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.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

(Reading Roundup :: Stalinist criticism of the Vygotsky School and its aftermath)

It's been a while since I've done a reading roundup of associated articles. But I have a nice set of associated ones today, and I think they tell a pretty good story. Since these tell a story, I've dated each and tried to provide some historical context.

To review, in 1930 Vygotsky and Luria published Studies on the History of Behavior: Ape, Primitive, and Child, a quasi-popular book that synthesized Western understandings of ape and human psychology with a Marxist account based on Engels. The book had been originally slated to be finished by 1927; by 1929, Vygotsky was not enthusiastic about it since he was entering the crisis that marked the border between his instrumental period and his later holistic period (see Van der Veer & Yasnitsky Ch.4). Nevertheless, it was published—just at the point when Stalinist science was becoming more hostile to bourgeois science. Sociology was banned as a bourgeois pseudoscience in 1929 and Russian chauvinism meant that the many cites to Western psychologists and sociologists were not well received. In 1931, the Institute's party cell condemned Vygotsky and Luria's 1930 book.

Two other things happened in 1931. First, some of Vygotsky's colleagues—including Luria and Leontiev—took jobs in Kharkov, Ukraine, while Vygotsky accepted an invitation to lecture in Leningrad. Second, Luria and Vygotsky put together an expedition in Uzbekistan to study how nonliterate and semiliterate peoples changed with the influence of literacy; Luria went while Vygotsky stayed. The 1931 expedition was followed by a second one in 1932.

With that short history, let's get to the readings.

Razmyslov, P. (1934/2000). On Vygotsky's and Luria's "cultural-historical theory of psychology." Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 38(6), 45-58.

Razmyslov's report, according to Van der Veer (2000), was the result of the Moscow Inspection Commission of the Workers and Farmers Inspeectorate. It focused on the Uzbek expedition of 1931-32, although it also mentions their previous work.

The report is somewhat diffuse, but makes some specific and coherent criticisms. According to Razmyslov, Vygotsky "says that human behavior consists of a continual restoration and breaking of equilibrium between the human organism and the environment (p.46). To make this case, Vygotsky draws on a "bourgeois historicism that disregards the aspects of the development of productive forces and the relations of production, the labor processes, and class struggle," and his work does not study mental functions in the light of Lenin's theory of reflection (p.47). Indeed, Vygotsky and Luria did not proceed from "social, class consciousness" but from "the consciousness of some vague, foggy collective"—and Razmyslov criticizes Vygotsky's reliance on Durkheim here (pp.48-49).

In this context, Razmyslov notes Vygotsky's passage stating that higher psychological functions show up twice, first collectively/interpsychically, then individually/interpsychically. This view is "sociological" and relies on Durkheim (p.49). Razmyslov also slams Vygotsky for his "crudely mechanistic positions" in his earlier work (p.49). (Earlier in the report, he criticized Luria's early interest in Freudian work (pp.45-46). But Vygotsky's "mechanist mistakes of 1925 are aggravated even further" in later work (p.50).

Razmyslov then gets to the Uzbek expedition, and here I think some of his criticisms have a grain of truth. He argues that Vygotsky and Luria cannot look for primitive people's thinking in modern Uzbeks (p.51). They looked for child-level behavior in these Uzbek adults rather than chronicling their growth (p.51). Vygotsky's oral report of the expedition "was aimed at demonstrating the presence of primitive thought in all previously oppressed nationalities"; instead of showing how, in Uzbek, "the new man is being created and a communist consciousness is taking shape," Vygotsky tried to show that these peoples can't generalize (p.52). Razmyslov draws several examples from Luria's investigations (pp.52-54) and argues that Luria "literally tormented the respondents" (p.53—perhaps a fair assessment, given the historical investigation of Lamdan and Yasnitsky).

