All Edge: Inside the New Workplace Networks

All Edge: Inside the New Workplace Networks

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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.

In Blog

Reading :: The Psychology of Art

Posted by: on May 3, 2017 | No Comments

The Psychology of Art
By Lev Semenovich Vygotsky

Y’all know I’m a fan of Vygotsky, right? Yet this book, Vygotsky’s 1925 dissertation, was a slog for me.

Despite its title, the book is more in the vein of literary criticism, proposing a theory of aesthetics and applying it to fables, a short story (Bunin’s “Gentle Breath”), and a Shakespearean play (Hamlet). Konstantin Kornilov was so impressed by this dissertation that, when Vygotsky was hospitalized for tuberculosis in 1925, Kornilov took the unusual step of waiving the oral defense. So indicators suggest, and modern commenters on Vygotsky tend to agree, that the book is a significant contribution to Vygotsky’s body of work.

Unfortunately, the question of aesthetics and the subject of literature hold no interest for me, so this book’s contribution was largely opaque to me. Thus I apologize for the limitations of this review, dear readers, and I’ll attempt to describe the book’s features adequately enough for you to make your own decision about it.

First, the introduction, which was written by A.N. Leontiev (and undated, but based on the text, written around 1965). Leontiev calls Vygotsky “the great scholar” and “the creator of an original branch of Soviet psychology, based on the sociohistorical nature of man’s consciousness” (p.v). Leontiev briefly recounts Vygotsky’s hiring by Kornilov just after Kornilov won the power struggle against Chelpanov, then notes that Vygotsky was “appointed to the modest position of Junior Staff Scientist (or Staff Scientist, 2nd Class, as the rank was then known)”; in that position, Vygotsky “showed astonishing energy” (p.v), publishing a significant article in 1925 and a textbook in 1926 ( Leontiev characterizes The Psychology of Art as a “transitional” book: it marked Vygotsky’s transition to psychology; it “lays foundations for the new scientific ideas in psychology which constituted Vygotsky’s main contribution to science”; it “approaches works of art from the point of view of a psychologist who has freed himself of the old subjective-empirical psychology” (

Yet, Leontiev says, the book precedes the “doctrine of the sociohistorical nature of the human psyche” and relies too heavily on Kornilov’s reactology (p.ix). “In his book, therefore, Vygotsky expresses his own ideas quite often in words that are not his own” (p.ix; sounds like a dissertation, all right).

Leontiev notes that The Psychology of Art was not published during Vygotsky’s lifetime, attributing this fact to Vygotsky’s turn from art to other questions (p.ix). Leontiev also notes that “some of the psychological views expressed in this book must now be interpreted differently—from the standpoint of present psychological views of human activity and consciousness” (p.xi). A cynic would possibly read Leontiev as saying that Vygotsky is best read through Leontiev’s own lens of activity theory.

On to the book itself. Vygotsky divides it into four sections:

  • I. On the methodology of the problem
  • II. Critique
  • III. Analysis of the aesthetic reaction
  • IV. The psychology of art
In the first section, Vygotsky situates his approach, opposing it to Chelpanov’s (p.14) and asserting contra Chelpanov that sciences can be Marxist (p.15). He acknowledges that we can separate social and collective psychology (p.17), arguing that we can “consider the psyche of the single individual as the subject of social psychology”—that is, differential psychology, which studies “individual differences in single individuals” (p.17). He aligns this study with general reactology (as opposed to Bekhterev’s collective reflexology; p.17). “Everything within us is social, but this does not imply that all the properties of the psyche of an individual are inherent in all the other members of the group as well” (p.17). Thus, he argues, rather than distinguishing between social and individual psychology, we should distinguish between social and collective psychology (p.17). 
Moving on to critique, Vygotsky criticizes Freud in Chapter 4, arguing that although the application of the unconscious to aesthetics seems obvious, in practice “the approach is incorrect and … these considerations have been disproved in practice” (p.72). It’s worth noting that at the time Vygotsky was writing this dissertation, Luria was still trying to make Freudianism work within a Marxist framework, an attempt that Vygotsky would roundly criticize in the manuscript he wrote in the hospital immediately after finishing this dissertation.
Let’s take a giant step forward to section III, on analysis. In Chapter 8, Vygotsky analyzes Hamlet, a play about which he had been writing since before college. He concludes by understanding Hamlet in terms of a threefold contradiction: “the contradiction involving the story, the plot, and the dramatis personae” (p.194). Hamlet’s role is that “at any moment, he unifies both contradictory planes and is the supreme and ever-present embodiment of the contradiction inherent in the tragedy” (p.195, his emphasis).  One can imagine how this analysis led Vygotsky to think further about how real flesh-and-blood people develop by addressing and unifying actual contradictory lines of development, a theme to which he returns in his later work.
In the final section IV, on the psychology of art, Vygotsky argues that “the psychology of art involves two, or possibly three, branches of theoretical psychology. It depends upon findings from the study of perception, the study of the emotions, and the study of imagination and fantasy” (p.199). Note that Vygotsky specifically pursued the study of perception in later work, especially in the Uzbek expedition
The last chapter, “Art and Life,” wraps up the book. I’ve read that the original ending chapter quoted Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution, which had been published in 1923; Trotsky was expelled from the USSR in 1927 [correction 5/9: Trotsky was ousted from the Politburo in 1926; from the Central Committee and then from the Party in 1927; sent into internal exile in 1928; then expelled from the USSR in 1929. Thanks to Anton Yasnitsky for the chronology] , and when Vygotsky’s works were reprinted in the USSR, Trotsky quotes were either expunged or relieved of their quotation marks. Alas, that seems to have happened here. But we can still see Trotsky’s influence in the last couple of paragraphs. Vygotsky asserts that “psychological investigation reveals that art is the supreme center of biological and social individual processes in society, that it is a method for finding an equilibrium between man and his world, in the most critical and important stages of his life”—a view that refutes the opposing view that art is merely an “ornament” (p.259). He adds,

Since the future has in store not only a rearrangement of mankind according to new principles, not only the organization of new social and economic processes, but also the “remolding of man,” there hardly seems any doubt that the role of art will also change.

It is hard to imagine the role that art will play in this remolding of man. We do not know what existing but dormant forces in our organisms it will draw upon to form the new man. There is no question, however, that art will have a decisive voice in this process. Without new art there can be no new man. The possibilities of the future, for art as well as for life, are inscrutable and unpredictable. As Spinoza said, “That of which the body is capable has not yet been determined.” (p.259)

Here Vygotsky sounds the theme of the New Man that guides much of his instrumental period (before giving way to the more modest but similarly oriented “peak psychology”).

At the end of the book, V.V. Ivanov supplies some commentary about this book in relation to Vygotsky’s later works. It was valuable for me, since Ivanov makes a connection that I had a hard time making. He notes that Vygotsky’s focus on aesthetic theory broadened to include sign mediation more generally (p.266). Ivanov reminds us that Vygotsky identified “three methods of human behavioral control”:

  • “commands which are shaped outside the person (for example, the orders of a parent to a child)”
  • “commands which take shape outside a person but issue from within him. (The ‘egocentric’ speech of children studied by Vygotsky is an example …)”
  • “commands which form within a person by the transformation from external into external signs (for example, internal speech, which Vygotsky describes as ‘egocentric’)” (p.267)
Ivanov likens learning to self-programming (p.267). And, extending the point back to The Psychology of Art, we can see how this early work in aesthetics led to the later, more broadly applicable work in Thinking and Speaking
Can I recommend this book? As I said, it was a slog for me, and I think I would have been just fine reading commentaries like Ivanov’s. But if you have an interest in aesthetics or literary criticism, this book might be a good bridge for you. And if you are a dedicated researcher of Vygotsky’s intellectual development, I think you will need to read it. 

In Blog

Reading :: Vygotsky in Perspective

Posted by: on Apr 26, 2017 | No Comments

Vygotsky in Perspective
By Ronald Miller

This book has been reviewed positively by various luminaries in Vygotsky studies, some of whose works have in turn been reviewed on this blog: Kozulin and Valsiner. Yasnitsky calls it an “absolute and unconditional treasure.” But reading through the reviews, you’ll also see keywords such as “contrarian” and “deeply argumentative.”

