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Activity as a basic category in activity-theoretical research on educational change

Johann Friedrich Herbart is one of the founders of modern pedagogy as an academic study. He is famous for constructing his univcrsalist process theory of learning, which was influential from the latter half of the 19th century to the early 20th century (for a detailed discussion about the uni-versalist process theory of learning, see Engcstrom, 2016b, pp. 12-23). In Outlines of Educational Doctrine, Herbart (1835/1901) offers the following well-known definition regarding the base of pedagogy: “Pedagogics as a science is based on ethics and psychology. The former points out the goal of education; the latter the way, the means, and the obstacles” (p. 2).

In this way, Herbart placed empirical sciences, such as psychology, at one side of the core of pedagogy, and normative studies, such as ethics, at the other. In his article “Philosophy and Education,” KitarO Nishida (1933), the greatest creative philosopher in modern Japan at the time, when Western philosophy first began making its way into the country, raised the following fundamental inquiries regarding Herbart’s stipulation:

If pedagogy is provided with its goals from ethics, its means from psychology and physiology, etc., then the only conclusion is that pedagogy loses its distinctiveness. We can consider pedagogy to be a technique that does not possess its own uniqueness.

(P- 4)

Nishida (1933) says that without the ability to derive the education goals from ethics and psychology that Herbart discussed, these cannot form a base for pedagogy.

However, education goals cannot be attained from these types of study [the empirical sciences of psychology, physiology, and sociology]. We cannot know what should be simply from what is, nor does the matter of what must be done simply appear into existence. Perhaps ethics forms the base of pedagogy, then. ... [Education ideals are not simply moral standards. Education ideals are not the matter of what actions a person must take in general, but, I believe instead, the matter of what human beings should be in our concrete actuality. In pedagogy, the question is not which actions are good to take and which actions are bad, but, how a human being in our actuality should be formed, rather.

(pp. 3-4)

Thus, regarding the fundamental inquiry of “what kind of study is pedagogy,” as well as the matter of how pedagogy is unique, Nishida notes that these issues were never addressed by Herbart, who placed general and abstract norms of human existence at the base of education. Nishida adds that the question of “how a human being in our actuality should be formed” is what is unique to pedagogy. Nishida (1933) offered the following explanation, drawing an analogy between pedagogy and aesthetics:

I think that we can consider this to be a study of creative actions and formative actions, separate from the study of laws and norms. For example, we can consider aesthetics to be a normative type of study, one that carries meaning that differs from that of logic or ethics.

I think that we can consider education as well to be a type of formative action. As a sculptor creates sculptures, an educator forms human beings. Formation is objectively creating something from an Idea;1 it is the realization of something that is an Idea.

(p. 5)

In this manner, Nishida specifics “creative action” and “formative action” as the unique objects of pedagogy, distinct from other types of academic study, in which educators form human beings. This formative action that he discusses is not the construction of an object via a subject. Rather, Nishida states that formative action is the dialectical process of finding out and creating, via the ideas given societally and historically, a new self that enables a subject to go beyond and deny the current self. There is no dualistic separation of object vs. subject, outside vs. inside, society and history vs. the human world. Instead, there are mutual connections, mutual penetration, and relationships that are mutually opposed to each other but simultaneously unify into a whole. Nishida (1933) explains this point as follows:

This kind of formative action is inconceivable from the standpoint of idealism, where a subject is simply viewed at the base of an object. So long as we look at the subjective construction of some type of meaning at the base of the object, we will find no meaning in objective construction aside from the construction of the objective via the subject. For true formative action, we require imperatives at the base of objective things. Nay, there must be something objective to create us.


Here, Nishida approaches the position of idealism (cognitivism)—where the object is constructed via the subject, with the dualistic separation of human beings into a simple cognitive subject (intellectual self) on the one hand, and the societal and historical world of actuality simply being an object on the other—critiquing it as not being able to grasp the meaning of human formation. From this position, it is because “something objective to create us,” in other words, creative action, is not found. Creative action is a process where the subjective and the objective have a monistic connection, with mutual penetration and mutual determination (negation) occurring, and where these become moments for the generation of the new. Thus, Nishida (1933) states that pedagogy possesses unique problem areas in its establishment as a type of discipline; it does not have an empirical science-dependent framework of “objectification of subject” that is removed from the actual world, but instead the formative action of “subjectification of the object.”