Razmyslov wraps up by charging Vygotsky's pedagogy with "elements of mechanism" (p.54) and producing a passage in which Vygotsky suggests the "demise of the school in the future" (p.55)—both themes showed up later in the condemnation of pedology.

Vygotsky died in June 1934. Luria and Leontiev, however, had to live through the results of this criticism and of the rapid changes in 1930s USSR.

Central Committee of the Communist Party. (1936/1950). On pedological distortions in the commisariat of education. In Wortis, Soviet psychiatry. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins. 242-245.

It took me a while to hunt down an English-language copy of this infamous decree, which was issued on July 4, 1936. The decree has been treated in a number of places, including Bauer, so I'll focus on the highlights. The Decree notes that pedology had Western roots and separated theory from practice—creating a theorist/researcher class that told teachers how to practice and "developed completely out of contact with teachers and school studies" (p.242). It was characterized as pseudoscientific (p.242) and anti-Marxist (p.244) as well as "stupid" (p.244). Specifically, it reduced student ability to biological and social factors, i.e., heredity and environment (p.243; 244). In doing so, it reproduced the pedology of the bourgeois class system (p.243); it imported racist and classist categories under the cover of objective research, imputing poor performance to children's heredity and environment rather than to systemic class discrimination (p.245). The authors argued for mainstreaming the vast majority of students who had been assigned to special schools (p.243). Ultimately, the authors demanded (among other things) that: pedagogues (teachers) should be restored to their full rights in the classroom rather than making their practice serve theories of pedology; pedologists and their books should be removed from the schools; children in special schools should be mainstreamed; and the books of pedologists should be criticized in the press (p.245).

The last demand listed above was fulfilled almost immediately.

Kozyrev, A.V., & Turko, A.P. (1936/2000). Professor L.S. Vygotsky's "pedological school." Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 38(6), 59-74.

First out of the gate was this critique, produced explicitly in response to the Pedology Decree's call for critiques. They characterize the late Vygotsky's views as "untested and often contradictory" (p.59) and note that his work had been continued by the "Leningrad Pedological School" (p.60).

They begin with the posthumously published book Thinking and Speech, which they correctly note "is only an elaboration of discrete materials that are variously dated" (p.60; see Van der Veer & Yasnitsky Ch.4 for a full accounting of the book's sources). They critique the book's thesis that thinking and speech come from different roots but interrelate; Vygotsky drew from Western sources, but not from Marx and Engels, even though "Engels was not only a polyglot but also a profound connoisseur of linguistics," and he didn't draw on contemporary Soviet linguists (p.61). Moreover, "by denying the unity of genetic roots in the origin of thinking and speech, Vygotsky denies the leading role of labor, which in Engels' apt definition created man" (p.61). The authors purport to demonstrate this role by citing Kohler, one of Vygotsky's main sources (p.61).

Secondly, the authors condemn Vygotsky for making up laws, such as that of the Zone of Proximal Development, through logical inference rather than empirical work (pp.62-63). They conclude (through reasoning that I found hard to follow) that Vygotsky believed that the working class could not attain the heights of scientific knowledge—that is, that Vygotsky could be criticized for a classist, bourgeois pedological outlook (p.65). They interpret the ZPD as a way to devalue the teacher's contribution, and they push back against this inference (p.65). Overall, they characterize Thinking and Speech as "full of overhasty, invalid, unscientific, and sometimes utterly unfounded 'scientific' conclusions" (p.65). And they argue that Vygotsky "did not even develop a method of research" (p.66). Finally: "this book still finds him immersed in cultural-historical theory, which he developed together with Luria and which, in its final conclusions, led them (inevitably) into the swamp of stagnation" (p.66).

The authors then turn to Vygotsky's pedological works, charging that he attributed all development to either heredity or environment (p.66; it's hard for me to see how this claim squares with the ZPD). They mention Vygotsky's twin studies at VIEM (p.67; are these related to the study Luria later published?). They also claim that Vygotsky's efforts to distinguish pedology from pedagogy were unsuccessful (pp.67-69). Around here, they cite Razmyslov. They conclude that Vygotsky's premature death "prevented him from embarking upon a truly scientific path" (p.70).

