Wolff-Michael Roth


Cybernetics And Human Knowing. Vol. 1O, no. 2, pp. 8-28

From Environmental Determination to Cultural-Historical Mediation:

Toward Biologically Plausible Social Theories

Abstract: Cultural‑historical approaches to knowing and learning emphasize that the unit of analysis of cognition needs to be activity, which includes the mediation of actions by existing tools, community, rules, and division of labor. In this article, I show how psychogenesis and the mediated nature of cognition can be reconstructed by employing a materialist dialectical approach. I illustrate the last step in psychogenesis and anthropogenesis, the step from which human activity derives its mediated and dialectical nature. I conclude my expose with a description of recent social theories that successfully theorize cultural practices because they explicitly model this mediated and dialectical nature of human activities.

Keywords: Cultural-historical activity, agency, structure, dialectics, evolution, anthropogenesis, cultural primatology, phenomenological sociology, cultural sociology







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From Environmental Adaptation to Adaption of the Enviromnent:

On Becoming Human

Over the past decade, statements such as "knowledge is socially constructed" and "knowledge mediates power in interpersonal relations" and talk about the "social nature" of humans have become truisms. At the same time, social theories frequently use society, culture, or present circumstances as boxes that contain individuals (Holzkamp, 1984).

Culture and society often appear in psychological theorizing as independent variables (e.g., socio-economic status) that determine individual action: The standard research protocol researches cause-and-effect relationships and is therefore inherently deterministic.

Similarly, some sociological theorizing (e.g., role theory) often treats society as a network of expectations to which the individual is exposed and reacts. That is, there are tendencies in both fields to treat the relationship between society and individual as deterministic—the general view of the practice of teaching that has as its outcome student learning embodies such a cause-and-effect view. Such approaches insuffficiently appreciate the social nature of human beings (more deeply social than any other species [Whiten, 2000]), that is, they fail to theorize the double relationship between individual and society: individuals do not only live in social and material conditions but also produce and change these conditions (Leont'ev, 1977).

To theorize the relationship between individual and society, and to capture the social nature of human beings, it is usefal to conduct categorical reconstructions of the precursors of the human psyche, which is achieved by an analysis of the evolution of hominids and the emergence of the first human beings. That is, in semiotic terms, it is useful to reconstruct the processes by means of which the binary relation between organism-environment (the topic of biosemiotics [Brier, 1999]) into a triangular relation of culture-organism-environment (the topic of psychosomatics, biosemiotics, and ecosemiotics [Kull, 1998]).

Such an approach is also useful, because it accounts for the presence of tacit forms of knowing and learning in humans (i.e., specific functional relations of organism to environment) that were dominant at some point in human evolution but lost their dominance as other, language‑mediated forms of knowing and learning took over. For example, chimpanzees are known to transmit cultural practices from generation to generation (Whiten et al., 1999) but they do so without language, a primary form of cultural transmission in humans.

Few scholars have attempted such a reconstruction, although there is evidence that human abilities must have developed from pre‑human, primate foundations (Whiten, 2000). (For a theoretical framework that would allow such a reconstruction see Brier, 2000.) Among these, we find Marxist (social) psychologists, who, ideologically committed to dialectical materialism, attempt to articulate possible pathways by which human culture and cognition could emerge from their environmentally determined precursors ending in a situation that is often characterized as the "social nature" of humans (e.g., Leont'ev, 1981).

I begin by outlining the analytic methodology used to work out the ontological reconstruction of psychogenesis and provide a sketch of how hominids similar to chimpanzees may have become humans.

From Quantity to Quality in Evolutionary Processes

Marxist psychologists showed how the psyche might have evolved. In this approach, the psychical is defined in its most general terms so that it can be articulated as a specific and determining moment of a qualitatively new developmental level of life that occurred within the general evolution of the species (Holzkamp, 1983). In this, one has to consider that psychogenesis occurred in the context of life processes and that the life process itself has become historical in nature, having emerged as a qualitatively new basic form from processes that predate cultural-historical ones.

The unit of analysis in the categorical reconstruction is the functional relation between individual and its umwelt, the environment it senses: (Uexküll, 1973). This functional relation inherently is a dialectical unit that modern social theories conceptualize as "structures," which place material resources at one pole and schema at the other (Sewell, 1992).

This functional relation, in the opposition with agency gives rise to behavior, changes itself in the course of evolution, whereby qualitatively new forms of relations emerge from more elementary precursors.

