Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Reading :: Undiscovered Vygotsky

Undiscovered Vygotsky: Etudes on the pre-history of cultural-historical psychology
By Nikolai Veresov

This 1999 book approaches Vygotsky, founder of the cultural-historical school of Soviet psychology, from a historical and developmental perspective. That is, the author points out that Vygotsky's papers were published out of order and, in the West, often out of context. Consequently, scholars have often not been able to see the development of Vygotsky's thought. Instead, they have read Vygotsky more or less ahistorically: they have tended to read concepts (such as "psychological tool") into his early work that he did not develop until later, and they have sometimes read his later works as being more continuous with his early thought than they actually were. One example is that of the structure of human labor activity: Veresov complains that people hold a "widespread opinion" that Vygotsky introduced this perspective, and that its origins can be found in Vygotsky's earlier works, when they cannot. (Veresov singles out Kozulin and Nardi here, p.25.)

Indeed, Veresov takes early aim at the idea, spread by Leontiev and Luria, that Vygotsky was the founder of the activity approach. To the contrary, Veresov says, Vygotsky did not use this sense of the term "activity" (deyatelnost). But readers who have heard the Leontiev-Luria account are primed to interpret Vygotsky's use of the term in this way (pp.26-27). Veresov also notes that, although Leontiev and Luria claim that Vygotsky began his psychological work in 1924, Vygotsky himself claimed that he began that work in 1917 (p.27; p.69)! Veresov also notes "some gross errors in English versions of Vygotsky's early articles that have not been corrected until now" (p.42).

For these reasons, Veresov undertakes a historical-developmental account of Vygotsky's thought, examining the original texts and their political and historical contexts. I'll only hit the highlights here.

In 1926, Vygotsky published Pedagogical Psychology, an early book that "read like a hymn to conditioned reflexes" (p.78). At this point, Vygotsky advocated "a new science of the child" (Veresov's words) and stated that "'the revolution undertakes the re-education of the whole of mankind'" (Vygotsky's words, p.80). As Veresov puts it, psychology, in the view of Vygotsky circa 1926, "was understood as potent social engineering, the science that is able to produce the revolution in a child's consciousness" (p.80; cf. Bauer).

When Vygotsky joined Luria at Moscow University, he did not participate in Luria's ongoing combined motor method experiments and was unconvinced by Luria's 1925 article proposing a synthesis of Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxism (p.118). Veresov even questions whether the "troika" of Vygotsky, Luria, and Leontiev even existed—Vygotsky never mentions the troika even in his private letters, although he does mention the "pyaktera" (fivesome) of himself and his closest students (Zaporosets, Bozhovich, Slavina, Levina, Morozova). To Veresov, this suggests that Leontiev essentially retconned his research relationship with Vygotsky (p.118). Nevertheless, Veresov says, Luria and (to an extent) Leontiev "actively helped to build this theory" (p.119).

Only in 1926, Veresov says, did Vygotsky move from a focus on the word to signs in general (p.136).

In Chapter IV, Veresov turns to a watershed event, Vygotsky's unpublished "Historical Sense of Psychological Crisis," written in 1926 or 1927 when he (and his doctors) thought he was a terminal case. Veresov notes that the manuscript circulated for years and even claims that an early passage of Leontiev's Activity, Consciousness, Personality was "literally taken from Vygotsky without any reference" (p.150, footnote 2)! In this work, Vygotsky argues that "The main contradictions in psychology are not contradictions of facts, but contradictions of different types of origins and analysis of facts, which are predetermined with the objective laws of scientific cognition and the history of science" (p.155, Veresov's words and italics). Veresov sees Crisis as, to an extent, Vygotsky's self-criticism as he let go of reflexology (p.163) and strove instead for a methodological monism—in Veresov's reading, one of Vygotsky's fundamental achievements (p.168).

Veresov notes that Cole and Scribner quote an "unpublished notebook" of Vygotsky's in their 1978 article, and this quote is reproduced in Wertsch's 1985 book. This "notebook" was Crisis, and Veresov is surprised that Wertsch quotes it in this fashion—Crisis was published in Vygotsky's Collected Works in 1982Importantly, it's a misquote, eliding part of the passage and mistranslating a couple of words (pp.180-183).

