Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Reading :: A Dynamic Theory of Personality

A Dynamic Theory of Personality
By Kurt Lewin


Yes, I actually read a book that wasn't written by a Soviet psychologist. But don't worry, there's a direct connection: Lewin and Vygotsky were familiar with each other's work, Vygotsky quoted Lewin, and some of Lewin's students worked with Vygotsky and Leontiev. Yasnitsky even claims that activity theory is a mutant or hybrid of Vygotsky's and Lewin's works, although Lewin was not credited for political reasons (although Yasnitsky only sketches this thesis rather than substantiating it).

In any case, this book is a collection of articles by Lewin, published in 1935, the year after Vygotsky's death. The source material had been published during Vygotsky's life, including the lead essay, "The conflict between Aristotelian and Galileian modes of thought in contemporary psychology" (1931). Commentators have said that this essay impacted Vygotsky. (Currently I'm reading Vygotsky's Development of Higher Mental Functions, which mentions Lewin, but characteristically does not provide a cite, and the mention is brief enough that I can't tell whether this lead essay is the one being discussed.)

I'll spend most of my time on this lead essay, which is essentially a manifesto for the development of psychology. Lewin uses the analogy of physics. Aristotelian physics, he says, was anthropocentric, inexact, and normative. It classified phenomena in terms of values: perfect and imperfect. Similarly, he argues, psychology currently draws a value distinction between "normal" and "pathological"; thus it "separated the phenomena which are fundamentally most nearly related" (p.3).

In contrast, Galileian physics changed the interpretation of classification. Whereas Aristotelian physics differentiated dichotomously by class, Galileian physics used continuous gradations and functional rather than substantive concepts (p.5).

Similarly, Aristotelian physics expected things to have a "tendency": it looked for regularity, and peculiarity was understood entirely in historical terms (p.7). It has a notion of "lawfulness," which has a historical or temporal significance set against the sweep of eternity (pp.8-9). In contrast, Galileian physics tends toward quantification, not just because of clocks, but because of a new concept of the physical world (p.10). It relies on the homogenization of the world (p.10)—treating all things with the same laws rather than assuming that things of specific classes had specific tendencies.

Lewin charges that psychology is currently more Aristotelian than Galileian in this sense as well. In terms of lawfulness, it divides cases into common and unusual (p.13). It understands lawfulness in terms of frequency (p.14). It overrelies on class and essence: "Whatever is common to children of a given age is set up as the fundamental character of that age" (p.15; cf. Vygotsky, Leontiev re the same argument). Psychology's use of statistics is Aristotelian, intensifying the tendency to classify cases as common vs. unusual (p.17). Psychology doesn't regard exceptions as counterarguments if they're infrequent (p.19).

This state of affairs does not please Lewin, who wants a Galileian revolution for psychology. "Even psychological law must hold without exception," he argues (p.23). Specifically, he notes that dynamic problems are foreign to Aristotelian physics (and psychology), while they are central to Galileian physics (and psychology) (p.27). Aristotelian physics is teleological, with vectors determined by the object; Galileian physics recognizes that a vector depends on mutual relations of physical facts (p.28). That is, like Vygotsky, Lewin wants to understand the mutual interaction of the object and environment; we can see Leontiev's turn to labor as a general explanatory principle for such a system.

Also like Vygotsky, Lewin believes that a Galileian psychology should not try to control all factors in a series of experiments, but rather it should "comprehend the whole situation involved, with all its characteristics, as precisely as possible" (p.31; compare the bare sketches of experiments that Vygotsky conducted and his discussion of method). And "Instead of a reference to the abstract average of as many historically given cases as possible, there is a reference to the full concreteness of the particular situations" (p.31). (Compare Luria's detailed case studies and his "Romantic science.")

In fact, Lewin argues that it's fine to rely on historically unusual, rare, and transitory events, just as a Galileian physics does (p.35). Indeed, in what Lewin calls a Galileian psychology, you can't validate a case by repetition; you have to refer to "the totality of the concrete whole situation" (p.42). This proposition, frankly, would seem quite counterintuitive to me without the examples from the Vygotsky school!

This lead essay was the most accessible and directly applicable for me, so I'll stop here. It's well worth reading, but I'm separate enough from psychology that I can't evaluate it well. I can, however, see strong resonance with the Vygotsky school. And now I have to read more Lewin.

Reading :: Human Brain and Psychological Processes

Human Brain and Psychological Processes
By A.R. Luria


I just reviewed Luria's Higher Cortical Functions in Man, and if you read that review, this book will sound familiar. Luria published this present book in Russian in 1963, the year after Higher Cortical Functions; both books were published in English in 1966. We see many of the same themes, and Luria notes that the present book was also based on his work from 1938-1963.

In the introduction, Luria notes that interrupted higher mental functions such as writing, reading, and speech can be reconstructed along different paths (p.16). Drawing on Anoshkin, he uses the word "function" to "denote a complex adaptive activity of a whole system, and sometimes of a whole organism" (p.17). Again, he credits Vygotsky and Leontiev for their insights into the social-historical origin of human mental activity (p.21). He argues that an animal's behavior is a result of (a) inborn tendencies and (b) direct, individual experience; but humans can also tap into (c) the experience of mankind in general (p.21). This general experience is incorporated into activity, language, work products, and forms of social life. In fact, mediation—and Luria once again uses the example of the knot in the handkerchief—involves changing one's environment to control one's behavior from the outside, deliberately and socially. "All complex forms of voluntary attention and logical memory, conceptual perception and abstract intellectual activity are the result of the assimilation of socially-formulated activity and have a similar, complex structure. ... all these processes must be interpreted as products of social life, passing through a complex period of historical evolution, organized at different levels and carried out by means of highly involved forms of reflex activity, and all established through the conditions of existence of human society" (p.22).

Indeed, he quotes Vygotsky's Development of the Higher Mental Functions to argue that a function, initially social and shared by two people, gradually crystallizes to become a way to organize the individual's mental life (p.23). "The social-historical conditions of life do not abrogate the laws of reflex processes" developed during biological evolution, "but enrich and reorganize these processes, converting them into more complex functional systems, formed under the influence of objective activity, and with the close participation of language" (p.24).

A bit later in the book, Luria discusses functional location, drawing on Vygotsky, Leontiev, and Zaporozhets to argue "that individual behavioral processes are consistently interconnected during development and that in the process of ontogenesis, not only the structure of individual mental processes, but also their relationship to each other may change" (p.56). Interestingly, here he evokes the idea of "the concrete reflection of the outside world," arguing that this "reflection" "serves as the basis for the construction of new and more complex behavioral processes" (p.56). This interests me in that Soviet psychologists incorporated Lenin's theory of reflection, but understood it differently; Luria is using the term "reflection" here to denote senses, but keeping it separate from the construction of higher mental functions. See also p.3, in which Luria seems to say that direct senses are not psychological processes.

In discussing voluntary memory, Luria cites Vygotsky and Leontiev, noting that memory is compensated by the organizational role of the intellect (p.58).

And that's it for this review. The book becomes more complex here and delves into specific disturbances in thinking, which are fascinating but a bit far afield for my purposes. Like Higher Cortical Functions of Man, this book provides us with a good sense of how Luria applied Vygotsky's insights in his development of a new field, and for that reason, I recommend it.

Reading :: Higher Cortical Functions in Man

Higher Cortical Functions in Man
By A. R. Luria


I'm not actually going to review this entire book—the version I read, the 1966 Basic Books version, is massive—but I do want to touch on the framing. The book is based on Luria's neuropsychological work from the 1930s to the time of writing, and it was a landmark book for the neurosciences, exploding the myth that higher mental functions were associated with specific parts of the brain (the reading center, the writing center, etc.). Rather, Luria argues that these higher functions result from the networking together of different parts of the brain. A disruption of that network—say, a gunshot wound in a specific part of the brain—can interrupt that higher mental function, not because it has destroyed the function's brain center, but because that part of the brain is part of a larger chain. Excitingly, that meant that patients could learn to route around the affected area, reconstructing the chain with a substituted brain area. (If you've read The Man with a Shattered World, you have a concrete example of how such rehabilitation might work.)

Of specific interest to me at present: Luria lavishly credits Vygotsky for the basic insights on which his work is built (and dedicates the book to him). In the Foreword, Luria ties "higher cortical processes" to the "higher mental functions" that Vygotsky described (p.1). Luria bases the generalizations on observations over "the past 25 years" (which would be 1937-1962, since the Russian version was published in 1962, a date range beginning with Luria's internship at Burdenko Institute of Neurosurgery. Luria notes that he "first began his clinicopsychological investigations of local brain lesions more than 30 years ago under the guidance of his friend and teacher L.S. Vygotskii. Much of what is written in the following pages may therefore be looked upon as a continuation of Vygotskii's ideas" (p.2).

Luria continues that line in Section I, "The problem of localization of functions in the cerebral cortex." After reviewing early conceptions of brain localization (e.g., brain centers), he argues that "no formation of the central nervous system is responsible for solely a single function"—rather, there are networked functional systems (p.27). In fact, as was well known, a brain lesion can disturb voluntary performance while leaving involuntary performance intact; Luria argues that the result of such a brain lesion is not loss but disorganization (cf. Leontiev and Zaporozhets). Indeed, Luria argues that
The principal achievement of modern psychology may be considered to be the rejection of both the idealistic notion that higher mental functions are manifestations of a certain 'mind' principle, distinct from all other natural phenomena, and the naturalistic assumption that these functions are natural properties bestowed by nature upon the human brain. One of the major advances in modern materialistic psychology has been the introduction of the historical method by means of which higher mental functions are regarded as complex products of sociohistorical development. (p.31)
He goes on to cite Vygotsky—specifically his book Development of the Higher Psychological Functions, of courseand Leontiev, and "to a certain extent" Janet and Wallon (p.31). Specifically, he notes Vygotsky's argument that "social contaact between the child and adults always lies at the root of such forms of activity as paying attention or voluntary movement" (p.33). This social genesis "determines the second fundamental characteristic of these functions, their mediate structure"; here, Luria uses the example of an external sign such as a knot or note to organize a mental process. Speech, he notes, "plays a decisive role in the mediation of mental processes," a claim that he supplements with a quote by Lenin (p.33). Indeed, he praises Pavlov for recognizing "the 'second signal system,' which is based on speech" (p.34). And:
The fact that systems of speech connections are necessary components of the higher mental functions makes the cerebral organization of these functions an extremely complex matter. We therefore suggest that the material basis of the higher nervous process is the brain as a whole but that the brain is a highly differentiated system whose parts are responsible for different aspects of the unified whole. (p.35)
He goes on to endorse Leontiev's "functional brain organs," which are "formed in the process of social contact and objective activity by the child" (p.35). The "upper associative layers of the cerebral cortex, the vertical connections arising in the secondary associative nuclei of the thalamus, and the overlapping zones uniting different boundaries of cortical analyzers evidently constitute the apparatus that performs this highly complex task. It is in man that this apparatus of the brain has attained its highest development, sharply distinguishing the human brain from that of animals. We, therefore, agree with the view that evolution, under the influence of social conditions, accomplishes the task of conversion of the cortex into an organ capable of forming functional organs (Leont'ev, 1961, p.38)" (p.35).

