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.
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.
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.)
The new book, Mind in Society, puts those ideas into a broader theoretical context, and permits us at last to sort out for ourselves how Vygotsky’s work relates to that of his contemporaries and successors in the West. Most particularly, it clarifies the central role that Vygotsky allots to language and symbolic thought in shaping the structure of adult mental life. These things are for him—quite literally—psychological tools by which we impose specific forms on our mental or “inner” world, just as we use physical tools to impose specific forms on the material or “outer” world.
Meanwhile, as a would-be neurologist, Vygotsky speculated about the role of the central nervous system in the acquisition, consolidation, and mobilization of our abilities. In these respects, subsequent studies by Luria and his colleagues have carried us a long way further than Vygotsky himself had a chance to go. This has been done in several very different ways. Some of these involve direct studies on the development of normal and retarded children. In others, the patterns of skills retained or lost in later life, by brain-damaged adults, are taken as clues to neurophysiological processes that supposedly took place much earlier on, during the original acquisition of those same skills.
On this analysis, one and the same hypothesis should, in suitable cases, be confirmed by quite independent lines of investigation: e.g, in both clinical neurology and educational research. To cite one example only: Luria has argued that, in people raised within alphabetic cultures, reading and writing skills—though making use of the eyes—are “represented” cerebrally in the auditory rather than in the visual region of the cortex. He has supported this hypothesis with evidence from both ends of life. On the one hand, 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 within an ideographic culture. On the other hand, Russian school children learning to write from dictation were observed to be “talking out” the words to themselves as they wrote, under their breaths; and when they were prevented from doing so—e.g., by being required to hold their tongues between their teeth as they wrote—their number of errors at once increased sixfold. Either way (Luria has claimed) the understanding and production of speech appear, in alphabetic cultures at least, to form the primary linguistic skill. When reading or writing are acquired, subsequently, they form secondary skills, being learned in association with subvocal speech, committed to memory with its help, and cerebrally represented in close conjunction with the pre-existing auditory “store” of speech.
These ideas about children’s use of subvocal speech as a tool in the mastery of intellectual skills pick up themes long familiar in the Western philosophical tradition. (Plato took quite seriously the suggestion that what we call “thinking” may simply consist in “talking to oneself.”) Vygotsky was aware of his philosophical ancestry: he left a manuscript on the theory of passions in Spinoza and Descartes half finished at his death. However, his work also gives us new ways of putting flesh on what were previously some abstract, general speculations: e.g., about privacy and introspection. For instance, we can now see that “talking to oneself” is one of the chief instruments that children employ in early life, in making their “thinking” a private, inner process, and taking advantage of the autonomy, economy, and compression that this inwardness makes possible.8
Vygotsky’s whole discussion of language learning rings with a special truth for those of us who find Wittgenstein’s later writings on language and psychology congenial. For we are already accustomed to associating the “meaning” of linguistic and symbolic acts with the larger constellations of behavior within which such acts are typically embedded—Wittgenstein’s “language games” and “forms of life.” But Vygotsky’s approach suggests some interesting new possibilities of a kind Wittgenstein never discussed. Consider, for instance, the debate about “abstraction” that has occupied philosophers ever since John Locke. (This concerns, in contemporary terms, the relationship between the linguistic and nonlinguistic elements within any “language game.”) Is the use of the words involved in such a constellation indispensable to the understanding of its meaning? Or can the words be abstracted out, and set aside from the rest of the complex, leaving its “meaning” to be understood quite separately? Can animals, for instance, form “general ideas” without the use of any language?
Vygotsky’s results imply that this question has no general answer. The relationship between the linguistic and nonlinguistic elements in any complex varies from one stage of life to another. At the pre-speech stage, the first elements of a language game are prefigured without any direct use of language. Then, during a crucial formative stage, language—whether public or inner or both—serves as a scaffolding within which the rest of the complex is mastered, memorized, and consolidated. Finally, at the mature adult stage, the linguistic elements lose all mnemonic function, and become purely “symbolic.” Once this has happened, they can at last be dealt with independently, or “in the abstract.”9 With this possibility in mind, some novel philosophical questions are worth raising: e.g., “Is the ‘meaning’ of any specific utterance necessarily the same for the young child, the intact adult, and the brain-damanged aphasic?” Or, more precisely: “In what respects, if any, can we regard the ‘meaning’ of any term or utterance as either ‘exactly the same,’ or ‘totally different,’ for individuals at different points in life?”
