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Posted by: on May 3, 2016 | No Comments
The Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology: A Methodological Investigation
By Lev Vygotsky

Vygotsky never published this manuscript, which fortunately is free to us, courtesy of Marxists.org. Supposedly Leontiev kept a copy and had his graduate students read it.

In Chapter 1, Vygotsky identifies a "crisis" in psychology: although people recognize the need for a psychology, and although various psychological disciplines have developed approaches, "Further advance along a straight line, the simple continuation of the same work, the gradual accumulation of material, are proving fruitless or even impossible. In order to go further we must choose a path." Specifically:
Out of such a methodological crisis, from the conscious need for guidance in different disciplines, from the necessity – on a certain level of knowledge – to critically coordinate heterogeneous data, to order uncoordinated laws into a system, to interpret and verify the results, to cleanse the methods and basic concepts, to create the fundamental principles, in a word, to pull the beginnings and ends of our knowledge together, out of all this, a general science is born.
But where is the methodological starting point? We can't start with pathology, Vygotsky says, because it leads us to look for the extreme, not the normal. We can't start with zoopsychology (e.g., behaviorism or reflexology) because, contrary, "always the highest forms [are] the key to the lower ones" (and here he cites Marx).

And yet, he says, we need a unified methodological basis for psychology. In this book,
We wish to obtain a clear idea of the essence of individual and social psychology as two aspects of a single science, and of their historical fate, not through abstract considerations, but by means of an analysis of scientific reality. From this we will deduce, as a politician does from the analysis of events, the rules for action and the organisation of scientific research. The methodological investigation utilises the historical examination of the concrete forms of the sciences and the theoretical analysis of these forms in order to obtain generalised, verified principles that are suitable for guidance. This is, in our opinion, the core of this general psychology whose concept we will attempt to clarify in this chapter.
 This problem is crucial, since facts are collected and interpreted differently via different methodologies. Worse:
At present psychoanalysis, behaviourism, and subjective psychology are already operating not only with different concepts, but with different facts as well. Facts such as the Oedipus complex, indisputable and real for psychoanalysts, simply do not exist for other psychologists; for many it is wildest phantasy.
Thus "the fundamental concept, the primary abstraction, so to speak, that lies at the basis of a science, determines not only the content, but also predetermines the character of the unity of the different disciplines, and through this, the way to explain the facts, i.e., the main explanatory principle of the science."

Yet different branches of psychology, he notes, have been fighting for supremacy, and this has caused problems.

In Ch.3, Vygotsky notes these problems:
It can be said of any important discovery in any area, when it transcends the boundaries of that particular realm, that it has the tendency to turn into an explanatory principle for all psychological phenomena and lead psychology beyond its proper boundaries into broader realms of knowledge. In the last several decades this tendency has manifested itself with such amazing strictness and consistency, with such regular uniformity in the most diverse areas, that it becomes absolutely possible to predict the course of development of this or that concept, discovery, or idea. At the same time this regular repetition in the development of widely varying ideas evidently – and with a clarity that is seldom observed by the historian of science and methodologist – points to an objective necessity underlying the development of the science, to a necessity which we may observe when we approach the facts of science from an equally scientific point of view. It points to the possibility of a scientific methodology built on a historical foundation.
That is, some branch of psychology attempts to become ascendant in this way:

  1. It is applied successfully to a specific problem: "In the beginning there is some factual discovery of more or less great significance which reforms the ordinary conception of the whole area of phenomena to which it refers, and even transcends the boundaries of the given group of phenomena within which it was first observed and formulated."
  2. Due to its success, it is applied to adjacent areas: "The idea is stretched out, so to speak, to material that is broader than what it originally covered. The idea itself (or its application) is changed in the process, it becomes formulated in a more abstract way."
  3. Eventually, it takes over as the default explanatory framework: "the idea controls more or less the whole discipline in which it originally arose. It has partly changed the structure and size of the discipline and has itself been to some extent changed by them. It has become separated from the facts that engendered it, exists in the form of a more or less abstractly formulated principle, and becomes involved in the struggle between disciplines for supremacy."
  4. It keeps expanding beyond its disciplinary bounds, separating from the facts that engendered it, eventually being "formulated as a universal principle or even as a whole world view."
  5. It bursts like a soap bubble: "it enters a stage of struggle and negation which it now meets from all sides," and at this point its limitations become apparent and it shrinks to the appropriate size—or disappears.
In Chapter 4, Vygotsky gives us several examples: "psychoanalysis, reflexology, Gestalt psychology, and personalism." For each,
The extension of the concept grows and reaches for infinity and according to the well-known logical law, its content falls just as impetuously to zero. Each of these four ideas is extremely rich, full of meaning and sense, full of value and fruitful in its own place. But elevated to the rank of universal laws they are worthy of each other, they are absolutely equal to each other, like round and empty zeros. Stern's personality is a complex of reflexes according to Bekhterev, a Gestalt according to Wertheimer, sexuality according to Freud.
Yes, Vygotsky, yes. But here Vygotsky holds out hope for a truly universal principle:
Doesn't this tendency of each new idea in psychology to turn into a universal law show that psychology really should rest upon universal laws, that all these ideas wait for a master-idea which comes and puts each different, particular idea in its place and indicates its importance? The regularity of the path covered with amazing constancy by the most diverse ideas testifies, of course, to the fact that this path is predetermined by the objective need for an explanatory principle and it is precisely because such a principle is needed and not available that various special principles occupy its place. Psychology, realising that it is a matter of life or death to find a general explanatory principle, grabs for any idea, albeit an unreliable one.
And here I found myself saying: No, Vygotsky, no! But this is ultimately Vygotsky's goal: to develop a universal methodological principle for psychology, one that can unify it. It's a modernist goal for Vygotsky's modernist psychology.

In Ch.5, Vygotsky freely quotes Engels to substantiate his point that abstractions can and should be based on actual relations—and that dialectics is the way to do so.
Engels [1925/1978, p. 514] has pointed out many times that for dialectical logic the methodology of science is a reflection of the methodology of reality. He says that 
The classification of sciences of which each analyzes a different form of movement, or a number of movements that are connected and merge into each other, is at the same time a classification, an ordering according to the inherent order of these forms of movement themselves and in this resides their importance. 
Can it be said more clearly? In classifying the sciences we establish the hierarchy of reality itself
In Chapter 7, Vygotsky discusses the issue of one school taking on ideas from another. Whether one school "annexes" ideas from the other or whether they become "allied," this process is fraught with difficulties because the ideas have developed within different systems under different premises. Re the latter, it's not hard to read between the lines and see a critique of the young Luria here:
This method is usually applied in the merger of Marxism and Freudian theory. In so doing the author uses a method that by analogy with geometry might be called the method of the logical superposition of concepts. The system of Marxism is defined as being monistic, materialistic, dialectic etc. Then the monism, materialism etc. of Freud’s system is established; the superimposed concepts coincide and the systems are declared to have fused. Very flagrant, sharp contradictions which strike the eye are removed in a very elementary way: they are simply excluded from the system, are declared to be exaggerations, etc. 
And if you didn't see it coming, a few paragraphs later, Vygotsky explicitly makes the case with a cite to Luria's 1925 paper! He goes on to say that such alliances fundamentally disrespect the intended allies—Luria, he says, in trying to reconcile the two systems, is essentially telling Freud that Freud is materialist and monist. He concludes: "By no means do I want to say that everything in psychoanalysis contradicts Marxism. I only want to say that I am in principle not dealing with this question at all. I am only pointing out how we should (methodologically) and should not (uncritically) fuse two systems of ideas."