Luria again credits Vygotsky's insight that "higher mental functions may exist only as a result of interaction between the highly differentiated brain structures and that individually these structures make their own specific contributions to the dynamic whole and play their own roles in the functional system. This hypothesis ... is a thread running through the whole of the book" (p.36). In their early stages, higher mental functions "depend on the use of external evocative signs" (here he cites Leont'ev and Vygotsky), and "Only when this is complete do they gradually consolidate, so that the whole process is converted into a concise action, based initially on external and then on internal speech" (p.36). In fact, we can conclude that higher mental functions's structure "does not remain constant but that they perform the same task by means of different, regularly interchanging systems of connections" (p.36).

The foundations of higher mental functions are in simple sensory processes, so disturbing these senses or their integration will cause underdevelopment. In fact, Vygotsky formulated a rule: in early stages of ontogenesis, a brain lesion will primarily affect a higher center, i.e., a function that is developmentally dependent on the area where the lesion is located. But in the stage of fully formed functional systems, a lesion in the same area will primarily affect a lower center, one regulated by that function (p.37).

We'll stop here. Luria goes on to discuss agnosia, apraxia, and various other issues associated with brain lesions as well as his diagnostic methods. But for we humble non-neurologists, the central insights of the book are in the review above. Luria clearly took Vygotsky's book on the higher mental functions as his starting point, he is unstinting with his praise for Vygotsky's work, and he used it to illuminate a new field. If you are even marginally interested in these issues, or in Soviet psychology, I highly recommend the book.

Reading :: Rehabilitation of Hand Function

Rehabilitation of hand function
By A.N. Leont'ev and A.V. Zaporozhet͡s

What does hand rehabilitation have to do with psychology? More than I expected. In this book (published in Russian in 1945 and in English in 1960), the authors recount experiments in hand rehabilitation from the perspective of Soviet psychology. And in the process, they lay down markers for what would become the dominant framework for Soviet psychology, activity theory.

Let's put this book in context. Leontiev had worked under Vygotsky in the early 1930s, but then took a job at Kharkov along with other members of the Vygotsky-Luria network. Throughout the early 1930s, Leontiev and Vygotsky differed in their ideas of how Soviet psychology should develop: Vygotsky thought that the root phenomenon to study was word meaning or sense, while Leontiev argued that the root phenomenon was actually labor. Vygotsky died in 1934, and the Vygotsky-Luria network (the "cultural-historical school") came under Stalinist attack in 1936-1937 for being insufficiently adherent to the party line. Leontiev's angle of focusing on labor was easier to defend. In 1940, Leontiev defended his dissertation and in his article "The Genesis of Activity," he laid the tenets for activity theory. (He has been accused of lifting these tenets from Rubinshtein, who sat on his committee.)

When Nazi Germany violated its nonaggression pact with the USSR in June 1941, the Soviet Union moved to a war footing. On February 5, 1943, the USSR established a system of rehabilitation hospitals—and, according to the foreword of this book, by Col.-General E. Smirnov, "it was forbidden to discharge officers and men who were capable of rehabilitation" (p.ix). Luria and Leontiev were assigned to head two of these rehabilitation hospitals.

The book at hand was written based on two research cycles, in 1943 and 1944, focusing on rehabilitation of hand function. Both involved Zaporozhets directly, while Leontiev supervised as scientific director; others were involved, including Gal'perin (first cycle) and Rubinshtein (second cycle) (p.xiii). Zaporozhets wrote Ch.4-9, while Leontiev wrote Ch.1-3 and 10.

In Ch.1, Leontiev sets out the task at hand (no pun intended). He begins by noting that people with restricted movements will perform differently depending on the conditions: telling them to "raise your arm as high as you can" gives poorer results when their eyes are closed compared to when they have their eyes open and are against a ruled screen—and the results are even better when they are asked to "take this object" (p.5). Beginning with the basics of activity theory—actions, motives, object, and activity—Leontiev argues that the differences in performance have to do with the meaning of the action. That is, the "same" action will be invested with a different attitude and orientation depending on the framing activity (p.14). Specifically, the person being rehabilitated may integrate the action into an "activity of self-defence" or "an activity with a difficult motive" (p.14). (In a footnote: "The term 'object' is used here, of course, in its widest sense meaning everything towards which the action is directed" (p.14)).

And this is why hand rehabilitation comes under the heading of psychology. "The character of a movement is determined not by its own motor task and not by the original orientation of the patients' own personality but by the concrete relationship of the one to the other in the given action" (p.16, his emphasis). This insight leads Leontiev to developing occupational therapy. OT already existed before the Soviets got to it, of course, but it had two virtues. First, it got results. Second, it fit the Soviet focus—and specifically Leontiev's focus—on labor. In later chapters, we'll see how this focus on labor plays out.

In Ch.2, Leontiev examines "the co-ordination of deranged movement" (p.17). He argues, following Anokhin and Sherrington, that in trauma such as gunshot wounds, the motor experience is disorganized, and "even when there is complete anatomical preservation of the central and peripheral system, the co-ordination of the movement may be disturbed to some degree" (p.18). Thus rehabilitation should first focus on restoring coordination (p.18). To improve coordination, the researchers used a kymograph (crediting Luria's work with the combined motor method) to provide feedback to patients as they undertook tasks with the uninjured and injured limbs (p.19; the method is quite vague). When patients had this visual feedback, they were able to smooth out their movements in moments (p.21). The task had been reorganized around different stimuli. (I was reminded of the work Leontiev later published in Problems of the Development of Mind in which he supposedly trained people to detect light with their hands—work that A.A. Leontiev later characterized as parapsychology.) The researchers found that the degree of discoordination was not directly correlated to the range of movement (p.26).

Just a note here. Leontiev's experiments (well, the ones he supervised) were not as elegant and clean as Vygotsky's or Luria's. They involved elaborate mechanisms, sketchy statistics, and in places, endless case studies.

Also in this chapter, Leontiev reports on rehabilitation after Krukenberg's operation — an operation for someone whose hand has to be amputated. Essentially, the radius and ulna are separated and the Pronator teres muscle is wrapped around both, allowing the patient to use the two bones as an elongated pincer. Obviously, this operation requires the patient to substantially reconstruct both motor and sensory impulses. In their experiments, the research team concluded that this reconstruction does not simply involve elementary sensation — untrained patients couldn't tell if they were feeling a cube or a cylinder, while trained patients could. (Notice the implications for applying Lenin's reflection theory—you can see them in Leontiev's application.)

Moving on. In Ch.4, Zaporohets discusses "the problem of motor organization and the restoration of movement" (p.63). Here, he argues that trauma leads to a new functional system to protect the injured organ. This functional system should be temporary, but can become fixed.

Interestingly, Zaporozhets emphasizes the practical importance of the work, especially in its aims of putting people back to work (p.64)—the theme of labor as well as the practicality that characterized Stalinist science. In a later chapter, Zaporozhets lauds "the general tonic and encouraging power of rational work activity" in comparison to gymnastic movements and occupational therapy meant to rehabilitate limbs, but without a framing activity (p.146). He quotes Luria along these lines as well (p.148), and he notes that the motivation of activity has a large impact on outcomes—"casual and meaningless orders" can have a "chilling effect" on recovery, while "more consequential and complicated tasks" can accelerate it (p.149).

Leontiev and Zaporozhets, then, wanted to put the occupation back into occupational therapy. One can see how this line of research would be welcome to the overtaxed war leadership of the USSR: not only can the wounded be put back to work, it was good for them! They even give the example of dispirited patients reviving when they were given the meaningful task of manufacturing "window frames and furniture to replace that destroyed by the Germans at Stalingrad" (p.150). Labor, which had created humanity, could also rehabilitate it.

Interestingly, some occupational therapists have also explored this link, although I haven't had the chance to read that literature.

In any case, I found the book interesting in terms of understanding what Leontiev was up to during the war years and how that experience bore on his development of activity theory. For activity theorists not working in OT, I think the book is primarily interesting for historical purposes, but it's still interesting!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Reading :: Soviet Psychology: Philosophical, Theoretical, and Experimental Issues

Soviet Psychology; Philosophical, Theoretical, and Experimental Issues
By Levy Rahmani


I mentioned Levy Rahmani in my recent review of a 1972 collection by Soviet psychologists—he was thanked by the authors for helping to select materials for the collection. In this 1973 book, he demonstrates why he was well positioned to make these selections—although, as Joravsky points out in his own review of the book, Rahmani has trouble articulating what makes Soviet psychology unique apart from its ideological commitments.

Rahmani does fill in some of the contextualizing history. In Chapter 1, he characterizes the changes that had happened shortly before he wrote the book: "The narrow, conformistic approach arising from the conference held in 1950 on the development of Pavlovian theory has gradually been replaced in the 1960's by a diversity of empirically tested theories. Deeply rooted beliefs in such theories as Pavlov's reflexology have been challenged while concepts like Vygotsky's cultural-historical view, not long ago rejected by the official psychology, are now widely discussed" (p.5).

Chapter 1 largely chronicles the beginning of Soviet psychology post-Revolution. I've covered some of this history elsewhere on this blog, so let's just hit some of the interesting highlights. On p.23, the author describes the "sociogenetic approach":
A great deal of effort was expended by Russian psychologists after the 1917 revolution to formulate a theory compatible with the Marxist [Leninist] tenet that the human psyche is a reflection of an objective reality, in particular the social environment. They had also to cope with the task of building a theory of education applicable to the "new" man. The problem of relationships between collective psychology and individual psychology was a major concern of the psychologists of the 1920's. They faced the following dilemma: is social psychology a legitimate branch of psychology, or should all the manifestations of the individual's psychology be regarded in terms of his social and, particularly, class position. In the light of the theory of historical materialism, they were inclined to the second solution. (p.23)
Kornilov's reactology "was the first attempt in Soviet psychology to bring together the biological and social factors determining the human psychology" — a two-factor theory (p.25). Readers of this blog will recall that in 1923 Kornilov replaced Chelpanov as director of the Institute of Experimental Psychology at Moscow University; but reactology fell out of favor around 1930, and Kornilov was replaced by Kolbanovskii. In 1939, Kornilov was reappointed director, and in 1943, he was appointed Vice-President of the newly founded RSFSR Academy of Pedagogical Sciences (p.30).

