Charles Tolman 1987

The Comparative Psychology of A.N. Leontyev

Source: Paul Ballantyne's site at York University;
Charles W. Tolman, University of Victoria, Canada. Tolman, C.W. (1987). The comparative psychology of A.N. Leontyev, U.S.S.R. In E. Tobach (Ed.). Historical Perspectives and the International Status of Comparative Psychology (pp. 203-209). Hillsdale: LEA.

The status of comparative psychology as a discipline has been plagued with doubts and uncertainties for a very long time. These have often been brought to the surface by external attack, most seriously in recent years from sociobiology. This particular attack has been so serious in fact that some comparative psychologists have capitulated, proclaiming the final demise of their own discipline. Others are resisting or attempting to find a living accommodation with the source of the threat. A less dramatic response has been simply to give up the label of “comparative psychology” and proceed as before under some less committing rubric.

Of course no one is questioning the need to study animal behavior. The problem is rather whether there is a legitimate and distinct psychological need to study it. In my opinion it is the inability to give a clear and unequivocal answer to the question of psychological interest that has made comparative psychology so vulnerable to reductionist attacks.

At the heart of the difficulty is the absence in comparative psychology of a clear theoretical foundation, of any clear idea of what the similarities and differences among species will mean once they are discovered and described. Most important, the theory is lacking that can justify a uniquely psychological interest in the enterprise.

Successful theory in comparative psychology must fulfill at least two essential requirements. First, it will have to clarify in an empirically correct and logically coherent way the object of comparative psychological investigation. We expect that the object will be one that is unambiguously psychological and not one that begs for biological reduction. Second, adequate comparative psychological theory [p. 204] must include an account of its object's evolution. Comparative psychology has traditionally been weak in its understanding and use of evolutionary theory.

I am suggesting that the crisis in comparative psychology, I would like here to present some highlights of the theoretical work of Alexei Nikolaevich Leontyev, which I believe meets the aforementioned requirements and goes a long way toward solving the theoretical problems comparative psychologist have struggled with over the years.

Leontyev was a student and colleague of L.S. Vygotsky in the late 1920s and 1930s. After Vygotsky's death, Leontyev became the principal theoretical contributor within the Vygotskian social-historical school. The position that emerged from his work, known as “activity theory,” has become the dominant trend in Soviet psychology, and has, in the last 10 years, begun to exert a considerable influence in continental European -particularly German- psychology (e.g., Holzkamp, 1978, Schurig, 1976). At the time of his death in 1979, Leontyev was dean of the Psychology faculty at Moscow State University and a member of the USSR Academy of Pedagogical Sciences. Foreign honors included an honorary doctorate from the University of Paris in 1968 and an honorary membership in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1973.

Leontyev's two main books have only recently been translated into English. By far the most important and influential of these is Problems of the Development of the Mind (1959, 1981). It is also this book that contains the material of greatest interest to comparative psychologists.

The concept of activity was put forward in opposition to the traditional focal concepts of mental process and behavior. Comparative psychologists will have little difficulty with the rejection of mental process, but the rejection of behavior requires closer attention. There are several lines of argument here. I mention only two. First, the concept of behavior is impossible to distinguish from mere movement or change. It is impossible to distinguish between the behavior of liver and that of an organism. The concept of behavior is inherently reductionistic, recognizing no qualitative discontinuity between the firing of a neuron and discussing politics. According to Leontyev and his colleagues there is a qualitative distinctness of the activity of conscious living human beings that must be recognized.

A second line of argument is that the concept of behavior is too mechanical or abstract. It reflects an erroneous way of thinking - already criticized by John Dewey in 1896 - which assumes an external influence leading directly to a response. What this ignores, according to both Dewey and Leontyev (1979), is “the process that active subjects use to form real connections with the world of objects” (p. 42). The problem is not solved by the introduction of motivation or [p. 205] other intervening variables because such accounts apply equally well to inanimate, i.e., obviously nonpsychic entities.

The only solution is to broaden our conception of what it is we are studying in psychology. This is what the concept of activity is intended to do. It moves us from the problematic mechanical mode of thought to a “systems” mode. Leontyev (comments: Activity is “a system with its own structure, its own internal transformations, its own development” (p. 46). Activity includes behavior, but concretely within the “process that active subjects use to form real connections with the world of objects.” As such it also includes the object of activity. It can be thought of, roughly, as a kind of dynamic envelope enclosing both subject and object. Leontyev (1979) refers to it as a “molar unit of life” (p. 46); see also Galperin, 1980).

The theory of activity is too complex to receive a comprehensive treatment here, but it is useful to mention its structural aspect, which is perhaps best illustrated by an example. A “beater” engaged in a primitive collective hunt is frighten the animals, sending them toward other hunters who are waiting in ambush. The immediate goal of his actions does not coincide with the motive of his activity. Furthermore the particular operations he performs in achieving his goal may differ depending on the situation or conditions of the hunt.

