“The Marxist categories of the “abstract” and “concrete” and the cultural-historical school of psychology”: Claude M.J. Braun
The categories “abstract” and “concrete” are extremely important not only for psychology, but for logic, linguistics and philosophy. They play a major role in our understanding of ourselves and fellow humans, and in the planning of our social and political actions. Because Marx was acutely aware of this, and despite the fact that the treatment of the categories of the “abstract” and “concrete” is nowhere fully explicit in any of his writings, he reconceptualized them in a revolutionary manner.
The use of the categories of “abstract” and “concrete” within the English language publications of the Marxist cultural-historical school of psychology will be surveyed informally. It will be shown that Vygotsky’s and later, Luria’s usage of the categories “abstract” and “concrete”, are increasingly incompatible with Marx’s usage. Leontyev did not address the issue. The main contribution of this essay will therefore by an attempt to draw out 1) the impact of this tension on the cultural-historical school of psychology, and indirectly, on activity theory and 2) the reorganisation of activity theory which can and must be carried out to permit it to become more internally coherant on the one hand, and to interface more naturally with other disciplines, linguistics, logic, pedagogy, philosophy, history, and politics, thereby assuring a wider (external) coherance for the theory.
The history of conceptions of the categories abstract and concrete
The history of conceptions of the categories of “abstract” and “concrete” is relatively uniform in its pre and post-(non)-Marxist ambulation (Hegel excepted). In short, from Indo-Christian culture to post-industrial positivism, “concrete” is stated to be low-level cognition and “abstract” to be high level cognition.
Marx’ s view of these categories is an inversion of sorts and a dialectical sublation of this antinomy. For Marx, an “abstract” concept is an undeveloped unity of identical aspects of a representation of a thing or process. A “concrete” concept is a developed unity of diverse aspects of a representation of a thing or process. More especifically, a “concrete” concept is a logically coherant system of definitions each of which is abstract, in isolation, but each of which becomes endowed with concreteness with development of the concept. In Marx’s interpretation, both types of cognition, “abstract” and “concrete”, have real referents, and both can consist either of a verbal (conceptual) or non-verbal (cognitivo-perceptual) process.
The early cultural-historical school of psychology and the categories of “abstract” and “concrete”
Though Vygotsky came close to the Marxist concept, he did not fully recognize it. He tended to relegate concrete thought to factually based mental “complexes” (perception) and abstract thought to logical “concepts”:
“In the experimental setting, the child produces a pseudo-concept every time he surrounds a sample with objects that could just as weIl have been assembled on the basis of an abstract concept. For instance, when the sample is a yellow triangle and the child picks out all the triangles in the experimental material, he could have been guided by the general idea or concept of a triangle. Experimental analysis shows, however, that in reality the child is guided by the concrete, visible likeness and has formed only an associative complex limited to a certain kind of perceptual bond. Although the results are identical, the process by which they are reached is not at all the same as in conceptual thinking.” (Vygotsky 1962, p. 66).
In an attempt to maximally schematize the distinction, Vygotsky relegated concrete cognition to “immediate sensory grasp” of an object, and elevated abstract cognition to “maximally generalized conceptualization of an object” (p. 112). He further tended to view concrete thought as spontaneous and abstract thought as deliberate:
“All these traits of written speech explain why its development in the schoolchild falls far behind that of oral speech. The discrepancy is caused by the child’s proficiency in spontaneous, unconscious activity and his lack of skill in abstract, deliberate activity.” (Vygotsky 1962, p. 100).