By K. Levitin
I ran into citations of this book recently when reading books on Vygotsky's life, and the quoted material looked interesting enough for me to pick up. At the time I began looking for it, I couldn't seem to find it on Amazon, but got the 1982 Progress Publishers version through interlibrary loan (thanks to our friends at Texas A&M). But it turns out that another publisher reprinted it in 2011 (link above), so you can get a copy if you want. I'm thinking about ordering it myself.
Not that I am necessarily endorsing the book. Levitin was a Soviet journalist, and even though the Soviet Union in 1982 was more open than it was during the Stalinist years, the material is still pretty carefully curated. Here's one egregious example:
The long scientific career of Alexander Luria was ruled by some inner logic that led him to freely chose [sic] his own paths. Otherwise what could have led him, a professor at an institute of education to take up graduate studies at a medical institute and, upon completing them to work for many years with Burdenko as an intern at the Institute of Neurosurgery and defend another Candidate's and a second Doctoral dissertation, this time in medicine. If Luria had not decided to follow a regular medical career from struggling intern to a distinguished professor, and if that path had not merged with a similar path in the field of psychology, the odds are that the two wonderful books would never have appeared and the conflict between the opposing branches of psychology would still be unresolved. (p.201)
What indeed? Levitin could have pointed us to Michael Cole's afterword to Luria's biography—which he quotes elsewhere—for the obvious explanation: Luria was exercising his well-honed instincts for staying out of trouble as he navigated the treacherous landscape of the Soviet Union during the Stalin years. But this straightforward explanation would have been unpublishable. So Levitin erases it and chalks it up to "some inner logic."
Still, the book has plenty of good material that one cannot find elsewhere. Levitin's chapters each profile a prominent Soviet psychologist: Vygotsky (Ch.1), Leontiev (Ch.2), Luria (Ch.3), Meshcheryakov (Ch.4), and Vasili Davydov (Ch.5). V.V. Davydov is credited as the editor, while Vladimir Zinchenko provides the preface. The material is journalistic, relying heavily on interviews with the principals or with those who remember them.
Let's start with the preface. Zinchenko tells us, "My main object in writing this preface is to attest to the truth of everything written in this book"—something he can say confidently because he grew up in the midst of the Kharkov Circle (his father was a member), and later learned psychology from many of the principals in Moscow (p.8). Of these principals, he recalls, "They were genuine patriots" and "They were eager to lay the foundations of a Marxist psychology"; "They were all anxious to make their contributions to the great transformations taking place in the Soviet state, and they succeeded" (p.9).
Zinchenko adds that "The psychological theory of activity is the achievement of the whole of Soviet psychological science. Vygotsky's school shares the credit for it with some other psychological trends. Ananiev, Basov, Rubinstein, Smirnov, Teplov, Uznadze, and others come to mind, but Rubinstein's contribution was by far the most important" (p.11). (Alas, I have not read Rubinstein, and he has been undercited in the CHAT literature I've read; I'll have to pick him up soon.)
Zinchenko also adds, "Psychologists have yet to master the scientific legacy of Mikhail Bakhtin, Paul Valeri, Alexei Losev and many others" (p.9). Bakhtin, of course, had been rediscovered at this point. There was no question about integrating his works into Soviet psychology in the Stalinist years. He would later be integrated into Engestromian activity theory, a move that I think is still causing problems due to the tension between dialectical materialism and dialogism. But more about that elsewhere.
In Chapter 1, Levitin recounts how Vygotsky received his law degree at the University of Shanyavsky, then returned to his hometown of Gomel to teach literature and psychology. At this time, he also "organised a psychology laboratory at the Gomel Teacher's College. There he delivered a course of lectures which later became a book called Educational Psychology" (p.18). His work had already begun even before he went to Moscow in 1924 (p.18).
Levitin quotes frequently here from Stephen Toulmin's overview of Vygotsky (in his 1978 article for the New York Review of Books, entitled "The Mozart of Psychology"). But he also draws from an interview he conducted from Semyon Dobkin, Vygotsky's childhood friend. Dobkin reported that Vygotsky was always interested in philosophical questions, led discussion circles as a teen, and had assimilated Hegel by 15 (p.26). Inspired by his cousin David Vygodsky, he got into Esperanto and stamp collecting (p.27).