Finally, they criticize two of Vygotsky's followers, Zankov and Konnikov (the latter had just written her dissertation under Vygotsky's collaborator Levina). This seemed like the lowest blow to me.

Perhaps it was this article, which directly named Luria, that caused him to resign his positions as head of the psychology department at VIEM and at the Medico-Biological Institute, fleeing to Tsibli and then taking a medical internship (!) at the Burdenko Clinic of Neurosurgery until 1939.

E. I. Rudneva (1937/2000) Vygotsky's Pedological Distortions, Journal of Russian & East European Psychology, 38:6, 75-94.

This article, which came out in January 1937, may have caused Leontiev to leave his positions as head of the Laboratory of Genetic Psychology at VIEM and his professorship at the Higher Communist Institute of Enlightenment. When he returned in fall 1937, his arguments had changed considerably—arguably to address these criticisms.

In fact, although Wertsch sees "Theses on Feuerbach" as the founding document of activity theory, I think there's a good argument that this document is the true founding document. I'll explain that assertion beneath the review.

Rudneva's article also answered the call of the Pedology Decree (p.75), but it was more vicious—and an excellent example of Stalinist criticism. She characterized Vygotsky as a pillar of pedology and argues that
An analysis of Vygotsky’s works published over the past ten years, beginning with [Pedology of school age] and [Thinking and speech] (1934), reveal the anti-Marxist character of his views and his organic link to the anti-Lenin “theory of the demise of the school” (p.75)
Not only that, she charged: he also cites bourgeois scientists (p.75).

Her critique bore little resemblance to Vygotsky's actual claims. Rudneva argued that "Already in his earliest works, Vygotsky was saying that parents and teachers do not have the right to prescribe their children anything" (p.75); that school will wither away (p.76); that formal education does not influence development (p.76); that "Vygotsky blindly followed every word of bourgeois psychology of the time" (p.76); that "he endeavored to provide a psychological foundation for the theory of the demise of the school" (p.76); and that
Following his bourgeois teachers, Vygotsky also took from them their method of investigation. Hence, the work of Vygotsky and his pupils on children has essentially been a mockery of our Soviet children and amounted to stupid, absurd tests and questionnaires associated with Piaget, Claparbde, and others. (p.76)
Of more serious consequence is Rudneva's critique of Thinking and Speaking. She charges that "For Vygotsky speech is an instrument, a tool organizing the whole of mental activity" (p.77). And:
An analysis of Vygotsky’s utterances on the question of thinking and speech shows that it consists of anti-Leninist, idealist positions. He regards the whole of man’s mental activity not in the light of Lenin’s theory of reflection, as a unified but complex dialectic process of active reflection of objective reality in the human consciousness, but as an idealist, immanent (internal, self-sufficient) process taking place independent of social-class relations and independent of people’s productive activity. (pp.66-67)
Recall that Razmyslov also brought up this criticism. It would become important in the later works of the cultural-historical school.

Rudneva continued by claiming that "He disregards the material foundation of mental phenomena"—i.e., Vygotsky was an idealist (p.77). But in the next paragraph, she accused him of being a crude materialist and mechanist (p.77). "These utterances of Vygotsky’s on the question of the mind show that he explicitly disregards the Marxist-Leninist theory that the mind cannot be reduced to the movement of matter" (p.78). Related, she criticized his "totally false division of concepts into scientific and everyday":
A scientific concept, according to Vygotsky, can arise only from an everyday concept, and, moreover-and this clearly contradicts the basic positions of Marxism-not through reflection of the objective world in our consciousness; rather, it is generated by speech. Similarly, Vygotsky’s conception of the nature of a concept is clearly at variance with Lenin’s theory of a concept. ... According to Lenin, a concept is a reflection of nature in man’s consciousness. (p.78)
She also charges that his "theory of the origin and development of language from which emanates a denial of the role of grammar in formal learning, as we shall show below, is anti-Marxist, and antiscientific" (p.81). Like Kozyrev & Turko, she charges that "Vygotsky’s assertion that thinking and speech have different genetic roots is contrary to Marx & Engels’s theory of the origin and development of thinking and speech from the social process of labor" (p.81). In contrast, she favors the approved Japhetic theory in which "a transition from a linear language, gesticulating and mimetic, to a phonetic language, and from concrete thought to abstract thought, is related to the transition from the use of natural tools to man-made tools" (p.81).

