Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Reading :: The Vygotsky Reader

The Vygotsky Reader
Edited by Rene van der Veer and Jaan Valsiner

Lev Vygotsky was virtually unknown in the West until 1962, when a heavily abridged version of Thought and Language was published by MIT Press. Today, the English-speaking world largely knows Vygotsky through Thought and Language and Mind in Society. But Vygotsky wrote far more scholarship. In this edited collection, van der Veer and Valsiner pull together a sample of his many writings (as well as some from others in his circle), and in so doing, give us a better understanding of Vygotsky's worldview, influences, and development.

The editors provide a solid introduction that contextualizes the work. Particularly interesting to me was their account of how A.R. Luria doggedly promoted Vygotsky's work in the late 1920s, then went silent during the Stalin years, only to pick up the thread in the 1970s by promoting Vygotsky's work to Michael Cole and other international scholars. That promotional work yielded 1962's Thought and Language and 1978's "cocktail mixing" Mind in Society (p.4). By the early 1980s, international audiences were interested in Vygotsky, partly as they became interested in activity theory (p.5).

Yet, the editors, argue, "a number of blind spots can be detected in contemporary uses of Vygotsky's ideas." First, Vygotsky's ideas were interdependent with his US and European counterparts. Second, Vygotsky was more focused on individual development than is commonly understood. Third, current applications tend to represent the facilitator of education (parent, teacher) as always helpful; Vygotsky "instead focused more upon culture as providing tools for thinking" (p.6).

Let's get to the writings themselves. As I read this collection, I was specifically interested in how Marxist ideology influenced Vygotsky and his circle. So let's skip to Chapter 4, Luria's "The problem of the cultural behaviour of the child." The very first sentence sets the tone: "Man differs from animals in that he can make and use tools" (p.46)—an enthusiastic echo of Engels' account of human development in Dialectics of Nature. (It's also incorrect.) Luria goes on to argue: "the tools used by man not only radically change his condition of existence, they even react on him in that they effect a change in him and in his psychic condition. ... his hand and brain assume definite shapes, a series of complicated methods and conduct are being evolved, with the aid of which man adapts himself more perfectly to the surrounding world" (p.46). He applies this insight to children, describing various experiments that suggest two different types of memory: natural and mediated.

In Chapter 5, "The problem of the cultural development of the child," Vygotsky picks up this thread. "In the process of development the child not only masters the items of cultural experience but the habits and forms of cultural behavior, the cultural methods of reasoning. We must, therefore, distinguish the main lines in the development of the child's behavior": natural development and cultural improvement (p.57). He argues that children's memory has two bases: organic (mneme) and cultural (method) (p.57). Like the apes that Kohler studied, "the child solves an inner problem by means of exterior objects" (p.60). Vygotsky provides a triangle diagram to illustrate mediation, the same one that shows up in his books (p.61).

Vygotsky then critiques others' conceptualizations of the relationship between thinking and speaking: (a) speech as the outer clothing of reasoning and (b) reasoning as speech minus words (p.68). In contrast, he says, the development of speech and reasoning have different roots and developmental paths; at a certain moment, these paths cross (p.68). He describes the method of double stimulation, in which the child is given two stimulations with distinct functional importances, as a way to connect the "complicated internal activity" with external activity—a bit like hooking a fish, he says (pp.69-70).

Vygotsky and Luria coauthored Ch.7, "Tool and Symbol in Child Development," which contrasts practical intelligence in children and apes—again drawing on Kohler, and again examining the transformational role of speech. "Our research leads us ... to the positive conclusion that the great genetic moment of all intellectual development, from which grew the purely human forms of practical and gnostic intellect, is realized in these two previously completely independent lines of development [of thought and speech]" (p.108, their emphasis). Speech allows the child to master the situation by mastering his own behavior; the more complex the action and the less direct the solution, the greater the importance of speech (p.109). Indeed, early in development, speech accompanies the child's activity; later in development, speech precedes actions (p.120).

Based on these insights, Vygotsky and Luria make three propositions: (1) Higher psychological function comprises a specific new form. (2) Higher psychological functions are not simply superimposed over elementary processes; they are new psychological systems. (3) In cases of disintegration, "the first link to be destroyed is that between the symbolic and natural functions"; natural processes begin functioning at primitive levels unmediated by psychological structures. (pp.138-141).