We see here a three-leveled hierarchical structure in which the largest unit is the activity governed by its motive. This subsumes actions governed by distinct and separate goals, which in our example are shared socially. Each action then subsumes various operations, which are governed by specific conditions.

An important aspect of activity and its structural components is reflection. An activity reflects its motive, an action reflects its goal, and an operation reflects the conditions of action. The concept of reflection, as we will see, becomes very important in the evolutionary account.

Before proceeding to that account, however, we must ask the question about what evolves. Much the same reasons advanced for rejecting behavior as the object of psychological investigation lead Leontyev also to reject the view that it is behavior that evolves. Behavior becomes more complex, more wide ranging in its adaptivity, etc. but this cannot be the result of the evolution of behavior as such, which would imply a highly problematic, and probably incorrect, direct relation between genes and behavior. Behavior is far too abstract, in the sense used previously, to have been the principal focus of the evolutionary process.

An alternative and almost traditional view in comparative psychology has been that it is intelligence that evolves -usually implying the rise of learning in opposition to instinct. This is also rejected by Leontyev (1981). He argues, in a manner that has become familiar in our own literature, that there is neither empirical nor theoretical “foundation for counter-posing, as different genetic [p. 206] stages of behavior: (a) inherited behaviour, allegedly unalterable by external influences, and (b) behaviour built up in the course of an animal's individual development, in the course of its individual adaptation” (p. 169). He cites experiments conducted by Blees (1919), himself, and his Soviet colleagues (between 1933 and 1943) which show that even the rigid phototropism of Daphnia is adaptively modifiable. With Pavlov, he claims that “individual adaptation exists throughout the animal world."

If it is not behavior as such, not intelligence, adaptability, or the like that evolves, then what? According to Leontyev it is that control and organization of activity. It is the process we spoke of earlier that evolves. Leontyev called it “psyche” or “mind.” This is best explained by looking at the evolutionary account itself.

There [is a major demarcation made by Leontyev between. - PB] the psychic and the prepsychic. It is useful to look briefly at the prepsychic. Leontyev maintains that all material existence is characterized by reciprocal action or exchange of substances. Typical of this is the inorganic chemical reaction, e.g., Zn + H2SO4 =ZnSO4 + H2. Characteristic of such an inorganic interaction is that neither interacting substance is preserved in its original form. Either is preserved only by not interacting.

The transition to living, organic matter is the transition to a state of affairs in which one body, the organic, is preserved in the interaction and depends on the interaction for its preservation. The interaction now takes the form of assimilation and metabolism by the organic body.

Both inorganic and organic interactions represent primitive forms of reflection. In each case one body or substance responds to the precise properties of the other. This is the case in the organic instance in which the organic body fulfills the role of subject to the object of the other. In order for the organic, living body to assimilate its object, it must reflect, i.e., respond appropriately to, the properties of the object. This stage of organic, prepsychic existence is designated by Leontyev as the stage of irritability.

The most primitive stage of psychic existence, which Leontyev calls the stage of elementary sensory psyche, evolves through a complication of irritability. This complication consists in the development of response to properties that are not those on which the organism's life directly depends. Leontyev (1981) comments: Activity thus becomes “governed, consequently, not by the affecting properties in themselves but rather by them in their relation with other properties” (p. 156). Daphnia respond to light, for example, not because they need light as such, but because light is related to substances that they do need and can assimilate.

Leontyev (1981) defines sensitivity, the identifying characteristic of this evolutionary stage, in the following way: “sensitivity is genetically nothing other then irritability in relation to that kind of environmental influence that brings the [p. 207] organism into correlation with other influences, i.e., that orients it in the environment by performing a signaling function. The necessity for the rise of this form of irritability is that it mediates the organism's main vital processes that are now taking place in more complicated conditions of the environment” (p. 42).

Once again reflection is stressed: The processes of sensitivity “must necessarily... conform to the objective properties of the environment and correctly reflect them in appropriate connections” (p. 42).

At the stage of the elementary sensory psyche the animal's activity is governed by properties of things. The subsequent stage, which Leontyev calls the stage of perceptive psyche, arises out of complications that result in the reflection of things. This is associated with the development of an integrative nervous system, of the distance sense organs -particularly those of vision-, and of the organs of external movement.

The discrimination of things, associated with the formation of images, allows two very important developments. The first is the discrimination of the object of activity from its conditions. This, in turn, allows the development of the component of activity earlier referred to as operation. An animal will, for example, approach food in one way or another depending on conditions, e.g., presence or absence of a barrier. At the sensory stage a barrier becomes incorporated in the activity such that its removal does not immediately alter the approach behavior. Thus at the perceptual stage the animal is capable of developing a repertoire of fixed operations, which may be called habits, serving any particular activity.

The second important related development is the appearance of image memory. Both habits and image memory represent an advance in the mnemonic function made possible by the change from control of activity by properties to control of activity by things.

Again the reflective aspect must be stressed. The evolutionary advance is clearly one of increasing reflective capacity. The animal's activity becomes organized around more and more detailed, differentiated information in its environment. In a very real sense the movement in the evolutionary process is toward ever greater objectivity.

