Inicio > Psicología marxista > “Vygotsky, The Making of Mind”: A. R. Luria

“Vygotsky, The Making of Mind”: A. R. Luria

It is no exaggeration to say that Vygotsky was a genius. Through more than five decades in science I never again met a person who even approached his clearness of mind, his ability to lay bare the essential structure of complex problems, his breadth of knowledge in many fields, and his ability to foresee the future development of his science.

We met early in I924 at the Second Psychoneurological Congress in Leningrad. This gathering was the most important forum at that time for Soviet scientists who worked in the general area of psychology. Kornilov brought along from the Institute of Psychology several of his younger colleagues, among whom I was included.

When Vygotsky got up to deliver his speech, he had no printed text from which to read, not even notes. Yet he spoke fluently, never seeming to stop and search his memory for the next idea. Even had the content of his speech been pedestrian, his performance would have been notable for the persuasiveness of his style. But his speech was by no means pedestrian. Instead of choosing a minor theme, as might befit a young man of twenty-eight speaking for the first time to a gathering of the graybeards of his profession, Vygotsky chose the difficult theme of the relation between conditioned reflexes and man’s conscious behavior.

Only the previous year Kornilov had used this same podium to deliver an attack on introspective theories in psychology. His point of view had prevailed, and his objective, reactological approach was the dominant viewpoint in our institute. Both Bekhterev and Pavlov were well known for their opposition to subjective psychology, in which consciousness was a key concept. Yet Vygotsky defended the position that consciousness as a concept had to remain in psychology, arguing rather that it must be studied by objective means. Although he failed to convince everyone of the correctness of his view, it was clear that this man from a small provincial town in western Russia was an intellectual force who would have to be listened to. It was decided that Vygotsky should be invited to join the young staff of the new, reorganized Institute of Psychology in Moscow. In the fall of that year Vygotsky arrived at the institute, and we began a collaboration that continued until his death a decade later.

Prior to his appearance in Leningrad, Vygotsky had taught at a teachers college in Gomel, a provincial town not far from Minsk. By training he was a literary critic, whose dissertation on Shakespeare’s Hamlet is still considered a classic. In this work, as well as in his studies of fables and other works of fiction, he revealed a striking ability to carry out psychological analysis. He was influenced by scholars who were interested in the effect of language on thought processes. He referred to the works of the Russian A. A. Potebriya and of Alexander von Humboldt, who first formulated the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity. Vygotsky’s work at the teachers college brought him in contact with the problems of children who suffered from congenital defects-blindness, deafness, mental retardation-and with the need to discover ways to help such children fulfill their individual potentials. It was while searching for answers to these problems that he became interested in the work of academic psychologists.

When Vygotsky arrived in Moscow, I was still conducting studies by the combined motor method with Leontlev, a former student of Chelpanov’s with whom I have been associated ever since. Recognizing Vygotsky’s uncommon abilities, Leontiev and I were delighted when it became possible to include Vygotsky in our working group, which we called the “troika.” With Vygotsky as our acknowledged leader, we undertook a critical review of the history and current status of psychology in Russia and the rest of the world. Our aim, overambitious in the manner characteristic of the times, was to create a new, comprehensive approach to human psychological processes.

Our shared assumption at the outset was that neither the subjective psychology propounded by Chelpanov nor the oversimplified attempts to reduce the whole of conscious activity to simple reflex schemes would provide a satisfactory model of human psychology. A new synthesis of the partial truths of previous approaches had to be found. It was Vygotsky who foresaw the outlines of this new synthesis.

Drawing heavily on German, French, English, and American writings, Vygotsky developed his analysis of what he called the crisis in psychology. He discussed these ideas at various conferences and actually wrote them down in I926 when he was hospitalized for the treatment of tuberculosis. Unfortunately, this work was never published; the manuscript was lost during World War II, and a copy was not discovered until I960, when it was placed in his archives.

According to Vygotsky’s analysis, the situation in world psychology at the beginning of the twentieth century was extremely paradoxical. During the second half of the nineteenth century, Wundt, Ebbinghaus, and others had succeeded in turning psychology into a natural science. The basic strategy in their approach was to reduce complex psychological events to elementary mechanisms that could be studied in the laboratory by exact, experimental techniques. The “sense” or “meaning” of complex stimuli was pared away in order to neutralize the influence of experiences outside the laboratory which the experimenter could not control or properly evaluate. Isolated tones and lights, or nonsense syllables, were the favorite stimuli that served as the occasion for behavior. The goal of researchers became the discovery of laws of the elementary mechanisms that gave rise to this laboratory behavior.

Acknowledging the success of this enterprise, Vygotsky pointed out that an essential consequence of this strategy was the exclusion of all higher psychological processes, including consciously controlled action, voluntary attention, active memorizing, and abstract thought. Such phenomena were either ignored, as in theories derived from reflex principles, or left to mentalistic description, as in Wundt’s notion of apperception.

The failure of the natural science psychologists to incorporate complex human functions in their work provoked Dilthey, Spranger, and others to offer an alternative approach. They took as their subject matter exactly those processes that the natural scientists could not cope with: values, will, attitudes, abstract reasoning. But all of these phenomena were treated in a purely phenomenological, descriptive manner. They claimed that explanation was impossible in principle. To stress the difficulty, they would pose the question,—Canone ask why the sum of the angles of a triangle is 180?”

Vygotsky, The Making of Mind

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