Artifact-mediated Cognition

Vygotsky’s theory of Mind as the Result of Activity with Artifacts

Notes on Vygotsky and Engeström

by Gerry Stahl, September 10, 2000


The problem of the embodiment of mental things

The focal question for our seminar – “How is meaning embodied in artifacts?” – asks about the relation of cognition to physical objects in the world. How is it that physical objects can have mental content? Let us take as an example of an artifact a rocket image in the SimRocket computer simulation. This is a physical arrangement of colored pixels on the computer monitor. This moving collection of pixels is seen as a rocket image that is somehow meaningful as a representation of a physical rocket that consists of atoms and soars up into the sky under its own power. The simulated rocket is (1) a physical object (consisting of visible screen pixels) that represents another object (a real rocket or a physical model rocket) and (2) the embodiment of a set of uses, such as measuring how high a rocket with certain characteristics will go. These features both raise questions: (1) What does it mean for one object to “represent” another object and how can a physical object do this? (2) How can a physical object have imposed upon it a set of human cognitive uses, come to embody or crystallize these uses as its meaning, and be understood by other people as having this meaning?

The problematic character of these questions is based on the philosophic distinction between the physical and the mental, known in philosophical circles as the “mind/body problem” dating back to Descartes. According to Descartes and the “folk theory of mind” (Dennett, 1991) prevalent since him, there are two kinds of things: mental things and physical things. The mind, cognition, or human thought consists of (“internal”) mental contents whereas the human body, artifacts, and things in the world consist of (“external”) physical objects. Mental and physical things have a very different ontology (characteristics of their existence) and a different epistemology (ways of being known): mental things have no size, etc. and can be known directly only by the person whose mind it is; physical things take up space and can be observed with the senses by anyone who has sensuous contact with them. Artifacts, including the simulated rocket, are physical things: How can they have mental attributes like meaning? Given this philosophic perspective, it is hard to understand many everyday phenomena, such as one thing representing something else or a physical object embodying meanings. For instance, how can an author put meaning into a book that someone else can later get out of the book?

Engeström (1999) reviews current issues in Activity Theory, an outgrowth of Vygotsky’s work. He emphasizes the idea of mediation and specifically the mediation of human behavior including the mediation of cognition by artifacts, and proposes using a concept of “activity” as the fundamental “cell” for theory. The concept of activity comes out of German philosophy. Specifically, “activity” is an inadequate translation of the term “Tätigkeit” that Marx used in his Theses on Feuerbach (Marx, 1845/1967) . Whereas “activity” in English can have an intransitive sense of just moving about, the German “Tätigkeit” has a transitive sense of doing something with something in a context. With this term, Marx merges cognitive, goal-oriented behavior with sensuous physical involvement with things in the world. He thereby combines idealism and materialism and overcomes the mind/body split from within his theory of modern society. Vygotsky (1930/1978) spells out a theory with a similar approach in the realm of psychology and learning, providing a unity of cognition and artifacts in this domain. Once we understand Vygotsky’s approach, we can try to see it at work in the videotapes of SimRocket.

Vygotsky’s theory of artifact-mediated cognition

To use post-modern terminology, Vygotsky “de-constructs” cognition. He undertakes an “archaeology” of the prehistory through which modern adult human thought developed. Rather than taking cognition as a given (in the form you and I might observe our own thoughts introspectively), he views it as the result of a complex developmental process and he explores its history, both in the cultural history (phylogeny) of the human race (as reviewed by Donald (1991) ) and in the developmental history (ontogeny) of the individual (as explored by Piaget). This approach to tracing the logic of development leading up to the present character of something was pioneered by Hegel (1807/1967) . Hegel’s dialectical method proceeds from stage to stage by showing the limitations of the earlier stage. This method carries over to his argumentation, which proceeds by showing the limitations of earlier theories and writers. We can see this method at work in Vygotsky and in the philosophers we will read later. Dialectical writers like to start by presenting one or two prevailing positions and then letting their own position emerge from a critique of the limitations and/or contradictions within or between the other positions. For instance, Vygotsky starts with views of human cognition as a simple extension of other primate behaviors, or views of the relation of learning to development that are non-dialectical. His own views are then based on a critique that confronts previous theories with an analysis of qualitative historical changes, grounded in experimental observation.