I believe that this may be considered a discipline that focuses on these societal and historical Ideas, separate from what may be considered a discipline on law debating casual relationships and discipline of abstract general norms. This is something that cannot be derived just from the law of causality or just from general norms. In the discipline that focuses on these societal and historical Ideas, we ourselves must be found to be societal and historical existences that engage in work in the actual world.

(P- 7)

Nishida’s (1933) definition of education as “socictally and historically determined formative actions” (p. 9) is fundamentally based on his own unique understanding of Karl Marx’s (1976) “Theses on Feuerbach,” which he repeatedly cites, and in particular the first thesis, mentioned below. In fact, Nishida (1933) says “education should be a departure from actual practice” (p. 16).

The chief defect of all previous materialism ... is that things (Gegen-stand), 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.

(Marx, 1976, p. 3)

Here, Marx critiques the rcductionism present in both crude materialism and idealism, which dualistically place human beings in opposition, as well as separate them and the actual world, seeing “things (Gegenstand), reality, sensuousness” as “only in the form of the object, or of contemplation." The former reduces things to mere objects that are separated from subjects and cannot be subjectively perceived. In the latter, things are reduced to subjects separated from objects, meaning that things can be considered abstractly consistent with one’s consciousness. Here, Marx extensively critiqued the one-sided standpoint that can be seen in both crude materialism and idealism, namely, the state of the modern Western intellect from the time of Rene Descartes forward, which dualistically separates and isolates subjects and objects. This new foundational category of worldview overcomes the dualism; in other words, “sensuous human activity” and “practice” unify and integrate subjects and objects.

The fundamental influence of these concepts of sensuous human activity and practice of Marx’s on Nishida was to allow Nishida (1935/2012) himself to discover the concept of “active intuition” based on a monistic standpoint, which went beyond the dualism of objects and subjects. He defines it follows:

TO SPEAK OF THE STANDPOINT of intentional action is to say that inside is outside and outside is inside.... Thus, we see things on the basis of intentional action; the thing determines the self, and the self determines the thing. And that is active intuition.

(p. 81)

Nishida (1935/2012) maintains his presumption throughout that “[t] he subject and the objective are necessarily and in all respects mutually opposed; thing and consciousness differ utterly from each other” (p. 79). However, his concept of active intuition attempts to clarify “the active world in which inside is outside and outside is inside” (p. 82), in the sense of the union into a single whole of and mutual penetration of subject and object, and of inside and outside, which are contradictory and do not have such a direct connection. Thus, what do “inside is outside” and “outside is inside” here mean?

We might find an answer for this inquiry by superimposing Nishida’s concept of active intuition with Marx’s concept of sensuous human activity. As far as the overlapping aspects of the two concepts, we begin by recognizing the following: As human beings, we are not isolated subjects, separated from the world and viewing it from the outside; instead, we exist together with the actual world, take actions toward target objects within it, and arc inseparably entangled with things. In short, the things in the actual world arc not mere objects of our contemplation and intuition but are subjectively produced via human activity. Consequently, via object-oriented activities, the world of things outside human beings is made from the goals and needs of activities that are inside human beings. Thus, outside is formed as an expression of inside. Inside appears outside, and we see inside on the outside. Inside becomes outside, combining with it to form a whole.

Then again, things that arc made as objects by us in this way call to mind, mobilize, and make subject activities. To use Nishida’s (1938/2012) own words, “what is made becomes what makes; what is created becomes what creates” (p. 149). In short, in object-oriented activities, the inside world is formed through expressive actions of the outside world. Outside appears inside, and we see the outside on the inside. Outside combines with inside to form a whole.

