Alfred Lang

University of Bern, Switzerland

Journal Article 1997

Thinking Rich as Well as Simple: Boesch's Cultural Psychology in Semiotic Perspective


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Culture and Psychology, 1997, 3(3), 383-394.

© 1998 by Alfred Lang

Scientific and educational use permitted

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Ernst Boesch's action theory for cultural psychology is presented articulating the dilemma of achieving an observationally adequate description of what happens in and between persons in culture and keeping to the game of modern science of presenting their reference field by a system of invariable scientific concepts. Boesch is shown to give primacy to what he can observe in the real world with his admirable sensibility. However, this inevitably forces him to dissolve the concepts appropriated from action theory and elaborated with related systems of thought. The author pleads for an explicitly constructive methodology using facts derived from observing concrete evolutiv systems in operation, such as persons in culture. He sketches essential of semiotic ecology, a generativ conceptuality of a wide scope and claimed to be fit to found a culture-inclusive psychology that can evade Boesch's dilemma.

Key Words: cultural psychology, functional circle, semiotic ecology, theory construction

Like most designs of a culture inclusive psychology, Boesch's is an interpretation of the ecological system or of the relation between humans and their environment. It also includes the assumption that persons, environments and their relation develop together over time. Boesch's admirable illustrative examples and most of his empirical studies instance concrete and inclusive ecological systems functioning over some stretch of their common development. His major key concepts proposed for understanding the system and the process include action, goal, regulation, action field, polyvalence, action potential, I, self, culture, symbol, myth, fantasm.

While real life is of immense richness and complexity, theory is only helpful in understanding the human condition, if it can be simple by being essential. Good theory is clear and easy to grasp, however intricate the way of arriving at it has been. Boesch's cultural psychology is not easy to grasp and to disseminate, although I believe it is, in its essence, of the 'simple' kind. While it evidently conveys the richness of its reference field, it lacks that immediate lucidity good theory must comprise if it is to persuade. Boesch, as any other modern cultural psychologist, could not help but use a conceptuality and language that is not well suited for describing the dynamics of ecological systems. 'Language' in this context hints at the power of words to expose as well as to obscure.


Grasping Symbolic Acting in Culture

Boesch's greatest achievements, in my opinion, are his many sensible descriptions of concrete life situations and events, that is, of what happens with real peopleliving in real action fields and how this can be understood by the psychologist. Many of them are in the form of case studies or serve the purpose of illustration in his essays on all sorts of themes ranging from the conditions and effects of aesthetic objects to trivial or strange everyday scenes and to major social or cultural problems of the times. They range in length from a few lines to several pages and are to be found in all of his publications. A collection of papers from the last few years demonstrating in a masterly manner the workings of his theoretical approach is soon to appear in a volume entitled Von der Sehnsucht ('Of Longing', 1997). In fact, the ensemble of these essays presents what amounts to a culture-inclusive theory of human motivation that favorably stands out from what psychology has offered so far under this heading.

Boesch always takes issue with concrete life situations, his own and thoseof other people, from his own and from other cultures. Experiencing Heimweh (longing for home, to render the meaning only partially adequately in English) is here singled out as an example useful for sketching the overall functioning of Boesch's thinking (Boesch, 1991/1997). Unfortunately, it is impossible in a few lines to impart the level of concrete events and states Boesch's treatment requires and attains; I can only hint at them. Heimweh may often seize somebody who has gone abroad. Indeed, being forced to go abroad is a common cause, be it as a fugitive, on a mission, or due to one's career. Yet have not many been drawn from home by a Fernweh (longing to be far away)? Or been driven out from overly familiar confines by insupportable repetitions of the unchanging same? Being in this state acutely is not at all of the same nature as a depression; rather it resembles the state of having fallen deeply and unhappily in love.

How can things develop? Does the person experiencing Heimweh have to return, or shall he or she find a new place or situation elsewhere-- one which is capable of becoming really his or her proper new home? Can the process stabilize in this or that more or less acceptable balance? Will the feeling become chronic, perhaps suppressed and periodically trenchant, or perhaps be accepted and mellowed by the cultivation of this or that substitute? Will it sooner or later push the person further or draw him or her back, for some time or for life? Is it just a feeling, or does the state of mind extend into the larger person and affect his or her life beyond the psychic range?

