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Reading :: The Collected Works of L.S. Vygotsky: Volume 3: Problems of the Theory and History of Psychology

Posted by: on Sep 9, 2017 | No Comments
The Collected Works of L.S. Vygotsky: Volume 3: Problems of the Theory and History of Psychology
By Lev Vygostky


I finished this book a while back, but have been buried in other commitments and put off reviewing it. But now the library has recalled it and the other volumes of the CW, so I'm going to review it more quickly than it deserves.

This volume draws from across Vygotsky's history, from 1926 to 1934, and not in chronological order. Consequently, if you read the chapters in order, as I did, you'll feel some intellectual whiplash. Frankly, I'm not sure why the editors decided to place the works in this particular order—the 15th (last) chapter is Vygotsky's 1926-27 unpublished manuscript The Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology, which Vygotsky plundered for some of the later works in this collection. (I have reviewed that manuscript elsewhere, so I won't do so here.)

As mentioned, the book has 15 chapters. I'll review just a few of these here.

Chapter 1. The methods of reflexological and psychological investigation.
This 1926 publication is based on the 1924 talk that Vygotsky gave, the one that convinced Kornilov to offer him a job. Here, Vygotsky makes an argument for the study of consciousness from a materialist perspective. Although he very much sounds like a reflexologist here—"mind is just inhibited movement" (p.39)—he also makes arguments that he would repeat over the following ten years: that psychology must "take into account the testimony of the subject" although without being introspective; that consciousness has social origins; that speech is paramount for understanding the system of consciousness (p.42). He famously characterizes consciousness as the reflex to a reflex (p.46), and he points to "the crisis in psychology [, which] is now taking place on a worldwide scale"—an argument that of course underpins The Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology.

Chapter 3. Consciousness as a problem for the psychology of behavior.
This 1925 publication begins with an epigraph from Marx, the passage comparing spiders to weavers and bees to architects (p.63)—an important move, since it demonstrates that Marx was interested in consciousness at least in terms of planning. Vygotsky argues that bare reflexology cannot account for consciousness, and thus cannot account for the uniquely human behavior that Marx describes (p.64). "Biology devours sociology, physiology-psychology," he complains (p.64). To provide an alternative, he discusses the Marx passage in more detail, arguing that in human labor, experience is necessarily doubled as projective and objective—and this doubling "allows man to develop active forms of adaptation which the animal does not have" (p.68).

To explore this uniquely human doubled experience, he turns again to reflexes. He argues that reflexes work in systems, and that at the basis of human consciousness is self-stimulation, i.e., creating one's own stimuli to elicit one's own systems of reflexes (p.71).

Chapter 5. The instrumental method in psychology.
This chapter is "based on a manuscript found in his private archives" (p.85 footnote). I'm no historian, but I would guess it's around 1930, since he's still talking about instrumentalism. This short piece, delivered as a series of numbered paragraphs, argues that psychological tools—"artificial devices for mastering [Man's] own mental processes"—can be considered in analogy to physical tools. But it is only an analogy and "cannot be carried through to the very end until all features of both concepts coincide." The point of analogical comparison is "the role these devices play in behavior, which is analogous to the role of a tool in labor." Such psychological tools are "artificial formations"—social and "directed toward the mastery of [[mental]] processes" (p.85; [[]] indicates square brackets in the original). And "by being included in the process of behavior, the psychological tool modifies the entire course and structure of mental functions by determining the structure of the new instrumental act, just as the technical tool modifies the process of natural adaptation by determining the form of labor operations" (p.85). That is, contra Leontiev, labor is the domain of physical tool and behavior is the domain of psychological tools.

Here, Vygotsky uses the same triangle (p.86) that he used in The History of the Development of Higher Mental Functions and Tool and Symbol. The X in the triangle is a psychological tool, a mediated relation between stimulus and response. X can be an object (memorizing) and a means by which we direct psychological operations; it is an external stimulus (p.86). Note that with a psychological tool, the self is the object of activity—self-control, self-direction, self-mastery (p.87). (And it becomes very clear in this volume that self-mastery is a major theme in Vygotsky's works.) The instrumental act is thus an "elementary unit of behavior" (p.87).

Chapter 6. On psychological systems.
This chapter is also "based on a manuscript found in Vygotsky's private archives" (p.91 footnote). It cites Leontiev's 1931 book and appears to precede Vygotsky's 1934 article on the localization of brain functions, and it examines aphasia, schizophrenia, and other neurological pathologies, so I would guess it was written around 1934.

In any case, Vygotsky says that "what I plan to report surpasses in complexity the system of concepts with which we have operated thus far" (p.91). In previous work, notably in The History of the Development of Higher Mental Functions, Vygotsky argued that higher mental functions were combinations of lower mental functions that had been dialectically transformed. Here, he argues that
in the process of development, and in the historical development of behavior in particular, it is not so much the functions that change (these we mistakenly studied before). Their structure and the system of their development remain the same. What is changed and modified are rather the relationships, the links between the functions. New constellations emerge which were unknown in the preceding stage. That is why intra-functional change is often not essential in the transition from one stage to another. It is inter-functional changes, the changes of inter-functional connections and the inter-functional structure which matter. (p.92)
And "The development of such new flexible relationships between functions we will call a psychological system" (p.92).

