Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Reading :: Soviet Psychology: History, Theory, Context

Soviet Psychology: History, Theory, Content
By John McLeish

I saw this book in UT's library catalog perhaps 18 months ago, but it never seemed to be on the shelf. Finally I ordered a used copy on Amazon — a copy that had been withdrawn from the Columbus College Library in Columbus, Georgia. (It had been checked out once, due April 14, 1985.)

Their loss was my gain. In this 1975 book, MacLeish develops an account of Soviet psychology as it developed from previous Russian efforts, through the revolution, to the mid-1970s. The book predates the publication of Vygotsky's Mind in Society in the West (1978), so Vygotsky doesn't have the rock star status in this narrative that he would receive later, but Vygotsky and his associates are still discussed, and the overall sweep is clear and generally accords with other accounts I've read.

MacLeish begins with an historical overview. He notes that he considers Soviet psychologists correct in "asserting a monistic view of the organism in its environment as the only possible basis for a science of behavior" (p.2), but argues that Soviet dogmatism held back psychology as a scientific endeavor due to "the subordination of scientific truth to political expediency": "For many years, especially between 1935 and 1955, the discussion of psychological theory was reduced to a subjective elaboration of philosophical nuances of a doctrinaire and irrelevant character" (p.3). Yet the line of inquiry, when divorced from Soviet partisanship, was still valid and McLeish argues that its insights are "acceptable to a large body of non-Communist psychological opinion" (p.3).

He identifies two major themes in the development of Soviet psychology.

1) "the Marxist view that there is no such thing as an unchanging, eternal human essence. ... Informed Communists believe it possible to transform 'human nature' to an unlimited extent" by changing society (p.3). Here he refers to the New Man, a motif "emerging and re-emerging over the whole period of development since 1917" and emphasizing "system and dynamic change. Soviet scientists have been concerned primarily with developing a psychological theory which is compatible with an invincible optimism about the possibility of consciously directing social influences to produce a completely new society and a new type of humanity" (p.3).

2) "the linking of the philosophical controversies of the eighteen forties, fifties, and sixties in Russia with current themes" (p.3). These controversies "were devoted not only to philosophical questions but to the problems of social and political change," and they laid the basis for "the birth of an independent science of human behavior" on the work of Chernishevski and Sechenov (p.3).

With this foundation laid, McLeish dives into Russian history pre-Revolution, noting that under the Tsarist regime, educating the illiterate was seen as destroying society (p.14)! He reviews society and science as it developed from the 1700s to the Revolution, noting consequential themes (which I'll skip over in this review).

In Part II, we get to Soviet psychology proper. McLeish notes that it is different from Western psychology. Western psychology is based on experiment (i.e., it is empiricist), is concerned with the individual, is eclectic (building a general theory inductively from data), and "seeks to avoid any 'contamination' with philosophical a priorism" (p.65). In contrast, Soviet psychology "rejects empiricism as a principle of organization of scientific data," "attempts to explain experimental data within a context of presuppositions about the nature of man and society," understands the individual as part of a society; and "rejects eclecticism as a sign either of intellectual incompetence or of an intellectual compromise based ultimately on ideological self-interest" (p.65). (Note: We can see these principles in action in Levitin's interview with Leontiev.)

McLeish provides a detailed history of objective psychology in Russia, including the works of Lomonosov, Sechenov, and Pavlov, along with interactions with philosophers and the Marx-Engels-Lenin line, summarized in a figure (p.83). One highlight for me was the lucid discussion of Lenin's theory of reflection as interpreted in relation to Pavlov. McLeish summarizes Lenin's position: since the psyche is material and monist, "Reality is fully knowable. Truth is the reflection in the human brain of the actual objects and connections existing outside of us. ... The fact that we know the real world is proved by human practice — that is we can transform reality by working on it to achieve a known and predictable outcome. At the same time there are no absolute, eternal, unchanging truths" (p.84). Reflection theory, of course, became an important tenet for Leontiev's activity theory in the Stalinist years.

In Chapter 4, McLeish reviews the years 1917-1929 in Soviet psychology. He notes that "Four alternative theories were presented in the period 1924-9 for consideration, and possibly official recognition, as Marxist psychology": Kornilov's reactology; Bekhterev's reflexology; Pavlov's conditional reflex (p.99); and Vygotsky's so-called cultural-historical psychology, which was "discredited on the grounds that he borrowed too heavily from Western psychology" as well as his ties to pedology (p.100).