Boesch points out that we miss something essential when we attempt to conceive of the inner conditions of such developments apart from the outer ones. By means of postulations such as the subjectivation of the objective and the objectivation of the subjective he tries to bridge that opposition between the I and the non-I which is so thorougly pervasive in western thought. We humans are comporting ourselves, he contends, determined by and in an action field which is composed as much of contributions of ourselves, of our longings, our fears, our beliefs, our knowledges, and so on, as of the characters of the settings out there, the people, the things, the houses and streets, the sounds and pictures, and so on. And essential portions of this field are the mutual profferences within a community of people living together of which we are a part, their norms, the habits of their traditions, the expectations implicit in what they offer to and desire from each other, in short our cultural field. Even when we tend to see our actions in the servicé of certain goals, we cannot help but recognize that such are only the tip of an iceberg of extended complex ensembles or fields of drawing and pushing forces. Boesch speaks of the polyvalence of all of our orientations and consumptions.


Boesch's Dissipation of Familiar Concepts

While most of the key concepts mentioned above are used by many cultural psychologists, it is instructive to see how Boesch makes use of them in his decided attempt to do justice to the observable facts of cultural life. And here precisely might reside the main difficulty of a reader who is time and again delighted by Boesch's sensibility in relation to the concrete human-environment process but does not reach a desired understanding beyond metaphor when he or she wants to make constructive use of Boesch's conceptual apparatus in his or her own work. Boesch radically dissolves or dissipates these concepts in his operating with them. I should liken him to an artisan starting his work with the tools of his trade. However, instead of using fixed tools, bringing to life ever new incorporations of his prototypical design, it is as if the tools had to be constantly adjusted in order to be adequate to and capable of treating the material and achieving his purpose, so that in the very process of using them the tools and the material, as it were, change each other.

Retaining the familiar terms in order to grasp what happens among people in culture, Boesch's consequential use of these largely common concepts coerce him to give up nearly all of their accepted meaning and to radically widen their scope and use (with the one exception of the I or self). For example, the term Handlung ('conduct' is a nearer equivalent in English than 'action') is generally used to refer to behavior serving a purpose; often, 'aware' (bewusst) and 'willed' (intended) are considered to be requisite characteristics of an action. The notion has its roots in Aristotelian anthropology and is basic to the western legal system. In German idealism its meaning was biased towards its inner aspects. Kurt Lewin as well as Lev Vygotsky and their followers reintroduced it into modern psychology; but some of their seminal ideas were only taken up in the latter third of this century. Thus in German-language psychology Handlungstheorie has become the common denominator of a group of more or less related renewal movements. Much of the present-day psychological use of 'action' terms, unfortunately, is to compensate for some behaviorists' ill-fated attempts to strip the notion of behavior of its inherent relatedness to the environment, such as in instinct.

Boesch, while starting his proper line of conceptual development before that renewal movement gained attention, welcomed that more realistic notion of action as a new foundation for understanding humans actionally engaging with their environment. But bringing that notion of action into living situations as he understands them, Boesch proceeds to point out the composite character of that process. Whereas most contemporary action theorists strain to confine 'action' as a basic unit, he emphasizes its being part of chains or systems of actions and situations (see Boesch, 1991, pp. 43ff.). He goes on to remark that action in all its discernible segments leads to results that are evaluated and either accepted or negated by the actor or by events and people from the environment, consequent upon which the course of action may change. So what after the fact looks like a chain of actions or subactions is in reality more like a way through a maze. Many of the parts of an action can go astray or lead beyond the original goal. Paradoxically, action is at its best when it remains an internal process for large stretches; for why should one try something in fact that is quicker and more efficiently done in the mental realm? Also, many purposes cannot be attained single-handedly; so modes of acting through others recruited by means of communication are in order. Action thus becomes symbolic in several respects and it would be misleading to restrict that notion to actual executions of motor behavior patterns between the incitement of a plan and the consumption of its goal. An action is thus only meaningfully conceivable as an actualization of one of the immense numbers of possibilities realized in an action field by the concretization of a given action potential; actions made feasible or required by any given environmental situation materialize only in combination within the potential and constraints of the action potential of the person in question.

