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In: Jennifer Wilby (Ed.) Forum Three: Human Consciousness and Decision Making, University of Hull, UK, June 16-18, 1997, pp.27-38.
Vitaly Dubrovsky

 In investigating the cause of each thing it is always necessary to seek for what is most precise (as also in other things); thus a man builds because he is a builder, and a builder builds in virtue of art of building. This last then is prior; and so generally. (Aristotle, Physics, 195b, 22-25)


The “activity approach” is one of the three main approaches to consciousness in science and philosophy; the other approaches are naturalism and existentialism. Naturalism treats humans and consciousness as natural objects falling under the sway of natural laws (e.g. Chalmers, 1996). On the contrary, existentialism states that a conscious being has no nature and is whatever he makes of himself by conscious choice and action (e.g. Sartre, 1956). Similarly to existentialism, the activity approach considers an individual and her consciousness as results of past choices and acts. At the same time, contrary to existentialism, and similarly to naturalism, it postulates the objectivity of acts, choices, and consciousness. Unlike naturalism, the activity approach views human consciousness as ultimately defined by societal, cultural, social, and other norms, rather than as determined by the laws of nature. The main principles of the activity approach employed in this paper were developed during the 1960s-70s by the Moscow Seminar on General Methodology, directed by philosopher G. Shchedrovitsky (1995).

Understanding that consciousness and decision making each is an endless theme, in this paper I have attempted only a very sketchy discussion of these concepts, only at the most abstract level, and only in the plane of their relationships. To keep this level of abstractness, out of about a dozen main principles of the activity approach, I used the one which I consider the central principle, the principle of normative definiteness of human activity.

1.1.           The principle of normative definiteness

According to the principle of normative definiteness, human activity is completely defined by cultural, societal, social, organizational, and other norms (rules, standards, policies, laws, etc.), instead of being determined by the laws of nature. Norms are either historically formed (cultural norms) or developed by special activities of standardization (e.g., time and methods standards in industrial engineering or laws and policies in legislation). Things, people, signs, concepts, elements of the environment, and other “material” and “ideal” objects involved in activity, are also standardized. Artifacts are produced according to the standards, while natural objects are identified according to the appropriate cultural standards. The smallest unit of activity is an act, which has at least two logical components, action and situation. Action is performance of an act according to the act’s norms. Objects involved in the action along with their relevant relationships constitute the act’s situation.

It should be emphasized that all actions and all objects known to us correspond to some standard. If performance of an action deviates from its norm, it should be identified and labeled as a certain type of deviation according to the appropriate criteria. In other words, any performance has a normative status of either norm or identified deviation. The same is true for the objects involved in the activity. It is as if the perfect world of Plato’s ideas were supplemented by the ideas of all possible types of deviation from the perfect ideas, so every event and thing in this world would correspond to some idea, perfect idea or an idea of a type of deviation from the perfect idea.


It is a widespread view that decision-making is an entirely cognitive process. Even those people who do not share the idea of a human as an information processor similar to a computer are convinced that decision making is essentially an internal cognitive process of perception, memory, and thinking. It is not surprising that such an approach leads to the belief that the underlying mechanisms of decision making are neural brain processes.

2.1.           Do We Think With Our Brain?

The belief that we “think with our brain” has become so common that it has permeated our everyday language (e.g., “use your brain”). A person who does not accept this point of view is considered odd. Usually people explain that information is received by our receptors, transmitted by neural channels to the cortex, processed by interacting neural cells, and then the output, or decision, is transmitted to our external organs. Some people would add that the style of  a person’s decision-making depends on which of the two hemispheres of  the brain is more developed, right or left. Still others would add that we—humans, use only 10% of our brain cells, and if we were to use more, we would dramatically increase our thinking abilities.

