Formation of the self in cultural historical theory

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №6 - 2014

Author: Maidansky Andrey, Belgorod State University, Russia

The etymology of the word “personality” stores evidence of the social status of man, the role one performs in society. Also, the word persona denoted cultural guises: pictures of the human face, waxen death masks of ancestors and theatrical masks. In the course of history, the meaning of this word interiorized more and more, until it came together with a notion of some inward spiritual substance, ego.

In cultural historical theory (CHT), personality is defined as an individual microsocium, i.e. the fragment of social relations, culture, which is assimilated and developed by the individual human being. Like everything in the world, each person is unique. There are no two identical persons, as there are no two absolutely identical drops of water or leaves in the forest. But for all the individual peculiarities, there is something common that makes everyone of us a person. What is it, after all?

The presence of body and psyche of the definite biological genus is an absolutely necessary, but insufficient condition. Specifically human, personal qualities appear in the course of our objective communication with other people. In the case when usual human communication is impossible or extremely hampered, the self does not arise. We can see this fact quite well by the example of deaf-blind children, lacking for two main channels of communication with the outside world. Nevertheless, can a deaf-blind child become a human person? History knows such occasions. And in the second half of the XX century in Zagorsk boarding school, directed by Alexandr Meshcheryakov, an effective technology of upbringing the personality in deaf-blind children was elaborated.

Since the middle 60s, the prominent Soviet philosopher Evald Ilyenkov took part in Zagorsk experiment. In his works we find the most profound and logically ordered exposition of the CHT of personality.[1] Ilyenkov is convinced that problems, principles and stages of educating deaf-blind children are the same as in the case with ordinary children. Only the technique of teacher-child communication is specific. The educational process is more laborious and protracted, but at the same time it is most “pure”, since the influence of occasional, extraneous factors is minimal.

The process of forming the specificity of the human psyche is extended in time, especially at the first – decisive – stages, and therefore can be viewed under “time’s magnifying glass”, as if it were being seen in a slow motion film[2].

Using this opportunity, Ilyenkov tries to discern the moment of birth of the ideal in the “natural”, not yet human psyche. He wants to see with his own eyes the most mysterious event in the universe – the origin and emergence of the human self.

In the present case you can see only what has been created by your own hands. Personality cannot emerge by itself here, it must be artificially formed, or be “implanted”, as Ilyenkov expresses it. An ordinary child adopts many things in adults, imitating what he / she sees or hears. A deaf-blind child has to be taught everything: not only to think and speak, but simply to smile or cry. And in the first instance he cannot do what each animal does – he can’t find water and food, even if they are near, right under his nose.

If we take the definition of psyche as a form of search and orientative activity,[3] then it has to be admitted a deaf-blind child lacks for psyche. Ilyenkov never ventures to call them inanimate though, but he comes fairly close to that, characterizing a deaf-blind child, in his natural state, as an “anthropomorphous plant, something like ficus that lives only till one remembers to pour on it”[4].

There is no psyche in the ordinary newborn child as well. Delivering a lecture in the Institute of Genetics, Ilyenkov once called a baby a “piece of meat”, implying its complete inability to the objective activities in the surrounding world. All that we have at birth is organic needs plus purely physiological, “vegetative” functions providing the metabolism. Such is, according to Ilyenkov, the “prehistorical premises” of the emergence of psychic activity. Here is no trace of “soul”, psyche as such. Nevertheless, the first psychical functions and images emerge before long, as if of their own accord, in the course of interaction of the organism with the external objects which are correspond with its needs.

In a deaf-blind child this transition from vegetative to animal mode of life, from irritability to psyche, i.e. to search and orientative activity, may occur only artificially, with the help of a teacher. The latter is due to compensate the lack of two most important preconditions of psyche – vision and hearing. For the human being it is principal regulators of objective activity, and herewith psychic as its function. As soon as the teacher manages to induce the self-reliant activity of the child with an external object, at the very moment the psyche emerges.

