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Revelations of Vygotsky

In response to:

The Mozart of Psychology from the September 28, 1978 issue

To the Editors:

It is a special delight for many and an obsession for some to proclaim that the intellectual establishment of the West has missed the point while the wise men of the East have long known the truth. From A to Z, animal fat produces disease and acupuncture health, while our future is known to Zoroaster and Zen shows us how to cope with it. Now, thanks to Professor Toulmin [NYR, September 28] we learn that the psychologists and neurologists of America have been ignoring the revelations of Vygotsky, “The Mozart of Psychology,” for fifty years. We have had a hard time maintaining our ignorance since Vygotsky’s most famous colleague, A.R. Luria, has had nine of his books published in English, several by the obscure printing house of Penguin Books Ltd. Yet we are told, “Nobody in the American behavioral sciences has, it seems, the breadth of experience or general standing needed in order to do the integrative thinking typical of Luria or Vygotsky.”

An example of integrative thinking is given from Luria’s work. “With patients in Russian aphasia clinics, it was brain lesions in the auditory not the visual cortex that were typically found to disrupt writing skills—though this was not true in the case of brain damaged Chinese educated with an ideographic culture.” In other words, one area of the brain developed for Russian writing and another for Chinese. Far from showing integrative thinking, this is disintegrative. It is the outcome of the commonest Eastern and Western approach to the brain which began with French neurologists in the early nineteenth century. The aim is to fractionate the brain into a series of labeled compartments, each assigned a definite function. Phrenology grew from this school of map makers where each developed bump in the brain was reflected by a bump in the skull. Unfortunately the approach leads to a trap because once each area is neatly packaged with its function, it denies us the integrated brain which allows us the integrated thinking which Toulmin rightly requests.

But is it true that such American workers as Lashley or Hebb or Teuber ignored the development of the brain, the role of the environment and the Russian literature? Teuber, perhaps the most important American contributor to our present knowledge of the consequences of brain damage until his tragic death in 1977 had a close personal relationship with Luria over a twenty-year period. Easily the most fascinating development of the past ten years in the study of vision has been the demonstration that both visual behavior and the anatomy and physiology of the visual cortex are shaped by the nature of the visual scene during critical periods of early life. The beautiful work has been produced by a number of groups of Western scientists, while workers in the socialist countries have been mainly concerned with much more traditional approaches and problems.

I take exception to the sentence, “Positivism has impoverished the practice of experimentation in American psychology.” If positivism means the pursuit of dull trivial mindless experiments on the mind, this dreary work abounds in all cultures. Toulmin’s meaning of positivism is shown by his approval of the opposite where the intuitive revealed insight of truth is followed by the minimum of experiment to confirm what the scientist already knows to be true. This approach has in fact led to the development of schools of fantasy thought in all cultures. We are told in a footnote that there is one exception on the otherwise abysmal American scene, Dr. Norman Geschwind. Unfortunately Professor Geschwind’s excellent and highly original writings do not support Toulmin’s view of how science and scientists should proceed. His work rejects those theories where it is necessary to tailor the facts to fit the theories. His theories are personal intuitive generalizations based on careful repeated observation described in such a way that others may check the facts.

Professor P.D. Wall

Cerebral Functions Research Group

Anatomy Department, University College

London, England

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