She added:
According to Vygotsky, the unity of thinking and speech lies in the meaning of the word. Thus, he ended by identifying thinking and speech. 
In reality, every word is not only a generalization but also a grammatic unit. There is a dialectic unity between the content and the form of a word, but not identity: the word can be complex in content and simple in form, and vice versa. Disregard of the form of a word is tantamount to underestimating grammatic rules. (p.81)
She hits Vygotsky on the "false division" between lower and higher functions (p.82; n.b., Vygotsky was moving away from this division in his final, holistic period). And she argued that "Quite mistakenly, Vygotsky says that the mediation and intellectualization of functions take place under the influence of the word, which serves as a sign and a symbol" (p.82).

Moving on: Rudneva argues that despite Vygotsky's words, "in reality, for Vygotsky, formal learning plays an external role relative to development and makes no alterations in a child’s development. This is an absolutely invalid, scurrilous affirmation." (p.84). The ZPD comes in for criticism here as a pseudotheory borrowed from McCarthy (p.84). Similarly, Vygotsky's method of having children finish sentences is borrowed from Piaget and leads to "sociologizing" (p.87).

Next, Rudneva criticizes Vygotsky's method. And she names not only the dead but the living:
It must be borne in mind that the experimental work in Vygotsky’s investigations occupy a very limited place. He speaks much about the results of “experimental investigations” and extremely little about the method that he used. 
He and his pupils (Luria, Sakharov, Shif, Zankov, Leontiev) occupy a prominent place in uncritical dissemination of bourgeois method in our country, in particular, Piaget’s method. One of Vygotsky’s pupils, Sakharov, devised a method for studying concepts that does not essentially differ from the method of the well-known German psychologist and fascist, N. Ach; it consisted of finding a meaningless relationship between the shape of a toy and some fanciful abstract name for it. The absurdity of this method was obvious to anyone with common sense: the only name one can give to these stupid “experiments” is that they are an authentic mockery of our children. (p.88)
No wonder Leontiev and Luria were worried.

Finally, Rudneva accuses Vygotsky of formulating a law whereby "a child’s fate is irrevocably sealed by the influence of heredity and the environment": "Vygotsky formulated very clearly this fatalistic determination of children’s destiny by hereditary factors not only in his early works but also in his very last" (p.89). She uses this claim to directly tie Vygotsky to one of the main criticisms in the Pedology Decree. "Vygotsky mentions the environment as a source of the whole of a child’s development" (p.90). Further, she says that recapitulation is the essence of Vygotsky's theory:
The whole of the so-called theory of cultural-historical development created by Vygotsky starts out from the premise that a child repeats the path of the whole of mankind in his development. The development of mental functions historically consisted in a transition from natural forms of behavior to cultural forms; an individual masters functions, and their use becomes voluntary and conscious-and all this takes place under the influence of tools and signs. In the stage of cultural development, the word plays the role of tool. For pedologists, including Vygotsky, slander of the children of workers goes hand in hand with slander of imperialists of the colonial peoples to justify the seizure of new territories in the name of “progress” and “culture.” (p.92)
She charges: "Vygotsky does not understand the Marxist-Leninist theory of the environment; he disregards the role of man in transforming the environment" (p.93).