McLeish notes that Lenin's conception of the Party, and the development of academic studies in the Soviet Union, both have roots in the Russian tradition of group consensus. In this tradition,
all are encouraged to participate as equals [in an organized discussion] up to the point where a clear and decisive majority viewpoint emerges. The vote is then taken. The members of the group who are then in the minority are expected to reconsider their standpoint with a view to making the decision unanimous. In any case, everyone must implement the majority decision loyally: neither is further discussion tolerated when a definitive vote has been taken. In Old Russia, according to Kovaleski, in the village commune members of the minority, if they continued contumacious, were beaten with rods until they agreed with the majority view. (p.101)
(Recall that Lenin's opponents once lost a vote, so he insisted on calling the Mensheviks (minority) and his own faction Bolsheviks (majority).)

Immediately after the Revolution, a number of foreign theoretical systems flourished, including Gestalt (p.104). But 1921-1923 marked the end of idealism, and in 1924, Kornilov "swept idealism into oblivion" with the publication of an unoriginal but doctrinaire monograph (p.105). Kornilov had just taken over the directorship of the State Institute of Experimental Psychology in 1923 (p.108). McLeish adds that from this point on, "Theory, and the correct theory, is a prerequisite for intelligent research" (p.109).

With this background, McLeish overviews the four schools, none of which were "considered adequate" (p.109). In his summary of Vygotsky's school, he notes that Vygotsky emphasized the importance of cultural environment in the development of human traits, a line of inquiry that "has since found its way into non-Soviet psychology from anthropology" (p.121). Yet this "devotion to foreign fashions in psychology" and his focus on pedology led to lost favor. McLeish also claims that Vygotsky also made the error of not quoting Marx, Engels, and Lenin enough (p.121). In any case, Vygotsky was accused of thinking that he could dissociate "facts" from the bourgeoise theories that produced them (p.122). Nevertheless, McLeish argues, "In reality, Vygotski and his associates Luria and Leontiev laid the foundation in this period of the Marxist approach to the psyche as a historical, developmental product," one that develops dialectically from cooperative labor, as Engels claimed (p.122).

Moreover, they used both the word and the concept of reflection in accordance with Lenin (p.122). And McLeish adds that "Vygotski was engaged with the 'second signaling system' of Pavlov" (p.123). McLeish ends the chapter in this way: "It is now recognized, belatedly perhaps, that Vygotski emphasized aspects of psychology which have since become part of the pattern of Soviet psychology. ... But it must be said that these current emphases are derived from Marx and only secondarily from Vygotski's associates" (p.124).

(Side note: Rudneva (1936) attacked Vygotsky's work for not using reflection theory, and Leontiev and Luria quickly take up the term and apply it in their subsequent work. So I'm not sure I'm on board this claim, although Leontiev and Luria might well have presented Vygotsky in that light shortly before McLeish wrote this book. Similarly, I think the language of the "second signaling system" was picked up by Leontiev and especially Luria around 1950, when Pavlov was elevated during a joint scientific session of the USSR Academy of Sciences and USSR Academy of Medical Sciences.)

From here, in Ch.5 McLeish examines the influence of the five-year plans, noting the critical role of 1929, the "year of the great divide." Lenin's NEP was destroyed, Trotsky had been expelled, and Stalin was ascendant (p.127). After 1931, six major errors were defined, which "specify the rules which should not be broken" in Soviet psychological and general scientific method (p.132). The errors were:

  • Idealism: A sweeping category that includes spirit as opposed to matter, but also abstract categories and even non-dialectical philosophy in general (p.133). For Soviet psychologists, Western empiricism (which "proceeds inductively from what is regarded as the safe ground of experience") is considered idealist in that it does not proceed from correct theory (p.134). 
  • Mechanical materialism: An approach to materialism that is too reductive to address historical development. "Mechanical materialism makes an initial assumption that thought, consciousness, and sensation have merely a subjective, or even a fictitious, existence. ... It creates the necessity for a realm of non-material reality," and thus consciousness, which is expelled from mechanical materialism, "returns to plague the theoretician as an experimental ghost" (p.139). Bekhterev, Freud, and the Gestaltists all came under criticism under this error (p.140). 
  • Reductionism: This error involves "the attempt to reduce psychological processes on the human level to physiological or biological functioning, failing to realize that new laws, principles, and explanatory concepts must be posited as we move from lower to higher levels" (p.140). Soviet psychologists came to argue that "any specific human characteristic or quality, whether it be an emotion, an attitude, or an intellectual ability, develops through activity. There is a dynamic interaction with the environment which changes not only the individual but the environment as well" (p.141). 
  • Abstract human essence: "the attempt to provide a generalized psychology descriptive of man in all times and places" (p.142). 
  • Dualism: "any attempt to consider mind as capable of some form of existence separate from matter" (p.144). 
  • Eclecticism: "the large-scale borrowing of theoretical systems as well as of factual data from foreign psychologists. Neither system nor data are acceptable" (p.144). He adds, "In 1931 Soviet psychologists turned away from the methods and concepts developed under the capitalist market economy and attempted to strike out on a new path" (p.145). (Recall that Vygotsky and Luria were accused of eclecticism by Rasmyslov in 1934 for their tendency to rely on Durkheim and other Western sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists.) McLeish notes that a 1931 decree on primary and secondary schools was meant to precipitate a sharp break with Western methods and theories, but that break was not completed until the infamous 1936 Pedology Decree (p.147).
Note: In an aside on idealism, McLeish discusses Lenin's reflection theory, in which psychic processes are taken to be reflections of external matter or material processes. Lenin grounds this theory in Marx's Capital, in which Marx asserts that "The ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind and translated into forms of thought" (quoted on p.136). Thus reflection "is not a passive, mirror-like image of reality": Marx stresses "the active side of perception and knowledge," McLeish notes, and Lenin characterizes it as "an eternal process of movement, in which contradictions are forever emerging and being resolved" (quoted on p.136). 

Near the end of the chapter, McLeish adds that "it was Vygotski who introduced the principle of historicism into Russian experimental psychology" and notes that Vygotski's principle of double stimulation was invented by his colleague Sakharov (p.152). 

In Chapter 6, McLeish discusses Soviet psychology from 1935-1947 ("in the Stalin era"). The Communist Party cell of the Moscow Institute of Psychology began critically assessing psychological schools in 1929 with the publication of Lenin's philosophical notebooks (p.159). By the time the Pedology Decree was published in 1936, "all the prevailing schools of psychology ... had been discredited. All the technical journals devoted to psychology as an independent brand of knowledge, established in 1928, had been shut down ... Until 1955, psychological studies could appear only if they conformed to the requirements of the physiological or educational journals" (p.159). Psychological research continued, but without a publication outlet (p.159). "Basic research became a backroom activity" (p.160). 

Ascendant during this time was the theme of the New Man, "free to act because he has the necessary will to do so as well as the understanding of the laws of his own nature, of nature and society essential to act in accordance with necessity" (p.161). McLeish argues that in Russia, there was no Reformation, so the underlying conception of society remained spiritual rather than disintegrating as it had in western Europe (p.162). McLeish asks whether the New Soviet Man is Russian or Marxist, concluding that two conceptions had developed in parallel before unifying—indigenous peasant and Orthodox beliefs, borrowings from Western culture, and deliberate Marxist assimilation by Lenin (p.163). (McLeish does not mention the outsized influence of Nietzsche.) The New Soviet Man's virtues included:
  • Optimism: "The Russians believe that anything is possible to man, that there are no limits to man's power of transforming nature and society. This is not a mere figure of speech, but is to be taken in its most literal meaning" (p.164). Here, McLeish mentions Lysenkoism, though not by name; we can also think of Leontiev's work with dermal vision.
  • Modesty: "It is social man and not individual man for whom all things are — potentially at any rate — possible" (p.164).
  • Collectivism: The NSM "has no purposes which conflict with those of the collective. His particular successes are derived from the good fortune of society, from the success of social, collective work" (p.164).
  • Social humanism: The NSM "loves and cares for people," unlike the misanthropes in capitalist society, but hates the enemies of the working class (p.165).
  • Patriotism: For the NSM, "the motherland and the idea of Communism as the ideal of progressive humanity everywhere are inseparably united" (p.165).
  • Ideological approach: The NSM takes an ideological approach to all questions, from the point of view of the working class, leading to true objectivity (p.165). 
  • Sense of duty: Developing from the above (p.166).
  • Communist attitude to work: "Work is not to be regarded as a punishment for sin, but as the very basis of man's life, the centre of his living interests, and the conditions of a free, human personality" (p.166).
  • Readiness to overcome difficulties: The NSM is ready to overcome difficulties and fight for Communism (p.166).
The NSM, McLeish says, can be interpreted in terms of a recurrent figure in Russian folklore: the sleeping giant who suddenly awakens and transforms his environment (p.168). 