Vygotsky provides us with a revolutionary new way of thinking about cognition, in stark contrast to the Cartesian folk theory. He shows how human thought grows out of our physical involvement in the world and our social involvement with other people. It is only at the end of historical transformations that cognitive skills and contents become disassociated from their physical and social roots and appear as things divorced from these worlds. By now, as adults, we experience our thoughts as things quite removed from physical artifacts. We tend to think of “artifacts” as fairly rare and exotic things dug up by archaeologists studying uncivilized tribes. But, according to Vygotsky – if we understand his theory sufficiently radically –  our thoughts and language are nothing other than reified forms of primitive artifacts. A theory of artifacts along the lines proposed by Vygotsky should form the foundation for an understanding of our entire cognitive and interactional life.

Pointing as a prototypical example

We can start to follow the thread of Vygotsky’s argument with a baby (like Max), an infant who is actively involved with objects in the world through his body, physically and sensuously interacting to meet needs and desires. He learns to reach and grasp things, for instance, at first following biological instincts, but soon learning from moving his body and experiencing his environment (at this point, he has no sense of a differentiation between his own body and an external world because he has as yet no sense of self). Gradually, as he encounters barriers to his efforts, the baby learns to control his environment, above all to influence other people, like his mother.

Vygotsky’s analysis of the grasping/pointing gesture provides a micro-analysis of a prototypical case study of the baby influencing other people. A new stage of cognition is reached and intersubjective meaning is created in the world through an instance of what Hegel would call mutual recognition (as we will see in his master/slave dialectic (Hegel, 1807/1967) ).

Vygotsky describes the process on page 56 (Vygotsky, 1930/1978) . Read this page carefully. Here we see the genesis of the pointing gesture. The gesture is an artifact: it embodies meaning in the physical world. The meaning is a reference to that which is pointed at. The baby intended some object; the mother recognized that the baby intended that object; the baby recognized that the mother recognized this. This multiple recognition entails that the baby and the mother recognize each other as people who can have intentions and who can recognize intentions of other people. This is a first glimmer of self-consciousness, in which the baby becomes conscious of his own and other people’s intentionality. (Of course, the baby cannot yet express this self-consciousness in any verbal sense, but only behaviorally.) But the key point in this is not the birth of intentionality, social recognition or self-consciousness (which one could argue may be exhibited by other mammals). It is the creation of an artifact: the pointing gesture. This gesture embodies the meaning in a physical way. This deictic gesture already embodies a reference to the intended object – in fact, in this example that is the artifact’s very meaning. So we have the first step toward a symbolic artifact representing an intended object. And in the origin of the gesture we already see the basis for intersubjective shared understanding of the meaning, because the pointing gesture is premised upon the mutual recognition of the underlying intention.

Pointing has a clear evolutionary advantage. It establishes a fundamental social bond by shared orientation to a common intended object. So it immediately coordinates the orientation of the people involved into the same direction within the world. It provides a practical basis for collaboration. It is probably so fundamental to human artifactual experience that it is found in all human cultures, although it is not a result of biological instinct and is not shared with non-human mammals. Vygotsky argues that this gesture is used in two general ways that lead to our extensive repertoire of symbols, artifacts, cognitive skills, external memories and cultural systems: it is used to control behavior and it is internalized.

Control. In the original enactment of pointing, the baby achieves control over the mother’s behavior. He gets the mother to retrieve the intended object that he wanted but could not reach. It is only through the success at achieving this control that the baby learns that his failed reach can be recognized by the mother as an intention. As the baby’s repertory of gestures and artifacts grows, he begins to use them to control his own behavior. We can see this in the behavior of young children playing and drawing, for instance. At certain stages in their behavior, they negotiate or adopt rules and meanings that structure their behavior in ways that may prove useful.