Nishida (1936/2012) perceived this dialectical mutual formation of subject and object in these human object-oriented activities with the concept of poiesis as follows:

[T]rue acting is poiesis. Our acting entails a changing of the external world, a making of things. And further, things that have been made arc independent things; as things (mono), they delimit us. In addition, the thing is also something that defines our bodily existence. Our acting is established in this world of things. It goes without saying that it is neither the world of mechanistic matter, nor the world of biological life, nor merely the world of functional matter.

(p. 107)

Nishida referred to this “world of things” where subject and object, human beings and the environment (the actual world) mutually form each other and mutually penetrate. It is not “the world of mechanistic matter,” nor “the world of biological life” nor “the world of functional matter, but instead “the world of historical actuality.” Nishida (1938/2012) explained this as follows:

The world of historical actuality is the world of production, the world of creation. Although to speak of “production” is to say we make things and that the thing is something made by us, it is nevertheless the case that the thing, as an utterly independent thing, conversely affects us and, indeed, that the acting itself by which we make things is born of the world of things. While thing and self arc utterly opposed and utterly contradict each other, the thing affects the self and the self affects thing; as contradictory self-identity, the world itself forms itself, moving in active intuition from the made to the making. As productive elements of the productive world, as creative elements of the creative world, we are the possibility of production.

(p. 144)

Nishida’s rcconccptualization of the world of things can be seen as a paradigm shift to a novel view of human beings as “productive elements of the productive world.” This shares a common ground with the material turn in contemporary philosophy, which is characterized by Alex Levant (2017) as follows:

The material turn in contemporary philosophy signals at once a departure from the linguistic turn and a continuation of the latter’s critique of

Enlightenment conceptions of the human. By decentering the human, it seeks to free the lens of inquiry from its privileged position as the perspective of human subjects at the center of a world of objects. The material turn repositions the human as embedded in a larger living and thinking material world.

(p. 252)

Evald Ilyenkov, a Marxian dialectic philosopher in the Soviet Union during the post-Stalin period, made extremely important contributions to the creation and development of activity theory in the field of philosophy. He made his approach based on original and unique conceptualizations relating to “the ideal,” with thinking similar to Nishida’s “the productive world.”

“The ideal” is an immaterial phenomenon that exists only in the imagination, and it is deemed to be certainly neither real nor actual. Examples include images and ideas, models, concepts, visions, laws and customs, morals and obligations, and mathematical truths. Ilyenkov (1977) considers the general understanding of the ideal as “[T]he word ‘ideal’ is used today mainly as a synonym for ‘conceivable’, as the name for phenomena that are ‘immanent in the consciousness’, phenomena that arc represented, imagined or thought” (p. 71).

In other words, in this ordinary understanding, the ideal is captured after being reduced to the subjective consciousness, and it is separate from the world of things outside of it. Ilyenkov (1977) continues:

If we accept this fairly stable connotation, it follows that there is no point in talking about any “ideality” of phenomena existing outside human consciousness. Given this definition, everything that exists “outside the consciousness” and is perceived as existing outside it is a material and only a material object.


Thus, Ilyenkov criticizes and seeks to go beyond the dualist stance that views the ideal as separate from things, or in other words, the stance that treats the ideal as merely a copy of the object or considers it as merely something that coincides with an abstract subjective consciousness. Ilyenkov names this new understanding “the dialectic of the ideal.” With his understanding through the dialectic of the ideal, Ilyenkov (1977) views the dialectical relationship in which human beings (the subject) and the environment (the object) make and are made by each other in a world where they have been unified as follows, just as Nishida does:

The ideal form is a form of a thing, but a form that is outside the thing, and is to be found in man as a form of his dynamic life activity, as goals and needs. Or conversely, it is a form of man’s life activity, but outside man, in the form of the thing he creates. “Ideality” as suchexists only in the constant succession and replacement of these two forms of its “external embodiment” and does not coincide with either of them taken separately. It exists only through the unceasing process of the transformation of the form of activity—into the form of a thing and back—the form of a thing into the form of activity (of social man, of course).

