Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Reading :: Vygotsky: An Intellectual Biography

Vygotsky: An Intellectual Biography
By Anton Yasnitsky

I was privileged to read this book in manuscript form a while back. Yasnitsky has done some exciting work in revisionist Vygotsky studies: work that involves questioning many of the statements that have been taken at face value about the Vygotsky Circle. Some of these statements have emerged from Soviet-era airbrushing; some from self-interested camps (I'm looking at you, Leontiev); and some from Western uptakes of Vygotsky. Yasnitsky has drawn on Zavershneva's recent archival work examining Vygotsky's personal papers; comparative work examining different translations of Vygotsky's publications and claims about those publications (such as the "Vygotsky ban"); and even some anonymous rumors in a wild but believable story about "Tool and Sign." So when he told me he was working on a short biography of Vygotsky, of course I was interested.

Dear reader, I think you will be interested too. Yasnitsky takes a deliberately provocative stance, attempting to break through the conventional story of Vygotsky's genius to help us better understand Vygotsky as an intellectual with his own frustrations and doubts. The first words of the book are:
Each great man's life story is simple unless one wants to make it great.
Each simple man's life story is great unless one wants to make it simple.
This story is about a genius. So they say. But the person did not become genius until after his death. So the story is simple and great at the same time. (p.xi). 
With this shot across the bow, Yasnitsky draws on published sources as well as previously unpublished archives to examine the chapters of Vygotsky's life: "Prophet" (his early life as the devout son of a prominent Jewish banker in the pale); "Bolshevik" (his life in the immediate aftermath of the October Revolution); "Reflexologist" (his journey from schoolteacher in Gomel to his debut at the Second Neuropsychological Congress in 1924); "Psychologist" (his hiring at Moscow's Institute for Experimental Psychology, his partnership with Luria, his interest in the Soviet Man described by Trotsky, and his shift to instrumental psychology); "Revisionist" (his realization that a new psychological system was needed; his work with higher psychological functions, followed by his denunciation of this work and his 1930 shift to systems of functions; his and Luria's denunciation of their reactological and instrumental periods in 1931; his 1932 criticism of the core of his own theory); "Holist" (his interest in Gestalt as imported by Luria, leading to reconstructing his theory as holistic; the split with A.N. Leontiev, who wanted to continue work in the instrumentalist vein; and Vygotsky's death); and "Genius" (an epilogue, discussing Vygotsky's uptake and why his readers were motivated to characterize him this way). The book concludes with a helpful timeline.

Although this biography is slim—just 126 pages, not counting the timeline—it seems calculated to maximally disrupt the reverential narrative of Vygotsky the genius. Parts of the book were genuinely shocking. For instance, Yasnitsky casually notes in a footnote that one of my favorite books by Vygotsky—The History of the Development of Higher Mental Functions—was not actually his book at all. The manuscript was taken up after his death and altered, with "psychological functions" being replaced by "psychical" (i.e., mental), and then published in 5 chapters under his name in 1960. (Note that this manuscript was from Vygotsky's instrumental period, on which Leontiev's scholarship was based, and it forms the basis for about half of 1978's Mind in Society.) In 1983, this manuscript was published in Vol.4 of the Collected Works with "an extra ten chapters" that "were taken from a completely different, but also unfinished, somewhat earlier Vygotsky manuscript on children's normal and pathological development" but were represented by the editors as newly discovered chapters of the same treatise (p.103)! I was so startled by this claim that I emailed Yasnitsky directly to follow up and he confirmed that this was the case, along with additional proof.

Other revelations were not as shocking for me, since I have been reading Yasnitsky's other works, but seeing them all in one place is striking. Whereas others have alleged that Vygotsky's Cultural and Historical Crisis in Psychology remained unpublished because it threatened the prevailing dogma of psychology, Yasnitsky draws from Zavershneva's archive work to demonstrate that it was likely abandoned due to theoretical problems (pp.56-57).

