Subject Object Cognition. V A Lektorsky 1980
To begin with let us state that the results (“traces”) of the action of an object on human sense organs, though constituting a reflection of an external object, in no way represent knowledge: they are not directly included in the cognitive relation and, being merely its necessary premise, cannot be characterised as cognitive images (they are physical images). “It is a mistake to consider psychical formations as completely identical to the nervous physiological mechanisms. The subjective image is undoubtedly specific and irreducible to the nervous model.”
Indeed, these “traces” carry obviously redundant information, which cannot, because of its redundancy, be a reference point for the subject in an objective situation. For instance, if we should allow that the visual system does not in some way transform or organise retinal images (i.e., the “traces” of the action of light rays on the retina) but merely transfers them from one place to another recording them in some storage mechanism, this system will conduct about a million counts of brightness in 0.1 sec. In a few minutes the number of such counts would reach a magnitude of the order of several thousand million, exceeding the number of neurons in the cortex.
Therefore a sensory system which has no methods for transforming the information received, for transforming the result of the action of an external object on it, remains blind, having no criteria for discerning useful signals against the background of noise. The cognitive image carrying knowledge about an object contains precisely that information, and only that information, which is vitally necessary to the subject as a concrete individual and a representative of society:
But the relation between objective knowledge specific for cognition and, in particular, sense perception, on the one hand, and sensory information, on the other, is not reduced merely to discarding a certain part of the latter with the aid of a system of filters. Objective knowledge is by no means poorer on the content plane than sensory impressions, and in some respects is essentially richer, for we perceive objects in terms of properties the knowledge of which is not directly contained in the sense data.
As Marx pointed out, a most important feature of perception is that it does not carry information about excitation in the nervous apparatus as a result of the action of the object on the sense organs but about the really existing object itself, the object that is outside the perceiving subject. For example, “the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself.”
“To perceive a chair,” says Pierre Janet, “means to see an object in which one may sit, and to perceive a house, as von Weizsäcker put it even more forcefully, does not mean to see an image that the eye caught but, on the contrary, to recognise an object that can be entered!” V. S. Tyukhtin indicates that on the one hand, the image is connected with the material substratum, and on the other, what is given in the image is the content of the object and not of the nervous substratum. “The paradox of the unity of these two aspects is insoluble merely on the basis of the principles of physical causality, but it can be explained if the features of objectness and anticipation are viewed as a special functional property of highly organised living systems.... That means that the content of the signal is separated from its form (the material substratum) functionally rather than in an anatomical, physiological, physical or chemical way.”
The mutual relations of the subject and the object perceived by him change almost continually, both as a result of changes in the position of the object and of man’s movements. Naturally, this cannot fail to lead to constant changes in the character and configuration of the “traces” of the object’s action on the sensory system. If the image of the object were entirely determined by these “traces,” we simply would be unable to single out that object as an independent reality. In ordinary conditions, however, the object is perceived as independent from the concrete conditions of perception and from the act itself (the phenomenon of “constancy of perception” known in psychology). Human speech is also perceived in this way. The following observation was made in the attempts at artificial reproduction of speech. When speech is transformed into light impulses in a special apparatus, it turns out that speech sounds appearing as identical under ordinary conditions, prove to be different in their physical characteristics, whereas others, which we perceive as different, leave identical visible traces.
Thus cognition is object-oriented and determined from the very outset, in its most elementary manifestations. The attempts of representatives of classical empiricism as well as modern “sense data”-oriented theoreticians, to present certain elementary subjective experiences uncorrelated with material objects as the initial elements and at the same time units of knowledge, lead to insoluble paradoxes in epistemology and, moreover, directly contradict the available results of scientific psychology.
Of course, knowledge of objects does not emerge at once in the course of ontogenetic and phylogenetic development. It is important, however, in this connection to bear in mind the following two circumstances. First, where there is no objective knowledge, sense perception does not exist either, and consequently, neither does knowledge in the proper sense of the word: in this case, sensory information, among other things, serves as the basis for behaviour orientation. Second, the emergence of perception, that is, of objective knowledge, cannot be understood only on the basis of sensory information or of any other kinds of reflection which do not reproduce the objective characteristics of reality.
James Gibson, a prominent American psychologist, distinguishes two kinds of vision, only one of which is perception, that is, knowledge in the proper sense. “If you look out of the window,” he writes, “there beyond is an extended environment of ground and buildings or, if you are lucky, ‘scenery’. This is what we call the visual world. It is the familiar, ordinary scene of daily life, in which solid objects look solid, square objects look square, horizontal surfaces look horizontal, and the book across the room looks as big as the book lying in front of you... Next look at the room not as a room but, insofar as you can, as if it consisted of areas or patches of coloured surface, divided up by contours... If you persist, the scene comes to approximate the appearance of a picture. You may observe that it has characteristics somewhat different from the former scene. This is what will here be called the visual field. It is less familiar than the visual world and it cannot be observed except with some kind of special effort.”
In analysing the differences between the visual field and the visual world, Gibson observes that the visual field is limited (approximately 150° to 180°) and is oval-shaped, whereas the visual world has no boundaries and stretches behind one’s head as well as before the eyes.
The visual field is clear and distinct in the centre, its indeterminateness growing towards the boundaries. The visual field shifts as the eyes pass on from one point of fixation to another, whereas the visual world is stable.
The visual world is always oriented along the gravitational vertical, whereas the visual field is oriented in relation to its boundaries. Changing the position of the observer, e.g., his inclination by 90°, changes nothing in the orientation of his visual world, while in the visual field the horizontals will now become verticals. The visual world is constant. In the visual field, projection relations obtain. In the visual world, the three-dimensional depth forms of objects are perceived, while in the visual field, projection forms. At the same time, although the visual field is projectional, in the words of Gibson “it is never flat, like a surface on which a picture is painted or projected; that is, it is never wholly depthless. Nor is it lacking in the character of being outside of us, in externality.”
According to Gibson, the visual field does not underlie the visual world at all. The two kinds of vision are alternative, emerging as a result of two different attitudes of consciousness. With the ordinary consciousness attitude in perception, the subject confronts the visual objective world. The other attitude is artificial in nature, expressing the civilised man’s chronic habit of regarding the world as a picture.
A group of Soviet psychologists, who studied under A. N. Leontyev the formation of perception under unusual conditions, gave a somewhat different interpretation of these facts.
In a series of experiments, retinal images were distorted by means of special optical devices (using the pseudoscope, inverting the retinal projections). As a result, the objective image of perception and its sensuous texture were brought completely apart. These experiments showed that under definite conditions the sensuous texture of the image without an objective interpretation may be directly presented to the subject (true, under these conditions the subject, strictly speaking, does not have a knowledge of the world, he is almost incapable of orientation in it); moreover, they have showed that the formation of the perceptual image necessarily presupposes a certain activity with the sensuous texture. But there are certain grounds to believe that the sensuous texture is close to what Gibson called the visual field.
Gibson’s rejection of the connection between the sensory field, sensation and perception is entirely unjustified. At the same time his opinion about a qualitative difference between perception and the sensory field is quite correct.
Under ordinary conditions the sensuous texture of the perceptual image (corresponding to the visual field) is not realised by the subject. At the stage of ontogenesis when an adequate objective vision of the external world has not yet been formed, the visual world is not yet present in the subject’s experience and, more than that, the visual field does not exist for his consciousness either. The qualities pertaining to the visual field (colours and their shades, the mutual arrangement of various contours, etc.) are realised only to the extent in which they are included in the visual world, that is, the world of real objects.
John Ruskin, the outstanding art critic and theoretician, anticipated the findings of the impressionists as he wrote: “The whole technical power of painting depends on our recovery of what may be called the innocence of the eye; that is to say, of a sort of childish perception of these flat stains of colour, merely as such, without consciousness of what they signify, – as a blind man would see them if suddenly gifted with sight.” But under ordinary conditions the stains of colour cannot be realised as such, outside their objective interpretation and correlation. A blind person suddenly recovering sight after a successful operation (and cases like that are well authenticated in modern science) cannot see anything at first, for he can only see in a conscious, objective manner, and that has to be learnt.
A grown-up person to whom the sensuous texture of the visual image becomes accessible (as a result of a special kind of reflective attitude of consciousness or through application of special technical devices distorting the usual retinal projection of an object) always realises the unnaturalness of such a situation and cannot get rid of the feeling of irreality of the picture given to his consciousness.
