All Edge: Inside the New Workplace Networks

All Edge: Inside the New Workplace Networks

Available for preorder via Amazon

Work is changing. Speed and flexibility are more in demand than ever before thanks to an accelerating knowledge economy and sophisticated communication networks. These changes have forced a mass rethinking of the way we coordinate, collaborate, and communicate. Instead of projects coming to established teams, teams are increasingly converging around projects. These “all-edge adhocracies” are highly collaborative and mostly temporary, their edge coming from the ability to form links both inside and outside an organization. These nimble groups come together around a specific task, recruiting personnel, assigning roles, and establishing objectives. When the work is done they disband their members and take their skills to the next project.

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Reading :: Language and Cognition

Posted by: on May 22, 2015 | No Comments

Language and Cognition
By A.R. Luria

Here’s another book that I won’t be able to review adequately. The material is thick and draws across many disciplines (Luria began in psychology, then studied neurology, then drew from linguistics and a number of other areas). But I’ll hit what I think are the highlights for my current project.

First, the introduction, which James Wertsch wrote for this 1981 English edition. Wertsch asserts that “one can identify the origins of almost every aspect of Luria’s approach in Vygotsky’s writings of the 1920s and 1930s. However, that does not mean that Luria simply added a few minor details to a complete theoretical framework. His development of Vygotsky in light of modern linguistic and neurophysiological research constitutes a major accomplishment” (p.2). Wertsch notes that Luria acknowledged his debt to Vygotsky (p.2) and identifies three themes that characterize their research:

(1) the use of genetic (or developmental) explanation, (2) the search for the social origins of human psychological functioning, and (3) an emphasis on the role of sign systems in mediating social and individual processes. These three themes provided the cornerstones of Vygotsky’s attempt to reformulate psychology on Marxist foundations. They have guided the research of Luria as well as the research of Vygotsky’s other followers (e.g., D.B. El’konin, P.Ya. Gal’perin, A.N. Leont’ev, and A.V. Zaprozhets). (p.3)

Note that this claim papers over the differences between Vygotsky and the others, specifically in point (3). It’s not inaccurate, but it does portray the relationship in the same way that Leont’ev chose to portray it after winning the Lenin Prize in 1963 and as Luria later portrayed it in his autobiography. Wertsch follows this line in describing Vygotsky, Leontiev, and Luria as the “troika,” with the latter two developing the ideas of the first. Luria “developed Vygotsky’s ideas in the areas of neurophysiology, neuropsychology, developmental psychology, neurolinguistics, and cross-cultural studies” and Leontiev “developed the philosophical foundations of a general Marxist psychology” (p.8). And Wertsch notes that Luria was deeply influenced by Leontiev’s work, using terms such as “activity,” “action,” and “operation” the same way that activity theorists do (p.8).

Now to the book itself. The sixteen chapters cover a range of material: the problem of language in consciousness (Ch.1), words and word meanings (Ch.2-3), concept development and semantic fields (Ch.4-5), speech, inner speech, and thought (Ch.6-7), sentences, complex utterances, and speech utterances (Ch.8-11), comprehension, language, and discursive thinking (Ch.12-16).

The book’s debt—or perhaps careful obesiance—to Marxism-Leninism is evident from the first page of the first chapter, in which Luria approvingly quotes Lenin: “Lenin pointed out repeatedly that the study of cognition, and hence of science, is not so much a study of things in and of themselves, as the interrelationship among them” (p.17). Lenin said a lot of things, and many of them contradicted each other, but Luria expertly uses this quote to frame the problem of cognition in Vygotksy’s terms:

What was Vygotsky’s proposal? His basic position sounds paradoxical. It is as follows: In order to explain the highly complex forms of human consciousness one must go beyond the human organism. One must seek the origins of conscious activity and “categorical” behavior not in the recesses of the human brain or in the depths of the spirit, but in the external conditions of life. Above all, this means that one must seek these origins in the external processes of social life, in the social and historical forms of human existence. (p.25, his emphasis)

Luria asserts that

humans differ from other animals because, with the transition to sociohistorical existence, to labor, and to the forms of social life associated with it, all basic categories of man’s behavior undergo a radical change. Human activity is founded on social labor and the division of social labor. These aspects of human life give rise to new forms of behavior that are independent of biological motives. Direct, instinctive behavior yields to complex, indirect behavior. (p.26)

He goes on to cite Leontiev on the structure of activity. Notice that although the origin of man is consonant with both Vygotsky’s and Leontiev’s accounts (which are both drawn from Engels), the interpretation is Leontiev’s: labor, not sign systems, is taken to be the crucial foundation. But Luria also gives language its due, again drawing from the Engels origin story:

As Engels correctly pointed out, it was in the process of social labor that the need arose for people to say something to each other, to specify the situation in which they are participating, and to convey the information which emerges as a result of the division of labor. … The birth of language led to the appearance of a whole system of codes signifying objects and actions. … (pp.26-27)

That system of codes came to assume a decisive importance for the further development of human conscious activity. … (p.27)

Language, in the course of social history, became the decisive instrument which helped humans transcend the boundaries of sensory experience, to assign symbols, and to formulate certain generalizations or categories. That is, if humans had not possessed the capacity for labor and had not had language, they would not have developed abstract, “categorical” thinking. (p.27)

No language, no labor, no abstract thought or categorical behavior. So, Luria counsels us, seek their origins “in the social forms of human historical existence”; this is “the basic position of a Marxist psychology” (p.27).

Throughout the rest of the book, Luria repeatedly credits Vygotsky with advances: understanding that “word meaning” and thus the structure of consciousness “develops even after the object reference of the word is stabilized” (p.53); formulating the zone of proximal development (pp.64-65); understanding voluntary acts when superficial Pavlovians and behaviorists couldn’t (p.89); truly understanding inner speech when the Piagetans couldn’t (p.104); and understanding a thought as completed in, not simply embodied by, speech (p.150). He sometimes explains Vygotsky’s observations from Luria’s own vantage point as a neurologist (ex: p.108).

Luria contrasts monologic and dialogic speech in Ch.11, but not in a Bakhtinian sense. He argues (implausibly to my mind) that written speech is always monologic, clarifying, and without an addressee (p.166)—”written speech… always remains speech in the absence of an interlocutor” (p.167).

Overall, the book constitutes such a broad sweep, and Luria delves into fields that are unfamiliar enough to me, that I had a hard time getting my arms around this book. I think I’ll return to it. And of course I recommend it to those of you who are interested in activity theory.

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Reading :: The Wide Lens

Posted by: on May 22, 2015 | No Comments

The Wide Lens: What Successful Innovators See That Others Miss
By Ron Adner

Let’s take a short break from all of the Soviet-era readings I’ve been doing lately and instead look at a contemporary book on innovation ecosystems.

This short book, frankly, could have been even shorter. The author has a worthwhile idea—helping people to understand and map the innovation ecosystems that can make their innovations a success. But, in the style of many business books, it overexplains the concept and provides so many examples that the book feels less substantial than it really is.

In short, the author argues the following. In an interdependent world, “the success of a value proposition depends on creating an alignment of partners who must work together in order to transform an idea to a market success” (p.4). That means making sure that those partners can also innovate so that your own innovation can matter, and that others have to adopt the innovation before the customer can assess the value proposition (p.7). An easy example is the success of the iPod, which depended on iTunes, which had to strike partnerships with music labels to sell singles online; without the partnerships, the iPod’s value proposition was much diminished (Ch.6).

So far, so familiar. But the author articulates the challenges involved by producing a set of terms, concepts, and heuristics to help innovators achieve aligned innovation ecosystems. For instance, the author advocates going beyond value propositions to “value blueprints,” maps of the actors (suppliers, intermediaries, complementors, end customers) and links that make up the innovation ecosystems, as well as the risks involved. Colors indicate each actor’s level of adoption within the system: green=in place, yellow=a plan to be in place, red=not in place, no clear plan (pp.85-87). For ecosystems that aren’t well configured, the author suggests five levers for reconfiguring them: relocate, separate, add, subtract, and combine (p.178). And, borrowing the term “minimum viable product,” the author argues that we should think in terms of “minimum viable ecosystems” (p.198) that allow you to “build collaboration and achieve scaled deployment” (p.202, footnote).

In all, it’s an engaging and clearly written book with helpful heuristics. If you have an innovation that requires an ecosystem, take a look.

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Reading :: Understanding Vygotsky

Posted by: on May 20, 2015 | No Comments

Understanding Vygotsky: A Quest for Synthesis
By Rene van der Veer and Jaan Valsiner

As part of my ongoing series on the roots of activity theory, I picked up this biography of Lev Vygotsky. It’s a thick, intimidating book (400pp. excluding references), and it’s both useful and fascinating. In fact, I won’t be able to provide a detailed summary and review here, and I encourage you to pick it up yourself if you are interested in learning more about the great psychologist. (This is an intellectual biography, though: chapters are internally chronological, but treat different aspects of Vygotsky’s thought, so you’ll find the same date ranges being referenced across the chapters. That organization makes an overall chronology difficult to extract.)