This manuscript, like the other two book manuscripts Vygotsky produced in the mid-1920s, ends with a discussion of a superman—the Nietzschean superman, which had been taken up by Trotsky and others as the New Soviet Man. Although this superman was expected to emerge as the result of communism, as Yasnitsky wryly notes, he had not yet appeared—so Vygotsky and Luria decided to study supernormal abilities such as memory and mental calculation (p.62; Luria eventually wrote up their findings). In his work with "defectology," Vygotsky followed this thread from Nietzsche's superman to Adler's discussion of overcompensation (in which an individual overcomes a defect through excess) to his own notion of psychological tools—including culturally transmitted tools such as "the alphabet, mnemonics, graphic charts, visual learning aids, and systems of counting" as well as "very complex systems: language, literature, and art" (p.67). To better explore such psychological tools, Vygotsky, Luria, and their research team used Vygotsky's double stimulation method (p.67) to examine how problems could be solved through the mediation of auxiliary instruments (p.68). The most important work in this vein was Leontiev's doctoral research, conducted in 1927-1929 and published in 1931 as The Development of Memory (p.68). As Yasnitsky adds, this book is the main source on instrumental psychology—Vygotsky never wrote such a book himself (p.68)!

Vygotsky and Luria did write a book that heavily borrowed from Leontiev's dissertation and that was intended to be about psychology and the Superman. But that book, which Vygotsky had intended to become his major work, turned into a popular science book: 1930's Studies on the history of behavior: Ape, primitive, child. The book was disappointing to Vygotsky partly because he realized that he needed a new psychological system, which he tried to develop in the aforementioned manuscript on higher psychological functions (p.84). But by October 1930, he denounced the notion of higher psychological functions, arguing that the functions do not change, the links among functions do (pp.86-87). By March 1931, Stalin's denunciation of right and left deviations led Luria and Vygotsky to denounce reactology and their instrumental period as mechanistic (pp.88-89). Vygotsky continued to criticize himself into the early 1930s: he "appeared distressed, frustrated, and disoriented. Stalin's Great Break and the social turmoil resulting from the introduction and realization of the First Five-Year Plan caught him unprepared for change" (p.94). He repeatedly criticized his own instrumental phase (p.94) and eagerly sought a breakthrough in Luria's Uzbek expeditions of 1931-1932. Vygotsky still sought evidence that collectivization would yield a qualitative leap for humanity (p.98). Yet this dream was punctured by Kurt Koffka, who had accompanied Luria on one of these expeditions and who attributed differences to "the attitude of the testees towards the experimenter" (quoted on p.100).

At this point, according to Yasnitsky, "Vygotsky was eager and desparate, but he had lost his way" (p.102). Thus, Yasnitsky avers, Vygotsky turned to the holism of Lewin (p.108). "Under the influence of gestaltism Vygotsky migrated from the idea of analysis by elements that he defended in the 1920s to the method of analysis by units in the early 1930s" (p.110). Lewin's German vocabulary makes its way into Vygotsky's writings in 1931-1934 (p.111), and in the last chapter of Thinking and Speech, written just months before his death, Vygotsky characterizes Gestalt theory as the "most progressive" (quoted on p.113). Yasnitsky also notes that Vygotsky's famous zone of proximal development was developed by Western scholars such as the American Dorothea McCarthy, inspired by Lewin's "field theory" (p.115), and was used to integrate the social situation of a child's development into Vygotsky's theory. In December 1932, at an internal conference, Vygotsky announced a new research program, understanding consciousness as a semantic structure, and specifically focused on "peak psychology": "on human performance in the highest, brightest, and extraordinary episodes of life, above the average, outside the everyday routine, beyond the confines of the usual" (p.116). Yet "from a personal standpoint... this meeting bordered on disastrous" (p.117). It was a complete non-starter for Leontiev's Kharkov group, which had focused on practical intelligence involving "instruments and physical objects" (p.117). Although Vygotsky made a desultory attempt at a manuscript, it was never truly started (p.117). His productive clinical work at the time was conducted in collaboration with Lewin's former students Birenbaum and Zeigarnik, who drew from gestaltist scholarship (p.117). In his last chapter of his last book, Thinking and Speech, he confesses failure, pointing to consciousness as a vast problem ready to be explored (p.119).

After Vygotsky's death, Yasnitsky says, he posthumously became a genius. Twenty years later, the mid-1950s Soviet thaw gave Luria and Leontiev (and many, many other Soviets) the room to publish more. Leontiev became a fantastically successful administrator while Luria became an internationally revered scholar. Both promoted Vygotsky as an important figure. "Their motives were not clear and might have differed considerably," Yasnitsky adds (p.124). Acidly, he notes, "The aura and charisma of the late 'genius' provided Vygotsky's followers with the authority they needed" (p.125).

This book, in sum, is riveting. For me, it's the equivalent of exciting beach reading, full of colorful characters, shocking twists, and gossip. It's irreverent, not toward Vygotsky as a person, but toward Vygotsky as a genius and legend. And it made me rethink much of what I thought I knew—even though I've already read Yasnitsky's previous revisionist works.

