The Making of Mind. A R Luria

Introduction: The Historical Context

by Michael Cole

JUST AFTER the turn of this century the German psycholgist Hermann Ebbinghaus reflected that psychology “has a long past, but a short history.” Ebbinghaus was commenting on the fact that whereas psychological theorizing has existed as long as recorded thought, only a quarter of a century had passed since the founding of the first scientific groups that were self-consciously known as “psychology laboratories.” Until the period around 1880 to which Ebbinghaus was referring, psychology was nowhere considered an independent scholarly discipline; rather it was a facet of the “humane” or “moral” sciences which was the official province of philosophy and the amateur pastime of any learned person.

Although three additional quarter-centuries have passed since Ebbinghaus' remark, the history of psychology is still short enough to make it possible for the career of one individual to span all, or almost all, of its brief history as a science. Such an individual was Alexander Romanovich Luria (1902-1977), born into the second generation of scientific psychologists but raised in circumstances that immersed him in the basic issues which had motivated the founders of the discipline.

Scientific psychology was born almost simultaneously in America, England, Germany, and Russia. Although textbooks credit Wilhelm Wundt with founding the first experimental laboratory in Leipzig in 1879, the new approach to the study of the mind was not really the province of any one person or country.

At almost the same time William James was encouraging his students to conduct experiments at Harvard; Francis Galton in England was initiating the first applications of intelligence tests; and Vladimir Bekhterev opened a laboratory in Kazan that explored most of the problems which would later come to dominate the new science. Learning mechanisms, alcoholism, and psychopathology were all under investigation in Bekhterev's laboratory while Luria was growing up in Kazan.

Although historical hindsight makes it possible to divide eras in psychology according to the ideas that dominated its practitioners, the changes in the early years of the twentieth century that were to render the “new psychology” of the 1880s and 1890s an obsolete psychology by 1920 were by no means clear. Dissatisfaction with the dominant psychologies had not yet resulted in a coherent opposition with a positive program of its own. If matters were unclear in western Europe and America, they were even murkier in Russia, where science labored under the burden of heavy government censorship, guided by conservative religious principles and autocratic political policies. Not until 1911 was the first officially recognized Institute of Psychology founded at Moscow University. But even this progressive step was blunted by the choice of a director whose research was based squarely on German psychological theory of the 1880s.

Under such conditions, a young Russian who became interested in psychology found himself in a curious intellectual time warp. If he restricted himself to reading Russian, his ideas about the subject matter and methods of psychology would be old-fashioned. Translations of important western European work became available slowly and only in a quantity and range of subject that suited the tsar's censor. Because of the sketchy evidence available in Russian, psychology in Kazan in 1910 was at the same point as psychology in Leipzig or Wurzburg a generation earlier.

But if a young Russian read German, more recent work was available, especially if his family moved in intellectual circles whose members went off to Germany to study. Such was the case with the Luria family. So at a very young age, young Luria began to read more widely in contemporary experimental psychology than work in translation would permit. Perhaps because his father was a physician interested in psychosomatic medicine, the new work in psychiatry spearheaded by Jung and Freud also fell into Luria's hands. To this he added the humanistic, philosophical ideas of the German romantic tradition, especially those works which criticized the limitations of laboratory psychology of the sort propounded by Wundt and his followers.

Thus, although Luria was by virtue of his birth, a member of psychology's second generation, he began his career immersed in the basic issues of those who had founded psychology a quarter-century earlier. Throughout his sixty years of active research and theorizing, Luria never ceased to be concerned with these fundamental problems. He constantly sought their resolution in the light of new knowledge accumulated as succeeding generations of psychologists worked their transformations on the fundamental material inherited from their progenitors.

The general amnesia that afflicts the ahistorical discipline of psychology makes it difficult to recover the dilemmas which Luria confronted as a young man. Perhaps there is comfort to be derived from the notion that psychological ideas at the turn of the century are as obsolete today as the automobiles which were then being manufactured. But the course of material technology has proved a poor analogy for progress in scientific psychology. A better analogy, which has an honorable history in Russian thought of the late nineteenth century and in Marxist writings of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was provided by Lenin, who remarked of progress in science that it is “a development that repeats, as it were, the stages already passed, but repeats them in a different way, on a higher plane ... a development, so to speak, in spirals, not in a straight line” (Lenin, 1934, p. 14).