You'll notice from the NSM characteristics and the work in previous chapters that McLeish likes to develop exhaustive lists of characteristics. The next list is that of axioms underlying Soviet psychological research:
  • psychophysical monism
  • the theory of reflection
  • the materialist determination of consciousness and activity
  • the principle of contradiction in development
  • the unity of consciousness and activity
  • the class or historical character of psychic processes (p.170). 
In this context, McLeish notes a few things that relate to the Vygotsky Circle:
  • Vygotsky was the first to investigate schizophrenia via systematic experimental investigation (pp.175-176). 
  • One principle in Soviet therapy is that it stresses work "and the proper attitude to it. Since it is through co-operative labour that man attains his highest level of development, work can be used as a therapeutic agency" (p.176; we see this attitude in Leontiev and Zaporozhets' work at the rehabilitation hospital and arguably in the Gulag as well).
  • Abandoning pedology meant abandoning "the conception of normal distribution of traits, such as intelligence, in human beings" (p.177). We see this turn in Leontiev's postwar writings.
Speaking of Leontiev's postwar writings, McLeish overviews the biology discussion of 1948 (p.190) and its effects on psychology (p.195). First, Rubinstein's 1940 textbook, which had won the Stalin Prize (!), was critically reviewed in 1948 (p.195). Rubinstein was accused of proffering a science of unconscious mind copied from Freud and Lewin (p.196). This sort of borrowing was unacceptable: if a single indivisible truth exists, as the Soviets believed, then an eclectic approach meant drawing on two incompatible and mutually contradictory sources (p.199). 

At the end of the chapter, McLeish praises Vygotsky's work, but notes that "his work was totally ignored during the whole period except by his immediate associates — Leontiev, Zaparozhetz, and others" (p.213). 

The next chapter examines 1950-1955, "half a decade of Pavlovian psychology," starting with the 1950 conference centered around Pavlov and the uptake of his underdeveloped "second signaling system" (p.215). McLeish provides an analogy between this second signaling system and Lenin's reflection theory (p.216). 

Around here, McLeish begins to discuss Leontiev's work—in present tense. (Leontiev died in 1979, just four years after the book was published.) McLeish notes that Leontiev is a leader in the study of "mental and educational backwardness" [sic!] (p.221). He reviews Leontiev's work with the rehabilitation hospital and on developing perfect pitch (p.221), on memory, and on teaching the "mentally defective" (p.222-223). 

In the last chapter, McLeish undertakes a survey of Soviet psychology, noting its divergences from Western psychology. The biggest gap, he says, is in the study of emotions (p.232); here, he mentions a paper Vygotsky wrote in 1932 but that remained unpublished until 1958 (p.234). He also notes the work that Leontiev and Luria did in the area using the combined motor method (p.236). 

Under a separate heading, McLeish discusses social psychology, which was "placed in the deep freeze in the late twenties and early thirties" (p.243). From 1936-1963, h states, there were no studies of social psychology (p.243). 

McLeish regards thought and speech as the central problem of Soviet psychology (p.247). "The processes of thought and speech are seen through the prism of dialectical materialism," specifically based on reflection theory (Lenin) and reflex (Sechenov, Pavlov) (p.248). Here, he reviews Vygotsky's work, specifically how "in a series of experimental studies he demonstrated the real nature of the higher mental processes" (p.248). According to McLeish, "Leontiev, Smirnov, Zinchenko, and many others have filled in details of this picture" (p.249). He sees Vygotsky's central contribution to be the understanding of internalization, a concept that he links to reflection (p.249). 