On the other hand, I suggest a degree of caution as well. For instance, Yasnitsky argues that Vygotsky-the-genius provided authority to his followers. But Vygotsky was promoted in the West only because his followers had already climbed to the top of the heap: Luria was internationally known as a foundational figure in neuropsychology, while Leontiev had climbed to the top of the administrative heap and won the Lenin Prize in 1963, the same year Thought and Language was published in the West. These figures were already established, and that is what allowed them to promote Vygotsky in the West in the first place. Yasnitsky is on safer ground when he declares that "their motives were not clear."

That being said, Yasnitsky has done an exceptional job of combing through what we know about Vygotsky and developing a fascinating, riveting, and above all valuable counterstory. If you have any interest in Vygotsky or his Circle, yes, read this book.

Reading :: Exit, Voice, and Loyalty

Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States
By Albert Hirschman

Every once in a while, I read a landmark book, usually in someone else's field or discipline, and come away unimpressed. Sometimes that happens because the book has had such a deep impact that its precepts now seem intuitive and uninteresting. Sometimes it's because the book clears away conversations to which I haven't been privy, creating a clean division. And sometimes ... I'm not sure why the book is a landmark book.

I'm not sure which category Exit, Voice, and Loyalty occupies. This 1970 book, based in economics, considers the phenomenon of "repairable lapses of economic actors" (p.1). In the face of such lapses, Hirschman says, individuals might exercise either the exit option (stop participating—e.g., customers stop buying the product) or the voice option (complain—e.g., customers complain to management) (p.4). Both options provide opportunities to repair the lapses. Hirschman asks: under what circumstances do individuals prefer one option over another? How do they interact? When do they work jointly? How can organizations perfect them (p.5)?

Although Hirschman begins with the example of customers buying a product, he quickly expands the question to individuals working within an organization, and he expands "organization" to apply to families, communities, religions, and nation-states. Exit reflects economics while voice reflects politics (p.15). Exit involves escape from an organization or system, while voice involves changing that organization or system (p.30).

It's a neat divide, "suspiciously neat," Hirschman acknowledges (p.15). Indeed, it encompasses individuals both internal and external to the organization; commercial, public, and nonprofit organizations; and family, state, and church as well as more formally defined organizations. That is, the exit/voice divide seems totalizing and Hirschman seems to be arguing that it is a general principle that works in roughly the same way across all of these social arrangements.

True, "the same way" does not mean that every organization has the same characteristics. For instance, "basic social organizations" such as "the family, the state, or the church" do not actually offer a realistic exit option, so individuals only have the voice option (p.33). This is not true in the Western economies, in which exit is always an option, but it was true in the Soviet economy (p.34)!

Now we get to the concept of loyalty: loyalists refuse to exit, so they can either voice concerns or suffer in silence (p.38). Interestingly, voice is expensive to use; the less expensive it is, the more individuals will use it (p.43). Hirschman adds that voice is qualitative while exit is quantitative (p.43).

There is much more to the book (although not that much more—it's a thin book). But it left me wanting even more explanation. Does the voice/exit dichotomy really do an adequate job across different types of social groupings, from family to church to state, as well as market? Do people apply exit and voice in roughly the same way if they are customers vs. employees? Do people not have additional options, such as hypocrisy, work-to-rule, selective belief, and double consciousness? Is the framework too individualistic to examine more complex group phenomena? What happens when different groups intersect, as they inevitably do (ex: every individual working for a company is also part of a family, state, and religious group)? The exit/voice dichotomy does seem like a starting place, but it seems too simple of a bifurcation to shoulder the burden Hirschman wants to place on it.

On the other hand, I understand that sometimes one has to clear the decks in order to see the problem in a different way, and perhaps that is what Hirschman is doing here. It's worth taking a look for yourself, from the perspective of your own discipline or field, and seeing what sort of work this dichotomy might be able to do for you.

Reading :: Kurt Koffka: An Unwitting Self-Porttrait

Kurt Koffka: An Unwitting Self-Portrait
By Molly Harrower

I picked up this book not because I'm interested in Gestaltists per se, but because Koffka accompanied Luria on his second Uzbek expedition and came away with a very different interpretation. In their discussion of this expedition, Lamdan & Yasnitsky draw on some of Koffka's private correspondence, which is in Ch.6 of this book.

