Fred Newman and Lois Holzman

Lev Vygotsky Revolutionary Scientist

Chapter 3. Practice - Vygotsky's tool-and-result methodology and psychology

The search for method becomes one of the most important problems of the entire enterprise of understanding the uniquely human forms of psychological activity. In this case, the method is simultaneously prerequisite and product, the tool and the result of the study. [Vygotsky, Mind and Society, 1978, p. 65]

In their most scientifically and philosophically lucid moments, Marx and Vygotsky, his follower, reject much more than an ill-formed psychological paradigm. Their intellectual challenge is to the entirety of Western thought, including thought about thought. Marx’s writings both assume and imply the invalidity of Aristotelian and scholastic philosophies that came before him, and world views that developed in his time, e.g. rationalism, empiricism, positivism and vulgar materialism (the latter being the simplification and distortion of Marxism that takes the material world as basic and therefore causative). Marx subjected the broad and varied families of concepts associated with these historically interconnected world views to intense scrutiny, using the method he developed – dialectical historical materialism – to challenge the fundamental epistemic (how we know) and ontic (what there is) categories of Western cognition.

Most notably, Marx took on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (out of which, as we have already noted, much of modern psychology grew). He exposed it as being no less metaphysical than any other ‘philosophy’ – German or otherwise. Indeed, Marx challenged the enterprise of philosophy itself, which was dominated in his youth by Hegel and the ‘young Hegelians.’ This was especially true in his early writings, where Marx put forth the premises and process of the revolutionary methodology he was developing.

‘But isn’t Marx’s method of dialectical historical materialism simply another world view, another paradigm, another philosophy?’ every critic of Marx since 1848 has asked. ‘Isn’t a challenge to philosophy, no matter how radical, still a philosophy?’ The Marxian-Vygotskian answer to this apparent contradiction is radically methodological; it challenges how we challenge and introduces a qualitatively different (practice of) method.

For Marx and Vygotsky the object of study and the method of study are practical. By this they did not mean ‘useful’; they were speaking of practical-critical activity, i.e. revolutionary activity. The world historical environment (’scene’) is both spatially and temporally seamless and qualitative, not quantitative; it can only be comprehended by a scientific practice free of interpretive assumptions, or premises. But this by no means implies that it is without premises. Such a scientific practice is, Marx explained, filled with the real premises that are ‘men, not in any fantastic isolation and rigidity, but in their actual, empirically perceptible process of development under definite conditions’. This Marxian method, the method of practice (if not yet the practice of method), not only redefines what science (or any other world view) is to be; it redefines what method is to be.


While the question of method has concerned philosophers since Plato, it was not until the emergence of modern science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that it took center stage in philosophical investigation. Bacon took method to be the key to knowledge as he attempted to subject the tools of observation associated with the newly developing modern science to philosophical scrutiny. Since Bacon’s time, most traditional views on methodology treat or define method as fundamentally separate from experimental content and results, i.e. from that for which it is the method. Indeed, it is considered unscientific to do otherwise. Method is understood and used as something to be applied, a functional means to an end, basically pragmatic or instrumental in character. In sharp contrast, Marx and Vygotsky understand method as something to be practiced – not applied. It is neither a means to an end nor a tool for achieving results. Rather it is, in Vygotsky’s formulation, a ‘tool and result.’ On this view, as Vygotsky tells us, the method is ‘simultaneously prerequisite and product’.

But what does this provocative formulation of Vygotsky’s mean? Indeed, to what are we to appeal in determining what it means? In the language of the early Cole laboratory, what sense of ‘validity’ (not to mention ecology) is (to be) understood in the search for ecological validity? After all, validity, like truth, proof, method, inference, explanation, concept and paradigm, is, so we are told, but one member of a broad family of concepts that are the ontological and epistemological core of Western cognition itself and/or our understanding of Western cognition. Can we use these concepts to determine what tool-and-result means? If we cannot, then what else do we have at our disposal?

