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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 4x4 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.