The book is composed of letters Koffka sent to Molly Harrower, his protege, from 1928-1941 (thus an "unwitting" self-portrait, since the letters were not meant for broad consumption). Those who are interested in Koffka as a person, including how he looked up to and felt slighted by Kohler, may want to read the whole thing. I'll just concentrate on Ch.6.

In Ch.6, Koffka has been invited by Luria "to accompany him on an expedition to Uzbekistan in Central Asia." It's early summer, 1932, and "The Uzbek Republic had just come under the Soviet influence, and the government-sponsored expedition hoped to make a psychological assessment of the natives for comparative purposes at some later date, when Soviet influence would presumably be evidenced" (p.143).

After some visa trouble, he reached Moscow in May, writing on May 30 that he lectured to an audience of 300. "Most of whom understood German, but since some did not, Professor Vygotsky [[Russian psychologist, designer of concept formation test]], a most charming man, acted as my interpreter." He added: "I talked for about 5 to 10 minutes, and then he gave the most fluent translation you can imagine. He talked much more fluently than I, and it seemed to me for a much longer time" (p.145).

The next day, he attended a noon reception "at the Uzbekistan legislation [sic]," at which "the Minister of Uzbekistan gave me a long lecture translated by Luria, on the conditions of his country. ... The minister from Turkestan was also present" (p.146).

On 22-23 June, he wrote about the travel: a 20-hour train ride, then a cab ride into the mountains to their hotel. Due to a thunderstorm, the bridges had been washed out and it would take several days to clear the road. "Therefore we decided to make our first experiment in a somewhat more civilized district, a village, Kishlak, a native village some fifteen miles from Fergana" (p.147). The party set out in a bus, which almost immediately had a flat tire, so two parties had to walk a mile and a half to get a new one (p.147).

On 14 July, he reported that they were about to leave Palman, going partway with the presidents of Uzbekistan and Kirghistan (who would spend a few weeks at Shaki Marden) as well as the local president of the GPU (secret police) (p.150).

Unfortunately Koffka had an attack of malaria and could not continue. Luria himself drove Koffka from Shaki Marden back to Fergana in "an Army Ford touring car," but the car broke down and had to be towed, stretching the journey from three hours to seven and a half (p.151).

After struggling with illness, Koffka had to leave. On the journey back, he reported: "The strongest impression I gained from being with these different people in the train was the amazing uniformity of their outlook. It was as though all of them, my colleagues included, had gone through the same school in which they had learned the same lessons, lessons in history, economics, politics, and philosophy." He adds: "The fundamental conviction colored their views on all subjects, and this conviction had all the power, but also all the rigidity of a dogmatic faith. Theirs was the proletarian state bringing the dawn of real culture, while beyond the Soviet border bourgeois civilization was still bending all its efforts, even their science and art, to the profit of capitalism and thereby perverting them" (p.159). "The uniformity of intellectual and emotional outlook is one of the strongest memories I carried away from my six weeks' visit to the Soviet Union. ... What confounded me was that they were all honest and yet uniform. Talking to them was like running against a stone wall. To have built this wall in a relatively short time is perhaps one of the greatest achievements of the Soviet government — however negatively one may value it" (p.160).

Regarding the expedition, he sums it up this way:
I suppose the Moscow government were willing to spend considerable sums of money on this enterprise because they expected formal proof of the beneficial effects of their policy on the intellectual and moral status of their citizens. 
The Uzbeks have still another reason. This emerged on several occasions, in conversations with different men in leading positions, among them the president of the Uzbek Executive Council himself. Under the Czarist regime a commission of psychologists had been sent down from St. Petersburg—so I was told by my various informants—to test the native population with a view to develop an educational system adapted to their intelligence. This commission had reported home that the Uzbeks were of such low intelligence that it would not be worth it to give them any education at all. And now the Uzbeks who were governing the country found themselves in this dilemma; they wanted to introduce their countrymen and women to science, which was to take the place of religion, but science had found that their efforts would be futile. (pp.161-162)
In all, this chapter provides a revealing outsider's look at the famed Uzbek expedition. As Lamdan and Yasnitsky argue, Luria's account did not note the optics of a large convoy showing up in rural Uzbekistan with two presidents and the head of the secret police in tow. Koffka's account gives us a better understanding of the conditions under which Luria's experiments occurred. More, he describes the uniformity of outlook in the young Soviet Union, a uniformity that could and did turn on Luria at the end of the second expedition.

As mentioned, I'm not really focused on the Gestaltists or Koffka per se. If you are, definitely pick up this book. If, like me, you're mainly interested in the insights it can bring to the Vygotsky Circle, stick with Chapter 6.