with the 'history' of these and other social institutions and the genetic analysis of people functioning within them, they were seemingly oblivious to the activist (as in revolutionary activist) nature of human beings in history and, therefore, to an historical method for psychology. Hence, while their approach is social, and perhaps even radically so, it is not historical. The object of study in an historical psychology is the revolutionary activity of our species.

Vygotsky's overriding scientific concern was to study people as people, not as something other than people. He shared with Freud the drive to discover the uniquely human. For Freud it was the unconscious mind and the societal need to repress it. For Vygotsky, like Marx, it was the fundamentality of revolutionary activity and the societal need to express it. (Those radically opposed world views make a Marx/Freud 'synthesis' impossible.)15 Marxian psychology is Vygotskian, for both Marx and Vygotsky treat revolutionary activity as human activity. Those social and functional approaches that fail to treat revolutionary activity as their object of study fail, thereby, to study human beings as human beings.

While many who have studied thought and language have sought to explicate the complex and dynamic relationship between the rule-governed component of thought/language and the creative component of thought/language, few have done so as revolutionary activity theorists. Vygotsky is one of them. Another is Wittgenstein. While he might not have treated revolutionary activity as fundamental (indeed, it is not clear that Vygotsky does so self-consciously), in his later work Wittgenstein took activity as that which forbids the deadly dualistic separation of thought and language and of language and what, presumably, language is about. In doing so, he was engaging in the study of meaning-making as ordinary revolutionary activity.

As life-in-history/life-in-society is the ongoing dialectical environment (scene) of human existence, so, then, is revolutionary activity /verbal behavior the ongoing speaking/ thinking environment (scene) of human learning and development. A Marxian developmental, clinical, social and educational psychology must be located within the history/society scene and directed towards the study of the revolutionary activity /verbal behavior scene.

The tool-and-result study of speaking/thinking (which on Vygotsky's account is, after all, 'semantic analysis') would do well to incorporate a Wittgensteinian approach to semantic analysis most particularly, to employ Wittgenstein's notion of 'language games' :

I shall in the future again and again draw your attention to what I shall call language games. These are ways of using signs simpler than those in which we use the signs of our highly complicated everyday language. Language games are the forms of language with which a child begins to make use of words. The study of language games is the study of primitive forms of language or primitive languages. If we want to study the problems of truth or falsehood, of the agreement and disagreement of propositions with reality, of the nature of assertions, assumptions and questions, we shall with great advantage look at primitive forms of language in which these forms of thinking appear without the confusing background of highly complicated processes of thought. When we look at such simple forms of language the mental mist which seems to enshroud our ordinary use of language disappears. We see activities, reactions, which are clear-cut and transparent. (1965, p. 17)

Language games help us see clearly the activity of language and thought, i.e. the revolutionary process by which language and thought are produced, by which meaning is made. The 'confusing background' mentioned by Wittgenstein is societally fixed semantics and syntax which do more to hide speaking/thinking as activity than to expose it. Revolutionary activity is, on this account, itself a game which, in Wittgenstein's words, bears only a 'family resemblance' to other games. It is the revolutionary game of making new meanings that shows the social activity of language/thought through the 'mist' of societal and metaphysical meaninglessness.