In the case of the deaf-blind child, smell is the only means of distant reception. The first task, therefore, consists in initiating the unassisted movement of the body in space, proceeding from innate organic needs (in particular, hunger) and using the sense of smell as a means of satisfying these needs.

The teacher gradually, starting with a couple of millimeters, increases the distance between the child’s body and the food. After the child has learned to move toward the food by smell, some obstacles are placed in his way. Now the orientating function of the taction is brought into the foreground. The distance is growing, the obstacles become more and more complicated, but only within the limits of a “zone of proximal development”, i.e. so much that the child could get the goal without assistance.

Having joined with the concrete object by means of sensory perceptions, organic need turns into the biological want. Sensory image of the object of want is, to Ilyenkov, the primary form of psychic activity – so to say, an embryo of the psyche.

The direct sensing of these external contours of things as the goal as well as of the means – obstacles on the path to its attainment, is the image, and is the cellular form of psychic activity, its simple abstract schema. [...] An image is the form of a thing that has been imprinted in the subject’s body, as that “bending” that the object has imposed upon the trajectory of the motion of the subject’s body[5].

At that moment when the first image of an external thing is formed, any child – not only the deaf-blind, acquires psyche. Henceforth he is a full-fledged animal. His brain, having regulated only physiological processes in the body (respiration, blood circulation, digestion, etc.) till that, turns now into the control center of movement of its body in some external environment, into the organ directing the objective activity of the body. It means that the brain begins to perform the psychical functions. Filtering the stream of sensations, the brain forms sensory images of the objects of needs and images of the obstacles that hamper to satisfy these needs. At the same time it sets the organism in motion and computes an optimal trajectory and energy of acting.

The next educational task is to impart higher, specifically human functions to the psyche. To breathe into the animal psyche personality and mind. This role of Pygmalion can be played only by another human person. The new person is formed in no other way as in the process of communication. It is not an immediate affective tête-à-tête, like in animals, but the communication by means of cultural objects, starting with the most simple tools of everyday life. The mastering of cultural forms of activity with such tools is called the practical communication (A.I. Meshcheryakov).

The problem is that the child, like every animal, at first perceives human tools – spoon, chamber-pot or soap, as the obstacles, hindering him to satisfy his natural needs. Mechanical training in this case is inadmissible. It is necessary to inculcate in the child the ability to act with the objects of culture by himself, moreover – to develop in him as strong as possible need for culture.

With that end in view, Zagorsk teachers elaborated the method of the jointly divided activity. Leading the hand of a deaf-blind, teacher is trying to catch a slightest sign of the purposeful activity of the child, so that to diminish promptly the guiding effort.

The help of the adult with forming the unassisted action must be strictly dosed. It must decrease as much as the activity of the child is increased[6].

In this formula we find the universal principle of education of cultural behaviour. In such a way any higher psychical functions and practical skills are formed. The principle of jointly divided activity demonstrates the technology of ingrowing (interiorization) the cultural forms into the natural psyche and “physics” of a child. All our life is nothing else than the education of person in the process of communication, somehow divided among people and linked up with these or that objects of culture.

Switching over to the mode of managing the practical communication with other people, the brain of the child turns into the organ of personality. To compel the brain to do this extra work – biologically waste, requiring incessant restriction and suppression of the needs of the own body, – it is necessary to break down once more the objective activity of the child, having made useless the formerly acquired experience of the direct, animal satisfying his needs. An object of culture is placed into the break point. It compels the child’s body to run counter to its own morphology – for a start, just to stand on his feet, and then to cope with food with the help of a spoon or a pair of chopsticks.

Ilyenkov regarded a spoon as a “swing gate” at the border of nature and culture, and Meshcheryakov liked to repeat: if you succeed in teaching a child to use a spoon, the education of all the rest human functions is a matter of patience and technique. In the course of the objective practical communication the initial mastering of language takes place, and the first elements of morality, artistic taste and logical thought are formed.

