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Germ Cell

The germ cell is a simple, embryonic relation or concept which can develop into a complex process and thus provides a key to understanding that complex process.


The ‘germ-cell’ was introduced into the Activity Theory tradition by Vasily Davydov and further developed by Yjrö Engeström. The ‘germ cell’ indicates specific aspects of the ‘unit of analysis’, which was a central concept of Vygotsky’s methodology.

Goethe originated the idea in his study of the morphology of plants, defining the Urphänomen as the simplest form of an organic process from which all the essential features of the whole organism could be generated. Goethe died before microscopes had sufficient power to observe the microstructure of living organisms, but it is widely recognised that what Goethe had imagined was the cell, the building block of all biological organisms. It was essential to Goethe’s conception that the Urphänomen was not a suprasensible law or a principle governing a process from outside, so to speak, but a real, simple entity accessible to the senses. Hegel appropriated Goethe’s idea, making it more precise and universal in its scope. The germ cell is the key concept of his Logic in which it becomes the ‘abstract concept’, and the structure of the Logic is just as outlined by Marx as follows in the Grundrisse:

“It seems to be correct to begin with the real and the concrete, with the real precondition, thus to begin, in economics, with e.g. the population, ... However, on closer examination this proves false. The population is an abstraction if I leave out, for example, the classes of which it is composed... Thus, if I were to begin with the population, this would be a chaotic conception of the whole, and I would then, by means of further determination, move analytically towards ever more simple concepts, from the imagined concrete towards ever thinner abstractions until I had arrived at the simplest determinations. ...

This is the ‘germ-cell’.

“From there the journey would have to be retraced until I had finally arrived at the population again, but this time not as the chaotic conception of a whole, but as a rich totality of many determinations and relations. ...
“The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation and conception. Along the first path the full conception was evaporated to yield an abstract determination; along the second, the abstract determinations lead towards a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought.” (1857)

The first phase of the development of a science begins from everyday perception and is complete when we arrive at the germ-cell (or unit of analysis), the singular entity which exhibits the essential relations of the whole process. The second phase of “rising to the Concrete” is when we ‘reconstruct’ the whole, now as a systematic whole exhibiting the essential features with which we are familiar in the unit from which we began. We can viscerally understand it because the germ-cell is a singular, finite relation. As Goethe demanded, it is not some law (like the law of supply and demand) which is hidden from perception and governs the process from outside, but something we can get to know at first hand, whether experimentally or in day-to-day life.

The term ‘germ-cell’ was first used by Marx in the first Preface to Capital:

“The human mind has for more than 2,000 years sought in vain to get to the bottom of it all, whilst on the other hand, to the successful analysis of much more composite and complex forms, there has been at least an approximation. Why? Because the body, as an organic whole, is more easy of study than are the cells of that body. In the analysis of economic forms, moreover, neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use. The force of abstraction must replace both. But in bourgeois society, the commodity-form of the product of labour — or value-form of the commodity — is the economic cell-form.” (1867)

The commodity is both the germ-cell from which bourgeois society develops, and the unit of which bourgeois society is composed. All the essential features of bourgeois society may be grasped from the understanding of the commodity relation.

Vygotsky defined the ‘unit of analysis’ in his study of the verbal thinking (i.e., the intellect). He advocated a

“form of analysis [which] relies on the partitioning of the complex whole into units. In contrast to the term “element,” the term “unit” designates a product of analysis that possesses all the basic characteristics of the whole. The unit is a vital and irreducible part of the whole.”

and directly alluding to Marx and Goethe’s biological metaphor:

“The word is comparable to the living cell in that it is a unit of sound and meaning that contains - in simple form - all the basic characteristics of the integral phenomenon of verbal thinking.”

However, the intellect is not really just matter of word meanings, it is far more complex and intangible than that! Word meaning is just the germ-cell.


When Activity Theorists identify a relation or action or concept or artefact as the ‘germ cell’ of a complex process, they mean that the relation is the simplest possible relation which will over time develop into the more complex process. It may be the first, historically, but not necessarily. The germ may not appear in pure form until later on, perhaps after a series of trial-and-errors. It is the simplest because it contains without any further addition the essential relation which will stimulate further development and stimulate interaction with other processes.

Until a whole complex process can be understood in terms of a single concept we have nothing more than a description of the process in terms of its most prominent and consistent features, which is not understanding at all. To say that word meaning is the germ cell or unit of analysis of the intellect is not to ‘reduce’ the intellect to discourse, but to take discourse as the starting point for the scientific study of the intellect. For an example of the concept of germ-cell being used in research, see the paper by Yrjö Engeström and Vasily Davydov’s book on generalisation, which uses the “cell.”


Engeström, Y. et al (2012). “Embodied Germ Cell at Work: Building an Expansive Concept of Physical Mobility in Home Care,” in Mind, Culture and Activity _19_(3).

Davydov, V. V. (1990) Types of Generalization in Instruction: Logical and Psychological Problems in the Structuring of School Curricula

Goethe, J. W. v., (1795). Outline for a General Introduction to Comparative Anatomy.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1816). The Science of Logic.

Marx, K. (1857). “The Method of Political Economy,” Grundrisse.

Marx, K. (1867), Preface to the first German edition of Capital.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1934). Thinking and Speech. Chapter 1

-- AndyBlunden - 08 Oct 2014


Topic revision: r2 - 29 Jan 2015, AndyBlunden

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