Inicio > Filosofía marxista, Psicología marxista > “Much Learning does Not Teach Understanding” (A Conversation with Vasili Davydov): Karl Levitin

“Much Learning does Not Teach Understanding” (A Conversation with Vasili Davydov): Karl Levitin

Professor Davydov, your books, articles and public statements suggest that present-day psychology needs new, drastically different methods and is therefore on the eve of a radical change of theory, and hence in practical application. Can you elaborate on that idea?

To begin with, I must say that contemporary psychology has split into a number of disciplines each having its own object of study. They are general psychology, psychophysiology, peer group, developmental and educational psychology, social, medical, the psychology of law, the psychology of labour, art, sport, and so on. In looking for answers to the questions put forth by life, psychologists are forging ahead with their investigations and have come up with a lot of valuable results. In a sense, such differentiation of psychological disciplines is useful as it gives deeper insights into the psychological laws of whatever happens to be the particular object of study. On the other hand, it results in the loss of something general that should unite all psychological studies. For a long time now the prevalent trend has been to allow not relative but complete autonomy to every branch of what used to be the one psychological tree: let everyone do his own job and forget about what the man next door is doing. And the connection between the psychology of art, peer group psychology, and psychology of labour, for example, is considered a problem of no particular interest, or else a task for another discipline.

The desire to immerse oneself in a narrow object of investigation has made the particular psychological disciplines essentially different in their tasks, methods, and analytical techniques – they “split the single body of psychology at the seams”, as Leontiev once said. The results obtained in related areas of psychology are sometimes impossible to discuss simply because the researchers speak different languages and think in different categories. This, in my view, is the affliction of contemporary psychology. It badly needs a single basis, a common foundation. In other words, it is necessary to develop a contemporary general theory of the human psyche that will provide a fundamental basis for all the disciplines that call themselves psychological. Many scientists are aware of that necessity and so, in spite of the burgeoning of concrete psychological studies, the ancient problem of what the psyche is in general sparks off discussions in our midst.

I must stress that over the centuries, philosophy and other sciences have accumulated vast experience in analysing that problem and have amassed enormous factual material on the manifestations of human psychic activity. Soviet psychological theory proceeds from the methodological principles of Marxist philosophy which provide guidelines for concrete studies. These are, above all the seminal propositions on the role of operational activities in the development of the human mind and the proposition that the psyche is a reflective phenomenon, a function of the brain. At the same time, in their preoccupation with current research, many of our psychologists have come to feel that the main problems connected with the nature of the psyche have been resolved and that one need no longer apply oneself to such fundamental problems, but should rather use the solutions obtained for the study of more specific tasks.

Of course, dialectical materialist philosophy has laid a monolithic foundation for psychological theory and has cleared away the idealistic debris obstructing the path of its builders, but such a theory must be constantly developed in accordance with the present situation in science.

Let me stress that Western (chiefly American) psychology is dominated by positivism, which is in principle ill-equipped to discuss fundamental problems of science. One of the tenets of positivism is that “science is its own philosophy”. On the theoretical plane, such a tenet is unacceptable for Soviet science. The trouble is that we, too, are not without sin: although we are aware of the snares of positivism and its wingless and utilitarian nature, in our practical research we sometimes succumb to this approach which has about it the appealing simplicity of common sense. In the preface to his book, Activity. Consciousness. Personality, Alexei Leontiev mentions the lamentable circumstance of “ methodological carelessness” in concrete present-day psychological studies, even though it sometimes produces copious and important results.

I want to stress, however, that some contemporary psychologists echo the ideas of positivism for good reason. “One need not wrestle with profound problems of a general nature because, as history shows, they are insoluble. It is better to rule them out of concrete studies. One must study only the immediate facts and develop theories based only on facts, and not on philosophical categories.” It sounds attractive, doesn’t it? Especially for someone who has drifted into psychology “from outside”, i.e., from the fields of technology, mathematics or physiology. There are many such specialists in our science already, and they are becoming more numerous with every year.

It is difficult to gear one’s scientific work to a system of philosophical categories. For that one needs a special background and training, both in thought and in the conducting of scientific investigations – mainly in the posing of tasks, in choosing methods of tackling them, and in interpreting the data obtained. However, in the psychological realm one keeps running up against the sharp corners of such philosophical categories as “matter”, “object”, “subject”, “the ideal”, “goal setting”, “consciousness”, “activity”, “personality”, etc. In analysing any questions connected with the psyche, it is very important to apply these categories correctly, to know their history and their contemporary dialectical materialist content. Regrettably, psychology sometimes proceeds not so much from the philosophical meaning of these categories as from ideas of psychic phenomena that have grown out of the traditions of the empirical natural sciences – physics, chemistry and physiology. Researchers in these fields have considerable experience in dealing with psychic-related phenomena, namely, the neural and physiological prerequisites of psychic activity.

“Much Learning does Not Teach Understanding” (A Conversation with Vasili Davydov)

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