The third stage of the evolution of psyche is one Leontyev calls stage of animal intellect. It arises again through complication of characteristics present in the previous stage. It is best exemplified by the problem-solving behavior of Kohler's apes, which demonstrated ability, as Leontyev put it, to solve two-phase tasks (1981, p. 185). All Kohler's problems required the animals to do one thing (such as pick up a stick) in order to do another (such as obtain food). The activity is at all times organized around the food, but it now incorporates an action (at least in a primitive form) with a goal that is not naturally related to the food. To accomplish this, the animal's activity must be governed not only by properties and things, but by relations among things.

With this, the middle level of the structure of activity emerges. Activity is no longer structurally undifferentiated nor is it restricted to differentiation consisting [p. 208] merely of different operations or modes of accomplishing its end. It is now a complex of distinct actions, all organized around the motive of activity and all subject to variations of operations depending on conditions but directed at specific distinct goals. An important characteristic of actions is that they attain a degree of independence such that they are detachable from particular activities and become available for others. This is evident when animals at this stage are placed in a new and puzzling situation. Instead of flying about at random like a chicken, an ape will appear to try different approaches to the problem. These approaches are of course detached actions developed within other activities.

It is obvious that with the evolution of a capacity to reflect relations of things, the animal is not only increasing its apprehension of objective reality, it is also substantially increasing its capacity to deal with that reality abstractly. This stage lays the foundation for human thought.

The fourth stage of the evolution of psyche is the stage of human consciousness. The principal characteristic of this stage is given by an extraordinary development of the capacity to abstract and deal with abstractions. In terms of the progressive order of what governs activity, we have moved from properties to things, to relations of things, and now to meanings of things requiring a high development of image memory, habit, etc.

This advance is best illustrated in collective labor. Here actions are socially exarticulated such that no single individual completes the entire series of actions making up an activity. Rather the actions are divided among different individuals, the unity of activity now being given only in social organization. It is this exarticulation of actions that allows not only the use of tools, but the preparation of tools for use at some indefinite time in the future. Leontyev (1981) stated:

The separation of an action necessarily presupposes the possibility of the active subject's psychic reflection of the relation between the objective motive and the object of action...but the relation underlying this link is no longer a natural one, but a social one (p. 213).

For a man to take on the function of a beater (in a primitive hunt) it is necessary for his actions to have a relation; that connects their result with the outcome of the collective activity; it is necessary for this relation to be subjectively reflected by him so that it becomes 'existent for him'; it is necessary in other words for the sense of his action to be revealed to him, to be comprehended by him. Consciousness of the sense of an action...comes about in the form of reflection of its object as a conscious goal (pp. 212-213).

Leontyev proceeds from this basis to develop a comprehensive theory of the origin of thought and language. For our purposes here it is sufficient to see that he has laid the foundation for such a theory, a psychological theory, and that his foundation is an explicitly evolutionary, comparative one. [p. 209]

What are some of the implications of this theory for the discipline of comparative psychology? I mention two.

First, a variety of tasks is tasks [are] immediately apparent and can be expressed in questions such as the following:

1. What are the precise characteristics of sensitivity, perceptivity, and intellect?

2. What are the characteristics of the complications that lead from one stage to the next?

3. How are stages preserved, how do they overlap and interact within a particular species?

4. How are these capacities affected by conditions of ontogenetic development?

Numerous questions beyond these suggest themselves. Leontyev's work illustrates very well that a good evolutionary theory can be richly heuristic.

A second, and very important, implication is that a comprehensive psychology guided by such a theory would be unequivocally a psychology. Its motive -to borrow a term from the theory- is to elucidate the conscious human psyche. The processes and capacities that it studies are all stages and transitions in the evolutionary development of the human psyche. As such, there should be no confusion between its task and those of the biological disciplines. Not only would confusion be avoided, but so, too, would the threat of reductive cannibalization by sociobiology or any other discipline with imperialistic ambitions. The overall task of comparative psychology could in fact be described as discovering how human psyche evolves from, and is continuous with, more advanced processes are qualitatively discontinuous with the older, and thus understandable in terms of but not reducible to them.

The prospects of a comparative psychology guided by a theory such as Leontyev's seems to me very exciting indeed.


Galperin, P. (1980). Zu Grundfragen der Psychologie. Berlin: Volk und Wissen.

Holzkamp, K. (1978). Sinnliche Erkenntnis: Historischer Ursprung und gesellschaftliche Function der Wahrnehmung. (4 Aufl.) Frankfurt/M.: Athenaum Verlag.

Leontyev, A.N. (1979). The problem of activity in psychology. In J.V. Wertsch (Ed.). The concept of activity in Soviet psychology (pp. 37-71). Armonk, NY: Sharpe.

Leontyev, A.N. (1981). Problems of the Development of the Mind. (Trans. M. Kopylova). Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Schurig, V. (1976). Die Entstehung des Bewusstseins. Frankfurt/M.: Campus Verlag.

Thanks to Paul F. Ballantyne, Ph.D.