In Chapter 8, this line of thought reaches its conclusion with this intriguing analogy:
As to the methodological spine that is supporting them there are two scientific systems. Methodology is always like the backbone, the skeleton in the animal’s organism. Very primitive animals, like the snail and the tortoise, carry their skeleton on the outside and they can, like an oyster, be separated from their skeleton. What is left is a poorly differentiated fleshy part. Higher animals carry their skeleton inside and make it into the internal support, the bone of each of their movements. In psychology as well we must distinguish lower and higher types of methodological organization. 
This is the best refutation of the sham empiricism of the natural sciences. It turns out that nothing can be transposed from one theory to another. It would seem that a fact is always a fact. Despite the different points of departure and the different aims one and the same object (a child) and one and the same method (objective observation) should make it possible to transpose the facts of psychology to reflexology. The difference would only be in the interpretation of the same facts. In the end the systems of Ptolemy and Copernicus rested upon the same facts as well. [But] It turns out that facts obtained by means of different principles of knowledge are different facts.
In Ch.9, Vygotsky notes that Chelpanov ridicules psychologists from rival schools who rename the phenomena they study.
Chelpanov is tempted to reduce the whole reform carried out by behaviorism to a play of words. He assumes that in Watson’s writings the word “sensation” or “idea” is replaced by the word “reaction.” In order to show the reader the difference between ordinary psychology and the psychology of the behaviorist, Chelpanov (1925) gives examples of the new way of expressing things: 
"In ordinary psychology it is said: ‘When someone’s optical nerve is stimulated by a mixture of complementary light waves, he will become conscious of the white color.’ According to Watson in this case we must say: ‘He reacts to it as if it were a white color.’" 
The triumphant conclusion of the author is that the matter is not changed by the words used.
But, Vygotsky says, this is the view of someone who is uncritical: "Who has no view of his own about the phenomena and accepts indifferently both Spinoza, Husserl, Marx, and Plato, for such a person a fundamental change of words is an empty pretension." In contrast, Vygotsky says, "We can say in advance that the word that refers to a fact at the same time provides a philosophy of that fact, its theory, its system."

And here he connects the discussion of terminology back to the question of methodology in the previous chapter:
We have seen everywhere that the word, like the sun in a drop of water, fully reflects the processes and tendencies in the development of a science. A certain fundamental unity of knowledge in science comes to light which goes from the highest principles to the selection of a word. What guarantees this unity of the whole scientific system? The fundamental methodological skeleton. The investigator, insofar as he is not a technician, a registrar, an executor, is always a philosopher who during the investigation and description is thinking about the phenomena, and his way of thinking is revealed in the words he uses.
In Chapter 10, Vygotsky summarizes:
From the fragmentary analyses of the separate elements of a science we have learned to view it as a complex whole which develops dynamically and lawfully. In which stage of development is our science at this moment, what is the meaning and nature of the crisis it experiences and what will be its outcome? Let us proceed to the answer to these questions. When one is somewhat acquainted with the methodology (and history) of the sciences, science loses its image of a dead, finished, immobile whole consisting of ready-made statements and becomes a living system which constantly develops and moves forward, and which consists of proven facts, laws, suppositions, structures, and conclusions which are continually being supplemented, criticized, verified, partially rejected, interpreted and organized anew, etc. Science commences to be understood dialectically in its movement, i.e., from the perspective of its dynamics, growth, development, evolution. It is from this point of view that we must evaluate and interpret each stage of development. 
So how is the current crisis in psychology interpreted? Some, like Chelpanov, deny its existence. Others interpret it "subjectively," believing their school is correct and others are simply wrong. Vygotsky warns that psychology will either coalesce around a future unified system or splinter due to mutually exclusive principles of knowledge. He adds something interesting here:
But before we turn to this point we must first quit radically with the misunderstanding that psychology is following the path biology already took and in the end will simply be attached to it as its part. To think about it in this way is to fail to see that sociology edged its way between the biology of man and animals and tore psychology into two parts.
In Chapter 11, Vygotsky adds that psychology cannot be empirical because "empiricism formulates its tasks in such a way as to reveal their impossibility. Indeed, on the basis of empiricism, i.e., completely discarding basic premises, no scientific knowledge whatever is logically and historically possible." This is Chelpanov's dilemma: He "wants psychology to be a natural science about (1) phenomena which are completely different from physical phenomena, and (2) which are conceived in a way that is completely different from the way the objects of the natural sciences are investigated."