I agree that the book does have some strong positives. But it’s also one of the most uncharitable scholarly books I have ever read. Miller, who is a professor emeritus, notes that he is writing at the end of his career, so he can say what he thinks without fear of reprisal (p.xii). And what he thinks is that various luminaries who have grounded their work in Vygotsky are either fools or knaves, substituting their dross of Americanized psychological theory for Vygotsky’s gold—and obscuring the plain meaning of Vygotsky’s texts. In fact, two lietmotifs show up across the text:

  • X falls headlong into a trap.
  • X mischaracterizes Vygotsky—”inadvertently, perhaps,” Miller allows during his most graceful moments (ex: p.347).
Various Westerners come in for sustained and dismissive criticism along these lines—throughout, but especially in the second half of the book, “Vygotsky in America,” in which Miller complains about “Americanized” CHAT. Mike Cole gets Chapter 7 (and he was understandably unhappy with the characterization), while James Wertsch gets two whole chapters (8 and 9). But Anna Stetsenko and Yrjo Engestrom also come in for criticism, and even Edwin Hutchins—who is not really even in the CHAT conversation—gets a dismissive footnote (p.38, footnote 29). 
In Miller’s view, these commentators misrepresent Vygotsky, either deliberately (to push their own ideas) or foolishly (since the plain meaning of the text is right there in the text for all to see—Miller treats Vygotsky’s writing like a conservative US Supreme Court justice treats the Constitution). “There is a not-so-thin line between interpretation and misrepresentation and it seems that this line is increasingly being ignored,” he complains (p.xi). And that is a big problem, in Miller’s view, since these commentators change the interpretations of other readers. One case that he discusses in the Introduction, and in more detail in Ch.10, is that of the commentaries in the English version of Vygotsky’s Collected Works

By framing Vygotsky’s texts with selected commentaries that ground his work in their own image, commentators are able to provide a form of supportive ‘scaffolding’ that lends a particular shape to an engagement with the text that follows. In this way, the commentaries, albeit inadvertently, constitute a subtle and indirect kind of pre-emptive censorship by providing a ready-made interpretive filter in front of the text. (p.3, my emphasis)

I’m not clear why Miller sees readers of the Collective Works as merely victims while commentators such as Cole and Stetsenko are characterized as fools or knaves. After all, Cole has been forthright about reading Vygotsky through Luria’s framing and interpretation, while Stetsenko similarly came to Vygotsky through the tutelage of Leontiev. It’s not as if the commentators (or anyone) came to the text without any sort of interpretive frame. Nor does it make sense that a reader of the Collective Works can’t put aside the commentary and read the text itself. But we’ll return to this question later, as well as some of the problems with credibility that come up in the fools-and-knaves reading.

I mentioned that Miller’s book has some strong positives. That’s especially true in his close reading of Vygotsky’s posthumously published book, Thinking and Speech, a book that famously takes the early works of Piaget to task. In Part I, Miller, who is deeply familiar with Piaget, reads Vygotsky from a Piagetian standpoint and identifies points at which Vygotsky and Piaget actually agreed—both at the time and in Piaget’s later work. As someone who has not read much Piaget, I found this section of the book interesting and illuminating.

Let’s preface the discussion with some points from the Introduction. Miller emphasizes a distinction that Kozulin and others have also emphasized: that Vygotsky used signs (word meaning) as a unit of analysis for understanding consciousness (p.20), and his focus on mediation was really about sign mediation (p.21). In contrast,

Leont’ev explicitly and expressly argued that Vygotsky’s semiotic emphases and focus on consciousness and word meaning were misguided and that a theory giving more weight to material forms of activity was needed. It is this distinction between meaning and consciousness, on the one hand, and material activity, on the other, that is lost in the secondary sociocultural literature, and the loss is profound because Vygotsky’s entire theory is undermined if consciousness and meaning are sidelined and replaced by a general concept of activity. … In place of the clear and unambiguous distinction that Vygotsky makes between signs as psychological tools and the material tools of labour, Cole and Wertsch collapse the distinction and substitute their own concepts of artefacts and cultural tools, respectively, concepts that are cornerstones of their own activity-driven approaches and determine how the core concept of mediation is used. (p.20)

For Vygotsky, a tool is external, while a sign is internal and involves self-mastery (p.23). Miller says that Vygotsky’s contribution is not that he breaks down barriers between inside/outside or individual/social, but that “he incorporates the social as part of the constitution of his concept of a human person” via speech (p.26, his emphasis). In this reading, external signs do not substitute for internal ones, but help to manage the process; their significance is as sign, not tool (p.29).

Interestingly, Miller argues that while Americanized CHAT “has diluted Vygotsky’s theory by ignoring or sidelining the role of signs and word meaning in the construction of all his key concepts,” Russian activity theorists “highlight the importance of psychological tools and semiotic mediation in Vygotsky’s work. Instead of twisting the meaning of his psychological concepts to suit their purpose, they look back and discover another more material Vygotsky buried deep inside his better-known semiotic persona” (p.41). He closely reads Leont’ev’s preface to the third volume of the English-language Collected Works, professing to be baffled by its “confusing mixed message” because

Clearly, from his own account and assessment of Vygotsky’s theory, in practice Vygotsky devoted very little effort to the study of labour activity. If by studying consciousness and meaning Vygotsky did not in principle drift away from the study of practical, objective, labour activity, then the principle to which Leont’ev refers in the above passage strikes a hollow chord that gives body to an empty claim. (p.44)

Miller seems incurious about a question that could easily be answered with a little historical investigation—or some consultation to books he has already cited. But Miller seems, here and elsewhere, to be oddly ahistorical and oddly incurious about why someone’s reading would differ from his own. Throughout Part I, Vygotsky is discussed in the first person and Thinking and Speech is described as the final and therefore purest expression of a unitary theory (but see p.97 and p.178 for rare acknowledgements that Vygotsky was refining and developing this theory). In fact, Miller sometimes seems surprised that the different chapters in this book do not cohere more closely in argument, which suggests that he is unaware that the book is actually a compilation of materials from 1928-1934. That is, they span Vygotsky’s instrumental period and his holistic period.

In contrast, Miller does a good job of discussing Piaget developmentally, noting which of Vygotsky’s characterizations of Piaget were correct at the time and which developments of Vygotsky anticipated Piaget’s later developments. His work became especially valuable to me in Ch.4, in which he critiques Vygotsky’s arguably problematic notion of scientific concepts. He argues that Vygotsky has tried to shoehorn Piaget’s distinction of spontaneous and non-spontaneous concepts into Vygotsky’s own distinction of higher and lower mental functions (p.139). In contrast, he argues, Piaget’s concepts describe parts of the human condition, not cultural knowledge, and thus do not fall under cultural-historical theory (p.139). This distinction interests me because it recalls the Uzbek expeditions that Vygotsky and Luria put together, expeditions that purported to find cultural roots in perceptual illusions. That is, I am unsure to what extent Vygotsky would acknowledge that such concepts can be separate from cultural-historical factors. Certainly he would be more receptive to such an argument in 1934 than in 1929, when he was still enthralled with the idea of the socialist alteration of man.

Moving on: In Chapter 6, Miller tackles Vygotsky’s final chapter of Thinking and Speech, in which “Vygotsky engages with the innermost recesses of human consciousness and leaves little room for doubt about the ultimate focus of his life’s work” (p.177). (Note that Miller interprets this chapter as a final revelation of what was there all along, rather than a development.) He adds, “It is a commonplace that meaning is always embedded in ripples of expanding contextual wholes, from word to phrase to sentence to paragraph to chapter, book, oeuvre, and so on. It is not surprising, then, that this chapter would be virtually incomprehensible without reading and understanding the previous chapters” (p.177). And “Whether or not, or the extent to which, Vygotsky changed or revised his core concepts is open to interpretation, but reading backwards from ‘Thought and word’ casts a different light on his project as a whole’ (p.178). Specifically, Miller reads Vygotsky as arguing that “as children develop into adults they discard their external auxiliary crutches and replace them with internal mental representations” (p. 195). (Here, I think Miller could complicate this claim by rereading Hutchins and some of the other work he dismissed earlier.)

Miller adds that Vygotsky’s work has been overstretched by “some commentators,” who apply Vygotsky’s statements about late childhood learning to learners in “full-blown adulthood” (p.196). He does not entirely clarify the distinction, but seems to gesture at the fact that children internalize intermental functions as intramental functions, turning external speech to egocentric and finally internal speech (p.196). I would have liked to see more about how adults, like children, re-externalize speech when they work at the edge of their capabilities—for instance, when an adult is trying to do complex math in her head, she might subvocalize “carry the one” or trace her finger across imaginary columns of numbers. Miller seems to get close to acknowledging this sort of externalization in adults later (pp.371-2), but doesn’t quite clarify the differences, so we are left without a clear articulation of the edges of Vygotsky’s pronouncements.