The interest and importance of Vygotsky’s and Luria’s work come in part from its hints about the manner in which the different layers of the sensory cortex serve in the handling of “meanings.” (This is a subject on which Luria’s book High Cortical Functions throws fascinating light.) But it will, perhaps, be rather more significant in the longer term as pointing us beyond the drastic dichotomies of Culture and Nature, “meanings” and “causes,” Geisteswissenschaften and Naturwissenschaften, that have characterized the human sciences in the West since the time of Dilthey and Wundt.10
In their introduction to Mind in Society, Michael Cole and Sylvia Scribner do well to draw our attention to Wilhelm Wundt, as being the common intellectual precursor of mid-twentieth-century psychology in both Russia and America. Only we must at once notice that the research of behavioral scientists in the two countries has continued quite different parts of his work. In the West, Wundt is commonly remembered today as one of the founders of experimental psychology: as the person who extended the methods of the psychophysicists, Weber and Fechner, and applied them to the introspective data of sensory experience also. Yet, in Wundt’s own view, the experimental method in psychology had a very limited scope: it could be fruitfully employed only in studying mental processes on the most basic sensory level, and it was unsuitable for investigating all those aspects of human experience—including all “conceptual” or “higher” mental processes—that are shaped or influenced by social and cultural factors. As Cole and Scribner put it:
Wundt took as his [experimental] task the description of the contents of human consciousness and their relation to external stimulation. His method consisted of analyzing various states of consciousness into their constituent elements, which he defined as simple sensations…. Wundt propounded the explicit view that complex mental functions, or as they were then known, “higher psychological processes” (voluntary remembering and deductive reasoning, for example), could not in principle be studied by experimental psychologists. They could only be investigated, he maintained, by historical studies of cultural products such as folktales, customs, and language.
Once we leave the world of pinpricks, points of light, and other such “simple sensations,” we enter a complex and culturally conditioned realm. The more subtle mental phenomena we encounter there do not take the forms they do merely as the “effects” of universal, mechanically operating “causes”; rather, they vary from culture to culture. It is not that, in Wundt’s opinion, these “complex mental functions” are incapable of being studied scientifically at all. It is simply that they have to be investigated with an eye to their special status: viz. as products of the historical evolution of human culture and society. To use Wundt’s own term, they form the subject matter not of experimental psychology but of a more interpretative and historical Volkspsychologie.
The only part of Wundt’s psychology that has been influential in the United States hitherto has been his experimental program. As imported into this country by his pupil E.B. Titchener, Wundt’s experimental techniques were divorced on arrival from their original theoretical context, and were subsequently generalized and taken as a model for the rest of “psychological science.” Meanwhile, most American psychologists have overlooked Wundt’s parallel writings about Volkspsychologie; so that they have ignored his arguments about the historical-cultural character of all “higher mental processes,” and the vanity of looking for universal, cause-and-effect relationships in the “higher mental realm.”
In Soviet Russia, by contrast, the “historical materialist” background provided by the philosophy of Marx and Engels, together with the earlier scientific work of Sechenov, made Wundt’s cultural-historical approach to “higher psychological processes” congenial from the start. While social and behavioral scientists in Russia during the Twenties were generally familiar with the European, and particularly the German, literature in their fields, their own work thus developed naturally along lines parallel to those sketched out in Wundt’s Volkspsychologie, and they were never as tempted as their Western colleagues were to fall for the equation of “scientific method” with positivism. Not that they took Wundt’s warning against attempting to investigate higher mental processes experimentally as gospel; but the experiments they did perform in this “higher” realm were always designed with a particular eye to the relevant cultural and historical factors. The power of Vygotsky’s own empirical studies, for instance, is largely connected with the fact that he refused to begin by isolating his “experimental subject” from all contextual cues—as experimental psychologists in the US so often do—but, instead, considered his subjects’ behavior always in relation to their specific “cultural-historical” situations.