The authors then—this is a very long chapter—discuss the structure of sign operations, beginning with aides-memoire such as notched sticks that go beyond natural limits to provide cultural organization of behavior (p.143). Sign operations are the result of a complex process of development (p.151), and that development process is in "a spiral, passing through one and the same point at each new revolution to a higher level" (p.153). At this higher level, we get "a social method of behavior applied by itself to itself" (p.153, their emphasis). Outward sign operations yield a new intra-psychological layer (p.155).

Near the end of the chapter, the authors quote Engels approvingly: "'labour created man himself,' i.e. created the higher psychological functions which distinguish man as man. Primitive man, using his stick, by means of outer sign masters the processes of his own behaviour and subordinates his activity to the aim which he forces external objects to serve: tool, soil, rice" (p.165).

Especially interesting to me was Vygotsky's "The Socialist Alteration of Man" (Ch.8), in which he argues that "the struggle for existence and natural selection, the two driving forces of biological evolution within the animal world, lose their decisive importance as soon as we pass on to the historical development of man. New laws, which regulate the course of human history and which cover the entire process of the material and mental development of human society, now take their place" (p.175). Vygotsky draws heavily on Engels throughout this chapter as he develops his argument, which is rather determinist. He argues that even in primitive societies, "the entire psychological makeup of individuals can be seen to depend directly on the development of technology, the degree of development of the production forces and on the structure of the social group to which the individual belongs" (p.176). He references Marx's writings "on the subject of the corruption of the human personality which is brought about by the growth of capitalist industrial society" (p.176) and cites Engels in arguing that, with the division of labor, man himself became subdivided (p.177). Capitalism brought "the constantly growing distorted development of the human potential" (p.178). Every new level in the development of production yields "ever deeper degradation of the human personality and its growth potential" (p.179). Yet, Vygotsky argues along with Marx, labor "contains within itself endless possibilities for the development of the human personality" (p.179, his emphasis). Manufacturing labor plus education could yield "all-round developed people" (p.179), "flexible" people "who would be capable of changing the forms of work, and of organizing the production process and controlling it" (p.180; cf. Castells). In fact, Vygotsky declares that "the growth of large-scale industry contains within itself hidden potential for the development of human personality and ... it is only the capitalist form of organization of the industrial process which is responsible for the fact that all these forces exert a one-sided and crippling influence, which retards personal development" (p.180).

This passage is key, I think. Engels argued that tools made man; our origin is in labor. Vygotsky quotes Marx as arguing that labor can perfect man. (The Marxist reverence for labor parallels that of the Protestant work ethic that Weber had described 25 years earlier and which he claimed made capitalism run.) But not all labor was good: some had been corrupted by capitalism.

Vygotsky declares that in the transition to socialism, "a change in the human personality and an alteration of man itself must inevitably take place" (p.181, his emphasis). He argues that the "withering away" of capitalism will yield new forms of social and spiritual life, liberating man; people will begin working for their own sake; and social relations will change for the better. Education, he says, should play a central role. "New generations and new forms of their education represent the main route which history will follow whilst creating the new type of man" (p.181, his emphasis).

Keeping with the theme of labor, let's draw one quote from Leontiev's "Voluntary Attention in the Child" claims that it is "well known that the transition to regular labor is usually achieved with its division": first, women and slaves were assigned systemic work as punishment, and later stimuli built up around work; these stimuli let us organize our own attention (pp.295-6). Again, I'm interested in how the Engels account seems to provide assumptions about both the development and the sanctity of labor.

Chapter 13, "Fascism in Psychoneurology," was part of a 1934 brochure written by Jewish scientists in Moscow, and it essentially condemns attempts to reconcile fascism and psychology. That is, it was written during the early years of the Great Terror, and the editors of this collection acknowledge that some of the accusations were rather like the pot calling the kettle black. They claim, without proof, that some of the parallels may not have escaped Vygotsky's attention.

In sum, this collection is fascinating. It certainly gave me a broader understanding of Vygotsky, his arguments and assumptions, his insights and blind spots. If you're interested in Vygotsky, Soviet psychology in general, or activity theory in particular, check it out.

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