Meanwhile, the author characterizes the 1930s as the "battle for consciousness," featuring Vygotsky and Rubinshtein's separate attempts to develop a Soviet theory of consciousness (p.38). Vygotsky incorporated Engels' account of evolution into his theory, using Engels' discussion of tool use to back up his theory of mediation, and emphasized the role of signs as external (social) before becoming internal (individual) (p.41). Citing Brushlinskii, the author argues that Vygotsky's theory of signs developed in three stages:

  1. Signs as self-stimulation
  2. The meaning of signs
  3. The concept of meaning itself, including the question of the development of concepts (p.43)
Rubinshtein criticized Vygotsky's theory in various ways. First, since "Vygotsky conceived of the social factor as an interaction between the adult and the child ... consciousness appeared then to be a direct expression of the individual's inner experiences, and not to be contingent upon 'material practice,' i.e., on the objects of people's actions"—leaving the door open for idealism. Second, Rubinshtein argued (1946) that Vygotsky elevated speech to the role of ultimate cause of thought—thought was not "'a reflection of the objective world in unity with speech on the basis of social practice, but rather as a derivative function of verbal signs'" (p.45). 

A.N. Leontiev was a colleague and student of Vygotsky's, but by the time he completed his doctoral dissertation in 1940, Vygotsky was dead; Rubinshtein sat on his dissertation committee.
His major thesis was that psychical processes represent a particular form of activity and derive from people's concern with external objects. Psyche is a result of the transformation of the external, material activity, into an internal activity during the course of man's historical development. In this, Leontiev, while following Vygotskii's thinking, was at variance with his teacher's approach—which was regarded as intellectualistic—when he postulated that the child's meaningful activity was determined by the level of his mental growth and not by the interaction between his consciousness and that of the adult. Leontiev also disagreed with Vygotskii's view of the role played by the development of concepts for the child's mental growth. (p.47)
Leontiev developed these ideas in his 1940 doctoral dissertation, a 1945 article on children's mental growth, and his 1947 monograph (perhaps his An Outline of Mental Development, though Rahmani does not specify) (p.47). He believed that Soviet psychology had two major tasks: "to define the structure of man's activity through an analysis of the relationships between activity as a whole, actions and operations" and "to clarify the concept of meaning" (p.47). (Notice that the first task implies a sociology, not just a psychology.) In terms of the second task, Leontiev argued that historically "meaning and significance became separated with the disintegration of the homogeneous primitive society and the occurrence of social classes" (p.48).

In 1948, Leontiev and Rubinshtein were both singled out for criticism, coinciding with Lysenko's 1948 "victory" (p.51). (The author is referring to the critiques reproduced in the appendix of Wortis' 1950 Soviet Psychiatry.) Specifically, Maslina (1948) criticizes Leontiev for being apolitical, vague, and overly focused on technical division of labor—and insufficiently appreciative of the high moral quality of Soviet man (p.52).

Now we get more context about Pavlov's elevation. Up to 1950, Pavlov's theory was revered but deviations were tolerated. But "In June 1950, the Joint Session of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and of the Academy of Medical Sciences of the USSR Dedicated to the Development of I.P. Pavlov's Teaching, put an end to this situation" (p.59). "Pavlov's theory was to become the only scientific approach" (p.60). Rahmani argues that the session was apparently inspired by Stalin himself, coinciding with his work on Marxism and linguistics published the same year. The session was anticosmopolitan, anti-Western, and aimed at developing "pure" Marxist science (p.60).

Chapter 2 gets into the nature of psyche. Rahmani notes that "Although Soviet psychologists had essentially accepted Lenin's proposition that the psyche is a reflection of external reality, they, naturally, disagreed when it came to elaborating specific definitions" (p.63). This concept of reflection comes from Lenin's 1908 proposition in Materialism and Empirio-criticism (p.64). Rahmani discusses how psychologists picked up this idea and applied it in different ways. Leontiev, for instance, regarded "the capacity to signal as the most relevant feature of the psyche. The psyche has a role in the organism's adaption, and this consists in the reflection of those objects and phenomena, acting as signals, which help the organism to deal with the vital phenomena, without participating directly in the metabolic process" (p.69).

Later in this chapter, we return to the fallout of the 1950 Pavlov conference. "Fortunately, the rigid approach imposed by the conference did not last for long." By the late 1950s, Pavlov's authority had weakened—Rahmani does not explicitly tie this change to Stalin's death in 1953—and by the time of a 1962 conference, a diversity of views was tolerated (p.95).

Let's skip to Ch.4, on thought and language. Rahmani notes that "the proposition that thoughts exist only in the form of language remains basic to Soviet psychology (p.208), grounded in Engels' "proposition that work and speech are the two main stimuli in the development of the human brain" (p.209). Interestingly, "Until 1950 the theory of the Georgian linguist Marr was considered the only Marxist theory of language" (p.209). Marr argued that "there was a stage in the development of man when he used a language of gestures which served not only as a means of communication but as an instrument of thought as well" (p.209). Readers of this blog may recall that in her January 1937 criticism of Vygotsky, Rudneva criticized him for not following the Japhetic theory of language; she is referring to Marr's work. Unfortunately for Marr, Rudneva et al., in 1950 Stalin published the article Marxism and Questions of Linguistics, declaring Marr's theory anti-Marxist: thinking was inconceivable without language, specifically sonic language (p.210). (See also Rosenthal.)

The book is much larger and more comprehensive than this review, covering Soviet work in sensory cognition, memory, emotions and feelings, will and voluntary activity, and the psychology of personality. But let's leave it there, since we have covered the topics that are currently most applicable to my current project. If you're interested in the history and development of Soviet psychology, as I am, this book features a solid overview up to the early 1970s. But it's also overly ecumenical; like Joravsky, I'd like to see it be more critically reflective. Nevertheless, see what you think.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Reading :: Psychology in the USSR: An Historical Perspective

Psychology in the USSR: an historical perspective
Edited by Josef Brozek and Dan I. Slobin


The link goes to a used version of this book for sale on Amazon. The version I read was from the UT library, where I found it by chance when looking for another book. The chapters in this 1972 collection are English translations of articles printed in Soviet journals in 1966, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Revolution. Each article is laid out in two columns, the formatting uses underlining rather than italics, and the page size looks about 9"x12". In other words, it looks more like a conference proceedings than a book—not much to look at.

But the contents, for someone like me (someone who wants to understand how the history of Soviet psychology was told by the Soviets in the mid 1960s), are a fascinating time capsule. The articles tend to be short, especially in Part I (a few pages each, nearly all written by Brozek, with a glossary by Bowden and Cole). Parts II and III have articles by Smirnov, Leontiev (here, Leont'yev), Bozhovich and Slavina, and Menchinskaya. Part IV is focused on Georgian psychology, which developed along a somewhat separate track.

In the Praface, the editors also recommend other issues of Soviet Psychology, including a 1967 Vygotsky memorial issue (vol.V, n.3) (p.vii). As the editors note, the current volume contains a "self-portrait" of the development of Soviet psychology, and a "selective" one (p.vii; underlining in the original). n.b., the editors thank Levy Rahmani for helping to select materials for this volume (p.viii); I'll be reviewing his own book soon on this blog.

As mentioned, Part I is mostly Brozek's work. Especially useful is a timeline of Soviet psychology, "Some significant historical events in the development of Soviet psychology" (pp.11-13) and an unattributed set of biographies ("Noted figures in the history of Soviet psychology: Pictures and brief biographies," pp.22-29) translated from the 1960 Pedagogical Dictionary and 1964-1965 Pedagogical Encyclopedia. The entry on Vygotsky is generally laudatory:
He formulated the theory of the socio-historical origin of higher mental functions in man, and developed new methods for investigating various mental processes. Vygotskiy's [sic] greatest contribution lies in the fact that he was the first to attempt to demonstrate the Marxist thesis of the socio-historical nature of human consciousness in concrete psychological investigations. According to Vygotskiy, all higher, specifically human mental processes (logical memory, voluntary attention, conceptual thought, etc.)—in like manner to labor processes—arise with the help of tools of "mental production"; these tools are symbols, and above all, the symbols of language. These symbols are of social origin, originally being formed in joint activity of people, later becoming individual psychological means as well, used by the individual for thinking, voluntary direction of his behavior, etc. This form of mediation, according to Vygotskiy, is gradually internalized. The role of words in mental life depends on their meanings, which are generalized images of reality; words represent concepts which develop in the course of the individual's life. (p.28)
In Vygotskiy's works one finds, along with the correct positions, several incorrect positions—particularly those making errors of a pedological nature. Taking as a whole, however, the psychological works of Vygotskiy played an important and positive role in the development of Soviet psychological science. (p.29)
Overall, this bio is economical and of high fidelity. I'm sure that someone can find out for sure, but it reads like Luria to me. But note a few things: (1) The bio emphasizes Vygotsky's instrumental period, with its focus on mediation and higher psychological functions, rather than Vygotsky's later holistic period. The instrumental period provided the basis for Leontiev's activity theory and was arguably easier to reconcile with the ideological demands of the mid-1930s. (2) The bio analogizes the development of higher mental functions to labor processes. Vygotsky drew this connection, but only as an analogy, and insisted that psychological tools were not the same as physical ones; Leontiev conflated the two when building his theory around labor activity. (3) The author of the bio is still cautiously distancing him/herself from Vygotsky in terms of pedology, 30 years after the Pedology Decree of 1936.

