Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Reading :: The Making of Mind

The Making of Mind: A Personal Account of Soviet Psychology
By A.R. Luria

The above link goes to the version of the book I own; it looks like a later version is also available (Autobiography of Alexander Luria: A Dialogue with the Making of Mind). Both were edited or coedited by Michael Cole, who worked with Luria after receiving his degree in psychology in the US; in the Introduction, Cole movingly recounts his encounters with the great psychologist and discusses how he wishes he had had a better background to truly appreciate what Luria had accomplished or why Luria kept trying to get him to read this fellow named Vygotsky.

Cole also writes an epilogue, which we'll discuss first because it provides some good context for the book. As Cole notes, this "personal account" includes few personal details; Luria briefly discusses his education and travels, but mostly focuses on how his activities fit into and reflected the development of Soviet psychology. This tack makes the book less personal, but reflects Luria's well-honed instincts for staying out of trouble as he navigated the treacherous landscape of the Soviet Union during and after the Stalin years. Reading between the lines, as Cole does, we see Luria's story as one of repeated interruptions and reinventions. For instance, by 1936, "Soviet psychology was a virtual minefield of explosive issues and broken theories" (p.216), so Luria—while staying active in psychology—went back to medical school full time, a move that allowed him to escape controversy and move into the related field of neurology (p.217). When Pavlovian reflexology was ascendant, he used its language; when his foray into cultural psychology in Kazakhstan was poorly received, he put it in a drawer for forty years. "Nowhere did Alexander Romanovich hint at the complex ideological and institutional constraints that had produced his various research careers," even when they became available to the West (p.222). We have to read between the lines and put these pieces together ourselves.

Now to Luria's part of the book. Luria starts with the 1917 Revolution, when he was only 15. The society was rapidly changing and, he recalls, everyone expected the society to make tremendous progress (p.17). During the early years of his schooling, utopian schemes were still in the air (p.19); conscientious Soviets were still trying to assimilate the details of Marxist philosophy (p.30), and Luria regrets that he did not learn it to his satisfaction. Fortunately, he soon met with two others who would become a troika dedicated to developing a uniquely Marxist psychology: Leontiev (p.31) and Vygotsky (p.39). Vygotsky, the leading Marxist in their troika, wanted to develop a system to synthesize opposing psychological schools (p.41). Here, Luria uses the H2O illustration that was used by Engels in Dialectics of Nature and later by Vygotsky in his own writings (p.42).

(Cole adds in his epilogue that Vygotsky "held that a new psychology could be derived from Marxist principles (p.204, his emphasis). Cole says that, based on his readings of a 1925 collection, Luria based his Marxist approach on Marx's Theses on Feuerbach and Engels' Anti-Duehring, while Vygotsky based his directly on Capital. Vygotsky also assimilated Engels' Dialectics of Nature as soon as it was available in 1925.)

Luria recounts that Vygotsky called his approach instrumental, cultural, and historical, emphasizing the three interrelated aspects. As Luria points out, professional anthropology was in its infancy, so their Marxist psychology incorporated that aspect (p.59), especially finding inspiration in Durkheim's claim that the mind originates in society rather than the other way around (p.58). And this brings us to Chapter 4, in which Luria recounts his trip to Uzbekistan. "The early 1930s were especially suitable for carrying out the necessary experiments," he recounts (p.60)—the nomads were being led into collectivized agriculture, literacy, and "freedom" from religion. Luria recounts his experiments here with considerable economy while still providing the headline news.

From there, Luria describes his later work: on mental development in twins (Ch.5), verbal regulation of behavior in children (Ch.6), disturbance of brain functions (Ch.7), and, in the aftermath of World War II, neuropsychological work to address brain injuries (Ch.8). Chapter 9 recounts his later work on the mechanisms of the brain.

Luria concludes with Chapter 10, "Romantic Science," in which he characterizes his brand of research as "to preserve the wealth of living reality" (p.174). He adds,
I have always admired Lenin's observation that a glass, as an object of science, can be understood only when it is viewed from many perspectives [such as physics, economics, and aesthetics]. The more we single out important relations during our description, the closer we come to the essence of the object, to an understanding of its qualities and the rules of its existence. And the more we preserve the whole wealth of its qualities, the closer we come to the inner laws that determine its existence. It was this perspective which led Karl Marx to describe the process of scientific description with the strange-sounding expression, 'ascending to the concrete.' (pp.177-178)
And with this brief description of a modernist polycontextuality, Luria draws the reminiscence to a close.

This is the second reading for me (I first read it in grad school), but this time I felt tremendous sympathy for Luria. He dealt with the treacherous Soviet landscape by reinventing himself, excelling each time, but cutting his losses when he needed to change. I'm not sure if the interruptions he faced hurt him or forced him to become ever more innovative. Contrast that path to my current scholarly milieu in rhetoric and writing studies, which seems to offer hardly any constraints or actual dangers. Here, we are able to reach farther, borrow from whom we wish, and built legacies that face few challenges (perhaps because the stakes are much lower). We are free—free to prod, poke, criticize, and build on Luria's legacy with few penalties. But we should also understand and respect how Luria and his contemporaries handled the obstacles that shaped his work.

Should you read this book? If you're interested in activity theory and its history, of course you should!

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