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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

I

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 to make of the strong claims that Cole and his colleagues advance on its behalf? Given all these last fifty busy years of American research in a couple of dozen different fields of academic psychology, clinical neurology, linguistics, and educational theory, can behavioral scientists here really have overlooked fruitful questions and lines of investigation pursued by their Russian counterparts all these years? And (2), why has this literature been ignored for so long? Was so serious a breakdown of communications really possible in the mid-twentieth century? How could an entire school of important psychologists and neurologists have been working and publishing in Russia for forty years, and still be largely unknown in the West?

The answers to these two questions are connected. As we can now see, differences of theory, method, and philosophy between the two countries have given rise to differences in the organization of psychological and neurological research, and have been reinforced by them in return. So, intellectual and institutional factors alike have distracted most Western behavioral scientists from the significance of this Soviet work. As a result (it seems) we are now, and only now, ready to digest its results and incorporate them into our own scientific ways of thought.

II

The central figure in this story is Lev Semyonovitch Vygotsky, who died of tuberculosis in June 1934, at the age of thirty-seven. The last years of Vygotsky’s life had been a hectic race against his disease. (He was perhaps the last of those consumptive geniuses who gave the word “hectic” its peculiar complex of meanings.) He left behind him no polished, well-organized oeuvre, but rather a devoted band of colleagues. During the worst years of Stalinism, when academic psychology in the USSR was cast in the shadows, Vygotsky’s colleagues and pupils continued working in the directions he had opened up, and they were later able to contribute to the rehabilitation of the subject: partly through their war work on the “aphasiology” (or clinical neurology) of patients with brain injuries, partly through the improvement of educational techniques.3

While some of Vygotsky’s immediate associates are still at work in Russia, they are mainly in their seventies. His most distinguished co-worker, Alexander Romanovich Luria, whose extraordinary range of interests and abilities in due course made him very possibly the finest all-round psychologist of the century, died in August of last year.4 Still, if Luria was Beethoven to Vygotsky’s Mozart—and Vygotsky can be seen as the Mozart of psychology, as Sadi Carnot was of physics—that was only because he had the good fortune he needed. He survived. The wide-ranging intellectual possibilities pursued by Luria, in his own less theoretical ways, from literature across the board to neurophysiology by way of linguistics and educational innovation, had all been initially suggested in discussions with Vygotsky and his associates during the years around 1930.5

Vygotsky himself had not begun as a psychologist. He majored in literature at the University of Moscow immediately before the 1917 revolution, and his initial research was in critical theory, notably on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. (The resulting book, The Psychology of Art, has been available in English since 1971.) With this background, Vygotsky was quickly drawn into discussions going on in and around the Institute of Psychology in Moscow about the social and cultural structuring of “consciousness.” (These discussions date from 1924 on, when K.I. Kornilov took over the directorship of the institute.) Vygotsky’s energy and originality soon made him a leader in these discussions—he even embarked on a medical training, so as to master the neurological and psychiatric phenomena relevant to comprehension, concept formation, and consciousness—and he remained a dominant figure in the debate until his premature death.

Yet it is only since the later 1950s that Vygotsky’s ideas have begun to have their full impact on scientific psychology, even in the Soviet Union.6 Until 1962, his name was known in the West only in connection with an elegant test for studying children’s grasp of concepts, using simple play blocks, and with a controversy in which he successfully contested Jean Piaget’s earlier views about the role of inner (or “egocentric”) speech in the child’s life. The publication of an English version of his 1934 monograph on Thought and Language (MIT Press, 1962) gave American readers a first taste of his analytical approach. But now, at long last, we have a representative selection of his theoretical essays, in a new collection prepared by Michael Cole and his co-workers, under the ingenious title Mind in Society.

Given the circumstances of Vygotsky’s life and work, the book is unavoidably something of a compilation. It pieces together sections from four of Vygotsky’s writings: chiefly, an unpublished monograph on “Tool and Symbol in Children’s Development” dating from 1930, and a chapter on “The History of the Development of Higher Psychological Functions” issued previously in Russian in 1960. However, it has two solid virtues. It was prepared with the active collaboration of A.R. Luria, so it can certainly claim to be authoritative. And it provides the sense we have long needed of Vygotsky’s over-all theoretical enterprise, of which his studies on thought and language are one, but only one, aspect.

III

Throughout his brief career, Vygotsky’s preoccupations centered on consciousness: more specifically, on the modes in which consciousness is “represented”—both mentally and neurologically—in the life of the individual. In his view, these problems cannot be convincingly dealt with by focusing either on our genetic inheritance and innate capacities alone or on the influence of external, environmental factors alone. Vygotsky was willing to take neither the “nativist” route preferred today by Chomsky and the transformational grammarians nor the “external conditioning” route followed by Skinner and the radical behaviorists. Those two routes—he insisted—were not the only options available to us.7 Instead, he undertook a new kind of developmental attack on these problems.

