Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Reading :: Understanding Vygotsky

Understanding Vygotsky: A Quest for Synthesis
By Rene van der Veer and Jaan Valsiner

As part of my ongoing series on the roots of activity theory, I picked up this biography of Lev Vygotsky. It's a thick, intimidating book (400pp. excluding references), and it's both useful and fascinating. In fact, I won't be able to provide a detailed summary and review here, and I encourage you to pick it up yourself if you are interested in learning more about the great psychologist. (This is an intellectual biography, though: chapters are internally chronological, but treat different aspects of Vygotsky's thought, so you'll find the same date ranges being referenced across the chapters. That organization makes an overall chronology difficult to extract.)

My more specific interest at this point is in better understanding how Vygotsky drew his inspiration from Marxist thought and how he navigated through the ideological strictures that came about after the Revolution. And in this aspect, the authors deliver well. They have read Vygotsky's unpublished papers and correspondence as well as those of his contemporaries, and they have contextualized the moments of his life and thought alongside the events surrounding him.

Forgive me a brief detour into how I took notes on this book. As usual, I placed small sticky notes on the right and left edges of the book to mark key passages and thoughts. But with a book this substantial, that meant scores of sticky notes:

When this happens, I also use sticky notes on the bottom to (a) mark especially important passages for my current project or (b) summarize a range of notes. For this review, I'll focus on those bottom notes—which, in this context, generally make connections with Marxist thought.

Take the one in the picture, for instance. Here, the authors are describing how Vygotsky began thinking through his critique of reflexology in his 1926 book Pedagogical Psychology and other contemporary publications. (To give you an idea of how prolific a writer Vygotsky was, consider that the authors, using APA style, refer to this book as (1926i). They list Vygotsky's 16 publications and manuscripts for 1926 alone.) Here's the passage on the lower right side of the picture:
According to Vygotsky animal behavior could be entirely explained by reference to (1) innate reactions; and (2) conditional reflexes (which were themselves combinations of innate reactions and personal experience) (Vygotsky, 1926i, p.40). But human beings—and here Vygotsky relied heavily on Marxist thought—differed in fundamental ways from animals: they have a collective social history and do not adapt passively to nature. Moreover, they actively change their nature according to their design. This transformation of nature is reached by making use of tools in the process of labor. Through this reasoning—which was to reappear (and in more elaborate form) to underpin his writings time and again (see chapter 9)—Vygotsky developed the following explanation of human behavior; human behavior can be fully explained only by taking into account (1) innate reactions; (2) conditional reflexes; (3) historical experience; (4) social experience; and (5) "doubled" (udvoennyj) experience. [The authors explain that (5) is based on Marx's famous passage contrasting the labor of spiders and bees with that of humans, who foresee the results of their labor. The concept of udvoennyj experience] implied that the organism reacted twice: the first time to external events, and the second to internal events. The (internal) plan of building a house would be a stimulus to the actual process of building, whereas the plan itself arose as the result of some reaction to an external event. In this way, conscious activities are (1) really reactions to internal stimuli that (2) arose as reactions to external stimuli. They, therefore, have a "double" nature and may be termed "doubled experience." (pp.51-52)
We see here that Vygotsky was already firmly grounding his Marxist psychology in the works of Marx and Engels. (Engels' book Dialectics of Nature was published in Russian in 1925, the year before Pedagogical Psychology was published. Although Vygotsky read it immediately, I'm unclear whether its insights made it into Pedagogical Psychology, but they proved to be important in Vygotsky's subsequent work.) We also see how udvoennyj suggests Vygotsky's later technique of double stimulation, a technique that also drew from Gestalt psychology (p.161), and specifically Kohler (p.167).

Yet Vygotsky made some unforeseeable missteps in this publication, specifically citing Trotsky and Nietzsche. These citations helped to prevent his book from being reprinted in the Soviet Union (p.56). To Western eyes, however, this text seems extremely Soviet in ideology: it praises the "fully articulated Soviet dictatorship," looks forward to the new classless society, characterizes the child's development as a dialectic struggle between man and world, performs the doctrinaire Soviet atheism, and describes the new Soviet (super) man that would result from the Soviet liberation (pp.54-56).