Being in the odd category myself, I ask additional questions. Does it not sound as if I do not think, but that my brain thinks for me? Being natural, the neural processes cannot deviate from the laws of nature, and therefore, a “decision process” cannot occur differently from the way it occurs. How then are decision errors possible? Or how are voluntary acts possible? And how can people be responsible for their decisions and acts? A typical response is that we still know too little to fully understand the brain processes underlying our thinking and decision making. But my respondents usually agree that we should not use concepts which we do not understand to explain other things.

2.2. With What Do We Actually Think?

An ancient sailor looks at the Polar Star and corrects the direction of his ship. Following the rules he was taught, he also takes into consideration the direction and strength of the wind, sea currents, the presumed location of  the ship, location of the destination, and other things. He obviously also uses notions of space, time, speed, and other factors. With what does the ancient sailor make a decision? If we start with the sailor, as psychologists would do, and consider decision making as an internal cognitive process, we would inevitably reduce decision making to the brain processes.

The activity approach suggests that we start not with an individual making a decision, but with  the decision-making act itself. We should include in the decision-making act’s system any factor without which the decision would be either impossible or less effective and efficient. This change of perspective has immediate and dramatic consequences. This new perspective suggests that the navigation decision-making act should physically include at least such factors as the sailor, the ship, the Polar Star, the ocean, the wind, the currents, along with the knowledge of the Polar Star’s exceptional properties, relevant concepts, and the rules of navigation. We must conclude that the sailor makes his navigation decisions using all these factors.

2.3. On How Decisions Are Made

2.3.1. Decision making at all levels includes covert and overt components.

The above example also illustrates that the decision-making process includes both overt physical and covert mental components. Depending on its place in the hierarchical structure of activity, decision-making can have a different status and structure. On the lowest level, it can be a stage, of a simple action, at which a decision on how to perform an operation is made, e.g. the decision to jump over an unexpected puddle while walking. At the other pole, decision making may involve a complex organization, a think-tank comprised of many people, and may be supported by other organizations. At the intermediate level, decision-making can be an act performed by an individual with the solution then communicated along cooperative links to other actor(s). But at all levels, in addition to mental, or covert activities, decision making includes overt activities as well. The ancient sailor, in order to make a navigation decision, among other things, has to locate the Polar Star in the night sky. To see the star, he has to look at the sky and search for the star. While making decisions, people necessarily perform overt actions, using various “physical” tools, starting with a pencil and sheet of paper and ending with sophisticated computerized systems. All this is well known on the level of common sense, but for some reason, it is overlooked in studies on decision making.

2.3.2. Analysis of how decisions are made typically results in prescriptions for how they should be made

The activity approach suggests that the question of how decisions are made should be asked and answered in the practical context of the decision and in terms of means, norms, and problems of this target activity. Almost inevitably such analysis results in representations of activities which are far from perfect. This calls for the improvement of the decision making process even though such improvement was not on the initial agenda of the analysts. If a description of the improved organization and procedures of decision making is positively evaluated by a client and is endorsed for implementation by an authority, it acquires a normative status of prescription of how the decision should be made. Even “naturalistic” studies of decision making usually end with suggestions for improvements (Klein, Orasanu, Carderwood, and Zsambok, 1993). Which model of decision making is accepted by the scientific community as a “true” model ultimately does not depend on how well it represents existing decision practices, but on how effective it is as a means for development of prescriptions, or norms for future decisions. This is typical of analysis of any human activity.

2.4. Who Is A Decision Maker?

In human society decisions are made by individuals and groups with abilities, rights, and the responsibility to make decisions. A child must reach a certain age and maturity before the adults give her the right to make certain kinds of decisions or society holds her responsible for the decisions she makes. In slavery societies of the past, only free people could make decisions regarding both their personal lives and the lives of their slaves. Before the publication of Chester Barnard’s The Functions of the Executive (1938), few people thought that business decisions were made by managers. Decision making as a main task of managers became widely accepted only after Herbert Simon’s Administrative Behavior (1947). This was not because managers always made decisions, but the researchers only discovered this fact this late. This was because before that time most American businesses were patronymic and all decisions were typically made by their owners, while managers performed the functions of surveillance and supervision. By the time of Chester Barnard’s book, large corporations had emerged and had become wide spread, and owners began delegating authority for decision making to managers. In other words, who is a decision maker is defined by cultural and social norms.