And that's it for this review. As you can tell, I think this book does a solid job of overviewing trends in Soviet psychology as well as roots of some of its concepts, roots that stretch in part to pre-Soviet Russian culture. I quibble with some of the characterizations of the Vygotsky Circle, but to be fair, the evidence for those quibbles really wasn't available in 1975. Overall, I recommend the book highly if you are as interested in the history of Soviet psychology as I am. 

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Reading :: Vygotsky's Notebooks

Vygotsky’s Notebooks: A Selection
Edited by Ekaterina Zavershneva and Rene Van der Veer

Ekaterina Zavershneva received permission to review the archives of Lev Vygotsky's family some years ago, and has published chapters and articles based on portions of this archive. Here, she and coeditor Rene Van der Veer overview much of the archive, which reaches from Vygotsky's 1912 school notebooks to his last notes on the eve of his death in 1934. The book is based on approximately 500 of these items (p.xi).

This was not an easy task. Vygotsky tended to write his notes on the backs of other paper (flyers, hotel stationery, etc.), paper that he might save for a while before using. And since he did not always date these writings, the editors sometimes had to guess based on clues. The writing was personal, so arguments were often not spelled out -- and neither were the words, which were often abbreviated. Thus many of these notes are elliptical.

Nevertheless, the archives give us a glimpse into the working -- and evolving -- Vygotsky, including his vast ambition. For instance, he outlined several books that never came to be.

Below, I'll note some of the things that stood out for me:


Here, the editors overview the collection. Among other things, they discuss how the notes shed light on the works for which Vygotsky is currently known. For instance, the Cultural and Historical Crisis in Psychology, Vygotsky's unpublished book manuscript written in the hospital in 1926, was planned as the first part of a larger book called Zoon Politikon (p.xv). Notes related to his manuscript The history of the higher psychological functions were found from 1928-1930 (p.xvi). By 1929, Vygotsky was submitting his theory to criticism (specifically, the idea of studying higher psychological functions in isolation), leading to "the systemic approach, which Vygotsky introduced in 1930 in the article 'About psychological systems'" (p.xvi). The authors maintain that "Tool and sign," which was unpublished at Vygotsky's death but usually dated 1930, was probably written in 1931 (p.xvii).

The editors also discuss Vygotsky's third, elusive period in which he criticized his earlier instrumentalist work and argued for "the principle of the semantic structure of the mind," in which he retained sign mediation but "considerably broadened its concept by transitioning from the study of the external structure of the sign operation in its instrumental function to the study of its internal structure, i.e., the meanings" (p.xvii). The editors recount "the famous meeting of December 4 and 5 [of 1932], when the main line of development of the cultural‒historical theory was established" (p.xvii). The divergence with Leontiev begins here, and the authors are able to produce notes related to it as well as to the general shift to semantic structure (p.xviii). The authors add:
The plans for unwritten books were preserved in the archive and are presented in chapter 17. The analysis of these and other documents shows that Thinking and speech was just an intermediate step toward a more ambitious book about consciousness (Zavershneva 2014). The archival research also confirms our hypothesis that the greatest part of Thinking and speech was created before 1933. For example, all of the major statements of its final chapter were already literally present in the notes from 1932 (chapter 21). Constant reflections about a new method to study mind and consciousness, which Vygotsky called the “semic method,” also belong to this pivotal year (chapter 18) when meaning was declared to be the unit of investigation of verbal thinking and consciousness as a whole. (p.xviii)
Yet the archive also shows that " it had become increasingly difficult for Vygotsky and his associates―and for many of their colleagues―to work in freedom" due to ideological pressure and criticism (p.xix). Around this time (1933-1934), he "realized that consciousness essentially fulfills the role of an instrument that mediates the active relationship of the person with the environment and that this relationship must be studied in the first place. It was now that Vygotsky introduced the concept of experience as the integrative unit of environmental and individual aspects" (p.xix). Yet he left this insight undeveloped and turned to the theory of dynamic semantic systems, heavily influenced by Lewin:
In October 1933, Vygotsky remarked, “Cf. Lewin’s data: an amazing coincidence. But new is that not the external field, but the inner, semantic field is taken into account.” The concept of the semantic field developed from the transformation of the two Lewinian concepts of the “psychological field” and the “level of irreality” and was defined as a semantic plane of generalization (Zavershneva 2015b). Studying it genetically, Vygotsky showed how in various stages of development it performs its fundamental function of mediation of the relationship between the person and the world and, in particular, allows the person to transform the fluid dynamics of thought into the dynamics of action and thus forms the basis of volitional behavior (chapters 25 and 29). (p.xix).
Finally, in his last notes, "Vygotsky tried to solve the problem of the unity of affect and intellect by distinguishing several planes of analysis—the affective systems, the semantic field, and the practical action—and showing that they determine the general regularities of mind both structurally and dynamically" (p.xix). The editors note that this approach was only roughed out and was not undertaken by any of Vygotsky's students after his death; "In this connection Vygotsky’s paper 'The problem of mental retardation,' which was published posthumously, may be considered the manifesto of the final version of his approach, although it is only superficially known by modern Vygotsky students" (p.xx).

