David S. Webster (1994) Collingwood and Vygotsky on Consciousness. Psycoloquy: 5(22) Split Brain (8)

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PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psycoloquy 5(22): Collingwood and Vygotsky on Consciousness

Collingwood and Vygotsky on Consciousness
Commentary on Puccetti on Split-brain

David S. Webster
Department of Psychology
University of Durham
Durham, UK



Both Collingwood and Vygotsky take consciousness to be the reflexive consequence of the structure of activity. The most important activity related to human consciousness is speech -- the source of narrative consciousness. Dennett's "multiple drafts" may be best understood as an aspect of the reflexivity of speech. Puccetti is right about the dangers of placing too much emphasis on "narrative richness" as a criterion for personhood and thereby, the right to life.


cartesianism, cell death, cerebral dominance, consciousness, hemispherectomy, lateralization, mental duality, mental unity, multiple drafts, split brain.
1. Collingwood (1958: 174) enjoins us to speak with the vulgar and think with the learned (Collingwood, 1958: 174) so as to guard against unwittingly adopting the doctrines of another. Let us accordingly use the plain person's language to discuss consciousness and kindred matters: The kinds of things in this world which speak are, without exception, persons, or simply, people. With due respect to Puccetti (1993), left hemispheres of the brain do not speak, nor are right hemispheres mute. Persons or people are also said to be conscious, that is, they are seen to be in a state of continuous (if fluctuating levels of) activity -- both cognitive and physical -- interacting with other things in the world, of which the most important for this discussion are other persons.

2. Collingwood (1916), in a discussion on the mind, wrote: "Even to say that the mind is one thing and the object another may mislead. The mind is specifically that which knows the object." In other words, persons know the object (the world)- not brains or parts thereof. Collingwood goes on, "The Mind seems to be not so much that which thinks as the thinking itself; it is not an active thing so much as an activity.... just as the mind is not a self-identical thing persisting whether or no it performs its functions, but rather is those functions; so the consciousness in which it consists is not an abstract power of thought" (Collingwood 1916: 100).

3. For Collingwood, the mind-body problem is simply one of having two different epistemologies. The way we know about other people's thoughts [and our own] as opposed to the way we know other things (Blackburn, 1992: 188). And the way we know the thoughts of others is by rethinking them for ourselves; likewise, we come to know our own past thought of ten years or two seconds ago by rethinking it as well. Blackburn's elucidation of Collingwood is useful here, "What I do is 'recentre' my situation... and think about the world as it appears from that point of view. I gaze neither at me, nor my words, nor at you, but at the situation as I take it to have been for you [or myself]" (Blackburn, 1992: 191). This then is historical thinking, "in mind the past is the analysed content of the present. Thus, what the mind is and does are its past and present respectively" (Collingwood, 1936: unpublished MS & van der Dussen, 1981: 175).

4. The upshot of adopting Collingwood's position is that it brings to the fore the notion that persons are not something other than, or over and above, their personal and species history. Hence re-enactment, to use Collingwood's term, is the equivalent of the narrative construction of self and others. The narrative form is conventional and culturally transmitted and is the form in which our experience and memories are expressed in language. The construction of a narrative consciousness rests on the activity of speaking; speaking thereby gives rise to persons.

5. It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that words spoken, in and of themselves, bring about some intended cognitive change in the listener; that words act as an external force by virtue of the meanings they might convey. The listener is an active constructor of meaning, not a passive recipient, and all cognitive change brought about by this interaction is made possible or constrained by the shared objective situation: the political, social, ethical, linguistic and cognitive relations between (and in the case of cognitive relations also within) participants and the wider community to which they belong.

6. For Vygotsky, consciousness is a problem of the structure of behaviour (Vygotsky, 1979: 12). But Wartofsky (1979; not Dennett 1991), first poses the central question: "Are we right in thinking of conscious or mental activity of any sort as a brain-event?" No one, Wartofsky included, wishes to deny that sensing or consciousness in general is related to events in the brain. Rather, the argument is that the brain is but part of a whole network of sensory processes which have both a biography and a history -- ontogeny and phylogeny. The species-history of persons, their biological, cultural, and social evolution gives rise to the form of life, or practical interaction of world and subject; it is the form of life which constitutes the "organ" of conscious activity. The brain, as the instrument of consciousness and thought, cannot be identical with that consciousness or thought, in the same way that "foot-events" are not identical with walking (Wartofsky, 1979: 116).

