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Posted by: on Jul 19, 2017 | No Comments
A Dynamic Theory of Personality
By Kurt Lewin


Yes, I actually read a book that wasn't written by a Soviet psychologist. But don't worry, there's a direct connection: Lewin and Vygotsky were familiar with each other's work, Vygotsky quoted Lewin, and some of Lewin's students worked with Vygotsky and Leontiev. Yasnitsky even claims that activity theory is a mutant or hybrid of Vygotsky's and Lewin's works, although Lewin was not credited for political reasons (although Yasnitsky only sketches this thesis rather than substantiating it).

In any case, this book is a collection of articles by Lewin, published in 1935, the year after Vygotsky's death. The source material had been published during Vygotsky's life, including the lead essay, "The conflict between Aristotelian and Galileian modes of thought in contemporary psychology" (1931). Commentators have said that this essay impacted Vygotsky. (Currently I'm reading Vygotsky's Development of Higher Mental Functions, which mentions Lewin, but characteristically does not provide a cite, and the mention is brief enough that I can't tell whether this lead essay is the one being discussed.)

I'll spend most of my time on this lead essay, which is essentially a manifesto for the development of psychology. Lewin uses the analogy of physics. Aristotelian physics, he says, was anthropocentric, inexact, and normative. It classified phenomena in terms of values: perfect and imperfect. Similarly, he argues, psychology currently draws a value distinction between "normal" and "pathological"; thus it "separated the phenomena which are fundamentally most nearly related" (p.3).

In contrast, Galileian physics changed the interpretation of classification. Whereas Aristotelian physics differentiated dichotomously by class, Galileian physics used continuous gradations and functional rather than substantive concepts (p.5).

Similarly, Aristotelian physics expected things to have a "tendency": it looked for regularity, and peculiarity was understood entirely in historical terms (p.7). It has a notion of "lawfulness," which has a historical or temporal significance set against the sweep of eternity (pp.8-9). In contrast, Galileian physics tends toward quantification, not just because of clocks, but because of a new concept of the physical world (p.10). It relies on the homogenization of the world (p.10)—treating all things with the same laws rather than assuming that things of specific classes had specific tendencies.

Lewin charges that psychology is currently more Aristotelian than Galileian in this sense as well. In terms of lawfulness, it divides cases into common and unusual (p.13). It understands lawfulness in terms of frequency (p.14). It overrelies on class and essence: "Whatever is common to children of a given age is set up as the fundamental character of that age" (p.15; cf. Vygotsky, Leontiev re the same argument). Psychology's use of statistics is Aristotelian, intensifying the tendency to classify cases as common vs. unusual (p.17). Psychology doesn't regard exceptions as counterarguments if they're infrequent (p.19).

This state of affairs does not please Lewin, who wants a Galileian revolution for psychology. "Even psychological law must hold without exception," he argues (p.23). Specifically, he notes that dynamic problems are foreign to Aristotelian physics (and psychology), while they are central to Galileian physics (and psychology) (p.27). Aristotelian physics is teleological, with vectors determined by the object; Galileian physics recognizes that a vector depends on mutual relations of physical facts (p.28). That is, like Vygotsky, Lewin wants to understand the mutual interaction of the object and environment; we can see Leontiev's turn to labor as a general explanatory principle for such a system.

Also like Vygotsky, Lewin believes that a Galileian psychology should not try to control all factors in a series of experiments, but rather it should "comprehend the whole situation involved, with all its characteristics, as precisely as possible" (p.31; compare the bare sketches of experiments that Vygotsky conducted and his discussion of method). And "Instead of a reference to the abstract average of as many historically given cases as possible, there is a reference to the full concreteness of the particular situations" (p.31). (Compare Luria's detailed case studies and his "Romantic science.")

In fact, Lewin argues that it's fine to rely on historically unusual, rare, and transitory events, just as a Galileian physics does (p.35). Indeed, in what Lewin calls a Galileian psychology, you can't validate a case by repetition; you have to refer to "the totality of the concrete whole situation" (p.42). This proposition, frankly, would seem quite counterintuitive to me without the examples from the Vygotsky school!

This lead essay was the most accessible and directly applicable for me, so I'll stop here. It's well worth reading, but I'm separate enough from psychology that I can't evaluate it well. I can, however, see strong resonance with the Vygotsky school. And now I have to read more Lewin.