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Reading :: Undiscovered Vygotsky

Posted by: on Jan 11, 2017 | No Comments
Undiscovered Vygotsky: Etudes on the pre-history of cultural-historical psychology
By Nikolai Veresov


This 1999 book approaches Vygotsky, founder of the cultural-historical school of Soviet psychology, from a historical and developmental perspective. That is, the author points out that Vygotsky's papers were published out of order and, in the West, often out of context. Consequently, scholars have often not been able to see the development of Vygotsky's thought. Instead, they have read Vygotsky more or less ahistorically: they have tended to read concepts (such as "psychological tool") into his early work that he did not develop until later, and they have sometimes read his later works as being more continuous with his early thought than they actually were. One example is that of the structure of human labor activity: Veresov complains that people hold a "widespread opinion" that Vygotsky introduced this perspective, and that its origins can be found in Vygotsky's earlier works, when they cannot. (Veresov singles out Kozulin and Nardi here, p.25.)

Indeed, Veresov takes early aim at the idea, spread by Leontiev and Luria, that Vygotsky was the founder of the activity approach. To the contrary, Veresov says, Vygotsky did not use this sense of the term "activity" (deyatelnost). But readers who have heard the Leontiev-Luria account are primed to interpret Vygotsky's use of the term in this way (pp.26-27). Veresov also notes that, although Leontiev and Luria claim that Vygotsky began his psychological work in 1924, Vygotsky himself claimed that he began that work in 1917 (p.27; p.69)! Veresov also notes "some gross errors in English versions of Vygotsky's early articles that have not been corrected until now" (p.42).

For these reasons, Veresov undertakes a historical-developmental account of Vygotsky's thought, examining the original texts and their political and historical contexts. I'll only hit the highlights here.

In 1926, Vygotsky published Pedagogical Psychology, an early book that "read like a hymn to conditioned reflexes" (p.78). At this point, Vygotsky advocated "a new science of the child" (Veresov's words) and stated that "'the revolution undertakes the re-education of the whole of mankind'" (Vygotsky's words, p.80). As Veresov puts it, psychology, in the view of Vygotsky circa 1926, "was understood as potent social engineering, the science that is able to produce the revolution in a child's consciousness" (p.80; cf. Bauer).

When Vygotsky joined Luria at Moscow University, he did not participate in Luria's ongoing combined motor method experiments and was unconvinced by Luria's 1925 article proposing a synthesis of Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxism (p.118). Veresov even questions whether the "troika" of Vygotsky, Luria, and Leontiev even existed—Vygotsky never mentions the troika even in his private letters, although he does mention the "pyaktera" (fivesome) of himself and his closest students (Zaporosets, Bozhovich, Slavina, Levina, Morozova). To Veresov, this suggests that Leontiev essentially retconned his research relationship with Vygotsky (p.118). Nevertheless, Veresov says, Luria and (to an extent) Leontiev "actively helped to build this theory" (p.119).

Only in 1926, Veresov says, did Vygotsky move from a focus on the word to signs in general (p.136).

In Chapter IV, Veresov turns to a watershed event, Vygotsky's unpublished "Historical Sense of Psychological Crisis," written in 1926 or 1927 when he (and his doctors) thought he was a terminal case. Veresov notes that the manuscript circulated for years and even claims that an early passage of Leontiev's Activity, Consciousness, Personality was "literally taken from Vygotsky without any reference" (p.150, footnote 2)! In this work, Vygotsky argues that "The main contradictions in psychology are not contradictions of facts, but contradictions of different types of origins and analysis of facts, which are predetermined with the objective laws of scientific cognition and the history of science" (p.155, Veresov's words and italics). Veresov sees Crisis as, to an extent, Vygotsky's self-criticism as he let go of reflexology (p.163) and strove instead for a methodological monism—in Veresov's reading, one of Vygotsky's fundamental achievements (p.168).

Veresov notes that Cole and Scribner quote an "unpublished notebook" of Vygotsky's in their 1978 article, and this quote is reproduced in Wertsch's 1985 book. This "notebook" was Crisis, and Veresov is surprised that Wertsch quotes it in this fashion—Crisis was published in Vygotsky's Collected Works in 1982Importantly, it's a misquote, eliding part of the passage and mistranslating a couple of words (pp.180-183).

Finally, Veresov argues that the principle of mediation was introduced as a solution to the dichotomy of subject and world. The dichotomy meant that subject and world had to be interpreted as two systems; mediation allowed Vygotsky to analyze them as one system (p.222). But, Veresov argues, this solution fails: "the idea of internalization as a mechanism of transformation of the internal social relations into internal higher psychical process did not correspond completely with the idea of 'one system' since it "presupposes the subject as an active participant of social relations" (p.231). That is, it presupposes consciousness (p.231).

Overall, this was a rewarding and thought-provoking book, and I'm still trying to digest it. Part of that digestion will involve rereading some of the subsequent books I've reviewed on this blog, to see if they have picked up on these assertions and to what extent they lend credence to them. If you're similarly interested in the roots of the cultural-historical school, check it out.