E. V. Ilyenkov 1974

Activity and Knowledge

Written: 1974;
Source: Ilyenkov E. V., “Deyatel’nost’ i Znanie” (1974), in: E. V. Ilyenkov, Filosofiya i Kul’tura [Philosophy and Culture], Moscow: Politizdat (1991), © Novokhat’ko A. G. 1991;
Translated: by Peter Moxhay 2002;
Transcribed: Nate Schmolze.

In pedagogy, there is a troubling and (when you think about it) strange problem that is usually described as the problem of “the practical application of knowledge to life.” And it is in fact true that the graduate from school (whether high school or college) finds himself in the quandary of not knowing how to “apply” knowledge to any problem that arises outside the walls of school.

This seems to imply that human abilities should include the special ability of somehow “correlating” knowledge with its object, i.e. with reality as given in contemplation. This means that there should be a special kind of activity of correlating knowledge and its object, where “knowledge” and “object” are thought of as two different “things” distinct from the person himself. One of these things is knowledge as contained in general formulas, instructions, and propositions, and the other thing is the unstructured chaos of phenomena as given in perception. If this were so, then we could clearly try to formulate rules for making this correlation, and also to enumerate and classify typical errors so that we could warn ahead of time how to avoid them. In instructional theory, one often tries to solve the problem of knowing “how to apply knowledge to life” by creating just this kind of system of rules and warnings. But the result is that the system of rules and warnings becomes so cumbersome that it starts to impede rather than help things, becoming an additional source of errors and failures.

Thus, there is every reason to believe that the very problem we are trying to solve arises only because the “knowledge” has been given to the person in an inadequate form; or, to put it more crudely, it is not real knowledge, but only some substitute…

In fact, knowledge in the precise sense of the word is always knowledge of an object. Of a particular object, for it is impossible to know “in general,” without knowing a particular system of phenomena, whether these are chemical, psychological, or some other phenomena.

But, after all, in this case the very phrase about the difficulties of “applying” knowledge to an object sounds rather absurd. To know an object, and to “apply” this knowledge – knowledge of the object – ;to the object? At best, this must be only an imprecise, confusing way of expressing some other, hidden situation.

But this situation is rather typical.

And this situation is possible only under particular circumstances – when the person has mastered not knowledge of an object but knowledge of something else instead. And this “other thing” can only be a system of phrases about an object, learned either irrespective of the latter or in only an imaginary, tenuous, and easily broken connection to it. A system of words, terms, symbols, signs, and their stable combinations, as formed and legitimized in everyday life – “statements” and “systems of statements.” Language, in particular, the “language of science” with its supply of words and its syntactic organization and “structure.” In other words, the object, as represented in available language, as an already verbalized object.

Yes, if “knowledge” is always identified with verbally organized consciousness, then the problem will in fact be as described above – as the special problem of “correlating” knowledge and object. But when the question is posed like this, the very problem of the “application” of knowledge to the real world is easily replaced by the problem of the “correct” verbalization of unverbalized material. The verbal “object” then turns into a synonym for the chaos of totally unorganized “sense data” – into a synonym only for what I do not know about the object.

In general, we obtain the well-known program of Neopositivism with its utopian hopes of erecting a system of “rules” that provide procedures for going from language to facts that lie outside of language, and vice versa, where there must be no “contradictions” within language. This leads to the main principle of the Neopositivist solution – if you have verbalized certain known facts but have nevertheless obtained a contradiction within language, then it means that you have verbalized the facts “incorrectly” – not according to the rules. It means that you have “broken” some “rule of verbalization”.

You have crossed the boundary dividing the world of the verbalized from the world of the unverbalized, into some place that is forbidden (“by the rules”).

The Neopositivist program, with its accompanying “logic,” is therefore regressive in its very essence. It replaces the real problem of knowledge – as knowledge (cognition) of an object that exists not only outside of language but also independent of any self-organized language – by the problem of the verbal formation of verbally unformed material. Here the latter is thought of as the totally unformed chaos of “sense data,” as the passive material of “knowledge,” which can be formed verbally in one of two ways – either “correctly” or “incorrectly.” But here “correctly” means according to the rules of available language, i.e. such that it is forced to fit without contradiction into available language, into the available semantic–syntactic “framework,” into available “knowledge”.

The real problem of the cognition of the object has therefore been twisted around into a purely linguistic problem – the problem of first assimilating available language (“the language of science”) and then of assimilating “facts” in the forms of this (available) language. Naturally, this problem is solved by refining one’s linguistic ingenuity, allowing any “data” to be expressed in such a way that they work without a hitch, without contradiction, within the available “language framework,” within available “knowledge.”