My more specific interest at this point is in better understanding how Vygotsky drew his inspiration from Marxist thought and how he navigated through the ideological strictures that came about after the Revolution. And in this aspect, the authors deliver well. They have read Vygotsky’s unpublished papers and correspondence as well as those of his contemporaries, and they have contextualized the moments of his life and thought alongside the events surrounding him.

Forgive me a brief detour into how I took notes on this book. As usual, I placed small sticky notes on the right and left edges of the book to mark key passages and thoughts. But with a book this substantial, that meant scores of sticky notes:

When this happens, I also use sticky notes on the bottom to (a) mark especially important passages for my current project or (b) summarize a range of notes. For this review, I’ll focus on those bottom notes—which, in this context, generally make connections with Marxist thought.

Take the one in the picture, for instance. Here, the authors are describing how Vygotsky began thinking through his critique of reflexology in his 1926 book Pedagogical Psychology and other contemporary publications. (To give you an idea of how prolific a writer Vygotsky was, consider that the authors, using APA style, refer to this book as (1926i). They list Vygotsky’s 16 publications and manuscripts for 1926 alone.) Here’s the passage on the lower right side of the picture:

According to Vygotsky animal behavior could be entirely explained by reference to (1) innate reactions; and (2) conditional reflexes (which were themselves combinations of innate reactions and personal experience) (Vygotsky, 1926i, p.40). But human beings—and here Vygotsky relied heavily on Marxist thought—differed in fundamental ways from animals: they have a collective social history and do not adapt passively to nature. Moreover, they actively change their nature according to their design. This transformation of nature is reached by making use of tools in the process of labor. Through this reasoning—which was to reappear (and in more elaborate form) to underpin his writings time and again (see chapter 9)—Vygotsky developed the following explanation of human behavior; human behavior can be fully explained only by taking into account (1) innate reactions; (2) conditional reflexes; (3) historical experience; (4) social experience; and (5) “doubled” (udvoennyj) experience. [The authors explain that (5) is based on Marx’s famous passage contrasting the labor of spiders and bees with that of humans, who foresee the results of their labor. The concept of udvoennyj experience] implied that the organism reacted twice: the first time to external events, and the second to internal events. The (internal) plan of building a house would be a stimulus to the actual process of building, whereas the plan itself arose as the result of some reaction to an external event. In this way, conscious activities are (1) really reactions to internal stimuli that (2) arose as reactions to external stimuli. They, therefore, have a “double” nature and may be termed “doubled experience.” (pp.51-52)

We see here that Vygotsky was already firmly grounding his Marxist psychology in the works of Marx and Engels. (Engels’ book Dialectics of Nature was published in Russian in 1925, the year before Pedagogical Psychology was published. Although Vygotsky read it immediately, I’m unclear whether its insights made it into Pedagogical Psychology, but they proved to be important in Vygotsky’s subsequent work.) We also see how udvoennyj suggests Vygotsky’s later technique of double stimulation, a technique that also drew from Gestalt psychology (p.161), and specifically Kohler (p.167).

Yet Vygotsky made some unforeseeable missteps in this publication, specifically citing Trotsky and Nietzsche. These citations helped to prevent his book from being reprinted in the Soviet Union (p.56). To Western eyes, however, this text seems extremely Soviet in ideology: it praises the “fully articulated Soviet dictatorship,” looks forward to the new classless society, characterizes the child’s development as a dialectic struggle between man and world, performs the doctrinaire Soviet atheism, and describes the new Soviet (super) man that would result from the Soviet liberation (pp.54-56).

(Later still, Vygotsky’s works would fall out of favor because they cited bourgeois scholars such as James (p.42), Durkheim (p.206), the Gestaltists (Ch.8), and Kohler (p.167). He also never let go of the utopianism that led him to imagine the ideal Soviet man; see p.161, 191, )

Around 1928, Vygotsky’s defectological writings changed: he shifted toward the cultural-historical approach (p.69; for context, Stalin was consolidating power at around this time; the Bakhtin Circle published four books in 1927-1929; the Gulag was officially established in 1930; and Luria’s research trip to Uzbekistan happened in 1931-32.) Vygotsky distinguished between natural and cultural development (p.71), characterizing children who did not go through normal cultural development as “child-primitives” (p.71), a notion that he borrowed from Petrova—whose syllogism-based approach (applied to children) would later be used by Luria (applied to Uzbek peasants; p.72). The shift to the new approach was fortuitous especially for Luria, since Freudianism became non grata in 1930 (p.78) and his ten-year involvement in psychoanalysis had to come to an end (or, the authors suggest, had to be hidden under Marxist terminology; see p.88). Vygotsky had already critiqued Freudianism as early as 1926 (p.97). Psychology had to be rebuilt within a Marxist framework.