The experiments of Soviet psychologists permit yet another conclusion of great importance for understanding the cognitive specificity of perception. The perceptual image of an object is not only constant in relation to the continually changing conditions of perception and to a certain extent independent of the sensuous texture: it carries in its content structure the conception of the world as existing amodally, that is, objectively, independently of our sensory modalities – visual, tactile, etc. As became particularly clear in the studies of perceptive activity through inversion of the visual image, the formation of the perception image assumes existence in consciousness, as an element of the latter, of an amodal, objective world scheme, which may exist in the texture of any modality or in the form of certain mnemonic schemes. The perceived world is a form of the existence of the world scheme in a certain modality. It is essential that the world scheme also includes the body scheme as its component, and the perceptual image is formed only through the correlation of the perceived world with the amodal world scheme through the body scheme.
Perception as a kind of cognition thus assumes comprehension, understanding, interpretation of what is seen. This interpretation is a certain kind of activity. Indeed, identical sensory data may correspond to extremely diverse real objects.
The process of perception always presupposes choosing (the choice being in a sense debatable) of an interpretation of sensory data which appears most probable in a world of real objects. Perception builds some thing like object hypotheses. I act in accordance with my perception of the properties of the physical object, a table, rather than with the sensation of a brown spot that is in my eye when I look at the surface of the table.
The object is perceived as a result of a complex process of comparing sensory information with those standards of objects that are recorded in memory. This process may involve errors.
The process of perception is continual solution of tasks of a special kind, a special kind of thinking, “visual thinking,” as specialists in the psychology of perception now describe it.
Let us formulate the epistemological significance of what has been said above in clearer terms.
We should take into account, first of all, that from the standpoint of Marxist epistemology, the difference between perception and thinking does not at all consist in that the former is purely direct while the latter, a mediated kind of knowledge, as was traditionally accepted in philosophical empiricism. Cognition is oriented from the outset towards objects, and the singling out in the external world of objects, of real things assumes cognitive activity, adopting certain assumptions and hypotheses which are later verified in sensory and real activity. The development of modern psychology gives concreteness to these fundamental philosophical assumptions.
Sense perception or, as Lenin referred to it, “living perception”, differs, of course, from abstract reasoning. Under ordinary conditions, what is consciously realised by the subject is merely the result of perceptual activity, the object image, while the activity of construction of this image is not given, it is reduced and concealed from consciousness. But thinking, which deals in abstractions, implies detailing of the activity of constructing the object image and a conscious control of its realisation (although by no means everything is realised in abstract thinking, but that is a separate problem). To the subject himself, perception therefore appears as direct givenness of the object and is distinguished from thinking precisely by that criterion. Another important distinction is that knowledge provided by perception assumes existence of objective meaning in a given sensuous texture or sensory modality. Both the number of sensory modalities and their characteristics, just as, to a considerable degree, the properties of the sensuous texture, are determined by the concrete historical circumstances of the emergence and development of the biological species Homo sapiens. This determination is not, of course, accidental: the receptive organs, both in number and capacity, have always coped with providing the Homo sapiens with the information which was initially required for orientation in the environment, in the world of relatively stable macrobodies, in a definite narrow circle of activity. But man’s specificity consists precisely in going beyond the biologically determined kinds of activity.
This entails the emergence of cognition in the precise sense of the word just as the appearance of the need for cognizing such real objects, their properties and relations, which cannot in general affect man’s receptive system. Cognition of this kind became possible owing to the development of thinking which uses a system of special artificially constructed objects: symbols, signs, diagrams, schemes, models, etc., for establishing the properties of those objects which exist independently of the subject. (Let us note that thinking need not necessarily be expressed in the form of verbal signs: it may also be realised through a special kind of operation upon objects.)
As we have seen, the referential meaning of the perceptual image does not stand in a one-to-one relation to sensory information, it is in some respects poorer than that information, and in others, considerably richer. This circumstance is explained by the fact that the objective meaning of the image and, consequently, the specifically human cognition, as distinct from sensory information, does not emerge in biological evolution but in socio-historical development through practical activity. The subject can perceive those aspects of objects which do not act on his sense organs. At the same time there are object meanings which cannot in principle be incorporated in a sensuous texture and cannot therefore be sensually perceived. These referential meanings are reconstructed by a special type of thinking, one that consciously operates with abstractions.
The limitations of perception arising from its distinctive properties (the subjective immediacy, the unconscious nature of interpretation) are the source of possible contradictions between perception and understanding of the object (it would be more precise to say, between two different levels of understanding – in terms of perception and of abstract thinking). Thus the moon is perceived as a disc some 30 cm in diameter at a distance of about a kilometre and a half. All humans apparently perceive the size of and distance to the moon in an approximately the same way, erring by a factor of one million. Such examples are numerous.
In this context, however, it is more important to stress the similarities rather than the differences between perception and thinking, those similarities which permit to refer to the former as a kind of “visual thinking,” an activity of solving tasks in object recognition.
The Marxist epistemological position is opposed to both metaphysical materialism and gnoseological empiricism, which in its fully developed form inevitably becomes subjectivist and idealistic. It is at the same time interesting to compare this position with the transcendentalist interpretation of cognition.
We recall that, according to Kant and Husserl, cognition never deals with subjective perceptions but with objects (it is a different question how the objects themselves are understood, what ontological status is ascribed to them by these philosophers). Let us note, though, that for Husserl, the intentional object, which may in certain cases coincide with the real one, is given immediately, with apodictic certainty, and knowledge of that object cannot in principle be a result of the subject’s constructive activity (the act of intentional orientation at the object is, according to Husserl, the act of grasping some certainty). The theoretical objects with which science deals are not, in fact, genuine from the standpoint of phenomenology, they do not characterise adequate knowledge but merely play the role of auxiliary conceptual constructions. Kant’s position on this point appears at first glance essentially different. Kant insists that the object given in experience, and knowledge of that object, are in fact a result of the creative activity of the Transcendental Subject, a product or synthesis of perceptions. Let us observe, however, that for Kant, too, a referential meaning can exist in the form of knowledge only insofar as it is incorporated or included in some sensuous texture. The subject possesses knowledge, Kant points out, only insofar as the object of knowledge is given in sensory experience (for this reason, experience and knowledge essentially coincide, in Kant’s view). Knowledge and thinking are therefore sharply contrasted: Kant believes that attempts to acquire knowledge through thinking, that is, knowledge of those objects that cannot be given in experience, inevitably lead to insoluble antinomies. That does not mean that one cannot cogitate of the given objects. However, one cannot know anything definite of them, Kant believes, for any knowledge is a synthesis of a manifold, and that synthesis is in his view only possible in experience.
In reality, the relation between the referential meaning and the sensuous texture is not at all reducible to a mere “synthesis” of varied sensations by means of objective content: many sensations are discarded, contradictions may arise between objective content and certain sensory impressions, and in this case the latter are not noticed, they are not realised. The main point is, however, that a referential meaning can be included in the system of knowledge also in such cases when it is not directly incorporated in sensory experience. In other words, pure knowledge is also possible of such objects which cannot be directly given in human experience. Modern microphysics, on the one hand, and cosmology, on the other, deal with such objects (which, according to Kant, cannot in principle be the subject-matter of knowledge).
In classical epistemology, substantiation of knowledge involved postulating such kinds of knowledge which themselves do not require substantiation, those in which the object is grasped more or less directly. This is true not only of the various systems of empiricism, which found such knowledge in metaphysically interpreted sensations or “sensory data,” but also of transcendentalist philosophy. Therefore the search for the “immediately given” and its differentiation from deduced and constructed knowledge have always been one of the most important tasks of pre-Marxian and non-Marxist theories of knowledge.
Dialectical materialism emphasises that it is not any knowledge that can be objective, or object-related, asserting at the same time that different levels of knowledge deal with real objects, although at different levels different types of objects and their aspects are reflected (the development of modern psychology and theoretical natural science confirms and specifies this thesis). “Cognition is the eternal endless approximation of thought to the object,” V. I. Lenin writes. “The reflection of nature in man’s thought must be understood not ‘lifelessly,’ not ‘abstractly,’ not devoid of movement, not without contradictions, but in the eternal process of movement, the arising of contradictions and their solution.” Of course, not all theoretical objects with which scientific thinking deals, can be correlated with actually existing objects directly and unambiguously. Real objects exist, however, which can only be reflected through abstract reasoning and cannot be directly given to the subject in sensory experience.