This is precisely what Imre Lakatos had in mind when he rightly noted that the Neopositivist program, if realized, would mean the death of science – available knowledge would forever be “frozen” in the form of the available language of science. And the object would forever be doomed to the pathetic role of an object of linguistic manipulations and would not be present in the content of knowledge in any other form. It would not be allowed in – it would be held back at the entrance to “knowledge” by the filters of Neopositivistic “logic.”

And therefore, according to this logic, it is also not permitted to know the object (as something outside of and independent of language). We can know only “the language of a particular object region.” And the question of which “facts” are included in it (i.e. do not contradict it), and which are excluded from it (i.e. contradict it), depends on which “language” is assumed.

Therefore, the very expression “to know an object,” according to Neopositivist logic, is illegitimate, for to a verbally formed consciousness it has the faint odor of “metaphysical” or “transcendental” language, i.e. of a somewhat “other worldly” language. Here, “to know” means to know language, for nothing else is given to humans to know. To the extent that “knowledge” and “object” have turned out to be merely two terms that mean essentially the same thing – namely, language – the problem of “applying” one of these to the other has turned into the problem of correlating (coordinating) various aspects of language – semantics with syntax, syntax with pragmatics, pragmatics with semantics, and so on and so forth. Here, the object is always the verbally formed object. In the Neopositivist conception of things, the object simply does not exist in any form before it “came into being” as a verbal sign, before it was embodied in language.

It seems as if the real solution to the problem of “correlating” knowledge with the object can only consist in foreseeing and avoiding, from the very beginning, the very possibility that the problem might arise, for once it has arisen it is notoriously insoluble.

This means organizing the process of assimilating knowledge as knowledge of the object, in the most precise and direct sense of this word. In the very sense that Neopositivist philosophy strives to disallow using such insults as “crude” and “metaphysical” – as an object that stubbornly exists outside of and completely independent of consciousness (and of language). Not as a separate “thing” that we can always specially consider and represent while ignoring its surroundings, but precisely as a system of things possessing its own, language – independent, “extra-language” organization and connections – as a concrete whole.

This is the only way to overcome verbalism – that chronic disease of school education that results in the notorious problem of “applying” knowledge to life, of “correlating” knowledge and object, but where the knowledge is in fact just a verbal shell, and where in reality we know nothing or next to nothing about the “object” beyond what has already been said about it – beyond what has already been expressed by a word or a statement.

It is not easy to overcome this well-known disease – to do so is much harder than to describe it. It is even more important, however, to analyze it as precisely and as profoundly as possible, so that we can evaluate the effectiveness of the medicine. Otherwise – as often happens – the disease only gets driven inside, instead of being cured at the root.

Only the traditional philosophical naivete of the authors of books on teaching can possibly explain why they pin their hopes on the so-called “principle of visual learning.” This principle, which has been used in schools for almost a century now, is in fact not at all as radical as it seems. When it is applied ineptly it leads to the opposite result from the intended one, since it creates only the illusion of a cure. It uses its multicolored cosmetics to paint over the external attributes of verbalism – its most glaring and obvious symptoms. Apparent health is thus obtained, but the disease then strikes deeper – and more important – “organs of cognition.” And, most importantly, it strikes the capacity for imagination in its most important function, which Kant called the “capacity for judgment” – the ability to determine whether a given particular case comes under a given rule or not.

School often doesn’t just fail to cultivate this capacity once it has arisen, but rather actively deadens it. And it does so precisely using the notorious “principle of visual learning.” It is not difficult to understand how this happens.

The fact is that, since this principle is taken as a panacea, as a “bridge” between verbally acquired knowledge and the object, it focuses the pedagogue not on facilitating a real encounter between the person (the student) and the object, but just the opposite – towards the painstaking prevention of any such encounter, towards the removal of the object from the process of instruction.

The fact is that, instead of the object – in the serious, materialistic understanding of the word – the person is never presented with the object that he ought to compare and contrast with the formulas that have been given to him verbally. He is given something completely different that is only externally similar to it. What exactly? Artificially and previously chosen “visual examples” that illustrate (i.e. confirm) the correctness of the assertions – the verbally formed statements that have been presented to him. In other words, instead of the real object, the student is presented with an artificially selected fragment of object reality that just precisely agrees with its verbal description, i.e. a graphical equivalent of the given abstraction.