The state of psychology's spiral as Luria surveyed the intellectual landscape at the start of his career was contentious. The major disagreement dividing scholars found expression in several seemingly independent arguments. Primary among these was whether psychology could be an objective, experimental science.

The “new” element in the “new psychology” of the 1880s was experimentation. There was little innovation in the psychological categories and theories offered by Wundt, whose main concepts could be traced back through empirical philosophers like Locke all the way to Aristotle. For Wundt, as for the psychologically inclined philosophers before him, the basic mechanism of mind was the association of ideas, which arise from the environment in the form of elementary sensations. Wundt's innovation was his claim that he could verify such theories on the basis of controlled observations carried out in carefully designed laboratory experiments. Introspection remained an essential part of his method, but now it was “scientific” introspection that could yield the general laws of the mind, not armchair speculation.

Wundt's specific, theoretical claims did not go unchallenged. He was opposed from within the new psychology by a variety of scholars whose data led them to construct alternative theories of mental events. The disagreements that ensued often centered on the validity of introspective reports, and a great deal of controversy was generated about basic matters of fact. Eventually, the failure to resolve these arguments, as well as the suspicion that they might be irresolvable in principle because the events to which they referred were internal reports of individuals rather than events observable by any unbiased observer, brought an end to the first era of scientific psychology.

In many standard discussions of this period (e.g. Boring, 1925, 1950) it goes unnoticed that the arguments between Wundt and his critics within psychology were part of a larger discussion about the appropriateness of experimentation altogether. While Wundt and his successors were gathering facts and prestige for their burgeoning new science, skeptics mourned the loss of the phenomena that had originally made the human mind an important topic of study. This criticism was captured nicely by Henri Bergson in quoting Shakespeare's phrase, “We murder to dissect.” Or as G. S. Brett later put the choices “One way will lead to a psychology which is scientific but artificial; the other will lead to a psychology which is natural but cannot be scientific, remaining in the end an art” (Brett, 1930, p. 54).

The objection to experimentation from critics was that restricting psychology to the laboratory automatically restricted the mental phenomena it could investigate. There is more to mental life than elementary sensations and their associations; there is more to thinking than can be discerned in reaction time experiments. But it seemed that only these elementary phenomena could be investigated in the laboratory.

Wundt was not indifferent to these criticisms. He acknowledged that the experimental method has limitations, but he chose to confront them by making a distinction between elementary and higher psychological functions. Whereas experimental psychology was the appropriate way to study elementary psychological phenomena, the higher functions could not be studied experimentally. In fact, the actual processes of higher psychological functioning could probably not be ascertained at all. The best that could be done was to study the products of the higher functions by cataloguing cultural artifacts and folklore. In effect, Wundt ceded the study of higher psychological functions to the discipline of anthropology as he knew it. He devoted many years to this enterprise, which he termed Volkerpsychologie.

The basic choice between experimental and nonexperimental methods was of central concern to Luria as he began his career, but he did not like any of the ready-made choices with which he was confronted. On all sides he saw compromise formulations, none of which satisfied him. Like Wundt, Bekhterev, and others, he believed firmly in the necessity for experimentation. But he also sympathized with Wundt's critics, especially Wilhelm Dilthey, who had searched ways to reconcile the simplifications entailed by Wundt's experimental approach with humanistic analyses of complex human emotions and actions. Dilthey eventually despaired, rejecting experimentation as an altogether inappropriate way to study human psychological processes. Luria, never given to despair, chose a different route. He sought a new, synthetic method that would reconcile art and science, description and explanation. He would remove artificiality from the laboratory, while retaining the laboratory's analytic rigor. Having made this choice, he then faced a new series of choices concerning method and theory that would make possible his attempt at scientific synthesis.

