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 ( 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" (

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.