As mentioned, the notes begin in Vygotsky's school years. I'm more interested in his notes as a psychologist, so we'll skip ahead.

Chapter 6: The Trip to London

These notes cover Vygotsky's trip to London in 1925 for a conference on deaf-mutes. I'll just pull a quote from here to illustrate Vygotsky's faith in the Revolution and its ability to remake humankind:

"In essence, Russia is the first country in the world. The Revolution is our supreme cause. In this room only one person knows the secret of the genuine education of the deafmutes. And that person is me. Not because I am more educated than the others, but [because] I was sent by Russia and I speak on behalf of the Revolution." (p.63)

Chapter 7: From the Zakharino Hospital

The editors explain that these notes are from his 1926 hospital stay for tuberculosis. During this stay, he planned to turn his dissertation into a book with additional material. He also planned Zoon Politikon, an argument that consciousness is a social phenomenon and that speech plays a fundamental role in its development (p.71). Here, he searched for the relationship between the cultural and biological (pp.71-72), a question that he answers in the early 1930s with "Tool and symbol" and Pedagogy of the adolescent, portraying the word as tool-like (p.72).

In his notes, Vygotsky claims: "The word is not a relationship between the sound and the object it denotes. It is a relationship between a speaker and a listener, a relationship between people directed toward an object, it is an interpsychical reaction, which establishes the unity of two organisms in one direction toward the object" (p.74). And "Consciousness is speech for oneself, it originates in society with language (Marx). ... Consciousness is a dialogue with oneself" (p.74).
Hence, the distinguishing characteristics of the word: It is an artificially created stimulus (cf. technique), it is a tool of behavior, it presupposes two subjects and an object. Verbal behavior differs from nonverbal behavior like labor does from the adaptation of animals (the tool is also outside the organism, i.e., it is an organ of society). The tool has its prototype in the organ (the foot—the mortar, the hammer—a fist) just like the word has its prototype in the conditional stimulus. But its peculiarity is that each stimulus either exists by itself or is created for something; the word is a special stimulus for the regulation, the organization of behavior; of the other’s behavior and our own. What makes the tool different: It is a thing that in itself is not necessary for use, but for the production of other things; similarly, speech behavior is not necessary in itself but to evoke other behavior. But this is what tool use, what word use is, and the ax is a thing amidst things, the word a stimulus amidst stimuli. The tool-like nature of the word. But here nothing is supernatural. Technique is not the introduction of new forces but the use of existing ones. In the same way, the word is the artificial use of existing nervous forces. Speech stimuli have no adequate reactions. (p.75)
Perhaps thinking of how Marx took up and changed Hegel's arguments, Vygotsky adds: "I will take the classic propositions of empirical psychology (a psychology of just individuals; thinking is speech; empathy) and put them upside down" (p.76).

Finally, Vygotsky assesses Chelpanov, the former director of the institute who was replaced by Kornilov shortly before Vygotsky was hired: " (Incidentally,
Chelpanov is no enemy, he is a popularizer, he will wait until there is a generally accepted core in the new psychology, he will be our popularizer and say that he knew it all along. Cf. the essays and the reaction)" (p.78).

Chapter 8: Toward Cultural–Historical Theory

The editors explain that these three notes, from 1926-1928, "discuss the need to define the object and method of the new Marxist psychology" (p.107). I'll just note that Vygotsky argues, "Engels’ schema justifies my definition" (p.109).

