Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Reading :: Vygotsky's Psychology

Vygotsky's Psychology: A Biography of Ideas
By Alex Kozulin

Another day, another Kozulin book on Russian psychology. This one is, as the title suggests, a biography of Vygotsky. Although I had read many of these details elsewhere, this biography did a nice job of pulling them together.

Kozulin begins, as is customary, with the birth and youth of his subject. Vygotsky was "born in 1896 to a middle-class Jewish family." Kozulin uses the story to discuss pre-Revolutionary Russia, its censorship, and its pogroms against Jews (Vygotsky was Jewish). The year that Vygotsky graduated from high school, the minister of education declared that Jewish students would be selected for Moscow University, not by merit, but by lot; Vygotsky, who had the grades to get in by merit, was convinced that he would not be able to attend, but luck was with him and he was selected by the draw. "One may well wonder whether Vygotsky, like many other young Jewish intellectuals, embraced the new Soviet regime primarily because it promised to end all forms of ethnic discrimination" (p.14).

Young Vygotsky was an avid reader of Hegel, with his dialectical understanding of historical development (p.16), focus on mediation and concepts (pp.16-17), and examination of objectivization, in which "any process is crystallized in certain structures or objects" and can be seen as "moments of self-realization of the process" (p.17). But Vygotsky was also deeply affected by linguist Alexander Potebnya's book Thought and Language (pp.18-19), which sketched out the relationships between the two: "(a) thought coincides with language, (b) language serves as an external envelope of thought, and (c) thought achieves its becoming in language" (p.19). Potebnya championed the third interpretation. (In Vygotsky's own book of the same name, he did as well.)

Skipping a bit, we get to post-Revolutionary Russia, in which the young Vygotsky, teaching at Gomel, writes his textbook Educational Psychology. Kozulin says: "The textbook leaves one with an uneasy feeling that it is a 'chimeric' work. One part of it is hardly compatible with another, and the author seems to be speaking in a number of different voices" (p.67).

But in the next chapter, Kozulin turns to the paper Vygotsky delivered at the 1924 Second Psychoneurological Conference, the one that resulted in his move to Moscow. In this paper, Vygotsky argued that reflexology was not up to addressing more complex forms of behavior; he argued that thought, consciousness, and language should be the focus of psychological study, not introspectively, but empirically, by provoking observable manifestations of mental processes (pp.74-75). This argument made a deep impression on A.R. Luria, who arranged for Vygotsky to join the Institute of Pscyhology in Moscow (p.75).

The Institute, like so many Soviet institutions, was in crisis. As Kozulin explains, many were attempting to transform different sciences into "Marxist" sciences. "The recipe in most cases was very similar: some existing experimental methods were combined with a number of quotes from Marx, Engels or Lenin, and the resultant text was presented as an example of a new science" (p.79). The Institute's new head, Konstantin Kornilov, followed this formula: He took Engels' dialectical laws as the fundamental laws of the new Marxist philosophy, then "used psychological examples to underscore the validity of these laws" (p.79). This approach "resulted in the abandonment of the terminology of mental states and processes" (p.80).

In contrast, Vygotsky wanted to understand what was unique about human behavior, and he proposed doing this by examining "the historical character of human behavior and learning"; "the social nature of human experience"; and human behavior's "twofold nature as a mental activity and as an external action" (pp.81-82). Vygotsky noted that human beings, unlike animals, adapt their environment to themselves, following a changing mental design (p.82; cf. Marx). Although Vygotsky did not cite Mead, their ideas were close (p.83).

Moving along. Vygotsky further explored the issues of a Marxist psychology in his unpublished 1927 book The Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology. Among other things, Kozulin argues that if we look at Vygotsky's writings as a whole, he did distinguish between (a) purposive tool mediation and (b) cultural cognition depending on intersubjective communication, investigable through changes in word meanings. "Practice then becomes divided into material production and human cultural production" (p.105). And "the fact that Vygotsky's theoretical program was interpreted differently by various groups of his followers reflects the dissimilarities in their philosophies of practice." One is Leontiev's activity theory, which is "rooted in the classical Marxist interpretation of practice as material production" (p.105). A second reading "—which has been undertaken only recently—focuses on the role of language and other symbolic mediators," mediators that can "become independent of the system" and "create their own symbolic construction of reality" (p.105). More about this later.

