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Object (of Activity)

The object of activity is the source of the motivation for an activity, either an imagined and desired situation, or a situation which is the problematic focus of the activity.


‘Object’ is a very polysemous word, both in common speech and in philosophical writing, and this polysemy is very longstanding and has been carried over from German philosophy to Russian and European Activity Theory.

In both Russian (the source of Activity Theory) and German (the philosophical roots of the concepts) there are two words translated into English as ‘object’: in German Gegenstand and Objekt, and in Russian respectively predmet and obyekt. But the availability of two words did not lessen the problem of polysemy and Russian and German are hardly better off than English.

In common German speech and in philosophical writing as late as Kant Gegenstand and Objekt could be used more or less interchangeably. Differences in usage began with Hegel and entered the Marxist tradition and thereby Activity Theory.


Das Objekt is derived from the Latin objectum, ‘something thrown before or against’, first used by Duns Scotus in the 13th century where ‘subject’ had the meaning of the ‘subject matter of discourse’ and ‘object’ was what was thrown against it, i.e., what was said of the subject. In the 17th century, the meanings of subject and object underwent an inversion and Christian Wolff gave objekt the meaning of something thrown before or over against the mind (now the ‘subject’), i.e., the object of knowledge, but also of striving, of desire and of action. The object does not have to be a real or material thing, though Kant also used it in that narrower sense, and in common speech it means just that. But it is taken to be an ‘objective’ situation, though imagined or perceived and given meaning by the mind.

From the 17th century onwards the native German word Gegenstand – ‘what stands against’ – became synonymous with Objekt in philosophical writing, including Kant. It was Hegel who introduced differences in meaning between Gegenstand and Objekt.

The Object in Hegel

Whilst in ordinary German speech, the two words remained synonymous, Hegel made Gegenstand an object of knowledge, of consciousness and intention, and thus a psychological concept. Objekt was a real object, independent of the subject, but the object of a subject, taken to be a complex system of things and relations, as in the modern concept of “The Other.”

The Subjekt-Objekt relation is central to Hegel’s Logic; both a subject and the Objekt of the subject are independent cognizing, practical subjects, taken to be not individuals but social projects, and the development of each involves a mutual interpenetration and transformation.

When Marx (1845) said in Theses on Feuerbach # 1:

“The main defect of all hitherto-existing materialism ... is that the object [der Gegenstand], actuality, sensuousness, are conceived only in the form of object [des Objekts], or of contemplation, but not as human sensuous Tätigkeit, practice, not subjectively. Hence it happened that the active side, in opposition to materialism, was developed by idealism”

he was calling for a resurrection of the active conception of the object, but as activity (Tätigkeit) or practice, rather than as either thought-objects (Gedankenobjekten) or as objects of passive contemplation. It is this meaning of Gegenstand (predmet) which was taken up by A. N. Leontyev in the founding of Activity Theory.

The Object of Activity for A. N. Leontyev

‘Object’ is the most basic concept of Activity Theory as elaborated by Leontyev, more basic in fact than ‘Activity’ itself, because it is the object (predmet, or Gegenstand) which summons the activity into being and defines it.

“A basic or, as is sometimes said, a constituting characteristic of activity is its objectivity [i.e., “object-relatedness”]. Properly, the concept of its object (predmet) is already implicitly contained in the very concept of activity. The expression “objectless activity” is devoid of any meaning. Activity may seem objectless, but scientific investigation of activity necessarily requires discovering its object. Thus, the object of activity is twofold: first, in its independent existence as subordinating to itself and transforming the activity of the subject; second, as an image of the object, as a product of its property of psychological reflection that is realized as an activity of the subject and cannot exist otherwise” (1978, ch. 3, p. 52).

In this paragraph, Leontyev also highlights that the object of activity is both an objective situation, which can exist only by force of material interactions outside the consciousness of the subject, and an subjective representation of the object, a product of psychological reflection, which is its meaning for the subject. So both subjective and objective are united in this concept of the object of activity. This view, in which subject and object are mutually constituted, has its roots in Hegel’s concept of Objekt. It also carries the meaning of Gegenstand as the intentional object, or goal to which the subject is striving and which provides the motive for activity. So the object is not just something contemplated or cognised, but is equally tied up with all the emotions associated with striving – suffering, hope, pain, desire, and so on, as well as will, attention, and so on.

This also means that the object of activity is the ultimate reason explaining an activity, the source of the motivation underlying participation in the activity. For Leontyev, despite the emphasis given to the objectivity of the object of activity (and all practical action for that matter), and the social nature of all an individual’s activity, his interest is as a psychologist. So it is the individual’s object(ive) which is at issue, the ultimate motivation of his or her actions, and which is betrayed to an observer by the individual’s actions.