In the course of a child’s upbringing, education, and social experience, the child comes to “embody” in itself certain modes of perception, thought, and behavior that are, at least at the outset, characteristic of its origins. In short, it becomes both socialized and enculturated. (In Soviet jargon, the child’s “consciousness” becomes “structured” as it does on account of the “cultural-historical conditions” in which it is embedded.) What Vygotsky set out to discover was how these changes take place, and what more general processes they typically involve. Certainly, in his view, they rest neither on maturation alone nor on conditioning alone; and, furthermore, they clearly implicate both psychological and neurological processes. In psychological terms, Vygotsky’s goal was to discover how enculturation, socialization, and the development of thought processes are shaped by the child’s inner life—especially by the use it makes of “inner speech.” In neurological terms, similarly, he wanted to find out how the social, cultural, linguistic, and intellectual skills it acquires during the formative years are supported by, and “represented in,” the cortical mechanisms of the maturing nervous system.

In coming to developmental psychology from aesthetics and literary criticism, Vygotsky was exceptionally sensitive to the varied and changing roles of language in a child’s mental life. He studied with particular care the manner in which the child makes use of, and relies on, language in making new skills its own. Typically, those skills are first mastered and exercised in social and instructional settings, among and alongside other human agents, with more or less in the way of public linguistic regulation and commentary. Subsequently, they are consolidated in the course of solitary play, with the help of “talking to oneself”; and then they become part of the child’s unthinking repertory of abilities bit by bit, through being the topics, first, of the child’s progressively more condensed inner speech, and finally of its silent thought.

The earlier monograph on Thought and Language gave us a fair grasp of Vygotsky’s ideas about this process of “internalization with the help of inner speech”: the process through which operations and calculations originally conducted overtly, in the public domain—by demonstration and verbal regulation, between the child and its mentors—become parts of the child’s own personal repertory, to be repeated covertly and at will, as inner or private “mental” operations. (Those who know that earlier book will recall the striking final essay, in which Vygotsky discusses the “compression” of internal speech—with illustrations from Dostoevsky and Tolstoy—and considers the manifold ways in which “a cloud of thoughts” may be condensed into a single word.)

  1. 1

    Lawrence was denied copyright protection for his book by the courts, on the grounds that its materialistic doctrines were “blasphemous.” For this curious episode, see June Goodfield, “Some Aspects of English Physiology: 1780-1840,” in Journal for the History of Biology, Vol. 2(1969), pp. 285-320.

  2. 2

    One of his fellow students at Edinburgh gave a paper to an undergraduate society on “materialism,” which had to be formally expunged from the society’s minutes at the command of the university authorities. See Howard E. Gruber and Paul H. Barrett, Darwin on Man (Dutton, 1974), pp. 201-217, especially pp. 205-206.

  3. 3

    In fact, Vygotsky himself became one of the particular targets of Stalin’s criticisms. Whereas Vygotsky sought to reintegrate the supposedly separate sciences of “natural” and “cultural” phenomena, Stalin insisted that all phenomena were “culturally conditioned,” and so amenable to technological transformation by human intervention. (The similarity to the issues raised by Lysenko’s genetics is clear.) During the immediate postwar years, as a result, Vygotsky remained a “non-person,” and Soviet psychology at first revived on a more behaviorist (“reactological”) or physiological (“reflexological”) basis. Not until after Stalin’s death were Vygotsky’s own closest associates even free and able to lecture about his work once again.

  4. 4

    Several of Luria’s more important books are available in English: e.g., Higher Cortical Functions in Man, The Working Brain, and The Mind of a Mnemonist. His autobiography, currently being edited for publication by Michael Cole, contains a detailed firsthand account of the ups and downs of Soviet academic and clinical psychology since the Revolution.

  5. 5

    Luria’s own comment in his autobiography, reprinted on the dust-jacket of Mind in Society, reads:

    Vygotsky was a genius. After more than half a century in science I am unable to name another person who even approaches his incredible analytical ability and foresight. All of my work has been no more than the working out of the psychological theory which he constructed.

    Ah, but what a “working out”!

  6. 6

    For instance, in a recent issue of Soviet Psychology, Cole reprints a paper by L.I. Bozhovich on “The Concept of the Cultural-Historical Development of the Mind,” translated from Voprosy psikhologii for 1977, which explores aspects of Vygotsky’s work that still have original implications for psychological research in the USSR today. Of course, this delay is partly due to the twenty years of official disfavor into which Vygotsky’s ideas fell, from 1935 to 1955. Half a dozen of his students survived the Second World War, and took up important positions after it; but the twenty-year intermission led to a “generation gap” in the teaching of Soviet psychology, and the strength that the reactologists and reflexologists acquired during these years has done much to reduce Vygotsky’s influence even within Russia. In fact, some informed American observers consider that his ideas are likely to be developed and exploited more effectively in the US during the years ahead—by such people as John Flavell of Stanford and Ann Brown of the University of Illinois—than in the Soviet Union. By some intellectual version of Gresham’s Law, just as Western psychology is beginning to escape from its earlier positivism, Russian academic psychology is, ironically, beginning to look more like the American experimental psychology of the intervening forty years!

  7. 7

    Academic psychologists in the US frequently talk as though there was no serious via media between these two approaches. Vygotsky’s alternative solution was open to him, primarily, on account of his basic philosophical position. I return to the point below.

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