In Chapter 4, Kozulin recounts the expansion of the Vygotsky Circle, first the three (Vygotsky, Luria, Leontiev), then eight (adding Bozhovich, Levina, Morozova, Slavina, and Zaprozhets) (pp.110-111). "All of the members accepted Vygotsky's theoretical leadership and each was free to use Vygotsky's ideas in his or her own research" (p.111). Similarly, Vygotsky based some of his works on the studies of others in his Circle (p.111).

Kozulin summarizes Vygotsky's theory in this way:
Vygotsky's theory was based on a number of interlocking concepts, such as the notion of higher mental processes, the notion of mediated activity, and the notion of psychological tools. Human higher mental processes, according to Vygotsky, are functions of mediated activity. (p.112)
Kozulin then examines the "constitutent elements of this theoretical 'formula'" (p.112):

  • "Higher mental processes": These are mediated, not simply continuations of lower functions. (p.112)
  • "From action to thought": "the higher mental process is a function of socially meaningful activity," illustrated by the infant's attempt to grasp something, which eventually turns into pointing. (pp.113-114)
  • "Mediation": Mediation can be through tools, symbols, or the behavior of another. Vygotsky's mediation links "Vygotsky's theory of higher mental functions with the Marxist theory of material praxis." (p.115)
  • "Internalization": "What first appears as an external sign-mediator or an interpersonal communication later becomes an internal psychological process" (p.116). 
  • "'Primitive' processes": Some intermediate processes can be detected "between" natural functions and higher mental processes. (p.117). 
Kozulin then goes into the problem of mediation. He notes that in Hegel, and later in Marx, work is seen as "a source of universal mediation"; the concept "eventually became a central category in Marxist philosophical anthropology. Work is what creates a universal system of 'communication' based on the exchange of commodities" (p.120). Kozulin warns: 
But whoever accepts material production as a paradigmatic form of human activity must also accept the consequences of such a paradigm. Specifically, it may lead to the identification of human existence as "reified." The phenomenon of reification points to such a mode of human activity when products of this activity are perceived as independent natural "things" rather than as the result of human effort. Moreover, human activity itself becomes reified and perceived as a commodity. The issue of Marxist social theory in general and reification in particular is raised here because Vygotsky's emphasis on tools as mediators creates a possibility for interpreting material production as an explanatory principle of his theory. This very position has ben adopted by some modern students ...
 Moreover, Vygotsky's followers, particularly Leontiev, did develop a theory of psychological activity based on the paradigm of material production as it is interpreted in traditional Marxism. In Leontiev's psychological theory human motives and objects of activity are determined by the division of labor in society, while more concrete actions are related to practical goals. What is problematic in Leontiev's attempt to link the study of psychological activity with Marxist social theory was his reluctance to elaborate on the applicability of the material production paradigm and to face up to the phenomenon of reification. (pp.120-121)
Kozulin notes that Vygotsky's "claim that human mental functions are social in origin and in content," although seemingly grounded in Marxist theory, only had one actual precedent: Durkheim (p.122). Later, after Luria's cross-cultural psychology study of the Uzbeks, Luria and Vygotsky were accused of being a follower of Durkheim, who was regarded as too bourgeois (p.132). Kozulin notes that the political failure of the Uzbek study meant that Vygotsky and his followers were curtailed from using "primitive" people as proxies for understanding changes based in historical changes in social and cultural organization of societies (p.132; Kozulin does not mention that this notion of historical stages of development has been abandoned by current anthropology).

Chapter 5 discusses Vygotsky's Thought and Language, referenced earlier. Like Potebnya, Vygotsky argued that intellect and speech had different genetic roots, developing along different lines, but "at a certain moment these two developmental lines become intertwined, whereupon thought becomes verbal, and speech intellectual. This moment signifies a switch from a natural track of development to a cultural one" (p.153). Egocentric speech develops into (a) inner speech-for-oneself and (b) communicative speech-for-others (p.174).