A key notion in action theory is the goal. A goal is what organizes a set of operations to serve a purpose; attaining a goal is the crucial element for segmenting the stream of behavior in actional terms. Again, Boesch, with his realistic stance, observes that many actions are not terminated after reaching their goal; on the contrary, he says, they reach beyond, and there are even actions 'with, so to speak, permanent goals' (Boesch, 1991, pp. 45f£). Rather than letting himself be drawn into the action theorists' controversies about the genuine or attributive character of the goal, Boesch goes on to claim that actions have practically always many goals. He thus proposes one of the few terms of his own creation: the polyvalence of all goals and action processes. Yet this obviates or deconstructs the accepted sense of both notions: an action can no longer be delimited and united by its goal and a goal can no longer organize a set of related actions. In addition, building upon William James's insights, Boesch explodes the notion of goal as an internal state or intention and embraces the principle that goals are certain states of the world as well as desired states of one self. Taking the relational character of the action-theoretical terms seriously prevents giving them the fixed meaning required to make them functional.

The demonstrated dissipation of common concepts by the very attempt to render them pertinent is perhaps most obvious in Boesch's use of the terms symbol and symbolic (Boesch, 1991, pp. 73ff.). Boesch introduces his notion of symbolism by way of the distinction between the denotative and the connotative meaning of an object. Here he appears to be well within the modes of thought of the western essentialist tradition enabling the methodological certitudes of extensional logic. The moderate psychoanalytic touch conveyed to the connotative meaning appears to confirm that supposition since it has the material object and its essential attribute be part of the objective world and the connotations be the accidental and contingent accretions brought into the relation by the subject in his or her personal way.

However, a second look at how Boesch actually treats the symbolic reveals another vista. By introducing situational, functional, analogical, ideational symbolism and finally invoking otherness symbolism (das Andere) as part and dialectical parcel of a comprehensive understanding of any action, goal, object, circumstance, process, experience or fact, Boesch invokes what he calls the 'pervasiveness of symbolism'. Like the goal concept's distributed character, the symbolic impregnates whatever participates in the factual pattern of exchanges and influences that make a psychological life. Being involved with anything in essence means bringing symbolic dimensions and viewpoints of all varieties into the process and so articulating that immense connectedness of things psychological that leaves the selective relational bonds typical of physical entities far behind.

Boesch specifies the symbolic as playing a crucial role in the dialogical process between the individual and the cultural, in that he conceives of cultural change and individual development in terms of the myth-fantasm distinction and interaction. Much of what a member of a group encounters in the social process is of the general character of a myth; yet acquiring it means to generate one's own version of it, often in personal fantasy; some of the latter will find at times, in addition, a public form which then becomes part of and can contribute to the change of the myth, which in turn becomes a new source of individual fantasms. By this happy metaphorical conception, Boesch even enhances that pervasive force of all things psychical. For everything symbolic needs a material form to be real but at the same time belies that form and flies to new frontiers. A rose is a rose is a rose ... really! Or perhaps not?

The one exception to this pattern of dissipation of common conceptual fixations that are so dear to sciences is the 'I' (Boesch, 1991, chap. 8). Boesch construes identity formation as 'consisting essentially in the construction of an inner "self" (Boesch, 1991, p. 296) which, as with all the other concepts mentioned above, also refers to and involves 'factual parameters' both from within the body and from the physical, social and cultural environment. Self and self-development or identity formation thus are entities underlying that pervasive process and spread or dispersed existence that characterizes the action field and action potential, as shown above. Yet the developing self presupposes in Boesch's contention an origin that totally precedes the process and is claimed as its internal prerequisite. This is probably not only, as Boesch introduces the 'I', a repercussion of the circumstance that he largely construes his theory on the base of immediate experience; it also reflects in some sense the key element of western notions of the person, namely an immutable kernel to which everything else is attached: the I-experiencing, the I-acting, the I-world opposition or -relationship which has, in addition to its Platonic origin, Augustinian, Cartesian and Kantian overlays up to the present day in our societies, whether they manifest themselves in an epistemological or in an ethical context. Yet the I, whatever Boesch thinks of its crucial role in starting the formation process of person and culture, is of little factual consequence in the actual proceedings of forming a self or an identity. It is no more than a virtual point or hub of the wheel, whereas all that emerges from its interaction with the environment will again be of the same pervasive and dispersed nature as is everything constituting the person-culture system.