Pragmatism, which has emerged as the dominant methodology of the twentieth century, has spent a good deal of energy seeking answers to these questions. Developed in the United States, pragmatism is particularly associated with Peirce and C. I. Lewis (who were oriented toward the philosophy of science) and with Mead, Dewey and William James (all oriented toward psychology and sociology). Pragmatism rejected the dichotomous terms of the two major philosophical traditions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One was empiricism, which took the world and mechanical biological processes to be dominant. The other was rationalism and/or idealism; taking the human mind to be dominant, they ascribed to it enormous power in determining the universe. The pragmatists made a genuine break with the dichotomy of mind and matter by focusing their investigation on the connection between thinking and doing. The term pragmatism was coined by Peirce – from the Greek pragma – act or deed – to emphasise the fact that words acquire their meanings from actions. According to Peirce, meanings are derived from deeds, not intuitions. In fact, there is no meaning separate from the socially constituted conception of its practical impact; a word or idea is meaningless if we cannot conceive of any practical effect relative to that word or idea. For James, the commercialiser of pragmatism (’you must bring out of each word its cash-value’), pragmatism has no content, but is pure method. Oriented toward results and consequences – it is fundamentally instrumentalist – pragmatism does not specify any particular results. Ultimately, the meanings of theories are to be found in their capacity to solve problems.

The pragmatists’ world view has become the principal paradigm of late twentieth-century capitalist science; their answer to the fundamental problems of methodology, particularly of validity, has become dominant in a world where decisions are based by and large on instrumentalist reasoning. This is the case not only philosophically but practically.

Quine offers a sophisticated formulation of pragmatism’s philosophy/methodology in his seminal 1950s work, ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism.’ He employs a ‘core-periphery’ image, in which world view is depicted as a web-like network, with logical and other fundamental ontic and epistemic concepts occupying a core (central) position and immediate sensory experiences (or reports thereof) occupying the most peripheral locations. In between are the complicated practical/ theoretical links which connect the two. The model is meant to illustrate several critical features of pragmatism: (1) the relativity of world views; (2) the relativity within world views (anything might be changed); (3) the interdependence of the varied elements of a world view; and (4) the pragmatic value of preserving the core (or elements closest to it) as opposed to the periphery. For Quine, perhaps the most eloquent of the pragmatist methodologists, decisions as to what alterations should be made to a current conceptual framework or world view in the face of new developments (both large and small) and/or the decision to retain or reject a world view altogether are entirely based on the pragmatic criterion of ‘efficaciousness.’ In an oft-quoted statement Quine succinctly sums up his own methodological world view:

As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future experience in the light of past experience. Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries – not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer. For my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer’s gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter into our conception only as cultural posits. The myth of physical objects is epistemologically superior to most in that it has proved more efficacious than other myths as a device for working a manageable structure into the flux of experience.

On Quine’s pragmatic account, then, the conceptual scheme of science (which is, most would agree, the hegemonic twentieth-century world view) is itself a tool, a tool applied to the ‘flux of experience,’ a tool deemed ‘superior’ by appeal to a pragmatic criterion (efficaciousness). It is, to employ an overused word, a tool that ‘works’ – but not, make careful note, a tool-and-result.


What is a tool, anyway? And what is a conceptual framework, schema or world view? And whatever shall we employ and how shall we employ it in an effort to answer these kinds of questions? What method do we use in finding answers to these most fundamental questions of methodology? From our brief discussion thus far, it should be clear that Quine, Marx and Vygotsky, each in their own ways, appreciated the utter failure of nineteenth- and twentieth-century empiricism to answer such questions and attempted to develop alternatives. For while empirics – systematic observations – are obviously critical in the process of determining what is, empiricism’s self-serving assertion that empirics alone can determine what is has failed to pass many valid tests, including, ironically, the test of empirics the claim that all things can be tested by empirics cannot itself be tested empirically!

The first half of the twentieth century brought one last ditch effort by philosophers/methodologists to synthesise nineteenth-century empiricism and idealism in the pseudo-scientific criterion of verifiability put forth by the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle. Both pragmatism and practice – the only seriously viable alternatives to empiricism – also took shape. Yet revolutionary practice, the methodology created by Marx, was being deformed even in its infancy by revisionist philosophers and politicians who would turn it from a method for transforming all of social reality into a theory for guiding economic development. Pragmatism and the capitalist system with which it is associated have fared better, if not well, during these ninety years. Thus, as we move toward the twenty-first century, a methodological confrontation between the well-funded (albeit deformed) method of pragmatism and its poor relative, the (also deformed) method of practice, unfolds. Even as worse-for-wear capitalism now stands victorious over revisionist Stalinist communism in the domain of practical politics here in the prologue to the twenty-first century, the most basic practical-critical scientific issues of world view and method remain essentially unresolved, with practice and pragmatics the only important players left standing in the world historic contest.

