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Revelations of Vygotsky

In response to:

The Mozart of Psychology from the September 28, 1978 issue

To the Editors:

I was delighted to see your review of Mind in Society. At last the Vygotsky material I had heard discussed so often by Vera John at seminars with our advisers is available in the United States. The important issues of interpretation and research, pointed to in the review of Stephen Toulmin, make the publication of this material a major event for us all.

But what excuses the total non-mention by the reviewer of the contribution of Vera John, known to the scholarly community for the last ten years as immersed in exactly this Vygotsky material? I hope further reviews will remedy this astonishing omission.

Lillian Weber

Director

Workshop Center for Open Education

City College School of Education

New York City

Stephen Toulmin replies:

Pedding the Wisdom of the East has never been my line of business, and Patrick Wall’s puzzling response to my Vygotsky essay ends by addressing neither of the two issues I actually discussed. These were (1) the question, why the ideas of Vygotsky and Luria have begun to have a serious influence in the United States only in the last couple of decades, even though their most innovative work was largely done in the late Twenties and early Thirties; and (2) the possibility that the historical-cum-neurological approach exemplified in Luria’s and Vygotsky’s writings may provide a basis for re-establishing lines of communication between the “moral sciences” and the “natural sciences” of a kind that American psychologists of the same period (such as Hebb and Lashley) were never able to do.

So Professor Wall’s vicarious defense of American psychology and neurophysiology rather misses the point. Of course it is true that a growing number of neurologists and psychologists in the US have been reading this Russian work during the last ten or fifteen years—especially, in the magic circle of institutions like MIT that are in close contact with European research centers like UCL. But the late lamented Hans-Lukas Teuber, whom Pat Wall is right to mention in this connection—not least for his part in the English edition of Luria’s classic book on Higher Cortical Functions in Man—was himself more a European émigré than a fully representative American psychologist; and I would ask once again why Teuber’s wise appreciation of Luria’s work has not been matched in the larger world of American behavioral science generally. Anyone who plunges into the great heartlands of American academic psychology soon finds himself in territories where the merits of Luria and Vygotsky have never been glimpsed, far less digested, and where methodological prejudices of a positivist kind still stand in the way of any larger synthesis.

Lillian Weber’s letter puzzles me even more. From what she says, nobody would guess that “Vera John” (whom I supposedly neglected in my review) is one and the same as the “Vera John-Steiner” whom I specifically included as one of the co-editors of the very book (Vygotsky’s Mind in Society) that I was chiefly reviewing. Certainly, in praising Vygotsky’s book, I took myself to be congratulating all those responsible for its production. So Professor Weber’s response strikes me as hypersensitive. If Vera John has a good Vygotsky-like book of her own to give us, more strength to her. It will be a pleasure to read it.

Both these letters serve, in fact, to confirm what I deplored in my essay: viz. that, in the world of the American behavioral sciences, there is no such unitary thing as “the scholarly community” any longer. The whole academic scene has fragmented into a multitude of separate and often feuding subgroups, lacking a common vocabulary and theoretical approach. Anthropologists, behaviorists, cognitivists, developmental and educational psychologists, Freudian analysts and Gestalt therapists (and so on through the alphabet) pursue unrelated inquiries; and what working scholar or scientist in the US today has the self-confidence or theoretical command needed to stray across the boundaries between these subgroups, or to write in terms addressed to the intellectual concerns of them all? It is for that self-confidence and command, quite apart from anything else, that the writings of Vygotsky and Luria are so refreshing to read.

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