While functionalism represents contemporary naturalistic views on consciousness as an epiphenomenon, phenomenology represents contemporary existential views on consciousness as reality itself. There are efforts to overcome this opposition either by looking for some middle ground (e.g., Hamlyn, 1982) or by combining both in a kind of dualism (Chalmers, 1996). As I mentioned in the introduction, the activity approach opposes both.

3.1. Theory of Consciousness of L. S. Vigotsky


3.1.1. Consciousness is an entirely social formation

The concept of consciousness suggested in this paper is inspired by the theory developed by Russian psychologist L. S. Vigotsky in 1925-34. Vigotsky describes consciousness as a functional system of higher mental processes (e.g., voluntary attention and logical memory) which is formed in the process of the child’s development. Following P. Janet (1928), Vigotsky characterized the essence of this process as internalization, or transformation of acts of social interaction between a child and adults into the child’s individual mental operations (Vigotsky, 1930/1978). Janet and many other psychologists of his time understood internalization as grafting of elements of cooperation to an initially asocial, animal-like infant’s consciousness. Vigotsky argued against the existence of an initial asocial consciousness and viewed consciousness as an entirely social product of child upbringing (Leontiev, 1982). Moreover, according to Vigotsky, in the course of a child’s upbringing, initial pre-consciousness animal-like psychological processes cease to exist: They are incorporated into the new system and are “culturally reconstructed and developed to form a new psychological entity” (Vigotsky, 1930/1978: p. 57). In other words, Vigotsky viewed human consciousness as an entirely social formation, which is socially and historically formed and culturally transmitted.

3.1.2. Consciousness is an internalized communication of the individual with self

Even early Vigotsky, who was behaviorist oriented, assigned a particular importance to language, calling it “the source of social behavior and consciousness” (1925/1982, p. 95). Later on he emphasized the central role of language in the formation of a child’s consciousness. He viewed the internalization of social communicative acts based on signs and speech as essential for the development of higher mental processes. Under the influence of Freud’s “id” and “ego,” but with “social” correction, Vigotsky introduced the idea of self-consciousness, or self-awareness, as a duality of consciousness:

We are aware of ourselves, because we are aware of others, and in the same way we are aware of others, because in relation to ourselves we are the same as others in relation to us. I am aware of myself only due to perceiving myself as another… A direct consequence of the suggested hypothesis is social interpretation of the entire consciousness, and acknowledgment that the social in consciousness has both temporal and factual priority. The individual consciousness is constructed as derived from the social and to its exact image. The duality of consciousness follows: the notion of a double is the closest to the real consciousness. (1925/1982, pp. 96)

Based on the above ideas, Vigotsky defines consciousness as a social contact of an individual with self. A good illustration of this concept is will: at first the child learns to obey orders given by adults; then, in play, the child learns to give orders to others; finally, after self-awareness is formed, and the orders are internalized, a child gives orders to himself as to the other and obeys them as if they were given by the other. Thus will is essentially self-ordering/self-obedience (Vigotsky, 1932/1960).

With this definition of consciousness, two considerations are especially important. The first is that communication with self, or “inner speech” as Vigotsky called it, has different grammatical and semantic properties; it is abridged and condensed (Vigotsky, 1933/1982). This is possible, because the “sender” and the “receiver” are the same individual, and the context, situation, and meaning of communication are already shared. The second consideration is that communication with self is not confined to inner speech, but includes nonverbal forms of communication, such as pointing and symbolic gestures. An especially prominent role in consciousness is played by pictorial communication with self.