Like countless psychologists before him, Luria believed that a full understanding of the mind had to include accounts of both the knowledge that people have about the world and the motives that energize them as they put such knowledge to use. It was important to know the origin of the basic processes through which knowledge is acquired and the rules that describe psychological change. Change, for Luria referred to the new kinds of systems into which the basic processes can be organized. His very large task, still unrealized by any psychological theory today, was to try to provide both a general framework and a set of specific mechanisms to describe and explain all the systems of behavior that emerge from the workings of the many subsystems that comprise the living individual.

Using this global characterization of the human mind as a starting point, Luria had to survey the existing experimental methods that could render his own approach more than empty phrase-mongering. Within the arena of knowledge, all major techniques were elaborations of the notion that the structure of ideas can be found in the structure of the associations into which they enter. German laboratories had begun to use mechanical timing devices which they hoped would yield a precise chronometry of mental associations. This technology had advanced to the point where many investigators believed that it would be possible to record the time required for different kinds of mental events. Arguments focused on defining the units of mental activity and on determining whether it was the association of elements or of mental acts that was being “measured.”

During this same period associative responses were being used for a quite different purpose by medically oriented scholars such as Jung and Freud. While recognizing that associations among words provided information about relations among ideas, they were less interested in mapping their patients' conscious knowledge systems or in timing associative responses than in using associations to discover knowledge that the person was not aware of. Even more important was the possibility that word associations could yield information about the motives, hidden from consciousness, that were energizing otherwise unexplainable behavior.

Luria saw in these two disparate approaches to the method of word associations – one experimental, the other clinical – the possibility of enriching the study of knowledge and motivation, both of which he believed to be intricately combined in any psychological process. His efforts to create a unified psychology of mind from these beginnings represented the central theme of his life's work. His willingness to work with motivational concepts put forth within the psychoanalytic school might have placed him outside of academic psychology altogether, but this did not happen for a number of reasons. First, Luria was committed to the experimental method. Just as important was his commitmerit to the use of objective data as the basis for theorizing. When many psychologists began to insist not just that observable behavior had to represent the basic data for psychologists but also that psychological theories could not appeal to unobservable events, Luria demurred, anticipating a position similar to that defended by Edward Tolman years later. He treated consciousness and the unconscious as intervening variables, that is, as concepts that organized the patterns of behavioral data obtained.

Another issue confronting psychologists at the turn of the century was their attitude toward the “more basic” knowledge then accruing in physiology, neurology, and anatomy, an area now termed the “neurosciences.” The major achievements of nineteenth-century biology and physiology had made it virtually impossible to ignore important links between the central nervous system and the “mentaP' phenomena that were the psychologist's focus. But the question was whether psychology need restrict itself to the phenomena that had been discovered in the physiological laboratory. Here opinion was divided along two important lines.

As a matter of principle, many psychologists rejected the notion that mind could be reduced to “matter in motion” and that such matter could be studied in the physiologists' laboratory. Mind, according to their view, had rather to be studied introspectively, using itself as a basic investigative tool. At the opposite extreme were scientists who claimed that psychology was no more than a branch of physiology, which would provide a unified theory of behavior. This position was taken by the Russian physiologist I. M. Sechenov, whose Reflexes of the Brain contained an explicit program for explaining mental phenomena as the central link in the reflex arc.

Between these extreme positions, were many psychologists, including Luria, who believed that psychology should develop in. a manner that was consistent with, but not entirely dependent on, the neurosciences. They accepted the notion that psychological phenomena were part of the natural world, subject to the laws of nature. But they did not necessarily agree that any existing model of how the brain was linked to psychological processes, especially complex processes, was correct. So psychology had to proceed on its own, keeping an eye on physiology as it progressed. Luria was among a very few psychologists who sought to extend the areas of consistency, deliberately confronting both psychology and the neurosciences with each other's facts and theories. Forty years after he had begun such activities, a new, hybrid branch of psychology, called “neuropsychology,” won recognition as a scientific enterprise.