Moving to Part II. Smirnov's "On the fiftieth anniversary of Soviet psychology" (pp.51-71, originally from Voprosy psikhologii, 1967, 13(5), 13-37) overviews psychology's development in the USSR. I'll focus particularly on events related to the cultural-historical school, of course. Again, the assessment of Vygotsky is generally laudatory: "As we know, L.S. Vygotsky played an outstanding role in the establishment and development of Soviet psychology as one of the first successors to the pioneers in the struggle for Marxist psychology" (p.53). And he quotes Leontiev:
In adopting this viewpoint, Vygotsky actually made consciousness a central problem in his scientific investigations. "The problem of consciousness," writes A.N. Leont'yev on this account, "is the alpha and omega of the creative pathway of L.S. Vygotsky." (p.53)
And Smirnov continues to filter Vygotsky through Leontiev as he concludes this section:
Consciousness (if we make use of the distinction made by Leont'yev between "signification" [znacheniye] and "meaning" [smysl]) is not only a system of significations, but also a system of meanings. (p.53)
Smirnov does return to Vygotsky later when discussing Gestalt psychology, emphasizing Vygotsky's criticism of the school and of Koffka in particular (p.57).

Smirnov covers the Pedology Decree and its results, noting its effects, including rejection of mental testing and a broad acceptance of "the unity of consciousness and activity." He notes that "several papers published as pedological works actually contained valuable psychological material that contributed to the development of psychological science" (p.58).

He also discusses an incident about which I have seen hints, but no solid history: In 1950, at a joint scientific session of the USSR Academy of Sciences and USSR Academy of Medical Sciences, participants reevaluated and repropagated Pavlov's theories—specifically "the fundamental significance of the principle of determinism and the reflex concept of the mind" (p.59).
But mention should also be made of certain incorrect views presented at the Session by some physiologists in their attempts to reject psychology as an independent science and to reduce it entirely to the physiology of higher nervous activity. This false notion of the interrelationship between these two fields, so harmful to the development of psychology, was later surmounted, and a very important role in its liquidation was played in the USSR Academy of Sciences' Conference on Philosophical Problems of the Physiology of Higher Nervous Activity and Psychology of 1962. (p.59)
Smirnov goes on to criticize investigators who applied "a vulgarization of Pavlov's teachings" and displayed "dogmatism" about those teachings (p.59). It's said that history is written by the victors, but histories are written today by today's victors, retelling what had been told yesterday by yesterday's victors. At the time of writing, the victory of 1962 was fresh enough to be discussed by other authors in this collection. (Now I have to reread writings from 1950-1962 to see how they told the incident earlier.)

A bit later, Smirnov gets to Leontiev's work, in which he emphasizes that "the historical development of consciousness as a higher form of reflection of objective reality is an object for special study" (p.64). This discussion leads him back to the investigation of signs in the Vygotsky school, which he characterizes thus:
In the very first decade of the founding and development of Soviet psychology, Vygotsky, in creative collaboration with Luriya and Leont'yev, presented and elaborated the widely known sociohistorical theory of the development of mind, namely, that natural and social evolution fuse into one in ontogenesis. Social evolution involves the formation of higher mental functions mediated by special, auxiliary, artificial, man-made stimuli (signs) that facilitate the fulfillment of actions and have a social character. Whereas initially they are the means whereby one man influences another, they later become the means with which an individual influences himself and regulates his behavior and mental processes, and moreover the sources of the 'voluntariness' of those processes. Originally external, these media later are replaced by internal forms that have no external manifestations. (p.65)
Note the "troika" account and the focus on Vygotsky's instrumental period. Smirnov continues:
At the beginning of the 1930s the sociohistorical theory of Vygotsky underwent extensive criticism. The chief objections were directed against the separation of two lines of evolution and the recognition of signs (including, especially, nominal signs) by an instrument that transforms a natural function into a cultural function, which was considered a deviation from the theory of reflection. The reproach was made that the development of human mental life was not studied in the context of social evolution, as a function both of the nature of social relations and of the material and intellectual life of society at various stages in its historical development. (p.65)
In Ye. D. Khomsaya's "Neuropsychology: A new branch of psychological science (pp.114-122, originally in Voprosy psikhologii 1967, 13(5), 103-113), the author claims that "the first neuropsychological investigations in our country were carried out as far back as the twenties by L.S. Vygotsky"—citing some of Vygotsky's work on brain lesions and acknowledging that "Vygotsky left no completed works" on this question (p.114). Khomsaya notes that Vygotsky's work on functional localization laid the foundations for Leontiev's "functional organs" as well as Luria's discussion of how motor disorders are "compensated through a semantic system of supports" (p.115). Later in the chapter, the author discusses the work conducted during WW2 by Leontiev, Zaporozhets, and others focused on the restoration of functions disturbed by local brain lesions (p.120).

In G.S. Kostyuk's "The problem of child development in Soviet psychology" (pp.123-143, originally  in Voprosy psikhologii 1967, 13(6), 24-45), the author offers a chronological history starting in the 1920s. In Vygotsky's (1926) Pedagogical psychology, he "endorsed the unity of the biological and the social, and the decisive role of social conditions in the child's psychological development" (p.124). As in Smirnov's chapter, Kostyuk asserts that Vygotsky's cultural-historical theory was "worked out in close cooperation with A.N. Leont'yev and A.R. Luriya" (p.126). Later, in 1945, Leontiev argued that changes in the child's activity "proceed in two directions: from the primary changes in the sphere of the child's life relationships in the sphere of his activity toward his development of actions, operations, and functions; from the secondary transformation of functions and operations toward the development of a given sphere of activities in the child and the appearance of the leading activity, i.e., the start of a new stage of development" (p.130; unfortunately the author does not provide a citation). Kostyuk also notes, based on the work of Volokitina et al., that "the pupil is never prompted by any single motive, but rather by an integrated system of motives that are interrelated in a complex manner and are sometimes even contradictory" (p.133; cf. David R. Russell's 1997 "Rethinking genre in school and society" for a similar take).

A.N. Leontyev's "Some prospective problems of Soviet psychology" (pp.144-157, originally in Voprosy psikhologii 1967, 13(6), 7-22) is a bit of a letdown. It overviews the tasks that psychology as a field must take on, including "problems created by the technological revolution and the ensuing modifications in the functions of human labor" (p.144) and the corresponding shift to managerial, organizational, and design issues (p.145). These are exciting topics, foreshadowing the applications to which activity theory was put in the mid-1980s when it was taken up by Bodker, Engestrom, and others. But Leontiev is speaking of psychology in general, not activity theory in particular, and the applications remain vague.

Leontiev does reference the 1950 "Pavlovian Session" in which psychology was too directly influenced by physiology—an influence that could be repudiated at the time Leontiev wrote this piece in 1967 (p.151).

Leontiev concludes by urging a "'vertical synthesis,' as it were, of the different levels on which processes underlying human mental activity take place" (p.153, emphasis in the original). This argument leads him to recall Vygotsky's work "on the mediated nature of higher mental functions," which understood the transition from elementary to higher mental functions not "as the result of a superimposition of higher functions onto more elementary functions, but as a result of a structural transformation of activity, corresponding to some task, mnestic, intellectual, or motor" (p.153, his emphasis). And "thus, as a result of mediation of the connection between the subject and the objective world by a tool, the action of the subject acquires a new structure that reflects the new objective relations: the properties of the tool, the object of labor, and the purpose of labor—its product" (p.153). Note, again, that Leontiev locates Vygotsky's contribution in his instrumental period and portrays Vygotsky as sharing Leontiev's understanding of mediation related to the object of labor activity.

Let's move on to L.I. Bozhovich and L.S. Slavina's "Fifty years of Soviet psychology on upbringing (pp.161-180, originally in Voprosy psikhologii 1967, 13(5), 51-70). Notably, the authors rely heavily on Vygotsky's Pedagogical Psychology (1926), which had just been republished that year. They argue that "Vygotsky was never an advocate of either permissive education or of ideas leading to atrophy of the school" (p.166—both charges that were leveled in the 1930s by critics such as Rudneva). Rather, they say, Vygotsky argued that although the child adapts to the environment, the environment is not rigid and responds reciprocally to the child (p.166). They characterize Vygotsky's work on mediation: "The primary instinctive drives, directed toward an action goal, from his point of view, convert to a method by means of which this goal is reached, thereby changing their character"—and they argue that Leontiev and others have confirmed this claim (p.166).

From A.V. Barabanshchikov, K.K. Platinov, and N.F. Federenko's On the history of Soviet military psychology (pp.222-231; originally in Voprosy psikhologii 1967, 13(6), 76-84) I learned that El'konin and Leontiev worked in the department of military psychology at the Military Pedagogical Institute immediately after WW2. In 1947, through this institute, Leontiev published An Outline of Mental Development; material from this publication was later included in Problems of the Development of Mind (p.228). 

And that's it. Other chapters exist, and an entire section (on Georgian psychology), but this review has covered most of what interested me. I hope it's interested you as well. If it has, this book is worth picking up as a historically situated "self-portrait" of Soviet psychology.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Reading :: New Myth, New World

New Myth, New World: From Nietzsche to Stalinism
By Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal


Let's start with some background to understand why I picked up this book in the first place. It was a revelation when I finally read "The Socialist Alteration of Man" in 2015—it completely changed my view of Vygotsky's project and I've spent the last couple of years trying to process it.

I began studying CHAT approaches in graduate school in the mid-1990s, when it was first being picked up in my field. In addition to Engestrom, Cole, Wertsch, etc. I read Vygotsky's Thought and Language and sorta-Vygotsky's Mind in Society, but both were of course framed by the Western readings I had been doing. In later years, I read a bit more of Vygotsky and became aware that there was a split between the cultural-historical and AT schools, but this split was usually portrayed as a "generational" difference in the literature I was reading. Reading Kozulin's introduction to Thought and Language 2ed suggested that this split was much deeper, so I began reading more of Vygotsky's works as well as bios and histories.

But it was "The Socialist Alteration of Man" that drew a line under the differences. Even allowing for the fact that the piece was a bit exaggerated, it became clear to me that Vygotsky was really focused on fundamentally transforming Man, in accordance with the ideas of the Revolution, and his focus on "psychological tools" really was a means to that end. We can see hints of that agenda in Luria's Uzbek expedition and his Mind of a Mnemonist, but also in Luria's defectological work such as his twin study Speech and the Development of Mental Processes in the Child and his account in The Man with a Shattered World, in which the "stack" (my term) of internalized psychological tools is reconstructed or alternately constructed for individuals. As Miller says, the focus is on the individual, albeit usually in a dyadic relationship, building new capabilities. And if one believes that individuals had been limited by obsolete structures that were in the process of withering away, as Vygotsky apparently did, it would be easy to see the individual's development as potentially limitless.