At the end of the chapter, Levitin sets up an imaginary dialogue about Vygotsky's legacy among Petrovsky, Jakobsen, Toulmin, Vygotsky, Zinchenko, Schedrovitsky, Yaroshevsky, Cole, Davydov, Wertsch, Luria, and Leontiev. The dialogue is composed by quotes from each author's works and from the author's interviews with them. It was not especially illuminating, but there were some interesting parts. For instance, Levitin quotes Mikhail Yaroshevsky as saying:
Vygotsky viewed Marxist psychology not as a school (like the associationist, experimental, and other schools) but as the only scientific psychology. Unlike those authors who had lost their sense of historicity and demanded psychology "break with the past" and "make a new beginning", Vygotsky believed that transformation of psychology on the basis of Marxism did not in any way mean abandoning all previous work. Every effort of free thought to gain insight into the psyche and every attempt at deterministic investigation were preparing a future psychology and therefore would necessarily be incorporated into it in a modified form. Like the development of a socio-economic formation in Marxist doctrine, so the development of the psyche must be regarded as a natural historical process. Vygotsky's subsequent work demonstrated the fruitfulness of this methodology. (p.53, my emphasis)Quoting James Wertsch:
One can see the influence of two areas of study which gave rise to much of Vygotsky's genius--Marxism and semiotics. Thus, Vygotsky was interested in the role of sign systems as mediating devices, but he viewed this as an extension of Marx's notion of how the tool or instrument mediates labor activity.
For Marx and Engels, labor was the basic form of human activity. It lies at the foundation of any explanation of socio-cultural history and of the psychological characteristics of the individual. Their analysis stressed that in carrying out labor activity humans do not simply transform nature, they are also themselves transformed in the process. For Marx, labor is primarily "... a process going on between man and nature, a process in which man, through his own activity, initiates, regulates, and controls the material reactions between himself and nature. He confronts nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of own body, in order to appropriate nature's productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at same time changes own nature. He develops the powers that slumber within him, and subjects them to his own control". That is, humans do not remain unchanged or unaffected by their participation in labor activity which transforms nature. They are constantly being influenced by this activity and by the demands placed on them as a result of the impact it had had on nature. (p.67; he doesn't document the Marx citation.)In Chapter 2, Levitin turns to Leontiev, relying heavily on an interview that he and Evald Ilyenkov conducted with Leontiev just before Leontiev's death—Leontiev's last interview, he says. In the biography, Levitin recounts that "The main direction of his research emerged after he grew close to Vygotsky in the latter half of the 1920s and along with him and Luria set about developing a theory of the socio-historical origin in the higher, i.e., specifically human, functions" (p.104). He describes how Leontiev "tackled the problem of the origins of the psychic reflection of reality," first in Kharkov and then in Moscow (p.105). During World War II, Leontiev researched ways to restore soldiers' motor functions (p.105). After the War, Leontiev turned to "the motives and laws of psychic development in preschool and school-age children" as well as investigating "the structure of activity, its course under different motivations, and its impact on shaping of the mental processes of the child" (p.106). This work led to Problems of Mental Development (elsewhere translated Problems of the Development of the Mind), which won the Lenin Prize in 1963 (p.106). In 1975 another book, Activity, Consciousness, and Personality, won the Lomonosov Prize in 1975 (p.107). "Leontiev did a great deal to apply Lenin's theory of reflection in concrete psychological studies and to explore the psychological mechanisms that give rise ot the subjective image of the objective world" (p.107).
Leontiev begins the interview by taking a swipe at American psychology, which (he says) accumulates facts but has not developed the theoretical and methodological foundations to interpret them (p.111). "Soviet psychology has rejected the path of methodological pluralism of which Western psychology is so proud. I think this is false pride, because the old adage, 'many approaches mean no approach' has a lot of truth to it" (p.112).
Leontiev recounts the history of Soviet psychology. Of interest to us is his characterization of Georgy Chelpanov, who headed the Institute of Experimental Psychology at Moscow University before the Revolution and stayed on afterwards. Chelpanov was "a convinced idealist who tried to 'tame' experimental psychology (which was developing vigorously at the time), to keep it from going materialist" (p.113). Leontiev claims that this commitment led to unimpressive results (p.113); Chelpanov's institute was "backward in the main" (p.114). "But it was in the bosom of that Institute that a movement to revolutionise psychology began. It was headed by one of Chelpanov's associates, Konstantin Kornilov." The investigation that began this revolution "was, in general, a rather ordinary investigation, but the author considered it the beginning of a new psychological trend—reactology" (p.115). Reactology attempted to eliminate idealism from psychology and thus be Marxist. Chelpanov tried to defend himself, at first by declaring "that Marxism was dogma for which psychology had no use, but by the end of 1923 he had begun to assert that Marxism in psychology was precisely what his Institute was seeking" (p.115). By the end of 1923, he was replaced as director by Kornilov and the Institute was tasked with developing a Marxist psychology (p.116).
Thus 1924 began with a search for new Marxist talent as well as new directions. "For all the diversity of these early searches, which might have given the impression of incoherence"—recall that he had just criticized the methodological pluralism of American psychology—"there was something all the team members had in common," which was the need for a psychology based in Marxism.