This debate between pragmatism and practice, between method as a tool for result (the pragmatic method) and method as tool-and-result (the method of practice), cuts across the nationalistic, everyday politics of contemporary international society. It does not fit into any neat categories, certainly not the recently deceased dichotomy between capitalism and revisionist communism. The debate is not societal – it is historical. There is good reason to believe that its outcome will determine and be determined by whether or not our species will follow a progressive or regressive direction in the years ahead.

What is the difference between tool for result and tool-and-result? At the risk of seeming ridiculously simplistic, we suggest that the difference may turn on the distinction between the words ‘for’ and ‘and.’


We begin our discussion of the method of practice, seemingly indirectly, by investigating tool. Even in its simple dictionary denotative use (definition), the term ‘tool’ is exceedingly complex. In contemporary industrial society there are at least two different kinds of tools. There are tools that are mass produced (hammers, screwdrivers, power saws, etc.), and there are tools designed and produced typically by tool- and die-makers or tool-makers, i.e. tools specifically and uniquely designed and developed to assist in the development of other products (including, often, other tools). Because the distinction between these two kinds of tool is of such methodological importance, we want to make clear what it is and what it is not. The distinction we are making is not between mass-produced and hand-produced tools, nor between tools when used for the purpose intended by the maker (hammering a nail with a hammer) and tools when used for another purpose (hitting someone over the head with a hammer), nor between tools that remain unchanged in doing a job and tools that are transformed thereby.

Not everything that is needed or wanted by humankind can be made by simply using (applying) the tools that have already been mass manufactured in modern society. Often we must create a tool which is specifically designed to create what we ultimately wish to produce. The tools of the hardware store and the tools of the tool-and die-maker are qualitatively different in a tool for result/tool-and-result sort of way. Hardware store tools, such as hammers, come to be identified and recognised as usable for a certain end, i.e. they become reified and identified with a certain function and, as such, insofar as the manufactured hammer as a social extension (a tool) of human activity comes to define its human user (as all tool use does), it does so in a predetermining sense. Marxists of all persuasions (and many others) accept that tool use impacts on categories of cognition. Tools for results are analogous to (as well as producers of) cognitive equipment (e.g. concepts, ideas, beliefs, attitudes, emotions, intentions, thought and language) that are complete (fully manufactured) and usable for a particular purpose.

The toolmaker’s tool is different in a most important way. While purposeful, it is not categorically distinguishable from the result achieved by its use. Explicitly created for the purpose of helping to make a specific product, it has no reified prefabricated social identity independent of that activity. Indeed, empirically speaking, such tools are typically no more recognisable as tools than the product (often a quasi-tool or small part of a larger product) itself is recognisable as product. They are inseparable. It is the productive activity which defines both – the tool and the product (the result).

Unlike the hammer (the hardware store, manufactured, tool for result tool), this kind of tool – the toolmaker’s tool-and-result – has no completed or generalised identity. Indeed, it typically has no name; it appears in no dictionary or grammar book. Such tools (or, semantically speaking, such a sense of the word ‘tool’) define their human users quite differently from the way hardware store tools, whether of the physical, symbolic or psychological variety, do. The inner cognitive, attitudinal, creative, linguistic tools developed from the toolmaker type of social tools are incomplete, unapplied, unnamed and, perhaps, unnameable. Expressed more positively, they are inseparable from results in that their essential character (their defining feature) is the activity of their development rather than their function. For their function is inseparable from the activity of their development. They are defined in and by the process of their production. This is not to say that such tools and results are without functions. It is, rather, to say that the attempt to define tools and-results by their function (as is the case with tools for results) fundamentally distorts what they are (and, of course, in the process, what definition is).

This issue of tools – and the distinction we are taking such pains to put forth – is of great importance to understanding Vygotsky’s work and the understandings and applications of his work by others. Every Vygotskian of both the revolutionary and reformist variety notes how important the concept of tool is for Vygotsky. But which tool (meaning of tool) do they employ?