This chapter marks the end of Part I, the detailed examination of Thinking and Speech. As noted, I think this part is valuable for its close reading and its comparison with Piaget. At the same time, the reading is generally ahistorical and—despite Miller’s attempt to acknowledge interpretive difficulties at the beginning of Chapter 6—seems wedded to the notion that meaning can be found in the plain text if people simply look for it. But, as Miller repeatedly notes, commentators and especially Western commentators take different meanings from the text than he does. In the second part of the book, he lays into these commentators.

In Chapter 7, he critiques Michael Cole, who admits to “selective borrowing” (p.205). For Cole, I think this 1996 admission is completely understandable—as noted, he first encountered Vygotsky when Luria pressed him to read Vygotsky’s writings and publicize them in the West. Cole did so, even though at first he had a hard time getting his head around not only Vygotsky’s writings but also Luria’s own. So he ended up reading Vygotsky through Luria’s work on the one hand and the work of contemporary American psychology on the other. Miller does not explain why this situation is different from the victims who read Vygotsky based on Cole’s own commentary. But somehow it is different. Miller notes:

It is easy to gloss over the fact that embedded in the above passage is a gross misrepresentation that is compounded as Cole’s story unfolds. Given the prominence of the term ‘history’ in Cole’s formulation, it is not unreasonable to expect that the actual history of the Russian cultural-historical school would be respected and not bent out of recognition to accommodate a fundamentally different, if not opposite, set of ideas. At issue is the fact that the Russian cultural-historical theory was primarily developed by Vygotsky and to a considerable extent Luria, with whom he collaborated on a number of projects. … Leont’ev moved away and severed his links with the cultural-historical approach and established his own brand, known as activity theory. (pp.206-207)

Sort of. And Leontiev, who dominated Russian psychology from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, styled himself the heir of Vygotsky. His account was not seriously contested until 1979, when Leontiev was dead and Schedrovitsky argued that activity theory deviated significantly from Vygotsky’s program. That’s 17 years after Cole was first exposed to Vygotsky as an exchange scholar in 1962-1963 by Luria himself, and a year after Cole coedited Mind in Society in 1978.

When Miller charges that “by employing the device of linking together Vygotsky, Luria, and Leont’ev, Cole creates the impression that they share the same views and developed a common approach to mediation” (p.207), he implies that the troika was a fiction that Cole produced on his own. This is demonstrably untrue—Luria and Leontiev both represented the troika before Cole did. Yet Miller not only lays the blame on Cole, but overreaches: “It is immensely puzzling why Cole goes to considerable lengths to claim a mythical lineage with the Russian cultural-historical theory when he, in fact, either rejects or ignores the main tenets of that theory” (p.208). Miller has just acknowledged that Luria was a codeveloper of the cultural-historical theory (pp.206-207), yet he avoids acknowledging the fact that Luria himself claimed this lineage and represented it in this way to Cole.

Miller has a colorable argument when he claims that Vygotsky’s difference between psychological and physical tools is lost in Cole’s work (p.212). Yet he locates it in the wrong place: here in Cole’s work, rather than in the pronouncements of Vygotsky’s adherents, who claimed to develop (and, arguably, did develop) Vygotsky’s ideas further. This leads Miller to deny that material artifacts can do what language does, providing “a means of self-control and self-regulation of higher psychological functions” (p.213). Yet knots and cards are both material artifacts that Vygotsky describe as being used for self-regulation. Arguably, they are being used as signs, but they are also material nonetheless, a point that Miller never quite seems to address.

This brings him to a critique of Engestrom’s famous triangle, which he mainly criticizes under the heading of Cole’s work. Miller professes bafflement at the triangle’s origins, stoutly arguing that it is not the stimulus-response triangle that Vygotsky uses (pp.214-221) and that it is more of an “article of faith” than an explanatory device (p.221). Again, Miller’s lack of curiosity does not do him any favors here. Engestrom’s diagram takes up the notion of mediation that is illustrated in Vygotsky’s triangle but interpreted through Leontiev’s book Problems of the Development of Mind. In that book, Leontiev recapitulates Engels’ story of how labor made man, retaining many of Engels’ major claims (such as the claim that tools are central to labor). Leontiev adds elements such as division of labor and the orientation toward an object. In his recapitulation, Engestrom hews pretty closely to the major elements, adding Rules as an additional point of mediation between individuals and communities—but he jettisons the underlying Engels story, which, although it had great currency in the USSR, was not useful in the West. Miller, unaware of this background, complains that “Engestrom indulges in the most extravagant of claims without even an attempt to justify them” (p.222). Yes, the origins are obscured, but these ideas are not made of whole cloth, they are taken from Leontiev. In lieu of doing the work to understand the idea’s genealogy, Miller speculates that Engestrom likes triangles because he likes Hegel, Pierce, and Popper (p.224).

Speaking of extravagant and unjustified claims, it is worth noting that Vygotsky also enthusiastically used Engels’ account in Studies on the History of Behavior. He, Luria, and Leontiev referred to it frequently in their other publications. Engels’ account was hardly scientific, but it had the sort of Marxist-Leninist “truthiness” that was required in Stalinist science, and Vygotsky was not above using it.

In the interest of time, I’ll skip his similarly flavored critique of Wertsch in Ch. 8-9. In Ch.10, he quarrels with the commentators of Vygotsky’s Collected Works and The Essential Vygotsky. Here—to coin a phrase—Miller falls headlong into his own trap.

Here, Miller makes a point of using the Collected Works because “Vygotsky’s earlier books translated into English had suffered distortions precisely because of interference and tampering with the texts by editors who decided to eliminate what they considered to be non-essential in Vygotsky’s writing.” In comparison, the Collected Works gave readers the ability to “understand Vygotsky by reading his complete texts in all their complexity and with their blemishes and imperfections fully exposed” (p.316). That is, the CW provided a pure text so that readers could read its plain meaning rather than distortions. Miller uses this pure text to bludgeon the commentators.

This tactic reaches its nadir in his discussion of Stetsenko’s introduction to “Tool and Sign,” in which he emphasizes differences between Stetsenko’s claims and Vygotsky’s texts. “But Vygotsky does refer to theoretically important conclusions in more than one place,” he tells us, citing two similar passages to “hammer home the point” (p.342). Why did Vygotsky make nearly the same point twice? Answer: He didn’t. The repetition is not Vygotsky’s attempt at emphasis, it is an artifact of an irresponsible translation process, one of the reasons why the Collected Works are not considered the gold standard for Vygotsky studies.

Bizarrely, Miller seems to entertain conspiracy theories in which one commentator is silently hinting at the incompetence or malevolence of others (p.353) and in which editors remove Vygotsky’s words in order to hide their own limitations (p.319).

Unfortunately, these severe drawbacks—frankly, I consider them broad mischaracterizations, based in a fervent and largely ahistorical understanding of Vygotsky’s last book—undermine what is good about the book. Miller does put his finger on some important differences between cultural-historical theory and activity theory. And, although I don’t know Piaget well, I think he has some valuable insights into the interplay of his ideas with Vygotsky’s. But based on the more vituperative and (to my mind) demonstrably unfair conclusions Miller draws, I am hesitant to take anything else in the book on faith. I’ll certainly use it to find references, but I won’t rely on it to anchor my own works.

If you’re looking for a polemic, or you’d like your understanding of activity theory challenged in a way that will sometimes be generative, I can recommend this book. But in my view it is deeply flawed. Its lack of charity leads it into places where a scholarly text should not go.

In Blog

(Reading Roundup :: Stalinist criticism of the Vygotsky School and its aftermath)

Posted by: on Apr 19, 2017 | No Comments

It’s been a while since I’ve done a reading roundup of associated articles. But I have a nice set of associated ones today, and I think they tell a pretty good story. Since these tell a story, I’ve dated each and tried to provide some historical context.

To review, in 1930 Vygotsky and Luria published Studies on the History of Behavior: Ape, Primitive, and Child, a quasi-popular book that synthesized Western understandings of ape and human psychology with a Marxist account based on Engels. The book had been originally slated to be finished by 1927; by 1929, Vygotsky was not enthusiastic about it since he was entering the crisis that marked the border between his instrumental period and his later holistic period (see Van der Veer & Yasnitsky Ch.4). Nevertheless, it was published—just at the point when Stalinist science was becoming more hostile to bourgeois science. Sociology was banned as a bourgeois pseudoscience in 1929 and Russian chauvinism meant that the many cites to Western psychologists and sociologists were not well received. In 1931, the Institute’s party cell condemned Vygotsky and Luria’s 1930 book.

