F. T. Mikhailov

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Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, vol. 44, no. 1,

January-February 2006, pp. xx-xx.

© 2006 M.E. Sharpe, Inc. All rights reserved.

ISSN 1061-0405/2006 $9.50 + 0.00.


Problems of the Method of Cultural-Historical Psychology

By way of confession

The article has turned out to be about the author rather than about the content declared in the title that was ordered. But problems of the method of a theory that does not exist—that is also patent nonsense.

First of all, in heartfelt torment I establish that cultural-historical psychology has turned into a myth. Many psychologists use the terminology of L.S. Vygotsky to create an elegant impression, while formulating their personal scientific problems in the logic of patent empiricism. Psychology is dominated by methods of practical correction of psychic anomalies. Fashionable concepts of psychoanalysis and tests and exercises have displaced the very idea of cultural historicism in the formation of the highest psychic functions of the wise organism Homo sapiens.

But the essence of the crisis of developmental psychology lies not only in its empiricist orientation. The personal pretensions of psychologists who draw the younger generation behind them play

English translation © 2006 M.E. Sharpe, Inc., from the Russian text © 2005 F.T. Mikhailov. "Problemy metoda kul'turno-istoricheskoi psikohlogii."

Translated by Stephen D. Shenfield.

not the least role in this crisis. I shall name only the chief claimants to the title of teacher of narrowly professional psychological wisdom. It is not easy for me to name them, for all of them, named here or not, are my once young and now my old, beloved, and valued friends, with whom I have spent not one decade in both disputes and agreement. Before others, they are B.D. Elkonin, V.V. Rubtsov, V.I. Slobodchikov, and V.S. Lazarev. May those whom I have not yet named forgive me, but I think that in this instance they will be only grateful to me for my "forgetfulness."

Each of the chosen lays claim to loyalty to his teachers. More than once we have had to hear, for example, from Boris Elkonin: "They taught us our unique profession—we are psychologists, but not philosophers, god forbid, and not theoreticians without limits." It turns out that neither Spinoza nor Locke, nor Kant, nor Hegel has anything to do with psychology. Nor, especially, does Karl Marx, with whom many psychologists are unable to cope, so that they simply have nothing to recall about him. However, it was precisely their teachers who were open to all philosophical wisdom, including Marx.

It is tempting to assume the pose of a teacher of narrowly professional psychology, but it is also easy to drop that pose. However, this danger recedes to the background when you very much want to play a little at schools of your own, consoling yourselves with the hope that all your listeners will draw the same coveted picture: loyalty to teachers as the earned right to play the role of teacher oneself. But where is this loyalty of yours today? Only the banner, only the symbol—no more. And if there are direct references to the works of A.N. Leontiev, A.R. Luria, L.I. Bozhovich, D.B. Elkonin, P.Ia. Galperin—Vasia [diminutive for Vasilii— Trans.] Davydov's teacher (and mine), A.V. Zaporozhets, A.A. Smirnov, N.A. Menchinskaia, and others, then they are a tribute of respect but not of businesslike criticism, without which theory does not move forward. Those are the kind of doubts that urgently demanded to be shared with you.

I should add that my allusion to the difficult problems of the "new teachers" refers neither to V.P. Zinchenko, who chose his path long ago,1 nor to my beloved L.F. Obukhova, who anxiously and productively develops the ideas of her teacher—Petr Iakovlevich Galperin. I would also set apart G.A. Tsukerman, who has developed her own promising approach in theoretical psychology.

Engineers of human souls

I would call the orientation of problems of theoretical psychology toward the practice of correction of psychic anomalies professional narrow-mindedness. It stands in contrast to the sharp and uncompromising Karl Marx, who not only called the closing-in of theory upon the technology of its "subdivisions" professional cretinism, but also analyzed its historical-cultural, economic, and social causes, acting since the sixteenth century with the factory exploitation of fundamental discoveries in mechanics, and later in physics, chemistry, biology, and so on. The eyes of the victims not of clinical but of professional cretinism, long since equipped with special "spectacles" that so constrict the field of vision that the chief goal of exploration of the secrets of mother nature becomes the scrutiny of mutual transformations of specific elements within this field. Thus has the logic of "creeping empiricism" emerged and taken root in our time. None of the pretentious novelties of the so-called philosophy of science go beyond the bounds of this logic.

But I would like to draw your attention not only to the empiricist logic of the science that patiently serves the means and goals of technogenic civilization. There is another aspect of its service— namely, the stimulation of public awareness of the role not even so much of scientists as of the engineers who turn the scientists' formulas of the objective processes of existence into the reproductive work of machines and mechanisms, changing both the face of the planet and the souls of its inhabitants.

Let us recall the beginning of the previous century. The heroes of fantasy novels and stories, of social utopias and quasi-scientific prophecies were, not by chance, engineers! Yes, those same "white coats," at that time still privileged who (at least in our country) were destined by the middle of the twentieth century to turn into the luckless heroes of Arkadii Raikin's sketches, living "like some engineer!"—the losers receiving the wages of an engineer, whose social position is marginal and whose way of life is rapidly approaching penury.

The figure of the lone engineer, creating and putting into effect the technologies of future machines, of space flights, and of social systems for humanity (invariably once and for all), had already faded by the 1940s. But at the beginning of the century the glory of the professional engineer, desired for a projected future, was no coincidence. Let us recall, for instance, the engineers of Jules Verne and those of A.A. Bogdanov (Malinovskii) in his novels Engineer Menni [Inzhener Menni] and Red Star [Krasnaia zvezda]. And also, alongside them, the engineers of A.N. Tolstoy (Los' in Aelita, Garin in The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin [Giperboloid inzhenera Garina]). These and many other heroes of the novels and stories of that time left their readers in no doubt: the future belongs to those who design and create mechanical—and then chemical, biochemical, physical, and technical—machines and "machines" of the social arrangement of people's lives. Their exploitation will create a true heaven on earth for us all.

"The mechanics of the interaction between the parts of these machines—that is the whole object of analysis and the result of inventions that serve people." Such is the subtext of the self-consciousness of our epoch, guiding all texts of the natural and social sciences, of the ideologists of politics, and of the bases of all "subdivisions" of the general science of man, including contemporary psychology. The object field of the numerous "subdivisions" of psychology encompasses precisely the mechanics of the "interactions" between the psychic states, fixed ideas, and painful experiences present in the individual, requiring engineering correction.2

And the corresponding specializations of psychology, each closed in upon itself, are now so numerous that two or three pages of this article would be needed just to enumerate them. But now it is not only writers but, even ahead of the latter, precisely psychologists who lay claim to the title of engineers of human souls! Precisely to the title of engineers, engaged in studying and fine-tuning normal, and repairing damaged, mechanisms of our soul's work.

And this is how psychology reverted to the Cartesian counterposition of the soul, with its own special spiritual "mechanics," to the inescapable corporeality of the world and of man, with its purely physical mechanics. And this made it necessary to bring in a Creator to explain the basis and causes of the existence and functioning in the world of being of a purely subjective substance. For Cartesianism this is inevitable! Here the logic of Descartes was supplemented by the mechanical logic of rooting in the basis of the entire social order the political power of the state of the bureaucrats. There are no grounds for so rooting their power, and therefore it requires ideological—which in this case can only be religious—sanctification.

Some purely personal impressions

It is not at all by chance that the Catholic idea of state Orthodoxy is present in the mentality of state serfdom that has shackled Russia for at least three hundred years.3 And this despite the fact that the majority of citizens of Russia consider themselves members of other confessions—Islam, Buddhism, the Old Belief, Judaism, and so on. Here I cannot but recall S.N. Bulgakov, one of the most faithful and fervently believing priests of precisely the Orthodox Church! Before his exile to Istanbul, and especially in Istanbul and later in Paris, Sergei Nikolaevich dreamt of the fusion of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. And not at the state level, but in human souls. I remind the reader also that one of Dostoevsky's heroes, Versilov, according to rumor became a Catholic. Moreover, a family of renowned contemporary philosophers, in the not distant past Marxists, suddenly went over to the faith of the Apostle Paul. And this is not an isolated case. I know another two families of newly converted Catholics. This, apparently, is not coincidental for our "democracy." For the Catholic Church from days of old has laid claim to state power, creating insoluble problems for both the church and the state. Let us recall, by the way, the article of Ivan Karamazov and its discussion in a monastery.

In recent years, state policy has insistently proclaimed the false idea of orthodoxy as the indigenous culture of Russia, although our culture has retained a great deal from paganism. But the main point is that the Western world has been shaken not by "Father" Pavel Florenskii, not by Berdiaev or Rozanov, but by the supreme achievements of Russia's secular culture. Radishchev, Novikov, Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky (who in torment forced himself toward faith, but gave god back his ticket to heaven because of the innocent tears of a child), Chekhov, Stanislavsky, the brilliant poets of Russia's Silver Age, M.A. Bulgakov, Sholokhov, our artists, our composers! So then, are we to throw them all onto the trash heap of history?

It looks as though the answer will be yes. The introduction of lessons in orthodoxy in the schools, the ritual orthodoxy of the president, his "fatherly" participation in church holidays—all is subordinated to the idea of the fusion of the civil power with the institutional and spiritual power of the church. But this very fusion is more than dangerous: it contains a threat of totalitarianism. No longer, perhaps, merely a threat. This is borne out by the trial and harsh punishment, in contravention of the Constitution of the RF and the law on the separation of church and state, of the organizers of the exhibition "Beware, Religion" [Ostorozhno, religiia]. Faith in god is guarded by the state, and atheism is persecuted.4

I ask the reader to bear in mind here that my attitude to the sincere faith of many of my friends and acquaintances is one of sympathy and understanding. Their faith makes it easier for them to live in our insane, bloody, and confusing world. Indeed, my own ancestors were also frenzied believers—true, Old Believer dissenters. My grandfather, Vasilii Leontievich Mikhailov, as I realized once on meeting with his fellow townsmen, is revered to this day, virtually as a saint, for during his life he was the leader of the South Urals community of Old Believers (in the town of Kurtamysh and the surrounding areas). He won arguments with emissaries of the Moscow Patriarchate, undertook a pilgrimage to the Lord's grave, and almost struck down his elder son Kharlampii with an axe for asking the innocent question: how could the Virgin Mary have remained a virgin, having given birth not only to Jesus?

By the way, regarding the reason why I do not write the word "god" with an initial capital. For all those who have suddenly awoken to faith, the "Lord" has become a state personage. After all, I do not write the word "president" with a capital letter! But in fact I am simply obliged to write "God." State grammar obliges me so to do. It is also true that in our country everything, absolutely everything, belongs to the state. Public affairs, civic affairs do not take root in Russia.

But let us return to psychology and psychologists. However, it is worth referring first to physiologists. I.P. Pavlov, a mechanicist to the marrow of his bones, did not bring god into his procedures for inducing conditioned reflexes in dogs. His faith, if it was sincere and not demonstratively anti-Soviet, was his personal affair and had no impact on his experiments. But the return of psychology to the polarization between the corporeality of the world and the human organism and his subjective mentality, the return to Descartes simply demands the participation of a creator in the formation of the subjectivity of the motives of the behavior of Homo sapiens.

By way of anecdotes, I shall convey some stories that I was told by an old friend of mine who was then an associate of the Leningrad Division of the Institute of the Brain of the USSR Academy of Sciences. However, while clearly farfetched, her stories did confirm the historical truth of the research orientation led at that time by Academician Bekhtereva. Here is a vivid recent example of such confirmation.

At the end of last year, in the "Galitsino" guesthouse, Iu.N. Afanas'ev conducted a multiday conference of the Russian State Humanitarian University (RGGU). I took part in it with the rights of a spy in the land of Canaan. I was simply present—"without a tongue." The conference was crowned by the traditional buffet banquet. I was standing by a table of psychologists when suddenly I was embraced by a stranger. And he began to cry out to the entire hall: "Here he is, my savior! Here's the man to whom I owe my new life!" His raptures continued until the end of the banquet. He literally dragged me from table to table, telling everyone the same story. Briefly, here is the essence of his raptures.

He had graduated from the Second Medical Institute at a time when I was head of its philosophy department (as I am now—true, on a half-time basis). I was living then by teaching the history of philosophy under the guise of dialectical and historical materialism. He had been assigned to the Institute of the Brain and was proud of it. But not for long, for after reading my booklet The Riddle of the Human I [Zagadka chelovecheskogo Ia] he had suddenly understood that the research at the Institute of the Brain was "complete eyewash."5 He became a psychiatrist. It was therein that he saw his "salvation."

He repeated this story many times, in passing explaining what exactly Academician Bekhtereva was up to at that time. He thus confirmed the farfetched nature of her research, of which I was already aware: the search in the neurons of the cerebrum for the words concealed in them. The head of this mighty institute was already prepared to assert that the soul possesses mass and, consequently, also weight. Therefore, supposedly, the body of a dead person is just a tiny bit lighter than the body of a living person— by exactly the weight of the departed soul! There is an example for you of the most vulgar materialism, requiring in addition to its vulgarity a material embodiment of man's subjective mentality! It is also logical that today Academician Bekhtereva should believe fervently in the Orthodox god. After all, even a "material" soul has to fly off somewhere. Where? Where else can it go, poor thing, if not to god? As creator of the ideal substance of thinking he is simply essential, not only to the vulgar-materialist physiologist but also to the Cartesian psychologist.

The psychologists overlooked one simple fact, as simple as the bellowing of a cow: all bodily performances of the human organism are subordinate to their subjective motivation. In place of the search for an answer to the question "how is this possible?" the somatic predetermination of the individual's psychological development was understood as a caprice of his individual genetics. That is why they resurrected the idea of the "struggle" for the fate of the individual between heredity and the natural and social environment external to him—in direct opposition to the cultural-historical approach, which knows no other "environment" but that of speech.

Here I shall permit myself a quotation from a work of V.V. Bibikhin, who died before his time:

The communicative act exists because there is something to communicate, and not the other way round, with people looking for something to convey once communication and its means exist. At the beginning of communication and society there stands the piece of news. It tells of an event that has occurred or is occurring. Language, before all else and in its initial essence, is already present in communication, and it is through communication that the act of communication acquires sense. Seen in this light, language is not so much a means as that environment itself, that space unfolded by the event and by the news of it, motion within which turns out to be not without sense. If communication is not one occupation of man among others but his mode of self-realization in the encounter with others, then language, which is presupposed by communication, is the environment and space of our historical existence, in the same way as the natural biological surroundings of animals are the environment and space of their existence. Man realizes himself and his history is made not so much within his natural surroundings as in the environment of language, taken not in its special lexicon and grammar but in its essence, communication. The definition of language as "the means of human communication" does not stand on its feet and, as it diffuses, leaves us with another, which is not so much a definition as a riddle: language in its essence, or news, is the environment in which man's historical being is realized.6

I cannot forgive!

Instead of this position, so natural for the cultural-historical logic of Vygotsky, we have a heterogeneous collection of the real abstractions that abound in the life activity of man. We have orientation, and irritability, and reactivity, and the search for the other outside and within the self as encounter, without which there is no act of motion and development of the psyche.

However, I can find no explanation for the crude distortion of the history of the Institute of Psychology of the Russian Academy of Education in the booklet published on the one-hundredth anniversary of the institute, except the authors' claims to their own scientific significance. In this booklet that has so crudely distorted the institute's history (apart from the first period of its creation and flourishing) Davydov is mentioned in passing as one of the directors of the institute. It is possible that this was to someone's advantage, but...

But my friends whom I named above—currently teachers of psychology that is closed in upon itself—are all former graduate students of V.V. Davydov! It was he who gave them the freedom of personal creativity, he who supported their first steps in science! How could they have reconciled themselves to the falsification of a very important and glorious period of its history?!

Here is the gist of the matter. My relation to the institute is not that of a bystander: for ten years under Davydov I was head of the theoretical laboratory, a member of the Scientific Council, a department head, and so on and so \=У- In these years members of my laboratory included Volodia [diminutive for Vladimir—Trans.] Bibler(!), Tolia [diminutive for Anatolii—Trans.] Arsen'ev(!), Sasha [diminutive for Aleksandr—Trans.] Tolstykh—the future academician and director of the Institute of Artistic Education of the Russian Academy of Education, Igor Vinogradov—former head of a department at Tvardovskii's journal Novyi mir, driven out for not signing a lampoon against Academician A.D. Sakharov, and blind and deaf graduates of the psychology faculty of Moscow

State University (at that time a sensation!). Responsible editor of the State Political Publishing House [Gospolitizdat] Eduard Viktorovich Bezcherevnykh also worked in our laboratory on a half-time basis.

As our laboratory assistant we recruited, in accordance with Davydov's decision, Sasha Surmava, about whose works I shall talk later. Previously, as a result of persecution by the KGB, he had been a stoker in the boiler room at the Institute of Psychology, and then served as cloakroom attendant. L. Radzikhovskii was also a member of the laboratory. He used to make frequent presentations at seminars, speaking at length and pretty much to the point. But when Vasia [Davydov] was expelled from the party and "at his own request" left the post of institute director to head the small Laboratory of the Thinking of the Preschool Child at the Institute of Preschool Education under the wing of our mutual friend N.N. Pod"iakov, Leonid [Radzikhovskii] started coming out with accusations against our laboratory at meetings of the Institute of Psychology: "In all the years of its existence, the laboratory has contributed nothing to science." Now he is a well-known politoluch [politolukh].(This is not a misprint: this is my word for one of the professional political technologists who are able to "transform" a nonentity into a member of the Duma, a member of the government, and so on.)

It was, incidentally, precisely at this time that our laboratory was preparing for publication the book Psychological-Pedagogical Problems of Education [Psikhologo-pedagogicheskie problemy obrazovaniia] (twenty-one printer's sheets). When the manuscript of the book was discussed at a specially created commission, one woman from Leningrad—an academician, by the way—burst into tears (literally). 'I won't allow Soviet pedagogy to be mocked!' The decision of the commission was that the book should be abridged and that members of the academy should not refer to it.

*The author has coined this word by changing the suffix of politolog, politologist or political scientist. The word olukh means fool.

When the book came out, of the twenty-one sheets just seven remained! The funniest thing was that the three chapters written by A.S. Arsen'ev, which had outraged all the members of the commission, were published, while, for example, my chapter on the historicism of psychological-pedagogical thought, which was much more tranquil and academic, was cut to two pages! That's how it appeared: the chapter heading, one page, and then right away another chapter written by a different author—E.V. Bezcherevnykh. But even in this form the book produced a sensation: colleagues from Prague published magnificent reviews, and there was also a stream of laudatory reviews from the Russian "backwoods" [glubinka]—from the universities in Krasnoiarsk, Novosibirsk, Barnaul, and other cities. Not long before his demise Vasia [Davydov] republished this book, regarding it as topical even today.

But that too is not the main thing. The main thing is that all these years Moscow-wide theoretical seminars took place monthly in a jam-packed large psychology auditorium. Lecturers included Galperin, A.N. Leontiev, E.V. Ilyenkov, V.S. Bibler, Andrei Brushlinskii (if I could only find his killer, I'd tear him to pieces!), A.A. Bodalev (who demanded that Teplov, Lomov, and the other Leningraders be recognized and exalted equally with Vygotsky), G.P. Shchedrovitskii, your obedient servant, and many others. Rigorous, uncompromising discussions of the lectures stirred up the participants; we used to live then from seminar to seminar. But this too was not all!

And what skits the young associates of the institute thought up and performed with such sparkle! Even today, when on one or another pretext the recordings of those skits are played in the auditorium, the j oy and laughter of the return to the days of our youth gladdens the hearts of us "oldsters." Is it really not marvelous suddenly to see how Davydov himself, not by prior arrangement but on impulse, used to run out onto the stage and sing his favorite songs at the top of his voice, to the whole auditorium? The Hobo Escaped from Sakhalin [Bezhal brodiaga s Sakhalina], Sheep-Candies [Konfety-baranochki], and other songs. And again!

President of the Pedagogical Academy V.N. Stoletov ordered that the two most talented, perhaps, professor-lecturers of Moscow State University be removed from teaching the candidate's minimum in philosophy to graduate students of the academy, and appointed Arsen'ev and myself in their place. There were very many graduate students at the Academy; they were divided into three groups. And each Monday Tolia and I would read our lecturers for three hours to each group. (I got two groups and lectured after Anatolii for six hours without a break.) So this is how it was: today's teachers of youth, all those whom I listed above, were graduate students at the time and not only attended those lectures, but—or at least Elkonin, Slobodchikov, Rubtsov, others too—contrived after hearing Arsen'ev's lecture to stay on for my first lecture. They said: "Arsen'ev hammers in the nails—iron logic, but you, Feliks Trofimovich, get carried away with emotion, though what you and he say is almost the same." They were young, cheerful, and enthusiastic. Philosophy for them was an open and vital culture of thought. Indeed, they had an amazing example to emulate—Vasia Davydov himself. I have already written somewhere about my own discovery of Davydov (and this was after we had already been friends for two decades!).

Once we decided to abduct Eval'd Ilyenkov from the seminar that he was then conducting at the Psychology Faculty of Moscow State University. Either we wanted to knock back a drink together, or we missed his company. We went. If memory does not lead me astray, Sasha Surmava was giving a lecture on the philosophy of Spinoza.7 We sit and wait. Suddenly Vasia asks Eval'd: let me speak. And for about twenty minutes Vasia talks about Spinoza! And how! Creatively, in a fashion that was new to me, with the superlative textual knowledge of a man in love with Spinoza! I could not believe my ears: who is this "my Vasia," as Eval'd Ilyenkov liked to call him? A philosopher by the grace of god? A psychologist without limits, a broad-profile theoretician?

And then after that freedom of thought and creative atmosphere in the institute for which we are indebted to Davydov, his pupils calmly accepted the exclusion from the history of the institute of the time that had made them psychologists.

So I want to splash out my feelings in the words of the song by Vladimir Vysotsky: And neither church nor tavern—nothing is sacred! No, lads, it won't do, it just won't do, lads! Ah, again, again, and yet again ... we shall repeat the words that Apostle Peter uttered thrice before the cock's first cry.

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