But that means that the classical problem of pre-Marxian epistemology, the problem of substantiation of knowledge, must not only be solved in a new manner but it must also be formulated in a new way. That means that the most important task of scientific epistemology is not the singling out of immediately given entities, the certainties of knowledge, but the discovery of universal referential meanings and norms of the objectiveness of knowledge, the study of the modes of formation, development, and change of these norms and, solution on this path, of the problem of interrelation of knowledge and the objectively existing reality.
The view that the true properties of reality are grasped as a result of direct impact of the object on the subject, or in the form of some kind of “fusion” of the subject and the object, and that the distortions, errors, and illusions are wholly explained by the fact that the subject is not passive enough in following the “objective givenness,” introducing something of himself in the cognitive process (either of his physical and physiological nature or of the activeness of consciousness), was deeply rooted in pre-Marxian epistemology. It was of course a long established fact that perception may be deceptive, that it can lead to error in understanding the meaning of certain objective situations, yet it was never doubted that from the practical viewpoint it in most cases yielded correct knowledge. At the same time attaining truth through abstract thinking was in one way or another linked up in classical philosophy with the act of direct, passive grasping (Plato’s “intelligent vision” of ideas, intellectual intuition of the rationalist philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries; Husserl’s direct “insight into the essences,” etc.), that is, it was understood on the analogy of passively interpreted perception. Thus the question of the subject’s activeness and passiveness in the cognitive process was closely linked with one of the focal philosophical problems widely debated since antiquity – the problem of the relation between reality and appearance or illusion.
The modern psychology of perception provides a wealth of material to support the philosophically important proposition that the results (“traces”) of the impact of the external object on the sense organs are not at all enough to distinguish between reality and illusion, for, as we have said already, different configurations of these traces may correspond to most diverse real objects. The singling out of real objects from the sensory information through imposing certain object-hypotheses on the latter is ensured not only by the subject’s cognitive activity but also by the object-hypotheses themselves having been tested in practical activity (collective or individual) and indicating those aspects of the real objects which are essential precisely for that activity. When the subject encounters some objects previously unknown to him in his practical activity, or familiar objects in unusual situations, objects viewed from unusual angles, an illusion arises: one perceives something that does not actually exist. (We ignore here those perception distortions which result from sensory receptors being tired or from their adaptation to prolonged or intense stimulation.) Although in this case sensory information coming from the object may be completely undistorted and can be fully taken into account, it may prove entirely insufficient for eliminating the illusion and establishing the real object. In other words, illusion is in this case by no means the result of the subject’s activity but merely a consequence of the activity being inadequate to the objective situation.
Adalbert Ames, an American psychologist, has performed the following experiment. Three peepholes are made in a screen through which one can look with one eye at each of the three objects displayed in the distance. Each of them is perceived under the given conditions as a chair. But when we look at the three objects from another angle, we discover that only one of the objects is indeed a chair. The other two are extremely strange objects which can nevertheless produce from a certain angle the same projection on the retina as a real chair. (One of the objects is not even one coherent object but a variety of wires extended in front of a backdrop on which is painted what we took to be the seat of the chair.) Thus only one of the chairs which we see in this experiment is a real chair, while the other two are illusions.
The illusion arises because of all the interpretations possible (of all the object-hypotheses) corresponding to the given retinal patterns, the subject unconsciously chooses the one which accords best of all with his practical experience. Man continually handles chairs and does not as a rule encounter those strange objects which Ames demonstrated. All kinds of illusions are as a rule quickly dispersed in common practice: as distinct from the artificial conditions of laboratory experiment, in real life the subject does not just look at a given object from one position, and with one eye at that, but continually shifts his position, moving and acting vigorously, practically using various objects and creating new ones. All of this ensures quite sufficient conditions for correlating knowledge with real objects, singling out a fleeting perceptual image as an illusion and separating it from impressions corresponding to real objects. A stick immersed in water seems broken. The illusion in this case is not due to distortion of sensory information: the objective circumstances are such that the physical image of the stick on the retina cannot be different here; we know that the light refraction angles are different in the air and in water. The impression of the unusual arises here because in ordinary practice we do not deal with objects in two mediums simultaneously, in water and in air, so that our object-hypothesis cannot correct the distortion of the projection of the stick on the retina, as it is done by the subject perceiving the size and form of objects seen from different angles (“constancy of perception”). But once one starts handling that same stick (and that usually happens when it is not half in the air and half under water), one perceives it as straight, i.e., as it actually is.
Thus the objective properties of objects perceived are singled-out in practical activity in accordance with the tasks of that activity. E. H. Gombrich, the well-known art critic and specialist in the psychology of the perception of painting, remarks in his account of the Ames experiments with chairs that a hypothetical man from Mars who is used to furniture of the same kind as the strange objects demonstrated by Ames rather than our ordinary chairs, would perceive the latter as the familiar arrangements of wires (in any case, that would be his original perception, until he found out that chairs are real objects of our world). But it is exactly this circumstance, that is, the intimate links between perception and the immediate practical needs, that conditions not only the strong but also the weak points of perception. Practice does not simply compel us to perceive the real characteristics of objects. The narrow limitations of practice may be the source of stable mass illusions that cannot be eliminated, such as the impression of the immobility of the Earth and the motion of the Sun. The conscious reflective cognition operating with abstractions ignores the urgent needs of practice and endeavours to discover the essential characteristics of objects irrespective of their appearance in a concrete situation. That does not mean that theoretical thinking in general isolates itself from the tasks of practice, opposing itself to the latter: it only means that thinking is an instrument for finding out the necessary characteristics of objects and at the same time the essential dimensions of practice itself. This ensures the possibility of action under conditions which appear unusual and unfamiliar in terms of available experience. When scientific astronomy dispelled the illusion of the Sun’s movement and immobility of the Earth (this illusion nevertheless persists in the perception of a person as long as that person remains on the Earth, for it fully accords with the ordinary practice of taking the Earth for a frame of reference), the possibility was thereby established, in the most abstract form, of future unusual and novel practice – that of space flights, which provides a fresh view of the mutual motions of the Sun and the Earth.
Although in principle theoretical thinking is capable of establishing the object’s proper, real characteristics, it may under certain conditions persist in reproducing stable illusions. Theoretical thinking (mostly in the social sciences) may be closely linked with a narrow, restricted practice of a definite kind persistently thrusting on the subjects the perception of apparent aspects of reality only. Of this nature is, for instance, the well-known phenomenon of “commodity fetishism” discovered by Marx, which is a mass objective illusion inevitably shared by the proponents of the capitalist system of social relations and reproduced by the vulgar bourgeois political economy.
Marx was able to overcome this illusion theoretically only because he accepted the position of the proletariat’s revolutionary practice, which went beyond the activity in the framework of the bourgeois mode of production, assuming as it did a radical transformation of the latter.
Of special interest are the perception illusions in which the perceptive image to some extent or other directly contradicts sensory data, partially rejecting them. This happens when the image of an object corresponding to sensory data is too extraordinary and deviates from common practice. A suitable example here is the perception of the image of a head turned inside out, e.g., of the inner surface of a casting mould or of a plaster mask. Such an illusion expresses not only the weakness but also the strength of perception. The perception hypothesis in principle behaves in the same way with regard to sensory “facts” as theory with regard to the facts of science.
However, the replacement of one perception hypothesis by another, is, as a rule, a more difficult matter, than the replacement of scientific theories or even paradigms, for perception object-hypotheses are too intimately connected with ordinary human practice. In this connection, the problem of perception of unusual objects arises, which is particularly acute today when man has created a world of super-complex technical apparatus often behaving differently from the ordinary bodies of everyday experience. Let us emphasise once again one of the most important features of the cognitive relation. On the one hand, what is given to the subject in the act of cognition is the really existing object and not his own subjective sensations. The objective image is not realised as a specific thing requiring special activity of objectification or projecting for its correlation with the external object. On the other hand, cognition necessarily assumes a realisation of the difference between the subject and the object cognized and, consequently, a realisation of the difference between the objective image belonging to the subject and the actual object itself. True, under ordinary conditions, when cognition is directed at the external object rather than the subjective world, the realisation of the subjective relevance of the objective image belonging to the subject is, as it were, at the periphery of consciousness, while the centre of the consciousness field is occupied by the real world of external objects. In this case, the objective image is “transparent,” as it were, to the object presented in it. However, even when consciousness is oriented at the world of one’s own inner experiences (and that orientation is secondary, derivative from the orientation at the external world), the object (in this case the state of consciousness) and the subject of cognition do not merge, being separate from one another.