Two other things happened in 1931. First, some of Vygotsky’s colleagues—including Luria and Leontiev—took jobs in Kharkov, Ukraine, while Vygotsky accepted an invitation to lecture in Leningrad. Second, Luria and Vygotsky put together an expedition in Uzbekistan to study how nonliterate and semiliterate peoples changed with the influence of literacy; Luria went while Vygotsky stayed. The 1931 expedition was followed by a second one in 1932.

With that short history, let’s get to the readings.

Razmyslov, P. (1934/2000). On Vygotsky’s and Luria’s “cultural-historical theory of psychology.” Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 38(6), 45-58.

Razmyslov’s report, according to Van der Veer (2000), was the result of the Moscow Inspection Commission of the Workers and Farmers Inspeectorate. It focused on the Uzbek expedition of 1931-32, although it also mentions their previous work.

The report is somewhat diffuse, but makes some specific and coherent criticisms. According to Razmyslov, Vygotsky “says that human behavior consists of a continual restoration and breaking of equilibrium between the human organism and the environment (p.46). To make this case, Vygotsky draws on a “bourgeois historicism that disregards the aspects of the development of productive forces and the relations of production, the labor processes, and class struggle,” and his work does not study mental functions in the light of Lenin’s theory of reflection (p.47). Indeed, Vygotsky and Luria did not proceed from “social, class consciousness” but from “the consciousness of some vague, foggy collective”—and Razmyslov criticizes Vygotsky’s reliance on Durkheim here (pp.48-49).

In this context, Razmyslov notes Vygotsky’s passage stating that higher psychological functions show up twice, first collectively/interpsychically, then individually/interpsychically. This view is “sociological” and relies on Durkheim (p.49). Razmyslov also slams Vygotsky for his “crudely mechanistic positions” in his earlier work (p.49). (Earlier in the report, he criticized Luria’s early interest in Freudian work (pp.45-46). But Vygotsky’s “mechanist mistakes of 1925 are aggravated even further” in later work (p.50).

Razmyslov then gets to the Uzbek expedition, and here I think some of his criticisms have a grain of truth. He argues that Vygotsky and Luria cannot look for primitive people’s thinking in modern Uzbeks (p.51). They looked for child-level behavior in these Uzbek adults rather than chronicling their growth (p.51). Vygotsky’s oral report of the expedition “was aimed at demonstrating the presence of primitive thought in all previously oppressed nationalities”; instead of showing how, in Uzbek, “the new man is being created and a communist consciousness is taking shape,” Vygotsky tried to show that these peoples can’t generalize (p.52). Razmyslov draws several examples from Luria’s investigations (pp.52-54) and argues that Luria “literally tormented the respondents” (p.53—perhaps a fair assessment, given the historical investigation of Lamdan and Yasnitsky).

Razmyslov wraps up by charging Vygotsky’s pedagogy with “elements of mechanism” (p.54) and producing a passage in which Vygotsky suggests the “demise of the school in the future” (p.55)—both themes showed up later in the condemnation of pedology.

Vygotsky died in June 1934. Luria and Leontiev, however, had to live through the results of this criticism and of the rapid changes in 1930s USSR.

Central Committee of the Communist Party. (1936/1950). On pedological distortions in the commisariat of education. In Wortis, Soviet psychiatry. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins. 242-245.

It took me a while to hunt down an English-language copy of this infamous decree, which was issued on July 4, 1936. The decree has been treated in a number of places, including Bauer, so I’ll focus on the highlights. The Decree notes that pedology had Western roots and separated theory from practice—creating a theorist/researcher class that told teachers how to practice and “developed completely out of contact with teachers and school studies” (p.242). It was characterized as pseudoscientific (p.242) and anti-Marxist (p.244) as well as “stupid” (p.244). Specifically, it reduced student ability to biological and social factors, i.e., heredity and environment (p.243; 244). In doing so, it reproduced the pedology of the bourgeois class system (p.243); it imported racist and classist categories under the cover of objective research, imputing poor performance to children’s heredity and environment rather than to systemic class discrimination (p.245). The authors argued for mainstreaming the vast majority of students who had been assigned to special schools (p.243). Ultimately, the authors demanded (among other things) that: pedagogues (teachers) should be restored to their full rights in the classroom rather than making their practice serve theories of pedology; pedologists and their books should be removed from the schools; children in special schools should be mainstreamed; and the books of pedologists should be criticized in the press (p.245).

The last demand listed above was fulfilled almost immediately.

Kozyrev, A.V., & Turko, A.P. (1936/2000). Professor L.S. Vygotsky’s “pedological school.” Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 38(6), 59-74.

First out of the gate was this critique, produced explicitly in response to the Pedology Decree’s call for critiques. They characterize the late Vygotsky’s views as “untested and often contradictory” (p.59) and note that his work had been continued by the “Leningrad Pedological School” (p.60).

They begin with the posthumously published book Thinking and Speech, which they correctly note “is only an elaboration of discrete materials that are variously dated” (p.60; see Van der Veer & Yasnitsky Ch.4 for a full accounting of the book’s sources). They critique the book’s thesis that thinking and speech come from different roots but interrelate; Vygotsky drew from Western sources, but not from Marx and Engels, even though “Engels was not only a polyglot but also a profound connoisseur of linguistics,” and he didn’t draw on contemporary Soviet linguists (p.61). Moreover, “by denying the unity of genetic roots in the origin of thinking and speech, Vygotsky denies the leading role of labor, which in Engels’ apt definition created man” (p.61). The authors purport to demonstrate this role by citing Kohler, one of Vygotsky’s main sources (p.61).

Secondly, the authors condemn Vygotsky for making up laws, such as that of the Zone of Proximal Development, through logical inference rather than empirical work (pp.62-63). They conclude (through reasoning that I found hard to follow) that Vygotsky believed that the working class could not attain the heights of scientific knowledge—that is, that Vygotsky could be criticized for a classist, bourgeois pedological outlook (p.65). They interpret the ZPD as a way to devalue the teacher’s contribution, and they push back against this inference (p.65). Overall, they characterize Thinking and Speech as “full of overhasty, invalid, unscientific, and sometimes utterly unfounded ‘scientific’ conclusions” (p.65). And they argue that Vygotsky “did not even develop a method of research” (p.66). Finally: “this book still finds him immersed in cultural-historical theory, which he developed together with Luria and which, in its final conclusions, led them (inevitably) into the swamp of stagnation” (p.66).

The authors then turn to Vygotsky’s pedological works, charging that he attributed all development to either heredity or environment (p.66; it’s hard for me to see how this claim squares with the ZPD). They mention Vygotsky’s twin studies at VIEM (p.67; are these related to the study Luria later published?). They also claim that Vygotsky’s efforts to distinguish pedology from pedagogy were unsuccessful (pp.67-69). Around here, they cite Razmyslov. They conclude that Vygotsky’s premature death “prevented him from embarking upon a truly scientific path” (p.70).

Finally, they criticize two of Vygotsky’s followers, Zankov and Konnikov (the latter had just written her dissertation under Vygotsky’s collaborator Levina). This seemed like the lowest blow to me.

Perhaps it was this article, which directly named Luria, that caused him to resign his positions as head of the psychology department at VIEM and at the Medico-Biological Institute, fleeing to Tsibli and then taking a medical internship (!) at the Burdenko Clinic of Neurosurgery until 1939.

E. I. Rudneva (1937/2000) Vygotsky’s Pedological Distortions, Journal of Russian & East European Psychology, 38:6, 75-94.

This article, which came out in January 1937, may have caused Leontiev to leave his positions as head of the Laboratory of Genetic Psychology at VIEM and his professorship at the Higher Communist Institute of Enlightenment. When he returned in fall 1937, his arguments had changed considerably—arguably to address these criticisms.

In fact, although Wertsch sees “Theses on Feuerbach” as the founding document of activity theory, I think there’s a good argument that this document is the true founding document. I’ll explain that assertion beneath the review.

Rudneva’s article also answered the call of the Pedology Decree (p.75), but it was more vicious—and an excellent example of Stalinist criticism. She characterized Vygotsky as a pillar of pedology and argues that

An analysis of Vygotsky’s works published over the past ten years, beginning with [Pedology of school age] and [Thinking and speech] (1934), reveal the anti-Marxist character of his views and his organic link to the anti-Lenin “theory of the demise of the school” (p.75)

Not only that, she charged: he also cites bourgeois scientists (p.75).