Finally, Veresov argues that the principle of mediation was introduced as a solution to the dichotomy of subject and world. The dichotomy meant that subject and world had to be interpreted as two systems; mediation allowed Vygotsky to analyze them as one system (p.222). But, Veresov argues, this solution fails: "the idea of internalization as a mechanism of transformation of the internal social relations into internal higher psychical process did not correspond completely with the idea of 'one system' since it "presupposes the subject as an active participant of social relations" (p.231). That is, it presupposes consciousness (p.231).

Overall, this was a rewarding and thought-provoking book, and I'm still trying to digest it. Part of that digestion will involve rereading some of the subsequent books I've reviewed on this blog, to see if they have picked up on these assertions and to what extent they lend credence to them. If you're similarly interested in the roots of the cultural-historical school, check it out.

Reading :: Piotr Gal'perin

Piotr Gal'perin: Psychologist in Vygotsky's Footsteps
By Jacques Haenen

Piotr Gal'perin was one of the young psychologists who joined Vygotsky, Luria, and Leontiev at the Kharkov School during its six-year existence. Afterwards, he went on to a long career in psychology, related to yet independent from the cultural-historical school. In this intellectual biography, published in 1996, Jacques Haenen struggles to tell this story despite the handicap of a wooden writing style.

The first part of the book describes Gal'perin's career. Like Vygotsky, Luria, and Rubinstein, Gal'perin was Jewish, and the Revolution opened doors that had been firmly shut during the Czar's reign. When he joined the Kharkov School in 1930, Gal'perin studied the differences in too use between humans and animals as well as human tool-mediated activity (p.23). Gal'perin met Vygotsky, but the author notes that Vygotsky did not join the Academy: "his contribution to the psychological debates within the framework of the 'school' is difficult to reconstruct" (p.23); the school was influenced by Vygotsky, "but they differed in their views on the inner psychological content of human activity" (p.24). Kharkov was a safe harbor for many different psychological schools (p.24).

The author recounts some of Gal'perin's memories of Vygotsky. One was a Stalinist public discussion of the kind meant to criticize scientific authorities for supposed anti-Marxism, silencing them. Vygotsky was compelled to speak during such a public discussion, but according to Gal'perin, "Vygotsky delivered the lecture and held the whole hall under his spell"; afterwards, the proceedings were postponed and then canceled, and Vygotsky escaped the destruction of his reputation (p.26). But, Haenen acknowledges, "it has been impossible to document the meeting"; even Gal'perin's memory is too vague to be verified (p.26). It sounds too good to be true.

Yet, at least in his telling, Gal'perin was not as impressed with Vygotsky as his colleagues were (p.27). Gal'perin noted that "Vygotsky felt himself blocked in his cultural development" because he had trouble understanding visual representations or music; "With him, everything emerged in speech!" (p.28). Gal'perin believed that this state led Vygotsky to overrate speech (p.28). The Kharkov School "dismissed Vygotsky's neglect of external practical activity" (p.26). (This claim seems like only a partial account of the Kharkov split that has been discussed more thoroughly by Kozulin and Van der Veer & Valsiner.) Like the other Kharkovites, Gal'perin in his dissertation "did not attribute the crucial role [of tool use in humans v. animals] to speech, but to specific content of practical activity" (p.32).

In 1936, the USSR issued its decree against pedology, ending the Kharkov School (p.39). Haenen claims that "For a long time, about twenty years, [Vygotsky's] work was banned" (p.42; for a contrary view, see Fraser, J., & Yasnitsky, A. (2015). Deconstructing Vygotsky’s victimization narrative: A re-examination of the “Stalinist suppression” of Vygotskian theory. History of the Human Sciences, 28(2), 128–153). Gal'perin claims that the Kharkov School "suffered less under this ban, because from the start they had been opposed to Vygotsky and his interpretation of pedology," specifically pedology as a synthetic science (p.42). Gal'perin believed that to be a master of a synthetic science, one must be a specialist of each component science; he argued in 1936 that a better approach was for different specialists to collectively approach the same problem (p.43). 

In 1943, during World War II, the USSR established a rehabilitation framework and established several rehabilitation hospitals, two of which were headed by Luria and Leontiev (p.44). Gal'perin joined Leontiev's hospital, becoming head of the medical section (p.45). There, a physician noted to Gal'perin that disabled veterans who could not perform arm movements could do so if the movement were object-bound—for instance, "a disabled man who could not lift his hand to his head upon request could comb his hair if necessary" (p.45). According to Leontiev, Gal'perin was "the first researcher in the Soviet Union to study the object-bound nature of activity experimentally" (p.45). 

