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[xmca] Vygotsky and Behaviourism

On the question of Vygotsky as a "social Behaviourist before 1929", I have scanned two pages From the Introduction to “Mind in Society,” by Mike Cole and Sylvia Scribner, pp 4-6


In the early decades of the twentieth century psychology in Russia, as in Europe, was torn between contending schools, each of which offered partial explanations of a limited range of phenomena. In 1923 at the first all-Russian psychoneurological congress K. N. Kornilov initiated the first major organizational and intellectual shift in psychology following the revolution. At that time the prestigious Institute of Psychology in Moscow was headed by G. I. Chelpanov, an adherent of Wundt's introspective psychology and a foe of behaviorism. (He had published the sixth edition of his book, The Mind of Man, a critique of materialist theories of the mind, in 1917, just before the revolution.) Chelpanov assigned a restricted role to Marxism in psychology, asserting it could help explain the social organization of consciousness but not the properties of individual consciousness. In a talk entitled "Contemporary Psychology and Marxism" Kornilov criticized Chelpanov both for the idealistic basis of his psychological theory and for the restricted role he assigned to Marxism in psychology. Kornilov, who called his own approach reactology, sought to subsume all branches of psychology within a Marxist framework that used behavioral reactions as the basic data.

Kornilov's critique of Chelpanov in 1923 won the day. Chelpanov was removed as director of the Institute of Psychology and was replaced by Kornilov, who immediately brought together a corps of young scientists dedicated to formulating and promoting a *behavioral, Marxist theory of psychology*.

Vygotsky must have produced quite a sensation one year later at the second psychoneurological meeting when he gave a talk entitled "Consciousness as an Object of the Psychology of Behavior." Whatever else one extracted from Kornilov's reactological approach, it quite clearly did not feature the role of consciousness in human activity, nor did it accord the concept of consciousness a role in psychological science.

Vygotsky was *dissenting* from newly established authority. He was not, however, promoting a return to the position advocated by Chelpanov. In his initial speech and a series of subsequent publications, he made it clear that in his view none of the existing schools of psychology provided a firm foundation for establishing a unified theory of human psychological processes. Borrowing a phrase from his German contemporaries, he often referred to the "crisis in psychology" and set himself the task of achieving a synthesis of contending views on a completely new theoretical basis.

For Vygotsky's Gestalt contemporaries, a crisis existed because established theories (primarily Wundt's and Watsonian behaviorism) could not, in their view, explain complex perceptual and problemsolving behaviors. For Vygotsky, the crisis went much deeper. He shared the Gestalt psychologists' dissatisfaction with psychological analysis that began by reducing all phenomena to a set of psychological "atoms." But he felt that the Gestalt psychologists failed to move beyond the description of complex phenomena to the explanation of them. Even if one were to accept the Gestalt criticisms of previous approaches, a crisis would still exist because psychology would remain split into two irreconcilable halves: a "natural science" branch that could explain elementary sensory and reflex processes, and a "mental science" half that could describe emergent properties of higher psychological processes. What Vygotsky sought was a comprehensive approach that would make possible description and explanation of higher psychological functions in terms acceptable to natural science. To Vygotsky, explanation meant a great deal. It included identification of the brain mechanisms underlying a particular function; it included a detailed explication of their developmental history to establish the relation between simple and complex forms of what appeared to be the same behavior; and, importantly, it included specification of the societal context in which the behavior developed. Vygotsky's goals were extremely ambitious, perhaps unreasonably so. He did not achieve these goals (as he was well aware). But he did succeed in providing us with an astute and prescient analysis of modern psychology.

A major reason for the continued relevance of Vygotsky's work is that in 1924 and the following decade he constructed a penetrating critique of the notion that an understanding of the higher psychological functions in humans can be found by a multiplication and complication of principles derived from animal psychology, in particular those principles that represent the mechanical combination of stimulus-response laws. At the same time he provided a devastating critique of theories which claim that the properties of adult intellectual functions arise from maturation alone, or are in any way preformed in the child and simply waiting for an opportunity to manifest themselves.

In stressing the social origins of language and thinking, Vygotsky was following the lead of influential French sociologists, but to our knowledge he was the first modern psychologist to suggest the mechanisms by which culture becomes a part of each person's nature. Insisting that psychological functions are a product of the brain's activity, he became an early advocate of combining experimental cognitive psychology with neurology and physiology. Finally, by claiming that all of these should be understood in terms of a Marxist theory of the history of human society, he laid the foundation for a unified behavioral science.