Her critique bore little resemblance to Vygotsky’s actual claims. Rudneva argued that “Already in his earliest works, Vygotsky was saying that parents and teachers do not have the right to prescribe their children anything” (p.75); that school will wither away (p.76); that formal education does not influence development (p.76); that “Vygotsky blindly followed every word of bourgeois psychology of the time” (p.76); that “he endeavored to provide a psychological foundation for the theory of the demise of the school” (p.76); and that

Following his bourgeois teachers, Vygotsky also took from them their method of investigation. Hence, the work of Vygotsky and his pupils on children has essentially been a mockery of our Soviet children and amounted to stupid, absurd tests and questionnaires associated with Piaget, Claparbde, and others. (p.76)

Of more serious consequence is Rudneva’s critique of Thinking and Speaking. She charges that “For Vygotsky speech is an instrument, a tool organizing the whole of mental activity” (p.77). And:

An analysis of Vygotsky’s utterances on the question of thinking and speech shows that it consists of anti-Leninist, idealist positions. He regards the whole of man’s mental activity not in the light of Lenin’s theory of reflection, as a unified but complex dialectic process of active reflection of objective reality in the human consciousness, but as an idealist, immanent (internal, self-sufficient) process taking place independent of social-class relations and independent of people’s productive activity. (pp.66-67)

Recall that Razmyslov also brought up this criticism. It would become important in the later works of the cultural-historical school.

Rudneva continued by claiming that “He disregards the material foundation of mental phenomena”—i.e., Vygotsky was an idealist (p.77). But in the next paragraph, she accused him of being a crude materialist and mechanist (p.77). “These utterances of Vygotsky’s on the question of the mind show that he explicitly disregards the Marxist-Leninist theory that the mind cannot be reduced to the movement of matter” (p.78). Related, she criticized his “totally false division of concepts into scientific and everyday”:

A scientific concept, according to Vygotsky, can arise only from an everyday concept, and, moreover-and this clearly contradicts the basic positions of Marxism-not through reflection of the objective world in our consciousness; rather, it is generated by speech. Similarly, Vygotsky’s conception of the nature of a concept is clearly at variance with Lenin’s theory of a concept. … According to Lenin, a concept is a reflection of nature in man’s consciousness. (p.78)

She also charges that his “theory of the origin and development of language from which emanates a denial of the role of grammar in formal learning, as we shall show below, is anti-Marxist, and antiscientific” (p.81). Like Kozyrev & Turko, she charges that “Vygotsky’s assertion that thinking and speech have different genetic roots is contrary to Marx & Engels’s theory of the origin and development of thinking and speech from the social process of labor” (p.81). In contrast, she favors the approved Japhetic theory in which “a transition from a linear language, gesticulating and mimetic, to a phonetic language, and from concrete thought to abstract thought, is related to the transition from the use of natural tools to man-made tools” (p.81).

She added:

According to Vygotsky, the unity of thinking and speech lies in the meaning of the word. Thus, he ended by identifying thinking and speech. 

In reality, every word is not only a generalization but also a grammatic unit. There is a dialectic unity between the content and the form of a word, but not identity: the word can be complex in content and simple in form, and vice versa. Disregard of the form of a word is tantamount to underestimating grammatic rules. (p.81)

She hits Vygotsky on the “false division” between lower and higher functions (p.82; n.b., Vygotsky was moving away from this division in his final, holistic period). And she argued that “Quite mistakenly, Vygotsky says that the mediation and intellectualization of functions take place under the influence of the word, which serves as a sign and a symbol” (p.82).

Moving on: Rudneva argues that despite Vygotsky’s words, “in reality, for Vygotsky, formal learning plays an external role relative to development and makes no alterations in a child’s development. This is an absolutely invalid, scurrilous affirmation.” (p.84). The ZPD comes in for criticism here as a pseudotheory borrowed from McCarthy (p.84). Similarly, Vygotsky’s method of having children finish sentences is borrowed from Piaget and leads to “sociologizing” (p.87).

Next, Rudneva criticizes Vygotsky’s method. And she names not only the dead but the living:

It must be borne in mind that the experimental work in Vygotsky’s investigations occupy a very limited place. He speaks much about the results of “experimental investigations” and extremely little about the method that he used. 

He and his pupils (Luria, Sakharov, Shif, Zankov, Leontiev) occupy a prominent place in uncritical dissemination of bourgeois method in our country, in particular, Piaget’s method. One of Vygotsky’s pupils, Sakharov, devised a method for studying concepts that does not essentially differ from the method of the well-known German psychologist and fascist, N. Ach; it consisted of finding a meaningless relationship between the shape of a toy and some fanciful abstract name for it. The absurdity of this method was obvious to anyone with common sense: the only name one can give to these stupid “experiments” is that they are an authentic mockery of our children. (p.88)

No wonder Leontiev and Luria were worried.

Finally, Rudneva accuses Vygotsky of formulating a law whereby “a child’s fate is irrevocably sealed by the influence of heredity and the environment”: “Vygotsky formulated very clearly this fatalistic determination of children’s destiny by hereditary factors not only in his early works but also in his very last” (p.89). She uses this claim to directly tie Vygotsky to one of the main criticisms in the Pedology Decree. “Vygotsky mentions the environment as a source of the whole of a child’s development” (p.90). Further, she says that recapitulation is the essence of Vygotsky’s theory:

The whole of the so-called theory of cultural-historical development created by Vygotsky starts out from the premise that a child repeats the path of the whole of mankind in his development. The development of mental functions historically consisted in a transition from natural forms of behavior to cultural forms; an individual masters functions, and their use becomes voluntary and conscious-and all this takes place under the influence of tools and signs. In the stage of cultural development, the word plays the role of tool. For pedologists, including Vygotsky, slander of the children of workers goes hand in hand with slander of imperialists of the colonial peoples to justify the seizure of new territories in the name of “progress” and “culture.” (p.92)

She charges: “Vygotsky does not understand the Marxist-Leninist theory of the environment; he disregards the role of man in transforming the environment” (p.93).

Unfair? Sure. But Rudneva lays down the markers for what would count as an orthodox Marxist-Leninist psychology during the Stalin years. Just to review:

  • it must take productive labor activity as the starting place, not word meaning
  • it must be rooted in Lenin’s theory of reflection [edit 4/26/17: or at least pay lip service to the theory. See PDM pp.60-61 for an example.]
  • it must reject or eschew bourgeois sources, instead grounding itself in Marxist and Soviet sources
  • it must address differences in natural and cultural abilities in a way that is thoroughly grounded in approved Marxist sources
Leontiev, and to an extent Luria, learned these lessons well. In fact, Leontiev almost seems to have used the critique as a checklist for developing his later arguments about activity theory.
Leontiev, A. N. (1937/2005). Study of the environment in the pedological works of LS Vygotsky: a critical study. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 43(4), 8–28. 
Although this article was published in Russia in 1998, it was probably written in 1937 for a lecture Leontiev gave when he returned to work. It criticizes Vygotsky mildly, addressing criticisms similar to those by Razmyslov, Kozyrev & Turko, and Rudneva.
It begins with a discussion of the Pedology Decree:

At their foundation lies the theory of fatalistic determinism. Its essence is that development is understood as a process directly determined, on the one hand, by the innate characteristics of a child (his “abilities,” “talents”), and on the other, by the environment in which this de- velopment takes place. So the development of a child is viewed as a function of these two fundamental factors, no matter how complex the ways in which they combine and are interwoven. (pp.8-9)

He says that Vygotsky “at one time” held that the environment was a factor in child development (p.10). And, quoting Lenin, he charges that

from the very beginning, pedology, from the starting point of its investigations, stripped away the true unity: the unity of subject and object, the personality of a person and his human reality. Through abstraction, the child was removed from the real process of life, from the interaction that is his real existence. (p.11). 