With the dual aspect of Wundt’s psychology in mind, it is easier to understand how mid-twentieth-century Soviet and American psychologists have drifted so far apart. If we take the view from Moscow, American psychology appears excessively fragmented, as well as being divided along outdated ideological lines. A vast amount of busy research has gone on in the US during the last fifty years, in dozens of different branches of psychology, neurology, linguistics, and educational innovation. But no common theoretical picture has been developed capable of integrating all their results. The different branches have, thus, also been separate branches. Given the positivist conceptions about “scientific method” dominant in American psychology, the behavioral sciences have proliferated into dozens of highly specialized, and largely noninteracting, subdisciplines: so behavioral scientists have organized their research on the principle that the more narrowly and sharply defined a question can be, the more “scientific” it is.11
For instance: psycholinguists in America tend to study not how young children catch on to entire functional “language games” but rather how they master particular grammatical aspects of language, e.g., the use of the future tense. Behaviorists, similarly, have commonly abstained from asking what physiological mechanisms underlie the “stimulus-response” relations they are mapping: the human body has been for them a “black box,” to be studied from outside, without opening it. Meanwhile, many Western neurologists have speculated about clinical disturbances of brain function in adults, without seriously asking about the prior developmental processes by which such functions initially came to be cerebrally represented at all, during childhood. 12
Contrast the work of Pavlov, who, throughout all his psychological researches, continued to think of himself as a physiologist; or Luria, whose neurological work has always been informed by his understanding of developmental psychology. 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. Nobody in the West, for instance, experiments and writes with equal authority—as Luria did—on such diverse topics as the syndromes of aphasia, cross-cultural differences in reasoning patterns, intellectual development in identical twins, and the performances of calculating prodigies. Few American psychologists, indeed, would even think it worth trying to do so.
As seen from Moscow, again, American behavioral scientists appear polarized—for lack of a broader theoretical framework focused on the historical-cultural conditions of behavior—into two sharply opposed philosophical sects, or ideological factions, all of them seemingly committed to one or another variety, either of “idealism,” or of “mechanical materialism.” That is why they have paid so little attention to the point that Vygotsky and his associates have found so crucial: namely, the processes through which the world of “ideas” and the world of “material conditions” find their essentially historical point of union—by their joint embodiment in the life of the individual child, as an outcome of its socialization and enculturation.
Recall, for instance, the current division in the psychology of language in America between the “nativist” transformational grammarians, such as Noam Chomsky, and the “environmentalist” radical behaviorists, represented by B.F. Skinner. In that dispute, the basic differences between the two parties are undisguisedly ontological. For Skinner, the scope of mentality reduces to that of “outer” observable behavior, including verbal behavior as a special case: “inner” mental occurrences, if acknowledged at all, are at most perceived as epiphenomenal byproducts of conditioning. For Chomsky, on the other hand, mentality has a fundamentally “inner” character and gives behavioral evidence of itself only through the specific performances that “express” it: so understood, mentality is already present in all its essentials (and so “inner” already) at birth. As a result, neither party has any interest in addressing Vygotsky’s central questions—viz., how mental operations (notably, linguistic operations) become “inner,” in the course of the cultural shaping of consciousness. For Skinner, the internal use of language has nothing special about it, so the phenomenon of internalization is uninteresting. For Chomsky, the language capacity was internal from the start, so any subsequent internalization is irrelevant.
Similar philosophical divisions exist in other American behavioral sciences: e.g., in the anthropological disputes about the autonomy of Culture. In their different ways, Clifford Geertz and Marshall Sahlins both insist on the essential distinctness of cultural phenomena, and on the need to describe these in intentionalistic terms, with an eye to their “meanings”—a good geisteswissenschaftlich position. By contrast, such anthropologists as Marvin Harris explain cultural facts directly by the material conditions shaping the culture; while the sociobiologists give still deeper offense, by looking for “material causes” of culture even further afield, in our genetic equipment. Once again, neither party sees enculturation and socialization as having the theoretical significance they have for the Russians. The “idealists” insist that we are cultural beings from the start. The “mechanical materialists” view enculturation as yet another response by our essentially biological Nature to variations in material conditions. Either way, the theoretical significance of enculturation, as the historical point of union for “ideas” and “material conditions,” is too easily lost.
Meanwhile, over the last fifty or sixty years, Russian psychology has appeared equally strange and uncongenial to most Western eyes. The only twentieth-century Russian psychologist whose name is widely known in the West is, of course, Pavlov. And the nature of the work for which Pavlov is best known—his studies of salivation in dogs, and similar reflexes—has tended to confirm prior Western prejudices about any communist system of psychology: as viewing human beings in a crudely materialist and reductionist (not to say, inhuman) manner. Yet this view of Soviet psychology has been founded from the beginning on misconceptions, and even on mistranslations.