3.1.3. Remnants of Naturalism in Vigotsky’s ontology of consciousness

Vigotsky called his approach “historical-cultural” and characterized his theory as “social psychology.” He emphasized the social essence of human psychology and opposed it to traditional naturalistic and existential views. He opposed his “height psychology” to phenomenological “surface psychology” and to Freud’s naturalistic “depth psychology.” At the same time, as a psychologist, he shared the naturalistic ontology of an organism interacting with its natural and social environment. This ontology compelled him to reduce human activity to the behavior of an individual and to describe it in terms of reflexes, stimuli, and responses. Psychological tradition also compelled him to represent consciousness in terms of psychological functions of memory, perception, imagination, etc. and to look for a substratum of consciousness in the brain mechanisms. As did many psychologists and social theorists of his time, as well as many contemporary ones do, Vigotsky believed that social reality is historically secondary to nature, and is inseparable from it. He understood social as built up upon natural and completely reducible to natural:

Artificial acts should not be viewed as supernatural or unnatural, constructed according to some new and separate laws. Artificial acts are the same natural ones: They can be exhaustively and completely decomposed and reduced to the natural processes… (1930/1982: p. 104).

3.2.           Activity Approach to Consciousness

The activity approach has decisively broken with the psychological ontology, especially with its view of behavior and consciousness as attributes of an individual organism. It declares human activity as a universe in its own right, and not just secondary to nature. In the ontology of activity, human consciousness as communication of an individual with self can be represented without reference to any substratum, neither to be reduced to, nor to supervene on.

Human acts are conscious while consciousness is active. The first means that performance of an act includes the actor’s communication with self. The latter means that the “flow” of consciousness is comprised of acts of communication with self. Overt performance and covert communication with self are formed as well as their coordination is established in the process of a child’s upbringing and education. This means that analysis of consciousness should refer to three types of norms: (1) norms of acts and objects involved in the acts; (2) norms of communicative acts; and (3) cultural and pedagogical norms of child upbringing and education.

Also, as a theoretical construct, consciousness should be methodologically analyzed according to the principles and means of the activity approach and structured-systems methodology (Shchedrovitsky, 1995). Application of one of such principles, principle of reflection (Shchedrovitsky, 1996) suggests that the idea of a double shared by Janet, Freud, and Vigotsky and currently so widespread due to the influence of psychoanalysis, should be rejected. For some reason, Janet and Vigotsky assumed that internalization, as inner reconstruction of external social relationships, retained both sides of interaction: “The individual consciousness is constructed as derived from the social and to its exact image. The duality of consciousness follows: the notion of a double is the closest to the real consciousness” (1925/1982, pp. 96). I view internalization not as if one individual learns both social roles and plays them solo, addressing the self as the other and responding to self as to the other. I believe that the essence of internalization is the reflexive identification of both roles as one, played by the self: addressing the self as the self and responding to the self as to the self. It is experienced as immediacy of awareness. My graduate student, Jenny Pond put this in the following way:

But I also perceive myself as the thing that looks out my eyes with the shadow of my nose always present in every memory. If I viewed myself as a different persona (individually separate) then I would not have the nose in the way perspective. Other people are in focus, I am not. I cannot .move myself far enough away from myself to rid the “nose” shadow. However the mirror image I see is how others see me.

It is different when we speak to another person or a group or a crowd in our imagination. In the latter case, we imagine other people. But this is a performance of a specific task, similar to a mental experiment and not just an act of consciousness.

The activity approach to consciousness is a self-reliant one, i.e. consciousness can be represented effectively without reference to naturalistic brain processes or existential phenomena. The next section illustrates this with perception of color.

Added as a comment:

  • Reflexive identification of both roles can be understood in the following way. Usually we define role in relation to the entire system, e.g. a physician in a hospital and explicate it by a set of functions in relation to other elements of the system, e.g. treating patients, writing reports and prescriptions, supervising nurses and secretaries, etc. In theses terns identification of two roles means that the functions of the roles are integrated in one role with a new name “I”.
  • Contact with self can include emotions in the same way as other objects, e.g. a red cup.