In fact, Vygotsky was claiming in 1926 that a Marxist psychology did not yet exist (p.139). Freudianism didn’t fit the bill, but neither did the reactology that Luria’s mentor Kornilov offered, despite Kornilov’s attempt to retrofit it with the dialectical triad (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) or to characterize contradictions as the engine of development (p.121). Vygotsky instead turned to Engels’ Dialectics of Nature for its dialectical materialist account of concepts and to both Marx and Engels for the concept of the germ-cell (p.146-148). He criticized others for doing what Kornilov had done: cherry-picking quotes from Marx and Engels rather than drawing out a methodology that could be applied to psychological questions. After all, Marx, Engels, and Plekhanov were not psychologists and could not supply ready-made answers; but they could supply the principles for a Marxist method (p.153).

Vygotsky was not alone, of course: he had students. And a troika—although, as the authors argue, at first there was no troika (p.183): it took 4-5 years for Vygotsky and Luria to begin cooperating, while Leontiev’s later role was less visible; he never coauthored pieces with Vygotsky and was barely on the radar as a practitioner of the cultural-historical approach (p.184). “As we will see, the myth of the troika served the function of obscuring the very real differences of opinion and personal conflicts that would develop between Vygotsky and Leontiev (and, to some extent, Luria) at a later stage” (p.184).

Indeed, “When the Psychological Laboratory of the Academy of Communist Education closed down in 1932 Vygotsky and his collaborators lost an important meeting place,” so “the foundation of the Ukranian Psychoneurological Academy in Kharkov in 1930 was a most welcome event” (p.185). Vygotsky, Luria, Leontiev, Zaprozhets, and Bozhovic were invited to join, but lodging was difficult so Vygotsky decided to stay in Moscow while Luria and Leontiev split their time, 20 days a month in Kharkov, 10 in Moscow. Unfortunately, “It was in Kharkov that the cultural-historical school started to disintegrate.” First, Vygotsky’s expansive synthetic understanding of paedology conflicted Galperin’s view of specialization. Second, “Leont’ev started gradually developing his activity approach that was in fundamental contradiction with several of Vygotsky’s most cherished ideas” (p.185). More on this in a bit.

In Ch.9, the authors address the cultural-historical theory. They characterize Vygotsky’s view: “To understand any complex human phenomenon we have to reconstruct its most primitive and simple forms, and to follow its development until its present state—that is, to study its history.” This view was taken from Durkheim, but was in the air at the turn of the century and was inspired by Lamarck, Spencer, and Darwin (p.189). Vygotsky drew from a number of sources (including non-Marxist ones), but did not simply amalgamate them; he

essentially presented a theory of man, his origin and coming into being, his present state amidst the other species, and a blueprint for his future. The image of man that derives from this theory is that of man as a rational being taking control of his own destiny and emancipating himself from nature’s restrictive bounds. It is an image of man that is partially based on Marxist thinking and partially on the ideas of various philosophers such as Bacon and Spinoza. But above all, of course, this was an image of man Vygotsky believed in, a belief that was very common among the people of his time and in the country he lived. (p.191)

“Vygotsky—following Marxist thought—distinguished two periods in human’s phylogeny”: biological evolution (Darwin) and human history (Marx and Engels) (p.191). He parted with Darwin in that, whereas Darwin thought human mental faculties only differed from those of animals in degree, Vygotsky believed they differed in kind due to human culture (p.193; consider the dialectical principle of quantity and quality here). Culture emancipates man from nature (p.193). This insight led him to distinguish biological evolution and human history along the lines that Engels described in Dialectics of Nature in “The part played by labor in the transition from ape to man” (p.197). Engels’ argument was key, and the authors comment that “Engels’ account of the origin of Homo sapiens was rather crude but not implausible in view of the available evidence” (p.197). According to this account, descending from trees left the hands free, allowing man’s ancestors to develop hands, sense organs, and brains; next, the primates began cooperating in labor (specifically, making stone tools), necessitating a way to communicate, leading to speech. Thus labor made man; it defined human beings. And that labor involved not just using nature, but “the planned, deliberate transformation of nature” (p.197). That is, the Marxist origin story of humanity starts not with the Word, but with labor; we developed through and define ourselves by the act of transforming nature. This was an origin story Vygotsky could get behind.