Another basic distinction within psychology formed around the basic “building blocks” of mind that the psychologist assumed. One group, associated variously with the names of Wundt, E. B. Titchener, John Watson, and Clark Hull, attempted to identify the basic elements of behavior as sensations that combined according to the laws of association to form elementary ideas, or habits. Another group, among whom can be counted Franz Brentano, William James, and the Gestalt psychologists, resisted this “elementarism.” Their analyses suggested that basic psychological processes always reflected organizational properties that could not be discovered in isolated elements. This idea was expressed variously in terms like the “stream of consciousness,” “unconscious inference,” and “properties of the whole.” The essence of this position was that the reduction of mind into elements obliterated properties of the intact, functioning organism that could not be retrieved once the reduction had taken place.

In this controversy Luria clearly sided against the elementarists, but his insistence that basic units of analysis must retain their emergent properties did not reduce to the arguments and phenomena then being explored by the Gestalt psychologists. Luria very early insisted that the basic units of psychological analysis were functions, each of which represented systems of elementary acts that controlled organism-environment relations.

Because of the cross-cutting choices and competing claims to scientific legitimacy in psychology which constituted Luria's early intellectual milieu, it is not possible to assign him to any one school. On each of the systematic issues confronting psychology he made clear-cut choices from the same set of possibilities as his contemporaries, but his combination of choices was unique, making him both a part of and separate from the major schools of psychology of the early 1920s.

The new mixture that Luria developed in collaboration with Lev Vygotsky, retained its distinctiveness up to 1960. Luria's interest in the way that motives organize behavior, coupled with his willingness to talk about “hidden complexes,” his use of free association techniques (albeit in conjunction with tried-and-true reaction time methods), and his promotion of psychoanalytic ideas make it tempting to view him as an early, experimental Freudian. But even in his early writings on the subject, this designation would not have fit. Luria was not interested primarily in revealing the nature of the unconscious, and he attributed far too great a role to man's social environment as a prime shaper of individual behavior to be comfortable with Freud's biologizing of the mind.

From the outset, Luria carefully defended a methodology which relied upon objective data, whether in the form of spoken responses, movements, or physiological indicators, as the only acceptable data in psychology. This position might have placed him among the behaviorists, had it not been for his willingness to talk about unobservable states of mind and his insistence on the possibility of using objective indicators to yield information about them. Luria would also have been difficult to classify as a behaviorist because of the strong link between early behaviorism and stimulus-response, or reflex, theories. For Luria, word associations were a useful tool with which to ferret out the workings of a complicated psychological system, but he never accepted the idea that associations among ideas, or between stimuli and responses, represented a theory of how the mind works.

He unfavorably identified stimulus-response theories with the “telephone station” theory of how the central nervous system organized behavior, which likened the central nervous system to a giant switchboard. He remarked wryly that “it would be an interesting work to follow the complete history of the twentieth-century natural science of analogy ... of those models which are accepted as a basis for the construction of ideas concerning forms and mechanisms of human vital activity. This history should reveal many naive sources of human thought ... This tendency to introduce naive concepts to explain the nervous system on the basis of analogies with artificial things is more cornmon in the study of behavior than anywhere else” (Luria, 1932, p. 4). In place of a telephone station, Luria suggested the idea of a dynamically organized system, composed of subsystems, each of which contributed to the organization of the whole. In the 1920s this might have sounded like a version of Gestalt psychology, but it could come as no surprise to cognitive psychologists when more than thirty years later Luria seized upon Miller, Galanter, and Pribrain's Plans and the Structure of Behavior, a pioneering effort to apply computer systems analysis to psychology, as a kindred expression of concern for the limitations of stimulus response theory and as a mechanical analogy which, despite its limitations, began to approach his idea of what human systems might be like.

It might also have been possible to consider Luria a physiological psychologist because of his lifelong interest in the brain bases of behavior, except that for him the study of the isolated brain could not reveal how behavior was organized. Rather, he kept firmly in mind the fact that properties of the entire system could not be reliably obtained from a study of its parts operating in isolation. The brain was part of both a larger biological system and a surrounding environmental system in which social organization was a powerful force. Consequently, a psychological theory of the intact organism that preserved its history of interactions with the environment and its task at the time of study was a necessary complement to purely physiological or neuroanatomic investigation.