The text referred to above and described on this list as I understand it, as evidence of Vygotsky's adherence to a variety of behaviourism, is at:


Nicolai Veresov's commentary on it claims errors in Mike Cole's narrative; but whether Vygotsky's article belongs to 1924, 1925 or 1926, it is all within what has been spoken of as his "social behaviourist" phase:


For my part, I read this material as documenting that behaviourism was declared to be the Marxist Psychology in 1923 (coincident with the death of Lenin and the rise of Stalin to leadership of the USSR) and in the eyes of the vast majority of "Marxists", within and outside the USSR, remains so to this day.

As I see it, the counter claim begins from Vygotsky's speech in 1924 (or 1925 or 1926).


Jussi Silvonen wrote:
Hi everybody!

First, I'd like to thank Jonna for introducing my paper and starting the discussion. I'm sorry about the delay of my comments - sometimes there is life also outside the academy (luckily not too often, as you know), which keeps us out of the office for few days. There are already too many issues in this ongoing and extremely interesting discussion to comment in one e-mail. So I will simply start by listing some of the issues mentioned so far. After that I try to a little bit clarify my motivations and point of view, to focus the discussion.

Before that, anyhow, I have to make confession. I don't know Russian and read Vygotsky only in English and in German. I compiled a bibliography of English translations of LSV's works I know so far (=102), which shows the textual base of my paper. You can find it on my site:


(I added original dates of LSV's papers in the references and cross-referenced overlapping versions of translations, hope this could help those not having the Collected Works in their library). Comments on the bibliography are welcomed, too. Those reading LSV in Russia can probably tell, if something (or what) essential sources, related to my arguments, are missing.

Reading very fast the comments so far, at least following topics or arguments were represented: - The question of periods in Vygotsky's work. According to David there would be almost a consensus about three Vygotskies ( LSV I, II, III), but this point was questioned. My special contribution to this debate, however, is not the statement of three periods as such, but the opinion that Vygotsky was committed to behaviorism in one moment of his thinking. This point obviously requires more discussion, as Steve and others remarked. - The question of the tools by which we should conceptualize the (possible) periods in LSV. My suggestion was that we could integrate some ideas / concepts from Althusser and Foucault to our attempt to understand critically and self-reflective way the development (or non-development) of our tradition. Some agreed to some degree, but the idea was strongly criticized, too (at least Andy). - The problem of semiotics or semiotic mediation in LSV is one of the key issues in my argumentation, connected to the hypotheses about epistemological break between LSV II and III. Somebody read my thesis as a statement about the priority on supremacy of semiosis / sign mediation. What I actually said, was that Vygotsky always related different forms of mediation to each other, and that inside this methodological frame his point of view moved from instrumental approach to a semiotic one. I agree with most of David's remarks on this question, but this point requires some clarifications, too. - In some comments were seen missing contexts in my analysis. No discussion about Leibnitz, Spinoza, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Hegel, Goethe and other key figures in Western philosophy (Andy). I agree, absolutely. The focus of my paper is in the conceptual development in Vygotsky's work, not in the history of philosophy. And the distinction between traditional and non-traditional, or Cartesian and post-Cartesian comes not from Althusser but is a common statement in Vygotskyan traditon (classical and non-classical in Asmolov, Elkonin etc). What I try to do is make sense of this distinction , to conceptualize it someway. Can we do this without a reference to the long perspective of philosophy, is a good question, anyway. - One other missing context seen in my paper is Vygotsky's relation to Marxism and dialectical materialism. It is not possible to understand Vygotsky outside the Marxian frame, is claimed. This problem is in brackets, just like the philosophy question, but it is worth to debate. Some people (f.e. Elhammoumi) really see Vygotsky as a Marxist per excellence, but I think this is a too limited approach to Vygotsky. He was not a Marxist at all, if we take Marxism in the form as it exist in Vygotsky's life time. In my interpretation Vygotsky took a Marxian position, which was incompatible with the Marxist-Leninist state-ideology of the USSR This argument requires a discussion about the concept of dialectical materialism as a methodology, about Marx and Marxism, even about "the Stalinist machine" and Marxist philosophy. I'm not sure how many would be interested in this, but I'm ready to go on this, too. - The concept of CHAT was also touched. Should we talk about CHAT, or about CH/AT, or even about CHP vs AT? Or maybe CH?AT would express best way the state of art ? - The was also the question of the actual history of cultural historical school in Russia, the developments after Vygotsky's dead and so on. My paper is focused on texts only, but can read Vygotsky without understanding of the context of his work? In brackets, I agree. - And I could add here for example the inconsistent way I used Foucault, which nobody, for some strange reasons, mentioned. I picked up topics above fast without any deep reflection. I guess any of these topics would be worth of discussion. Before to going on my own comments, I clarify a little the background and the motivation of my paper.

It seems to me that some of the comments are based on too fast reading of my paper, resulting in misunderstanding of what I am trying to do. My paper is not meant to be an exhaustive description of all aspects and contexts in LSV's thinking. Many things are consciously put in brackets to make the problematic I am interested in, more focused and clear. I am interested in Vygotsky semiotics. But how I became interested in this topic, then?

One motivation to start a journey through the Collected Works was my dissatisfaction about the way we express our tradition. Some people are talking about Socio-cultural research, some others Cultural-historical psychology. In nowadays Russia they have cultural psychology debating with activity theory. Other labels can be, possibly, found out. And then we have the Mike's way to talk about Cultural-historical-activity theory. I agree with David's evaluation "that Mike and other founders of CHAT founded it as a loose federation between two rather incompatible Vygotskies, the Vygotsky of mediated action and the Vygotsky of word meaning, with the assumption that a common tradition and a set of common practices would hold it together." I understand, somehow, the motivation behind the label CHAT. It can be understood as an umbrella like construction, as a space for discussion and for practices. What's the problem, then? If you take a look at the footnotes of my paper, you can realize I'm writing in Finnish context. At least in Finland the CHAT tradition is very strong in empirical investigations, but theoretical contributions are rare. Especially works on the history of "CHAT" are missing, and the possible contradictions between the founders of the tradition are almost taboos. Consequently CHAT is presented as a coherent theory, in a way which makes discussion about some methodological problems - semiotic mediation for example - difficult or even impossible. When involving in ISCRAT I realized the fragmented state of the tradition. In Finland we have one coherent conception (CHAT), on the international plane there are plenty of school and interpretations. The strange thing was, that everybody seemed to claim to be the real Vygotskians. After that impression, it was easy to ask the most simple question: is there something in the founding what could - at least to some extent - explain the situation. And now I have my hypothesis: there are not one, but three Vygotskies, giving possibilities to different theoretical discourses. If now go back to the CHAT concept, we can see what it problematic in it. On one hand it is meant to be an umbrella type concept bringing together different parts of the common tradition. But on the other hand it is presented as a research theory, as a tool for empirical research (at least in Finland). We have a common tradition which prefers the idea of mediation. But the interpretations of the nature of cultural mediation are incompatible. So it could be reasonable to talk about cultural-historical approach divided into different - partly compatible, partly competitive - research theories, having their own objects and research interests. I will not continue this discussion about the two levels of methodology. I simply state that it is impossible to combine semiotic and instrumental mediation concepts although it is possible to have a dialogical relation between them. Thus: CH?AT instead of CHAT. The difference between a tradition (as a form of discoursive praxis) and a research theory (as a tool) was not clear for me when I started my project. Anyway, I was sure that by reading Vygotsky (and Leontyev) from a new angle I could produce some insights explaining the fragmented situation of CH tradition. To make the moves in Vygotsky's thinking as visible as possible I concentrated just in one aspect where the chances are most evident - in the conception of sign mediation. And I think that the focus of the debate should be about here - in this question. Of course this problem opens up new questions and problematics, as have been shown in this discussion, which are all extremely interesting, too.

Above I have only given a list on some topics touched in the discussion, and clarified a little bit the background on my argumentation. There are many important points to comment. I hope I can do it soon. From practical point of view I can only say, that I am an extremely slow reader and ever slower writer (that's why I love Italy, the beautiful country of slow food!). Because of that I will concentrate on one topic at time: probably first the question of Vygotsky's behaviorism, after that the question of semiotics and maybe after that - if the Lord of Research gives me some time - the Vygotsky Marxism problematic contextualized in the actual history of cultural historical tradition.

Thanks for everybody for thought provoking and inspiring comments - it's a great pleasure to read this discussion. Hope it continues....


Andy Blunden http://home.mira.net/~andy/ +61 3 9380 9435 Skype andy.blunden
Hegel's Logic with a Foreword by Andy Blunden:

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