(Later still, Vygotsky's works would fall out of favor because they cited bourgeois scholars such as James (p.42), Durkheim (p.206), the Gestaltists (Ch.8), and Kohler (p.167). He also never let go of the utopianism that led him to imagine the ideal Soviet man; see p.161, 191, )

Around 1928, Vygotsky's defectological writings changed: he shifted toward the cultural-historical approach (p.69; for context, Stalin was consolidating power at around this time; the Bakhtin Circle published four books in 1927-1929; the Gulag was officially established in 1930; and Luria's research trip to Uzbekistan happened in 1931-32.) Vygotsky distinguished between natural and cultural development (p.71), characterizing children who did not go through normal cultural development as "child-primitives" (p.71), a notion that he borrowed from Petrova—whose syllogism-based approach (applied to children) would later be used by Luria (applied to Uzbek peasants; p.72). The shift to the new approach was fortuitous especially for Luria, since Freudianism became non grata in 1930 (p.78) and his ten-year involvement in psychoanalysis had to come to an end (or, the authors suggest, had to be hidden under Marxist terminology; see p.88). Vygotsky had already critiqued Freudianism as early as 1926 (p.97). Psychology had to be rebuilt within a Marxist framework.

In fact, Vygotsky was claiming in 1926 that a Marxist psychology did not yet exist (p.139). Freudianism didn't fit the bill, but neither did the reactology that Luria's mentor Kornilov offered, despite Kornilov's attempt to retrofit it with the dialectical triad (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) or to characterize contradictions as the engine of development (p.121). Vygotsky instead turned to Engels' Dialectics of Nature for its dialectical materialist account of concepts and to both Marx and Engels for the concept of the germ-cell (p.146-148). He criticized others for doing what Kornilov had done: cherry-picking quotes from Marx and Engels rather than drawing out a methodology that could be applied to psychological questions. After all, Marx, Engels, and Plekhanov were not psychologists and could not supply ready-made answers; but they could supply the principles for a Marxist method (p.153).

Vygotsky was not alone, of course: he had students. And a troika—although, as the authors argue, at first there was no troika (p.183): it took 4-5 years for Vygotsky and Luria to begin cooperating, while Leontiev's later role was less visible; he never coauthored pieces with Vygotsky and was barely on the radar as a practitioner of the cultural-historical approach (p.184). "As we will see, the myth of the troika served the function of obscuring the very real differences of opinion and personal conflicts that would develop between Vygotsky and Leontiev (and, to some extent, Luria) at a later stage" (p.184).

Indeed, "When the Psychological Laboratory of the Academy of Communist Education closed down in 1932 Vygotsky and his collaborators lost an important meeting place," so "the foundation of the Ukranian Psychoneurological Academy in Kharkov in 1930 was a most welcome event" (p.185). Vygotsky, Luria, Leontiev, Zaprozhets, and Bozhovic were invited to join, but lodging was difficult so Vygotsky decided to stay in Moscow while Luria and Leontiev split their time, 20 days a month in Kharkov, 10 in Moscow. Unfortunately, "It was in Kharkov that the cultural-historical school started to disintegrate." First, Vygotsky's expansive synthetic understanding of paedology conflicted Galperin's view of specialization. Second, "Leont'ev started gradually developing his activity approach that was in fundamental contradiction with several of Vygotsky's most cherished ideas" (p.185). More on this in a bit.

In Ch.9, the authors address the cultural-historical theory. They characterize Vygotsky's view: "To understand any complex human phenomenon we have to reconstruct its most primitive and simple forms, and to follow its development until its present state—that is, to study its history." This view was taken from Durkheim, but was in the air at the turn of the century and was inspired by Lamarck, Spencer, and Darwin (p.189). Vygotsky drew from a number of sources (including non-Marxist ones), but did not simply amalgamate them; he
essentially presented a theory of man, his origin and coming into being, his present state amidst the other species, and a blueprint for his future. The image of man that derives from this theory is that of man as a rational being taking control of his own destiny and emancipating himself from nature's restrictive bounds. It is an image of man that is partially based on Marxist thinking and partially on the ideas of various philosophers such as Bacon and Spinoza. But above all, of course, this was an image of man Vygotsky believed in, a belief that was very common among the people of his time and in the country he lived. (p.191)
"Vygotsky—following Marxist thought—distinguished two periods in human's phylogeny": biological evolution (Darwin) and human history (Marx and Engels) (p.191). He parted with Darwin in that, whereas Darwin thought human mental faculties only differed from those of animals in degree, Vygotsky believed they differed in kind due to human culture (p.193; consider the dialectical principle of quantity and quality here). Culture emancipates man from nature (p.193). This insight led him to distinguish biological evolution and human history along the lines that Engels described in Dialectics of Nature in "The part played by labor in the transition from ape to man" (p.197). Engels' argument was key, and the authors comment that "Engels' account of the origin of Homo sapiens was rather crude but not implausible in view of the available evidence" (p.197). According to this account, descending from trees left the hands free, allowing man's ancestors to develop hands, sense organs, and brains; next, the primates began cooperating in labor (specifically, making stone tools), necessitating a way to communicate, leading to speech. Thus labor made man; it defined human beings. And that labor involved not just using nature, but "the planned, deliberate transformation of nature" (p.197). That is, the Marxist origin story of humanity starts not with the Word, but with labor; we developed through and define ourselves by the act of transforming nature. This was an origin story Vygotsky could get behind.

