Feliks Mikhailov
The Riddle of the Self

2. The Language of Real Life

I have mentioned language as one of the modes and results of the activity and forms of intercourse that mediate man’s relation to the world and make it conscious (carried out with knowledge). Now the time has come to say that language is indeed the first among equals in the family of these modes, results and forms. It thus deserves special consideration. As in other cases, the history of the development of this most important “instrument” of human activity will help to tell us what it actually is. But this brings us back to the problem of man’s origin.

There is much that is controversial and hypothetical in the literature on man’s first steps in becoming a human being. But it is indisputable that one of the less promising branches of the biological adaptation of the anthropoids turned out to be unexpectedly viable. And, as I have suggested already, not because of the mechanisms of selection classically associated with biological adaptation and species-forming, but rather despite of them. The very thing that according to the laws of biology condemned this “branch” to extinction became the main factor of its non-biological development.

Judging from what we know of the australopithecine apes, the characteristic features of our animal ancestors were the herd instinct, certain forms of division according to age and sex of the most important vital functions among individuals within the herd and, consequently, certain species-specific, genetically established modes of intra-herd signal communication and, finally, manipulation of objects of nature (bones, rocks) in various situations. Given smooth evolutionary development, these factors of our animal ancestors life-activity could only help them adapt as a species. But they could not turn the herd into society, herd signalling into language, or manipulation into a process of production.

It is a fact that heredity reinforces the influence of these factors on the preservation of the species. But this turns the herd instinct into an ecological factor demanded by the organism, intra-herd signalling into a specific means of preserving the division of certain vital functions according to age and sex, and situational manipulation of natural objects into a peculiarity of the animals of the given species. [1] As Henri Wallon has stressed, “if the organism were capable of fixing such systems (he has in mind the action-instrument system.-F. M.) would not the biological stability of the fixed systems be an obstacle to the rapid development of the techniques without which human history would have been impossible?”

But, as I have suggested, the organism of our animal ancestors proved at some point in its development unable to establish the successful manipulations with rocks, sticks or bones, as a structure specific to its species. The highest anthropoids are already incapable of becoming “tool-using” animals, that is, animals whose organisms are biologically adapted to goal-oriented actions with specific objects. Their life-activity, regulated by the “situational intellect”, is a form of active adaptation which presupposes broad opportunities for seeking and using the most diverse objects within the limits of a given situation. Our most remote ancestors, the still extant primates, display total incapacity for heredity fixation of any “instrumental” actions. It is better for them within the bounds of a constantly changing situation to find a new way of using the ready-made “tool” (object of nature) than to establish the old way genetically, thus compelling the species to “renounce” the broad opportunities of manipulating objects that save them in moments of crisis.

If one assumes that one of the branches of the evolving order of primates several million years ago found itself in a prolonged ecological situation (change of climate, development of steppe and forest steppe territories, etc.) requiring constant use of auxiliary “instruments” of action, one faces the paradoxical situation in which the “tool-using”, “instrumental” means of the interrelation with nature, vital though it was in sustaining life, could not be fixed hereditarily and could not yield a new population adapted to the given conditions. And biological evolution had not produced any other forms of inheriting the modes of life-activity. On the other hand, the biological instability of the vitally important “tool-using” actions keeps such a species on the brink of extinction. It is possible that the sad fate of the Australopithecus, the giant pithecus, the Zinjanthropus and pre-Zinjanthropus is due to this, and this is why I spoke earlier of adaptation as a closed, rather than open-ended line of development. The point is that all animals without exception inherit the “programme” of their activity biologically. The process of the origin of their species is recorded in the morpho-physiological organisation of each individual of the given population. The animal’s bodily activity “demands” certain vital conditions and substances of nature and the animal seeks them actively and finds itself an environment, a habitat, peculiar to its species. The organism of the individual is the “instrument” of the adaptation of the species. But in so doing the animal inherits and “finds” in itself not only the programme of its life-activity but also the main, essential (and often sufficient) means of realising this programme: its own organs and the ready-made mode of using them.

In man, on the other hand, we encounter a diametrically opposite mode of inheritance. Man inherits part of the “species programme” of life-activity, but the greater part (and precisely the specifically human part) is geared into the “mechanisms” of his life by his mastering the objectified means of culture in intercourse with other people. He even develops his bodily needs and abilities in the process of mastering the historical ways and means of activity and intercourse, such as the need for communication, for prepared food, for “instruments” to consume it with, for objects that provide for the human functioning of his organs, creating the conditions for normal sleep, rest, labour, and so on. And, particularly important, the infinitely diverse and infinitely developing means of realising the inherited “programmes” of life-activity are acquired only in the form of the socially significant instruments of activity and intercourse created by the labour of previous generations.