In fact, it was unclear to what extent Vygotsky could have dissented from this account in the 1920s (p.198). He did disregard some of Engels’ obviously incorrect statements (p.198), but kept what he liked (that is, he cherry-picked, sort of like the superficial Marxist psychologists that he had criticized elsewhere). The authors note that Engels’ distinction between tool-use and labor is vague and that his account of the origin of speech seems rather Lamarckian (of course it does, this is par for the course for Engels) (p.198). But the account gave Vygotsky a firm distinction between biological evolution and human history, something that he would use extensively in his theory. Vygotsky had to avoid or finesse some of the hard questions that went along with such an account: Don’t animals use tools as well? Can we reconstruct the history of Homo sapiens—and can we assume that “current non-Western people were somehow identical or similar to historical primitive man”? Are biological and cultural evolution distinct or overlapping periods? (p.199)

Vygotsky and Luria ended up claiming that in animals, tool use never developed into labor, and thus animals did not develop speech or culture (p.204). “Human beings’ history was for Vygotsky the history of artifacts, of artificial organs. These artifacts allowed humans to master nature as the technical tool of speech allowed them to master their own mental processes” (p.204). The solution rests on “the dialectical law that says many quantitative changes may result in a qualitative leap”—a proof that the authors acknowledge may be less convincing to some readers than it was to Vygotsky’s contemporaries (p.204).

Vygotsky also had the tendency, common at the time, to “compare different cultures on a linear scale”—specifically, in terms of the Uzbekistan study on which he sent Luria (p.214).

The authors conclude this chapter by discussing “the fundamental problem for Vygotsky and other Marxists [, which] was to reconcile the Darwinian account of human evolution with the image of man as the self-conscious creator of his own destiny and the new society of prosperity and eternal bliss” (p.221). That was a tough problem, all right.

Speaking of, Chapter 10 covers the expeditions to central Asia. As the authors note, Luria’s account of these expeditions acknowledges the fact that from 1929-1932, the Soviets were collectivizing agriculture; however, it does not discuss the elimination of kulaks (relatively prosperous farmers) as a class (p.243). Collectivization and dekulakization led to the deaths of millions of people as well as 1/3 of the horses, 1/2 the cattle, and 2/3 of the sheep and goats in Central Asia (p.245). Luria stuck to the party line in his study, of course, portraying collectivization as an untrammeled good (p.245). Of course, the authors note, Luria also tested his lie detector on students at Moscow University during the purge, and later kept a friend’s brain in a jar (p.246).

Koffka was invited to join the expedition, and he separately confirmed what I had long suspected: some of the variations seemed to be attributable to the attitudes of the research subjects toward the testers (p.249).

But despite Luria’s careful praise of collectivization, his study was not well received: Luria had not adequately described the region’s enormous progress and the creation of the new Soviet man (!) and his protocols seemed to characterize politically astute answers as inferior (p.254).

In Part III, we return to the disintegration of Vygotsky’s research collective with Leontiev and Luria’s move to Kharkov. Leontiev “developed his own view of cognitive development in response to ideological criticism” and distanced himself from Vygotsky in the latter’s obituary (!), in which “he emphasized that mediation processes are rooted in material and social, or rather societal, activity and renamed the cultural-historical theory ‘social-historical theory'” (p.289). Here, he advocated replacing Vygotsky’s emphasis on signs with labor (p.290). Labor, not speech.

But these assertions did not originate in the obituary. Vygotsky understood the change (p.290). According to Vygotsky’s daughter, Leontiev wrote Luria, claimed that Vygotsky’s ideas belonged in the past, and invited Luria to collaborate with Leontiev directly; Luria was initially receptive, but then had a change of heart and showed Vygotsky the letter, initiating a decisive break between Vygotsky and Leontiev (pp.291-292).

Part of the pressure was political, of course. Vygotsky had developed paedology as an interdisciplinary field and had become closely identified with it during the last seven years of his life, but paedology was banned by decree in 1936 (p.293). Vygotsky’s works would not be reprinted until de-Stalinization, and as noted elsewhere, at that point Leontiev managed to rehabilitate Vygotsky within a story that flattered himself more.

Well, this review turned out much longer than I thought it would. But it’s not as long as it could be. If you have any interest in Vygotsky or activity theory, of course you should read this book.

In Blog

Reading :: Thought and Language, 2ed

Posted by: on May 19, 2015 | No Comments

Thought and Language – Revised Edition
By Lev Vygotsky

I’ve reviewed this classic book before, of course. But that review was of the 1962 edition. In that review, I say that I’ll have to “soon” go to the library and pick up the revised (1986) edition. Now, ten years later, I finally have. The irony is that I just discovered that there’s a 2012 edition of Thought and Language, which I’m sure I’ll get to by 2025.