Unfair? Sure. But Rudneva lays down the markers for what would count as an orthodox Marxist-Leninist psychology during the Stalin years. Just to review:

  • it must take productive labor activity as the starting place, not word meaning
  • it must be rooted in Lenin's theory of reflection [edit 4/26/17: or at least pay lip service to the theory. See PDM pp.60-61 for an example.]
  • it must reject or eschew bourgeois sources, instead grounding itself in Marxist and Soviet sources
  • it must address differences in natural and cultural abilities in a way that is thoroughly grounded in approved Marxist sources
Leontiev, and to an extent Luria, learned these lessons well. In fact, Leontiev almost seems to have used the critique as a checklist for developing his later arguments about activity theory.

Leontiev, A. N. (1937/2005). Study of the environment in the pedological works of LS Vygotsky: a critical study. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 43(4), 8–28. 

Although this article was published in Russia in 1998, it was probably written in 1937 for a lecture Leontiev gave when he returned to work. It criticizes Vygotsky mildly, addressing criticisms similar to those by Razmyslov, Kozyrev & Turko, and Rudneva.

It begins with a discussion of the Pedology Decree:
At their foundation lies the theory of fatalistic determinism. Its essence is that development is understood as a process directly determined, on the one hand, by the innate characteristics of a child (his “abilities,” “talents”), and on the other, by the environment in which this de- velopment takes place. So the development of a child is viewed as a function of these two fundamental factors, no matter how complex the ways in which they combine and are interwoven. (pp.8-9)
He says that Vygotsky "at one time" held that the environment was a factor in child development (p.10). And, quoting Lenin, he charges that
from the very beginning, pedology, from the starting point of its investigations, stripped away the true unity: the unity of subject and object, the personality of a person and his human reality. Through abstraction, the child was removed from the real process of life, from the interaction that is his real existence. (p.11). 
Pedology was a false science because it did not grasp "the principle of the interconnection and transition of some lower forms of movement of material into other, higher forms" (p.11). He adds:
Both the child and the environment truly were studied by pedological researchers, but they were studied only as externally contrasted, abstract things. In what connections and relations did pedology study every given object entering into the makeup of the environment? (p.11)
The relationships are found in productive activity:
in every case the relationship between a person and the environment is defined not by the environment and not by abstract properties of his personality, but specifically by the content of his activity, by the level of development of this activity, and, if it can be expressed this way, by its structure and formation. (p.12)
This reasoning leads Leontiev to argue:
What distinguishes humans from animals is not that they have broken their connection with nature, or that the natural environment has been replaced by society, but primarily they have entered into a new and active relationship with nature. In other words, humans enter into a relationship with nature that is realized through the process of labor, through activity using tools; consequently, their relation to nature becomes one mediated primarily by objects. But through this process humans enter into a certain relationship with other humans, and only through these relationships—with nature itself. Consequently, their relationship to nature is mediated by their relationship to other humans. This means that for humans, the way that nature appears is no longer determined by the direct properties of natural objects themselves, and not even by the specific interrelations among people, fixed in their instinctive activity, but by the social conditions of their existence, their activity as social beings. Consequently, this means that since human beings become human, any object of their activity, even a natural one, becomes for them a human object, that is, a social object. (p.14)
In contrast,
To the animal, however, any “artificial” object created by humans is simply a natural object, it is nature because the animal’s relation toward it will always be an instinctive relation. Thus, of course, in reality there is no doubling of the environment.  (p.14)
For humans, social conditions "also appear in the form of secondary, superstructural formations, that is, in the form of language, in the form, generally speaking, of ideology" (p.14).