The subject may be involved in cognizing objects of at least three kinds: objects external not only with regard to his consciousness but also to his body; his own body (reference here is to my body only, and not to the body of another subject); and finally, his consciousness. Cognition which deals with the objects of the first kind is primary, basic, and determining all the other types of knowledge. This cognition necessarily presupposes the presence in consciousness of an objective world scheme incorporating also the scheme of the subject’s body as occupying a definite objective spatial-temporal position in the world among other objects. (If the subject does not realise the objective position of this body in the world, he cannot orient himself in the objective medium.) Cognition of one’s own body, on the one hand, assumes that some of its states are given to the subject “from within” (through proprioceptive reception), and on the other hand, it is based on the realisation of the body being incorporated in the objective network of the world’s connections in which the subject’s body itself acts as one of the objects.
Thus the objective knowledge that I can pass on or communicate to other persons presupposes the existence of objects external with regard to my body and independent of it, and incorporation of my body in an objective network. As for the knowledge of the states of my consciousness, it only proves possible because I can view myself as if I were some other person, which implies not only the existence of that other person outside myself but also joint activity with him. (That does not exclude the existence of such shades in the realisation of my inner experiences which are rather hard to express externally and to communicate to someone else.) And that means that the realisation of the subjective states of consciousness presupposes objective knowledge as the necessary basis and would be impossible without it.
Let us imagine that all objects of cognition are created, as it were, by the act of consciousness and do not exist outside cognition. It may appear that this hypothetical picture corresponds to the world of inner experiences of a child at the early stages of the development of the psyche, when objective perception of reality has not yet been formed and differentiation between the subjective and the objective is non-existent. But this view is unfounded. First, the early stages of the development of the psyche contain the possibility and the necessity of the subject’s subsequent conscious differentiation between his subjective states and the world of objects; second, the hypothetical picture of creation of objects by the very act of their cognition presupposes the realisation and recognition of the primacy of the subject and the derivative nature of objects, whereas in fact the baby does not originally realise even himself as a subject, far from realising the existence of objects.
It is not hard to show the impossibility of the situation assumed here, for even the subjective states of consciousness cannot be fully determined by the cognitive activity aimed at them, although the relation between subject and object in the process of reflexion is characterised by certain difficulties, which we shall later discuss. The states of consciousness and the subject’s body certainly do not exist independently of the subject himself. But their cognition, as we have stressed above, is only made possible by the subject realising himself as incorporated in the objective world, that is, a world filled with real objects and other subjects existing outside and independently from him. Most of the objects and other subjects are independent of the given subject both in their origin and their existence. (Some of them are independent of him in their existence but dependent on him in their origin: these include, first, the objects created by man, and second, his children.) If the objects were “tied” to the subject and “followed” his movements and actions, the cognitive relation would simply be impossible.
This fundamental characteristic of cognition should be borne in mind, in particular, in discussing the philosophical implications of the modern theories of quantum mechanics. Both in the physical and the philosophical literature one can come across statements to the effect that the distinction or boundary between subject and object is obliterated in cognizing the objects of the microworld, and that man in this case deals with the cognition of his own action on the object of knowledge. These arguments are sometimes linked up with the dialectical materialist doctrine of the unity of the subject and the object, with the Marxist thesis of the active, practical nature of cognition. In reality, the philosophical significance of the cognitive situation in quantum physics lies in the discovery of a fundamentally new type of real objects possessing properties sharply distinguishing them from the ordinary objects of the macroworld, and in the need for taking into account the conditions of observation in describing experimental results. At the same time quantum mechanics provides no grounds for the assertion that the boundary between subject and object is eliminated. The point is that the conditions of observation referred to here are quite objective. The macro-devices and micro-objects exist outside the subject. The subject conducting the experiment and recording the apparatus measurements may in principle be replaced by an automaton.
Of course, man also cognizes the products of his own creativity. But that is only possible insofar as these products (e.g., the world of technology, cultural artifacts, scientific theories, works of art, etc., in the form of signs and symbols) function in the externally objective mode, that is, outside the subject’s body. In any case, the process of cognition, of conscious reflection of the object, cannot coincide with the process of creating it. (Cognition itself is always creative in nature, but we have in mind here only the reproduction of the cognized object in the system of knowledge and not its creation.)
We have already pointed out the role of referential meanings, cognitive norms, and object-hypotheses in the process of cognition, stressing the fact that these norms do not simply emerge in the course of the object affecting the sense organs but control the choice and transformation of sensory information in shaping the object’s image. The question naturally arises as to the nature and origin of these norms. Aren’t the transcendentalists right in asserting that cognitive standards and norms are inherent in the subject’s consciousness and should be understood as a result of analysis of the latter?
The philosophy of dialectical materialism posits that cognition in all its forms, beginning with perception, based on definite standards and objective norms, is formed in the subject’s practical activity involving material objects. It is not passive reception but practical transformation of the objective environment that is the starting point of man’s attitude to the world.
“The chief defect of all previous materialism (that of Feuerbach included),” wrote Marx, “is that things [Gegenstand], reality, sensuousness are conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was set forth abstractly by idealism – which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such.”
“... But men do not at all begin with ‘standing in this theoretical relation to the things of the outer world’. As any animal, they begin with eating, drinking, etc., thus not with ‘standing’ in some relation but with active behaviour, with mastering certain things of the outer world through action and thereby satisfying their needs.”
Lenin stressed repeatedly that Marxism made practice the basis of its epistemology . The world does not satisfy man and man decides to change it by his activity.” “... A full ‘definition’ of an object must include the whole of human experience, both as a criterion of truth and a practical indicator of its connection with human wants.”
The connection between perception formation and the subject’s activity involving objects is now widely recognised in psychology.
Thus, Piaget’s studies show the incorporation of perception in more general schemes of object-directed activity – sensori-motor schemes, in the case of a baby.
The first stage in the development of sensori-motor schemes of behaviour (of sensori-motor intellect) is marked, according to Piaget, by the use of innate sensori-motor mechanisms which are adapted to the properties of objects (their form, size, etc.). At this stage, only a finer differentiation of stimuli may take place but not perception of objects.
The second stage (beginning with the second month of the child’s life), or the stage of primary reactions, is marked by repetition of accidental actions yielding a positive result. At this stage of development, the object appears to the child as a direct continuation of an action.
At the third stage (the stage of secondary circular reactions, which lasts between the third and the ninth months), the primary reactions come to be applied to new objects. A number of new types of behaviour emerge: visual adaptation to slow movements (the child, following a moving object, continues to follow the trajectory after the disappearance of the object), repeated grasping at one and the same place, recognition of the whole object from its visible part, overcoming obstacles interfering with perception (the child pulls away a piece of cloth thrown over his face) and applying varied actions to one and the same object.
However, although the child returns to the original action directed at an object in a definite place, there is no searching yet for an object that disappeared except for continuing an action once begun along the same trajectory. Although children pull away a piece of cloth from their face, they never attempt taking it off an object that was covered in their presence. Piaget believes that it is at this stage that the objectness of perception emerges.
The fourth stage (between nine months and a year) is the stage of coordinating the schemes of action already acquired and their application to new situations. Systematic investigation of new objects begins, connected as it were with discovery of their purpose (scrutinising, swinging, shaking, pressing, sticking into the mouth, throwing, etc.). The child actively searches for the object which disappears before his eyes but does not take into account the object’s movements going on right before his eyes. The object is a reality for the child, but a reality at a definite place in the presence of a definite action.
At the fifth stage (between the end of the first and the middle of the second year) the child discovers new patterns of action through active experimenting. Actions are performed involving the use of auxiliary implements, the simplest instrumental actions. In searching for a concealed object, the child begins to take into account the consecutive movements of the visible object, looking for it in the place where it was hidden last.
