Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Reading :: A Handbook of Contemporary Soviet Psychology

A handbook of contemporary Soviet psychology
Edited by Michael Cole and Irving Maltzman

This 1969 collection is 856 pages without the indexes. I didn't read all of it, since my specific interests are cultural-historical theory and activity theory. Instead, I selected chapters with the following characteristics:

  • I recognized the authors as belonging to one or both of these schools.
  • I saw Vygotsky, Luria, or Leontiev in a chapter's references. 
That methodology yielded 15 of the 30 chapters. I won't cover all of the 15. 

Editors' Introduction
In Cole and Maltzman's Editors' Introduction, they cover the historical background of the volume. They note that in the mid-1930s, psychological testing was outlawed and psychological journals were discontinued, so "psychologists who wanted to publish their work had to turn to educational journals for an outlet." And the conventional wisdom was that "the discipline went into a deep decline during the period 1935-1950" (p.6). But, the editors argue, important work was being done, just not published. That situation changed in 1959-1960 with a "two-volume handbook of Soviet psychology" referencing "work done during the 1930's and 1940's which was unpublished at the time or appeared only in the form of zapiski (notes) of the institution where the research was done" (p.6). That handbook "forms the backbone of the present volume" (p.7).

The editors note something that I mention in recent reviews, that in 1950—the 100th anniversary of Pavlov's birth—"Pavlov was elevated to the position of a demigod of Soviet biological science" due to Stalin's political involvement (p.7). "The 1950 Joint Session was convened with the explicit purpose of forcing deviant physiologists back into the fold and effecting total Pavlovianization of psychology" (p.7). But Stalin's death in 1953 resulted in sudden changes, including a decrease in dogmatism (p.9). The editors also note that the 1950 Joint Session was not as severe as the 1948 genetics purge (p.9). In fact, one result was to encourage empirical research rather than philosophical declarations (p.9). 

Importantly, Pavlov argued shortly before he died that "language acts as a 'second signal system'" (p.10); this endorsement was a boon to psychologists working on "verbal behavior and language learning" (p.10). (Look through the recent reviews on this blog and you'll see that Luria uses this Pavlovian term liberally to validate his work with language, work that proceeds theoretically and methodologically from Vygotsky.)

At the 23rd Congress of the Communist Party in 1964, "there was a re-emphasis of the Leninist principle of objective scientific examination of reality" and "no reference to Pavlovian principles" (p.11). 

Zaporozhets, A.V. "Some of the psychological problems of sensory training in early childhood and the preschool period."
The editors note that this chapter comes from a 1963 book he edited with Usova. For this chapter, I want to highlight only one thing: "interiorization," which he characterizes as being proposed by Vygotsky, then developed by Leontiev in Problems of the development of mind (pp.115-116). This theory is "of cardinal import" (p.116).

Luria, A.R. "Speech development and the formation of mental processes."
The editors call Luria "perhaps the best known of the psychologists represented in this volume" and note his friendship and work with Vygotsky (p.121). They also note his "prolonged 'vacation' from neuropsychological research" in the early 1950s—he "was required to leave his position at the Institute of Neurosurgery for work at the Institute of Defectology" (p.122). 

Luria overviews the history of research in speech development in the USSR, starting with Rybnikov, Kornilov, Ivanov-Smolenskii, and his own early work (p.123). He emphasizes Vygotsky's "significant contribution in the materialistic solution" of the question of "the role of speech in the formation of consciousness and thinking": the child was seen "from the very beginning[] a social being" (p.127). Luria discusses the work of Vygotsky and his students at some length, then concludes that "Vygotskii proceeded to a new and most important branch of psychology—the basic regularities of conscious forms of human thinking" (p.137). 