In the present limited context, the point of my demonstration of conceptual dissipation may perhaps better be appreciated if we consider the concept of culture as used by many cultural psychologists or cultureoriented scientists from other fields. Every reasonable thinker, I believe, must sooner or later gain the insight that attempts at defining culture in a definite way are futile. For, if culture is conveyed by a concept of the kind of immutable persistence everybody wants scientific terms to possess, it ceases to be real culture, that is, the action-incited flux and its temporary fixations in and among people and their world. If 'culture' is to refer to a large set of structures and processes that constitute more and similar structures and processes of the same and similar kind over time, then 'culture' is by its very nature a pervasive concept, a concept that is only useful if it can remain vague. Boesch's definitional attempts (Boesch, 1991, pp. 29-39) confirm rather than deny that insight. Indeed, in his theorizing, 'culture' is a pointer to that complex in general or to any of its particular manifestations in the world rather than a technical term with a particular functional role in the theory.


On Conceptual Strategies: Towards a Semiotic Ecology

My highlighting of Boesch's conceptual dissipations may provoke two opposite reactions. The more immediate one may be to disallow Boesch's thinking the status of a usable theory due to the imprecision of its conceptual tools. This cannot be seriously entertained, since it would amount to a dogmatic attitude contrary to the spirit of scientific inquiry. A more reflective reaction would be to query the substantial grounds for the state of affairs Boesch has been led into by what he felt to be of import.

Boesch's deviation from the common pattern of fixing concepts with their operational definitions and of requiring the observable to conform perhaps explains some of the difficulties many of his readers have in following him. Boesch himself in a short piece of methodological 'fiction' (Boesch, 1996) discusses the relationship of established methodological standards to cultural reality which touches upon that sort of 'competition' between observables and concepts I am talking about. Predictably, his heart is with the real world in its complexity. In many of his recent papers, while habitually taking the role of a scientist, he often speaks in a manner more akin to a writer.

Is there an alternative conceptual strategy? How can we avoid, while using rigorous conceptualizations, our well-defined concepts dissolving in our hands precisely by applying them rigorously to concrete situations? I think the key to solving the problem lies in accepting that all our traditional concepts are neither genuinely evolutive nor ecological in nature. This is understandable in that they have been shaped in times denying the evolutive and the genuinely systemic character of the world. Person and environment, action and perception, self and culture, and so on--all are concepts defined separately and then put together to form a synthetic system. Similarly, these concepts are not genuinely temporal; though meant to refer to processes they are in fact pointers to isolated states or episodes that are then arbitrarily chained to sequences. Yet evolutions are more than sequences. In addition, those concepts do not reckon upon the intrinsic identity of the ecological and the evolutive: truly evolutive systems are always ecological systems; only ecological systems truly evolve, that is, systems whose more flexible parts generatively engage in dialogue with the more fixed parts, thus constituting each other and more over time. We desperately need genuinely evolutive-ecological concepts.

The solution, I believe, lies in adopting a generative or constructive methodology. In explaining evaluative systems our concepts should generate rather than represent the observables. It is better for a science, after having taken a broad inventory and achieved a provisional typification or classification of phenomena, not to attempt further progress by refinement of these nominal categories into concepts. For, first, too much in the descriptions of the phenomena and their perceived or assumed relations mirrors the conceptual organization of the refiner him- or herself and of the tradition of which they are part rather than what the concepts are supposed to refer to.

Second, this procedure almost inevitably leads to unconnected conceptual islands, and, as a consequence, to the latter's quantitative proliferation without other than extrinsic constraints such as eventual lack of money. In the physical sciences the substitution of fire-waterearth-and-air combinatorics by the constructive method has been the decisive starting-point for understanding the functioning of the world of matter and energy. Think, for example, of constructs like inertia, fzeld or valence. In my opinion, psychology and social sciences mostly still linger in the backwater of premodern science.