These began with Pavlov himself. Despite his central preoccupations with physiology, Pavlov’s theoretical ideas were broader and more flexible than is generally realized. He understood very well that “signaling systems” have a crucial part to play in the lives of human beings, and he never imagined that any naïve theory of “conditioned reflexes” could account for the symbolic or intellectual activities of human beings, just as it stood. More significantly: Pavlov himself by no means saw all human behavior as fundamentally “conditioned”—i.e., as a passive response to external stimuli. On the contrary, his central questions had to do not with conditioning, viewed in the modern Western way as a quasi-mechanical process, but rather with the differences between reflexes that manifest themselves unconditionally and those that do so only on certain conditions.
How, then, did the Russian terminology of Pavlov’s original writings, with its references to “conditional [uslovnye] reflexes” as contrasted with “unconditional [bez uslovnye] reflexes,” become transformed into the English terminology of “conditioning” and “conditioned [rather than conditional] reflexes”? The answer is: this seems to have happened in the course of the transmission of Pavlov’s ideas to the West, which took them out of their original, scientific context in Russia, and plunged them into the more pragmatic and technological context of American behaviorist psychology. Whereas Pavlov in the original was very much of a “whole active organism” type of psychologist, his American readers turned him into the mechanical determinist and dogmatic materialist that their own empiricist presuppositions led them to expect.
After this inauspicious beginning, it has taken a long time for the “cultural-historical” character of much Soviet psychology to make itself understood in the West. Probably only the wide circulation of such books as Mind in Society can change this perception significantly. Yet, arguably, it is just this general theoretical orientation toward history and culture that has enabled Soviet behavioral scientists to achieve the level of interdisciplinary collaboration and intellectual integration they have. In particular, it was an early exposure to Marxian historical thinking that enabled Vygotsky himself to tackle the problems of child development in his own original way. The “mental structures” that develop during a child’s early life were, for him, no mere expression of “native capacities”; nor could the individual child be relied on, as Piaget sometimes implies, to reinvent “culture” for itself single-handed. Rather, these “structures” are products of the processes through which the child enters into its historical and cultural habitat. And, in studying these processes, Vygotsky and his successors were only helped by having started out from a “historial materialist” position.
That being so, it should be evident that Vygotsky’s and Luria’s quotations from the Marxist fathers, and their respectful references to Marx and Engels as foreshadowing their views about “inner consciousness,” represent something more than hagiography or political lip service. This is something that even Vygotsky’s Western admirers have not always understood. For instance, when Evgenia Hanfman and Gertrude Vakar prepared the English translation of Thought and Language that appeared in 1962, they saw fit to omit many of Vygotsky’s references to the ideas of Marx and Engels.13 Just as the salon Cartesians of the late seventeenth century read all of Descartes’s references to God and the Creation as mere ecclesiastical face-saving, Vygotsky’s translators too apparently assumed that his allusions to Marx were mere concessions to the ideological demands of the Party, and so irrelevant to the intellectual contents of his argument.
That was a mistake. Working as he did before Soviet communism entered its most corrupt, Stalinist phase, Vygotsky was more than happy to call himself a Marxist. And in any event, leaving all political issues aside, the general frame provided by a “historical materialist” philosophy gave him the basis he needed for developing an integrated account of the relations between developmental psychology and clinical neurology, cultural anthropology and the psychology of art—an account that we in the West can afford to take very seriously today. This had nothing to do with the demands of ideological conformity, nor did it save the Soviet psychologists from trouble. In fact, the Party ideologues became hostile toward academic psychology during the Stalinist years, especially toward the psychologists’ unorthodox speculations, notably their weakness for Freud.14
Subsequently, as a result, Luria and his colleagues had reason to deplore—and fear—the misguided policies the Soviet government adopted toward professional psychology, from the mid-1930s on. But they could scarcely blame those policy blunders on Marx and Engels; nor did the Party’s persecution of academic psychology do anything to diminish their own debts to Marxian ideas and theories. (Nor, for that matter, were we ourselves compelled to renounce liberalism and democracy, just because Richard Nixon used them to rationalize his own anti-intellectual policies.) If we are to assess the work of the Soviet psychologists fairly, or judge the true theoretical relevance of historical materialism to theories of human behavior and development, we must therefore take care not to be distracted by our political attitudes toward the government of the USSR. Otherwise, we shall make the same mistake the early nineteenth-century British anatomists and physicians made when they denounced French physiology as “atheistical.” It will then be we ourselves, not Vygotsky and Luria, who are the ideologues.
