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An operation is an action controlled by the condition and in which the subject is not consciously aware and controlling the action.


In A. N. Leontyev’s studies (1947) of the phylogenetic evolution of activity from the most primitive organisms whose activity is determined by reflexes, the formation of operations marks an important stage of evolution. Operations emerge along with the cerebral cortex as fixed patterns of behaviour which can be adapted to conditions. The emergence of operations manifests the first capacity of organisms to form a generalised image of objects in its world. In the course of evolution, organisms increasingly gain control over operations, and when an operation is fully under the conscious control of the organism, which is able adapt the operation to conditions by conscious control, it is called an action.

In the course of the ontogenesis of human beings, we at first manage only the simplest tasks by consciously controlling them towards achieving the goal of the action. However, with repeated practice, in variable conditions, we learn to carry out the action, modified according to conditions without paying attention. This is typically illustrated by stepping over a kerb ‘automatically’ as we walk along, being aware only of the goal of our walk, such as reaching the next corner. These actions, which are carried out without conscious control and awareness, and determined by the conditions, are operations. This allows the subject to carry out a complex action, characterised by the fact that it is directed towards its goal, but composed of a multitude of operations (each step, for example) which are all controlled by the goal of the action, but determined by the immediate conditions.

However, when something ‘goes wrong’ – for example, a pot-hole in the footpath causes you to trip, the operation immediately reverts to conscious control as we try to regain our balance and the operation has become an action.

The development of the psyche to the point of being able to carry out a multitude of operations without paying attention allows the subject to carry out complex actions. Operations and actions may transform one into the other, but the action is controlled by its goal, the operation by its conditions.


Leontyev, A. N. (1947). An outline of the evolution of the psyche. In The development of mind, pp. 137-244.

-- AndyBlunden - 08 Oct 2014


Topic revision: r1 - 08 Oct 2014, AndyBlunden

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