Vygotsky also shows up in Luria's discussion of children's written speech: his and El'konin's work "indicated that written speech represents an entirely new psychological phenomenon, different from oral speech in its origin and in its structural and functional features" (p.141). Whereas oral speech is "insufficiently conscious, unseparated by the child from general speech activity," written speech is "always the product of special training" (p.141). Indeed, "the functional and structural features of written speech ... inevitably lead to a significant development of inner speech" because it "delays the direct appearance of speech connections, inhibits them, and increases requirements for the preliminary, internal preparation for the speech act" (p.142). 

In the subsection "The role of speech in the development of higher psychological functions," Luria argues that in the view of Soviet psychology, the mind is the "product of social life" and is treated "as a form of activity which was earlier shared by two people (that is, originated in communication) and which only later, as a result of mental development, became a form of behavior within one person" (p.143). Luria portrays dyadic relation as an adult-child relation (p.143). "Complex forms of conscious activity ('higher psychological functions') are least of all initial 'properties' of mental life or inherent qualities of the brain. They are functional systems formed by the social experience of the child" (p.143). Luria goes on to discuss his twin study coauthored with Yudovich, and dates the study to 1935-1936 (p.145). 

In the subsection "complex functional systems mediated by speech: Voluntary attention," Luria defines the phenomenon: "By 'voluntary attention' we should understand a reflex act, social in origin and mediated in its structure, in the presence of which the subject begins to guide himself by the very changes which he has produced in the environment; and in this way he masters his own behavior" (p.149). Here, he credits Vygotsky's and Leontiev's earlier works (p.149). 

In the subsection "The role of speech in imagination and thinking," Luria refers to Pavlov's claim that "the word is a 'signal of signals' which constitutes the foundation of the second signal system. Close interaction between the first and second signal systems is a distinctive feature of human higher nervous activity" (p.151). Specifically, humans use speech to self-regulate; animals do not self-regulate but must be constantly reinforced (p.152). 

El'konin, D.B. "Some results of the study of psychological development of preschool-age children."
The editors' note does not date this entry, which perhaps comes from the two-volume handbook they referenced in the introduction. They do note El'konin's long discussion of the 1936 pedology decree and his use of "testing" as an epithet (p.163). El'konin does indeed discuss pedology at length, approving of the Decree and claiming that pedology "deprived" psychology of "an outlet into pedagogical practice and of the use of genetic analysis of the developmental process" (p.165). He claims that "Vygotskii, one of the Soviet Union's most able psychologists, was in the vanguard of the fight against mechanism and behaviorism and produced many valuable works. In the last years of Vygotskii's life (he died in 1934), in his work on the development of the infant's psychological processes, he was drawn into the stream of pedology. In spite of this, Vygotskii produced a number of studies of the utmost value for child psychology" (p.167).

El'konin goes on to praise Vygotsky's work on thinking and speaking (specifically the 1934 Thinking and speaking) and adds that "Vygotskii was the first in Soviet child psychology to direct attention to the problem of instruction and development and to emphasize the leading role of instruction in the development of the child" (pp.167-168; note that El'konin is more or less defending Vygotsky from Rudneva's charge that he embraced the withering away of school). Yet "he had an erroneous conception of the origin of various aspects of the child's development, which he considered to be the result of a change in the structure of consciousness. On the contrary, the change in the structure of the mind, which occurs during preschool age, is the consequence of the new relations which are coming into being, of a new type of activity on the part of the preschool-age child" (p.168). 

He adds that "during the last years of his life (when he had been drawn into the current of pseudoscientific pedology), Vygotskii was distinguished from the pedologists by his psychological orientation; for him the problem of the concrete psychological characteristics of consciousness and of its development remained the central problem, on which he worked until the last days of his life" (p.168). Meanwhile, other psychologists "had been working on the question of the relation between the development of consciousness and activity, of thought and practice" (p.168), specifically Rubinshtein (p.169). And "about the time Rubinshtein was doing his work, another group of psychologists under the direction of Leont'ev in Kharkov, was carrying out an experimental project aimed at explaining the role of practical 'object' activity in the development of generalization and of other aspects of mental development. This work, begun in the 1930's, sought to extend Vygotskii's research on the development of children's thought, more specifically, the development of generalization. These projects were also directed against Vygotskii's tendency to overestimate the role of speech and communication in this development" (p.169). He quotes Leont'ev's 1935 unpublished manuscript "The mastery of scientific concepts as a problem for educational psychology," which characterized changes in word meaning as following changes in activity (p.170). 