Human psyche starts with a little, inconspicuous, habitual. With a skill to handle humanly with everyday objects, with a skill to live humanly in the world of things, made by man for man. [...] When this practical mind has formed, the language acquisition ceases to be a difficult problem, it becomes mainly a matter of technique. If man has somewhat to say and if he has a need to say something, then word and ability to use words skillfully are adopted with ease[7].

Demonstrating the objectively practical genesis of personality, Ilyenkov toughly criticized as physiological, as dualistic, “biosocial” conceptions of the nature of personality. His first article about that, Psychic and brain, initiated the long-term polemics with the somatic materialists. Among the latter two figures were notable – the pupil of Pavlov, academician Ehzras Asratyan and philosopher David Dubrovsky, who searched the origins of personal qualities in “cerebral neurodynamical codes”.

Ilyenkov did not deny the significance of physiological factors for the genesis of personality. Not only the structure of the brain, but also such peculiarities of the body, like the form of a nose or the colour of skin, may play a great role in the biography of the individual, Ilyenkov added[8]. These natural prerequisites of a person relate to it insomuch as, say, the land relates to the land rent. Personality is impossible without them, but they can explain not a single feature of this or that person.

Dubrovsky’s appeals to some “yet scantily explored” individual features of the “cerebral architectonics” Ilyenkov considers as vaporous conjectures, a certain “neuromancy”.

Physical constitution of any normal man is more than enough for raising a highly developed, versatile and talented person, – even blindness with deafness is not an invincible obstacle to that. One should not undervalue the “marvellous morphology of the human body and brain”, laying upon Mother-nature the blame for the ungifted or vicious individuals, Ilyenkov insists.

Psychical phenomena have quite another “substance” than brain. It is the human labour, people’s collective activity that transforms nature, including nature of the organic body of man. Having created the brain of Cro-Magnon man, nature has done its best, and it has done it well. It is a marvellous organ capable of any work, right because a priori, anatomically it is capable of nothing, excepting one unique faculty – to master any faculties, any kinds of work[9].

Generally, evolution clearly demonstrates the growth of number of degrees of freedom in living beings. Their life activity becomes more and more independent from the innate programs of behaviour, tightly hardwired into the structure of a body. This morphological freedom reaches its maximum in homines. The instinctive regulation of behaviour in people is replaced by the cultural-historical regulation, realized via the artificial, socially meaningful objects.

The same happens in the ontogenesis of personality. Ilyenkov refers to the experimental researches in Vygotsky’s psychological school. In particular, A.R. Luria showed that genotypic determination of psychic activity, visual memory for example, drops almost to zero up to 6-7 years. Memory switches over to the purely cultural operating mode – by means of signs. A.N. Leontyev retraced the same process in the psychical development of twin children.

In parallel, there occurs a reconstruction of “neurodynamics” of those segments of the cerebrum which materially support the cultural activity of the child. This activity transforms not only psyche, but also the morphology of body, including the higher floors of our nervous system, so to say, the penthouse of “cerebral architectonics”.

All and sundry specifically human functions of the brain and their supporting structures are 100 % (not 90 and even 99 %) determined, and therefore explained, solely by the modes of activity of man as a social being, and not a natural one[10].

The edge of this thoroughgoing formula is aimed against the doctrine of biosocial nature of personality.

One would think, what is the use of arguing? Is it not better to stay at a golden middle ground, having admitted the relative rightness of both parties, and so to reconcile the naturalistic and the cultural-historical theories of genesis of personality?

As a result, personality looks like a centaur, comprised of two halves entirely different by their nature. And the question when and where the human personality comes into the world – at the moment of syngamy, i.e. the fusion of two gametes, or much later, with the first cultural action of the child, – this question appears to be absolutely unsolvable. It is clearly impossible to be born in two different places at different times. And the laws of genetics have nothing in common with the laws of social life. So, which one of them rules the act of birth of the self?

Ignoring this dilemma, the authors-peacemakers emphasize the indissolubility of biological and social components of personality. If they do not exist apart from one another, how can they be opposed? – At this point it should be noted that the biological, in its turn, does not exist apart from the chemical and physical processes, which undoubtedly influence on human behaviour, too. It is strange that adherents of the biosocial theory disregard all the rest natural “wealth of personality”...