The 1962 edition, published in the US at the height of the Cold War, cut out some of the Marxist bits of Vygotsky’s work. They’re back in this edition, along with an excellent introduction by editor Alex Kozulin. In fact, I’ll spend the first half of my review discussing it.

Kozulin provides context for Vygotsky’s work, ideology, and ideological constraints, and recounts the history of this book in particular. I was particularly interested in the early 1930s, when Stalin was tightening control and “Soviet psychologists were expected to derive psychological categories directly from the works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin.” Although Vygotsky genuinely wanted to found a Soviet psychology on Marxist principles, he also drew on European and American research, and that research was now labeled bourgeois and anti-Marxist. Similarly, Luria’s cross-cultural research was severely criticized, and he had to renounce psychoanalysis; these constraints are probably what led him to pivot to neuropsychology (p.xliii). Leontiev had to resign from the Academy of Communist Education, although his official biography does not elaborate why (p.xliv).

Also in the 1930s, a group of Vygotsky’s students (including Leontiev, Zaporozhets, and Bozhovich) established a program in developmental psychology in Kharkov, Ukraine. Their proposed solution to the relation between consciousness and activity was: “‘The development of the consciousness of a child occurs as a result of the development of the system of psychological operations, which, in their turn, are determined by the actual relations between the child and reality'” (p.xliv). The obvious weak point is “actual relations with reality,” which became a major point of disagreement between the Kharkovites and Vygotsky (p.xlv). The Kharkovites played down the role of signs as chief mediators. As Kolulin adds, “This is an attack not on a peripheral, but on a central notion of the cultural-historical theory [of Vygotsky]” (p.xlvi). As Zinchenko argued, “‘social development cannot be reduced to the history of the development of culture.'” But here we find a flaw in activity theory:

While in Vygotsky’s theory, activity as a general explanatory principle finds its concretization in the specific, culturally bound types of semiotic mediation, in the doctrine of the Kharkovites, activity assumes a double role: as a general principle and as a concrete mechanism of mediation. However, in order to be socially meaningful, the concrete actions have to be connected in some way with human social and economic relations with reality. The task of elaborating this overall structure of activity was taken up by Leontiev. (p.xlviii, my emphasis)

Leontiev elaborated the structure of activity, but when discussing human activity in general, he used categories of Marxist social philosophy that

apply to the social-historical subject, rather than to the psychological individual. At the same time, ‘actual relations with reality’ were sought by Leontiev in the concrete practical actions and operations of the individual. The intermediate link between these two facets of activity—which Vygotsky identified as culture in general and the semiotic system in particular—had been lost because of the rejection of Vygotsky’s position. (p.l)

“Rejecting semiotic mediation, and insisting on the dominant role of practical actions, the Kharkovites had obliged themselves to elaborate the connection between the philosophical categories of production and objectification and the psychological category of action” (p.l) Leontiev eventually substituted “meaning and sense” for internalized operations, “unwittingly” acknowledging Vygotsky’s approach (p.l), but critics caught his inconsistency (p.li).

In the late 1950s, Vygotsky was rehabilitated during de-Stalinization. He was reprinted and read. Former Kharkovites had gained solid positions. In 1963, Leontiev’s Problems of the Development of Mind won the Lenin Prize, and Leontiev took on the mantle of Vygotsky’s chief interpreter (pp.li-lii). Vygotsky began to be seen as the predecessor of Leontiev, whose research program was portrayed as the “authentic realization” of Vygotsky’s work (p.li).

But in the late 1970s, Leontiev’s theory came under scrutiny on the grounds that Vygotsky had critiqued it: “using the notion of activity at one and the same time as an explanatory principle and as a subject of concrete psychological study. By ‘explaining’ the phenomena of activity by means of the principle of activity, a vicious circle was created” (p.lii). Kozulin paraphrases Yudin: “structural elements of activity (activity-action-operation and motive-goal-condition) once suggested as the elaboration of the explanatory principle, were later used in the context of the subject of study” (p.liii).

So there’s Kozulin’s fascinating introduction. Now to the book itself. Since this is a revised edition, rather than thoroughly covering the entire book, I’ll note some things that caught me on this reading.

One is the impact of Marx and Engels. I think many of these references were cut out of the 1962 edition, but they are frequent in this one. As in the essays of the Vygotsky Reader, these essays read human and prehuman history through Engels in particular (e.g., p.90). Similarly, Vygotsky explicitly grounds his methods in Engelsian dialectics (e.g., pp.124-125).

