Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Reading :: Psychology in Utopia

Psychology in Utopia: Toward a Social History of Soviet Psychology
By Alex Kozulin

You may remember Alex Kozulin as the editor of the 1986 Vygotsky's Thought and Language 2ed. In his introduction of that book, Kozulin demonstrated an intimate knowledge of the Vygotsky Circle and its context. So when I realized he had written a 1984 book (also with MIT Press) on the history of Soviet psychology, I knew I had to pick it up.

Keep in mind that in 1984, when Kozulin published this book, the USSR was still going strong, as was the Cold War. Kozulin's bio on the book jacket doesn't make clear whether he was still a Soviet citizen at the time, but it notes that he had taught at Boston University and Ben-Gurion University.

In any case, the book provides a critical view of the development of Soviet psychology. It starts with a detailed timeline—to which I intend to return. Next is an introduction that lays out the problems of investigating Soviet psychology. "Anyone who has ever approached the study of Soviet psychology knows that the subject is inherently paradoxical," he says, noting that although Soviet psychology is superficially similar to its Western counterpart, concepts
emerge from a social context that is almost utopian. The conceptual systems of Soviet authors turn out to be buried under layers of ideological verbiage. Published papers and official records must not be taken at face value but rather as rough material for subsequent distillation and decoding. The task of a scholar in Soviet research thus takes on an almost hermeneutical character. Like a historian studying a culture remote in time and space, the specialist in Soviet psychology must reconstruct the subject starting with fragments and adopting a mentality that has little in common with his or her own. (p.1)
Kozulin cautions us against two "equally misleading tendencies in the interpretation of Soviet research": (1) explaining Soviet psychological doctrines as a result of conformance with Soviet ideology and (2) explaining it purely in terms of intellectual history (p.2). Rather, Kozulin advocates the "third way" of "a socially informed study of Soviet psychology that would distinguish between the actual conditions of its development and those secondary interpretations that are invented in order to present these conditions in ideologically coherent form" (p.2). And that is what this book attempts to achieve.

Kozulin adds that the "existing" Vygotsky publications in the West were "concocted" from his writings from different periods (p.3) and "analytic comments accompanying the translations have been prepared under the strong influence of Vygotsky's students, Alexei Leontiev and Alexander Luria, who have offered a biased interpretation of Vygotsky's theory, sometimes substituting their own ideas for those of their teacher" (p.4). (Recall that the 1962 version of Thought and Language was much shorter than the 1986 version that Kozulin would later oversee.)

With that introduction, Kozulin moves into the overview of "generations" of Soviet psychologists: the pre-Revolutionary psychologists, the ones that emerged immediately after the Revolution; the ones that emerged in the 1950s, post-Stalin; and those who emerged in the 1970s. I'm specifically interested in the second group, so I'll concentrate on them here.

As Kozulin notes, "the first generation of post-Revolutionary scholars largely shared the utopian program of their time." The Revolution was a "cosmic" and fundamentally transformative event. These scholars shared "a faith that rationalized and fair interpersonal relations would be a hallmark of the coming communist society," one that would be characterized by "a new kind of person—the liberated proletarian, with new morals, culture, and rules of conduct" (p.15).

These scholars generally opposed idealism in favor of materialism. But their interpretation of "materialism" tended to reduce psychology to reflexes and reactions. As Kozulin says, only one group resisted this trend: The Vygotsky Circle (p.18), which argued that higher mental functions could be studied materially, but not through low-level biological phenomena such as reflexes. Unfortunately for the Vygotskians, there was no clear-cut way to identify the Marxist ideal, nor the methods of study that could be considered legitimately Marxist. "Only one thing was certain: that scientific, Marxist psychology must have a single correct methodology" (p.19; compare Leontiev on this point). "The idea of one, and only one, correct methodology was a natural offspring of the intellectual atmosphere of this period" (p.19). Naturally, if there is only one way, but no clear-cut criteria for identifying it, no one can have absolute assurance that they are on the right path—and any school can accuse the others of being on the wrong path. And that is essentially what happened in Soviet psychology over time. "As a result of mutual ideological accusations almost all Soviet psychologists had been found guilty of dangerous deviations from the Party line and therefore became easy prey for Party functionaries (p.21).

