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 nineteenth-century thinkers, who discussed the ancient idea at length, as Lenin did not.
Incongruity of its component parts is the most obvious pattern of Soviet psychology. Or should we say that there is a peculiarly Soviet variety of the incoherent fragmentation that afflicts world psychology? Social psychology, one would think, should be the field of preference for Marxist-Leninists, yet after a long taboo it has enjoyed little more than scholastic debates about the possible ways it might fit together with Marxist social theory, on one side, and with individual psychology, on the other. Meantime, Soviet psychologists have been officially encouraged to follow “Pavlov’s doctrine,” though he advocated a physiological explanation of human behavior, while Marx and Lenin sought its explanation in the development of socio-economic systems. Quite apart from social psychology and Marxism, it is very puzzling to find Pavlov worshiped by psychologists who are essentially non-Pavlovian.
Consider, for example, Luria’s Working Brain. It surveys such mental processes as speaking and thinking, explaining how they are accomplished by intricate interaction of the brain’s parts. Most knowledge of this subject has been obtained by careful analysis of particular disorders in mental processes following damage to particular areas of the brain. To take a simple example, the neuropsychologist can correlate certain patterns of arithmetical miscalculation with damage to the neural networks that distinguish left from right; but to do so he must include in his science a structural analysis of arithmetical thinking—in this case, the dependence of numerical value on place notation. Conditioned reflexes have little relevance to such a science, yet The Working Brain cites Pavlov frequently, making him seem a, or even the, major founder of neuropsychology.
In fact Pavlov and his orthodox disciples hindered the emergence of Luria’s specialty in three important ways. They scorned mentalistic psychology, insisting that physiology is the only approach to a scientific understanding of behavior. They insisted that the reflex is the elemental unit of which all behavior is compounded. And they clung to neurological speculations that were at variance with the genuine science of neurophysiology.
On all three counts, Luria in this book is tacitly anti-Pavlovian. He disproves the possibility that physiology alone explains behavior. (The structure of mental processes must be established by the psychologist, if the neurophysiologist is to understand what functions are to be correlated with the neural networks.) He disproves the possibility of conceiving all behavior as compounded of reflexes. (There are self-activating, self-regulating, systemic aspects of behavior that cannot be squeezed within the concept of stimulus invariably preceding response, of learning proceeding only by repeated, accidental association of biologically “indifferent” conditioned stimuli with biologically significant unconditioned ones.) He quietly but firmly dismisses the speculative neurophysiology of the orthodox Pavlovians, replacing it with the genuine brain science that was officially condemned at the “Pavlov Sessions” of 1950 and 1951. Yet Luria informs the reader that he disagrees with Pavlov only on one subject, the function of secondary and tertiary cortical zones. That single explicit criticism, like a beauty spot on an idealized portrait, heightens the misleading impression of Pavlov that will be left on the innocent reader’s mind.
I am not questioning Pavlov’s genuine contribution to behavioral science: the experimental method now known as classical conditioning, in which the animal is passive until stimulated, as distinct from operant conditioning, in which the animal must do something to obtain a desirable stimulus. Luria has scant occasion to mention classical conditioning or the data accumulated by it, for they are rarely germane to such higher functions as speech and thinking, which are his main concern. Nor am I questioning Luria’s superb achievement in The Working Brain. He has surveyed a large, ideologically sensitive subject, and he has done so without any significant lapse into mystification other than the cult of Pavlov, which concerns the history and public relations of his discipline rather than its content. That is a considerable feat, another indication of the sturdy common sense that has been the hallmark of Luria’s mind through fifty years of prolific writing on such a controversial subject as psychology in such a violently changing—or simply violent—milieu as the USSR has been.
He began in 1922, when he had just turned twenty, graduated from Kazan University, and entered the country’s major Institute of Experimental Psychology in Moscow. He started immediately to record in print his wide-ranging search for a new, genuinely scientific psychology. He looked into reflexology, as the schools of Pavlov and Bekhterev were then called. He looked into American behaviorism and into reactology, as the analogous Russian school was called. But from the start he considered those schools too limited in outlook and methodology to achieve an understanding of the whole personality in its dynamic development. That was the goal of the Freudian and Gestalt schools, and he preferred them.
He acknowledged such faults as the lack of precision in basic Freudian concepts, but he declared that to be “scientific pragmatism,” an unavoidable feature of major inquiry in empirical science, as opposed to abstract speculation or trivial experimentation, which can be precise because they are insignificant. In Marxism he found the same kind of “scientific pragmatism” as in Freudianism, and linked them also for their complementary efforts to discover the “socio-biological explanation” of behavior underneath our mystified rationalization of it.
