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Posted by: on Jun 28, 2017 | No Comments
Soviet Psychology; Philosophical, Theoretical, and Experimental Issues
By Levy Rahmani


I mentioned Levy Rahmani in my recent review of a 1972 collection by Soviet psychologists—he was thanked by the authors for helping to select materials for the collection. In this 1973 book, he demonstrates why he was well positioned to make these selections—although, as Joravsky points out in his own review of the book, Rahmani has trouble articulating what makes Soviet psychology unique apart from its ideological commitments.

Rahmani does fill in some of the contextualizing history. In Chapter 1, he characterizes the changes that had happened shortly before he wrote the book: "The narrow, conformistic approach arising from the conference held in 1950 on the development of Pavlovian theory has gradually been replaced in the 1960's by a diversity of empirically tested theories. Deeply rooted beliefs in such theories as Pavlov's reflexology have been challenged while concepts like Vygotsky's cultural-historical view, not long ago rejected by the official psychology, are now widely discussed" (p.5).

Chapter 1 largely chronicles the beginning of Soviet psychology post-Revolution. I've covered some of this history elsewhere on this blog, so let's just hit some of the interesting highlights. On p.23, the author describes the "sociogenetic approach":
A great deal of effort was expended by Russian psychologists after the 1917 revolution to formulate a theory compatible with the Marxist [Leninist] tenet that the human psyche is a reflection of an objective reality, in particular the social environment. They had also to cope with the task of building a theory of education applicable to the "new" man. The problem of relationships between collective psychology and individual psychology was a major concern of the psychologists of the 1920's. They faced the following dilemma: is social psychology a legitimate branch of psychology, or should all the manifestations of the individual's psychology be regarded in terms of his social and, particularly, class position. In the light of the theory of historical materialism, they were inclined to the second solution. (p.23)
Kornilov's reactology "was the first attempt in Soviet psychology to bring together the biological and social factors determining the human psychology" — a two-factor theory (p.25). Readers of this blog will recall that in 1923 Kornilov replaced Chelpanov as director of the Institute of Experimental Psychology at Moscow University; but reactology fell out of favor around 1930, and Kornilov was replaced by Kolbanovskii. In 1939, Kornilov was reappointed director, and in 1943, he was appointed Vice-President of the newly founded RSFSR Academy of Pedagogical Sciences (p.30).

Meanwhile, the author characterizes the 1930s as the "battle for consciousness," featuring Vygotsky and Rubinshtein's separate attempts to develop a Soviet theory of consciousness (p.38). Vygotsky incorporated Engels' account of evolution into his theory, using Engels' discussion of tool use to back up his theory of mediation, and emphasized the role of signs as external (social) before becoming internal (individual) (p.41). Citing Brushlinskii, the author argues that Vygotsky's theory of signs developed in three stages:

  1. Signs as self-stimulation
  2. The meaning of signs
  3. The concept of meaning itself, including the question of the development of concepts (p.43)
Rubinshtein criticized Vygotsky's theory in various ways. First, since "Vygotsky conceived of the social factor as an interaction between the adult and the child ... consciousness appeared then to be a direct expression of the individual's inner experiences, and not to be contingent upon 'material practice,' i.e., on the objects of people's actions"—leaving the door open for idealism. Second, Rubinshtein argued (1946) that Vygotsky elevated speech to the role of ultimate cause of thought—thought was not "'a reflection of the objective world in unity with speech on the basis of social practice, but rather as a derivative function of verbal signs'" (p.45). 