The reconstruction of psychogenesis focuses on repeated emergence of qualitatively new forms of psychic processes from earlier, more elementary (prepsychic) life processes (Varela & Depraz, 2000). To show that the corresponding change from quantity to quality is plausible, five analytical steps are required for each qualitatively new psychic process (Holzkamp, 1983).

In the first step, the analyst provides proof of the real historical conditions within which the change could have occurred. Only those dimensions are reconstructed that are necessary precursors to the qualitatively new function; these precursors are dialectically "negated" in the shift, which allows the identification o the specifically new in the change. The second step requires proof of objectiv changes in the umwelt that could have produced an inner contradiction on th environment pole of the organism-environment unit. The third step requires proof o corresponding changes on the organism pole of the unit, and therefore the articulatio of the qualitatively new function. Such functional changes are essential for qualitativ steps to occur during evolution. The fourth analytical step has to show that there was a change in dominance from the previous to the qualitatively new functional relation between organism and environment. This corresponds to a second qualitative step during which a specific function among many functions becomes the determining function for the system as a whole. Evolution necessarily is a time-consuming continuous process because qualitatively new processes develop in the context of large numbers of existing processes without standing out or immediately providing advantages to the maintenance of the system (population). The changes occur not because of the development of any one dimension but because there is an instant reversal in the dominance of the relation between two continuously changing dimensions. The fifth and final step in the reconstruction requires proof that the system as a whole restructures and takes on a new direction in the development, now determined by the qualitatively new functional relation. It also has to be shown which older dimensions lose their function as well as how the functions of earlier dimensions take on new roles in the new context. That is, older functions do not disappear but simply change their role and level of importance. Thus, for example, the non‑language‑based forms of knowing, learning from others, and cultural transmission at the pre‑human stage continue to exist as what scholars have referred to as tacit knowledge and mimesis. Accompanying the changes in the dominant dimension are other, secondary developments of subordinate aspects.

As an illustration of this approach, let us consider the emergence of sensibility, here understood as the capacity to make distinctions between metabolically neutral and metabolically relevant environmental conditions and to convert this distinction into directed locomotion of the organism, as it was described by Marxist psychologists (Holzkamp, 1983; Leont'ev, 1981). Sensibility, the psychically specific irritability of organisms, emerged from the capacities of displacement and irritability, which constituted the necessary pre-psychic boundary conditions; the deep link between motion and emotion that exists in human cognition today reaches back to "the very roots of what is to be endowed with movement and feeling altogether, and in the natural history of the nervous system in particular" (Varela & Depraz, 2000, p. 155).

As part of the first step of categorical reconstruction, evolutionary evidence is rallied for the presence of locomotion and the capacity to detect environmental stimuli (temperature change, sound) even by single-cell organisms. In the second step, an inner contradiction has to be identified as having existed between the environmental conditions and the capacity of the system, which in fact constitutes the pressure in the direction of evolutionary change. In the present case, environmental changes led to the relative lack of metabolically relevant materials. Metabolically neutral instances are taken as signal, that is, information (sign) about the location of metabolically relevant conditions. Those variants of organisms that were better able to move in the direction of more favorable conditions would have survived and passed on this capacity. That is, these variants were able to survive in an environment that was heterogeneous in terms of the availability of metabolically relevant materials.

Environmental conditions are not sufficient to explain the emergence of "sensibility" as a central functional relation integrating organism and its umwelt. Changes at the organism pole of the organism‑environment unit are required in the reconstruction of the third step.

Initially, locomotion and irritability existed as independent capacities. However, in the context of the formation of a heterogeneous environment, changes in location and detected changes in metabolically relevant conditions become correlated so that, for example, the position of a light source might have been used as a source of information about directional changes in position. The light source became a signal (sign) for the food source, a potential that is also available in plants that change the direction of their leaves toward the light or close their blossoms over night.

Light "motivates" action, and therefore constitutes a rudimentary form of "meaning" (Ellis & Newton, 1998); at the same time, because this process involves a qualitative "evaluation" of signals to get ready for action, it also constitutes not only the root of emotionality but also its irremediable integration with cognition (Preston & de Waal, in press). With the emergence of sensibility, the previously existing capacities for locomotion and irritability are not replaced but enter into a qualitatively new functional relation. For example, movements that are oriented to differences in stimuli become elementary orientation activities that have an adaptive value of a new order of magnitude. At the same time, irritability undergoes a qualitative change and becomes sensibility to environmental signals; that is, directed movement is now mediated ("motivated" [Brier, 2000]) by signals. These new functions correspond to an expansion of the organism-environment relation that can be used to find food and to avoid negative conditions.