So: "If in the 1920s the problem was to develop behavioral science within the framework of Marxist terminology, in the 1930s it was to derive the categories of consciousness and behavior directly from the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin" (p.21). During the Stalinist purges, "A low profile seemed the best strategy for survival" (p.22); two schools that followed this pattern were the Uznade school (discussed further in Ch.4) and the Kharkov school, made up of "former students and colleagues of Lev Vygotsky" and most prominently including Leontiev (p.22-23). The Kharkov school used Vygotsky's concept of internalization, but disagreed with him about "the role of signs in the internalization process":
Vygotsky's emphasis on signs as means of mediation between objects of experience and mental functions was replaced by the thesis that physical action must mediate between a subject and the external world. The work of the Kharkov school established an experimental base for Leontiev's theory of the psychology of activity, which was recognized in the 1960s as an official Soviet psychological doctrine. (p.23, my emphasis). 
Meanwhile, Rubinstein "ventured to derive psychological categories directly from the works of Marx and Lenin," yielding not a methodology but a "highly professional ... presentation of Marxist philosophical anthropology, which he tried to pass off as the theoretical foundation of behavioral science" (p.23). Kozulin notes that Rubinstein chose his moment carefully, launching an impressive career that was later derailed in the 1940s during an outburst of Russian chauvinism and anti-cosmopolitanism (which was operationalized as anti-Semitism). Consequently, Rubinstein "lost all of his administrative positions" and in his place "Leontiev was appointed chairman of the Department of Psychology at Moscow University" (pp.24-25).

The circular firing squad of Soviet psychology continued. Stalin published a 1951 paper on linguistics, and suddenly psychologists had to incorporate these ideas into their studies. During a 1952 All-Union meeting, prominent psychologists (including Leontiev and Luria) "all hastened to accuse each other of the serious 'deviations' from the prescribed scientific ideology" (p.26).

Fortunately, Stalin died in 1953 and Khrushchev "exposed the atrocities of the Stalin era" in 1956 (p.26); "once-forbidden names such as Vygotsky and Shpilrein now reappeared in the pages of books and articles" (p.27). From that point through the 1960s, Soviet psychology experienced a "renaissance" in which suppressed studies now came into public view and "almost every psychologist of the second generation published his magnum opus in these years" (p.27). For instance, Leontiev's Problems of the Development of Mind was published in 1959 and won the Lenin Prize in 1963, and Luria published "dozens of books in neuropsychology" (p.27). Kozulin concludes:
After years of political pressure, forced confessions, and cross-allegations, psychologists of this generation, now in their sixties, at last occupied solid and unshakeable positions in the universities and research centers of Moscow, Leningrad, and Tbisili. One can only imagine how they felt about themselves after all these years. (p.27)
Since my major interest is activity theory, I'll skip much of what Kozulin says about the subsequent two generations. But let me highlight one event:
One peculiarity of this period of Soviet psychology, stemming from the lack of theoretical work in the Stalin period, has been the rediscovery of many studies conducted in the 1920s. The work of Lev Vygotsky has been central to this movement. New light has been shed on the Kharkov school, which not only developed Vygotsky's ideas, but also revised some of his principal theses. The revisionist version established by Alexei Leontiev and his colleagues was for a while considered a genuine continuation of Vygotsky's program. In 1979, however, at a colloquium dedicated to the theoretical legacy of Vygotsky, Georgy Schedrovitsky pointed out a number of discrepancies between Vygotsky's and Leontiev's concepts of the cultural-historical development of the mind. In discussions and publications that followed, Vasili Davydoc and Vladimir Zinchenko offered their own versions of the controversy. (pp.32-33)

This disjuncture between Vygotksy and the Kharkov school is one of Kozulin's major interests, showing up in his introduction to Thought and Language and in other articles.

In Chapter 2, Kozulin discusses Pavlov and Bekhterev. I'll just note one thing here. According to Kozulin, Soviet "Pavlovianization" was due in part to Russian chauvinism and xenophobia. Pavlov was "100 percent Russian"—which is to say, not Jewish (p.49).

Chapter 3 discusses Bernstein's work. Bernstein rejected the Pavlovian doctrine in favor of "a study of feedback mechanisms in the physiology of body movements. This was cybernetics a decade before Norbert Weiner coined the term" (p.62). Leontiev considered building on Bernstein's work in his discussion of levels of activity, but eventually abandoned the idea and reduced his references to Bernstein's work (p.70).