Internalization. Language grows out of gesture. Names reference objects in a way that extends the pointing gesture. Not that language consists only of names; rather, many linguistic functions extend other kinds of embodied behavior – and then other linguistic tools may be built on top to perform purely syntactic or pragmatic tasks. According to Vygotsky’s theory, language begins as spoken communication among people. Clearly, that is how people learn language. At a certain age, when children have learned the fundamentals of a language, kids engage in “self-talk” or “ego-centric talk.” This is where they speak aloud to themselves (or to imaginary friends, dolls and other artifacts). Similarly, early readers initially read aloud. This self-talk evolves into internal talk. Internal talk is thought. Thinking is talking to ourselves, for instance rehearsing what we plan to say (and controlling our future behavior that way), recalling what took place in the past or carrying on the kind of conversations that we have aloud with other people silently with ourselves. Through this evolution, primal gestures have been transformed into speech, and speech into thought. Meanings and references to things in the world have been internalized into mental forms that still embody some of the functions that they originally had as physical artifacts or bodily gestures.

Evidence in the SimRocket video

Artifacts in the SimRocket video must first be experienced by the students in a way that grounds their meaning and use in the student’s bodily being-in-the-world (Heidegger, 1927/1996) . Although the teacher has clearly lost touch with this need, he at least has sense enough to let the students explore the new artifact and express themselves about it. The students have much more of a sense of the need to engage the rocket experience in a sensuous way – although they might not be able to verbalize this sense. It is the combination of the kids with their openness, curiosity and sense of fun combined with the teacher’s disciplined thought and organization skills that succeeds in whatever learning takes place. The learning must be based on the students’ level of development, but must also be guided from a perspective that transcends that in the direction of scientific uses of the artifact.

In the video, we can see the student gestures, sounds, etc. as their attempt to form a mimetic understanding of the computer artifact as a viable representation of a rocket. The possibility of this succeeding is enhanced by the simulation’s visual and sound effects. Students become keenly aware of the representational features of the simulation: changing speeds, jumpy motion, details of presentation, limitations of control, exploration of capabilities. We can see this in their remarks and behavior.

Episodic and mimetic knowledge grounds theoretical understanding. Data collection is not a meaningless exercise with arbitrary numbers, but a meaningful analysis of rocket behavior under different conditions – but only to the extent that it is grounded in this way. Once this has taken place, the manipulations of data can be internalized and can maintain their meaningfulness. This is what differentiates the students from being just very poor computers.

SimRocket activity

How can we place our analytic task within Engeström’s framework of activity theory? What is the “unit of analysis” that we want to focus on in the SimRocket tapes? It is the small group interaction involving the teacher and students with the simulation artifact. The subject is this group of participants. The mediating artifact is a set of things including the simulation. The task is to learn how to use the artifact – to predict the height of rocket 8 or to figure out the effects of different rocket designs. The rules are the classroom rules into which the teacher is immersed and the rules of science into which the students are immersed; in the details of the activity we can observe evidence for how these rules are negotiated by the participants and how the rules fluidly evolve. There is considerable division of labor – for instance in the collection, organization and analysis of the rocket data. We can capture this theoretical analytic framework with the use of Engeström’s cognitive artifact, the extended triangle. If we label the vertices, where are the contradictions and stresses? How does this framework aid our analysis as a theoretical cognitive artifact?


Dennett, D. C. (1991) Consciousness Explained, Little Brown and Company, Boston, MA.

Donald, M. (1991) Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Engeström, Y. (1999) Activity theory and individual and social transformation. In Y. Engeström, R. Miettinen, & R.-L. Punamäki (Eds.), Perspectives on Activity Theory, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp. 19-38. 

Hegel, G. W. F. (1807/1967) Phenomenology of Spirit, (J. B. Baillie, Trans.), Harper & Row, New York, NY.

Heidegger, M. (1927/1996) Being and Time: A Translation of Sein und Zeit, (J. Stambaugh, Trans.), SUNY Press, Albany, NY.

Marx, K. (1845/1967) Theses on Feuerbach. In L. G. K. Easton (Ed.) Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, Doubleday, New York, NY, pp. 400-401. 

Vygotsky, L. (1930/1978) Mind in Society, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

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