The correlation of motion and irritability constitutes a qualitative change, but it remains to be shown as the fourth step in the reconstruction that it also became the central function in the life of the organism. That is, sensibility developed as an additional characteristic to mere locomotion and irritability, which provides some advantages in that the organism no longer depended on chance to find food.

The decisive change would have occurred when sensibility changed from being one specific function among many to becoming the determining function, that is, when the organisms sustained life by orienting to signals and by directional locomotion to the sensed food sources.

Direct uptake of food, the dominant way of feeding before the change, was taken over by sign-mediated search for food, became a secondary function and decreases in importance though it does not necessarily disappear (e.g., oxygen uptake in humans through the skin, involuntary processes of breathing).


As the fifth and final step in the reconstruction, we note that the evolutionary changes now took a different direction as the organism was restructured in the direction of the new, more effective function. The ensuing changes and differentiation therefore corresponded to quantitative developments that constituted the first level of subsequent changes.

In the evolution to pre‑human forms of life, new specific functions that are preconditions for anthropogenesis had to emerge on the basis of the now existing sign­mediated orientation and movement. Even plants get information from their environment and use it to orient leaves and blossoms; phytosemiotics is the relevant discipline concerned with sign use in plants (Krampen, 2001). However, because "plants" are fixed in their location, their developmental patterns are very different from "animals" that can move about and develop more complex patterns of sign processing, a domain studied by zoosemiotics (Sebeok, 1986).

Animals, capable of moving about, evolved more complex ways of using and producing information, for example, in placing and sensing odor markers. In the ensuing process of differentiation evolved the function of orientating along gradients, identification of relevant features, differentiation of sensed environment, early forms of analysis and synthesis, and differentiation in the contexts of reproduction and life maintenance. Other functions include early forms of emotionality (which in this approach is an integral part of cognition) and communication (social structures). All these new functions do not displace earlier functions but co‑exist with them in a hierarchy differentiated both horizontally and vertically.

In the manner outlined, critical (Marxist) psychologists reconstructed necessary precursors to human psychogenesis to have been prepared during evolution and further developed as a part of cultural‑historical processes. In the following, I sketch some of the key features that may have led to the irremediably social nature of human beings, and the changeover in dominance from evolutionary to cultural‑historical processes of human development.

Change-Over in Dominance: From Phylogenetic Evolutionary to Cultural-Historical Processes

The essential step in anthropogenesis was the change over from environmental determination to cultural-historical process as the dominant developmental process. I continue to follow this crucial step in the manner that Marxist psychologists reconstructed it (Holzkamp, 1983) but by adding further information from recent research in primatology.

Anthropogenesis required a certain level of hominid development along a number of dimensions that served as the ground for the qualitative change that describes the difference in the organism-environment relation between pre-hominids and hominids. The development just prior to the differentiation that prodaced hominids included a change to omnivorous behavior, a transition from night- to daytime foraging, and a change from the dominance of short-range senses (smell, temperature, tactile) to that of long-range (acoustic, optical) senses. Further developments adapted the pre­hominids to the life in the tropical forests, the increasing use of hands and a coincident vertical orientation of the body, which further freed the "hands"; manipulation of objects encouraged a further differentiation of visual capacities to include binocular depth perception, which further supported the development of fine-motor skills in object manipulation.

These evolutionary trends were required for early forms of tool fashioning and tool use to emerge, such as those that characterize chimpanzees or orangutans. Readers recall the seminal work by Köhler with chimpanzees in captivity, which used boxes and sticks in a coordinated fashion to get at food items (e.g., Anderson, 1985) or the observations Jane Goodall made on chimpanzees in the wild, who fashioned tree branches to "fish" for termites through holes in the mount (e.g., Goodall, 1986). These early forms of fashioning and using tools were accompanied by an increasing differentiation of learned social relations, including signal exchange, increasing bonding to children and other individuals within the group, and further differentiation and articulation of independent forms of relations such as grooming to maintain friendship. Goodall also described what we can understand as differentiated coordination of hunting activities (i.e., division of labor), such as chimpanzees' pursuit and cutting off practices in hunting down Colobus monkeys: some members of the group cover all available escape routes while one adolescent male climbs after the prey and captures it; the others then rush up and seize parts of the carcass for themselves. Such dimensions would have constituted a fertile ground for anthropogenesis, in fact, are central to theories of human social and moral evolution (de Waal & Berger, 2000). However, as the presence of these dimensions in chimpanzees shows, these are necessary but not sufficient conditions for being specifically human. For the change toward the emergence of human nature to occur, "contradictions" in both environment and organism poles are required to function as evolutionary pressure.