Chapter 4 discusses the problem of the unconscious. Kozulin notes a "growing rivalry" in the 1960s between "Leontiev's theory of activity and Uznadzean set theory"; but "during the 1960s and 1970s Leontiev's theory became virtually the official Soviet psychological doctrine, and all other trends were pressured to admit it as a general theoretical framework" (p.99).

Chapter 5 focuses on the "continuing dialogue" about Lev Vygotsky. Kozulin notes that "Vygotsky had seemingly left behind a cohort of devoted disciples" who took risks to develop his theories when his name was "'blacklisted'". "After Vygotsky had been scientifically rehabilitated," Kozulin notes archly, "they praised him publicly but were still unable or unwilling to publish his manuscripts. In the meantime their own books based on his writings came off press one after another" (p.102).

Kozulin goes into the details of Vygotsky's theory and history (details that are covered in other reviews on this blog). But he notes that Vygotsky and his students largely steered clear from the accusations that characterized other schools of psychology in that era (p.106).

After Vygotsky's death in 1934, the 1936 pedology decree condemned the work of pedologists; since Vygotsky had tried to develop pedology as a field, Kozulin states, "the disciples who wanted to develop Vygotsky's theory had to do so without naming their leader" (p.110). So, Kozulin says, Leontiev completed his Problems of the Development of Mind in 1940 (and publsihed in 1947) (p.110). It was clearly an extension of Vygotsky's work, but it did not mention Vygotsky at all. Was that because Leontiev wanted to see his book published and he thought Vygotsky's name would keep that from happening? Or was he reframing cultural-historical theory as his own, not giving credit to Vygotsky for the early work? "It is impossible" to determine, Kozulin says (p.111).

In any case, Leontiev and the other members of the Kharkov school "developed Vygotsky's theory but also abandoned some of his essential ideas" (p.111). Kozulin quotes Zinchenko from 1939, claiming that Vygotsky's mistake was in reducing the mind's sociohistorical determination to "'the influence of human culture on the individual'," not accounting for "'material interaction between the human subject and reality'" (quoted on p.111). So
Vygotsky's thesis of the psychological tool as a mediating point between objects of action and mental functions was replaced by the thesis that material activity mediates between the subject and the external world. In 1956 Leontiev reiterated this thesis, simultaneously asserting that Vygotsky's emphasis on signs as psychological tools was transitory and that his theory of activity was therefore the authentic development of Vygotsky's ideas. (p.111).

To challenge this viewpoint, Kozulin turns to Vygotsky's unpublished book The Cultural and Historical Crisis in Psychology. Based on this work, he asserts that human praxis is the stone that the builders rejected and that should become the chief cornerstone (p.115). That is, when a concept (such as Pavlov's reflexes) becomes an explanatory principle, "a vicious cycle of object and principle immediately emerges: Reflexes as the objects of study turn out to be explained by reflexes as conceptual units. Vygotsky sought to break the circle by adopting the concept of praxis as an explanatory principle 'external' to the psychological functions under investigation" (p.115).

We see this vicious circle at work in Leontiev's activity theory, Kozulin asserts. "Unwilling to use the categories of culture or praxis as explanatory principles, Leontiev and his colleagues doomed themselves to the vicious circle in which material activity as an object is explained through material activity as an explanatory principle" (p.118). But "Vygotsky, in contrast, suggested focusing on the system of symbolic interaction as the meeting place of society and individual and investigating the symbolic aspects of human praxis. Thus his interest in culture as a mediating point between individual and world can by no means be treated as transient" (p.118).

Kozulin asserts that "Vygotsky's theory of psychological tools developed in three stages":

  1. Usage of signs as external means to master the individual's psychological functions.
  2. Means as tools for developing speech and intelligence.
  3. Inner speech; the relations between meaning and senses of words (pp.118-119)
But Vygotsky's students underplayed the aspect of inner speech (p.119). 

The book has more chapters, but they are not immediately applicable to this discussion on the development of activity theory so I'll leave them out.

In any case, the book is excellent. Kozulin writes lucidly and in great detail. I'm not sure how widely shared his assessment of Vygotsky's disciples is, nor his critique of their adaptation of his work, but I appreciated his careful plotting of the argument. If you're interested in the development of activity theory, Vygotskian thought, or just Soviet psychology in general, I recommend this book highly.

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