Pedology was a false science because it did not grasp “the principle of the interconnection and transition of some lower forms of movement of material into other, higher forms” (p.11). He adds:

Both the child and the environment truly were studied by pedological researchers, but they were studied only as externally contrasted, abstract things. In what connections and relations did pedology study every given object entering into the makeup of the environment? (p.11)

The relationships are found in productive activity:

in every case the relationship between a person and the environment is defined not by the environment and not by abstract properties of his personality, but specifically by the content of his activity, by the level of development of this activity, and, if it can be expressed this way, by its structure and formation. (p.12)

This reasoning leads Leontiev to argue:

What distinguishes humans from animals is not that they have broken their connection with nature, or that the natural environment has been replaced by society, but primarily they have entered into a new and active relationship with nature. In other words, humans enter into a relationship with nature that is realized through the process of labor, through activity using tools; consequently, their relation to nature becomes one mediated primarily by objects. But through this process humans enter into a certain relationship with other humans, and only through these relationships—with nature itself. Consequently, their relationship to nature is mediated by their relationship to other humans. This means that for humans, the way that nature appears is no longer determined by the direct properties of natural objects themselves, and not even by the specific interrelations among people, fixed in their instinctive activity, but by the social conditions of their existence, their activity as social beings. Consequently, this means that since human beings become human, any object of their activity, even a natural one, becomes for them a human object, that is, a social object. (p.14)

In contrast,

To the animal, however, any “artificial” object created by humans is simply a natural object, it is nature because the animal’s relation toward it will always be an instinctive relation. Thus, of course, in reality there is no doubling of the environment.  (p.14)

For humans, social conditions “also appear in the form of secondary, superstructural formations, that is, in the form of language, in the form, generally speaking, of ideology” (p.14).
He adds: “how specifically-psychologically does the social environment appear in the process of the child’s development? This is the third question we emphasize—the question of the changeability and relativity of the environment. It is more fully developed by L.S. Vygotsky” (p.15). Leontiev treats Vygotsky sympathetically, but critically:

Studies of the development of thought and consciousness of the child led Vygotsky to a very important psychological understanding of meaning. Mean- ing is a generalization that realistically-psychologically stands behind the word that it stands for. As Vygotsky expressed it, meaning is a unit of human, realistic consciousness. (p.17)

To develop this claim, Leontiev says, Vygotsky developed his theory in terms of word meaning, relying on environment as explanation. “Thus, the theory of environment put forth by Vygotsky, locked in the circle of consciousness, loses its initial materialistic position and is transformed into an idealistic theory” (p.20). Leontiev adds:
Of everything that Vygotsky developed theoretically, the conception of the environment is the weakest. In that conception, as in a magic trick, collected in a unified, false construction, were all the theoretical mistakes, inconsistencies of thought, and individual idealistic views that we find in his main psychological works. They suffice in it, and therefore specifically in this conception Vygotsky least of all succeeds in overcoming the views of neopositivism that are traditional in contemporary French bourgeois psychology. (p.20)

Leontiev proffers an escape route: word meaning develops within activity

Thus, the meaning of a child’s word is this very “ideal” product in which his human relation to the reality signified by the given word crystallizes—a reality prominent now within the thinking consciousness of the child himself. The sociohistorical nature of the child psyche is determined, consequently, not by the fact that he communicates, but by the fact that his relationship to reality is socially and objectively mediated, that is, by the fact that his reality takes shape under specific sociohistorical conditions.(p.24)


Thus, Vygotsky’s proposition that consciousness is a product of the child’s verbal communication under conditions of his activity and in relation to the material reality that surrounds him must be turned around: the consciousness of a child is a product of his human activity in relation to objective reality, taking place under conditions of language and under conditions of verbal communication. (p.25)

Here, Leontiev undertakes Vygotsky’s rehabilitation, proffering his own concept of labor activity as the root of consciousness; blunting the criticism of the split between biological and cultural development; and gesturing at Lenin’s reflection theory. Not bad. 
I’m running out of time in this longish review, so I’ll just throw down some bare notes on other publications that Luria developed to protect his position and blunt Rudneva’s critique.
Leontiev, A. N., & Luria, A. R. (1937/2005). The Problem of the Development of the Intellect and Learning in Human Psychology. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 43(4), 34–47.
An unpublished 1937 paper written for the Madrid psychology congress (which was moved to Paris). This paper discusses skill and ties into studies of the Vygotsky circle as well as “the outstanding works of our own L.S. Vygotsky” (p.39). 
Under conditions of objectively mediated labor activity, human speech emerges, which has a designating, objective nature and replaces the expres- sive voice reactions of animals; beginning to reflect objective connections of reality, it opens new possibilities of generalization and becomes a powerful tool of thought. Human cognitive, verbal awareness emerges, an element of which, in the words of L.S. Vygotsky, is meaning, that is, the generalization that stands behind this word; in it appears the specific unity of human thought and speech. The subsequent development of the intellect is also tied to its fate. This takes place over the course of the sociohistorical process and reflects all new forms of specifically human activity and all new forms of generalized reflections of reality in the human consciousness. (pp.40-41)

Leontiev, A. N. (1940/2005). The genesis of activity. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 43(4), 58–71.
This paper lays out the basics of activity theory, including the roots of psychology in productive labor activity, and characterizes it in terms of reflection:
Labor is not only that which appears together with man; it is not only that new relationship to nature that we observe as the result of the humanizing of animals. Labor is also, and primarily, what transforms the animal-like fore- runner of man into man. Again we see that the transition to a higher stage of development both in the sense of more complex and developed organization of the very subject of activity, in this case, man, and from the perspective of the emergence of a new, higher form of the reflection of reality, is realized primarily in the form of a change in life itself, the appearance of a new form of life, a new relationship to reality, and a new form of connection with nature. (p.58)

Notice the parries to previous criticism. More later. 
In Blog

Reading :: Soviet Psychology

Posted by: on Apr 12, 2017 | No Comments

Soviet Psychology: A Symposium

I’ve linked to the 2011 reprint on Amazon, but the UT library had the original 1961 collection published by the Philosophical Library in New York. I just discovered that you can also find a copy in the Internet Archive. The collection does not have an editor listed, although Ralph B. Winn wrote the Foreword and Hans Hiebsch wrote the Introduction. A separate citation lists Winn as the translator. And, unfortunately, neither the Foreword, the Introduction, nor the footnotes tell us what symposium generated these papers or when they were originally written.

Winn does tell us that “American educators have developed a considerable interest in the Soviet system of education” because the Soviets were catching up to the US in atomic physics, missile production, and other technology—and were producing far more engineers than the US was. “We are still ahead, on the whole, but the margin of difference is steadily shrinking” (p.1). That is, Winn proposes that US readers should pay attention to this collection so that they could better understand what was working in the Soviet educational system—perhaps an effective angle in 1961, at the height of the Cold War. To contextualize, Sputnik had been launched just a few years earlier; the U2 incident had happened the year before; and the Cuban Missile Crisis would happen the next year. How could the US learn from the Soviet system?

The answers proffered in this collection are disappointing, I think. Recall that in 1948, Lysenko consolidated control over Soviet agronomy and, through that, exerted control over at least some of the assertions in other Soviet scientific disciplines. Lysenko was finally discredited in 1964 [edit 5/24/17: see comments] and removed in 1965, just a few years after this volume was published. During Lysenko’s ascendance, other scientific disciplines took pains to characterize themselves as allied with Lysenko and Michurin, against bourgeois science, and they also selected founding fathers who could be characterized Michurinites. For psychology, that founding father was Pavlov (although the historical Pavlov could hardly be said to be a Michurinite).

I’ll just pull out a few of the essays.

Introduction (Hans Hiebsch)
Hiebsch overviews the history of Soviet psychology as having three stages:

1917-1936: The struggle of the dictatorship of the proletariat (p.5); the use of pedology, which is characterized as a hodgepodge of bourgeois views, ascribing child development to either heredity or environment, both of which “predetermine psychic development unalterably and fatalistically” (p.6). Pedology was too child-centered (p.6). Hiebsch blames it for the fall in standards in Soviet schools, and he praises both Pavlov for providing an alternate materialist understanding of psychology and the 1936 Pedology Decree for putting an end to it (p.7). In this Decree, the Central Committee of the Communist Party characterized pedology as pseudoscientific, classist, and racist (p.8).

1936-1948: After pedology was abolished, psychologists revived materialist traditions of philosophers; turned to Pavlov and Sechenev; and most importantly, intensely studied Marxism-Leninism (pp.8-9).

1948-present: “The victory of T.D. Lysenko’s biology in August 1948 marks the end of the second stage and the beginning of the third, in which Soviet psychology now finds itself. It studies the teachings of Marx and Engels, and Lenin; it uses dialectical materialism as its foundation; it practices criticism and self-criticism; it fights against bourgeois survivals and for the proletariat; it is a true science and on its way towards fulfilling Makarenko’s motto: ‘Man must be changed.'” (p.9)

The development of Soviet psychology (A.A. Smirnov)
Smirnov develops some themes familiar to activity theorists. For instance, he characterizes materialism as progressive and idealism as reactionary; claims that consciousness “develops as a result of an objective reality which is outside us and independent of us”; and further characterizes consciousness as “merely a reflection, an image in us of the real world.” In this view, “the social relations between men are the most important among the factors of objective reality that influence us, and … these relations are determined by the material living conditions of society” (p.14).