Also in 1943, Gal'perin worked in the psychology section at Moscow University. In 1966, the section became an independent faculty and Gal'perin was appointed professor. In 1971, Gal'perin became head of the department, where he served until retiring in 1984 (p.63). 

In the second half of the book, Haenen describes the main sources of Gal'perin's research program. This section includes a passage on the Vygotsky-Leontiev split, which Haenen dates to a talk on psychological systems that Vygotsky delivered to his circle in 1930 (p.75):
It may be argued that the first phase of the development of Vygotsky's cultural-historical theory was characterized as a joint enterprise of Vygotsky, Leont'ev, and Luria. Insofar as these three men are called the 'troika' of Soviet psychology, this refers to the years from 1924 until 1930. In 1930, Vygotsky summarized their joint research and proposed the new concept of psychological systems to further develop the findings of that first phase. After 1930, Luria remained in close contact with Vygotsky, followed Vygotsky's line, and became the founder of Soviet neuropsychology. Leont'ev, although he stayed in contact with Vygotsky, developed his own perspective in Soviet psychology. (p.76)
Haenen traces the split from Gal'perin's perspective. According to Gal'perin, Leontiev noted a "certain hiatus" in Vygotsky's account of idea transmission from adult to child: "Vygotsky did not specify what kind of activity is required from the child to assimilate and reproduce the assigned model of some kind of social experience" (p.78). When Leontiev moved to Kharkov in 1930, he "made the concept of activity the focus of his research" (p.78), and "in 1935, Leont'ev summarized his criticism of Vygotsky in a lecture" (p.79). (For context: Vygotsky died in 1934 and the Pedology Decree was issued in 1936.) Leontiev complained that "it is impossible to find the cause of the development of meaning within social interaction itself" and dedicated himself to discovering "what lies behind social interaction" (p.79).

Leontiev concluded that "the origin of consciousness had to be found in external activity" (p.80). But Gal'perin noted that "Leont'ev had developed his concept of activity in the direction of an all-embracing psychological doctrine," and Haenen recalls Kozulin's complaint about the circular nature of this argument (p.81).

Gal'perin believed that the essence of activity is meaningfulness, or "personalized activity" (p.94) and that one basic function of mind is to orient a person's future actions—that is, he viewed mind as an orienting activity (p.96).

Forgive me for giving the rest of Gal'perin's thought short shrift. I'm mostly interested in how he fits into the history of activity theory, and the rest of the book describes either things that fit comfortably into the main branch of AT or details that aren't directly relevant.

Is the book a good read for those who, like me, are interested in the development of activity theory? I would have said no at the beginning of this review, but in looking over the details, I must concede that it has been useful indeed. It's helped me to fill out some details specifically in the Vygotsky-Leontiev split. If you're similarly interested in this history, I commend the book to you.

Reading :: Psychology in the Soviet Union

Psychology in the Soviet Union: A Historical Outline
By Arthur Petrovsky

This 1990 book was published by Progress Publishers, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union—but it still has the whiff of an earlier era, with the familiar Soviet declarations of progress. Here's an example from early in the book:
The Great October Revolution which triumphed in Russia in 1917, liberated and revealed the energy of the masses and directed it towards building a new society without precedent in history. Profound changes took place in the field of scientific knowledge in the first few years after the revolution. These should not be reduced to the fact that science, which for the first time in history was directed towards the service of the people, began to accumulate a new kind of material and gravitated towards the building of socialism: the very foundation of scientific knowledge changed over to Marxist-Leninist teaching. Soviet scientists assimilated this teaching and it became an integral part of all scientific theories developed in the USSR. (p.7)
By 1990, it was possible to look back on the Stalin years and engage in some light criticism. That criticism does come out in this volume. For instance, the author notes that Soviet psychologists of the 1920s and 1930s had good intentions, but some of their work was incorrect in retrospect (p.10). Indeed, "Sometimes, when a scientist was criticised (and quite rightly) for some specific theoretical blunders, his entire scientific work, even though free of any error, was withdrawn from circulation. This was the fate of works of many outstanding Soviet psychologists, among them Pavel Blonsky, Mikhail Basov, Lev Vygotsky" (p.11).