In Chapter 12, Vygotsky declares that "the main driving force of the crisis in its final phase is the development of applied psychology as a whole" (his emphasis). He adds: "One can say about applied psychology what can be said about philosophy which was rejected by empirical psychology: 'the stone which the builders rejected is become the head stone of the corner.'" He argues that "the struggle between the two psychologies does not coincide with the struggle between the many conceptions and psychological schools, but stands behind them and determines them" (again, his emphasis).

And he concludes the chapter:
Many psychologists have viewed the introduction of the experiment as a fundamental reform of psychology and have even equated experimental and scientific psychology. They predicted that the future would belong solely to experimental psychology and have viewed this epithet as a most important methodological principle. But in psychology the experiment remained on the level of a technical device, it was not utilised in a fundamental way and it led, in the case of Ach for instance, to its own negation. Nowadays many psychologists see a way out in methodology, in the correct formation of principles. They expect salvation from the other end. But their work is fruitless as well. Only a fundamental rejection of the blind empiricism which is trailing behind immediate introspectional experience and which is internally split into two parts; only the emancipation from introspection, its exclusion just like the exclusion of the eye in physics; only a rupture and the selection of a single psychology will provide the way out of the crisis. The dialectic unity of methodology and practice, applied to psychology from two sides, is the fate and destiny of one of the psychologies. A complete severance from practice and the contemplation of ideal essences is the destiny and fate of the other. A complete rupture and separation is their common destiny and fate. This rupture began, continues, and will be completed along the lines of practice. (His emphasis)

In Ch.13, Vygotsky grounds his proposed psychology in dialectical materialism—but not by simply applying terms to the new domain:
Engels’ formula – not to foist the dialectical principles on nature, but to find them in it – is changed into its opposite here. The principles of dialectics are introduced into psychology from outside. The way of Marxists should be different. The direct application of the theory of dialectical materialism to the problems of natural science and in particular to the group of biological sciences or psychology is impossible, just as it is impossible to apply it directly to history and sociology. In Russia it is thought that the problem of “psychology and Marxism” can be reduced to creating a psychology which is up to Marxism, but in reality it is far more complex. Like history, sociology is in need of the intermediate special theory of historical materialism which explains the concrete meaning, for the given group of phenomena, of the abstract laws of dialectical materialism. In exactly the same way we are in need of an as yet undeveloped but inevitable theory of biological materialism and psychological materialism as an intermediate science which explains the concrete application of the abstract theses of dialectical materialism to the given field of phenomena. 
Dialectics covers nature, thinking, history – it is the most general, maximally universal science. The theory of the psychological materialism or dialectics of psychology is what I call general psychology. 
In order to create such intermediate theories – methodologies, general sciences – we must reveal the essence of the given area of phenomena, the laws of their change, their qualitative and quantitative characteristics, their causality, we must create categories and concepts appropriate to it, in short, we must create our own Das Kapital.  (his emphasis)
And that is the really interesting thing about the book, and perhaps why it lay in Leontiev's desk drawer rather than being published. Vygotsky wanted a revolutionary change in the conception and methodology of psychology, one that was as fundamental as Marx's Das Kapital—one that was not dialectical in the forced, artificial way that Kornilov's "materialist" psychology was, nor an internally contradictory mishmash in the way of Luria's early flirtation with Freudianism, but rather, one that was materialist at the roots and that could seamlessly grow into its connections with dialectical materialism, the logic of nature.

I have been reluctant to believe that Vygotsky took Engels that seriously, but based on this argument, I think he really did. Nevertheless, Vygotsky was a more systematic thinker, one who saw the need for a genuine, organically developed methodology for psychology.

If you're interested in Vygotsky, psychology, or methodology, of course you should read this (free) book.