Later, he notes Gal'perin's work in emphasizing "the fundamental difference between tools as used by man and auxiliary instruments used by animals" (p.191). Under the heading of personality, he notes that "Leont'ev (1945, 1948) was the first after Vygotskii to propose a general theory of preschool personality development," based on changes in the structuring of activity (p.201). 

Some brief commentary. In Rehabilitation of hand function, Leont'ev and Zaporozhets argue that after trauma (such as a gunshot wound), a person's functional system reorganizes around protecting the affected limb, and that reorganization can impede rehabilitation. Analogically speaking, Soviet psychology experienced severe trauma with the 1936 Pedology Decree and related events during the Stalinist crackdown, and 20 years later, El'konin is still protecting the affected limb: defending Vygotsky's work while keeping a clear separation. Really, when you delve into the critique of Vygotsky here, it comes down to Vygotsky's focus on word meaning and his refusal to view it as a result of practical activity. This move allows El'konin to draw freely from Vygotsky's works while cutting out some of the later (post-instrumental, holistic) work coinciding with his pedological writings. We can see similar moves going on in other works written around the same time by Soviet psychologists in the cultural-historical and activity theory traditions (including Luria's continued focus on higher psychological functions, as seen earlier in this collection).

Bozhovich, L.I. "The personality of schoolchildren and problems of education."
The editors identify Bozhovich's work as an outgrowth of Vygotsky's work on personality development (pp.209-210). According to Bozhovich, "life conditions per se do not directly and immediately determine a child's personality," but rather "the child's interaction with these external conditions," a principle first expressed by Vygotsky (1934) (p.211). But, Bozhovich says, Vygotsky's main factor—"the level of development of generalization"—is just one of the factors involved (p.213). 

After some discussion, Bozhovich concludes by noting the tendency of Soviet psychologists to "overlook Freud's 'unconscious' and, in general, 'depth psychology'"—understandable (p.242)—but Bozhovich argues that the unconscious does exist: "the child's social needs are the major incentives for study" and "generally the child is not consciously aware of this motivation" (p.243). 

Luria, A.R. "The neuropsychological study of brain lesions and restoration of damaged brain functions"
Those who have read recent reviews of Luria's books on this blog will find this chapter familiar, so I'll just hit the highlights. Luria credits Vygotsky for showing that higher mental processes develop from "the child's interaction with adults"; "Vygotskii brought the problem of instruments which organize psychological processes into the foreground of psychological research," especially speech (p.282). Specifically, Luria overviews Vygotsky's method of double stimulation and highlights the changes in word meaning over a person's life, where it "plays a different role both in the reflection of reality and in the mediation of mental activity at various stages of development" (p.282). Luria states that Vygotsky's theoretical position "made the objective study of human consciousness feasible and placed it at the center of Soviet clinical and general psychology" (p.283). Furthermore (as Luria demonstrates elsewhere), in some cases of neuropsychological damage, speech becomes the basic instrument of compensation (p.284). 