Academician N. P. Dubinin writes: “The possibilities of human cultural growth are endless. This growth is not imprinted in the genes. It is quite obvious that if the children of contemporary parents were deprived from birth of the conditions of contemporary culture, they would remain at the level of our most remote ancestors who lived tens of thousands of years ago. Whereas the children of such “primitive people” placed in the conditions of contemporary culture would rise to the heights of contemporary man.” [2]

But this means that the very foundations of the life of man and that of the animals are diametrically opposed. In order to survive, the animal must carry in its body both its “programme” and the means of realising it. Man, on the other hand, must possess a human organic body capable of mastering as it goes along any historically developed “programme” and the means of its realisation. And for this reason the genetic fixation of any given mode of activity and intercourse (and biological evolution has no other means of ensuring survival of the species) would spell death for man.

This is why man cannot be assumed to have developed from the biological realm by purely quantitative evolutionary changes in the modes of life of his animal ancestors. The foundation and origin of the new process, the process of non-biological survival excludes biological means and fundamentally changes and subordinates them to itself. Here we are confronted with a clear contradiction between the need to use unprocessed, ready-made objects of nature as the ecological situation demands and the impossibility of genetically fixing the skills thus acquired, a contradiction that can be resolved only by the disappearance of the given species or the birth of a new way of inheriting the habits and skills of life-sustaining activity. And if we could assume that our animal ancestors “found” a way of fixing, preserving and transmitting from generation to generation the skills of “tool-using” action, then we could also assume that man might have appeared on our planet in this way. But, as we have seen, this departure would have been, to put it mildly, extremely unusual for the animal world. It would have to be a way that did not depend on the genetic “code” of the given species, that did not predetermine any link between the animal and one particular instrument or skill, and that was not expressed (objectified) either in the inherited structure of the organism or in any form of “instrument”.

However, such an unusual biological mechanism of heredity does exist. And we, human beings, have it. People inherit the modes of their life-activity by becoming involved in the already existing, fairly stable forms of intercourse and, in doing so, master the objectified means of intercourse (in particular, language).

If our remote animal ancestors in the process of their common struggle for survival had been able to preserve both the objectified means of their interaction and the skills of “instrumental” action they had found in this or that situation, the further development of this new, non-biological mode of inheriting would have become our history. But this is something that cannot be “found” either in the form of the objects our ancestors were compelled to manipulate, or in the organic needs and “abilities” of their bodies, or in actual action with objects conditioned by situation and biological needs. It can only be assumed that the “substance” in which the skills of “instrumental” action were imprinted was a special interconnection between individuals acting together with the help of “instruments”, an interconnection that destroyed and superseded the old system of the herd, with its divisions of sex and age.

You will say that such an ephemeral “substance” could easily disintegrate, and did disintegrate, as soon as the biological impulses of joint (herd) action ceased to function. But at this point I must draw attention to something that is not apparent at first sight.

The objectified means of intercourse in the herd, regulated by sex and age, by biological stimuli are again organic bodily means possessed by each individual: gestures, poses, smells, “vital sounds” (grunting, bellowing, etc.), affective cries. This is, in effect, the “language” of species needs, generated in a broad range of orientational, searching and similar actions – what Wallon calls the “situational intellect” and Pavlov the “objectified thought” of animals. The “language” and “thought” of animals are therefore strictly species-specific. They can he changed only by a change in species characteristics (genetically inherited and fixed in the body mechanisms) of a new population. But that which is in principle excluded in the world of biological laws becomes the main and necessary condition of the existence and development of human history. [3] The need for external (in relation to the individual’s bodily organisation) inheritance of changes in the structure of intercourse may be connected only with other (outside the body) organs of life-activity in general and interconnection between individuals in particular. Such external “organs” of life-activity (and intercourse) which objectify, objectively embody the stimulus of interaction are those same “instruments” or “tools”, that is, the objects of nature, such as the bones of large animals, stones, and so on.

The not immediately apparent circumstance I mentioned earlier lies in the fact that the unprocessed object of nature (not yet a proper instrument or tool, because not purposely made before use) may turn out in the situation described to be primarily an instrument of intercourse. To be more exact, an objectified means of intercourse of a type (natural “design”) that serves as a signal for joint action performed in a certain order. This is particularly likely as the shin-bones and horns, for example, which man’s animal ancestor did not create or mould beforehand, acquire a rather uniform shape in the process of use. [4] The “language” that stimulated our ancestors to undertake joint activity could have included these “words” made out of bone. And while “language without bones” generated affective sounds expressing the species-specific bodily needs, the “language of bones” assumed the function of stimulator and regulator of joint actions.