That's a sharp contrast with Western CHAT, which—as in so many other ways—is a funhouse-mirror reflection of Vygotsky's theory. Here, although the individual develops, s/he does not develop dramatically. Instead, what develops dramatically are the mediators (tools, rules, division of labor). The best example isn't in the CHAT tradition per se, but is often cited in CHAT literature: Hutchins' Cognition in the Wild. Studying a Navy ship, Hutchins explicitly argues that there is no way we can attribute the ship's success to the individuals, who are largely inexperienced and who cycle out after two years. Instead, he positions the individuals as part of a larger cognitive system that includes artifacts. We can see similar examples in Wertsch (who argues that pole vaulters don't improve dramatically, but they break records because the pole itself has changed) and Bodker (who applies Leontiev's AT to interface design). My own empirical research has followed this path, examining how people pick up, import, and innovate texts to collectively mediate their own organizational work. In this tradition, the individual is as limited as always, but her mediators can be redesigned and redeveloped limitlessly, and the resulting mediated activity takes the center stage in development. (Some researchers are even applying the notion of the zone of proximal development to organizations, which is a telling application of the concept.)

How did we get from superman to super-mediators?

Let's ask a smaller question. Where did Vygotsky's 1930 faith in the unlimited development potential of Man come from? I've already reviewed one strong influence, Trotsky's Literature and Revolution. But as Yasnitsky argues, Vygotsky didn't just draw from Trotsky, he drew from Trotsky's own source, Nietzsche. Yasnitsky heavily cites Rosenthal's New Myth, New World, so I picked it up as well. It's a good book, and unfortuately I won't do its details justice in this review, since I'm most interested in the Nietzsche-Vygotsky connection.

Rosenthal argues that Nietzsche was widely read in pre-Revolutionary Russia, and his ideas resonated with indigenous Russian ideas, enough so that they became part of the zeitgeist even without attribution (p.2). Specifically, "one idea remained constant: art can create a new consciousness, a new human being, a new culture, and a new world" (p.2). In fact, "Aspects of Nietzsche's thought were either surprisingly compatible with Marxism or treated issues that Marx and Engels had neglected" (pp.2-3). Indeed, Nietzschean Marxists emphasized issues that Marx had neglected: "ethics, epistemology, aesthetics, psychology, culture, and values" (p.68).

Yet, since Nietzsche was not in good odor during much of the Soviet period, his influence was rarely explicit—it was "buried"—so Rosenthal must be cautious about claiming Nietzsche's influence in many instances (p.3). (And sometimes, frankly, these arguments are rather tenuous.)

Nevertheless, Rosenthal traces the Soviet idea of the New Man—"a goal of Russian radicals since the 1860s"—to Nietzsche's "Superman, a being that would regard man as man now regards the ape" (p.9—explicitly referenced in Vygotsky). Over time, the Lenin cult appropriated the idea of the Nietszchean Superman and applied it to Lenin as an Apollonian image/icon (p.184). The New Man (cf. Bauer) was also developed in the USSR in two ways:
The idea that man can be remade, that human perfectionism is possible, has inspired generations of radicals, not only in Russia, but certain features of the new Soviet man—boundless energy, daring, hardness, physical vitality—derived from Nietzsche. (p.189)
And
Artists and writers offered two basic models of the new man—the super-functional machine-model of the avant-garde and the human or superhuman model of the realists—and some hybrid versions. (pp.189-190)
Rosenthal gives a number of examples. The super-functional man is a machine, with its body made for work (p.190). Indeed, "Some Bolsheviks wanted to breed the new man by means of eugenics" (including Trotsky; p.195), and neo-Lamarckians, like Nietzsche, wanted evolution to be in man's control (p.196). Unsurprisingly, Lysenko's campaign had such undertones of the conquest of nature (p.284). Other branches of science also did—for instance, the linguist Nikolai Marr (who died in 1934, the same year as Vygotsky) developed the Japhetic theory of linguistics, which was originally based on "Nietzsche's archaeological approach to language" before being reformulated in accordance with Marxism (p.286). Marr's myth-saturated theory appealed to Soviets in the 1930s, when the USSR struggled to assimilate non-Russian nationalities (p.287). (Recall that Rudneva upbraids Vygotsky for not following Japhetic linguistics.) Interestingly, Marr was in a study group with Eisenstein in the 1920s (p.287), so he was running in the same circles that Vygotsky and Luria were. Marr argued that the chief organ of speech was the hand, the agent of production, and all culture is based on material artifacts (p.288)—both assertions that resonate well with Engels and to some degree with Leontiev. (But, in June 1950, during resurgent chauvinism, Stalin himself wrote a series about linguistics whose effect was to dethrone Marr.)

The idea of the Superman became more generalized and harder to track at about this point. For instance, Rosenthal says that by 1936, the Stalin cult makes Stalin the superman (p.381). But also around this time, as fascists arose in Germany and Italy, the dictators kept an eye on each other and learned from each others' propaganda. Specifically, Soviet propagandists "constructed a Soviet Superman to counter the Nazi model" (p.235). Lysenko's biology "held out the promise of conquering nature and breeding the 'new man'" (p.395; cf. p.414). Makarenko, who directed "colonies for orphans and homeless children" from 1917-1936, believed in the unlimited power of education and aimed to turn his charges into New Men by molding their personalities (pp.396-397).

Eventually, of course, after Stalin's death, the new Soviet man became a joke (p.436).

Overall, this book was enlightening. I am also relieved that, based on it, I don't think I'll need to read Nietzsche directly—since most Soviets never did! If you're interested in the new Soviet man, or in Soviet culture more generally, consider picking it up.

Reading :: Stalinist Science

Stalinist Science
By Nikolai Krementsov


I picked up this book by chance in the UT library as I was investigating the Soviet milieu in which Vygotsky, Luria, Leontiev, and others in this tradition were working. After I finished it, I noticed that Anton Yasnitsky cites it in his dissertation as a major influence. And I can see why. Krementsov wanted to investigate the unique aspects of the Soviet science system, not superficially, but deeply and with an appropriate understanding of how different actors worked. Specifically, he examined how the Soviet science system led to the Lysenko controversy and how scientists in different disciplines resisted the Lysenkoization of their disciplines while still appearing to comply.

Not only does this account describe the milieu in which Soviet science developed, it directly discusses how some of the major players of Soviet psychology—such as Chelpanov, Kornilov, and Luria—navigated the milieu.

In Chapter 1, "Russian Science in Transition, 1890-1929," Krementsov sets the scene. Soviet science did not suddenly spring into being in 1917—it was built on pre-Revolutionary institutions. For instance, Chelpanov's Institute of Experimental Psychology had relied on private patrons before 1917; after 1917, he found patrons among the state agencies to keep the institution going (p. 20). Indeed, the patronage system became an important component in Soviet science, and "allowed scientists to use the influence of their powerful patrons in various state and party agencies," concentrating power in the hands of a few spokespeople: in a sense, Vavilov was plant science and Ioffe was physics (p.22).

Beginning in 1918, the Bolsheviks had a "liberal and accommodating" policy toward existing research institutions, but a "stern and aggressive" attitude toward educational institutions (p.23). "As a result, a number of university professors quit teaching and concentrated exclusively on research"—creating "a dichotomy between teaching and research that became a characteristic feature of the Soviet science system" (p.24). (Recall that in 1936, the Pedology Decree condemned the fact that pedology researchers exerted control over the curriculum of teachers and dismantled pedology.)

In the 1920s, orthodoxy hardened in each discipline, and scientists began to attack each other on ideological grounds (p.26). Science had to be Marxist; cf. Kornilov's 1923 argument that led to his replacement of Chelpanov (p.26). Of course, scientists such as Kornilov, Bekhterev, and Luria appropriated the Marxist lexicon to support their own ideas, ideas that opposed each other; this lexicon use signaled loyalty to the Bolshevik state (p.27).

In Chapter 2, "The Stalinization of Russian Science, 1929-1939," Krementsov notes how the "Great Break" of 1929 began a new era across Russia, including in the sciences (p.31). "Crash industrialization" required mobilizing the population as well as its resources, leading to massive propaganda campaigns, manufactured famines, an expanded secret police, and show trials, as well as the centralization of all power under the Communist Party—which was itself controlled by Stalin (p.31). A new system of agencies was created to oversee science policy (pp.32-33), eventually overseen by "the Central Committee's Administration of Agitation and Propaganda (Agitprop)" (p.33). The OGPU, and later its successor, the NKVD, shadowed scientists, routinely investigated their loyalties, and cleared both visiting foreign scientists and USSR scientists who wished to travel abroad (p.33). In 1930, the OGPU's Economic Division began to advise the government on science policy (p.34)—and possibly was behind "the creation and development of the unique system of sharashki, the labor camps where imprisoned scientists worked on research in their specialties" (p.34)!

For canny operators, the "system of personal links between science spokesmen and commissars that had emerged in the 1920s" had served them well, but this system "was undermined in 1929-1930 by sudden changes in the leadership of practically all commissariats and governmental agencies" (p.34), forcing scientists to find new patrons (p.35). Patronage became dangerous during the Great Terror of 1936-1938: "Many scientists were arrested and imprisoned (and in several cases shot) for alleged association with such newly uncovered 'enemies of the people'" and "the multiple governmental and party patrons of the 1920s, then, were replaced in the late 1930s by a single patron—the Communist Party's Central Committee" (p.35).

Importantly for the story of Soviet psychology, "In 1932 almost all institutions that conducted research in fields related to medicine were welded into one monstrous institute—VIEM" (p.37). In the early 1930s, it was possible to invite "foreign specialists to work in [the USSR's] scientific institutions"; as the decade wore on, these opportunities dried up in favor of isolationism, and "After 1939, Soviet science's international contacts were almost completely severed" (p.44).

In late 1930, a campaign launched by Stalin proclaimed that "science had a 'class nature' and followed the principle of partiinost' (literally, party-ness), hence, Soviet science must be 'proletarian' and 'Communist'" (p.47). For an example, the author quotes Razmyslov's 1934 criticism of Vygotsky and Luria (p.47). Partiinost' amounted to "science's subordination to party goals and aims" (p.48).

Also in the early 1930s, "a campaign for the practicality of science also gained momentum" as a way of ensuring that science served the State; "applied research started to be considered the essence of science" (p.47; again, cf. the Pedology Decree). And "scientific criticism also acquired a 'patriotic' accent during the 1930s" (p.47; cf. the subsequent criticism of Vygotsky and Luria's 1930 book Studies on the history of behavior, which summarized Western sources just before this turn happened).