(p. 98)

The ideal here does not belong to the subject or the environment, but it is understood as the form of object-oriented human activity in which the subject and the environment are integrated and transform each other. This dialectical understanding of the ideal by Ilyenkov aligns with the following method in Das Kapital, in which Marx (1867/1990) himself claims to have inverted the Hegelian dialectical method:

My dialectical method is, in its foundations, not only different from the Hegelian, but exactly opposite to it. For Hegel, the process of thinking, which he even transforms into an independent subject, under the name of ‘the Idea’, is the creator of the real world, and the real world is only the external appearance of the idea. With me, the reverse is true: the ideal is nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man, and translated into forms of thought.

(p. 102)

In the Marxian dialectical method, which inverts the Hegelian dialectic by “standing [it] on its head” (Marx, 1867/1990, p. 103), the ideal is not something created by thought, but conversely is the transformation of the material into thought through object-oriented human activity.

For example, Ilyenkov derives the dialectic of the ideal from none other than Marx’s theory of the value-form of a commodity in Das Kapital. Marx (1867/1990) places the issue of the value-form of a commodity at the starting point of an overall analysis of the capitalist form of society. Given this, the relationship between two commodities, as in “20 yards of linen are worth 1 coat,” is mentioned initially as “the simple, isolated, or accidental form of value” (p. 139). As Marx describes it, “The whole mystery of the form of value lies hidden in this simple form” (p. 139).

In this value-form, a commodity comes into the world as a “natural form,” like linen. However, what is the value that causes this natural form to possess value in the first place? Commodities such as natural forms, like linen, arc sensuous objects that can be seen with the eyes and touched with the hands, and they are quantifiable. On the other hand, the value of linen as a commodity can neither be seen nor touched. This is why Marx (1867/1990) raises the question:

Not an atom of matter enters into the objectivity of commodities as values; in this, it is the direct opposite of the coarsely sensuous objectivity of commodities as physical objects. We may twist and turn a single commodity as we wish; it remains impossible to grasp it as a thing possessing value.

(p. 138)

The value is the ideal. However, as Ilyenkov (1977) says, the ideality of the value-form exists not in the fact that it “represents a mental phenomenon existing only in the brain of the commodity-owner or theoretician” (p. 85). With the value-form of “20 yards of linen are worth 1 coat,” the natural form of a coat, which is a material thing and can be touched, is something with a form that represents the value of a completely different thing: linen. In other words, the value-form is the ideal and its ideality can only be viewed in this relationship between two commodities: “The value of the linen is represented, expressed, ‘embodied’ in the form of a coat, and the form of the coat is the ‘ideal or represented form’ of the value of the linen” (p. 85).

Accordingly, on the above questions—what is the value of a commodity, and how can a commodity as a natural form have a value-form—Marx’s (1867/1990) response to this “mystery” is the following:

[L]et us remember that commodities possess an objective character as values only in so far as they arc all expressions of an identical social substance, human labour, that their objective character as values is therefore purely social. From this, it follows self-evidently that it can only appear in the social relation between commodity and commodity.

(pp. 138-139)

As a use-value, the linen is something palpably different from the coat; as value, it is identical with the coat, and therefore looks like the coat. Thus the linen acquires a value-form different from its natural form. Its existence as value is manifested in its equality with the coat, just as the sheep-like nature of the Christian is shown in his resemblance to the Lamb of God.

(p. 143)

In this way, a commodity in its natural form cannot express its value by itself alone. The values of commodities arc generated through their relationships with and determinations upon each other in the sphere external to each commodity. The value of the linen is represented, expressed, embodied, and externalized in its social relation with the coat, which is external to the linen and is a natural form of a thing that can be touched. Marx (1867/1990) summarizes this as follows: “By means of the value-relation, therefore, the natural form of commodity B becomes the value-form of commodity A, in other words, the physical body of commodity B becomes a mirror for the value of commodity A” (p. 144).

Thus, the value-form of a commodity is a completely objective relationship external to the commodity, which differs from its material form. In the sense that it is completely different from the form of a thing that can be touched, the value-form of a commodity is ideal. Based on Marx’s theory of the value-form, Ilyenkov (1977) states the question of what the substance of the ideal is and how it generates and moves as follows:

What is this “other”, this difference, which is expressed or represented here? People’s consciousness? Their will? By no means. On the contrary, both will and consciousness arc determined by this objective ideal form, and the thing that it expresses, “represents” is a definite social relationship between people which in their eyes assumes the fantastic form of a relationship between things.