More broadly, the impact of Soviet ideology is clearly seen. For instance, in Ch.6, Vygotsky uses examples of students “correctly” finishing sentences in social science subjects, sentences that are ideologically charged (and, to my mind, dubious) such as “Planned economy is possible in the U.S.S.R. because there is no private property—all land, factories, and plants belong to the workers and peasants” (p.191). Examples such as these, at the time when the Soviet Union was becoming inexorably more unfree, are jolting reminders that Vygotsky had to work within a sharply limited set of ideological parameters.

Do I need to say it? The book is still a classic, and Kozulin’s introduction adds much to my understanding of it. Definitely pick it up.

In Blog

Reading :: The Vygotsky Reader

Posted by: on May 19, 2015 | No Comments

The Vygotsky Reader
Edited by Rene van der Veer and Jaan Valsiner

Lev Vygotsky was virtually unknown in the West until 1962, when a heavily abridged version of Thought and Language was published by MIT Press. Today, the English-speaking world largely knows Vygotsky through Thought and Language and Mind in Society. But Vygotsky wrote far more scholarship. In this edited collection, van der Veer and Valsiner pull together a sample of his many writings (as well as some from others in his circle), and in so doing, give us a better understanding of Vygotsky’s worldview, influences, and development.

The editors provide a solid introduction that contextualizes the work. Particularly interesting to me was their account of how A.R. Luria doggedly promoted Vygotsky’s work in the late 1920s, then went silent during the Stalin years, only to pick up the thread in the 1970s by promoting Vygotsky’s work to Michael Cole and other international scholars. That promotional work yielded 1962’s Thought and Language and 1978’s “cocktail mixing” Mind in Society (p.4). By the early 1980s, international audiences were interested in Vygotsky, partly as they became interested in activity theory (p.5).

Yet, the editors, argue, “a number of blind spots can be detected in contemporary uses of Vygotsky’s ideas.” First, Vygotsky’s ideas were interdependent with his US and European counterparts. Second, Vygotsky was more focused on individual development than is commonly understood. Third, current applications tend to represent the facilitator of education (parent, teacher) as always helpful; Vygotsky “instead focused more upon culture as providing tools for thinking” (p.6).

Let’s get to the writings themselves. As I read this collection, I was specifically interested in how Marxist ideology influenced Vygotsky and his circle. So let’s skip to Chapter 4, Luria’s “The problem of the cultural behaviour of the child.” The very first sentence sets the tone: “Man differs from animals in that he can make and use tools” (p.46)—an enthusiastic echo of Engels’ account of human development in Dialectics of Nature. (It’s also incorrect.) Luria goes on to argue: “the tools used by man not only radically change his condition of existence, they even react on him in that they effect a change in him and in his psychic condition. … his hand and brain assume definite shapes, a series of complicated methods and conduct are being evolved, with the aid of which man adapts himself more perfectly to the surrounding world” (p.46). He applies this insight to children, describing various experiments that suggest two different types of memory: natural and mediated.

In Chapter 5, “The problem of the cultural development of the child,” Vygotsky picks up this thread. “In the process of development the child not only masters the items of cultural experience but the habits and forms of cultural behavior, the cultural methods of reasoning. We must, therefore, distinguish the main lines in the development of the child’s behavior”: natural development and cultural improvement (p.57). He argues that children’s memory has two bases: organic (mneme) and cultural (method) (p.57). Like the apes that Kohler studied, “the child solves an inner problem by means of exterior objects” (p.60). Vygotsky provides a triangle diagram to illustrate mediation, the same one that shows up in his books (p.61).

Vygotsky then critiques others’ conceptualizations of the relationship between thinking and speaking: (a) speech as the outer clothing of reasoning and (b) reasoning as speech minus words (p.68). In contrast, he says, the development of speech and reasoning have different roots and developmental paths; at a certain moment, these paths cross (p.68). He describes the method of double stimulation, in which the child is given two stimulations with distinct functional importances, as a way to connect the “complicated internal activity” with external activity—a bit like hooking a fish, he says (pp.69-70).

Vygotsky and Luria coauthored Ch.7, “Tool and Symbol in Child Development,” which contrasts practical intelligence in children and apes—again drawing on Kohler, and again examining the transformational role of speech. “Our research leads us … to the positive conclusion that the great genetic moment of all intellectual development, from which grew the purely human forms of practical and gnostic intellect, is realized in these two previously completely independent lines of development [of thought and speech]” (p.108, their emphasis). Speech allows the child to master the situation by mastering his own behavior; the more complex the action and the less direct the solution, the greater the importance of speech (p.109). Indeed, early in development, speech accompanies the child’s activity; later in development, speech precedes actions (p.120).