As Krementsov summarizes much later in the book, "Three sets of universal rhetorical assertions—partiinost', Marxism, and practicality—embodied the Bolshevik image of science, an image that originated within the 'Communist' science of the 1920s and developed through the political campaigns of the 1930s. They became the obligatory attributes of 'Soviet' science and the 'Soviet' scientist, which the scientific community routinely exploited in its self-portrayal and self-representation in its dealings with the party-state bureaucracy" (p.216). This rhetoric was temporarily displaced during World War II, but returned during the Cold War (p.216).

Other features of Soviet science emerged during this time: public discussions (p.51), self-criticism, and jubilees (p.52).

In Chapter 3, "Stalinist Science in Action: The Case of Genetics," Krementsov moves into the extended case of Lysenkoism. In the 1920s, Russian genetics advanced quickly, partly due to international contacts (p.56). But in the 1930s, the increasing centralization of the science system led to intradisciplinary competition for resources—and the increasing politicization made that competition hardball. In agricultural plant science, Trofim Lysenko—who, with his peasant background, lack of academic training, his lack of academic ties, and his total focus on practical concerns, was ironically the ideal Soviet scientist—began acquiring power in the discipline (p.58). Lysenko's doctrine, "agrobiology," "was cast as the basis for the whole of Soviet agriculture." Agrobiology was cast as a Soviet science, unlike genetics. By 1935, "Vavilov, the main spokesman for genetics, was dismissed from the presidency of VASKhNIL" and "Lysenko and a number of his allies were appointed members of the academy" (p.59). In summer 1936 (a busy summer—in June the USSR banned abortion and in July it essentially banned pedology) VASKhNIL had a public discussion over genetics; this discussion led to the Fourth Session of VASKhNIL in December, "entirely devoted to the controversy" (p.59). The geneticists appeared to carry the day (p.60), but not long afterwards, "the Great Terror proved strategically damaging for genetics mainly because a number of its spokesmen, and all their principal partners within the party-state apparatus, perished" (p.61). In addition, the institutions that had been bastions of genetics lost their power and faded away (p.61). By 1940, Vavilov was arrested as a British spy and genetics lost its strongholds (p.78).

In Chapter 4, "World War II and the Sweet Fruits of Victory," Krementsov discusses the profound changes in the science system due to the Nazi attack on the USSR on June 22, 1941: "Suddenly, everything changed" because "the party-state bureaucracy recognized the vital importance of science and gave its scientific community new responsibility and respect" (p.95; recall that during the War, Luria and Leontiev were put in charge of rehabilitation hospitals and focused on rehabilitating injured soldiers). The Party swelled as citizens were admitted on the battlefield, without the customary indoctrination (p.97). Scientific authority expanded (p.97). Between 1943-1946, the government rewarded scientists with awards, orders, and prizes (p.99). But the sharashki also expanded, including closed research institutions dedicated to the atomic bomb and weaponry (p.103).

With this shift in terrain, "In 1945 Soviet geneticists launched an attack against Lysenko's domination over their field," seeking support first from the Central Committee (p.105). "By mid-1947, despite Lysenko's fierce resistance, the geneticists had gained ground" (p.105). They gained support partly because the USSR joined the Allies against the Axis during World War II, which led to a restoration in scientific relations with the West; they "used international acclaim for Soviet genetics to undermine Lysenko's authority" (p.115).

But, of course, this international support was a two-edged sword. In Chapter 6, "The Fateful Year: 1948," Lysenko triumphed at the August VASKhNIL meeting, having gained the intervention of Stalin himself (pp.158-159). The Cold War had begun, and the strictures of Stalinist science suddenly returned. Stalin was himself neo-Lamarckian (p.166) and sympathized with Lysenko as early as 1935 (p.159). In intervening, Stalin was sending a message: as Krementsov summarizes, "now it was the party-state bureaucracy, not the scientific community, that was responsible for defining which scientific concept was correct. The party apparatus displayed unambiguously its power and intentions, turning the VASKhNIL meeting into a lesson Soviet scientists had to learn, an example they had to follow" (p.183).

Chapter 7, "Talking the Talk: Ritual and Rhetoric" examines the fallout among the scientific disciplines. Interestingly, Krementsov says, "Despite their ritual rhetorical obeisance to the new party control of the content of science, they in fact sought to counteract the party's seizure of control and to reassert their own hegemony over their disciplines" (p.194). Specifically, "In biology, medicine, pedagogy, psychology, and linguistics, scientific leaders sought to protect their existing intellectual and institutional agendas by sanctifying them as quintessentially Michurinist—and hence 'preapproved' by the Central Committee" (pp.194-195; for an example of the 1948 reaction to Lysenko's triumph by Soviet psychologists, see this review). For my purposes, let's focus on the reaction by the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences in a meeting on Sept 4, 1948 (p.204). Kornilov, who was "academy vice-president and academician-secretary of its Psychology Division, presided" (p.205). The president, Kairov, "criticized" and "unmasked" and etc., as one might imagine, but also called attention to "'questions of the influence of heredity, environment, and upbringing on the development and shaping of human beings'" (p.205)—the Pedology Decree, which had criticized the two-factor causality of heredity and environment—was only 22 years in the past. Smirnov, who was "director of the Institute of Psychology," "urged that all psychological works be reassessed from a Michurinist perspective" (pp.206-207).

Across the Soviet science system, scientists "skillfully employed the resources of their professional culture to show the party bureaucrats an image they wanted to see" by deploying "three major rhetorical techniques developed and tested during the 1930s: the juxtaposition of 'us' and 'them,' the use of 'criticism and self-criticism,' and the invocation of 'founding fathers'" (p.218). Re the third technique, the Cold War meant that such founding fathers all had to be "native" (p.223).

Ultimately, Krementsov argues, outside of agriculture, the Michurinist revision was illusory, or in his terminology "rhetorical" (p.239). Mainly, "resolutions named persons who had already been dismissed by the Central Committee"; others had a good chance of keeping their jobs. And some "Mendelists" found safe havens in practical labs (p.240). One geneticist, who headed a department that had been liquidated, appealed to Stalin by emphasizing "the possible military importance of genetics work with microbes"—and "the letter proved effective" (p.252).

Krementsov wraps up in Chapter 9, "The Realities of Stalinist Science: Careereism and Institutional Rivalry," Krementsov overviews how Lysenko became a model for accumulating personal and professional power (p.254).

Overall, this book helped me to understand the Soviet scientific milieu much better, and I'll be consulting this review frequently to help me contextualize the writings of Soviet psychologists at different points. It has already helped me to better understand the context behind a book I reviewed recently. If you're interested in Soviet science, trying to understand Soviet psychology's development, or just interested in the dangers of partisan science, definitely pick it up.

(catching up)

I haven't blogged in a few weeks due to the semester break, but I've been reading steadily and am planning to post a few reviews over the next week. As you might expect, these readings will primarily have to do with Soviet psychology and the Soviet milieu that impacted it. These will include:

  • Krementsov's Stalinist Science
  • Rosenthal's New Myth, New World: From Nietzsche to Stalinism
  • Brozek and Slobin's 1972 collection Psychology in the USSR: An Historical Perspective, consisting of translations of articles written by Soviet psychologists to commemorate the Revolution's 50th anniversary in 1967
  • Rahmani's 1973 overview, Soviet Psychology
  • Lewin's A Dynamic Theory of Personality. Lewin, who corresponded with Vygotsky and sent his students to work with the Vygotsky Circle, published this book in 1935, the year after Vygotsky's death.
Meanwhile I'm plowing through Cole & Maltzman's mammoth 1969 collection A handbook of contemporary Soviet psychology. It'll take a few more days to get through, even though I'm reading opportunistically. It's all fascinating, and I'll try to make the book reviews fascinating too.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Reading :: The Psychology of Art

The Psychology of Art
By Lev Semenovich Vygotsky


Y'all know I'm a fan of Vygotsky, right? Yet this book, Vygotsky's 1925 dissertation, was a slog for me.

Despite its title, the book is more in the vein of literary criticism, proposing a theory of aesthetics and applying it to fables, a short story (Bunin's "Gentle Breath"), and a Shakespearean play (Hamlet). Konstantin Kornilov was so impressed by this dissertation that, when Vygotsky was hospitalized for tuberculosis in 1925, Kornilov took the unusual step of waiving the oral defense. So indicators suggest, and modern commenters on Vygotsky tend to agree, that the book is a significant contribution to Vygotsky's body of work.

Unfortunately, the question of aesthetics and the subject of literature hold no interest for me, so this book's contribution was largely opaque to me. Thus I apologize for the limitations of this review, dear readers, and I'll attempt to describe the book's features adequately enough for you to make your own decision about it.

First, the introduction, which was written by A.N. Leontiev (and undated, but based on the text, written around 1965). Leontiev calls Vygotsky "the great scholar" and "the creator of an original branch of Soviet psychology, based on the sociohistorical nature of man's consciousness" (p.v). Leontiev briefly recounts Vygotsky's hiring by Kornilov just after Kornilov won the power struggle against Chelpanov, then notes that Vygotsky was "appointed to the modest position of Junior Staff Scientist (or Staff Scientist, 2nd Class, as the rank was then known)"; in that position, Vygotsky "showed astonishing energy" (p.v), publishing a significant article in 1925 and a textbook in 1926 (p.vi). Leontiev characterizes The Psychology of Art as a "transitional" book: it marked Vygotsky's transition to psychology; it "lays foundations for the new scientific ideas in psychology which constituted Vygotsky's main contribution to science"; it "approaches works of art from the point of view of a psychologist who has freed himself of the old subjective-empirical psychology" (p.vi).

Yet, Leontiev says, the book precedes the "doctrine of the sociohistorical nature of the human psyche" and relies too heavily on Kornilov's reactology (p.ix). "In his book, therefore, Vygotsky expresses his own ideas quite often in words that are not his own" (p.ix; sounds like a dissertation, all right).

Leontiev notes that The Psychology of Art was not published during Vygotsky's lifetime, attributing this fact to Vygotsky's turn from art to other questions (p.ix). Leontiev also notes that "some of the psychological views expressed in this book must now be interpreted differently—from the standpoint of present psychological views of human activity and consciousness" (p.xi). A cynic would possibly read Leontiev as saying that Vygotsky is best read through Leontiev's own lens of activity theory.