Luria’s favorite experimental procedure in those early years was a product of his eclectic theoretical studies. “The combined motor method,” as he called it, correlated word associations with movements of the hands in an effort to discover patterns of emotional stress or affect. He used three types of subject: students in the anterooms of “purge commissions” (i.e., commissions purging the universities of students with the wrong combinations of class origin, political outlook, and academic achievement); newly arrested criminal suspects, before and after the catharsis of confession or—rarely—exculpation; and volunteers for the induction of neurosis under “experimental psychoanalysis.” (The volunteers were hypnotized, told that they would be unable to say certain words when awake, then waked and tested, with aphasia and trembling resulting when they came to the forbidden words.)
Measured against the present intellectual scene in the USSR, young Luria seems a daringly unconventional thinker. In the context of the Twenties, he was not that at all. Wide-ranging receptivity to many sorts of psychological theory was taken for granted. Indeed, that was one of the initial effects of the call for a Marxist revamping of behavioral science. Luria was distinguished by common-sense avoidance of all-out commitment to a single trend as the one road to a Marxist psychology. Yet The Nature of Human Conflicts, which summarizes his first decade of research and theoretical reflection, has never been published in the Soviet Union. In 1932, when it appeared in the West, it was already “obsolete” at home.
That was the time of Stalin’s revolution from above, which tore not only peasants but also intellectuals from their traditional patterns of life. “Bourgeois pseudo-science” was condemned in every conceivable field, from sanitary engineering to the theory of probability. For a short time it seemed as if Luria’s kind of psychology might escape. Together with L. S. Vygotskii, a slightly older friend and mentor, he tried to develop a “social-historical” approach to a genuinely Marxist psychology. They postulated an evolutionary sequence of modes of thought, to be developed in detail by studies of subhuman animals, children, primitives, and, at the apex, kul’turnye (cultivated, civilized) adults.1
Luria went to Central Asia and administered psychological tests to newly collectivized peasants, trying to get an experimental reading on the theories of the primitive mentality that he had absorbed in his usual encyclopedic fashion from Lévy-Bruhl and a number of other scholars. He was savagely rebuked for his “pseudo-scientific, reactionary, anti-Marxist, and class-hostile theory, [which] leads in practice to the anti-Soviet conclusion that the policy of the Soviet Union is being carried out by people and classes who think in a primitive fashion, who are incapable of any kind of abstract thought….”2 Since then he has confined his psychological tests to children and to brain-damaged adults. The “social-historical” approach remains a declared goal, but he does not go beyond general declarations, unless one is willing to stretch the meaning of “social-historical” to include studies of mental development in children.
Genuinely Marxist-Leninist psychology, according to the Stalinist view, would be known by its hostility to every bourgeois school, and by its practical service to “the construction of socialism.” Soviet psychologists responded with critical attacks on their discipline’s several trends, and by offers of help in education, job placement, management, medicine, propaganda. But very quickly, by the mid-Thirties, the Party bosses angrily rejected such help, convinced that the man in charge of a social enterprise has a better grasp of applied psychology than any scholar. Medical psychology was an exception; in that field professional autonomy remained largely undisturbed—until 1950. Luria moved into that field, earning his first medical degree in 1937. Even before his graduation from the Moscow Medical Institute he was engaged in team practice with neurologists and neurosurgeons, using psychological tests to help locate brain lesions and to determine therapy.
Luria’s motives are not in question. I am trying to correlate his changing professional activity with its changing social context, not with his inner thoughts, which I do not know. Nor am I trying to suggest a total break in his professional activity, before and after the Stalinist revolution from above. Continuities can certainly be found. The Nature of Human Conflicts declared “the disorganization of behavior” to be his central concern. In a sense it continued to be so. But there was a dramatic shift in the type of disorganized behavior on which he focused. In his early work it was “neurosis, because in it are found those properties of a stable conflict, or a prolonged affective disorganization of behavior, the study of which we took as our problem” (p. 240). In the Thirties he turned from the neurotic to the person with a bullet in his brain (or a tumor, or an aneurysm). Can we not see in that shift a move from the characteristic preoccupations of the comfortable middle classes in advanced countries to the more elemental problems of Stalin’s Russia?
