Петр Щедровицкий

The problem of the division of labour in the context of philosophy of activity/tätigkeit

Shchedrovitsky, P. The problem of the division of labour in the context of philosophy of activity/tätigkeit//Philosophy: Theory and Practice. - Moscow. 2013. P. 185-194.

The problem of the division of labour in the context of philosophy of activity/tätigkeit

Division of labour phenomenon in broad sense is widely know
and stated in sources for ages

The term of the Division of labour in the broad sense is widely known and stated in sources for ages. For example, in the popular anthology Readings in the Economics of the Division of Labour. The Classical Tradition (2005)[1] edited by Guang-Zhen Sun we found some quotes from Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, Ibn Khaldūn. This is a strong argument for us to consider that phenomenon’s active discussion was both in ancient and medieval sources.

As it is known, Adam Smith and his predecessors in 17–18 centuries: A. Serra, 1613, W. Petty, 1671, D. North, 1691, Martyn, 1701, B. Mandeville, 1720[2], E.L. Carl, 1722, P. Lindsay, 1733[3], R. Campbell, 1747[4], F. Hutcheson, 1755[5], J. Tucker 1755[6], J. Harris, 1757[7], A. Ferguson,1767[8], Turgot, 1770 – all of them attached importance to the fundamental sense of division of labour processes in the case of productivity enhancement, increase of labour efficiency and wealth of nations.

Reflection on the experience of historical development of human activity allowed to make the difference between the “native” and the “artificial” (that is, “technological”) DL from the 18th century. Historians and ethnographers maintained that the traces of “native” division of labour can be detected in any human society from the very beginning of human history: above all in its sex-, age- and territory-dependent forms. The influence of “native” division of labour on the building of fundamental economical institutes – such as trade, money, credit – was described in many works.

Well known example of division of labour into 18 operations in pin-making business is the fundament for the 1st chapter of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1767) and its empirical part almost entirely repeats the article «Pin» from Encyclopédie (1751) Diderot and D’ Alembert.

At the same time, “technological” division of labour has a very long history as well. An example of such division was described by Thor Heyerdahl in his book “Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island” (1957) – this example describes the installation of a rock statue by a group of aborigines of the Easter Island. It is also evident that the Pyramides of Egypt can be built only with a very elaborate and differentiated division of complex labour operations into more simple, performed by different agents of the production process, and without “assembly” of these simple operations into chains and complexes of activities.

Many researchers in 19 century also pay attention and work on advanced study of the division of labour phenomenon, but economists in 20th century generally tired of it. Those problems, which traditionally refer to division of labour phenomenon in broad sense, are usually described as technical and empirical – mostly as a part of engineering and factory management or as a subjects matter of sociology, psychology and anthropology. In particular, Lionel Robbins notes this fact in his An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic (1932).

This process was carried out and analyzed at certain enterprises by engineers and production managers, classics of industrial engineering (IE for short); IE was described perfectly in Henry Ford’s works with the example of creation the automobile “assembly line”[9]. In economical thought, on the contrary, in spite of acknowledging the important influence of division of labour on the labour productivity and wealth, the division of labour system (DLS for short) is look like a kind of “black box”, which internal structure is never become a subject of the economics itself. May be said that due to its original practical “simplicity”, the true scientific and philosophical interest for the DL processes paled into insignificance in the 20th century.

Amount of this term and sphere of these phenomena contrasts sharply with the priority and level of its theoretic comprehension/conceptualization

At the same time, we should recognize that the importance of this term and sphere of these phenomena stands in stark contrast with the level of its theoretic comprehension/conceptualization.
There is terminological confusion with the phenomenon of «specialization» for the entry «division of labour» in the one of the most relevant economics encyclopedia New Palgrave’s Dictionary of Economics, 2008 (edited by Peter Groenewegen). Herein «division of labour» is described both as a synonym, as a special case and a pre-requisite for specialization.[10]

We have found 3 different species of division of labour in the entry:

  • social division of labour;
  • division of work inside factory walls;
  • manufacturing division of labour.

In other sources you can find a difference between «horizontal» and «vertical» divisions of labour, opposition between «native» (sex-age structure, territorial) and «artificial» (technologic) divisions of labour, discussion on wide area of problems of division of activity / tätigkeit (inter alia, an operationalization of labour, a division of tasks, activities, a separation and distribution of powers), an economy of scale.
Starting from Marx, leastwise, the topic of division of labour and activity / tätigkeit is quite naturally refers to necessity/requirement of following unionization of those activities into whole new entity – coordination, cooperation, communication, organization and management, etc.

The schematization of sense field

Let’s try to schematize this sense field to facilitate further research.
In such case as the division of labour / division and co-organization of work in a separate enterprise is in a center of the consideration, like it was in the works written by Ford in early 20th century, we will get at least 4 groups of different processes (effects).
They associate with each other and combine in a single field of division of labour in the broad sense of the word, acting as factors which could stimulate or limit the division of labour in the narrow sense of the word (as the division of works or activity in a particular enterprise).