The constructive method in turn would construct or invent systems of real instances which, while themselves mostly latent, can bring about in combined operation what can be observed. Observables thus are at the end rather than at the beginning of explanatory process. This allows for systems of observables to be accounted for by systems of conditions. Evidently, the method stands or falls with the fitness of the constructs invented and with the capability of their ensemble to guide empirical research towards descriptions that stand the tests of real life.

In our context, the constructive method easily allows the explicit reconstruction of that idea of the biological function circle (or helix) connecting and mutually constituting organisms and their environment in exchanges over time. In view of the human condition it can be safely assumed that this ecological system and its continuing generative exchanges are intensified into the mutual and dialogical constitution and developmental regulation of both the person and culture as the two distinct but connected and interdependent parts of the ecological unit for any particular individual. Any one person undergoes a lifelong developmental change and stabilization within one or several given cultural settings. The cultural or subcultural patterns themselves have lifetimes in traditions that may span over many generations, yet include shorter-term innovations and declines. In fact, many of the discernible items making those cultural patterns outlive all individuals of one or many generations; yet some other items or patterns take short 'lives' in passing, while the involved persons endure beyond. As a consequence, we have to introduce real time into the conception and into the observations of the ecological unit. We have to do this on both sides of the dialogues, because in some respect the environment is stable compared to the changing individual, in others the asymmetry of the relation is reversed.


Semiotic ecology is proposed as a conceptual system for dealing with evolutive systems in general. It can be used in particular to build a culture-inclusive psychology that explicitly focusses on the ongoing mutual constitution and development of the parts of ecological systems such as persons in culture.

The reader may be used to understand semiotic as the science of interpretation. However, semiotic ecology is of a much deeper scope than semiotics in the literature. Here, a sign is something discernible or inferable that has the potential to develop entirely different effects under affined conditions than in any other connection.

The key concept in semiotic ecology is structure formation. The world including the human condition consists of structures formed and transformed and un-forrning in the process of these structures' selective interactions at any one point in time and space. These interactions are dynamic and of essentially triadic nature: A together with a relatively independent B results in C as an outcome. Two structures encounter more or less randomly with the result of a transformation of one of them or of the formation of a new structure. The chemical metaphor is preferred over the physical one which is traditionally used in psychology and which is of a dyadic nature (A leads to B).

Triadic structure formation as the basic notion of conditions-andeffect is attained by introducing the notion of a generative semiotic. In evolutive systems all structures are formed, of course, within the range of what is physically and chemically possible. Yet a space of free play exists in that the forms actually attained are, in addition, determined by the structures formed earlier in the system and semi-randomly present in actuality.

All structures within an evolutive system carry in some way much of their history in them. They bring some of it to new bearings in that they are capable of selectively interacting with structures that have emerged in the same evolutionary stream in a much more specific way than with any less affine structures they may encounter. They need not 'care' for the larger part of all the structures around as long as these do not enter their life with brute force. In other words, co-evolved structures are characterized by a relatively higher degree of affinity which, on the one hand, provides for selectivity in interaction, and, on the other, allows for the realization of a potential of interactive consequences that could not happen otherwise.

Triadic semiosis in the human condition can be specified as generating structures in the course of four phases of the function circle or helix constituting the ecological process in culture. Although not fundamentally different from simpler species that are more definitely embedded by their instinctual endowment into a species' proper type of Umwelt, the cultural function circle gains much in potential for variation and also requires new forms of selectivity if the systems are not to run the risk of developing astray. The principal innovation lies in the increased capability of humans to create and proffer enduring and transient structures almost at their discretion. However, these new structures, as much as they incorporate some of the character of their producers, would serve no effect and would be lost in space and time if other affine inviduals were not to become interested in those profferences, taking up at least some of them and thus creating that specific cultural environment of any smaller or larger community.

