A Great Soviet Psychologist

The Working Brain: An Introduction to Neuropsychology

by A.R. Luria, translated by Basil Haigh
Basic Books, 398 pp., $12.50

The Man with a Shattered World: The History of a Brain Wound

by A.R. Luria, translated by Lynn Solotaroff
Basic Books, 166 pp., $6.95

The Nature of Human Conflicts: or Emotion, Conflict and Will

by A.R. Luria, translated by W. Horsley Gantt
Washington Square Press, 432 pp., $1.45 (paper)

Soviet Psychology: Philosophical, Theoretical, and Experimental Issues

by Levy Rahmani
International Universities Press, 440 pp., $17.50

What is distinctively Soviet in Soviet thought? The usual answer, Marxism-Leninism, creates more awkward problems than it resolves, especially when the influence of that parochial ideology is sought in a universally respected scholar such as the psychologist Alexander Luria. The Working Brain, his eleventh book in English, has no references to Marx or Lenin. His first, The Nature of Human Conflicts, originally published in 1932 and now reprinted for the fourth time, has a fragmentary quote from a Marx who may be Karl—it is too tiny to be identified. And quotations aside, no characteristic ideas of Marx or Lenin can be discovered in either book.

The new book brings a cybernetic viewpoint to its analysis of the brain’s role in cognitive processes. The early book reveals a mixture of behaviorism, Gestalt, and Freudianism in its analysis of emotional conflict within the personality. To many people the inference will seem obvious: psychology is an evolving discipline developed by an international community of specialists, whose work is unaffected by the ideologies of the countries that pay their salaries. Alexander Luria at Moscow State University has come to do much the same kind of pioneering work in neuropsychology as his friend Karl Pribram at Stanford. Knowledge, like art, is cosmopolitan.

One obvious trouble with that very popular view is its division of the scholar into two noncommunicating parts, emotion and reason, the ideological patriot and the scientific cosmopolitan. No doubt the division has a useful function in the professional ideology of scholarly communities, helping them to maintain rational discourse, but it also creates suspicion of them among laymen, as Luria has twice discovered. And within the scholarly community itself, it seems hard to believe that pure reason is completely sovereign, especially among psychologists, whose “conceptions amount to no more than the most elementary stage of a real science” (Man with a Shattered World, p. 23). Surely a psychologist cannot totally insulate his professional thought from the assumptions about human nature that are part of the collective mentality of his native land. Surely there must be, beyond devotional quotations from Marx and Lenin, “a sharing of basic ideas which makes Soviet psychology a distinctive school with a unique approach to the problem of mind.”

Levy Rahmani, whose Soviet Psychology I am quoting (pp. 63-64), believes that there is. But he is such a detailed reporter of recent publications, so chary of probing “the social and political background” and of making judgments, that the shared ideas and unique approach seem to be little more than generalities decreed by ideological authorities. They insist, for example, on Lenin’s notion that all matter has some property similar to the mind’s capacity for sensation, memory, knowledge. Rahmani dutifully reports the laborious efforts of some philosophers and psychologists to read meaning into that fuzzy proposition. Luria briskly dismisses it as undeniably true, but “much too general,…tells us nothing” (The Working Brain, p. 280). Of course, he does not direct that irreverent remark at Lenin; he mentions two other…

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