On to the book itself. Vygotsky divides it into four sections:

  • I. On the methodology of the problem
  • II. Critique
  • III. Analysis of the aesthetic reaction
  • IV. The psychology of art
In the first section, Vygotsky situates his approach, opposing it to Chelpanov's (p.14) and asserting contra Chelpanov that sciences can be Marxist (p.15). He acknowledges that we can separate social and collective psychology (p.17), arguing that we can "consider the psyche of the single individual as the subject of social psychology"—that is, differential psychology, which studies "individual differences in single individuals" (p.17). He aligns this study with general reactology (as opposed to Bekhterev's collective reflexology; p.17). "Everything within us is social, but this does not imply that all the properties of the psyche of an individual are inherent in all the other members of the group as well" (p.17). Thus, he argues, rather than distinguishing between social and individual psychology, we should distinguish between social and collective psychology (p.17). 

Moving on to critique, Vygotsky criticizes Freud in Chapter 4, arguing that although the application of the unconscious to aesthetics seems obvious, in practice "the approach is incorrect and ... these considerations have been disproved in practice" (p.72). It's worth noting that at the time Vygotsky was writing this dissertation, Luria was still trying to make Freudianism work within a Marxist framework, an attempt that Vygotsky would roundly criticize in the manuscript he wrote in the hospital immediately after finishing this dissertation.

Let's take a giant step forward to section III, on analysis. In Chapter 8, Vygotsky analyzes Hamlet, a play about which he had been writing since before college. He concludes by understanding Hamlet in terms of a threefold contradiction: "the contradiction involving the story, the plot, and the dramatis personae" (p.194). Hamlet's role is that "at any moment, he unifies both contradictory planes and is the supreme and ever-present embodiment of the contradiction inherent in the tragedy" (p.195, his emphasis).  One can imagine how this analysis led Vygotsky to think further about how real flesh-and-blood people develop by addressing and unifying actual contradictory lines of development, a theme to which he returns in his later work.

In the final section IV, on the psychology of art, Vygotsky argues that "the psychology of art involves two, or possibly three, branches of theoretical psychology. It depends upon findings from the study of perception, the study of the emotions, and the study of imagination and fantasy" (p.199). Note that Vygotsky specifically pursued the study of perception in later work, especially in the Uzbek expedition

The last chapter, "Art and Life," wraps up the book. I've read that the original ending chapter quoted Trotsky's Literature and Revolution, which had been published in 1923; Trotsky was expelled from the USSR in 1927 [correction 5/9: Trotsky was ousted from the Politburo in 1926; from the Central Committee and then from the Party in 1927; sent into internal exile in 1928; then expelled from the USSR in 1929. Thanks to Anton Yasnitsky for the chronology] , and when Vygotsky's works were reprinted in the USSR, Trotsky quotes were either expunged or relieved of their quotation marks. Alas, that seems to have happened here. But we can still see Trotsky's influence in the last couple of paragraphs. Vygotsky asserts that "psychological investigation reveals that art is the supreme center of biological and social individual processes in society, that it is a method for finding an equilibrium between man and his world, in the most critical and important stages of his life"—a view that refutes the opposing view that art is merely an "ornament" (p.259). He adds,
Since the future has in store not only a rearrangement of mankind according to new principles, not only the organization of new social and economic processes, but also the "remolding of man," there hardly seems any doubt that the role of art will also change.
It is hard to imagine the role that art will play in this remolding of man. We do not know what existing but dormant forces in our organisms it will draw upon to form the new man. There is no question, however, that art will have a decisive voice in this process. Without new art there can be no new man. The possibilities of the future, for art as well as for life, are inscrutable and unpredictable. As Spinoza said, "That of which the body is capable has not yet been determined." (p.259)
Here Vygotsky sounds the theme of the New Man that guides much of his instrumental period (before giving way to the more modest but similarly oriented "peak psychology").

At the end of the book, V.V. Ivanov supplies some commentary about this book in relation to Vygotsky's later works. It was valuable for me, since Ivanov makes a connection that I had a hard time making. He notes that Vygotsky's focus on aesthetic theory broadened to include sign mediation more generally (p.266). Ivanov reminds us that Vygotsky identified "three methods of human behavioral control":

  • "commands which are shaped outside the person (for example, the orders of a parent to a child)"
  • "commands which take shape outside a person but issue from within him. (The 'egocentric' speech of children studied by Vygotsky is an example ...)"
  • "commands which form within a person by the transformation from external into external signs (for example, internal speech, which Vygotsky describes as 'egocentric')" (p.267)
Ivanov likens learning to self-programming (p.267). And, extending the point back to The Psychology of Art, we can see how this early work in aesthetics led to the later, more broadly applicable work in Thinking and Speaking

Can I recommend this book? As I said, it was a slog for me, and I think I would have been just fine reading commentaries like Ivanov's. But if you have an interest in aesthetics or literary criticism, this book might be a good bridge for you. And if you are a dedicated researcher of Vygotsky's intellectual development, I think you will need to read it. 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Reading :: Vygotsky in Perspective

Vygotsky in Perspective
By Ronald Miller


This book has been reviewed positively by various luminaries in Vygotsky studies, some of whose works have in turn been reviewed on this blog: Kozulin and Valsiner. Yasnitsky calls it an "absolute and unconditional treasure." But reading through the reviews, you'll also see keywords such as "contrarian" and "deeply argumentative."

I agree that the book does have some strong positives. But it's also one of the most uncharitable scholarly books I have ever read. Miller, who is a professor emeritus, notes that he is writing at the end of his career, so he can say what he thinks without fear of reprisal (p.xii). And what he thinks is that various luminaries who have grounded their work in Vygotsky are either fools or knaves, substituting their dross of Americanized psychological theory for Vygotsky's gold—and obscuring the plain meaning of Vygotsky's texts. In fact, two lietmotifs show up across the text:

  • X falls headlong into a trap.
  • X mischaracterizes Vygotsky—"inadvertently, perhaps," Miller allows during his most graceful moments (ex: p.347).
Various Westerners come in for sustained and dismissive criticism along these lines—throughout, but especially in the second half of the book, "Vygotsky in America," in which Miller complains about "Americanized" CHAT. Mike Cole gets Chapter 7 (and he was understandably unhappy with the characterization), while James Wertsch gets two whole chapters (8 and 9). But Anna Stetsenko and Yrjo Engestrom also come in for criticism, and even Edwin Hutchins—who is not really even in the CHAT conversation—gets a dismissive footnote (p.38, footnote 29). 

In Miller's view, these commentators misrepresent Vygotsky, either deliberately (to push their own ideas) or foolishly (since the plain meaning of the text is right there in the text for all to see—Miller treats Vygotsky's writing like a conservative US Supreme Court justice treats the Constitution). "There is a not-so-thin line between interpretation and misrepresentation and it seems that this line is increasingly being ignored," he complains (p.xi). And that is a big problem, in Miller's view, since these commentators change the interpretations of other readers. One case that he discusses in the Introduction, and in more detail in Ch.10, is that of the commentaries in the English version of Vygotsky's Collected Works
By framing Vygotsky's texts with selected commentaries that ground his work in their own image, commentators are able to provide a form of supportive 'scaffolding' that lends a particular shape to an engagement with the text that follows. In this way, the commentaries, albeit inadvertently, constitute a subtle and indirect kind of pre-emptive censorship by providing a ready-made interpretive filter in front of the text. (p.3, my emphasis)
I'm not clear why Miller sees readers of the Collective Works as merely victims while commentators such as Cole and Stetsenko are characterized as fools or knaves. After all, Cole has been forthright about reading Vygotsky through Luria's framing and interpretation, while Stetsenko similarly came to Vygotsky through the tutelage of Leontiev. It's not as if the commentators (or anyone) came to the text without any sort of interpretive frame. Nor does it make sense that a reader of the Collective Works can't put aside the commentary and read the text itself. But we'll return to this question later, as well as some of the problems with credibility that come up in the fools-and-knaves reading.

I mentioned that Miller's book has some strong positives. That's especially true in his close reading of Vygotsky's posthumously published book, Thinking and Speech, a book that famously takes the early works of Piaget to task. In Part I, Miller, who is deeply familiar with Piaget, reads Vygotsky from a Piagetian standpoint and identifies points at which Vygotsky and Piaget actually agreed—both at the time and in Piaget's later work. As someone who has not read much Piaget, I found this section of the book interesting and illuminating.

Let's preface the discussion with some points from the Introduction. Miller emphasizes a distinction that Kozulin and others have also emphasized: that Vygotsky used signs (word meaning) as a unit of analysis for understanding consciousness (p.20), and his focus on mediation was really about sign mediation (p.21). In contrast,
Leont'ev explicitly and expressly argued that Vygotsky's semiotic emphases and focus on consciousness and word meaning were misguided and that a theory giving more weight to material forms of activity was needed. It is this distinction between meaning and consciousness, on the one hand, and material activity, on the other, that is lost in the secondary sociocultural literature, and the loss is profound because Vygotsky's entire theory is undermined if consciousness and meaning are sidelined and replaced by a general concept of activity. ... In place of the clear and unambiguous distinction that Vygotsky makes between signs as psychological tools and the material tools of labour, Cole and Wertsch collapse the distinction and substitute their own concepts of artefacts and cultural tools, respectively, concepts that are cornerstones of their own activity-driven approaches and determine how the core concept of mediation is used. (p.20)
For Vygotsky, a tool is external, while a sign is internal and involves self-mastery (p.23). Miller says that Vygotsky's contribution is not that he breaks down barriers between inside/outside or individual/social, but that "he incorporates the social as part of the constitution of his concept of a human person" via speech (p.26, his emphasis). In this reading, external signs do not substitute for internal ones, but help to manage the process; their significance is as sign, not tool (p.29).

Interestingly, Miller argues that while Americanized CHAT "has diluted Vygotsky's theory by ignoring or sidelining the role of signs and word meaning in the construction of all his key concepts," Russian activity theorists "highlight the importance of psychological tools and semiotic mediation in Vygotsky's work. Instead of twisting the meaning of his psychological concepts to suit their purpose, they look back and discover another more material Vygotsky buried deep inside his better-known semiotic persona" (p.41). He closely reads Leont'ev's preface to the third volume of the English-language Collected Works, professing to be baffled by its "confusing mixed message" because
Clearly, from his own account and assessment of Vygotsky's theory, in practice Vygotsky devoted very little effort to the study of labour activity. If by studying consciousness and meaning Vygotsky did not in principle drift away from the study of practical, objective, labour activity, then the principle to which Leont'ev refers in the above passage strikes a hollow chord that gives body to an empty claim. (p.44)
Miller seems incurious about a question that could easily be answered with a little historical investigation—or some consultation to books he has already cited. But Miller seems, here and elsewhere, to be oddly ahistorical and oddly incurious about why someone's reading would differ from his own. Throughout Part I, Vygotsky is discussed in the first person and Thinking and Speech is described as the final and therefore purest expression of a unitary theory (but see p.97 and p.178 for rare acknowledgements that Vygotsky was refining and developing this theory). In fact, Miller sometimes seems surprised that the different chapters in this book do not cohere more closely in argument, which suggests that he is unaware that the book is actually a compilation of materials from 1928-1934. That is, they span Vygotsky's instrumental period and his holistic period.