«Division» of activity / tätigkeit and thinking.

At the same time another dimension of the process of DLS creation is always present. Let’s call it “vertical”. In this dimension the work on designing of systems of activities concerning the creation of product, including the process of designing and re-designing this product. The more complex the product is, the more complex the vertical dimension will be. Nowadays it will necessarily include the processes of research, design, creating of production system, system of logistics and activity management. Just a few hundreds of people work at the assembly plant of the “Boeing” corporation in Seattle. But the system of creation of modern aircraft and all the more of the aircraft of the future requires the work of hundreds of thousands of specialists, scattered over the globe and involved in dozens of related sectors.

When we speak about any complex project, we might say that it’s constructed from the activities oriented towards its creation. Modern composite aircraft is built from different activities than the one that we traveled by 30 years ago. The DLS that is needed to create a modern aircraft, consisting 70 % of composite materials and created due to module assembly, is radically different from the DLS that has existed just a while ago.

In order to perfect his “assembly line” Henry Ford was purposely involving his workers in this process, creating “circles of quality” at the factory. The project-making and new DLS-growing system in the new economic sectors now involves thousands of specialists – from the participants of fundamental sciences of materials research to the specialists in psychology, from the designers to the specialists in digital models.

Here we should stress that the construction of modern DLS is not only a question of engineering and management. The development of DLS is impossible without comparing the “effectiveness” of different combinations of production factors; this “computation” in the real situation is made by hundreds and thousands of businessmen on the basis of market-prices; which means that the “vertical” involves systems of management account and financial markets, on the foundation of which the configuration of DLS is being developed.

In different periods of time each factor and/or its connections went through detail examination and study by different authors for the last time.

At the same time, we would like to emphasize the one of the mentioned factors. In our opinion, it rarely (or even never) becomes a subject matter of special theoretic analysis and in-depth philosophical analysis. The issue is about «division» of activity / tätigkeit and thinking.

Obviously in any case of organization of work «here and now» in a separate enterprise you should decide preliminary and in parallel a question of the activity’s description and objectification, which must be divided in future into its constituent parts, for example, operations and procedures. It also matters for all practical problems and cases of division of work in a separate enterprise (as H. Ford tackled a problem).

Such objectification – the description of workman’s activities, externalization of the “hidden” premises of that activities and operations (including actions in the mind or imagination, so-called thinking actions or intellectual operations in the psychology) – is a condition for building the supply chain of a complex product and involving useable for production process machines and mechanisms.

F. Taylor – as one of the predecessors of revolution in management and the author of so-termed Scientific management – has devoted much time to study psycho physiologic characteristics of human motions and its locomotor system. The aim was to create the techniques of work organization and tools usage, which would be adequate for objectifying representations of human motion and action.

The schematization of sense field

It is the division of activity / tätigkeit – unlike the other aspects of the processes of division of labour – that very rarely becomes the subject of a special study. This can be explained by the fact that the researchers have focused primarily on the problems of division, differentiation and specialization of labour, rather than on the processes of co-operation and co-organization.

But the problem is significant. We need a vision of the whole activity / tätigkeit to join different parts of divided activity into the wholeness.
L. Mumford[11] in analysis of the history of ancient civilizations introduced a special term: he named this wholeness “megamachine” of activity / tätigkeit.

We suppose that the theory of activity / tätigkeit is usable as а basis for the philosophy of division of labour. It is viable because of the significance of constructing the wholeness of activity / tätigkeit.

Division of labour goes from simple forms material and practical activities to complex forms, which includes a substantial part of intellectual operations

At the same time, the changes that started in the second half of the 20th century (and especially during the last 15–20 years) force us to return to the philosophical consideration of the “division of labour”. The technological platform of contemporary industry changes essentially: most of every simple and part of complex operations are performed by the machines, automats, robots. The package of new innovational decisions and technologies (first of all, digitalization, new materials and intelligent smart systems) are taking form today. The character of labour, which has specific for the creation and exploitation of contemporary big technical systems, changes today – it becomes more and more intellectual.

The second half of the 20th century brought us one another important change. The process of division of labour actively began to “capture” those kinds and types of activity, which weren’t the object of technification and creation of new DLS 50 years ago.

Division of labour’ processes go from simple forms material and practical activities to complex forms, including a substantial part of intellectual operations, like research activity / tätigkeit, construct works, engineering, logistics, management.

It is precisely that in these fields there is a powerful process, which we can metaphorically name the new taylorization of intellectual labour. And the product of it is an intellectual “mega machines”.

This process is often described in social and psychological reality as a formation and complexification of social networks and other forms of network interactions. It is true. However, there is designing and entrepreneur’s estimation of the more and more complex intellectual «supply-chain» at the basis of these changes.

It is common sense today that the problem of the division of labour arises everywhere; intellectual «conveyors» come into existence all over the place; today in many different fields and areas of practice there is an active work on the objectification and an operational representation (description) of complex forms of thought-activity.