Chapter 9: The Instrumental Method

The editors date these notes from 1927-1930. They discuss higher psychological functions and the double stimulation method. The latter has roots in experiments Vygotsky conducted in Gomel in 1923 as well as in Kohler. The book manuscript History of the development of higher psychological functions was probably a compilation of unfinished manuscripts begun in 1928 (p.115).

From a note dated April 3, 1928:
In Marxism, the idea of the superman (Kautsky, Trotsky: Man is chaos, nature and society, he will master himself), but also on the preceding levels it is impossible to master nature without mastering oneself. Each level in the mastery of nature corresponds with a certain level in the mastery of oneself. (p.117)
From a note probably written in 1929:
Engels’ idea that mind + brain developed is incorrect (cf. Serebrovskiy),31 but its true core: The brain has the conditions and the possibility for the historical development of psychology. Plekhanov is right when he places psychology before ideology: For the new psychological functions must arise as a pre-requisite for the development of ideology. 
Our whole doctrine is contained in the phrase: the historical theory of the higher psychological functions. (p.122)
Chapter 10: Concepts and the Systemic Approach

The editors date these notes from 1929-1931. Here, Vygotsky moves from functions to interfunctional connections. The editors add, "Various systems develop in various stages of development, but the vector of development can be given as follows: The primary, innate connections between the functions that first form an undifferentiated mass are destroyed, and with the help of the sign (primarily, the word) new, artificial, flexible connections are created, which form a system that can be deliberately steered and in which one function dominates and guides the others. The highest development is reached after the adolescent crisis when the dominating function becomes conceptual thinking" (p.129).

On p. 130, Vygotsky writes: "Sakharov and I have a central idea: not abstraction, the establishing of connections leads to concept formation."

On p.131: "We do not accept Watson’s [concept of] speech as a means to discover what is hidden. Speech is not glass. Speech is a second series of signs that change perception, action, and thinking."

And on p.140, in an early formulation of systems: "Not a psychology of partial (autonomous) operations of separate functions or processes (cf. it is not the muscle that works, but the person; contra the psychology of processes, Politzer)." He adds on p.141, "We always covertly assumed the person in the mediated processes. Systems are the key to the person. In any case, the person does not consist of functions but of systems."

Chapter 15: The Study of Consciousness

The editors date this note as October 1932. It marks the transition to the dynamic semantic approach and airs Vygotsky's objections to Leontiev's path (p.243).

Contra Leontiev, Vygotsky argues: "Speech is the self-disclosure of thinking. Speech is not a glass medium but a real participant in all the events that take place in the change of thinking" (p.247). He complains: "Everything is moved to the beginning. But then everything [is moved] to the
conception. The most important thing does not take place in the beginning, but in the end, for the end contains the beginning. The height viewpoint. [He] should not all the time work near the lower boundaries."

Chapter 16: From Sign to Meaning and Sense

The editors date this to 1932. It represents the transition to semantic systems, airs conflict with Leontiev, and appears to be the basis for Thought and Language Ch.7. (p.251).

Chapter 17: The Problem of Consciousness

The editors explain that these notes relate to the internal symposium on December 4, 1932 and Vygotky's seven-hour talk about consciousness (p.271). The focus is the transition from sign to meaning, consciousness, and height psychology; Thought and Language was an intermediate step toward these goals.

On p.273, Vygotsky writes: "Our shortcoming is not a shortage of facts but the inadequacy of the theory: This is the main difficulty in the analysis of our crisis and not the divergence from the facts. This contra A. N. [Leont’ev]. Thus: Salvation is not in the facts but in theory. We introduced the systemic viewpoint too late." And "Consciousness without the word is Stygian speech."

Vygotsky criticizes his instrumental phase:
The limited, convential, narrow nature of the older viewpoint led to an incorrect assessment of the central aspects, which we have taken for secondary ones: the interfunctional connections. We have focused our attention on the sign (on the tool) to the detriment of the development of the operation with the sign and presented it as something simple that goes through three stages: magical, external, and internal. But the knot is external, and the diary of the adolescent is external. Thus, we have lots of poorly explained facts and wish to look deeper into the facts, i.e., we wish to re-interpret them theoretically. (pp.274-275)
He adds: "The higher and lower functions are not built in two floors: their number and names do not coincide. But neither our previous conception [is correct]: the higher function is the mastery of the lower one (voluntary attention is the subordination of involuntary attention), for this also implies two floors" (p.275). And "functions are not tied to activities, they are polyvalent, polyfunctional, pure, free, and auxiliary unbound activities of consciousness" (p.275).

