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 They have read Vygotsky’s unpublished papers and correspondence as well as those of his contemporaries, and they have contextualized the moments of his life and thought alongside the events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.
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.
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.
In my ongoing quest to revisit the roots of activity theory, I picked up this thick collection to gain insight into the psychologist who is commonly seen as the origin point of AT.
As Rene van der Veer reminds us in the first chapter, “Vygotsky in Context,” Vygotsky was very nearly forgotten (p.39). Van der Veer nicely contextualizes Vygotsky in this chapter, describing how the great scholar was influenced by Marxist thought and how he sometimes had to navigate around Soviet orthodoxy; see Van der Veer and Valsiner’s Understanding Vygotsky: A Quest for Synthesis for a more in-depth exploration of these influences.
David Bakhurst’s chapter, “Vygotsky’s Demons,” examines Vygotsky’s philosophical influences and legacy. Bakhurst provides an overview of Vygotsky’s tenets in dialogue with philosophy, and intriguingly argues that “the growing appreciation of the significance of the semiotic that marks Vygotsky’s later work should have led him to dialogism, for if consciousness is a semiotic phenomenon, and if meaning is a cultural product, then the very content of consciousness is fixed in social space (just as the meaning of an author’s words is not determined by her say-so)” (p.63). Bakhurst reasons that “A psychology that grasps this insight will attend more to the negotation of meaning in public contexts and focus less on events in individual minds”; yet Vygotsky “could never shake free of the idea that the individual is the primary unit of psychological analysis” (p.63).
Bakhurst also notes that
unlike doctrinaire Marxists, he did not think that progress was guaranteed by the laws of history; but he believed in it nonetheless. Because he saw enculturation as the source of mind, he naturally held that an individual’s potential is constrained by the level of sophistication of the mediational means offered by his or her culture. This prompted him to draw parallels between the child’s elementary mental functioning and the forms of representation and reasoning typical of so-called primitive societies. (p.71)
Perhaps contra Bakhurst, Holland and Lachicotte argue in their chapter that Vygotsky and Luria developed a dialogic understanding of self: “one’s behaviors elicit reactions from others, so that, over time, on develops an inner sense of the collective meanings and social judgments that may meet one’s behavior” (p.106).
In James Wertsch’s chapter, “Mediation,” he argues that Vygotsky used the term in two different ways. In explicit mediation, an individual “overtly and intentionally introduce[s] a ‘stimulus means’ into an ongoing stream of activity,” and the stimulus means “tends to be obvious and nontransitory” (p.180). Implicit mediation, in contrast, “is part of an already ongoing communicative stream that is brought into contact with other forms of action” (pp.180-181); these signs are not deliberately introduced, nor do they originally emerge to organize the activity (p.181). Implicit mediation includes inner speech; it is ephemeral and ongoing (p.183).
Cole and Gajdamaschko’s chapter “Vygotsky and Culture” explores his ideas of culture—a somewhat difficult task, since he used the term in at least three different ways. But the authors argue that his “orientation to culture as a historical phenomenon is central to the comparative aspect of Vygotsky’s theory” (p.199). He also believed that “there was an intimate link between culture and mind” (p.199). Indeed, Vygotsky and Luria argued that “what is crucial in human development, and distinct from the development of other creatures is not the existence of tool use or communication considered in isolation, but their fusion such that what are ordinarily considered separately as tools, signs, and symbols are unified” (p.200). Vygotsky and his contemporaries mistakenly believed that tool use was uniquely human (p.203; I personally blame Engels).
Cole and Gajdamaschko note Leontiev’s break with Vygotsky in which he shifted the unit of analysis to activity rather than mediation. This shift was seen as a repudiation of Vygotsky, but the authors argue that it was “an effort to place mediation in its cultural context” (p.206).