There are probably some grounds for the attempt to view the “instrument” of the Australopithecus or the Zinjanthropus not only as the extension of a natural organ (the hand) but also as an objectified form of fixation of joint modes of action (hunting, defence, etc.). Anyway it is not in doubt that not only at the very beginning (even before man’s first steps), but throughout his history all objects of culture have performed the function of means of intercourse. There is no object of culture that has not been a stimulus and means of human intercourse. The “language of human intercourse” embraces words, architecture, music, tools, means of transport and much else besides.

But here is the interesting point! Language – a specific, outstanding and relatively self-sufficient “specialised” means of intercourse – is sometimes regarded only as a “symbol system” with its own special place among other social phenomena, with its own functions dependent on structure, although still, of course, connected with other social phenomena. We will recall that for Russell, too, language was a depersonalised social means of preserving and circulating (in the speech of individuals) the knowledge accumulated by mankind. Language has therefore always been associated as a self-sufficient “system” either with all the diversity of sensuous perceptions (Russell again), or with thought as a special psychological process, or with other artificial symbol systems. In all such cases the origin of language also appeared to be a self-sufficient process. For example, the process of the evolution of the “symbol system” of means of intercourse within the herd into a system of articulate human speech. With this approach to language (speculatively regarded as a ready-made system participating in all interactions with other social phenomena), language itself, music, painting, the whole arsenal of technical means, are tied up together like a bunch of twigs. But those twigs originally came from the same seed, from one shoot, from the same tree.... Language is a branch like all the other branches that provide for and sustain human intercourse. It is a living branch, growing from the same root and trunk, not severed from them. So perhaps we had better go to the root of the matter? And the root of all human history is, as we know, people’s labour in common using objectified instruments – their labour, their intercourse in activity and activity in intercourse.

The one root of all forms of our ancestors’ human life-activity, the seed that had not yet put up its shoots must have been an “abstract-universal” form of intercourse in activity the “language” of which was all the objective means with which this intercourse arose and took place. But their core, the main vehicle of all acts of intercourse was the “instruments” of these acts themselves.

Marx wrote that the production of ideas and the production of consciousness were originally interwoven in the language of real life. The instruments and objects of labour, as well as all the other objective factors created in the process of labour, establishing and providing for their constant interrelations – these are the main material means of human intercourse. Taken as a whole they do constitute the language of real life, a language in the sense of a system of symbols, each of which – the subject or object of action – unites people, regulates their actions, guides their activity. What is more, this is the only symbol system that does not require any primeval language to build it.

Language began not with a shout but with an action. And the “logic,” of the action impresses itself mainly on “instruments” that have not consciously been processed. But both the intercourse preserved in action and its “language”, freed of the direct control of species-specific instincts, turn out to be, as it were, between our ancestor and the object of his actions. The mode of intercourse and its “instrument” are the mediating link of the relationship. The object of action is thus determined not only by the biological need, but also by the common mode of satisfying it. The objectified “symbol” of the common action in relation to this object is not only the actual biologically significant appearance (shape, colour, smell, etc.) of the object, but also its form when regarded as an “instrument”, which suggests how to “relate” to one another in order to “relate” to the object. The object bears the impress, as it were, of the means of intercourse, the stamp of the “subjective” form of common life-activity, picking out in the body of the object that which it has not yet become but may become if the skill evolved and preserved in the form of the “instrument” is applied to it.

Even in a long bone of a large animal our ancestor could have seen something that was not there but that would be there if it were struck with a stone, and “see” it before the blow was struck. And that “before” becomes fundamentally possible when, and only when, the object has become instead of a mere object of consumption an accepted means of intercourse. An object determined by the language of real life of communicating individuals presents itself to us as something capable of change, as not only “the one” that is perceived here and now, but also as the process of converting it into the expected result of action. But this also means, first, that this is where the making of tools may begin and, second, that this making may be purposeful. The shape that it will assume as a result of these actions is now determined not by the need but by the skill in changing the object preserved in the form and means of intercourse. The expected result (a bone split by a stone in one way and not another) becomes the motive, the stimulus of action and the goal that guides it. It does not matter that for perhaps a million years this goal was preserved as an entirely objective model not floating about freely in the imagination in the form of a purely ideal image. The main thing is that this model obediently reproduced in stone (the famous Chelles chisel. for example) was simultaneously the ideal, the goal, the means and the “word”, for all the meanings of which the object presented itself as an integral process, as a universal. as its objective essence revealed to man. So, despite the individual differences it turns out that in the eyes of those who see the instrument there is something essentially general: the meaning, direction, aim, result of collective action. In direct contact with the social “symbol” – the instrument or object of labour – the main role in the organisation of mental processes is played by the meaning of things [5] objectified in practical activity.