The key change that likely precipitated anthropogenesis was the diminution of the forested areas and the corresponding increase in savannah and stoppes, and the corresponding split among those primates that remained in the forest and those that sought fortune in the new environment (Holzkamp, 1983). In the latter, there was less food, less protection from predators, greater range requirements for finding fond and protection, and high grass. These conditions constituted "contradictions" for the displaced hominid primates, but contradictions for which they were prepared, in some sense, by previous evolutionary steps and differentiation processes. For example, these primates could cope with high grass by orienting their body in a vertical direction. Thus, the earlier development toward vertical orientation would have been a "fertile" ground for further vertical orientation. Such orientation in the new environment would have further supported the previous evolutionary changes toward increasing bipedalism, freeing of the hands, development of manual fine‑motor skills, depth perception, and visual orientation capacities—all of which further supported the fashioning (production) of tools and tool use. The playful trial-and-error manipulation and fashioning of objects, a form of "thinking with objects," eventually may have accompanied the fashioning of tools for immediate use, giving rise to the production of objects that were only some time later used as tools.

These changes in functional relations with the natural environment were likely accompanied by changes in the social organization, which constituted further adaptation to the new savannah environment. For example, the formation of large groups comprising many family units and flexible relations between individuals would enhance the concentration of information and experience, and lead to an increased capacity for the renroduction of learned behaviors and traditions Such formation of traditions has been reported among chimpanzees as well; research documented no less than 39 learned behavior patterns that vary across chimpanzee communities in Africa (Whiten et al., 1999) and at least 19 learned behavior patterns among orangutans in six South-East Asian study sites (van Schaik et al., 2003). For example, chimpanzees at Gombe (Goodall's site) use objects such as stems, twigs, branches, leaves, and rocks in nine different ways in the context of feeding, drinking, cleaning themselves, investigating out-of-reach objects, and as weapons. In other communities, chimpanzees use objects for different purposes and in different ways. In each community, behaviors are passed from one generation to the next through observational learning so that we might see in this phenomenon the roots of the phenomenon of culture (de Waal, 1999).

Interestingly, primate cultural transmission occurs in the absence of language as a formal system of representation but requires physical copresence with other primates. Transmission cannot occur throngh vicarious experience in the absence of language.

Increased coordination between individual and collective behavior also meant that new forms of relating within the group could emerge. For example, the leader no longer needed to be the strongest individual; rather, the individual who could rally the most support from other members of the group could be the leader, a situation that can be observed already among chimpanzees (de Waal, 2000). Similarly, increased dependency on the group to guarantee individual survival also meant that "aggression" had to be managed in new ways. Again, chimpanzees individually and collectively exhibit rudiments of learned and culturally transmitted "conflict resolution" behavior through post contact touching and kissing (de Waal, 2000). Even today, where humans have language to mediate conflict, touching, embracing, and kissing play an important role in intra‑family conflict; in some Islamic societies they continue to play an important role in institutionalized conflict resolution (Antoun, 1997). Furthermore, increasing conflicts among siblings and increasing conflict resolution strategies can be understood only in relational models, that is, if individual and collective form an inextricable unit.

Learned social coordination would have been a prerequisite for the first qualitative step in anthropogenesis, whereby members of a group are responsible for only a part of the overall structured activity, and thereby guarantee appropriate life conditions at the collective level.

This, in fact, constitutes the use of a division of labor as a means to securing food, paralleling the use of tools as material means. But such division of labor also means that there is a social motive inherent in the activity, whereby individuals participate in the overall activity but take on tasks that are not immediately linked to killing and feeding. By participating in the collective provision for life, the individual provides for his or her own provision all the while opening up spaces for making decisions about how to participate in the collective endeavor. The anticipation of collective success thereby could motivate individual actions, despite their indirect relation to the overall goal. Associated with these changes was an increased use of interindividual signals, tools that facilitated and mediated the coordination of social activities. Initially, however, these signals, like the tools used at this stage, were tied directly to the activity (praxis) and constituted a non‑representational "telling," that is, fashioning of the auditory environment that assisted in the collective survival (e.g., warning calls).