There are great advantages in studying the function circle principally on the factual or concrete level. Starting from the beginning on the level of language-based exchanges and the respective meaning structures is a bit risky. It may be too far away from the basic organism-environment relation and may thus lead researchers to lose sight of continuity and the important connections existing between bio-evolution and cultural change. Moreover, the pivotal role of the many individual evolutions between the one biotic and the particular cultural levels is easier to research in fields where artistic freedom or other situations of fewer constraints give individual persons greater chances to proffer innovative cultural structures. Such situations, in addition, provide better occasions for the researchers to follow the conditions-and-effect paths running through the function helix. My field of preference is the dwelling activity of small groups within their larger cultural tradition (for more details and slightly more elaborated though still rather limited presentations of semiotic ecology, see Lang, 1992, 1993, 1994; Lang, Slongo, & Schaer Moser, in preparation).

An important advantage of this construction lies in the fact that it does not deal differently at the conceptual level with structure formation processes in the function circle, whether enduring or transitory, or whether they occur inside or outside the heads of individual persons. For, speaking of structures in ecological systems, their 'memory' function must equally pertain to the inner organic parts of the circle as to its environmental part. The mutuality and the differences as well as the relatedness between these two domains of 'storage' for eventual later effects could prove a highly fruitful field of research if the two domains are not conceived in entirely different terms (as we are presently accustomed to). Herein lies a great promise of constructive methodology and of semiotic ecology.



This essay is dedicated to Ernst Boesch on the occasion of his 80th birthday and is written to express my deep gratitude for many years of encouraging friendship in the criÜcal spirit. I also thank Jaan Valsiner for helpful comments and his suggestion of using a comparaÜve perspective.



Boesch, Ernst E. (1991) Symbolic action theory and cultural psychology. Berlin: Springer.

Boesch, E. E. (1991/1997) Skizze zur Psychologie des Heimwehs . Pp. 17-36 in: Peter Rück (Ed.) Grenzerfahrungen -- Schweizer Wissenschaftler, Journalisten und Künstler in Deutschland. Marburg a.d.L, Basilisken-Presse. (To be published in 1997 in the revised version "Heimweh und Fernweh" in E. E. Boesch (Ed.) Von der Sehnsucht [Of Longing.] (in prep.)

Boesch, E. E. (1996) The seven flaws of cross-cultural psychologiy -- the story of a conversion. Mind, Culture, and Acitivity 3 (1) 2-10.

Boesch, E.E. (1997) Von der Sehnsucht. Saarbrücken: private printing (in press).

Lang, A. (1992) Kultur als 'externe Seele' -- eine semiotisch-ökologische Perspektive. Pp. 9-30 in: Christian Allesch; Elfriede Billmann-Mahecha & Alfred Lang (Eds.) Psychologische Aspekte des kulturellen Wandels. Wien: Verlag des Verbandes der wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaften Oesterreichs.

Lang, A. (1993) Non-Cartesian artefacts in dwelling activities -- steps towards a semiotic ecology. Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 52 (2) ,138-147 (Reprinted in: Quarterly Newsletter of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition (UCSD), 15 (3), 1993, 87-96).

Lang, A. (1994) Toward a mutual interplay between psychology and semiotics. Journal of Accelerated Learning and Teaching, 19 (1), 45-66.

Lang, A.; Slongo, D. & Schaer Moser, M. et al. (in prep. 1997) People with their Things in their Rooms -- the Semiotic Ecology Approach. Mind, Culture, Activity (whole issue).



Biographical Note

ALFRED LANG is Professor of psychology at the University of Bern, Switzerland. Born and educated there and at York University in Toronto he got his Ph.D. in Bern 1964. He has been working in various fields of psychology ranging from personality and early development to perception and action. Since the mid 1970s he leads a small group specializing in environmental psychology focussing on the dwelling activity and understanding people together with their things and their private and public places. His theoretical orientation is based in Gestalt theory, especially the ecological approach of Kurt Lewin, and he is open into both the biological and the social and cultural domains. When he discovered the semiotics of Charles Peirce and Johann Gottfried Herder's theory of cultural evolution around 1990, he gained the potential to contribute in theory and research to a culture-inclusive psychology and base it on semiotic ecology. He is highly interested in reconstructing the sidestram of thinking and researching the human condition starting in the late 18th century with Herder and leanding among others to Simmel, Vygotsky and Dewey.

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