Finally, the sixth stage (beginning with the middle of the second year) signifies the transition from sensori-motor experience to imagining the results of the child’s own actions, on the one hand, and to imagining objects and their movements, on the other. At this stage, the child learns to take into account several consecutive movements of the object in searching for it even though the object is invisible during these movements (after being shown to the child, it is moved in a closed fist or box).
“Implicitly, perception models, in a way, reality both present and future, and also the future states of the object transformed by man,” points out A. M. Korshunov.
The works of Soviet researchers have shown that initially perception processes are formed and develop as integral components of practical activity, and the overall effect of this activity as a whole consists in establishing the features of the observed situation. The practical object-oriented activity develops the operations of singling out and analysing the features of a thing. As the child’s activity becomes more complex, and he faces more difficult cognitive tasks, the limitations of a purely practical study of the object and the need for special perceptive actions come to light. However, perceptive actions too are at the first stages externally similar to actions with things. This similarity is observed even in the case of distant receptors which do not come in direct contact with things.
At the same time the realisation that cognitive norms and operations are formed in the subject’s practical activity with material objects is not enough to understand the nature and modes of functioning of the norms of cognition. Marxist philosophy posits that practical activity itself must be understood in its specifically human characteristics, namely, as joint or collective activity in which each individual enters into certain relations with other persons; as mediated activity in which man places between himself and an external, naturally emerging object other man-made objects functioning as instruments or implements of activity; and finally, as historically developing activity carrying in itself its own history. The socially functioning man-made objects mediating various kinds of his activity (beginning with implements of labour, including objects of everyday use, and ending with sign-symbolic systems, models, diagrams, schemes, etc.) play not only an instrumental but also a most important cognitive role. In the objects cognized, man singles out those properties that prove to be essential for developing social practice, and that becomes possible precisely with the aid of mediating objects carrying in themselves reified socio-historical experiences of practical and cognitive activity. Mastering a socially functioning man-made object, the child begins to single out in external objects, first, those features and characteristics which are essential for the activity with the aid of the given instrument, the given man-made object, and second, those traits in which they are similar to the objects accumulated through human activity. In other words, the instrumental man-made objects function as objective forms of expression of cognitive norms, standards, and object-hypotheses existing outside the given individual. The mastering by the individual of these norms, social in their genesis, permits their functioning as structure-forming components of cognition. It is in the course of this mastering of norms in practical activity with external objects that the objectness of perception is formed. This fundamental fact was discounted by Piaget, who made a great contribution to the study of the links between the process of perception and the development of forms of object-oriented activity but viewed the development of cognitive structures as entirely dependent on progressive changes in the relations of equilibrium between the individual and the external environment.
In studies by Soviet psychologists relying on the basic tenets of Marxist philosophy about the nature and ways of formation of cognitive norms, the hypothesis was advanced and later experimentally confirmed that the instruments for performing perceptive actions are systems of the objects’ sensuous qualities singled out and recorded in social experience, which, mastered by the child, function as standards, or “units of measurement,” in the perception of the varied phenomena of reality. Systems of sensuous qualities are singled out in various kinds of human activity (the colours of the spectrum, geometrical forms, etc.) which “quantify” in a definite manner the corresponding aspects of reality. That means, for instance, that a clear perceptual distinction between a circle and an oval (and a singling out of these forms in the objects of nature) is derivative from their different functioning in object-oriented activity. Retinal images of a circle and an oval may not differ very much, and their perceptual differentiation is essentially conditioned by the practice of operating with man-made objects used as standards in perceptive activity.
As we know, from the standpoint of Gestalt psychology the singling out of the circle in the objects perceived by the subject is one of the striking examples of the action of inner structural (in fact, innate) laws of all cognition. Gestalt psychologists believe that the main law determining perception of form is the law of Prägnanz – the tendency of the image of perception to assume “good form” – symmetrical, closed, and simple (the circle is an example of such a symmetrical and simple form). Underlying the law of Prägnanz is, in the view of these theoreticians, the trend towards establishing an equilibrium between the physical processes in the subject and those in the objects external with regard to the subject. Aware that systems with a minimum of potential energy are the best balanced physical systems, Gestalt psychologists endeavour to show that the most characteristic features of these systems are simplicity and symmetry. However, in the case of the singling out of the circle by the perceiving subject, modern psychology provides grounds for the assertion that this process is mediated by assimilation of socially formed perceptual standard. Indeed, the subject is more inclined to single out such simple forms as the circle than others in the objects perceived. But this is explained, first of all, by the special role of such forms in human object-oriented activity, which is in its turn conditioned by certain objective properties of these forms.
As Marx pointed out, “the eye has become a human eye, just as its object has become a social, human object – an object made by man for man. The senses have therefore become directly in their practice theoreticians... The forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present.”
Thus the implementation of the act of cognition as a specifically human reflection or reproduction of the object’s essential characteristics presupposes not only the subject’s handling the object but also man’s creation (the social man rather than a natural individual, that is man in cooperation with other individuals) of a definite system of “artificial” objects mediating the process of reflection and carrying cognitive norms and standards in themselves.
These mediating objects, acting as instruments of cognition, have a certain specificity. On the one hand, their purpose is to enable the subject to reflect in cognition the characteristics of objects existing independently from them. On the other hand, the mediators themselves are objects with specific features of their own, possessing internal connections, assuming definite modes of operating with them and existing originally in an external reified form (they are only later assimilated by the individual, becoming his inner attributes). But that means that implementation of the cognitive act assumes not only the subject’s ability to correlate mediating objects with the object cognized. The subject must also master the modes of handling the specific reality constituted by the socially functioning artificial objects.
Let us consider in this connection some essential moments in the general problem of interrelation between activity and cognition. A short historical-philosophical excursus is in order here. The conception that there is an intimate connection between cognition and activity is of a relatively recent origin. The thinkers of antiquity characteristically drew a sharp distinction between knowledge in the proper sense, that is, understanding of the essence of things, and technical ability to produce or artificially create a certain object. Art can only imitate nature to some extent, but it cannot equal it: such was the view of ancient philosophers. Man cannot produce what is created by nature. That does not mean, in ancient philosophers’ view, that man cannot cognize the reality of nature. But knowledge is not identical with ability for technical reproduction of what is cognized. The thinkers of antiquity (we ignore here the essential differences between various schools in philosophy at that time) insisted that, as distinct from artificial reproduction, knowledge presupposes neither a change in the given object nor construction of a new object but passive reception of the content of reality that is cognized as it is.
A different conception of the interrelation of knowledge and activity is developed in the philosophy of the New Times, a conception directly linked with the formation of new experimental science. First of all, the activity of artisans and technicians is re-assessed. The view gains currency that technical ability to make some thing is also knowledge, and not just one kind of knowledge, but knowledge of fundamentally the same sort as theoretical and, moreover, one that expresses the essence of any knowledge. Inasmuch as knowledge of the essence of the object implies cognition of its proximate cause, man can really know only that which he made himself, that is, the things whose proximate cause he himself is. Knowledge is thus identified with creation or construction. Since contemporary technology mostly involved mechanical processes of assembly and dismantling, knowledge of nature was reduced to discovery of particular constructions suitably assembled and dismantled, and nature itself was viewed as a giant clockwork. The thesis of the knowability of the world appears in this context as substantiation of the conception that all natural processes can be technically reproduced, that human technical art can in principle attain the same degree of perfection as nature. From this standpoint, scientific theory is nothing but a kind of accumulation of the potential modes of technical activity, for theory mentally dismantles and assembles that which can later be dismantled and assembled materially.
It is in this context that statements should be understood to the effect that knowledge is power, that man is not only a servant but also the master of nature (Bacon). Descartes did not draw a fundamental distinction between mechanisms created by craftsmen and bodies made by nature.
Thus the thesis, widely discussed in the philosophy of the New Times, that man can really know only that which he himself created is closely bound up with the prevailing mechanism in new experimental science that replaced the peripatetic medieval physics. For us, however, another point is more important. This thesis is directly linked with yet another idea that began to interest many thinkers precisely at that time, the idea that the subject’s knowledge is only adequate insofar as it is connected with the subject himself, his state, and actions, that is, the idea which was expressed most distinctly by Descartes.
This last circumstance is particularly important, for the thesis discussed here outlived mechanism exactly because of it. Indeed, if we do not link up too closely any activity with material and technical activity, still less with the work of mechanical assembly and dismantling; if we assume that the essence of activity is purely spiritual, the assertion may be retained that cognition is identical with creation of the object cognized, lending this thesis distinct subjectivist meaning and at the same time discarding the obsolete ideas of philosophical mechanism. That was exactly what was done in German classical philosophy, in the first place in the systems of Kant and Fichte.