In contrast, Miller does a good job of discussing Piaget developmentally, noting which of Vygotsky's characterizations of Piaget were correct at the time and which developments of Vygotsky anticipated Piaget's later developments. His work became especially valuable to me in Ch.4, in which he critiques Vygotsky's arguably problematic notion of scientific concepts. He argues that Vygotsky has tried to shoehorn Piaget's distinction of spontaneous and non-spontaneous concepts into Vygotsky's own distinction of higher and lower mental functions (p.139). In contrast, he argues, Piaget's concepts describe parts of the human condition, not cultural knowledge, and thus do not fall under cultural-historical theory (p.139). This distinction interests me because it recalls the Uzbek expeditions that Vygotsky and Luria put together, expeditions that purported to find cultural roots in perceptual illusions. That is, I am unsure to what extent Vygotsky would acknowledge that such concepts can be separate from cultural-historical factors. Certainly he would be more receptive to such an argument in 1934 than in 1929, when he was still enthralled with the idea of the socialist alteration of man.

Moving on: In Chapter 6, Miller tackles Vygotsky's final chapter of Thinking and Speech, in which "Vygotsky engages with the innermost recesses of human consciousness and leaves little room for doubt about the ultimate focus of his life's work" (p.177). (Note that Miller interprets this chapter as a final revelation of what was there all along, rather than a development.) He adds, "It is a commonplace that meaning is always embedded in ripples of expanding contextual wholes, from word to phrase to sentence to paragraph to chapter, book, oeuvre, and so on. It is not surprising, then, that this chapter would be virtually incomprehensible without reading and understanding the previous chapters" (p.177). And "Whether or not, or the extent to which, Vygotsky changed or revised his core concepts is open to interpretation, but reading backwards from 'Thought and word' casts a different light on his project as a whole' (p.178). Specifically, Miller reads Vygotsky as arguing that "as children develop into adults they discard their external auxiliary crutches and replace them with internal mental representations" (p. 195). (Here, I think Miller could complicate this claim by rereading Hutchins and some of the other work he dismissed earlier.)

Miller adds that Vygotsky's work has been overstretched by "some commentators," who apply Vygotsky's statements about late childhood learning to learners in "full-blown adulthood" (p.196). He does not entirely clarify the distinction, but seems to gesture at the fact that children internalize intermental functions as intramental functions, turning external speech to egocentric and finally internal speech (p.196). I would have liked to see more about how adults, like children, re-externalize speech when they work at the edge of their capabilities—for instance, when an adult is trying to do complex math in her head, she might subvocalize "carry the one" or trace her finger across imaginary columns of numbers. Miller seems to get close to acknowledging this sort of externalization in adults later (pp.371-2), but doesn't quite clarify the differences, so we are left without a clear articulation of the edges of Vygotsky's pronouncements.

This chapter marks the end of Part I, the detailed examination of Thinking and Speech. As noted, I think this part is valuable for its close reading and its comparison with Piaget. At the same time, the reading is generally ahistorical and—despite Miller's attempt to acknowledge interpretive difficulties at the beginning of Chapter 6—seems wedded to the notion that meaning can be found in the plain text if people simply look for it. But, as Miller repeatedly notes, commentators and especially Western commentators take different meanings from the text than he does. In the second part of the book, he lays into these commentators.

In Chapter 7, he critiques Michael Cole, who admits to "selective borrowing" (p.205). For Cole, I think this 1996 admission is completely understandable—as noted, he first encountered Vygotsky when Luria pressed him to read Vygotsky's writings and publicize them in the West. Cole did so, even though at first he had a hard time getting his head around not only Vygotsky's writings but also Luria's own. So he ended up reading Vygotsky through Luria's work on the one hand and the work of contemporary American psychology on the other. Miller does not explain why this situation is different from the victims who read Vygotsky based on Cole's own commentary. But somehow it is different. Miller notes:
It is easy to gloss over the fact that embedded in the above passage is a gross misrepresentation that is compounded as Cole's story unfolds. Given the prominence of the term 'history' in Cole's formulation, it is not unreasonable to expect that the actual history of the Russian cultural-historical school would be respected and not bent out of recognition to accommodate a fundamentally different, if not opposite, set of ideas. At issue is the fact that the Russian cultural-historical theory was primarily developed by Vygotsky and to a considerable extent Luria, with whom he collaborated on a number of projects. ... Leont'ev moved away and severed his links with the cultural-historical approach and established his own brand, known as activity theory. (pp.206-207)
Sort of. And Leontiev, who dominated Russian psychology from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, styled himself the heir of Vygotsky. His account was not seriously contested until 1979, when Leontiev was dead and Schedrovitsky argued that activity theory deviated significantly from Vygotsky's program. That's 17 years after Cole was first exposed to Vygotsky as an exchange scholar in 1962-1963 by Luria himself, and a year after Cole coedited Mind in Society in 1978.

When Miller charges that "by employing the device of linking together Vygotsky, Luria, and Leont'ev, Cole creates the impression that they share the same views and developed a common approach to mediation" (p.207), he implies that the troika was a fiction that Cole produced on his own. This is demonstrably untrue—Luria and Leontiev both represented the troika before Cole did. Yet Miller not only lays the blame on Cole, but overreaches: "It is immensely puzzling why Cole goes to considerable lengths to claim a mythical lineage with the Russian cultural-historical theory when he, in fact, either rejects or ignores the main tenets of that theory" (p.208). Miller has just acknowledged that Luria was a codeveloper of the cultural-historical theory (pp.206-207), yet he avoids acknowledging the fact that Luria himself claimed this lineage and represented it in this way to Cole.

Miller has a colorable argument when he claims that Vygotsky's difference between psychological and physical tools is lost in Cole's work (p.212). Yet he locates it in the wrong place: here in Cole's work, rather than in the pronouncements of Vygotsky's adherents, who claimed to develop (and, arguably, did develop) Vygotsky's ideas further. This leads Miller to deny that material artifacts can do what language does, providing "a means of self-control and self-regulation of higher psychological functions" (p.213). Yet knots and cards are both material artifacts that Vygotsky describe as being used for self-regulation. Arguably, they are being used as signs, but they are also material nonetheless, a point that Miller never quite seems to address.

This brings him to a critique of Engestrom's famous triangle, which he mainly criticizes under the heading of Cole's work. Miller professes bafflement at the triangle's origins, stoutly arguing that it is not the stimulus-response triangle that Vygotsky uses (pp.214-221) and that it is more of an "article of faith" than an explanatory device (p.221). Again, Miller's lack of curiosity does not do him any favors here. Engestrom's diagram takes up the notion of mediation that is illustrated in Vygotsky's triangle but interpreted through Leontiev's book Problems of the Development of Mind. In that book, Leontiev recapitulates Engels' story of how labor made man, retaining many of Engels' major claims (such as the claim that tools are central to labor). Leontiev adds elements such as division of labor and the orientation toward an object. In his recapitulation, Engestrom hews pretty closely to the major elements, adding Rules as an additional point of mediation between individuals and communities—but he jettisons the underlying Engels story, which, although it had great currency in the USSR, was not useful in the West. Miller, unaware of this background, complains that "Engestrom indulges in the most extravagant of claims without even an attempt to justify them" (p.222). Yes, the origins are obscured, but these ideas are not made of whole cloth, they are taken from Leontiev. In lieu of doing the work to understand the idea's genealogy, Miller speculates that Engestrom likes triangles because he likes Hegel, Pierce, and Popper (p.224).

Speaking of extravagant and unjustified claims, it is worth noting that Vygotsky also enthusiastically used Engels' account in Studies on the History of Behavior. He, Luria, and Leontiev referred to it frequently in their other publications. Engels' account was hardly scientific, but it had the sort of Marxist-Leninist "truthiness" that was required in Stalinist science, and Vygotsky was not above using it.

In the interest of time, I'll skip his similarly flavored critique of Wertsch in Ch. 8-9. In Ch.10, he quarrels with the commentators of Vygotsky's Collected Works and The Essential Vygotsky. Here—to coin a phrase—Miller falls headlong into his own trap.

Here, Miller makes a point of using the Collected Works because "Vygotsky's earlier books translated into English had suffered distortions precisely because of interference and tampering with the texts by editors who decided to eliminate what they considered to be non-essential in Vygotsky's writing." In comparison, the Collected Works gave readers the ability to "understand Vygotsky by reading his complete texts in all their complexity and with their blemishes and imperfections fully exposed" (p.316). That is, the CW provided a pure text so that readers could read its plain meaning rather than distortions. Miller uses this pure text to bludgeon the commentators.

This tactic reaches its nadir in his discussion of Stetsenko's introduction to "Tool and Sign," in which he emphasizes differences between Stetsenko's claims and Vygotsky's texts. "But Vygotsky does refer to theoretically important conclusions in more than one place," he tells us, citing two similar passages to "hammer home the point" (p.342). Why did Vygotsky make nearly the same point twice? Answer: He didn't. The repetition is not Vygotsky's attempt at emphasis, it is an artifact of an irresponsible translation process, one of the reasons why the Collected Works are not considered the gold standard for Vygotsky studies.

Bizarrely, Miller seems to entertain conspiracy theories in which one commentator is silently hinting at the incompetence or malevolence of others (p.353) and in which editors remove Vygotsky's words in order to hide their own limitations (p.319).

Unfortunately, these severe drawbacks—frankly, I consider them broad mischaracterizations, based in a fervent and largely ahistorical understanding of Vygotsky's last book—undermine what is good about the book. Miller does put his finger on some important differences between cultural-historical theory and activity theory. And, although I don't know Piaget well, I think he has some valuable insights into the interplay of his ideas with Vygotsky's. But based on the more vituperative and (to my mind) demonstrably unfair conclusions Miller draws, I am hesitant to take anything else in the book on faith. I'll certainly use it to find references, but I won't rely on it to anchor my own works.

If you're looking for a polemic, or you'd like your understanding of activity theory challenged in a way that will sometimes be generative, I can recommend this book. But in my view it is deeply flawed. Its lack of charity leads it into places where a scholarly text should not go.