The crucial first step in anthropogenesis was the functional change from individual production of tools and tool use to the generalized production and use of tools by the collective, leading to a new quality of the social coordination (Holzkamp, 1991a). In other words, the production and the use of tools became separate activities, inverting, in a sense, the goals‑means relation: tools were no longer just means to secure food, but they became a goal in their own right. And yet, a concurrent generalized division of labor allowed toolmakers to eat even though they may not have participated in hunting. It is a production of tools for the generalized goal of securing food. Here, the object orientation in tool production and the social orientation to food provision have been integrated at a qualitatively new level—the cognitive motive of tool making for generalized purposes and the social motive of collective provision are merely opposite sides of the same developmental process.

This became the nucleus for the decisive step in anthropogenesis, which was achieved when the cultural-historical processes became of much greater importance in the adaptation to the environment than the previously dominating evolutionary processes.

In fact, with the emergence of cultural‑historical processes, humans actively changed the environment (e.g., farming, drilling wells and building aqueducts) rather than merely reacting to it.

Initially, the newly emerging functional relations provided evolutionary advantages, allowing those groups continued existence that effectively used and further differentiated the new capabilities. That is, at this stage, evolutionary selection would have supported a concentration of genomic information related to social abilities and social developmental possibilities. But the increase in social abilities and possibilities go hand in hand with a decrease in the role of selection processes, until a point was reached where the accumulation of experience by means of supra-individual communication became a much more rapid means of adapting to the environment or rather of fashioning the environment to fit human needs.

One of the developments was the development of representational use of communicative means that split off from the non‑representational use that continues to characterize everyday activity (Heidegger, 1977).

Initially, sounds and proto-words were used in specific contexts, such as when animals make warning calls. Whereas these calls clearly have communicative function, they are only made in a dangerous situation but never in a different context to refer to or practice for the dangerous situation.

As soon as a communicative sign loses its situation-specificity so that it is used in other contexts to refer back to the situation, a new, representation function of the sign has emerged.

This qualitatively new function of linguistic communication would then allow even more rapid development of social structures and production of means. For example, certain hand gestures that early hunters may have used no longer appeared only during the hunt but also during the pre‑hunt phase to plan future actions or in a post‑hunt phase for the purposes of debriefing or telling of hunting stories.

Importantly, the formerly dominant communicative means (e.g., facial expression, gesture, posture, and touching that already exist among chimpanzees) continue to exist in human communication. Now, however, they have a more subordinate function, for example, for framing the explicit content of the verbal messages.

This splitting of language into representational and non-representational functions constituted an important development at that stage, made possible by the generalized tool production and use, language, and social organization is a "gnostic" relation to the world: The epistemological distance required for recognizing the correlation of one type of events with other types of events in terms of objectives laws, that is, the distance required to establish observation categoricals, can only emerge when the individual no longer needs to immediately relate each event to itself and its survival (Holzkamp, 1983). At the same time, these observation categoricals bring vicarious habituation and induction (Quine, 1995). This gnostic relation brought with it a distancing of the epistemic subject and epistemic object.

Coincident with the epistemic distancing from objects or, the Other more generally, emerged the Self (the biblical Adam and Eve at once recognized their own nakedness and that of their respective other). The individual subject recognized the Other not only as object but also as a subject that had a reciprocal relation to him or her. The rudiments of this development already exist, for example, in chimpanzees that point others (humans, chimpanzees) to objects hidden from view to them (de Waal, 2001).

The other as a center of knowing and intentionality emerges at the same time as the self, as a consequence of recognizing in a relation of reciprocity, "oneself as another" (Ricoeur, 1992), and in relation to the collective as a whole. The Other is another Self such that objects and actions sensible and intelligible to me are also taken to be sensible and intelligible to the Other. That is, intersubjectivity emerges simultaneously with subjectivity in a context of cooperative and communicative interrelations.

Such developments would make it possible for individuals to sustain life by participating in the sustenance of the group; in fact, participating in the collective control of life, individuals increased control over their own life.

At this point, the individual and the collective have become irremediably and dialectically related. Collective life, its divisions of labor, and human beings' near impossibility to survive completely on their own therefore requires moving beyond individuality toward participation in the relevant sociocultural conditions. Individual life conditions are always concrete individually relevant sociocaltural conditions. The single individual can control his or her life conditions and therefore become an individual subject only to the extent that he or she becomes a participating member in the collective, that is he or she is a social subject.


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