As a result, the student develops a particular mentality whose insidiousness is only observed later on. From the very beginning, his attention is focused on actively searching for just those sensibly perceived phenomena that precisely agree with their own description – on singling out those “properties” of the object that have already been uniquely expressed by verbal formulas, by a “noncontradictory system of statements.” The student thus develops a mentality for which the word (language) becomes not a means for mastering the surrounding world, but just the opposite, the surrounding world becomes an external means for learning and practicing verbal formulas. Here, only the latter turn out to be the object of learning that is genuinely mastered.

And this is achieved precisely by means of the “principle of visuality,” by systematically presenting the student with only such sensibly perceived things, cases and situations that precisely agree with their verbal description, i.e. that are nothing but a materialized abstract conception – i.e. “objects” specially prepared in order to agree with a verbally given instruction, formula, or “rule.”

Any “visual aid” (or any real thing from the surrounding world used as a “visual aid”) creates only an illusion of the concreteness of knowledge, of the concreteness of understanding, and at best it makes it easier for the person to learn formulas, to understand formulas, i.e. abstract schemas, for here the “visual aid” is just a particular case of “truth” enclosed in a formula or word. This is precisely how one derives the notion of the self-sufficiency of abstract “schemas,” unavoidably accompanied by the idea that an individual sensibly perceived “object” (or case, or situation) is nothing but a more-or-less random “example,” i.e. a more-or-less random “embodiment” of an abstractly general rule.

It is natural that there cannot and should not arise any polemical relationship between a “general rule” assimilated in verbal form and a specially selected (or made) “example” that supports it. Any disagreement, any lack of correspondence between one and the other can have only one cause – an incorrectness in the verbal expression, an incorrectness in the use of words. If the words have been used correctly, then the “general rule” and the “particular case” will fit each other precisely. There is no difference between them in content – these are one and the same formula, except that in one case it is presented “visually” and in the other case “nonvisually,” i.e. as the meaning of certain word–signs.

Of course, when we have such an artificial relationship between the general formula and the “particular case,” the problem of correlating them does not require (and therefore does not develop) the capacity for imagination – the ability to construct an image from the mass of “impressions” or unorganized sensations. Here, this ability is simply not needed, for the image of the thing is presented ready-made, and the whole problem has been reduced to merely expressing it in words. After all, a “visual aid” is not the thing but a ready-made image of the thing – it has been created independent of the activity of the student – by the artist who prepared it by strictly following verbal instructions, or else by the pedagogue who gave him this image in verbal form. In either case, as an “object,” as a reality existing outside of, prior to, and completely independent of the activity of cognition, the student is presented with an image that has been previously organized by words, and the student has to do only one thing – to make the inverse translation of this image into verbal form. The student thinks that he is describing an “object,” but in fact he is only reproducing an “alienated” – a visually embodied – verbal formula, which has been used (but not by him) to create the image that was presented to him. The student thus learns only how to reproduce ready-made images – images that have already received their citizenship in the world of language. He does not produce the image, for he never encounters any object – any “raw material” for the image – that has not already been processed by words. This has already been done for him by the pedagogue or the artist.

Thus, the student goes from a ready-made image to its verbal expression – this kind of learning is operating by the skin of its teeth. However, the decisive part of the path of cognition – to go from the object to an image (and then back from this image to the object) – remains outside the range of the student’s activity. In school, he is never confronted with the problem of correlating the image with the object – instead of the object, he is always given a ready-made image as a substitute. The corresponding ability of course never develops, since no activity with the object has taken place. What the student really acts with is an image – one that was created outside of his own mind. That is, he acts with a materialized conception.

After all, this is what geometric figures drawn on the blackboard are, or counting sticks (it doesn’t matter whether they are sticks of wood or of plastic – what’s important is that they are an image of “quantity,” or, more precisely, of number), and colored pictures, and all the other “real-object” stage props of the schoolchild.

The object all by itself – not yet transformed into an image by someone else’s activity (or into a “schematism,” if we use the language of Kant) – remains outside the classroom door, beyond the boundaries of the “academic subject.” The student encounters the object itself only outside of school and talks about it not in the “language of science,” but in “ordinary,” everyday language, using it to assemble his own, spontaneously formed conceptions, his “personal” experience.

It is clear that this is where the crack appears between the world of scientific knowledge and the world of the conceptions found in everyday experience – a crack which then widens into a divide between knowledge and beliefs.