I am fetching a cup for my morning coffee and decide to take a red one. Why do I see this cup as red? A typical answer to this question is that color vision is the ability to distinguish different wavelengths of light (or their mixtures), independently of their luminance. Then follows the reference to the physiological mechanisms of color vision, starting with functions of three types of cone receptors in the retina and ending with the area of the cortex that is specialized in color vision (e.g., Bruce and Green, 1990). But the fundamental question of how neural processes produce subjective sensation of specific color has not ever been answered satisfactorily. Usually one hears something about phenomena and epiphenomena. I have not come across a satisfactory idea of how this question can even be approached.

According to the activity approach, I see the cup because I look at it according to the attention directions I give myself. I see the cup as red because it is red and I ought to see it as red: There are cultural standards for the color red, and therefore seeing a red cup as red conforms to the norm. The word “red” plays an essential role in the perception of red color, or our awareness of red. To perceive means to identify. Identification requires a name. If it is not named, it does not exist (John Stuart Mill). Without the two words with the corresponding meanings of “cup” and “red,” there would be no perception of a red cup.

My parents taught me to identify colors: “see, this cup is red and that cup is blue,” “show me a red cup,” “what color is this cup?,” “see this cup is red and that car is red; they are both red,” etc. I was taught to respond appropriately, which played a key role in my color training. After such dialogs were internalized and the appropriate concepts of things and colors, as well as of a cup and red had been formed, I acquired the ability of visual perception of things and colors in general; a red cup, in particular, and my favorite red coffee cup, singularly. In general, “visual perception” can be represented (this is oversimplification) as a three-component sequence: (1) covert attention direction to self, (2) overt looking at the object according to attention direction, and (3) covert report of the results of looking to myself. Attention direction may have different forms and levels of generality, depending on the act performed.  It can be “what colors are those cups?” or “where is the red one?” The form of the report must correspond to the attention direction: “blue, green, red, yellow, and white” or “here it is, “ respectively. The report to myself constitute my awareness of the red cup. Or in other words, awareness is the understanding of the report to self. Normally the understanding is guaranteed by the same identity of the sender and recipient, but in psychiatric cases it may become problematic.

If I look at the red cup according to the attention direction, I see it accordingly, or if there is no red cup in the cupboard, I fail to see it accordingly. Look-see is a basic skill, or a simple standard result of a child’s training. In the activity ontology, this skill can be further decomposed only in the orthogonal dimension of the training procedures and their norms. It is similar to physical skills such as grasping. At an early age, we learn the basic skill of grasping. It is unproductive to decompose grasping further, i.e. into motions of fingers, unless there is a need for alternative training for a person with some disability.

I see a red cup because I am looking at it, following attention direction given to myself. I see it as red because it is red, and I am able to identify the color red. I am aware of the red cup, because I understand my report to myself. To understand this process there is no need to refer to the wave-lengths of light, sensations of red, or the phenomenon of redness. I believe that W. James (1890/1956) was right when he concluded that the existence of states of mind is not a proven fact, but most likely, is a commonly shared prejudice.

Then why do some people not see a red cup as red? Once more, the answer depends on the approach. The question is similar to the one faced by the ancient philosophers: why do people with some illnesses perceive honey as bitter? Democritus gave a consistent naturalistic answer: Honey, which is a mix of atoms differing in shapes and sizes and divided by void, is neither sweet nor bitter. Aristotle gave an activity oriented answer: Honey is actually sweet; sick people perceive it as bitter, because they are sick, i.e. are in an abnormal state. In the case of abnormal color vision, naturalists explain the abnormality either by genetic lack of one of the types of photo-pigment or by one of the three types of the pigment replaced by a pigment with shifted peak sensitivity (Harre and Lamb, 1983, p 100). The activity approach suggests that some people have abnormal vision because they do not see a red cup as red, i.e. because they deviate from the norm. The practical question is how to accommodate these people in different social situations. One approach could be to forbid these people to drive a car, or a better approach would be to provide means, other than color, to help them to distinguish between relevant objects, e.g., traffic lights blinking with different frequencies. In this regard, it is important to note that many people with a normal color vision would not be able to fit the norms for professionals dealing with colors: artists, painters, interior designers, and others. The latter have much higher precision norms for color identification and a much richer vocabulary for colors.


