The Mozart of Psychology

The Psychology of Art

by L.S. Vygotsky
M.I.T. Press, 305 pp., $15.95

Soviet Developmental Psychology: An Anthology

edited by Michael Cole
M.E. Sharpe, 621 pp., $30.00


For forty years or more after the French Revolution, there was a breakdown of communications between physiologists working in France and their medical and scientific colleagues in Britain. This division was partly due to the fit of patriotism that engulfed the English during the Napoleonic Wars. But it was aggravated by ideological fears and suspicions aroused in Britain by the Revolution itself—the conservative fears and suspicions for which Edmund Burke had been the spokesman.

In France, these years saw “a great leap forward” in physiology. The work of Bichat and Legallois, Flourens, Laënnec, and Magendie was laying intellectual foundations on which Claude Bernard would in due course construct the first truly modern physiological theory: viz., his dynamic analysis of the “homeostatic systems” that stabilize an organism’s milieu intérieur. In Britain, by contrast, early nineteenth-century physicians remained wedded to older and more static conceptions. The reigning authorities, Hunter and Abernethy, doubted whether even vitality (to say nothing of mentality) could be the product of mere anatomical “organization”; so, from their point of view, the new theories under discussion across the Channel smelled of “rank materialism”—the kinds of ideas acceptable only to the supporters of tyrants and regicides.

As William Lawrence found when he published his Natural History of Man in 1819, anyone in Britain who toyed with the novel ideas then current in France risked being damned for aligning himself with the “French atheists.”1 Charles Darwin too knew all about these suspicions, from his days as an Edinburgh medical student in the mid-1820s, and the fear of being dubbed a “materialist” remained with him right up until the publication of The Descent of Man in 1871.2 It was in fact quite late in the nineteenth century before the claims of the new “scientific physiology” made real headway in Britain.

A similar breakdown of communications has apparently kept most American psychologists out of touch with important developments in Russian psychology ever since the end of the First World War. Much powerful Soviet work in psychology from the 1920s and 1930s on, both theoretical and experimental, remains largely unknown in the US, and is only now being made available in English translation—owing largely to the energy and initiative of Michael Cole at Rockefeller University, New York. (Professor Cole edits a quarterly journal of translations of Soviet Psychology, and is responsible for two of the three books under review here: the anthology Soviet Developmental Psychology comprises selected papers from his journal.) Yet if Michael Cole is still republishing in English papers originally written by L.S. Vygotsky and his colleagues some fifty years ago, he is doing so not as “an archival undertaking,” but because “a great deal of Soviet psychology from the 1920s and 1930s has much relevance for contemporary American research.”

Now that a substantial part of this corpus is in our hands, including some key documents not previously translated, two major questions face us: (1) What have we to learn from this material? In particular, what are we…

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