A.N. Leontiev was a colleague and student of Vygotsky's, but by the time he completed his doctoral dissertation in 1940, Vygotsky was dead; Rubinshtein sat on his dissertation committee.
His major thesis was that psychical processes represent a particular form of activity and derive from people's concern with external objects. Psyche is a result of the transformation of the external, material activity, into an internal activity during the course of man's historical development. In this, Leontiev, while following Vygotskii's thinking, was at variance with his teacher's approach—which was regarded as intellectualistic—when he postulated that the child's meaningful activity was determined by the level of his mental growth and not by the interaction between his consciousness and that of the adult. Leontiev also disagreed with Vygotskii's view of the role played by the development of concepts for the child's mental growth. (p.47)
Leontiev developed these ideas in his 1940 doctoral dissertation, a 1945 article on children's mental growth, and his 1947 monograph (perhaps his An Outline of Mental Development, though Rahmani does not specify) (p.47). He believed that Soviet psychology had two major tasks: "to define the structure of man's activity through an analysis of the relationships between activity as a whole, actions and operations" and "to clarify the concept of meaning" (p.47). (Notice that the first task implies a sociology, not just a psychology.) In terms of the second task, Leontiev argued that historically "meaning and significance became separated with the disintegration of the homogeneous primitive society and the occurrence of social classes" (p.48).

In 1948, Leontiev and Rubinshtein were both singled out for criticism, coinciding with Lysenko's 1948 "victory" (p.51). (The author is referring to the critiques reproduced in the appendix of Wortis' 1950 Soviet Psychiatry.) Specifically, Maslina (1948) criticizes Leontiev for being apolitical, vague, and overly focused on technical division of labor—and insufficiently appreciative of the high moral quality of Soviet man (p.52).

Now we get more context about Pavlov's elevation. Up to 1950, Pavlov's theory was revered but deviations were tolerated. But "In June 1950, the Joint Session of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and of the Academy of Medical Sciences of the USSR Dedicated to the Development of I.P. Pavlov's Teaching, put an end to this situation" (p.59). "Pavlov's theory was to become the only scientific approach" (p.60). Rahmani argues that the session was apparently inspired by Stalin himself, coinciding with his work on Marxism and linguistics published the same year. The session was anticosmopolitan, anti-Western, and aimed at developing "pure" Marxist science (p.60).

Chapter 2 gets into the nature of psyche. Rahmani notes that "Although Soviet psychologists had essentially accepted Lenin's proposition that the psyche is a reflection of external reality, they, naturally, disagreed when it came to elaborating specific definitions" (p.63). This concept of reflection comes from Lenin's 1908 proposition in Materialism and Empirio-criticism (p.64). Rahmani discusses how psychologists picked up this idea and applied it in different ways. Leontiev, for instance, regarded "the capacity to signal as the most relevant feature of the psyche. The psyche has a role in the organism's adaption, and this consists in the reflection of those objects and phenomena, acting as signals, which help the organism to deal with the vital phenomena, without participating directly in the metabolic process" (p.69).

Later in this chapter, we return to the fallout of the 1950 Pavlov conference. "Fortunately, the rigid approach imposed by the conference did not last for long." By the late 1950s, Pavlov's authority had weakened—Rahmani does not explicitly tie this change to Stalin's death in 1953—and by the time of a 1962 conference, a diversity of views was tolerated (p.95).

Let's skip to Ch.4, on thought and language. Rahmani notes that "the proposition that thoughts exist only in the form of language remains basic to Soviet psychology (p.208), grounded in Engels' "proposition that work and speech are the two main stimuli in the development of the human brain" (p.209). Interestingly, "Until 1950 the theory of the Georgian linguist Marr was considered the only Marxist theory of language" (p.209). Marr argued that "there was a stage in the development of man when he used a language of gestures which served not only as a means of communication but as an instrument of thought as well" (p.209). Readers of this blog may recall that in her January 1937 criticism of Vygotsky, Rudneva criticized him for not following the Japhetic theory of language; she is referring to Marr's work. Unfortunately for Marr, Rudneva et al., in 1950 Stalin published the article Marxism and Questions of Linguistics, declaring Marr's theory anti-Marxist: thinking was inconceivable without language, specifically sonic language (p.210). (See also Rosenthal.)

The book is much larger and more comprehensive than this review, covering Soviet work in sensory cognition, memory, emotions and feelings, will and voluntary activity, and the psychology of personality. But let's leave it there, since we have covered the topics that are currently most applicable to my current project. If you're interested in the history and development of Soviet psychology, as I am, this book features a solid overview up to the early 1970s. But it's also overly ecumenical; like Joravsky, I'd like to see it be more critically reflective. Nevertheless, see what you think.