Let us also note that if cognition is identical with creation of the object cognized, all things that cannot be created by the subject and exist by themselves, turn out to be unknowable.
The establishment of fundamental links between knowledge and activity, theory and practice, and the emphasis .on the subject’s active role in cognition, were indubitably an essential contribution to the development of epistemology. Marxist philosophy creatively assimilated these ideas, starting out from their treatment by the German classical philosophers. Still, the idea that cognition of the object is in principle identical to its creation or construction is unacceptable to scientific epistemology. True, one can attempt to erase the subjectivist colouring of this thesis by reformulating it as the idea that all knowledge is a set of some potential practical modes of object-oriented activity, and that these modes themselves express the real structure of the object and are in this sense objectively conditioned. But in this formulation, too, the analysed thesis is hardly acceptable, for its main drawback is retained: direct equating of knowledge and modes of practical activity.
The idea that man’s knowledge is most adequate where it concerns objects which he himself has created is quite untenable, too. It is well known that one may be an excellent handicraftsman or technician and at the same time have a vague notion of the processes which objectively determine the success of certain technical operations. Today, the laws of physico-chemical processes are known much better than the laws of such a man-made phenomenon as language. Man is also far from perfect understanding of the way in which scientific theories are constructed and change. And then there is all the work to be done towards cognizing the phenomena of consciousness. On the other hand, great masses of quite reliable knowledge exist which cannot so far be used practically. Knowledge of this type does not provide modes of practical artificial reconstruction of the objects to which it refers (although it may of course be used in the future, combined with other types of knowledge, for working out new technologies and new modes of practical activity). Nevertheless this kind of knowledge is quite correctly described as knowledge.
Undoubtedly, cognition grows out of practical activity, servicing material practice throughout its development. This proposition is fundamental in dialectical materialism. It is also true that cognition, being reflection, always appears as a kind of activity and consequently as construction and creation, for activity is always reified in certain objects.
Cognitive activity is directed at reflection, reproduction of the properties of real objects with the aid of a special system of artificially created mediator objects. Of course, cognition may also involve action on an external object (that happens, e.g., in experimenting), but that action does not bring about changes (or, still less, construction) of cognized characteristics of the object but only production of better conditions for their discovery. (The reference here is to those properties that appear in the given situation as the object of cognition, for it goes without saying that in any material action some objective properties are always changed and some are even created.) It is through the activity of using mediator objects that creation, or construction, of objects enters cognition. Man constructs new apparatus and measurement instruments, creating and developing scientific theories, constructing models, operating with signs and symbols in a definite manner, etc. But this creative, constructive activity pertains precisely to the world of mediator objects and does not imply creation of the object cognized. With the aid of artificially constructed mediator objects the subject cognitively reproduces other objects (often getting a better knowledge of the latter than of the former). It does not follow from the above that mediator objects themselves cannot be objects of knowledge. But in this case they cease to be mediators and assume the construction of a new system of mediator objects, embodying the knowledge about them. Importantly, the goal of theory is reproduction of the essence of an object regardless of a concrete, particular situation of practical employment of it, as distinct from perception which includes only referential meanings directly linked with existing social practice. It is this feature of theory that forms the basis for the development and perfection of practical activity, for finding ways of practical utilisation of new aspects of objects that have been cognized theoretically but have not yet become objects of technical activity.
Thus cognition, an activity that is genetically and functionally dependent on objective practice, is not at the same time identical with the latter. In practical activity, objects are constructed that have immediate value for society and individual subjects. At the same time practice assumes the use of implements – objects in which the material activity of mankind is reified. The properties of real objects may be reproduced in the process of cognition only through creation of a whole world of special mediator objects subject to specific social laws of functioning and carrying social cognitive experiences. Mediator objects used in the process of cognition do not have a value as such but merely as carriers of knowledge about other objects. Creativity and cognition are thus linked in a most intimate manner and assume each other. But in its very essence the act of cognition cannot coincide with the act of creating the object cognized, otherwise we would have no grounds at all for any discussion of cognition and knowledge.
The idea of the identity of knowledge and creation of the object cognized, developed in the philosophy of the New Times, appears to be diametrically opposed to the ancient view of knowledge as passive reception. Let us note, however, that both of these ideas have one point in common, the conception of knowledge as direct grasping of the external object in the first case and of the activity of the subject himself, in the second. In both cases there is a failure to understand that the characteristics of a real object may be reproduced in the process of cognition only through construction of another system of objects, a special world of mediator objects constituting social reality of a particular kind. In other words, the mediated nature of all knowledge is not understood.
Let us consider Gaston Bachelard’s conception as an example of consistent development of the idea about the identity of knowledge and constructing the cognized object in modern Western philosophy. Pointing to the artificial nature of most of the realities which constitute the practical world of modern man and owe their origin to technical creativity, the French philosopher concludes that science more and more ceases to be knowledge of natural phenomena, becoming a process of constructing phenomena, a kind of factory for their production. Bachelard believes that the phenomena which a physicist or chemist studies are to a considerable extent his own creations. It is not nature that provides the chemist with “pure” substances: he prepares them in his laboratory starting from a theoretical construction. In the end Bachelard comes to the conclusion that the essence of science does not in general lie in comprehending natural reality but in constructing artificial objects; that it consists in technology and not in knowledge (thus he believes that the electron, the positron, the proton, the neutron pertain to the technical aspects of electric phenomena). As we see, constructive activity of creating the world of artificial mediator objects is here confused with creation of the object itself that is to be cognized.
So far we have concentrated on cognitive activity being most intimately linked with the existence and functioning of a special socio-cultural world of mediator objects. A question, however, may naturally arise here: does not this approach ignore the indubitable fact that cognition is not only realised by separate individuals but as often as not takes place “within” consciousness, without any immediate external manifestation? One is not obliged to inform anyone about the results of one’s perception of some object, not to mention the fact that this perception may contain shadings of emotion that are hard to express objectively. Although the process of thinking is apparently impossible without some instruments of objectification (signs of the natural language pronounced or recorded on paper, mathematical symbols, etc.), we mostly think without speaking.
Interesting ideas usually emerge from the depths of consciousness, and their verbal formulation often requires hard work. Generally speaking, the existence of the subjective world of one’s own consciousness is obvious to anyone: it is an inalienable attribute of the subject and differs not only from the world of real objects but also from the external object-directed and objectively expressed actions of the subject.
These indubitable facts cannot of course be negated. We have already pointed out that the implementation of the act of cognition assumes the subject distinguishing himself from the object cognized, which implies, among other things, distinguishing real objects from the subjective states of consciousness. But to make this differentiation possible, the subjective world must be present, it must exist. The fact is, however, that the subjective world, the world of consciousness, is by no means given from the very outset. At the early stages of individual development of the psyche the subject is not yet given the world of objective things distinct from himself and leading a life of their own. And for this reason the subject himself and the world of his consciousness do not exist for the subject. There is no subjective world at this stage of development. The outstanding Soviet psychologist L. S. Vygotsky, who relied on the fundamental propositions of Marxist philosophy, expressed an idea that later became the basis of numerous theoretical and practical developments and was, in particular, realised in the studies of A. N. Leontyev, A. R. Luriya, P. Ya. Galperin, A. V Zaporozhets, V. V. Davydov, V. P. Zinchenko,  and others: the idea that internal psychical processes are a result of “interiorisation,” that is, “growing in” or transposition onto the inner plane of those actions of the subject which are originally performed externally and directed at external objects. Implemented in external forms, activity assumes cooperation with other individuals and utilisation of socio-historically shaped instruments and modes embodied in a system of mediator objects. In the process of interiorisation external actions are subjected to a specific transformation – they are generalised, verbalised, reduced, and at the same time become capable of further development going beyond the possibilities of external activity. “In other words, the higher specifically human psychological processes can only emerge in the interaction between men,” writes A. N. Leontyev “that is, they can only be intrapsychological, and only later are they performed by the individual independently, some of them losing their initial external form, becoming interpsychological processes... Consciousness is not given initially and neither is it generated by nature: consciousness is generated by society, it is produced.”