In other words, what is “represented” here as a thing is the form of people’s activity, the form of life activity which they perform together, which has taken shape “behind the back of consciousness” and is materially established in the form of the relationship between things describes above.

(p. 86)

Namely, what is expressed, as the substance of the ideal is a particular social human activity by real human beings in which they collectively collaborate with others, or, to put it more simply, a particular life activity. The expression of the form of this human activity in things is none other than ideality. Marx (1867/1990) states that value, which is ideal, is an expression of a form of the social human activity called exchange, which exists behind the back of consciousness as follows:

Men do not therefore bring the products of their labour into relation with each other as values because they sec these objects merely as the material integuments of homogeneous human labour. The reverse is true: by equating their different products to each other in exchange as values, they equate their different kinds of labour as human labour. They do this without being aware of it. Value, therefore, does not have its description branded on its forehead; it rather transforms every product of labour into social hieroglyphic.

(pp. 166-167)

Thus, the ideal does not exist within the brain of a single individual. Moreover, it does not exist in material things that can be seen and touched. In other words, it is not something that either human beings (the subject) or the environment (the object) can create on their own. As mentioned above, Nishida asserts that poiesis and creation can occur due to the relationship between the subject and the environment. This gives rise to the dialectical creation process in which the subject and the environment come together, with the subject making the environment and the environment making the subject. As referenced before, this world in which the subject and the environment arc as one is what Nishida (1938/2012, p. 144) calls “the world of historical actuality,” “the world of production,” or “the world of creation.” This is truly the world produced by Marx’s (1976, p. 3) “sensuous human activity, practice," in which the subject and the environment are bound as one via practice.

As previously shown, Nishida (1938/2012, p. 144) describes us as “creative elements of the creative world,” as beings in the historical world that are born, live, work, and die there. In that sense, we are beings with living, working bodies that create things in the world and are moved by those things. Nishida (1935/2012) views the bodies of human beings within that historical actuality thus: “The body I speak of here is not simply the biological body; it is the body of expressive activity, which means the historical body” (p. 121).

The human body referred to as the “historical body” here can be considered to indicate the subject of history-making activities that connect us and things into one, in which things are created through our expression, and conversely, the created things approach and create us as expressions, as “the body of expressive activity.” Since human beings arc bodily beings that live and work in the historical world, they go beyond atomistic, isolated self-consciousness and have creative potential as “creative elements of the creative world” (Nishida, 1938/2012, p. 144).

This discussion—that is, the investigation into the human being having a historical body in a historical world as the creative world in which human beings and the environment have become one—leads Nishida (1933) to consider the question of “what kind of study is pedagogy,” that is, “how pedagogy is unique,” as discussed above. At the risk of repetition, we note that Nishida holds that the unique object domain of pedagogy, which is neither empirical science (the study of laws) nor ethics (the study of norms), lies in the formative actions of a human being based on “societal and historical Ideas,” rather than general and abstract norms, or the formation of a concrete, actual human being by an educator in the historical world. To restate, Nishida holds that the creativity of the human being with a historical body who is born, lives, and works within a particular, concrete history—that is, the formation of the concrete creativity of a person who works creatively as an element, an operator, a moment in the creation of a particular world of historical actuality—is the problem that pedagogy should attend to. Nishida’s thinking that looking at the societal and historical formation of the human being in the creative world, where the human being and the environment have become one, is the uniqueness of pedagogy, which resonates with Lev Vygotsky’s (1934/1987) problem setting in child psychology:

The task of psychology ... is not the discovery of the eternal child. The task of psychology is the discovery of the historical child, of what Goethe called the transitory child. The stone that the builders have disdained must become the foundation stone.