7. If consciousness, as Vygotsky suggests, is a problem of the structure of behavior (e.g., speaking), then behavior is in turn a "system of victorious reactions" (Vygotsky, 1979: 16); the vast number of afferent stimuli are in continual competition and the gross trajectory of a person's behaviour is the moment-to-moment outcome of that competition. "Our awareness or ability to be conscious of our deeds and states must be seen primarily as a reflection of a system of transfer mechanisms from one set of reflexes to another... consciousness is always an echo, a response apparatus" (Vygotsky , 1979: 19, 20). The process ontology implicit in Vygotsky is also to be found explicitly in more recent work in cognitive science, for example Bickhard's (1993) interactionist model of the emergence of representational content. Bickhard argues that, "functional control structure organisations [sic] for representational emergence are no more mysterious or impossible for machines than for human, or other animal, nervous systems" (Bickhard, 1993: 325).

8. Vygotsky holds that speech is a system of reflexes for social contact and a system of reflexes of consciousness -- a system for reflecting other systems. And in a satisfying convergence with Collingwood, Vygotsky writes that the mechanisms for knowing oneself (i.e., self-awareness) and for knowing others are one and the same. "We are aware of ourselves in that we are aware of others; and in analogous manner, we are aware of others because in our relationship to ourselves we are the same as others in their relationship to us. I am aware of myself only to the extent that I am as another for my self, i.e. only to the extent that I can perceive anew my own responses as new stimuli" (Vygotsky, 1979: 29).

9. I have to admit that I find the current debate on consciousness and the mind-body problem, in PSYCOLOQUY and elsewhere, something of a curio. All the moreso when I come across something like the following, "then it [the right hemisphere] has been aware from a tender age of the mental duality because... it has been aware that it is not doing the talking and reading and writing that emanates from its own body" (Puccetti, 1993: par. 13). But Dennett's "multiple drafts," I suggest, can be broadly equated with Vygotsky's "victorious reactions" driven by the interactive source of representational content (Bickhard, 1993), in particular, the interactive nature of speech. Hence Dennett's point about the "narrative richness" of the constructed self.

10. Finally, the explicit and radical extension of consciousness, made by Wartofsky (and Collingwood), into the form of life of the subject is to take the concept of consciousness as exhibiting Collingwood's "Scale of Forms" (Collingwood, 1933), building up to the generic essence of the concept, in this case, narrative consciousness. This is not to say that the structural integrity of the human brain or more rudimentary perceptual systems are not important; but the "consciousness" appropriate to these is on a lower increment of the scale, so to speak. Puccetti is absolutely right, however, to point out that the impairment, loss or absence of the ability to continuously construct a narrative consciousness is no good reason to deny humans' retrospective or prospective personhood and thereby their right to life.


Bickhard, M.H. (1993) Representational Content in Humans and Machines. J. Expt. Theor. Artif. Intell.; 5 285-333.

Blackburn, S. (1992) Theory, Observation and Drama. Mind & Language; 7 (1&2) 187-203.

Collingwood, R.G. (1916) Religion and Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Collingwood, R.G. (1933) An Essay on Philosophical Method. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Collingwood, R.G. (unpublished MS, 1936) Notes on the History of Historiography and Philosophy of History. In W.J. van der Dussen (1981) History as Science: The Philosophy of R.G. Collingwood. Martinus Nijhoff.

Collingwood, R.G. (1958) The Principles of Art. Oxford University Press.

Dennett, D.C. (1991) Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown.

Puccetti, R. (1993) Dennett on the Split-Brain. PSYCOLOQUY 4 (52) split-brain.1.puccetti.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1979) Consciousness as a Problem in the Psychology of Behavior. Soviet Psychology ; XVII (4) 3-35.

Wartofsky, M.W. (1979) Towards a Critical Materialism. In Robert S. Cohen and Mark Wartofsky (eds.), Models: Representation and the Scientific Understanding. Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science; 129.

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