Leont'ev, A.N. "On the biological and social aspects of human development: The training of auditory ability."
"This chapter was taken from A.N. Leont'ev's speech at the 16th International Congress of Psychology in Bonn, Germany, in 1960," the editors tell us (p.423). Leontiev reports on the training of auditory ability, but the interesting thing (for me) was how he positioned the subject vis-a-vis activity theory. He begins by arguing that the development of psychological functions could be passed along, not just biologically, but culturally: once society developed, "progress in the sphere of man's psychological abilities was established and transmitted from one generation to another in a unique form, one that was esoteric, that expressed itself through the phenomena of objective reality. The new form of accumulating and transmitting phylogenetic or, more precisely, historical experience emerged because of certain features which are typical of human activity—namely, its productive, creative aspect, which is most apparent in the basic human activity that work represents" (p.425). "By effecting the process of production, both material and cultural, work is crystallized or assumes final form in its product" and thus "the conversion of human activity into its product appears to be a process whereby man's activity, the activity of human qualities, is embodied in the product produced. The history of material and cultural development thus appears to be a process which, in its external objective form, gives expression to the growth of human abilities" (p.425). The use of tools and instruments "can be thought of as expressing and consolidating the gains man has made with respect to the motor functions of the hand" (p.425; cf. Engels' origin story of humanity). The cultural heritage transcends individuals. The world of objects, developed over the course of history through human activity, must be discovered by the individual in the course of relating them to the activity for which they have been developed (p.425). 

Side note: Vygotsky saw psychological tools as giving new abilities of individuals; Leontiev saw psychological and physical tools as objectifications of human ability, passed down as a heritage and activated by using them in the appropriate activity.

The "individual's relationships to the world of human objects [must] be mediated by his relationships with people, so that these relationships are included in the process of exchange. ... The child is not simply thrown into the human world; he is introduced and guided in this world by people in his environment" (p.426). Through this process, "the individual reproduces abilities which the species Homo sapiens acquired in its social and historical evolution"—what animals acquire through biological inheritance, humans acquire through learning (p.426). 

After discussing his experiments with auditory training, Leontiev concludes that the human cortex is "an organ which is capable of forming organs" (p.438, his emphasis; I'm reminded of Vygotsky's early formulation of consciousness as a reflex of reflexes). Such functional organs, once they form, "appear to manifest elementary innate abilities" such as "spatial, quantitative, or logical structures (gestalts)" (p.438—notice the interaction with Lewin and the gestalt school here). Functional organs function as a single organ; are stable; develop differently from simple chains of reflexes; and can differ even if they perform the same task (pp.438-439). Like Vygotsky in his 1931 book on higher mental functions, Leontiev argues that higher psychological functions are socially determined, but built on lower mental functions which are biologically determined (p.440). "The process of mastering or learning the world of objects and phenomena created by people during the history of society is one in which the individual develops distinctly human abilities and functions," he concludes (p.440). 

Solokov, A.N. "Studies of the speech mechanisms of thinking." 
Solokov based his studies on Vygotsky, Blonskii, and Rubinshtein, arguing that "thought is not only expressed in speech but is formed and carried out in it" (pp.531-532). In fact, abstract thinking is impossible without language—but language is not the same as thought (p.532). Drawing (again) on Pavlov's notion of the second signal system (p.533), Solokov sets up his discussion of Vygotsky's work. In mild criticism, he says that Vygotsky did not always adhere to his own materialist position, but did understand that speech is not simply a mirror reflection of thought (p.534). Blonskii, Solokov reports, criticized Vygotsky's 1934 Thinking and speaking in his own 1935 book Memory and thought, arguing that "thought and speech originate from one source"—work (p.536). Anan'ev later criticized both Vygotsky and Blonskii for not considering "the entire systems of speech activity"—including reading and writing (p.537). 

Solokov then gets into more recent investigations, noting that one can detect differences in electrical potentials of the muscles of the tongue and lower lip when silently reading; of finger extensors and the tongue when recalling events and chess figures; and of the lip and tongue when silently counting and solving math problems (pp.547-551). In fact, "when the motor aphasic clamps his tongue between his teeth, his writing instantly deteriorates" (p.563). Solokov discusses implications for rehabilitation.

In all, this book was a fascinating (and massive) overview of different parts of Soviet psychology, and more directly relevant to my current project, an overview of how Soviet psychologists framed and justified work in the cultural-historical and activity theory traditions between 1959 and 1969. If you're interested in this history, definitely pick up this book.