Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Reading :: Thought and Language, 2ed

Thought and Language - Revised Edition
By Lev Vygotsky

I've reviewed this classic book before, of course. But that review was of the 1962 edition. In that review, I say that I'll have to "soon" go to the library and pick up the revised (1986) edition. Now, ten years later, I finally have. The irony is that I just discovered that there's a 2012 edition of Thought and Language, which I'm sure I'll get to by 2025.

The 1962 edition, published in the US at the height of the Cold War, cut out some of the Marxist bits of Vygotsky's work. They're back in this edition, along with an excellent introduction by editor Alex Kozulin. In fact, I'll spend the first half of my review discussing it.

Kozulin provides context for Vygotsky's work, ideology, and ideological constraints, and recounts the history of this book in particular. I was particularly interested in the early 1930s, when Stalin was tightening control and "Soviet psychologists were expected to derive psychological categories directly from the works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin." Although Vygotsky genuinely wanted to found a Soviet psychology on Marxist principles, he also drew on European and American research, and that research was now labeled bourgeois and anti-Marxist. Similarly, Luria's cross-cultural research was severely criticized, and he had to renounce psychoanalysis; these constraints are probably what led him to pivot to neuropsychology (p.xliii). Leontiev had to resign from the Academy of Communist Education, although his official biography does not elaborate why (p.xliv).

Also in the 1930s, a group of Vygotsky's students (including Leontiev, Zaporozhets, and Bozhovich) established a program in developmental psychology in Kharkov, Ukraine. Their proposed solution to the relation between consciousness and activity was: "'The development of the consciousness of a child occurs as a result of the development of the system of psychological operations, which, in their turn, are determined by the actual relations between the child and reality'" (p.xliv). The obvious weak point is "actual relations with reality," which became a major point of disagreement between the Kharkovites and Vygotsky (p.xlv). The Kharkovites played down the role of signs as chief mediators. As Kolulin adds, "This is an attack not on a peripheral, but on a central notion of the cultural-historical theory [of Vygotsky]" (p.xlvi). As Zinchenko argued, "'social development cannot be reduced to the history of the development of culture.'" But here we find a flaw in activity theory:
While in Vygotsky's theory, activity as a general explanatory principle finds its concretization in the specific, culturally bound types of semiotic mediation, in the doctrine of the Kharkovites, activity assumes a double role: as a general principle and as a concrete mechanism of mediation. However, in order to be socially meaningful, the concrete actions have to be connected in some way with human social and economic relations with reality. The task of elaborating this overall structure of activity was taken up by Leontiev. (p.xlviii, my emphasis)
Leontiev elaborated the structure of activity, but when discussing human activity in general, he used categories of Marxist social philosophy that
apply to the social-historical subject, rather than to the psychological individual. At the same time, 'actual relations with reality' were sought by Leontiev in the concrete practical actions and operations of the individual. The intermediate link between these two facets of activity—which Vygotsky identified as culture in general and the semiotic system in particular—had been lost because of the rejection of Vygotsky's position. (p.l)
"Rejecting semiotic mediation, and insisting on the dominant role of practical actions, the Kharkovites had obliged themselves to elaborate the connection between the philosophical categories of production and objectification and the psychological category of action" (p.l) Leontiev eventually substituted "meaning and sense" for internalized operations, "unwittingly" acknowledging Vygotsky's approach (p.l), but critics caught his inconsistency (p.li).

In the late 1950s, Vygotsky was rehabilitated during de-Stalinization. He was reprinted and read. Former Kharkovites had gained solid positions. In 1963, Leontiev's Problems of the Development of Mind won the Lenin Prize, and Leontiev took on the mantle of Vygotsky's chief interpreter (pp.li-lii). Vygotsky began to be seen as the predecessor of Leontiev, whose research program was portrayed as the "authentic realization" of Vygotsky's work (p.li).

But in the late 1970s, Leontiev's theory came under scrutiny on the grounds that Vygotsky had critiqued it: "using the notion of activity at one and the same time as an explanatory principle and as a subject of concrete psychological study. By 'explaining' the phenomena of activity by means of the principle of activity, a vicious circle was created" (p.lii). Kozulin paraphrases Yudin: "structural elements of activity (activity-action-operation and motive-goal-condition) once suggested as the elaboration of the explanatory principle, were later used in the context of the subject of study" (p.liii).

So there's Kozulin's fascinating introduction. Now to the book itself. Since this is a revised edition, rather than thoroughly covering the entire book, I'll note some things that caught me on this reading.

One is the impact of Marx and Engels. I think many of these references were cut out of the 1962 edition, but they are frequent in this one. As in the essays of the Vygotsky Reader, these essays read human and prehuman history through Engels in particular (e.g., p.90). Similarly, Vygotsky explicitly grounds his methods in Engelsian dialectics (e.g., pp.124-125).

More broadly, the impact of Soviet ideology is clearly seen. For instance, in Ch.6, Vygotsky uses examples of students "correctly" finishing sentences in social science subjects, sentences that are ideologically charged (and, to my mind, dubious) such as "Planned economy is possible in the U.S.S.R. because there is no private property—all land, factories, and plants belong to the workers and peasants" (p.191). Examples such as these, at the time when the Soviet Union was becoming inexorably more unfree, are jolting reminders that Vygotsky had to work within a sharply limited set of ideological parameters.

Do I need to say it? The book is still a classic, and Kozulin's introduction adds much to my understanding of it. Definitely pick it up.

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