Section 5: Reflexes & General Development
The theories proposed by both Ivan Sechenov (1829-1905) and Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) while revolutionary for the day, were simply the logical next steps for these two brilliant minds. Each had a clear command of the science in and outside of their primary disciplines and each attempted to bridge areas of study in an effort to bring scientific objectivity to the understanding of consciousness and complex behavior. The schools that developed around Sechenov and Vygotsky created a lineage of disciplines, discoveries, and scientific achievements that continue to shape scientific understanding today.
Sechenov’s novel ideas led to open debate not only among scientists in the young disciplines of psychology and physiology, but also within broader intellectual circles of the day. While Sechenov’s strong scientific abilities could have safely been played out in the arena of physiology, he was driven as a man of objective science to put forth concepts that boldly bridged the world of psychology and physiology, laying the groundwork for new disciplines to surface around the emerging scientific understanding of the neurosensoritmotor reflex action. The motivating character of Sechenov was capture well by M. N. Shaternikov in his forward to the 1935 Russian publication of I.M. Sechenov’s Biographical Sketch and Essays (translated to English in 1973).
“Both the form and contents of Sechnov’s lectures produced an immense impression, not only in the academic world, but also on intellectual society in general. Secehnov’s manner of speaking was simple and convincing; his method of exposition was absolutely new. With youthful enthusiasm and deep faith in the all-conquering power of science and reason, he taught his students to question nature and to wrest an answer form her. He spoke not only of what had already been achieved, but also of what was yet to be done, disclosing untrodden paths of scientific research before his captivated hearers. The remarkable demonstrations with which he illustrated his lectures acquainted the students with the most recent technique of scientific experiment and taught them to use the language of facts . . . ‘only by working scientifically can we teach and learn.’ ”
While Sechenov is most often referred to as the father of Russian neurophysiology, his research and prolific theories led to advancements in electrophysiology, behavioral psychology, motor control and much more.
In 1924, Lev Vygotsky emerged from relative obscurity to capture the attention of those in Russian University and political circles with a speech regarding the current state of psychology, entitled “Consciousness as an Object of the Psychology of Behavior.” In his speech, Vygotsky addressed the shortcomings of the two primary contemporary psychological approaches, claiming “that neither the ‘new’ psychology – behaviorism, which ignored the problem of consciousness – nor the ‘old’ psychology – subjective empirical psychology, which declared itself to the science about consciousness – really studied it.” (A. Leontyev, The Collected Works of Vygotsky, Vol 3, p. 14) Vygotsky viewed the discipline of psychology as “being split into two irreconcilable halves: ‘natural science’ that could only explain elementary sensory and reflex processes, and ‘mental science’ that could only describe emergent properties of higher psychological functions.” (M. Cole, L. S. Vygotsky Mind and Society, p. 5) For Vygotsky this was not enough, without clear resolute explanation for both complex reflexive activity and higher psychological function, a clear understanding of consciousness and its development could not be determined.
While Vygotsky was not the first to identify the shortcomings of behavioral and cognitive psychology, he was the first to provide a meaningful approach to bridging the two psychological approaches, and to providing a reasonable construct within which to resolve the challenges faced by each. Vygotsky grounded his theory, known as Natural~Cultural Psychology, in ontogenetic research, and focused on the development of human consciousness as it progressed through its ‘natural’ maturation and its dialectical ‘cultural’ development.
Within the ten years that remained until his early death in 1934, Vygotsky, with the help of devoted colleagues (including Luria and Leontyev) and students, gathered research data to outline and propose his developmental natural~cultural psychology. While Vygotsky’s work was eagerly embraced and encouraged early on, toward the end of his life, political and university support waned, leaving much of his work in the hands of colleagues and students to quietly advance. Although Vygotsky documented much of his work and theories as he progressed, little was published even in Russian during his lifetime, and the number of copies of those publications was low. Outside of Vygotsky’s scattered colleagues and students, his work was not well known within his country after his death. Not until the latter part of the twentieth century were Vygotsky’s remaining colleagues and students in a position to assemble and publish the work that had guided their efforts since his death, resulting in a six volume unabridged series, “The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky, published in Russian between 1982 and 1984. In 1989, the first of the six volume series was translated and released for international publication, with the other five volumes following until the last volume was published in 1999. As a result Vygotsky’s work has regained influence not only in Russia, but is just now beginning to gain influence throughout the world.
Stephen Toulmin, known to be a discerning and well informed critic, reviewed Vygotsky’s “Mind in society: The Development of Higher Psychological processes,” for the “New York Review of Books.” Toulmin was so impressed by Vygotsky's work that he titled his article, “The Mozart of Psychology.” Michael Cole, one of the editor’s of Vygotsky’s works assembled in “Mind in Society,” shared the following regarding Toulmin’s review in a forward to a collection of Vygotsky’s works published by Rieber and Robinson:
“For reasons I have never learned, Stephen Toulmin was assigned the book to review for the New York Review of Books. He titled his article, ‘The Mozart of Psychology.’ In his review he argued, as Sylvia Scribner and I had in our introduction, that Vygotsky’s work was of great contemporary relevance, despite the fact that it had been published 40 years earlier. In effect, and in brief, the shortcomings of psychology against which Vygotsky struggled in the 1920's, in particular, the centrality of culture and history to human psychological functioning, had not been overcome by his scientific successors. Instead, his dissatisfactions with psychologists of the early 20th century applied with at least as great justification at the century’s end.” (Michael Cole’s complete forward can be accessed through the following by clicking here.)
Below are more in depth summaries of the contributions made by: