Edited by Anton Yasnitsky and Rene Van der Veer
In his foreword, Alex Kozulin—himself no stranger to controversy in Vygotsky studies—warns:
The book in front of us is provocative, one may say deliberately provocative. The authors basically claim that almost all we have read about Lev Vygotsky and his theory is a result of hero worshipping resulting in the cult of Vygotsky. The aim of the authors is to debunk this cult and weed out numerous historical and textual mistakes associated with the "Vygotskian narrative." (p.xii)That's a pretty good summary of the thrust of the book. All but two of the chapters are authored or coauthored by Anton Yasnitsky, whose work I ran across a couple of years ago when looking up information on the so-called Vygotsky ban. (The article I found, by Fraser and Yasnitsky, is the basis for a chapter in this collection.) Yasnitsky has published like crazy since 2008 and is listed on the back of the book as an "independent scholar."
Let's mine that Kozulin foreword a little more before diving into the chapters. Kozulin provides some background on the Soviet system, noting that "for practically the entire period described in this book there were only two places in Russia where psychology could be studied—Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg)." Thus "just by occupying the position of Head of the Department (or School) of Psychology at Moscow University, people like Sergei Rubinstein or Alexei Leontiev could exercise unprecedented control over the ways in which academic research was conducted and books or articles were selected for publication" (p.xiii). He adds that due to Stalinism, "from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s, Soviet psychology was indeed intellectually isolated," and that immediately after World War II, "in parallel to a supreme cult of Stalin a system of lower-level cults was created, so that in each area of life a 'great man' was selected as an emblematic example" of his domain (p.xiii). Yet Kozulin is not convinced that the Vygotsky cult, "which definitely was not created in the 1940s," is of a piece with this system. He suggests that these tendencies had deeper roots in the French centralized intellectual system that Russia adopted even before the Revolution (pp.xiii-xiv).
In any case, Kozulin cautions, Soviet psychologists had two intellectual traditions: the written corpus, available "in print and often in a form highly distorted by the authors' self-censorship," and the oral tradition, in which "much of the discussion occurred during informal seminars conducted in the living-room or kitchen of their apartments" (p.xiv). He adds: "Sometimes the gap between these two streams was so wide that one could easily imagine them taking place in two different countries" (p.xiv).
With that introduction in mind, let's get to the chapters themselves. I have typically found edited collections to be quite uneven and insufficiently focused, but this collection is a rare one: I found something of interest in every chapter. So let's give each one subheadings.
Chapter 1: The Archetype of Soviet Psychology: From the Stalinism of the 1930s to the "Stalinist science" of our time (Anton Yasnitsky)
In this first chapter, Yasnitsky provides us with the broad sweep of Soviet psychology. He begins by noting the situation in late Imperial Russia, in which three distinct disciplines dominated: 1) speculative academic psychology, 2) empirical psychology, and 3) applied psychology (pp.3-4). There were not only enormous gaps between these three, but also fragmentation within each one (p.4).
With the Revolution, things changed. As Yasnitsky notes, in the 1920s "one of the key tasks of the post-revolutionary era was utopian 'remolding of man,' the creation of a new type of people, who will master their nature and uncover the yet unknown potential of human beings. These ideas were grounded in the pervasive post-revolutionary belief in the possibility of virtually unlimited personal growth and an active, creative attitude to the world"(p.5; cf. Bauer, Trotsky, and Vygotsky's 'The Socialist Alteration of Man'). Post-revolution, Bolsheviks wanted Soviet psychology to be practical and Marxist, remolding the "old man" of capitalism into the "new man" of Communism (p.6). "Lavishly supported by the Bolshevik leadership, work was done on creating a pragmatic interdisciplinary synthesis of scientific-practical interventions and a higher-level theoretical paradigm that would encompass all human sciences and bring about a universal framework in which disciplines at different levels and from different spheres of application would work together as a complex, based on a shared methodological and philosophical foundation" (p.7). New schools sprang up in psychology as well as the other sciences. In addition, new disciplines (such as pedology and defectology) sprang up, although these tended to overlap in both subject and spokespeople (p.8).
But the end of the 1920s saw Stalin's "Great Break," which naturally affected all spheres of life in the USSR (p.7). In the 1930s, the whole rhythm of society changed, and central planning became more pronounced (p.8). "Nomadic quotes," which signaled loyalty to science sponsors and political leadership, appeared on the first pages of publications (p.9). The Stalinist model of national science emerged, "the hybrid of state, Party, and science" (p.9).
By the mid-1930s, the proliferation of "revolutionary disciplines—such as pedology and defectology—was considered redundant. The disciplinary purge of the 1930s thinned them out, with pedologists taking their work to education and defectologists retreating to medicine. "The winner in the inter-disciplinary struggle for survival" was psychology (p.10).
Yasnitky argues that we can discern two distinct generations of Soviet psychology. The first generation was born in the 1890s and educated pre-Revolution in German-style gimnazia, consequently learning at least French and German. They were intellectuals and "remained for a while in the somewhat ambiguous position of Bolshevik sympathizers" although they came from bourgeois backgrounds. Fortunately for them, in 1936 Stalin invented the category of "toiling intelligentsia," providing a legitimate stratum for these people to occupy (p.12). Subsequently, a small number from this generation dominated the higher reaches of psychology. For instance, "virtually all administrative power and control over national psychology in the 1940s was in the hands of" Rubinshtein—until he was accused of cosmopolitanism in 1949 and deposed from his supervisory and administrative positions (p.13).
The second generation was born in the 1920s-30s. They went through high school during World War II, and their education was "characterized by deprivation and continuous disruption," including poor foreign language instruction. Their graduate work happened in the late Stalinist postwar period. This generation dominated psychology through the early 2000s (p.14). Yasnitsky notes that Toulmin discerned this gap and its effects in his 1978 article on Vygotsky (p.15).
Yasnitsky argues that Soviet psychology had these characteristics:
- Centralization and control (pp.16-18)
- Cliquism and patronage (pp.18-19)
- Ritualism (pp.19-21)
- Gap between theory and practice. Different frameworks dominated at different times: Pavlov (1950s-early 60s), Leontiev's activity approach (mid 60s-early 70s), and Lomov's systemic approach (mid 70s-1980s) (p.21), but these dominant frameworks were mainly applied as nomadic quotes "mainly belonging to the rhetorical space" (p.22; cf. Cole's afterword to Luria's autobiography).
- Intellectual and linguistic isolation (pp.22-23)
- Cultism and hagiographies. This tendency included portraying a small number of great figures, characterized as good or evil, and often playing the roles of martyrs or victims (p.24).
Perhaps it had to do with Vygotsky's work in pedology, a field that was banned in 1936? Stalin supposedly found that his son had been judged mentally deficient by a pedologist—and 14% of 7-13 year olds in Leningrad were held back a year in 1935-1936 (p.64). Furthermore, pedology was judged incompatible with the emerging New Soviet Man due to its claims of hereditary and environmental causes (p.64). But after the ban, pedologists just flowed to the field of pedological practices (p.65). Still, pedological books were under an implied ban, and Vygotsky had written pedology textbooks (p.65).
Yet "the late 1930s saw Vygotsky venerated within the Soviet Union"—"his name and theories were referenced (and celebrated) at various times within influential texts during the period 1936-55" (p.65).
Was there a ban? Fraser and Yasnitsky suggest that perhaps there was a de facto ban, but not on the part of the USSR. They note that a multi-volume collection of Vygotsky's works came out in 1956 due to the efforts of his family, not his associates; Luria and Leontiev did not make efforts to have his works republished; and the collected works of Vygotsky did not come out until after their deaths (pp.68-69). They cite Zinchenko's claim that "Leontiev kept deliberately finding numerous excuses for not writing" the introductory chapter required by the first volume (p.69)!
This story is great gossip and works well with Kozulin's claim of a Leontiev-Vygotsky rift. But it seems like thin evidence, and I'd treat it with caution.
Chapter 4. Vygotsky the published: Who wrote Vygotsky and what Vygotsky actually wrote (Rene van der Veer and Anton Yasnitsky)
Here, the authors put Vygotsky's works in context. Almost half of them were not scholarly or substantial (p.78). Even Thinking and speech is more of a compilation than a monograph—the earliest part of the book was written in 1928, with most of the rest being written in 1934. Vygotsky had a period of self-criticism in between! (pp.79-80). They provide a useful table (p.80) breaking down the chapters, their authorship dates, and their original publication dates. (The chapters include a book review; a portion of an undergraduate textbook; and three book introductions.)
Which publications were most important to Vygotsky? They attempt to find out by looking at three separate documents that Vygotsky put together. (One was for a job interview) (pp.81-82). They also looked at his private correspondence (pp.83-84). Interestingly, this correspondence suggests that Vygotsky planned to publish Studies on the psychology of behavior in December 1927; by July 1929, he was not enthusiastic about the project (p.84). In fact, he underwent a deep crisis in 1929, realizing that some foundational concepts were no longer satisfactory (p.85). By the end of 1932, he lamented that "'we focused attention on the sign (on the tool) to the detriment of the operation with it'" (quoted on p.86). From 1932-1934, Vygotsky studied pathology in medical settings (p.87).
The authors also look at Vygotsky's abandoned works, including his manuscript on the crisis in psychology. Most of the ideas in this manuscript were published in other publications during his lifetime (p.91).
So what were Vygotsky's most important works? The authors list:
- The psychology of art (his unpublished 1925-26 dissertation)
- Pedagogical psychology (his 1926 textbook)
- The pedology of school age (his 1928 textbook)
- Imagination and creativity in children (a 1930 popular booklet)
- Studies on the history of behavior (1930, written with Luria)
- Pedology of the adolescent (his textbook in three volumes: 1929, 1930, 1931)
- Thinking and speech (1934)
- Foundations of pedology (his 1934/5 textbook)
- Mental development of children in the process of learning and instruction (1935)
- The mentally retarded child (1935)
They did not agree in their theoretical assessment of the processes involved in the transition from speech to thought. ... Speech, [Vygotsky] said, participates as actively in this transition as thought itself; we should not present it as a picture, a cast, a sort of death-mask made of the living process of thinking. The role of speech is not just to fixate the thought or what remained of it after the translation of the thought into a tangible form; the word is not just the main carrier of the thought, its canvas, but also the carrier of consciousness as a whole. Leontiev insisted on the investigation of the practical action as the central theme, but Vygotsky did not agree: the dynamics of the action derive from the dynamics of meaning and in itself, separate from the 'peak' dimension of meanings, cannot be analyzed. (p.112)Zavershneva adds that "the polemic between them became increasingly pungent," e.g. in an October 1932 notebook (p.112). "We will not analyze this polemic in any detail, but it remains a fact that Leontiev from the early 1930s distanced himself from the study of consciousness as proposed by Vygotsky, although he continued participating in the work of the Vygotsky-Luria extended group, carried out experiments, and participated in the discussion during their symposia" (pp.112-113).
In 1932, Leontiev characterizes Vygotsky as claiming that all psychology was reduced to word meaning (according to his oral biography, which Zavershneva cites; unfortunately for me, it's in Russian) (p.114).
Again, there's plenty more in this chapter, but let's leave it here for now.
Chapter 6. "The way to freedom": Vygotsky in 1932 (Ekaterina Zavershneva)
Zavershneva authors a second chapter, again drawing from her study of Vygotsky's archives. Here, she dives into "one notebook, dated October 1932, [which] stands out because it is one of the clearest and most accessible documents in the archive" (p.127).
The text consists of three parts: (1) the plan for the unwritten book On the question of the study of consciousness; (2) notes about the psychophysical problem; and (3) propositions for talks by Vygotsky's co-workers Ivan Solov'ev and Aleksei Leontiev, presumably written during an internal conference for close collaborators. In general we may say that the text marks the turn toward a new psychological theory—the theory of consciousness as a dynamic semantic system—and also shows the emerging discrepancy between the views of Vygotsky and Leontiev. (p.127)In 1930, Vygotsky introduced the systemic structure of consciousness; in 1932, he introduced the principle of the systemic structure "and the analysis of interfunctional connections lost its leading role to the semic analysis of consciousness" (p.128). "It is remarkable that below the title of the earliest draft of the plan Vygotsky wrote the names of himself, Leontiev, and Luria. Apparently, the idea was to include them as co-authors and Vygotsky changed his mind" (p.128).
Just an aside here: Much of what I've seen about a Vygotsky-Leontiev split has tended to characterize Leontiev as errant or even as personally betraying Vygotsky. But (a) people can have disagreements, (b) it seems awfully presumptuous for Vygotsky to outline a book and put his coauthors' names on it without asking them, and (c) Leontiev had just seen Vygotsky and Luria's 1930 book criticized for being insufficiently Marxist and very well might have wanted to avoid following their path too closely!
Back to the notebook. Vygotsky evidently planned to include the famed mnemonist Shereshevskii as a case study in the book (Shereshevskii would later appear in Luria's Mind of a mnemonist) (p.129). Vygotsky also planned to discuss schizophrenia, in which speech splits from other psychological functions and the person loses the ability to verbally interact with the self—"a perfect example of the loss of the semantic structure of consciousness" (p.129).
"In contrast to his work from the 'instrumental period' of the 1920s, with its zeal for social 'reforging' and the creation of a 'new man,' Vygotsky's work from the 1930s was focused on the study of the subject's inner world. ... For him the mechanisms of social mediation were not important in themselves; rather they contained the essence of man: they served as the ladder toward the new 'peak' psychology" (p.132). Young Vygotsky had been focused on the birth of the "new man", and Zavershneva reads this focus not as following Trotsky so much as following the Zeitgeist (pp.132-133).
Skipping a bit: Vygotsky believed that "Leontiev underestimated the higher processes and showed a low level of theoretical generalization" (pp.138-139). Vygotsky believed that "the transitions between the cognizing and the practical intellect" had to be studied as part of the study of consciousness. "As soon as we understand the dynamics of meanings, we will understand all the rest as effects that follow from a cause and vice versa; separating the action from the dimension of meanings, we lose the meaning of the action, its goal-directed nature, etc." (Zavershneva's paraphrase, p.139). Vygotsky claimed that Leontiev "lacked discipline, lost the focus of the research, and ignored the systemic principle"—he was backsliding, returning to the functional analysis that Vygotsky had left behind in 1930 (p.139).
But Leontiev's approach allowed him to make his career between 1930-1950. Zavershneva archly notes that except for the 1956 collection, Vygotsky's works were not made available until after Leontiev's death (p.139).
Chapter 7. Translating Vygotsky: Some problems of transnational Vygotskian science (Rene van der Veer and Anton Yasnitsky)
Van der Veer's sometime collaborator Jaan Valsiner has examined problems in English translations of Vygotsky, as has Nikolai Veresov. Here, the authors review some of these problems as well as adding others.
Interestingly, they point out that Leontiev in 1954 was concerned about the rehabilitation of Vygotsky, so he approached a French scholar about publishing some of Vygotsky's articles in French—a way to speed up publication at home. The effort did not pay off, but a volume of Vygotsky's works was published in Russian in 1956 (p.146). In fact, the authors include an anecdote in which prominent Soviet psychologists (including Leontiev and Luria) gave an interview to a French journalist to get their message out, then corrected "mistakes" in Russian (p.148).
The authors then turn to the question of translation errors. They describe six categories:
- suppression of terms or passages
- suppression of names
- unidentified or suppressed citations
- multiple retranslations (p.162)
Under unidentified/suppressed citations, the authors note citations of Trotsky (p.167).
Under multiple retranslations, the authors tell a fascinating and unsettling story. In the late 1960s/early 1970s, Luria gave Michael Cole a typewritten English translation of "Tool and sign," which he and Vygotsky had authored sometime around 1930. Cole created a "cut-and-paste" version of it for Mind in Society (1978). In 1984, an "apparently complete version" came out in Russian. In 1994, Luria's typewritten English translation was published in The Vygotsky Reader. But the editors, Van der Veer & Valsiner, compared the English and Russian versions and discovered that the Russian version "missed several important pieces (such as illustrations) but was nevertheless longer," and "it contained a number of non-verbatim—but semantically identical—repetitions of text fragments! The editors referred to rumors that the Russian text, as strange as might look, was in fact translated from English" (p.169, my emphasis).
But it gets stranger. In 2005, a former student of Luria claimed that he had participated in a "benign forgery" of the text (p.169). According to him, in the late 1960s, Luria "invited him to participate in the preparation of the collected works of Vygotsky." Luria explained that they couldn't find Vygotsky's original manuscript. Would he translate this English version? "Apparently, this English translation survived and was subsequently handed from Luria to Cole, and then, by the latter, to Van der Veer and Valsiner" (p.170). But the authors argue that the repetitions of passages were due to a second translator who translated parts of the same passages. Then the whole thing was put together by the editor of the Russian Vygotsky collection (p.170).
One final twist. In 1999, the final volume of the six-volume Vygotsky collection in English was published. In it was "Tool and sign," which had been translated from the Russian text that in turn had been translated from the English text that Luria had presumably prepared from the original manuscript (p.170).
Chapter 8. Did Uzbeks have illusions? The Luria-Koffka controversy of 1932 (Eli Lamdan and Anton Yasnitsky)
Famously, Luria sent Vygotsky a telegram during his expedition to Central Asia, reporting on his psychological testing: "The Uzbeks have no illusions!" Supposedly this was a dangerous telegram. Yet, the authors note, there is no documentary proof that such a telegram existed—it's a good story, but an undocumented one (p.175).
The story also suggests that the study was suppressed for political reasons until the early 1970s, when Luria took the manuscript out of a drawer and published it (p.176). Yet, the authors suggest, there may have been much more to this story. They note that Luria published an English-language account of the expedition in 1934, apparently coauthored by an uncredited Kurt Koffka (p.176). This manuscript suggests that Koffka came away with an entirely different reading (p.177). Koffka essentially argued that Uzbeks who did not regard the test as a test of their abilities saw the illusions; those who were suspicious looked at the patterns longer before making their judgments (p.187). Based on Vygotsky and Luria's correspondence, they learned of Koffka's conclusions immediately once his article was published (p.187).
Luria and Vygotsky evidently saw the findings as proof that the Uzbeks were being transformed into the New Men of the Soviet state, despite their limitations (p.191). But in a Soviet Union trying to integrate its ethnic minorities, the findings suggested chauvinism—primitive people being lifted by more advanced ones (p.191). More than that, the propagandist "victory" of the Soviet experiment, declared at the XVII Congress of the Party in January/February 1934, killed hopes of the publication (p.193).
Why? The authors argue that Luria and Vygotsky had a vulgar Marxist understanding in which the relations of production determine psychological makeup (p.194). That is, they embraced economic determinism—which became seriously out of tune with the understanding of the Party (p.195).
One other question: Why were Uzbeks suspicious? We could read between the lines in Luria's own account of the expedition, but the authors add that the region had experienced rebellions and unrest shortly before Luria's expedition and "the arrival of a large group of Soviet officials and international researchers accompanied by a convoy of secret police forces was perceived as an utterly alarming and even potentially life-threatening experience by the local populations" (p.199). Luria seemed oblivious to the potential effects on his research, which sounds like Luria, all right.
Chapter 9. A transnational history of "the beginning of a beautiful friendship" The birth of the cultural-historical Gestalt psychology of Alexander Luria, Kurt Lewin, Lev Vygotsky, and others (Anton Yasnitsky)
Here, Yasnitsky notes the many connections between the Vygotsky-Luria Circle and Kurt Lewin, the Gestalt psychologist. Lewin influenced Vygotsky during his last period (p.203) and many of Lewin's students went on to study with Vygotsky, Luria, and Leontiev.
The most startling claim here, unfortunately quite underdeveloped, is that "the 'Vygotskian-Lewinian' trend in Soviet psychology—although preserved in some very general sense—was considerably mutated and transformed" and "The mutant and hybrid that emerged as a result of all these transformations" was ... activity theory (p.225).
There's one more chapter, the Epilogue, but let's skip it. I do want to point out Appendix A, a bibliography of all Vygotsky's known published works.
So—that's a long review. But it could have been much longer. This book was fascinating, thought-provoking, and worth mining if you're interested in Vygotsky or his colleagues. As noted, I am still cautious of some of its claims. And reading parts, especially the chapters on the archives, has led me to think about the Vygotsky-Leontiev relationship in directions that the authors may not have expected. But overall, I highly recommend it.