In his prologue to the English edition of Volume 1 of The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky (1987) Bruner, who had written an introduction to Vygotsky’s Thought and Language in 1962, addresses the matter of tools:

In the new lectures it is quite evident once again that instrumental action is at the core of Vygotsky’s thinking action that uses both physical and symbolic tools to achieve its ends. The lectures give an account of how, in the end, man uses nature and the tool-kit of culture to gain control of the world and of himself. But there is something new in his treatment of this theme – or perhaps it is my new recognition of something that was there before. For now there is a new emphasis on the manner in which, through using tools, man changes himself and his culture. Vygotsky’s reading of Darwin is strikingly close to that of modern primatology ... which also rests on the argument that human evolution is altered by man-made tools whose use then creates a technical-social way of life. Once that change occurs, ‘natural’ selection becomes dominated by cultural criteria and favours those able to adapt to the tool-using, culture-using way of life. By Vygotsky’s argument, tools, whether practical or symbolic, are initially ‘external’: used outwardly on nature or in communicating with others. But tools affect their users’ language, used first as a communicative tool, finally shapes the minds of those who adapt to its use. It is one of the themes of Vygotskian psychology and his six lectures are dedicated to its explication in the context of human development. His chosen epigraph from Francis Bacon, used in Thought and Language, could not be more apposite:

"neither hand or mind alone suffice; the tools and devices they employ finally shape them".

In our opinion, Bruner is correct in speculating that it is his own ‘new recognition of something that was there before’, rather than there being ‘something new’ in Vygotsky’s treatment of the self-and species-transforming effect of the use of tools, which in fact is basic, although not unique, to Marxism as Vygotsky was well aware. While Marx himself did not develop a new psychology that made use of this recognition, Vygotsky went a substantial way toward doing so. Fundamental to his work was the specification to psychology of the Marxist socio-methodological principle of self- and species-transformation through the use of tools. Tool-and-result psycho-methodology, or toolmaking, is precisely that specification.

Vygotsky’s tool-and-result method is purposeful in the Marxian sense, not, contrary to Bruner’s formulation, in the instrumentalist sense. Vygotsky’s rejection of the causal and/or functional methodological notion of tool or instrument for a purpose or result in favour of the dialectical notion of tool-and-result in the study of human psychology is new and revolutionary. Apparently, Bruner does not see this. Only the denial, whether intended or not, of Vygotsky as a Marxist revolutionary scientist (in contrast to the view of him as a psychologist who quotes Marx) by Bruner and so many others could lead them to miss what Vygotsky brings to his research and, therefore, to miss his advancement of Marxism as a methodology and humanistic science – the method and science of psychology as revolutionary practice.

For both Marx and Vygotsky, revolution was the driving force of history. Marx observes:

... all forms and products of consciousness cannot be dissolved by mental criticism . .. but only by the practical overthrow of the actual social relations which gave rise to this idealistic humbug; that not criticism but revolution is the driving force of history.

Vygotsky, in the passage quoted earlier (p. 9), makes the following clear statement of what he takes scientific revolutionary activity to be:

The scientific mind ... views revolution as the locomotive of history forging ahead at full speed; it regards the revolutionary epoch as a tangible, living embodiment of history. A revolution solves only those tasks which have been raised by history: this proposition holds true equally for revolution in general and for aspects of social and cultural life.

Marx, by no means a psychologist, was concerned with the sociology of history and the science of revolution. One of his most significant discoveries – that the nature of human activity is practical-critical – he took to be a socio-historical fact, not a psychological fact. His concern was the making of revolution. It remained for Vygotsky, in his quest to develop a Marxist psychology – a revolutionary practice that would transform human beings in a post-revolutionary period – to discover the methodological-psychological tool-and-result approach which identifies practical-critical revolutionary activity as what people do. Both the pragmatist Quine and his follower Kuhn, whose positing of ‘paradigm shifts’ as the central ‘structure of scientific revolutions’ has become the major explanatory principle in the history of science (Kuhn, 1962), regard changing an entire world view as a ‘rare’ revolutionary act. The revolutionaries Marx and Vygotsky consider it the practical-critical activity of everyday life.

In our view, the implications of thus standing Quine and the pragmatists on their heads are profound. A synthesis of Marx’s discovery of practical-critical, revolutionary activity and Vygotsky’s tool-and-result methodology yields a new understanding of the psychology of human beings consistent with Marxian and Vygotskian principles. It remains for us and other revolutionary Vygotskians to sketch out and develop this new mode of understanding.

Practical-critical activity transforms the totality of what there is; it is this revolutionary activity that is essentially and specifically human. Such activity ‘overthrows’ the over-determining empiricist, idealist and vulgar materialist pseudo-notion of particular ‘activity’ for a particular end – which in reality, i.e., society, is behaviour. The distinction between changing particulars and changing totalities is vital to understanding tool-and-result methodology and, therefore, revolutionary activity.