Instead of finding universal truths and norms regarding the human being, both Nishida and Vygotsky attempt to discover the human being embodied and formed in socio-historical contexts. Therefore, their common idea of the socio-historical formation of human beings is connected at a fundamental level with the third thesis of Marx’s (1976) “Theses on Feuerbach’’ as follows:

The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator must himself be educated. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.

The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.

(P- 4)

The human being cannot be formed by the environment (the object) or the educator (the subject) alone, but from the relationship between them. In other words, the human being is formed as the educator changes the environment by creating it, and the environment educates educators by creating them. As Nishida (1933) says, this formation of the human being occurs through the mediation of and in contact with a “societal and historical Idea,” that is, the societal and historical orientation of creation, in which the world where the subject and the environment have become one changes into a new world. In this way, human creativity flourishes as a creative element of the historical world.

The “societal and historical Idea” that Nishida refers to here is probably the same as Ilyenkov’s (1977) “ideal.” It is not created within an isolated individual’s subjective consciousness. In fact, the form of “human activity” as described by Marx (1976, p. 4) that dialectically connects “the changing of circumstances” and “self-change” into one, or in other words, that which objectively expresses the form of dialectical creation of the subject, the creation of the environment, and being created by each other, is the ideal. This being the case, education as human formation could be said to be the formation by the educator of a concrete, actual human being who lives within a particular history based on this Idea, that is, the form of human activity. It refers to the concrete, objective expression of human creativity, while being given an orientation and mediated by the Idea.

In that case, what is the Idea that gives the orientation to education as an intervention in the historical formation of the human being in modern society', that is, the form of human activity'? As discussed in Section 1 of this chapter, it is the form of activity that shapes human beings, which overcomes the contradictions aggravating competitive education based on individual self-interest. It is collectively engaged in building the newly emerging common good, such as equity' or sustainability, in a historical world facing humanitarian and environmental crises threatening the survival of human beings.

This book seeks to depict educational research using activity theory, which connects and integrates the historical formation of the human being with the expansion of human creativity based on Marx’s (1976, p. 3) “sensuous human activity, practice." The category of human activity illuminated in this section could be considered a mostly centralized, theoretical idea when practically situating education as a participatory and collaborative intervention in the formation of the human being. Human activity is the central concept of activity theory, which connects the human subject and the objective world into one and views the object subjectively. In this way, activity theory is a theory and research methodology that is radically engaged in practical creation by human beings. It is based on an ethos that emancipates the human potential for creativity and under which human beings become the agents that creatively change the world, as revealed through analysis of concrete, detailed empirical data in the following chapters.

Underlying activity' theory is the idea that people arc active creators and producers of their own lives and activities. Activity' theory is a theory and research methodology that essentially advocates and trusts that people have the open potential for overcoming real-life difficulties and conflicts as well as the contradictions inherent in each of the activity systems. In other words, it is a theory that explores the dialectical development of people and societies, turning the existing real contradictions embedded in the current situation into driving forces and opening up the potential for the future by making history.

Based on the framework of activity theory, this book investigates how education and schools, which enable and support children and young people so as to make their inestimable and multifaceted developmental potential flourish, can be envisioned. This book is an activity-theoretical study on such education and schools that understand, respect, and trust all children and young people as irreplaceable human beings with the desire to live better and whose potentialities cannot be predetermined.

The equity of education fluctuates in Japan today. Fierce competitiveness has become dominant, and the gap between socially advantaged and disadvantaged children, as well as young people, manifests as deprivation of opportunities for high-quality' and equitable learning (for an argument regarding the growing inequity' of Japanese education since the 1990s, demonstrated through empirical sociological analysis, see Kariya, 2013). This book pursues the realization of education and of schools for the expansive learning of children and young people through which all children and young people, with their different and diverse developmental potentials, equitably enjoy opportunities to independently create learning activities through collaboration among participants and to enhance their personal creativities as much as possible. Thus, education and schools for expansive learning are nothing less than the idea of gradually realizing the dream of egalitarian education and schools through the now-existing premises and contradictions of our real society.


1 Nishida uses the German term Idee in his article, but this is to raise awareness of it as Plato’s term. Here, I have capitalized the English term to indicate that it has the Platonic meaning.

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