But the only member of the Institute with a solid Marxist background was Lev Vygotsky, who later became a major Soviet psychologist and founded a scientific school of its own. Kornilov, unfortunately, did not have a proper grasp of dialectical materialism. His knowledge was superficial, and he proposed a programme that was wrong from the very start. ... Clearly, the programme he put forth was sterile. (p.117)Luria then returns to the present day, worrying that not enough people are working on methodology; "I am worried about the methodological laxity I see in my branch of science" (p.120).
He then turns to the characteristics of activity theory, which is based on the person's (labor) activity rather than consumption:
One can say that drives and demands dictate a person's acts; they are the prime movers in personality development and achievement in a particular field of endeavor. The opposite view holds that the development of human activity, its motives and means, transforms the demands, generates new ones, changes the hierarchy of drives and wishes in such a way that the satisfaction of some of them becomes merely a necessary condition for the activity of the person, for his existence as an individual.
If one proceeds from the former point of view, the psychology of personality must based on the primacy of consumption ("man works in order to eat") while the latter theory bases the psychology of the individual on the primacy of activity through which man asserts himself as personality ("man eats in order to work").
I would like to stress that the new anthropological, or naturalistic conception, looks quite convincing and illustrative. Its arguments have the appeal of being natural and simple. It requires a degree of sophistication and a philosophical background to see that the satisfaction of various needs, while a necessary condition for all human activity, is only the beginning of the psychological problem. The situation that interests the psychologist is this: once man's primary needs have been satisfied, how will he act, in what direction will he develop and, consequently, how his will needs change. [sic] (p.122)This is a nicely expressed key understanding of activity theory, which is built on Engels' notion that labor made man. And further down:
So, one not born a personality, one becomes a personality by socialisation and enculturation, by acquiring the habits, skills and methods of handling tools. Personality is a product of social activity and its traits can be explained only in these terms. Such a personality trait as aggressiveness offers a classic example. It is, of course, manifested differently in a choleric person than in a phlegmatic one, but attributing aggressiveness to the qualities of temperament is no more scientific than attributing the causes of wars to people's propensity to fight.
We see that the Marxist approach to the psychology of personality does overturn the traditional system of views. The problems of the qualities of neural activity, temperaments, etc., are not expelled from personality theory, but they are considered in a non-traditional way -- they now interest us because we want to know how a personality uses its innate aptitudes and qualities and how it realises the individual traits given it by nature. (p.123)
In contrast, he accuses the West of "vulgar eclecticism" (p.125).
In Chapter 3, Levitin discusses and interviews Alexander Luria, who (I discovered here) won the Lomonosov Prize in 1967 for his work in neuropsychology (p.133). Levitin mainly focuses on Luria's popular books and his rehabilitation work, but he also gets to Luria's memories of the early days of Soviet psychology. Luria recounts writing a letter to Kornilov describing his early studies with a Kornilov dynamometer; Kornilov, who had just been installed as Director, invited him to Moscow (p.154). Luria says this happened in the autumn of 1923 (p.154; note the slight conflict with the chronology Leontiev gave us).
Luria said that he divided his career into two phases: before and after meeting Vygotsky (p.159). "The most exciting years of the century and of my own life were the twenties—those associated with Vygotsky. I can hardly claim any credit for what I've done. It all comes from Vygotsky, and this is true not only of myself but of many others, only some admit it and some don't" (p.164). He doesn't name names.
Levitin recounts: "Three people—Vygotsky, Leontiev and Luria—set out to 'develop the basic units of content for psychology'" (p.162).
The chapter on Mescharov was not as interesting to me, but I pull this quote attributed to Vygotsky, which ties his focus on word meaning to labor:
One can hardly understand the history of labour and the history of speech separately. Man has created not only the tools which gave him mastery over nature; he has created stimuli for directing his own behaviour with the help of which he can control his psychic processes. This is seen clearly if one looks at the early stages of man's development. On Borneo and Celebes sticks for digging which had smaller sticks attached to the end were found. While sowing rice, the stick was used to hoe the soil and the little stick produced a sound. That sound was something like a working exclamation or order to set the pace for the movements. The sound of the contrivance attached to the hoe replaces the
human voice, or at any rate performs the same function.
"That blending of sign and tool as symbolically expressed in the primitive hoe shows how early the sign and later, its highest form -- the word -- began to play the role of human tools and how early the sign stimulus came to fulfil a specific function in the overall structure of the operations that took shape in the early stages of man's labour activity. (p.230)
Similarly, I'll skip the chapter on Davydov, bringing us to the end of this book.
Overall, the book was genuinely useful, even though I wouldn't consider a book written by a Soviet journalist and published by a Soviet publishing house to be an especially trustworthy source. At least it's untrustworthy in predictable, detectable ways. If you're interested in what some of the giants of Soviet psychology were saying under these conditions, this book is an interesting, readable source that will provide anecdotes and insights you probably won't get elsewhere.