The newborn infant gets into a special cultural environment, that subordinates his body and mind – wishes and attention, memory and emotions, hands and brain. Firstly, the child appears only as an object of action on the part of other people. He reacts to the cultural actions, aimed at him, in a purely organical mode, like an animal. He turns into a person at the moment when he performs his first socially meaningful act – an act, which is dictated not by his own body or by the natural psyche, but by those standards of culture that are accepted in his native community.

Starting to perform those operations, which were performed with respect to him by other people, the child became a person, a subject of cultural activity. Personality is measured by the cultural value of our deeds. The more powerful is someone’s influence upon other people and, eventually, upon the history of mankind, the more valuable this person is. Sometimes a person continues to determine the shaping of many generations even a thousand years after the death of its organic body and psyche. Such a person lives inside billions of its cultural (nongenetic) descendants, and it is justly called great or even genius.

So, the concept of personality involves only those individual features and faculties which are significant for people, taking positive or negative effect on other persons.

Do you want to know yourself? Don’t hurry to turn your mental look inside yourself. Firstly take a look at your behaviour with respect to other people and examine better those things that link you to other people. These cultural “mirrors” will reveal the truth about your personality, and they will tell much more than “cerebral architectonics”. It was due to their help that you became a human being, and by their use you entered into the human relations with other people and with nature. They contain labour, thoughts and feelings of yours and of all those people who helped you to mould your personality. Creating such things, you realize yourself as a person which is preserved even after your physical death. Cultural things are the chromosomes of humanity. And the human body, including the brain with its “neurodynamical codes”, belongs among those things, inasmuch as it is a subject of social labour and, so to say, a first violin in the “ensemble of the social relations”.


1. Ilyenkov, E.V. (1968) Psikhika i mozg (Otvet D.I. Dubrovskomu), Voprosy filosofii, 11, 145-155.

2. Ilyenkov, E.V. (1970) Psikhika cheloveka pod “lupoj vremeni”, Priroda, 1, 88-91.

3. Ilyenkov, E.V. (1975) Aleksandr Ivanovich Meshcherjakov i ego pedagogika, Molodoj kommunist, 2, 80-84.

4. Ilyenkov, E.V. (1977) Stanovlenie lichnosti: k itogam nauchnogo ehksperimenta, Kommunist, 2, 68‑79.

5. Ilyenkov, E.V. (1979) Chto zhe takoe lichnost’?, S chego nachinaetsja lichnost’. M.: Politizdat.

6. Ilyenkov, E.V. (2002/2007) Shkola dolzhna uchit’ myslit’. M.: Moskovskij psikhologo-social’nyj institut (translated in: Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 2007, 45, 9‑94).

7. Ilyenkov, E.V. (2009/2010) Psikhologija, Voprosy filosofii, 6, 92-100 (translated in: Russian Studies in Philosophy, 2010, 48, 13-35).

8. Meshcheryakov A.I. (1974) Slepo-glukhonemye deti. Razvitie psikhiki v processe formirovanija povedenija. Moskva: Pedagogika.

[1] Recently a number of Ilyenkov’s essays and manuscripts on psychology has been translated into English (see Ilyenkov, 2002/2007, 2010), but, unfortunately, neither his main work on personality (Ilyenkov, 1979), nor the series of articles on Zagorsk experiment (Ilyenkov, 1970, 1975, 1977) has appeared.

[2] Ilyenkov, 1970, p. 89.

[3] Such conception of psyche had taken shape in Vygotsky’s school, mainly in the works of A.N. Leontyev and P. Ja. Galperin. And Ilyenkov entirely shared these views.

[4] Ilyenkov, 1977, p. 69.

[5] Ilyenkov, 2009/ 2010, p. 21-22, 28.

[6] Meshcheryakov, 1974, p. 302.

[7] Ilyenkov, 1977, p. 76.

[8] Ilyenkov, 1968, p. 145-146.

[9] Ibid., p. 153.

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