It is of course Vygotsky—and others of the cultural-historical strand of Soviet psychology—with whom I am most concerned. This Soviet history of psychology contextualizes them within the broad Soviet tradition. And although much of that history is uninteresting for my purposes, parts are valuable.

For instance, the author discusses Chelpanov's work (still vilifying this work in 1990) (p.116) and his 1923 replacement by Kornilov (characterized as well-meaning but without sufficient understanding of Marx, p.127). Kornilov, the author says, didn't adequately understand dialectical negation (p.134).

The author also notes that behaviorism didn't last long in the Soviet Union because it was connected to mechanism in philosophy. Beginning in 1924, "mechanism became a prime danger" to dialectical materialism (p.141; for a better discussion of the controversy between mechanism and dialectics, see Bauer). Such trends are discussed in the book (another example is the short-lived flirtation with Freudianism), but without the other reading I have done into Soviet psychology, I don't think I would have understood what was going on.

Back to the Vygotsky Circle. The author discusses Kornilov's reactological views in detail, noting in a footnote that Luria, Leontiev, and "some other psychologists who worked at the Institute, held radically different views on a number of issues" (p.178). Presumably one of the unnamed psychologists was Lev Vygotsky, whose unpublished 1927 book (named here as The Historical Meaning of a Psychological Crisis) is later praised by the author as "a profound analysis of the history of the current stage of psychology" (p.185). The author goes on to discuss a bit of Vygotsky's work, including his time codirecting the Krupskaya Academy of Communist Education with Luria (p.195). "A considerable volume of investigations made in the Academy by psychologists was united under a common theme: the study of a child's cultural development level based on Vygotsky's theory of the development of higher mental functions" (p.195). Some of this work was based on Luria's "conjugate motor methodology" (p.195, 200).

Moving on, the author notes that Soviet psychology developed to address three spheres: education; the organization of labor; and health and medicine. The educational sphere is where much of the cultural-historical group went. (The author confusingly lumps M.M. Bakhtin into this area, p.220—perhaps because of Voloshinov's critique of Freudianism?) The health and medicine sphere is the one where the author places Luria (p.221). The author goes on to treat these spheres in different chapters.

In the educational sphere, the author discusses and briefly critiques Vygotsky and associates. Specifically, the Vygotskian "system of views, developed in the late 1920s, was initially influenced by diverse and essential particularities typical of the development of psychology at that time which provided the basis for its severe criticism during the 1930s" (p.273). Some of these criticisms the author deems unjustified, such as the criticism that Vygotsky's views mirrored Durkheim's (p.273) and those of other bourgeois scientists (p.274). Specifically, the author notes that Vygotsky relied on the ideas of Marx and Engels, especially Engels' "The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man" (p.274). The author quotes Vygotsky from Development of Higher Mental Functions on this point (p.275), and later argues that
Vygotsky based himself on Engels's ideas on the role of labour in man's adaptation to nature and transformation of natural forces by means of implements in the process of production. He advanced the idea that labour, man's work with instruments are conducive to modification of his behaviour, to his distinction from animals, consisting in the mediated character of his identity. (p.374) 
Elsewhere, the author notes that Vygotsky's Thinking and Speech was "of signal importance," but was "subjected to unjustified criticism" due to its association with pedology; in the 1950s "his psychological doctrine was reinstated and today it occupies its legitimate place in world psychological science" (p.334; see also p.366).

In the labor sphere, I'll just note this vintage Soviet move: "Psychologists of labour failed to notice what was immediately discerned by Lenin..." (p.287).

Later, the author discusses Leontiev's activity theory, noting that although AT is traditionally considered as being rooted in Vygotsky, some believe that it is also connected with Leontiev's colleague at the Institute of Psychology, Blonsky, as well as with Rubinstein (p.346).

Toward the end of the book, the author summarizes "four fundamental methodological principles" of contemporary Soviet psychology: determinism, activity, development/historicism, and systems (pp.370-373). He elaborates each briefly.

I found this book to be useful in spots—particularly in the history of the Vygotsky Circle and in how Vygotsky was rehabilitated at the end of the USSR's life. But it's written in the Soviet hagiographic style, it's not particularly well organized, and in trying to cover the entire sweep of Soviet psychology, it ends up covering the specifics inadequately. If you have a specific interest in Soviet psychology, check it out.