On pp.278-279, he outlines a new book with himself, Leontiev, and Luria as authors.

On p.285 he declares his intention to develop "not depth but height psychology."

Chapter 18: The Semic Method

The editors date this note to 1932. Vygotky declared the semic method to be the principal one in the study of mind and consciousness. The fullest description of this method is in these notebooks. The semic method is the study of the inner structure of sign operations: a study of material phenomena based on meaning, not external characteristics. Vygotsky planned large studies, which were partly realized in the 1934 publications by Birembaum and Zeigarnik.

Chapter 19: The Result of Many Years of Work

The editors explain that these notes give us an idea of the ideological atmosphere in the 1930s. The plan for Thought and Language was severely criticized on ideological grounds (p.311). This section includes a letter that Vygotsky began around 1933 in response to a purge.

Chapter 25: The Semantic Field: Sparring with Lewin

This chapter, the editors say, reveals Vygotsky reception of Lewin's field theory. "It is well known that the work of Lewin—together with those of Wolfgang Köhler, Kurt Koffka, Karl Bühler, and Jean Piaget—formed a major source of inspiration for Vygotsky and that he borrowed many of their ideas. Much of the empirical work of Vygotsky’s group consisted of conceptual replications of the findings of these scholars." But Vygotsky sought not just to replicate but to probe weaknesses and improve. "On the basis of Lewin’s ideas about the psychological field and the sphere of irreality, Vygotsky also introduced the concept of the “semantic field,” by which he understood the plane of the generalization, of the mediated relationship to the world" (p.403). The chapter includes Vygotsky's notes from Lewin's lecture during his Moscow visit in 1933.

Chapter 26: Neuropsychology

The editors note that Vygotsky was fascinated by neuropsychology in his last months and "proposes to replace the functional and structural analysis by the systemic approach" (p.419).

Re neuropsychological disorders, Vygotsky says:
In aphasia, schizophrenia, and other pathological changes of the psychological processes, the main point that needs to be analyzed is the fact that one and the same function, operation, etc. sometimes appears and sometimes disappears: This clearly shows that the function is possible in one plane and impossible in another plane. This fact itself is remarkable because it shows that one and the same effect can be reached along different paths (cf. the memory experiments). All the expedition work is based upon this. The voluntary operation is the same operation in another plane. (pp.419-420)
Re mediation, he says:
The sign does not just mediate the operation from outside (intercalation, interposition, inter–legere), like a knot, i.e., the sign does not just stand between the object to be remembered and the person but also internally mediates the memory process: i.e., it leads to memory via a new meaning, via a chain of other processes: imagination, thinking, etc. Inde the sign via the meaning is the path to the creation of systems. (p.421)
(Compare this claim to Leontiev's collapsing of physical and psychological tools.)

He adds that "In particular, Lewin’s systems, in which the differences between the functions (attention, memory, and so on) were lost, are momentary systems of intention: hic et nunc. Not our systems" (p.421).

In notes working toward his last talk in 1934, he discusses the development and dissolution of higher psychological functions:
How do the functions of the higher centers develop when the lower ones are underdeveloped: (a) They either extremely imperfectly develop from above (speech in deafmutes); (b) or they—also inadequately—develop by themselves, autonomously, outside the system or in another system; intellect in the post-encephalitic syndrome. The fact itself of the development from above in normal and anomalous children is the proof of the law of the upward transition of functions in anomalous and normal development and the substitution of the lower centers by the higher ones + of the independence of the higher from the lower at a certain level of development. [We should] study the speech of deafmutes from the viewpoint of conscious awareness + voluntariness and aspontaneity, i.e., as opposite to the path of normal development; the analogy is not with the mother tongue, but with a foreign language. (p.424)
There’s more, much more -- but this is what I found to be most useful in these notebooks. If you’re interested in the development of Vygotsky’s thought, like I am, definitely take a look.