In fact, it was unclear to what extent Vygotsky could have dissented from this account in the 1920s (p.198). He did disregard some of Engels' obviously incorrect statements (p.198), but kept what he liked (that is, he cherry-picked, sort of like the superficial Marxist psychologists that he had criticized elsewhere). The authors note that Engels' distinction between tool-use and labor is vague and that his account of the origin of speech seems rather Lamarckian (of course it does, this is par for the course for Engels) (p.198). But the account gave Vygotsky a firm distinction between biological evolution and human history, something that he would use extensively in his theory. Vygotsky had to avoid or finesse some of the hard questions that went along with such an account: Don't animals use tools as well? Can we reconstruct the history of Homo sapiens—and can we assume that "current non-Western people were somehow identical or similar to historical primitive man"? Are biological and cultural evolution distinct or overlapping periods? (p.199)

Vygotsky and Luria ended up claiming that in animals, tool use never developed into labor, and thus animals did not develop speech or culture (p.204). "Human beings' history was for Vygotsky the history of artifacts, of artificial organs. These artifacts allowed humans to master nature as the technical tool of speech allowed them to master their own mental processes" (p.204). The solution rests on "the dialectical law that says many quantitative changes may result in a qualitative leap"—a proof that the authors acknowledge may be less convincing to some readers than it was to Vygotsky's contemporaries (p.204).

Vygotsky also had the tendency, common at the time, to "compare different cultures on a linear scale"—specifically, in terms of the Uzbekistan study on which he sent Luria (p.214).

The authors conclude this chapter by discussing "the fundamental problem for Vygotsky and other Marxists [, which] was to reconcile the Darwinian account of human evolution with the image of man as the self-conscious creator of his own destiny and the new society of prosperity and eternal bliss" (p.221). That was a tough problem, all right.

Speaking of, Chapter 10 covers the expeditions to central Asia. As the authors note, Luria's account of these expeditions acknowledges the fact that from 1929-1932, the Soviets were collectivizing agriculture; however, it does not discuss the elimination of kulaks (relatively prosperous farmers) as a class (p.243). Collectivization and dekulakization led to the deaths of millions of people as well as 1/3 of the horses, 1/2 the cattle, and 2/3 of the sheep and goats in Central Asia (p.245). Luria stuck to the party line in his study, of course, portraying collectivization as an untrammeled good (p.245). Of course, the authors note, Luria also tested his lie detector on students at Moscow University during the purge, and later kept a friend's brain in a jar (p.246).

Koffka was invited to join the expedition, and he separately confirmed what I had long suspected: some of the variations seemed to be attributable to the attitudes of the research subjects toward the testers (p.249).

But despite Luria's careful praise of collectivization, his study was not well received: Luria had not adequately described the region's enormous progress and the creation of the new Soviet man (!) and his protocols seemed to characterize politically astute answers as inferior (p.254).

In Part III, we return to the disintegration of Vygotsky's research collective with Leontiev and Luria's move to Kharkov. Leontiev "developed his own view of cognitive development in response to ideological criticism" and distanced himself from Vygotsky in the latter's obituary (!), in which "he emphasized that mediation processes are rooted in material and social, or rather societal, activity and renamed the cultural-historical theory 'social-historical theory'" (p.289). Here, he advocated replacing Vygotsky's emphasis on signs with labor (p.290). Labor, not speech.

But these assertions did not originate in the obituary. Vygotsky understood the change (p.290). According to Vygotsky's daughter, Leontiev wrote Luria, claimed that Vygotsky's ideas belonged in the past, and invited Luria to collaborate with Leontiev directly; Luria was initially receptive, but then had a change of heart and showed Vygotsky the letter, initiating a decisive break between Vygotsky and Leontiev (pp.291-292).

Part of the pressure was political, of course. Vygotsky had developed paedology as an interdisciplinary field and had become closely identified with it during the last seven years of his life, but paedology was banned by decree in 1936 (p.293). Vygotsky's works would not be reprinted until de-Stalinization, and as noted elsewhere, at that point Leontiev managed to rehabilitate Vygotsky within a story that flattered himself more.

Well, this review turned out much longer than I thought it would. But it's not as long as it could be. If you have any interest in Vygotsky or activity theory, of course you should read this book.

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