Technics and signs: anthropogenesis in Vygotsky, Leroi-Gourhan, and Stiegler

History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 44 (4):1-26 (2022)
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Abstract

This paper reconstructs L.S. Vygotsky’s account of anthropogenesis with respect to the work of anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan and late philosopher Bernard Stiegler, situating Vygotsky as a forerunner to recent theories that posit cultural scaffolding and niche construction as the main drivers of human cognitive evolution. One might think there is an immediate affinity between Vygotsky and the techno-centric accounts of Leroi-Gourhan and Stiegler. Following Leroi-Gourhan, Stiegler argues that “technics” is the main driver in the anthropogenic development of “reflective consciousness.” Vygotsky likewise claims that “psychological tools” are responsible for the development of uniquely human forms of consciousness. However, closer inspection reveals deep disparities between Vygotsky and the French thinkers. In Stiegler’s philosophical redeployment of Leroi-Gourhan’s anthropology, “reflective” cognition is the product of a prehistorical rupture in which some threshold of technical-cortical complexification is breached. For Vygotsky, on the other hand, the inverse scenario obtains. Technical development initially proceeds in tandem with the complexification of biologically based signaling behavior until the introduction of signs, which then radically restructure the cognitive apparatus. Due to inconsistencies regarding the equivalency of the technical and semiotic in Stiegler and Leroi-Gourhan, I advance a Vygotskian account where anthropogenesis is the result of semiotic rather than technical intervention. This aims to establish Vygotsky’s “Cultural Historical” approach, and the Marxian-dialectical tradition from which he draws, as not only presaging recent naturalistic accounts of development, but offering a relevant theoretical program that may continue to inspire contemporary enculturated accounts of anthropogenesis.

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Chris Drain
Dartmouth College

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