That means that external activity in the form of operating with certain objects, signs, schemes, etc., is not just one of the means of objectifying the “true” activity of thinking performed in one’s brain but its real basis and the starting point of formation.
Therefore, all ideas appear in some objectified form, although the latter need not be verbal: an idea may appear in the shape of conception about activity involving some object, or even simply as a visual image of some situation; in the latter case the activity itself is given to the subject in. hidden form and is included in the conception. The translation of a verbally unformed idea (that is, unformed even in terms of inner speech) is not simply the activity of expressing some ready-made content in a different material but development of the content itself. In general, any form of reification or objectification of some cognitive content signifies a certain change in the latter.
That means that the process of perception is not purely subjective, being mediated by mastering a socially formed world of objects which may be viewed as reified perceptions, just as scientific texts (although not only scientific texts, of course) are reifications of thinking. Man looks at the world through the eyes of society.
The subjective world of consciousness presents itself to the individual in the first place as a stream of visual images and notions replacing one another. Let us note, however, that any visual image (including the image of memory) not only expresses a certain experience but always refers to some real object (an ensemble of objects, a process, an objective situation, etc.). And that presupposes differentiating between the object and the image itself, interpreting the object of representation (in varying degrees of activity) in some network of objective relations: spatio-temporal coordinates, certain dependences on other objects, etc. The existence of visual images assumes, of course, the ability of the brain to retain traces of previous impressions. However, human notions are by no means identical with these traces, for they are always objectively interpreted in nature. That is why animals do not have either notions or subjective memory: the “revived” traces of previous impressions, first, are not included in this case in temporal connections existing only in the present (that is, there is neither the past nor the future for the animal, subjectively), and second, they do not characterise the objective world, connecting the information received from the outside directly with some situation reaction. Pierre Janet, a well-known French psychologist, underlines the distinction between simple repetition and human memory. In the repetition of something learnt earlier, the past is retained in the present (here belongs the entire area of skills). In a socially conditioned act of memory (in Janet’s terminology, in the act of “true memory”) we have a narrative, an account of what happened in the past, that is, a fundamentally new action in the present, in which the past is expressed symbolically. Because of this, an aspect of personality is formed that differs from the realisation of skills – the individual’s self-consciousness.
The same facts are played up and subjectively interpreted in modern existentialist psychiatry. J. Zutta writes that when someone, forgetting where he put some object, asks, “Where has it got to?”, and thinks it over in inactivity, he does something that no other living being can do, for he mentally translates a possibility into reality. The essence of amnesias, according to existentialist psychiatry, is above all the impossibility of going beyond the experienced situation and of memorising in a human manner. The visual image as an elementary “quantum” of the subjective stream of consciousness is always objectively interpreted, and this interpretedness emerges in the formation of the processes of consciousness themselves, that is, in the course of interiorisation of external activity in the world of socially created objects embodying social-historical experience. It may be imagined that under different socio-cultural conditions, that is, in different contexts of social practice, the referential meanings implemented in external objective activity and later in the subjective world of consciousness will vary somewhat, for their content is determined not only by the world of real objects but also by the degree of their assimilation in the historically developing social practice. That means that under these conditions the subjectively experienced worlds of consciousness may differ in some respects in experiencing time, in the perception of the nature of replacement of some states of consciousness by others and of their mutual relations, etc.
The visual image has no cognitive content different from the content of the external object represented in it, although the existence of the image itself and some of its characteristics that do not pertain to its referential meaning (its vividness or dimness, the length of the act itself of image perception, etc.) are realised as belonging to the subjective world different from the world of external objects. Visual representation always points to a real object, being devoid of any content or meaning outside this indicative function. It is therefore impossible to separate in consciousness the content of visual image from the content of the object presented in it (although the image itself is realised as different from the object). When consciousness attempts to make the content of a given visual image its object, it discovers that it deals with the content of the real object itself presented in this image.
The referential interpretation of the content of consciousness emerging in the process of the formation of the latter, that is, in the course of external activity with socially created objects permeates all of its components, including the conscious perception of the most elementary units of psychical life. In this connection let us consider the experience of pain. It is beyond question (and has been studied thoroughly) that the basis and function of pain sensations are physiological – they serve as a kind of signal informing the individual about the need for eliminating certain external actions constituting a threat to the organism. The specifically human feeling of pain implies the realisation of this feeling as differing from all the others, its inclusion in the context of other states of psychical life, localisation of pain sensations in the body of the given subject (we do not feel pain in general but pain in the given spot of the arm, toothache, headache, etc.), realisation of the fact that pain is always my pain and is not therefore inherent in objects different from my body, and finally, a certain attitude to pain itself. In other words, although the elementary sensation of pain in itself, as distinct from perception or visual representation, expresses experience rather than knowledge, it is also included in certain meaningful structures, including cognitive ones, relating, on the one hand, to external objects, and on the other, to the subjective world. These meaningful structures are assimilated by the individual only along with the formation of his consciousness, and it therefore should be assumed that the feeling of pain itself at the early stages of development differs from what we have just described. A newborn baby cannot in principle localise the feeling of pain, for its body does not yet exist for it as an object. It therefore merges, as it were, with its pain. Inasmuch as the domain of external objects is not consciously given it either, it may be said that when painfully stimulated, the baby perceives the whole world as filled with the sensation of pain. Supposedly, even this elementary sensation (as a consciously realised one) will vary with cultural-historical conditions, in any case as far as attitude to pain, the modes of external expression of this sensation, etc., are concerned.
This reference to the socially and culturally conditioned character of the processes and functions of consciousness does not of course mean that we negate the fact that the subjective world of each individual is unique and original, that I can know something about the states of my consciousness that is not known to anyone else. (At the same time someone else may know some things about myself, about my personality and even about my psychical life of which I am not aware myself.) The way I perceive, experience things, think, etc., characterises myself and no one but myself. The whole point is that the process of interiorisation in which the subjective world is formed occurs each time under a unique set of conditions: the given human organism is unlike any others even at the starting point of the development of the psyche; the individual development of consciousness itself occurs each time under specific conditions and in unique relations with other men; each person occupies a unique position not only in the system of interpersonal socio-cultural connections but even in the network of spatio-temporal relations. When I perceive a given object, I do it from a certain angle which at this moment is inaccessible to anyone else – simply because it is I who occupy this position; moreover, the act itself of my perception includes my individual experiences which compels me to single out some aspects of the object over others. (A great number of psychological studies deal with the influence of personality characteristics on the process of perception.)
And yet I realise at this moment that I perceive the same objective thing which is perceived (from positions differing from mine and in somewhat different shadings) by other individuals as well. In other words, the fundamental meaningful connections of consciousness, and in particular the system of referential meanings, have general validity, however varied their individual content. Thus socio-cultural mediation takes place both in the formation of unique individual features of the given subject and in the course of assimilation of universal semantic structures underlying cognitive activity as well as other specifically human kinds of activity. The difference is that in the former case universal norms and standards are transformed in the realisation of activity under concrete unique conditions, while in the latter it is a matter of the individual assimilating of the norms themselves.
Thus Marxist philosophy emphasises the proposition (now underlying concrete psychological studies) that the fundamental characteristics of cognitive activity and the properties of knowledge cannot be understood correctly if one proceeds from analysis of consciousness as such; that was precisely what philosophical transcendentalism tried to achieve. Consciousness itself is by no means something ready-made and given a priori. it is formed and develops in the process of interiorisation of external practical activity mediated by objects created by man and for man and embodying mankind’s socio-historical experiences. Marx wrote that the objective being itself of human activity appears before us as “the perceptibly existing human psychology.”