He also, on the other hand, condemns the “pre-Marxist, mechanist materialism” that “mechanized man’s entire life and turned him into an automaton” (p.15).

Smirnov lists some of the problems that occupied Soviet psychology at the time of writing. Here, I’ll just note that one is personality (p.16). Smirnov claims that in a socialist society, egotistic striving disappears and man’s strivings are united with society, allowing personal interests to reach full expression and development. Indeed, Soviet youths choose vocations that help society, not ones that lead to personal wealth or social positions (p.18).

In the school context, Smirnov claims that rather than testing children with standardized tests, the individual teacher makes judgments based on deep contextual factors (p.25). Smirnov also emphasizes the union of consciousness and activity (p.25).

The present tasks of Soviet psychology (A.N. Leontiev)
As preface to this essay, it’s worth noting here that in the appendix of Wortis (1950) is a critique of Leontiev, written just after (and referencing) Lysenko’s 1948 speech that consolidated his hold over the Soviet science system. That critique takes Leontiev to task for not being Michurinist enough.

Leontiev, who had already proven adept at adapting his work and language to the necessities of the ever-changing Soviet system—recall that he handily weathered the Pedology Decree, which was issued only 12 years before Lysenko’s speech—demonstrates how to roll with such criticism. Right out of the gate, Leontiev states that although “Psychology is not a part of the system of biological sciences …  it is very closely connected with the physiology of the higher nervous activity and animal psychology,” using this angle as a way to condemn genetics work based on Morgan (p.31). (Lysenko condemned “Mendelism-Morganism.”) Morganists denied that acquired characteristics can be inherited, and “This false, metaphysical conception of the immutability of characteristics of living creatures hindered the solution of numerous problems of animal psychology, especially those of instinct” (p.32). And he charges: “The Morganists of today distort Darwin’s theory when they proclaim that the inheritance of acquired characteristics is incompatible with a correct conception of the instincts. They thus throw overboard the important contribution of Darwin which differentiates between instinct and the ability to perform a given action” (p.32). Leontiev then critiques Rubinstein’s 1945 textbook General Foundations of Psychology for presenting “the theories of the Morganists and of Lysenko as equally important, although they are actually diametrically opposed” (p.32). (The moves he makes in this argument suggest to me that this essay was written in the late 1940s, as does the fact that the latest citation is from 1947—but the book doesn’t tell us the original date of the essay.)

From here, Leontiev praises the Pedology Decree, saying that it put a stop to quotations of “the theories of Morgan, Weismann, and Mendel” (p.32-33). He highlights that this resolution not only put an end to pedology, it “also put an end to the ‘two-factor theory’ which proclaimed the equal role of heredity and environment” (p.33). And he adds,

The triumph of creative Soviet Darwinism, as expressed in the complete victory of the Michurinist tendency in the Soviet Union, also meant the foundation of a dialectical materialist theory of the development of living organisms. . . . The phylogenetic theory of Michurin and Lysenko has also been applied to psychology. . . . (p.34)

(The ellipses are in the original text and suggest that it has been edited.)

So at this point, Leontiev has praised the Pedology Decree that almost ended his career in the 1930s and tied it to Lysenkoism, which would be thoroughly discredited shortly after Winn’s collection was published. Humiliating, perhaps, but we can also perhaps admire Leontiev’s skill in methodically aligning himself with prevailing trends in order to continue his work—and to make it thrive. For instance:

But life itself, the child’s activity which determines in its course his mental development, is not spontaneous—it is under the influence of education and instruction. In a Socialist society, which does not develop spontaneously but is directed by men, education is the decisive force which forms man intellectually. It must correspond to the aims and the needs of the entire society, of the entire people or, in other words, it must fully agree with real human needs, and also with those of individual man.  (pp.36-37).

The USSR needs psychology, and specifically the psychology that Leontiev is developing:

These theoretical conceptions of the development of the mental factor are characteristic of Soviet psychology. But it must by no means be concluded from this that Soviet psychology already possesses a fully developed Marxist theory of the historical development of the factor. It must, on the contrary, be stated that this problem has so far received an inadequate treatment. We still have no fundamental research into these questions. The few studies that do exist, like the “General Foundations of Psychology” by S. L. Rubinstein and the “Sketch of the Psychological Development” by A. N. Leontiev, suffer, as was noted in scientific criticism, from considerable defects.  

And so the most important task that now faces the Soviet psychologists is the creation of a historical psychology, a theory of the historical development of the mental factor at different stages of society and in representatives of different social classes, of the basic changes in human experience produced by the abolition of private property and by the planned transformation of this experience under conditions of gradual transition from socialism to communism. (p.37)

(In 1949, Leontiev replaced Rubinstein as head of the psychology department at Moscow due to Russian chauvinism/ anticosmopolitanism/ antisemitism. Less than a decade before, in 1940, Rubinstein had served on Leontiev’s dissertation committee. There’s a lesson in here somewhere.

And note the last sentence, which sounds a bit like the project that Luria and Vygotsky envisioned in their Uzbek expedition.)

Leontiev goes on:

In a theory of child psychology we must, of course, also start from a consideration of the driving forces in the development of the child’s experience. Contrary to the metaphysical theory of “two-factors” (i.e., heredity and environment) , according to which the development of the child’s psyche is said to proceed fatalistically, Soviet psychology shows that this development is based on the growth of the child’s living conditions and of his activities, which are determined by objective living conditions and education.  

The child enters the society of men with his very first steps into life. He learns from society the activities which it has developed and the language which reflects the social practices of mankind. The child’s environment presents him with all kinds of tasks and demands and thus actively makes him engage in activities required by these tasks and demands. Thus, the social environment instructs and educates the child.  

This does not happen without a conscious setting by society of the aims of education and instruction. This conscious and purposeful process of education, which starts in early childhood, is continued, though in essentially different forms, in the kindergarten, at school and in social life. The mental development of the child is realized in this process. (p.38)

Rather than heredity/environment, Leontiev proffers an understanding based on activity, in which children enter society with even the first interaction. (This differentiates his approach as Marxist rather than “Mendelist-Morganist” or bourgeois.) But he also emphasizes the vital role of school (and protects himself from the charge of signing onto the theory of the withering away of the school). And:

Numerous investigations by Soviet psychologists on the development of mental processes of children, e.g., of perception, memory, thought and speech, have given concrete proofs that the formation of these processes must not be viewed as the unfolding of innate abilities under the influence of all kinds of conditions of the milieu. This formation takes place in the course of the child’s directed activities. The psychological characteristics that were hitherto fatalistically attributed to given stages of development, proved to be actually the products of the child’s life which went on under certain definite social conditions, the product of the child’s instruction and education. Rich possibilities of producing desirable psychological and character traits in the children were thus revealed. (pp.38-39)

That is, development is attributable not to “fatalism” (i.e., bourgeois cover for differences imposed by race and class) but to labor activity. A few pages later, he discusses “leading activities” that prepare the child to move from a simpler to a more complex activity (p.42; cf. Engestrom).

Finally, Leontiev opposes the bourgeois notion of children’s stages (cf. Piaget) and proffers an alternate theory of stages:

The numerous periodisations, i.e., lists of stages, of childhood of bourgeois psychology are well known. All of them start, more or less, from the metaphysical conception of psychological development as an unfolding of the child’s innate characteristics, i.e., from theories  which falsely transfer so-called biological laws into child psychology. They identify the psychological with the biological development of the child, and use such phenomena as change of teeth or the development of the function of the sexual glands, to mark the stages. All these periodisations are attempts to present the psychological development of the child as a phenomenon of growth.  

The pseudo-scientific character of these periodisations, which are essentially paedological, is obvious. It is our task to oppose them by a periodisation of the child’s growth that is founded on the dialectical materialist conception of development. The solution of this problem was made possible by the investigations, already mentioned, of individual mental processes in the child and by studies of the development of various kinds of child activities— play, learning, work, etc. (pp.39-40). 

Leontiev does not cite the “investigations, already mentioned,” but they sound like the work he, Luria, and Vygotsky did in the 1930s.

All in all, an illuminating rhetorical performance.

The intellectual development of the child (A.N. Leontiev)
Although this essay is much longer, I’ll review it much more briefly. Leontiev elaborates on periods or stages in children’s development, linking them to changes in the child’s personality. These provide typical stages, which differ both qualitative and quantitatively (p.56). Although he links them to ages, he makes clear that “The stage of development is thus neither absolute nor predetermined; rather it is dependent on the concrete conditions of development and can change accordingly” (p.58). I’m not especially interested in these, but now you know where to find Leontiev’s thoughts on them.