Earlier division of labor was led by managers of production for simple kinds of activity, using the notions of common sense and the trial-and-error method. Today this way of work of description, operationalization and co-organization doesn’t longer satisfy us, when we are dealing with intellectual processes. For designing and making technology we will have to extend considerably our notions about activity and thinking, completing philosophical ontology with the whole set of applied research and project-construction designs.

In other words, today the further deepening of processes in the case of division of labour in intellectual types and fields of activity / tätigkeit faces with the lack of scientific and theoretical knowledge and understanding of human thinking and activity / tätigkeit. And this lack is caused by deficiency of proper philosophical, ontological conceptions of activity / tätigkeit and thinking (thought-activity).

These conceptions have been actively developed in philosophy since the beginning of the 20th century.

The development of those has seriously influenced different areas of humanities and social sciences

We would like to emphasize that in late 19th – early 20th century the necessity of developing of philosophical and theoretical concepts of the activity / tätigkeit and thought-activity was fully discussed and proclaimed by different schools. Among others there are 2 major schools, which declare respective programs in this subject matter – from one hand, Marxism, from the other, Austrian School.

There are common philosophical conceptions on “activity” in the works of K. Marx on the one hand, and in the works of so-called Austrian school of economics on the other hand. These conceptions were used to improve understanding and interpreting phenomena of household, market, exchange and entrepreneurship. Ludwig von Mises in his famous work “Human Action” (1949) claimed, it is “praxeology” or “common theory of action” that economics as a type of knowledge is based on.

These schools have strong opposition in their value systems, but they both recognize that the ontology/theory of activity / tätigkeit (or praxeology) is fundament for economics and management science.

However, these value systems’ differences decline to connect 1) objective representations of historical processes of development activity / tätigkeit and thinking, according to Marxist methodology, and 2) subjective representations of aimed human activity (thought-activity), developed by sociologic and physiologic disciplines and Austrian school of social sciences.

However, later on, the methodological and philosophical research has not acquired necessary development in the area of “theory of action” as a fundamental basis for interpretation of economical phenomenology. It can be explained by strictly social reasons: the sharp debate on the value framework of economical knowledge has expanded between Austrian school on the one hand and Marxists on the other. We can speak about the gap between German and English traditions of considering the “activity” a subject of philosophical and socio-humanist knowledge: the term “activity” used in English language from the very beginning couldn’t express the meanings that were developed by German classical philosophy.

As a result, there are two aspects of interpretation of activity – 1) the objectified interpretation, developed by Marxism and also used in the conceptions which originated from Marxism and considered activity a cultural and historical process of reproduction on the basis of transmission of norms and socialized means, and 2) the subjectified interpretation, developed in sociology, psychology and economics in the form of different theories of activity, which describes the consumer’s and entrepreneur’s behaviour using the terms of value, consciousness, effort and will. This gap between two interpretations exists today. This gap doesn’t let economics to solve (and even to state correctly) the problem of correlation between the objective value (cost) and the subjective. Also it denies to reconcile teleological and causal approaches towards the explanation of the economic phenomena.

In other words, one of the most important trends of the development of economic notions lies in the field of philosophy, regarding the growth of their explanatory power, as well as in respect of systematization of accumulated models of different scales: it needs the development of ontological concepts on Activity and Thought (Thought-Activity), meaning the history of complication of strictly philosophical ideas in this field in the second half of the 20th century.


1. Sun, G.-Zh. Readings in the Economics of the Division of labour The Classical Tradition. Singapore, World Scientific Publishing Company, 2005.

2. Mandeville, B. de. The Fable of the Bees. London, A.Roberts, 1729.

3. Lindsa, P. The Interest of Scotland Considered. Edinburgh, R. Fleming & Co., 1733.

4. Campbell, R. The London Tradesman. London, 1747.

5. Hutcheson, F. A System of Moral Philosophy. Glasgow, 1755.

6. Tucker, J. The Elements of Commerce and the Theory of Taxes. London, 1755.

7. Harris, J. An Essay Upon Money and Coins. Part I. London, G. Hawkins, 1757.

8. Ferguson, A. Manual of Political Economy. Edinburgh, 1767.

9. Ford, H., Crowther, S. My Life and Work. (Garden City, New York, USA: Garden City Publishing Company, 1922); Ford, H.; Crowther, S. Today and Tomorrow. Garden City, New York, USA: Doubleday, Page & Company. Co-edition, 1926, London, William Heinemann.

10. Groenewegen, P. Division of labour, in: The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics. Second ed. / Eds. Steven, N. Durlauf and Lawrence, E. Blume. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008; The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics Online. Palgrave Macmillan. 27 April 2013 .

11. Mumford, L. The Myth of the Machine. 1970.

Библиографическая ссылка

Shchedrovitsky, P. The problem of the division of labour in the context of philosophy of activity/tätigkeit//Philosophy: Theory and Practice. — Moscow. 2013. P. 185-194.


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