It should be said that the classical German philosophy, and in the first place the systems of Fichte and Hegel, placed considerable emphasis on the analysis of the significance of the activity of external objectification or reification for the development of consciousness, self-consciousness, and cognition. As we remember, the necessary condition of the formation of the ego, of the subject, is, according to Fichte, alienation and objectification by the Absolute Subject of its own activity in the form of non-ego. Hegel goes even farther, indicating the role of social, inter-individual activity in the process of self-comprehension of the Absolute Spirit, that is, in the process of its formation as the Absolute Subject – activity that is directed not only at reification of certain representations pertaining to the sphere of spiritual culture but also at transformation of the external natural environment, that is, labour activity. However, not only for Fichte but even for Hegel it is ultimately a matter of objectification, of external objective expression of the content which is potentially inherent in the depths of the Absolute interpreted as a primordially spiritual entity (the Absolute Ego in Fichte, the Absolute Spirit in Hegel). For this reason what is meant here is not, strictly speaking, generation of subjectivity, of the world of consciousness, but merely its spontaneous self-development from the depth of the Absolute, its unfolding, which is merely mediated by the activity of external objectification. In other words, first there is movement from within, and only then comes the reverse movement – the penetration of consciousness into itself, and formation of adequate self-consciousness mediated by external reification. The direction of reasoning in Marxist philosophy is diametrically opposed to that, first there is movement from without or interiorisation, “growing in,” assimilation by the individual subject of various socially developed modes of activity and in this connection the formation of individual consciousness and self-consciousness. At the same time this assimilation is achieved in the individual subject’s object-directed activity in such a way that the movement from without expresses the transition of the subject’s activity from the external plane to the internal one, rather than elementary causal action of an external object on the subject. Then, the subject’s activity is directed originally not so much at the external objectification of the content that is already inherent in the “inner plane” as at the formation of the latter. Only on this basis is later the second process implemented (which, once it emerges, begins to interact with the first). the exteriorisation, external objectification, reification of the inner content of consciousness, which is a necessary component of any creativity.
The Marxist conception of nature, of the ways of formation and modes of functioning of consciousness is in principle opposed also to modern psychological behaviourism, which, on the one hand, practically rejects the possibility of scientific study of consciousness, and, on the other, interprets the subject’s external actions (behaviour) as elementary organic reactions rather than as socio-culturally mediated.
Another important conclusion follows from this. Three kinds of activity are linked together at the outset of the formation of consciousness: external practical activity, the process of cognition, and communication. In performing one and the same objective action, the subject simultaneously carries out a number of functions: he changes the form of the external object, performs the act of cognitive orientation, and assimilates the socially formed modes of practical and cognitive activity implemented in the object which he uses as an instrument of mediation. The act of communicating a message from one subject to another must not be understood simply as assimilation by the subject of social experiences reified in the given instrument or the act of “de-reification” of the “hidden” modes of activity performed by the subject, a process of decoding the messages sent by the previous generations. In actual fact the assimilation itself of adequate modes of activity involving a socially functioning object is only possible on condition that the subject, in this case the child, is included in the living communicative connection with other persons existing at present, with adults teaching him the human modes of using man-made objects and thereby developing his cultural attitudes and norms, including the standards of cognitive activity. Before the child learns to act on his own, he acts in direct cooperation with an adult (the so-called “joint-but-separate” activity). Thus the relation to the object of activity is here explicitly and visually mediated by the relation to another person.
This process is manifested especially clearly when access to sensory information is sharply limited, as happens, e.g., in the psychical development of blind deaf-and-mute children. Where distant receptors are at work, communication between adult and child involves a considerable amount of the child’s imitative actions which may outwardly appear as manifestations of the child’s spontaneous activity rather than the product and form of communication. In the case of blind deaf-and-mutes, it becomes obvious that psychical processes and functions are modelled or created in the process of joint-but-separate activity of child and adults, an activity in which the social experience of using man-made objects is transmitted to the child. The development of this activity is characterised by a gradual, decrease in the share of the adult’s participation and correspondingly by a growing share of participation and activity of the child, so that ultimately the processes of assimilation of socially developed modes of activity and creative transformation of the objective world begin to function jointly.
Later, at the stage when consciousness has been formed, the direct links between practical activity, cognition, and communication are broken. We have already mentioned that it is not every cognition that is directly connected with discovery of the modes of practical transformation of the object, although a profound inner connection between cognition and practical activity is retained at all levels of knowledge. It is also obvious that a well-developed process of cognition does not at all coincide with the process of communication: the latter is singled out as a separate sphere of activity governed by special laws. Indeed, when I think in my mind, many obvious and customary mental moves are omitted, “swallowed,” as it were, some premises are not formulated explicitly, some search procedures are applied in hidden form, etc. Communication of the results of my cognitive activity implies explicit formulation of many implicit elements (although not all of them, for the possibility of communication presupposes a number of common implicit premises in different individuals), as well as taking into account the interlocutor’s standpoint, the level of his knowledge in the given area, etc.
At the same time it follows from the above that any cognitive activity, whatever the form of its direct subjective givenness, is socially mediated in character as regards the fundamental mechanisms of its implementation; consequently, it always contains the potential for communication, i.e., it is performed not only for oneself but also for any other person included in the given system of socially cultural norms. As we have already noted, that is also true of the cognitive ideas which emerge in consciousness without verbal mediation, for side by side with verbal communication there also exist the more elementary levels of human communication, including such a basic kind of communication as object-oriented activity itself. On the other hand, it is in the process of communication that the inner norms governing the cognitive process appear in the most explicit and developed form. Marx wrote: “But also when I am active scientifically, etc. – an activity which I can seldom perform in direct community with others – then my activity is social, because I perform it as a man. Not only is the material of my activity given to me as a social product (as is even the language in which the thinker is active): my own existence is social activity, and therefore that which I make of myself, I make of myself for society and with the consciousness of myself as a social being.”
For this reason, as far as epistemological inquiry is concerned, that is, the discovery of universal referential meanings, norms, and standards used for production of knowledge, the most suitable material for analysis proves to be the processes, means, and products of communicative activity, in which cognition is expressed in reified, objectified form, rather than the phenomena of consciousness taken by themselves, in which these referential meanings and standards appear transformed, in hidden form, as it were, and are not always sufficiently apparent for the subject himself. This idea should be explained in some detail. Let us note first of all that in epistemological analysis the process of communication is not studied in all its complexity and multidimensionality: this task can only be solved through coordination of the efforts of a number of sciences, including information theory, semiotics, psychology, psycholinguistics, social psychology, sociology, etc. In communicative activity, epistemology singles out only that aspect which has a direct bearing on it: reified, objectified, universal norms and standards of production and evaluation of knowledge. Strictly speaking, epistemology does not therefore study the living process of communication itself but some universal conditions of its possibility relative to transmission of knowledge. Inasmuch as these conditions are implemented in the process of transmission itself, the latter provides empirical data for epistemological analysis (that assumes, rather than excludes, interaction between epistemology and the specialised sciences studying both communicative processes and the mechanisms of cognition).
Let us further note that in the light of Marxist philosophy communication of knowledge presupposes objectification of knowledge not only in the form of texts or utterances but also of man-made objects carrying socio-cultural meaning. Epistemology therefore must analyse object-oriented activity in the unity of its practical-transformative, cognitive and communicative functions, as the basis of the entire cognitive process. At the same time epistemology must consider, without fail, the givenness of referential meanings in consciousness, if only because object-related activity corresponding to some of the deep-lying cognitive standards (in particular, perceptive object-hypotheses) has so far been quite inadequately studied in science, and we have no modes of establishing the content of these meanings other than through the data of consciousness.
Thus Marxist-Leninist epistemology radically re-orientates the traditional epistemological range of problems, fundamentally changing the mode itself of specifying and investigating them. The starting point of analysis of cognition is understood as investigation of functioning and development of systems of collective, inter-subjective activity, and not as the study of the relation of an individual subject (whether organism or consciousness) to the opposing object. The inter-subjective activity is based on practical transformation of external objects. Cognitive reflection and communication are realised in close unity with transformation of objects. Transformative and cognitive activity assumes the creation of a whole world of socially functioning “artificial” mediator objects in which the social experience of transformative and cognitive activity is objectified. The individual subject himself as the subject of consciousness and cognition emerges only insofar as he functions as the agent of that activity, i.e. is included in a definite objective system of relations to other subjects, mastering the social modes of activity objectified in the mediator objects. In this sense, both the specifically human cognition, and its subject may be said to be “artificial” products. That does not mean that cognition deals with man’s own creations only and does not reflect the characteristics of real objects existing independently of consciousness, or that the subject is a chimera of the imagination. What is meant here is the fact, fundamental from the positions of Marxist-Leninist epistemology, that the cognitive process, the production of knowledge assumes a breaking away from the organism’s natural relation to the environment and the use of standards that have socio-cultural (and in this sense “artificial”) character.
In the following chapters we shall consider those elements of the cognitive relation the study of which is of special interest in connection with the recent results of the science of science and the methodological analysis of science.