Based on these insights, Vygotsky and Luria make three propositions: (1) Higher psychological function comprises a specific new form. (2) Higher psychological functions are not simply superimposed over elementary processes; they are new psychological systems. (3) In cases of disintegration, “the first link to be destroyed is that between the symbolic and natural functions”; natural processes begin functioning at primitive levels unmediated by psychological structures. (pp.138-141).

The authors then—this is a very long chapter—discuss the structure of sign operations, beginning with aides-memoire such as notched sticks that go beyond natural limits to provide cultural organization of behavior (p.143). Sign operations are the result of a complex process of development (p.151), and that development process is in “a spiral, passing through one and the same point at each new revolution to a higher level” (p.153). At this higher level, we get “a social method of behavior applied by itself to itself” (p.153, their emphasis). Outward sign operations yield a new intra-psychological layer (p.155).

Near the end of the chapter, the authors quote Engels approvingly: “‘labour created man himself,’ i.e. created the higher psychological functions which distinguish man as man. Primitive man, using his stick, by means of outer sign masters the processes of his own behaviour and subordinates his activity to the aim which he forces external objects to serve: tool, soil, rice” (p.165).

Especially interesting to me was Vygotsky’s “The Socialist Alteration of Man” (Ch.8), in which he argues that “the struggle for existence and natural selection, the two driving forces of biological evolution within the animal world, lose their decisive importance as soon as we pass on to the historical development of man. New laws, which regulate the course of human history and which cover the entire process of the material and mental development of human society, now take their place” (p.175). Vygotsky draws heavily on Engels throughout this chapter as he develops his argument, which is rather determinist. He argues that even in primitive societies, “the entire psychological makeup of individuals can be seen to depend directly on the development of technology, the degree of development of the production forces and on the structure of the social group to which the individual belongs” (p.176). He references Marx’s writings “on the subject of the corruption of the human personality which is brought about by the growth of capitalist industrial society” (p.176) and cites Engels in arguing that, with the division of labor, man himself became subdivided (p.177). Capitalism brought “the constantly growing distorted development of the human potential” (p.178). Every new level in the development of production yields “ever deeper degradation of the human personality and its growth potential” (p.179). Yet, Vygotsky argues along with Marx, labor “contains within itself endless possibilities for the development of the human personality” (p.179, his emphasis). Manufacturing labor plus education could yield “all-round developed people” (p.179), “flexible” people “who would be capable of changing the forms of work, and of organizing the production process and controlling it” (p.180; cf. Castells). In fact, Vygotsky declares that “the growth of large-scale industry contains within itself hidden potential for the development of human personality and … it is only the capitalist form of organization of the industrial process which is responsible for the fact that all these forces exert a one-sided and crippling influence, which retards personal development” (p.180).

This passage is key, I think. Engels argued that tools made man; our origin is in labor. Vygotsky quotes Marx as arguing that labor can perfect man. (The Marxist reverence for labor parallels that of the Protestant work ethic that Weber had described 25 years earlier and which he claimed made capitalism run.) But not all labor was good: some had been corrupted by capitalism.

Vygotsky declares that in the transition to socialism, “a change in the human personality and an alteration of man itself must inevitably take place” (p.181, his emphasis). He argues that the “withering away” of capitalism will yield new forms of social and spiritual life, liberating man; people will begin working for their own sake; and social relations will change for the better. Education, he says, should play a central role. “New generations and new forms of their education represent the main route which history will follow whilst creating the new type of man” (p.181, his emphasis).

Keeping with the theme of labor, let’s draw one quote from Leontiev’s “Voluntary Attention in the Child” claims that it is “well known that the transition to regular labor is usually achieved with its division”: first, women and slaves were assigned systemic work as punishment, and later stimuli built up around work; these stimuli let us organize our own attention (pp.295-6). Again, I’m interested in how the Engels account seems to provide assumptions about both the development and the sanctity of labor.

Chapter 13, “Fascism in Psychoneurology,” was part of a 1934 brochure written by Jewish scientists in Moscow, and it essentially condemns attempts to reconcile fascism and psychology. That is, it was written during the early years of the Great Terror, and the editors of this collection acknowledge that some of the accusations were rather like the pot calling the kettle black. They claim, without proof, that some of the parallels may not have escaped Vygotsky’s attention.

In sum, this collection is fascinating. It certainly gave me a broader understanding of Vygotsky, his arguments and assumptions, his insights and blind spots. If you’re interested in Vygotsky, Soviet psychology in general, or activity theory in particular, check it out.