This divide is not a result of hypocrisy, dishonesty, or some other moral defect; the student simply does not know how to relate these two “different” spheres of knowledge to each other. After all, a belief is also knowledge, but it is acquired independently, as an end result of personal experience, whereas “knowledge” assimilated during class is instilled in him as a ready-made, abstract “rule,” to which he must, is required to, is obligated to subordinate his actions in order to solve the kind of strictly-defined problems he encounters in school – problems which are often of no interest to him whatsoever. These are problems that he never meets with outside of school (although he is promised that he will do so later on, when he becomes an astronaut or a taxi driver, but often this doesn’t help).

So, during class the schoolchild ends up dealing with ready-made images (schemas) of reality and the verbal formulas that express them, but he encounters the object only outside of lessons, outside of school. As a result, he never finds a bridge between these two very dissimilar worlds – these two spheres of his life activity – he is lost when he finally encounters any reality that has not been scientifically prepared for him. He ends up being able to “apply formulas” successfully only in a situation that is precisely as described in the textbook, i.e. only when life has already been organized “according to science.” That is, when the object has already been systematized by someone else’s activity, where it has already been made according to the “rules,” where science has already been applied.

Where, in other words, we are talking only about the so-called “visualization” of verbally given formulas or rules. Here, it is precisely the formula that organizes the “image,” that directs the activity of constructing the image or “visual representation” that replaces a ready-made verbal instruction – an image that is supposed to be the “essence” of the matter, but that we can nonetheless safely “do without.”

The person whose psyche has been developed in this way ends up a slave to ready-made “formulas” even in the very act of contemplation, in the process of everyday perception – even in the object, he has become used to see precisely that which has been given to him in verbal form – that which precisely corresponds to words.

Of course, all this should not be understood as a “rejection of the principle of visual learning.” In its place, this principle is good and useful – and precisely as a principle that makes it easier to assimilate abstract formulas. But that is all. When we begin to dream that it can be used to solve a different problem – the problem of developing the ability to correlate abstract (verbally given) formulas with the object – then just the opposite result is obtained.

The person then develops a type of mentality where, when he looks at an object, he sees (“visually represents”) only what he already knows about it through someone else’s words – through the words of the textbook author or the teacher. And not an iota more – he thus constructs not an image of the object, but only its “schema” as given by words. If anything is then “correlated,” it is only a verbal instruction (a word) being correlated with itself – with its own semiotic expression – and not with anything else. The object – in the serious, materialistic meaning of this word – remains completely “transcendental.”

The principle of “visual learning” is therefore helpless in the battle with verbalism. It only disguises it, and thereby subsumes it.

But, after all, serious, materialistic philosophy has for a long time suggested that teaching adopt another, more radical guiding principle. This is the organization of a special form of activity that really requires – and therefore develops – the special abilities that are more fundamental for the human psyche than speech (language) or the mechanisms of speech that connect the word with the image.

Traditional “learning” activity is clearly not of this kind – it reduces to the process of assimilating ready-made knowledge, ready-made information, and ready-made conceptions, i.e. it is realized as the activity of the embodying of ready-made images in language and – inversely – of the “visualization” of verbally formed conceptions.

Here, what is needed is activity of a different order – activity oriented directly at the object. Activity that changes the object, rather than an image of it. For only in the course of this activity does the image first arise, i.e. as a visual representation of the object, rather than as a “schema” given a priori by a verbal instruction or “rule.”

The difference here is a fundamental one, and was clearly pointed out as long ago as Kant in his distinction between an “image” and a “schema,” or “schematism,” as psychic formations that are fundamentally different in origin, with no “common root.” Because of this, the problem remained insoluble for Kant. The really fundamental (universal) form of human activity remained outside the bounds of his psychology: direct-object activity, outside of consciousness and independent of consciousness, accomplishing the work of the hands and dealing not with an “image,” but with the thing in its most direct, “crude,” meaning, in a “crudely material” sense – activity that directly masters the object. Activity to which school teaching has devoted so little time and attention, although it is precisely in the course of this (and only this) activity that one develops the “schemas” or “schematisms” on which Kant conferred the scary names “transcendental” and “a priori.”

Real thinking is formed precisely when – and only when – the work of language is indissolubly joined to the work of the hands – the organs of direct-object activity. Not hands drawing letters, words, and “statements” on paper, but hands making things, i.e. changing obstinate, intractable, and capricious matter. Only thus can we observe its objective nature – independent of words or ready-made “images” – its objective character or “stubbornness.” Only thus does the object reveal itself as the thing in itself, compelling us to reckon with it more than with words or with “schemas” that “visualize” those words. It is clear that this is the only way one can hope to overcome verbalism and avoid the problem of “the application of knowledge to life” – a problem that school teaching itself has created.