He adds: "how specifically-psychologically does the social environment appear in the process of the child’s development? This is the third question we emphasize—the question of the changeability and relativity of the environment. It is more fully developed by L.S. Vygotsky" (p.15). Leontiev treats Vygotsky sympathetically, but critically:
Studies of the development of thought and consciousness of the child led Vygotsky to a very important psychological understanding of meaning. Mean- ing is a generalization that realistically-psychologically stands behind the word that it stands for. As Vygotsky expressed it, meaning is a unit of human, realistic consciousness. (p.17)
To develop this claim, Leontiev says, Vygotsky developed his theory in terms of word meaning, relying on environment as explanation. "Thus, the theory of environment put forth by Vygotsky, locked in the circle of consciousness, loses its initial materialistic position and is transformed into an idealistic theory" (p.20). Leontiev adds:
Of everything that Vygotsky developed theoretically, the conception of the environment is the weakest. In that conception, as in a magic trick, collected in a unified, false construction, were all the theoretical mistakes, inconsistencies of thought, and individual idealistic views that we find in his main psychological works. They suffice in it, and therefore specifically in this conception Vygotsky least of all succeeds in overcoming the views of neopositivism that are traditional in contemporary French bourgeois psychology. (p.20)
Leontiev proffers an escape route: word meaning develops within activity
Thus, the meaning of a child’s word is this very “ideal” product in which his human relation to the reality signified by the given word crystallizes—a reality prominent now within the thinking consciousness of the child himself. The sociohistorical nature of the child psyche is determined, consequently, not by the fact that he communicates, but by the fact that his relationship to reality is socially and objectively mediated, that is, by the fact that his reality takes shape under specific sociohistorical conditions.(p.24)
And:
Thus, Vygotsky’s proposition that consciousness is a product of the child’s verbal communication under conditions of his activity and in relation to the material reality that surrounds him must be turned around: the consciousness of a child is a product of his human activity in relation to objective reality, taking place under conditions of language and under conditions of verbal communication. (p.25)
Here, Leontiev undertakes Vygotsky's rehabilitation, proffering his own concept of labor activity as the root of consciousness; blunting the criticism of the split between biological and cultural development; and gesturing at Lenin's reflection theory. Not bad. 

I'm running out of time in this longish review, so I'll just throw down some bare notes on other publications that Luria developed to protect his position and blunt Rudneva's critique.

Leontiev, A. N., & Luria, A. R. (1937/2005). The Problem of the Development of the Intellect and Learning in Human Psychology. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 43(4), 34–47.

An unpublished 1937 paper written for the Madrid psychology congress (which was moved to Paris). This paper discusses skill and ties into studies of the Vygotsky circle as well as "the outstanding works of our own L.S. Vygotsky" (p.39). 
Under conditions of objectively mediated labor activity, human speech emerges, which has a designating, objective nature and replaces the expres- sive voice reactions of animals; beginning to reflect objective connections of reality, it opens new possibilities of generalization and becomes a powerful tool of thought. Human cognitive, verbal awareness emerges, an element of which, in the words of L.S. Vygotsky, is meaning, that is, the generalization that stands behind this word; in it appears the specific unity of human thought and speech. The subsequent development of the intellect is also tied to its fate. This takes place over the course of the sociohistorical process and reflects all new forms of specifically human activity and all new forms of generalized reflections of reality in the human consciousness. (pp.40-41)
Leontiev, A. N. (1940/2005). The genesis of activity. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 43(4), 58–71.

This paper lays out the basics of activity theory, including the roots of psychology in productive labor activity, and characterizes it in terms of reflection:
Labor is not only that which appears together with man; it is not only that new relationship to nature that we observe as the result of the humanizing of animals. Labor is also, and primarily, what transforms the animal-like fore- runner of man into man. Again we see that the transition to a higher stage of development both in the sense of more complex and developed organization of the very subject of activity, in this case, man, and from the perspective of the emergence of a new, higher form of the reflection of reality, is realized primarily in the form of a change in life itself, the appearance of a new form of life, a new relationship to reality, and a new form of connection with nature. (p.58)
Notice the parries to previous criticism. More later.