Along these lines, Kozulin notes that although there is no evidence that Vygotsky and Bakhtin influenced each other, "their positions in the realm of twentieth-century thought bear intriguing signs of similarity": overlap in their sources; overlap in their personal networks (Vygotsky's cousin David and Bakhtin belonged to the same intellectual circle in Leningrad); and their rediscovery in the West at about the same time (p.180). Yet Vygotsky believed that monological thought was superior to dialogical (p.184).

Chapter 7 examines Vygotsky's work with defectology and pedology. In fact, after Vygotsky's death and the banning of pedology, Vygotsky's theory "managed to survive in a subliminal form at the Institute of Defectology," where some of Vygotsky's Circle rode out the stormy 1930s and 1940s (p.207).

Chapter 8 examines what happened to Vygotsky's ideas after his death. Kozulin notes that Leontiev and the Kharkovites refocused away from symbolic psychological tools and toward activities (centered on labor) (p.247). Consequently, symbolic psychological tools and culture were underrepresented in the 1930s-1960s (p.247). Kozulin specifically examines Leontiev's activity theory, noting that the levels of activity involve "two different conceptual languages: one used on the level of activities and the other on the level of actions and operations" (p.251). The level of activities used categories of Marxist social philosophy; "the subject presumed by the use of these categories was the social-historical, and therefore psychologically rather abstractive subject." But "actions and operations were studied with the psychological paradigm," which was roughly Piagetan and did not link firmly to the social categories. As Kozulin notes, Rubinshtein noticed and critiqued this gap. Kozulin concludes: "One may suggest that what was missing from Leontiev's model was precisely the stratum of culture—emphasized by Vygotsky, and neglected by his followers—that could provide a link between individual action and the social systems from which it derives its meaning" (p.251).

(One might also suggest that third-generation activity theory's synthesis with Bakhtinian dialogism is an attempt to retrofit activity theory with this missing component of semiotic mediation.)

Leontiev was in a box here, Kozulin argues:
The Marxists were remarkably unsuccessful at depicting the positive, creative aspects of human action as conditioned by a social system. This lack of success had been explained as a reflection of the true condition prevalent in capitalist society, the condition of alienation. Unalienated, free action was reserved for future socialist life. But Leontiev could not use this line of defense because he was studying people in what was called a "state of accomplished socialism." He chose to avoid the psychological discussion of these issues, delivering instead the standard ideological verbiage about the alienation of the human mind under capitalism vs. its free development under socialism. (p.252)
Critics also noted that "although Leontiev had declared that human psychology should be understood in terms of practical activity, he actually identified it as a system of social meanings. But in Marxist parlance, social meanings belong to the sphere of social consciousness," rather than that of social practice on which Leontiev promised to build his theory" (p.252).

Nevertheless, activity theory prospered from the late 1950s to the late 1970s. Leontiev became (for a time) Vygotsky's official interpreter, even claiming in a 1956 forward to a Vygotsky collection that "the emphasis on semiotic mediation was transitory for Vygotsky and that the activity theory furthered the development of what was authentic in the cultural-historical school" (p.253). But Leontiev's theory began to be scrutinized in the late 1970s. Kozulin notes several possible reasons (omitting one good reason, which is that Leontiev died in 1979). One is that Vygotsky's Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology was circulating in manuscript form and was finally published in 1982; it noted the same trap that AT had fallen into, which was that the same notion was being used as both an explanatory principle and a phenomenon to investigate (p.253). At a 1979 symposium on Vygotsky's theoretical legacy, G.P. Schedrovitsky argued that "the activity theory substantially deviated from Vygotsky's original program" and that "the principle of semiotic mediation is the cornerstone of cultural-historical theory" (p.254).

This book is 272 pages, not including footnotes. But as you can tell, it's full of details that will be interesting to those who want to know more about Vygotsky and his legacy. I highly recommend it.