On the Evolution of Activity Theory



It is sometimes suggested that activity theory represents the most important legacy of Soviet philosophy and psychology. But what exactly is activity theory? At present, the canonical version in the West is that offered by Yrjo Engestrom, who traces three stages in the theory's development: from Vygotsky's initial insights, through Leontiev's expression of the fundamental structure of activity, to the still-emerging "third generation" of the theory that strives to incorporate difference, discourse, and dialogue into the basic framework. Engestrom's work has been enormously influential - especially his familiar use of triangles to model activity and "activity systems" - and the vitality of contemporary activity theory owes much to his contribution. It is important, however, to reflect upon the relation of contemporary views of activity theory to the ideas of the Russian founders of the activity approach. In the West, activity theory has become less as a theory as such, and more a method for social-scientific research into the nature of activity systems. For the Russians, in contrast, the concept of activity represented a fundamental category for the explanation of profound philosophical questions about the very possibility of the relation of mind and world. For a thinker like Evald Ilyenkov, for example, the concept of activity is not a heuristical device for explaining empirical data, but a transcendental precondition of the very relation of subject and object. Ilyenkov would, I believe, be dismayed by much that passes for activity theory today. For him, the significance of activity resides in constant transition, transformation, and transcendence of subject and world in their mutual engagement, and this is a process that resists reification into schema. In this paper, I explore the disparities between different versions of "the activity approach" and consider whether the future of this tradition might lie.

General Information

Keywords: activity theory, contemporary psychology, E.V. Ilyenkov, A.N. Leontiev, Y. Engestrom

Journal rubric: Discussions and Discourses

Article type: scientific article

For citation: Bakhurst D. On the Evolution of Activity Theory. Kul'turno-istoricheskaya psikhologiya = Cultural-Historical Psychology, 2006. Vol. 2, no. 4, pp. 79–84. (In Russ., аbstr. in Engl.)


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Information About the Authors

David Bakhurst, Doctor of Philosophy, Professor of Philosophy, Queen's University, Kingston, Canada, e-mail: david.bakhurst@queensu.ca



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