Skipping a bit, we get to Yrjo Engestrom’s chapter, “Putting Vygotsky to Work: The Change Laboratory as an Application of Double Stimulation.” Engestrom is characteristically interested in application that is firmly grounded in Vygotskian theory, so he emphasizes his Change Laboratory approach as using double stimulation, which is “aimed at eliciting new, expansive forms of agency in subjects. In other words, double stimulation is focused on making subjects masters of their own lives” (p.363). In double stimulation, the experimental situation cannot be rigidly controlled; double stimulation can trigger, but not produce the individual’s construction of new psychological phenomena (p.365). Vygotsky goes on to tease out the implications of double stimulation as a learning tool.
Overall, this collection provided a solid overview of Vygotsky’s thought from a variety of vantage points. Paired with Vygotsky’s original works and some other commentary, this collection provides valuable insights. If you’re interested in Vygotsky or the elements of activity theory, check it out.
As part of my research on the Soviet milieu in which activity theory developed, I read this famous account of the Revolution penned by a US journalist with socialist sympathies. It’s a gripping account, and John Reed’s enthusiasm is evident on each page as he recounts what he saw in Petrograd. This recounting includes several speeches by Lenin and Trotsky.
Reed’s enthusiasm yields a book that is episodic and sprawling rather than tightly edited. But for my purposes, I will just focus on a few issues.
First, Reed captures at several points the knife’s-edge of Soviet hope and paranoia. Early in the account of the revolution, Reed says:
Now there was all great Russia to win—and then the world! Would Russia follow and rise? Would the people answer and rise, a world red-tide?
Recounting speeches, he says,
One spoke of the ‘coming World-Revolution, of which we are the advance-guard
Not everyone was carried away by the prospect of world revolution. Avilov, a Menshevik, warned: “‘You cannot count on the effective help of the proletariat of the Allied countries, because in most countries it is very far from the revolutionary struggle.'” Reed treats Avilov as wrong, and describes Trotsky’s rebuttal:
“Avilov menaces us with failure of our peace efforts-if we remain ‘isolated.’ I repeat, I don’t see how a coalition with Skobeliev, or even Terestchenko, can help us to get peace! Avilov tries to frighten us by the threat of a peace at our expense. And I answer that in any case, if Europe continues to be ruled by the imperialist bourgeoisie, revolutionary Russia will inevitably be lost….
“There are only two alternatives; either the Russian Revolution will create a revolutionary movement in Europe, or the European powers will destroy the Russian Revolution!”
They greeted him with an immense crusading acclaim, kindling to the daring of it, with the thought of championing mankind. And from that moment there was something conscious and decided about the insurrectionary masses, in all their actions, which never left them.
The Soviets truly believed that a global revolution of the proletariat was both inevitable and necessary. As Trotsky argued, the bourgeoise would threaten the Revolution as long as they existed—this claim was also a tenet of Lenin’s—and thus the Revolution had to be global. Reed apparently shared that belief and was confident the world revolution would happen.
Until that world revolution happened, the Soviets believed, the proletariat revolution was perpetually in danger of counterrevolution. Thus the opportunities for counterrevolution had to be treated ruthlessly. So Reed approvingly notes the speeches that Trotsky and Lenin made against the freedom of the press. Trotsky claimed that “the closing of the newspapers is a legitimate measure of defense,” and Lenin concurred:
Then Lenin, calm, unemotional, his forehead wrinkled, as he spoke slowly, choosing his words; each sentence falling like a hammer-blow. “The civil war is not yet finished; the enemy is still with us; consequently it is impossible to abolish the measures of repression against the Press.
“We Bolsheviki have always said that when we reached a position of power we would close the bourgeois press. To tolerate the bourgeois newspapers would mean to cease being a Socialist. When one makes a Revolution, one cannot mark time; one must always go forward—or go back. He who now talks about the ‘freedom of the Press’ goes backward, and halts our headlong course toward Socialism.
This book is ebullient in style and heartbreaking in retrospect. If you want a journalistic account of the Revolution, I recommend it.