He argues that the most elementary functions are relationships between sensory and motor processes, relationships that the Gestaltists and others claim form "an integral psychophysiological whole" (p.93). But when we look beyond apes and young children, this unity "is destroyed"—complex relations develop between these two processes (p.93). Here he says that "these considerations throw new light on Luria's ... experiments with the combined motor method" (p.93—and note that earlier, Vygotsky had essentially ignored the combined motor method).

Later in the text, he argues that in memory, the differentiator is not natural memory but thinking; when the two are combined, "all structural connections, all relationships become changed, and this process of substitution of functions is the formation of a new system which I mentioned earlier" (p.95).

Vygotsky "came to the following staggering conclusion: each higher form of behavior enters the scene twice in its development—first as a collective form of behavior, as an inter-psychological function, then as an intra-psychological function, as a certain way of behaving" (p.95; this idea may be familiar to us from the discussion of speech acquisition in Thought and Language).

Vygotsky again sounds the theme of self-mastery (p.96) and argues that "the biological evolution of man was finished before the beginning of his historical development"—which is ongoing (p.97). (Note here that thus his position must be that the New Man must develop historically, not biologically.)

Vygotsky notes that their early work did not examine late development (adolescence); based on his new investigations, connections in adolescence do not increase, but they do change (p.98). Famously, he says that for a child, to think is to remember. for an adolescent, to remember is to think (p.99).

Later, he argues that the core of schizophrenia is the disturbance of connections. And in that ongoing disturbance, concept formation is lost first (p.102). This disruption of connections explains why mild brain damage can result in gross disorders (p.104)—a theme that Luria later explored extensively.

Chapter 10. Psychology and the theory of the localization of mental functions.
This 1934 article was cited by Luria as the beginning point for his own neuropsychological work. It examines the question of where psychological functions are located in the brain, arguing that "the problem of localization ultimately is a problem of the relation between structural and functional units in brain activity" (p.139). He argues that "In our view, a system of psychological analysis that is adequate from the viewpoint of the theory of localization must be based on a historical theory of the higher mental functions," based on "(a) the mutability of the interfunctional connections and relations; (b) the formation of complex dynamic systems which integrate quite a number of elementary functions; (c) the generalized reflection of activity in consciousness" (p.140). These aspects are "the most essential, fundamental, and united properties of human consciousness" (p.140). Based on them, Vygotsky argues that any given mental function is "the product of the integral activity of strictly differentiated, hierarchically interconnected centers" (p.140). Furthermore, the brain as a whole does not connect all of these functions—"it is the product of the integral activity of dispersed, differentiated and also hierarchically interconnected functions of different brain areas" (p.140). Thus, a local brain lesion does not damage (say) the brain center of writing; such centers do not exist. Rather, it damages one of the many functional areas that are involved in the complex higher mental activity of writing (cf. Luria). Similar lesions can affect the patient differently. In development, the next higher center suffers the most; in disintegration, the next lower center does (p.142).

Thus Vygotsky argues that aphasia, agnosia, and apraxia represent disturbances of extracerebrial connections (p.143).

Chapter 14. Preface to Koffka.
I just want to grab a couple of quotes here.

Vygotsky argues for his genetic method: "That is why we must begin with the facts for which the given theory was originally created, when we wish, as has already been said, the comparison of facts and principles, the examination of facts in the light of the principles, and the verification of principles by the facts, to be the main method for our critical investigation" (p.197).

Later, he contrasts tool use in man vs. apes: "For man a tool remains a tool no matter whether it is at that moment in a situation which requires its use or not. For the animal an object loses its functional meaning outside the situation" (p.207). Apes "are to a much greater degree than man slaves of their sensory field" (p.208). And "it is only man who, in Gelb's brilliant expression, can do something meaningless, i.e., something that does not directly spring from the perceived situation and is meaningless from the viewpoint of the given actual situation" such as preparing a stick for digging (p.209)—or, in Leontiev's later illustration, beating the bushes so that animals would run away from the beater and toward the rest of the hunting party.

Still later, Vygotsky argues that solving a task happens in the animal's optical field, but the child's semantic field (p.213).

Finally, Vygotsky argues that meaning "is the key to all further problems" (p.221).

So that's it, my quick overview of what I found most interesting in this volume of the CW. And of course I recommend it to you.

Finally, A quick note. I have decided not to review the rest of the CW. That's because I have already reviewed what I consider to be the most interesting parts of them ("Tool and Sign," Thought and Language). The teachings on emotions, on the development of the adolescent, and so forth are interesting, to be sure, but not so directly connected to my project.