The idea or representation is focussed on the instrument or the object at which the instrument must be directed. And since the image of the object signifies something that goes beyond the frame of instinctive relations to the environment and carries in itself the meaning and aim of the collective action, the individual will experience this image as an external object, and not as his instinctive activity. The thing now has meaning in itself.

This is where the most substantial qualitative leap in the evolution of mental forms and processes takes place. Man at last learns to see the object in the object, to treat it as it deserves and demands, and not as the conservative experience of the species, morphologically and functionally fixed in the organism, dictates. In the eyes of man a stone becomes a stone, and a hare a hare, as they are in reality, regardless of any experience. And this miracle occurs because the “language of real life” has begun to inform those who have learned it, who have learned it through the skills of socialised labour, about the objective significance and aim of every action involving objects, about the object itself that has been drawn into collective action. This was how the “language of real life” restructured the mentality of our remote ancestors.

It looks as if we have reached the source, the birthplace of knowledge, of understanding, and realised once again how limited the view of pre-Marxist materialism was. The individual’s mere contemplation of an object could never have given birth to knowledge. But the use of the object in accord with its natural qualities makes it possible to retain its purpose even as an idea and, hence, the Something that inheres in it and that depends neither on accident nor on appearance.

Now we see primitive man not as a geometrician, not as a philosopher thoughtfully contemplating the repetitive features of things, but as an ignorant savage whose hands, when necessary, are cleverer than his head. These hands perform a task without which there would be no language, no thought, and not even the most brilliant philosophical or mathematical brain. The “language of real life”, in whose dynamic system each member of the tribe was involved, carried the meaning of words that was “carved out of flint” by the hands of preceding generations. So man could contemplate nature only through the prism of all the social work-skills that had been accumulated by his predecessors. People could see the sun as round only because they rounded clay with their hands. With their hands they shaped stone, sharpened its borders, gave it facets. So the meaning of the words “border”, “facet”, “line” does not come from abstracting the general external features of things in the process of contemplation.

But in the collective notions interwoven in the language of real life the essence of the objects themselves is still hidden in the sense-like memory of the mode of action. Here meaning is still not knowledge as such.


1. Compare the ability of elephants to carry trees with their trunks, shower themselves with water, sprinkle themselves and, in a dangerous situation, others with sand, etc. These species-specific abilities objectified in the “structure” of the organism exclude any development that would take them out of their own limits and allow them to manipulate fundamentally different objects successfully.

2. N.P. Dubinin Perpetual Motion. This statement requires amendment that for contemporary children deprived of contemporary culture to maintain the level of culture of our remote ancestors they would have to master the culture as an “inorganic body” of their own life-activity. Outside the intercourse and activity that confronted them (at whatever level) they simply would not be able to survive as people.

3. Thus we are once again convinced that any possibilities of purely evolutionary development of animal “language” into human speech is ruled out precisely by the genetic inheriting of attributes peculiar to the species. Only one condition is needed for articulate human speech-liberation of the modes of its realisation from genetic fixation. Thus a child is born capable of learning language and oral communication, but to be able to realise this ability and develop it there must be a national language not genetically given but historically developed and developing further in active human intercourse.

4 On australopithecine sites Raymond Dart discovered heaps of long bones from large animals, all of approximately the same shape, a shape they could have acquired through situational use as piercing, cutting or striking instruments.

5. How different, indeed opposite, is the Marxist approach to the question of the formation of human mentality from the positions of those committed to an epistemological Robinsonade. Russell, for instance, believes that the meaning that the individual (child or adult) associates with a word “is the product of his personal experience” and only after that does the social superstructure – language – prune away all that is personal in recollection, leaving only the socially significant. The Marxist, on the contrary, stresses that it is the social symbol (and the instruments and object of labour are the first such symbol) which shapes an idea (notion, representation) that is socially significant and generalises the qualities common to a whole class of objects that play an active role in goal-oriented collective action. And after making this or a similar point he will surely add: “Only separate details of the idea can be supplied out of the individual’s personal sensuous experience.” (A.A. Leontyev, op. cit., p. 82.) Even the general in the idea is also formed in the process and out of personal sensuous experience. In the individual’s mentality there is not a single phenomenon determined by social being that is not at the same time deeply personal. And, on the contrary, in the individual mentality each “only” personal perception comes “only” out of the social means of reflection, the chief of which is language.

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