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Posted by: on Jan 11, 2017 | No Comments
Piotr Gal'perin: Psychologist in Vygotsky's Footsteps
By Jacques Haenen


Piotr Gal'perin was one of the young psychologists who joined Vygotsky, Luria, and Leontiev at the Kharkov School during its six-year existence. Afterwards, he went on to a long career in psychology, related to yet independent from the cultural-historical school. In this intellectual biography, published in 1996, Jacques Haenen struggles to tell this story despite the handicap of a wooden writing style.

The first part of the book describes Gal'perin's career. Like Vygotsky, Luria, and Rubinstein, Gal'perin was Jewish, and the Revolution opened doors that had been firmly shut during the Czar's reign. When he joined the Kharkov School in 1930, Gal'perin studied the differences in too use between humans and animals as well as human tool-mediated activity (p.23). Gal'perin met Vygotsky, but the author notes that Vygotsky did not join the Academy: "his contribution to the psychological debates within the framework of the 'school' is difficult to reconstruct" (p.23); the school was influenced by Vygotsky, "but they differed in their views on the inner psychological content of human activity" (p.24). Kharkov was a safe harbor for many different psychological schools (p.24).

The author recounts some of Gal'perin's memories of Vygotsky. One was a Stalinist public discussion of the kind meant to criticize scientific authorities for supposed anti-Marxism, silencing them. Vygotsky was compelled to speak during such a public discussion, but according to Gal'perin, "Vygotsky delivered the lecture and held the whole hall under his spell"; afterwards, the proceedings were postponed and then canceled, and Vygotsky escaped the destruction of his reputation (p.26). But, Haenen acknowledges, "it has been impossible to document the meeting"; even Gal'perin's memory is too vague to be verified (p.26). It sounds too good to be true.

Yet, at least in his telling, Gal'perin was not as impressed with Vygotsky as his colleagues were (p.27). Gal'perin noted that "Vygotsky felt himself blocked in his cultural development" because he had trouble understanding visual representations or music; "With him, everything emerged in speech!" (p.28). Gal'perin believed that this state led Vygotsky to overrate speech (p.28). The Kharkov School "dismissed Vygotsky's neglect of external practical activity" (p.26). (This claim seems like only a partial account of the Kharkov split that has been discussed more thoroughly by Kozulin and Van der Veer & Valsiner.) Like the other Kharkovites, Gal'perin in his dissertation "did not attribute the crucial role [of tool use in humans v. animals] to speech, but to specific content of practical activity" (p.32).

In 1936, the USSR issued its decree against pedology, ending the Kharkov School (p.39). Haenen claims that "For a long time, about twenty years, [Vygotsky's] work was banned" (p.42; for a contrary view, see Fraser, J., & Yasnitsky, A. (2015). Deconstructing Vygotsky’s victimization narrative: A re-examination of the “Stalinist suppression” of Vygotskian theory. History of the Human Sciences, 28(2), 128–153). Gal'perin claims that the Kharkov School "suffered less under this ban, because from the start they had been opposed to Vygotsky and his interpretation of pedology," specifically pedology as a synthetic science (p.42). Gal'perin believed that to be a master of a synthetic science, one must be a specialist of each component science; he argued in 1936 that a better approach was for different specialists to collectively approach the same problem (p.43). 

In 1943, during World War II, the USSR established a rehabilitation framework and established several rehabilitation hospitals, two of which were headed by Luria and Leontiev (p.44). Gal'perin joined Leontiev's hospital, becoming head of the medical section (p.45). There, a physician noted to Gal'perin that disabled veterans who could not perform arm movements could do so if the movement were object-bound—for instance, "a disabled man who could not lift his hand to his head upon request could comb his hair if necessary" (p.45). According to Leontiev, Gal'perin was "the first researcher in the Soviet Union to study the object-bound nature of activity experimentally" (p.45). 

Also in 1943, Gal'perin worked in the psychology section at Moscow University. In 1966, the section became an independent faculty and Gal'perin was appointed professor. In 1971, Gal'perin became head of the department, where he served until retiring in 1984 (p.63). 

In the second half of the book, Haenen describes the main sources of Gal'perin's research program. This section includes a passage on the Vygotsky-Leontiev split, which Haenen dates to a talk on psychological systems that Vygotsky delivered to his circle in 1930 (p.75):
It may be argued that the first phase of the development of Vygotsky's cultural-historical theory was characterized as a joint enterprise of Vygotsky, Leont'ev, and Luria. Insofar as these three men are called the 'troika' of Soviet psychology, this refers to the years from 1924 until 1930. In 1930, Vygotsky summarized their joint research and proposed the new concept of psychological systems to further develop the findings of that first phase. After 1930, Luria remained in close contact with Vygotsky, followed Vygotsky's line, and became the founder of Soviet neuropsychology. Leont'ev, although he stayed in contact with Vygotsky, developed his own perspective in Soviet psychology. (p.76)
Haenen traces the split from Gal'perin's perspective. According to Gal'perin, Leontiev noted a "certain hiatus" in Vygotsky's account of idea transmission from adult to child: "Vygotsky did not specify what kind of activity is required from the child to assimilate and reproduce the assigned model of some kind of social experience" (p.78). When Leontiev moved to Kharkov in 1930, he "made the concept of activity the focus of his research" (p.78), and "in 1935, Leont'ev summarized his criticism of Vygotsky in a lecture" (p.79). (For context: Vygotsky died in 1934 and the Pedology Decree was issued in 1936.) Leontiev complained that "it is impossible to find the cause of the development of meaning within social interaction itself" and dedicated himself to discovering "what lies behind social interaction" (p.79).

Leontiev concluded that "the origin of consciousness had to be found in external activity" (p.80). But Gal'perin noted that "Leont'ev had developed his concept of activity in the direction of an all-embracing psychological doctrine," and Haenen recalls Kozulin's complaint about the circular nature of this argument (p.81).

Gal'perin believed that the essence of activity is meaningfulness, or "personalized activity" (p.94) and that one basic function of mind is to orient a person's future actions—that is, he viewed mind as an orienting activity (p.96).

Forgive me for giving the rest of Gal'perin's thought short shrift. I'm mostly interested in how he fits into the history of activity theory, and the rest of the book describes either things that fit comfortably into the main branch of AT or details that aren't directly relevant.

Is the book a good read for those who, like me, are interested in the development of activity theory? I would have said no at the beginning of this review, but in looking over the details, I must concede that it has been useful indeed. It's helped me to fill out some details specifically in the Vygotsky-Leontiev split. If you're similarly interested in this history, I commend the book to you.