In Activity Consciousness and Personality, Leontyev specifically assigns distinct meanings to Gegenstand/predmet on one hand, and Objekt/obyekt on the other in order to clarify the meaning of the ‘object of activity’ (predmet). As Kaptelinin (2005) put it:

Objekt, denoting the objective, material reality in general (as “things having an existence”), was used to describe a pole of the “subject-object” opposition, through which opposition the notion of activity as a process of mutual transformations between subject and object was defined (Leontiev, 1978, p. 50).
“The term predmet was used consistently with the previous analysis (Leontiev 2009), that is, to denote objective orientation of activity. The crucial role of the object (predmet) of activity was emphasized by Leontiev by repeatedly referring to activity as “object-related” activity (predmetnaja dejatelnost).”

This distinction which Leontyev specified between predmet and obyekt translates easily into German, but is lost when both words are translated into English as ‘object’. The reader must determine from the context whether predmet is meant: ‘the object of activity’, the imagined and desired outcome, or obyekt is meant: the Hegelian subject-object relation or the objective existence of something independently of the subject.

Note that for Activity Theorists, a ‘goal’ (цели) is the object of an action, and differs from the object of activity in that the goal provides no motivation in its own right, but only insofar as it contributes to the realisation of the object of activity. The difference between the immediate goal and the ultimate object of activity, is definitive of an action.

The Object of Activity for Yrjö Engeström

For Engeström, the object of activity is defined as:
“the ‘raw material’ or ‘problem space’ at which the activity is directed and which is molded and transformed into outcomes”

Engeström developed his version of Activity Theory with his seminal book, Learning by Expanding, in which he begins from the triangle which Vygotsky used to represent mediated action (See Mediation), taken as representing the Hegelian subject-object relation (Subjekt-Objekt), and introduces further levels of mediation so as to bring into the model the broader community with its division of labour, norms and rules and means of production. As a result of the activity, the object is changed, and this is called the Outcome. In Leontyev’s terminology, it would be the outcome which is the object of activity, except that the outcome is objective, and may not be at all what was desired or imagined. The outcome is the change effected in the object, the subject being deemed to remain unaffected.

The domain in which this conception was to be applied was organisational change, that is the organisation to be changed was the focus of activity, the Gegenstand/predmet, and is entirely objective. The object of a blacksmith’s activity is a piece of iron, the object of a teacher’s activity is a class of students. The outcome is what results from this activity. Engeström holds that preliminary phenomenological work is required, that is, enquiry into the consciousness of the actors in a system of activity, but once the researcher is oriented, the research proceeds entirely on the basis of actions rather than intentions, desires, suffering, hope, etc.

Both these conceptions of the object of activity have been subject to criticism, Leontyev’s mainly for being too subjective, Engeström’s mainly for being too objective. But when Leontyev’s system is extended to analyse societal issues it falls into a naïve objectivism, with social projects governed by “objective motives,” whilst Engeström’s system, in which the object changes into the outcome whilst the subject itself remains unchanged, fails on the psychological domain.

The Object for L. S. Vygotsky

Instead of using activities, characterised by the predmet as molar units, Vygotsky sought to make sense of a subject's actions by means of the concept which motivates them, in a sense which is closer to Hegel's use of Objekt. A concept is characterised not so much by the object (task) itself (i.e., predmet), but rather by how the subject conceives of the object (i.e., Objekt) and consequently the means of addressing the problem. That is, one and the same problem may stimulate quite different actions as means of overcoming one and the same problem.

They [Rimat and Ach] have emphasized that the concept is formed only with the emergence of a need that can be satisfied in the concept, only in the process of some meaningful goal-oriented activity directed on the attainment of a particular goal or the on resolution of a definite task.
... they have failed to reveal the actual genetic, functional, and structural nature of this process. ... In essence, they are reduced to the assertion that the goal itself creates the corresponding goal-oriented activity through a determining tendency. They are reduced to the assertion that the solution is contained in the task itself. (Vygotsky, 1934, p. 127)


Center for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research (2003), What are CHAT & DWR,

Engeström, Y. (1987). Learning by Expanding. An Activity-Theoretical Approach to Developmental Research. Chapter 2.

Kaptelinin, V. (2005). The Object of Activity: Making Sense of the Sense-Maker, Mind, Culture, and Activity 12(1), pp. 4–18.

Marx, K. (1845). Theses on Feuerbach., in German

Leontyev, A. N. (1978). Activity Consciousness and Personality., in Russian, and in German

Leontyev, A. N. (2009). The Development of Mind, Erythros Press and Media.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1934). An Experimental Study of Concept Development, Chapter 5 of Thinking and Speech, in LSVCW, v. 1, pp. 121–166

-- AndyBlunden - 16 Nov 2013


Topic revision: r18 - 29 Aug 2015, AndyBlunden

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