It’s worth noting that this second essay cites sources as late as 1949, and Lysenko is not quoted here. That may or may not mean that it was written after “The present tasks of Soviet psychology.”

In all, this collection was an interesting time capsule, although I can’t tell whether it’s representative of its time of US publication (1961) or a collection of essays dating to an earlier time (as early as 1948). As a guide to activity theory or Soviet psychology, it has limited value. But since the Internet Archive has a plain text copy, it should be easy to access; if it interests you, click through and take a look.

In Blog

Reading :: Psychology in the Soviet Union

Posted by: on Mar 29, 2017 | No Comments

Psychology in the Soviet Union
Edited by Brian Simon

I’ve provided a link to a used copy on Amazon, but this 1957 collection comes to me through UT’s library. It resulted from a 1955 trip that “a small party of teachers and educationalists” (presumably British, although this was not clear) took to the USSR at the invitation of the Academy of Educational Sciences (p.vii). Based on this interest, Soviet psychologists assembled a series of essays to help familiarize Western educators with the psychological precepts on which Soviet pedagogy was founded. The authors included some names that will be familiar to readers of this blog: Elkonin. Zaporozhets, Luria, Leontiev, Menchinskaya, Galperin, and Rubinstein.

The collection is a nicely preserved time capsule of Soviet psychology just after the death of Stalin in 1953. During this time, Soviet psychologists suddenly began publishing monographs and other publications. The characteristics of the Stalinist mode of publication were still there—including ritual cites of Soviet great men—but we also see how activity theory concepts were mobilized in some of these publications.

Rather than looking comprehensively across the chapters, let’s just pick out a few.

“Introduction” (Brian Simon)
The introduction is essentially a primer for Western audiences by the Western editor. Although we don’t really see any surprises here, it’s worth noting that the precept on which activity theory is founded makes a showing here:

Consciousness and speech, it is argued, are prepared for in the animal world but arise uniquely in man with the development of social forms of life based on labour. Labour, a qualitatively new activity, gives rise to a qualitatively new characteristic of the mind—the conscious reflection of objective reality. This new characteristic corresponds to the needs and conditions of the new form of social life. As the labour process becomes more complex and society develops, therefore, this new characteristic also develops and comes to take a predominant position; whereas, by contrast, other characteristics which were predominant in the animal world cease to develop and sink into the background. It is a process of internal contradiction, between the new and the old, taking place in dependence upon the conditions of life. (p.6).


if consciousness is inseparably connected with activity and changes with changes in the form of activity, then it follows that (1) mental processes can be investigated objectively, as they are manifested in activity, (2) changes in the form of activity can influence changes in the organization of mental processes. (p.7). 

Simon then lists “the general principles informing Soviet psychology,” including

  • “Mental processes are properties of the brain…”
  • “Consciousness is a reflection of the objective world…”
  • “Neural-mental activity is conditioned by the form of existence … and changes with changes in the form of existence.”
  • “Consciousness is formed in practical activity and revealed in the course of activity.” (p.8)
In a footnote, Simon references the Pedology decree. Excitingly, he tells us that it is “printed in full in Soviet Psychiatry (1950)”—I’ve been looking for this text. Unfortunately UT’s library doesn’t appear to have it, but maybe I can get a copy through interlibrary loan.
“The physiology of higher nervous activity and child psychology” (Elkonin)
Although I wasn’t particularly interested in this chapter, I did want to note that Elkonin works two salutary references into the first paragraph. The first is to the Pedology Decree, which he says “exposed the pseudo-scientific conception that a child’s destiny is fatally determined by heredity and an unchangeable environment” (p.47). The other is to Pavlov (also p.47). 
Out of the 20 Soviet-authored chapters and Luria’s appendix—which is another article—Pavlov is referenced in the first page of 9 of these; Marx and Lenin get one mention each. This distribution reflects the fact that Pavlov was still dominant in the mid-1950s, but would be displaced by Leontiev’s activity theory by the mid-1960s
“The role of language in the formation of temporary connections” (Luria)
Luria does not directly cite Pavlov in the first page, but does refer to Pavlov’s “second signal system” on the first page (p.115). More interesting to me is that on the next page, he connects this second signal system to the function of language in self-regulation, saying that “attention was first directed to this question in the 1920’s”—and using a footnote to clarify this use of passive voice, attributing this work to “L.S. Vygotsky and his collaborators” (p.116). In a few paragraphs, Luria covers: children using self-talk (externalization) during problem solving in “practical activity” such as modeling plasticine or tracing a drawing); the role of speech in “the mediated, specifically human, form of regulation of action”; the development of speech from “communication” with others to the organization of one’s own experience and regulation of one’s own actions (p.116); and the process of internalizing speech, in which “full, overt speech, therefore, gradually becomes transformed into contracted, internal speech” (p.117). Luria has economically summarized Thought and Language for us. 
He also claims that connections formed with the aid of verbal systems are longer lasting than those reinforced in animals (p.121)—of a piece with Vygotsky’s differentiation between mediated and unmediated memory as well as the distinction that he and Vygotsky made between humans and animals elsewhere
“The formation of associative connections: An experimental investigation (Leontiev and Rozonava)
In this chapter, Leontiev and Rozonava investigate how people form associations. Like Luria, they draw on Pavlov’s second signal system for framing the study (p.164-5). But, like Luria, they seem to be actually grounding the work in the 1920s-30s work of the Vygotsky Circle—specifically, Leontiev’s study of mediated memory. The authors performed their experiments with 160 adult subjects (p.166). 
In the first experiment, the authors lay out a 4×4 grid of rings. Each ring had a small circular card with a word written on it. They did not change the order of the cards. All were four-letter words (not in the Western profane sense) printed in similar type (p.167). The room was dark except for the illumination of one card at a time, for two seconds, in the same order. The subject had to read each word as it was illuminated. Depending on the series, the subject was asked to do one of three things with the cards:
  • Series I: Remove cards that the experimenter illuminated with a pointer.
  • Series II: Remove cards beginning with the letter S.
  • Series III: Determine which letter most frequently came first in the words shown. 
Afterwards, the subject and experimenter chatted about unrelated things for about 15 minutes. Then the subject was asked specific questions about the cards, such as: What were the initial letters on the words of the cards? (p.168). The results: Series I people couldn’t answer the questions or even remember the words; Series II people could remember letter S words (and even where they were), but couldn’t answer other questions; Series III people could remember the first letters of all the words, but couldn’t remember many of the words themselves (p.169). 
I’ll skip the rest of the experiments in this chapter. My point is that this chapter seems very similar in concern and method to Leontiev’s earlier work, described in Vygotsky & Luria.
“The nature and formation of human psychic properties” (Leontiev)
This article is more theoretical. It was delivered at a 1954 conference. For me, the salient part is that Leontiev—referencing “an investigation … carried out by the writer as early as 1930″—describes how actions based on external objects are internalized as mental processes (e.g., a child counts first by pointing, then eventually without pointing). Similarly, he discusses the process of external speech becoming internalized as internal speech (p.230). Leontiev concludes that “Investigation of the laws governing the formation of psychic properties serves a great practical aim: the fullest possible development of the capabilities of every individual. Soviet psychologists see this as one of their most important tasks” (p.232). Is this the remains of Vygotsky’s “peak” psychology?
Appendix I: “Psychopathological research in the USSR” (Luria)
As with his previous chapter in this book, Luria refers to Vygotsky on the second page. Unlike that chapter, here he names Vygotsky in the text rather than a footnote and spends a few paragraphs discussing Vygotsky’s biography and focus. “He took as his starting point the notion that psychic activity develops in the process of reflecting the external environment, and that this reflection is mediated through language” (p.280).
Note that, as with Leontiev’s “The nature and formation of human psychic properties,” the term “reflect” is worked in. This term doesn’t adequately describe what Vygotsky was trying to express, I think. But it has the virtue of superficially tying Vygotskian theory to Lenin’s claim that the mind reflects objective reality. In her 1937 broadside against Vygotsky, Rudneva charged that Vygotsky “regards the whole of man’s mental activity not in the light of Lenin’s theory of reflection … but as an idealist, immanent … process taking place independent of social-class relations and independent of people’s productive activity” (pp.76-77). Vygotsky was dead by that time, but Luria and Leontiev scrambled to reconfigure their work to blunt these and similar criticisms. 
Overall, as I said, this collection is more of a time capsule than a valuable collection for thinking through Soviet psychology. But as a time capsule, it’s quite useful. If you’re interested in how activity theory developed, check it out.