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.

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