Toward the end of his 1932 book Luria remarked that “the history of the borderland between psychology and neurology for the last few decades is a history of mythology” (p. 368). He went on to indulge in a little speculative neurologizing, drawing from the great English neurologist Hughlings Jackson the hypothesis of primitive, subcortical regions pushing us toward impulsive behavior, in conflict with the repressive, civilizing cortex. And that, as far as I can discover, was the last time Luria engaged in such speculations. He remained sufficiently respectful of psychoanalysis as a therapeutic technique to write a fair account of it for the Soviet Encyclopedia (Volume XLVII, 1940). But he confined his neurological imagination within the rigorous limits set by clinical observation, which he correlated with structural analysis of mental processes. The first major scholarly result was a 1947 book on traumatic aphasis in which he drew on the linguistic science of Roman Jakobson to make fine distinctions among various speech disorders resulting from damage to particular areas of the brain. That earned him a world reputation as a pioneer in neuro-psychology—just at the time that authoritarian nativists expanded their offensive against foreign “pseudo-science” to include this field too.
At the “Pavlov Sessions” of 1950-1951 Luria responded with self-criticism, repudiating his former effort to “superimpose the nonspatial concepts of contemporary psychology on the spatial construction of the brain.”3 Subsequently he published an article denouncing Sherrington’s “reactionary” school of neurology, and “psychology in the USA…[which] has ceased to be a branch of scientific knowledge.”4 It may seem that Luria’s work was undergoing another major transformation. In fact he merely changed some terminology while continuing the substance of his former work. And even the change in terminology, the use of Pavlovian concepts to justify a non-Pavlovian kind of psychology, dwindled away during the Sixties and early Seventies. All that remains in The Working Brain are a few references to “analyzers,” which has become a shorthand term for particular modes of sense perception, and to “a law of strength, according to which every strong (or biologically significant) stimulus evokes a strong response…” (pp. 44-45).
That parenthetical gloss on strength opens the door to a very un-Pavlovian correlation of stimulus and response. Indeed, the myth of an un-Pavlovian Pavlov is the only significant residue of the self-criticism that was forced from Luria in the early Fifties, saving face for himself and for the authorities, who still maintain that the “Pavlov Sessions” were a good thing, that Soviet psychologists and physiologists are all devotees of “Pavlov’s doctrine.”
In short, Luria has always managed to maintain professional integrity within his discipline, while adapting himself to the requirements of the authorities without. That subtle combination of inner autonomy and outward complaisance has been a characteristic feature, in many different forms, of many Soviet scholars. So has the narrowing of scope, which we have seen in Luria’s response to the rampaging Stalinism of the Thirties. Recently there have been some signs of revived breadth. Though The Working Brain is restricted to consideration of the cognitive functions, Luria suggests that he may treat emotion, motivation, and personality in a sequel.
On the deepest level, on the question of what is essentially human in human behavior, Luria seems to share the view of the Soviet authorities. Conscious striving to perform socially approved tasks is the essence of being human. The Working Brain seems to regard human beings as self-activating servomechanisms, programmed by historically evolving societies. There are distinctively Soviet elements in his version of that belief, but there is also a basic similarity with the outlook of J. B. Watson and B. F. Skinner, and all the other psychologists who have built into their science the worship of success, the loathing of failure, that are the operative faith of bosses and would-be bosses in the US no less than in the USSR.
At the same time, as he reveals in The Man with a Shattered World, Luria has a sensitive physician’s compassion for losers, such as his patient Zasetsky, whose dream of being a successful engineer was ruined by war damage to the problem-solving parts of his brain. The parts that maintain imagination and self-awareness were left intact. He could perceive the revulsion that his incoherent speech and abnormal movements provoked in other people. His struggle to be human was confined to an effort, alone in a room, writing his experiences in notebooks, to transcend his ” ‘know-nothing’ world of emptiness and amnesia” (p. 86). That is very close to the reason that Faulkner gave for writing, in his Nobel speech, or—with the added element of anti-authoritarian protest—to the reason that Siniavsky gave in The Trial Begins. That vision of lonely defiance as the human essence may be as foreign to Luria as to Watson or Skinner. But it does appear, obliquely and fitfully, in The Man with a Shattered World, leading me to hope that Luria’s distinctively Soviet experience of the scholar’s life has taught him a larger sense of humanity. He has helped to restore the mind in psychology. What I suspect, if I may use a very unfashionable word, is that he would also like to restore the spirit.
May 16, 1974
See Vygotskii and Luria, Etiudy po istorii povedeniia: obez’iana, primitiv, rebenok (Moscow, 1930). ↩
Kniga i proletarskaia revoliutsiia, 1934, No. 4, pp. 83-84. ↩
Akademiia meditsinskikh nauk, Fiziologicheskoe uchenie Pavlova v psikhiatrii i nevropatologii (Moscow, 1951), p. 205. ↩
Meditsinskii rabotnik, June 26, 1952. ↩