5.1.           Consciousness in action

An individual performs an action by the coordination of overt operations upon physical objects, sensory and communicative operations, and covert communication with self. This coordination is defined by the norms and is formed during acquisition of appropriate basic skills, or abilities, by an individual. During the course of an act, the consciousness of an individual can be represented as a four-component covert activity, characterized by real-time immediacy. The first component is voluntary changes of attention by attention directions to self. The second component is awareness, or understanding of reports, about the changes to self. The third component is decision making, planned or in response to the unexpected changes in the situation. The fourth component is will: self-ordering/self-obedience to implement the decisions.

5.2.           Real-time immediacy of awareness of action situation

Real-time immediacy of awareness is based on the continuity of actions and situations and on the hierarchical structure of acts. Continuity simply means that awareness of action-situation is not a snapshot which shifts us abruptly from a previous action-situation to the current one. Such things occasionally happen. For example, one comes to and finds himself lying in the hospital bed. On such occasions, it takes some time and relatively long dialogs with others and self in order to grasp the situation and restore representation of continuous flow of events. But normally our awareness is continuous. We do not need to report to ourselves the entire situation to get awareness of it, because we already have it. But to maintain awareness, we need to report to ourselves changes in the action-situation flow. An example is my awareness of my walking a few blocks along the street to my office. If the situation changes only due to my actions or the situation changes as expected, my communication with myself is minimal, something like a simple “OK...OK…” Concentrating on thinking of something else, I sometimes lose the awareness of my walking in the street, since no communication to self is needed to continue a habitual act. My attention is “automatic,” i.e. it follows attention program, developed during the acquisition of the walking skills and according to the general attention direction corresponding to my action: “is the road not OK?” As long as the road is OK and I am busy with my thinking, there is no need to report the situation, so I lose the awareness of walking and road, and retain awareness of my thinking.

Walking along the street is a sub-act of getting to my office. In addition to it, I have to cross a street with relatively heavy traffic, get into the office building, climb to the second floor, turn around a corner to my office, and open the door. I stop before crossing the street, looking for a breach in the traffic. One action follows another and one situation flows into another continuously, because they are sequentially performed parts of the hierarchical structure of the same act of getting from my home to my office.

5.3.           Consciousness and Decision making

While walking, I may notice a puddle on the sidewalk (“not OK, puddle”), assess its size as too large to step or jump over (“size?” – “too large”), I decide and walk around it (“I should walk around” -- “walk around!” – “I am walking around”). In the above examples perception, will, and simple decision making were represented as communication of an individual with self. There is a belief that in more complex cases, people make decisions by thinking. So can thinking be represented as communication of an individual with self? This question opens a huge topic in itself, so here I restrict myself to the following comment.

Even in the above examples of perception of a red cup and simple decision making, thinking was present. To perceive a red cup, I use the concepts of cup, colors, red, etc. I have to understand communication to myself. In other words, to perceive, I have to think. It is expressed in an ancient Sanskrit saying: “My mind was far away and I could not see. My mind was far away and I could not hear…” Descartes insisted that “there is nothing in us which we ought to refer to as our soul excepting our thoughts.” And Vigotsky stated that thought underlies all higher psychological functions (Vigotsky, 1935).


In this paper I have attempted only to illustrate the idea of consciousness as communication of an individual with self.. The main purpose of this illustration is to show that the activity approach to consciousness is a self-reliant one, i.e. consciousness can be represented effectively without reference to naturalistic brain processes or existential phenomena. This does not mean that brain processes have nothing to do with consciousness, or that human consciousness is possible without a human brain. This also does not mean that the existential approach and reference to phenomena cannot provide useful tools and methodology for an analysis of consciousness for the purpose of practical interventions. The relationships between the activity approach and the two other approaches to consciousness deserve special analysis. I believe that a clear opposition of the activity approach to these approaches is a necessary prerequisite for analysis of their relationships.


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