To conclude: unless behavioral scientists in the West begin to develop a more general theoretical frame of their own which has something approaching the scope and integrative power that “historical materialism” has had for the Russians, our own arguments are doomed (I believe) to remaining split down the middle. On the one hand, there will be those who see all human behavior as one more phenomenon of Nature: who are concerned, that is, to discover in human behavior only “general laws,” dependent on universal, ahistorical processes and so free of all cultural variability. On the other hand, there will be those who see Culture as a distinct and entirely autonomous field of study, set over against Nature: a field within which diversity and variety are the rule, and “general laws” are not to be looked for.
For myself, I find this continued polarization a depressing prospect. It was fair enough, at the turn of the century, to press the special claims of the Geisteswissenschaften (or “moral sciences”15 ), if only as a counter to the vulgar, mechanical materialism of much earlier non-Marxian thought. Today, however, many of the most important and fascinating questions about behavior—whether within developmental psychology or psycholinguistics, epistemology or moral philosophy—arise precisely at the boundaries between Nature and Culture, and so between the natural sciences and the moral sciences. Surely, therefore, we cannot afford to neglect any new lines of thought that may help us to move beyond Wundt and Dilthey, and reintegrate our ideas about Culture and Nature in a way that acknowledges the variety and richness of historical and cultural differences, without ignoring the general processes involved in socialization and enculturation.
Many of those who have immersed themselves in the work of Vygotsky and his associates have found the novel unification of Nature and Culture characteristic of his ways of thought becoming part of their own basic theoretical orientation—whether applied to inner speech and the solving of problems “in our heads,” to aphasia and brain function, to the affective components in intellectual functioning, the development of aesthetic perception, or whatever. This experience (I suspect) will be widely shared by others, also, if the work of Michael Cole and his colleagues gets the readers it deserves. When, in his concluding postscript to the English edition of Vygotsky’s Psychology of Art, V.V. Ivanov wrote,
Vygotsky’s studies opened the way to a unification of the biological and social studies, and…their continuation may have at least as great a significance for science as the deciphering of the genetic code,
that may strike us as an exaggeration. But a claim of this magnitude is by no means ridiculous. We in the West have remained polarized by Dilthey’s dichotomies for too long, and so a promising way of moving beyond them demands our serious attention.
September 28, 1978
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
Luria’s own comment in his autobiography, reprinted on the dust-jacket of Mind in Society, reads: ↩
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! ↩
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. ↩
Vygotsky himself was fascinated by the problem of “free will” or “autonomy.” For instance, there is a discussion in Mind in Society (pp. 100ff.) about the manner in which, in the course of child development, “meaning” comes to dominate both “objects” and “actions.” ↩
Cf. the example discussed by Peter Geach in his book Mental Acts, p. 12. It would be a difficult matter learning to play chess without making any use of language in the process; so it is tempting to argue that a knowledge of words like “check,” “castle,” etc., is a constitutive part of “knowing how to play chess.” Yet a brain-damaged adult, who had previously learned to play chess in the normal way, might surely retain his playing skills unchanged, even though he could no longer speak about the game. ↩
Vygotsky was quite clear that this latter task, of transcending the division between Culture and Nature, “intentionality” and “causality,” was one of his chief concerns. (See notes 3 and 8 above.) ↩
Positivism has also impoverished the practice of experimentation in American psychology. In physics and biology, many striking experiments aim simply at checking out the qualitative effects or relationships suggested by some novel theoretical analysis. Behavioral scientists in the United States rarely allow themselves the luxury of such revealing experiments. Instead, they see their empirical task as the pursuit of statistical correlations between the numerical values of “quantifiable” variables. In the introduction to Mind in Society, Michael Cole and Sylvia Scribner include a curious apology about Vygotsky’s experimental methods: ↩
I must specifically exclude from this broad generalization Norman Geschwind of Harvard, through whom I myself originally encountered the work of Luria and Vygotsky in the first place. ↩
For a fuller discussion and documentation of this point, see Loren Graham, Science and Philosophy in the Soviet Union (Knopf, 1972), p. 369, esp. note 29. ↩
See note 3 above. ↩
The term Geisteswissenschaften was in fact introduced by the translator of J.S. Mill’s System of Logic, as a German rendering of the traditional English phrase, “moral sciences.” Paradoxically, when the term was reimported early in the twentieth century, philosophers and social scientists in Britain disowned their own offspring as a piece of German metaphysical fancy. ↩