All of these ideas, which are to be found in Luria's writings as early as the 1920s, render him a prematurely modern psychologist who happened to begin life before his ideas could find confirmation in existing technologies or data. But it is not possible or appropriate to locate Luria's ideas only in terms of world psychology and neurophysiology. The fact that he was a Russian intellectual actively involved in the building of Soviet science and psychology shaped his career from its earliest days.

For approximately a decade following the Revolution there was a great deal of experimentation and improvization in the conduct of Soviet science, education, and economic policy. Less well known than the political struggles after Lenin's death are the experiments with new forms of schooling, free market agriculture, modern means of expression in the arts, and new branches of science. During the 1920s, virtually every psychological movement existing in western Europe and the United States found adherents in the Soviet Union. Perhaps because psychology as an academic discipline was embryonic at the end of the tsarist era, with only a single institute devoted to what was then recognized as psychology proper, an unusual variety of viewpoints and activities competed actively for the right to determine what the new Soviet psychology should be like. Educators, doctors, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, neurologists. and physiologists often contributed to national meetings devoted to discussions of research and theory.

As the decade progressed, three issues came to dominate these discussions. First, there was increasing concern that Soviet psychology should be self-consciously Marxist. No-one was certain what this meant, but everyone joined in the discussion with their own proposals. Second, psychology must be a materialist discipline; all psychologists were obliged to search for the material basis of mind. And third, psychology should have relevance to the building of a socialist society. Lenin's exhortation that theory be tested in practice was a matter of both economic and social urgency.

Toward the end of the 1920s this discussion had progressed to a point where there was agreement on some general principles, but the major conclusions did not single out any existing approach as a model for others. At the same time, the country experienced new economic and social upheavals with the advent of the rapid collectivization of agriculture and a greatly accelerated pace of heavy industrial development. Existing psychological schools were found to be wanting in their practical contributions to these new social demands as well.

A major result of these ideological and performance deficiencies was a deliberate reorganization of psychological research in the mid-1930s. While the specific events associated with this reorganization grew out of dissatisfaction with the use of psychological tests in education and industry, the result was a general decline in the authority and prestige of psychology as a whole.

During World War II many psychologists, like Luria, devoted their efforts to rehabilitation of the wounded. Educational and medical psychology mixed freely in the face of the devastation wrought by modern warfare. Following the war, these two aspects of psychology continued to dominate Soviet psychology as the country rebuilt itself. Psychology as a separate discipline remained dormant, while psychological research was treated simply as a special feature of some other scientific enterprise.

Then in the late 1940s, interest in the field of psychology revived, with a focus on the work of Ivan Pavlov, Russia's renowned physiologist. Although many Americans think of Pavlov as a psychologist, perhaps because his methods for studying conditioned reflexes were adopted as both a key method and a theoretical model in American psychology between 1920 and 1960, Pavlov resisted association with psychology for most of his life. Soviet psychologists returned the compliment. They were willing to grant Pavlov pre-eminence in the field of the material basis of mind; but they reserved the province of psychological phenomena, particularly such “higher psychological processes” as deliberate remembering, voluntary attention, and logical problem solving, to themselves.

As in this country, many Soviet physiologists concerned with relations between the brain and behavior did not like this division of scientific labor. In fact, they considered psychology altogether unscientific. Given the opportunity, such people, many of whom were students of Pavlov, were delighted with the chance to make the study of “higher nervous activity” a model for psychology to follow. As the result of an extraordinary set of meetings under the auspices of the Academy of Medical sciences in 1950, psychologists began devoting major energy and attention to the application of Pavlovian concepts and techniques in their work. Special prominence was given to Pavlov's ideas concerning language, which appeared a likely area for psychologists to exploit.

In the past quarter-century, Soviet psychology has grown enormously in size and prestige. Important scientific advances in western European science, particularly in the study of brain functioning and computer technology, have been adopted and become a part of indigenous Soviet science. Psychology has not only gained recognition as an independent discipline but also been included among the disciplines that make up the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.

Throughout the first six decades of Soviet psychology Alexander Luria labored to make it a science that would fit the dreams of its originators, a Marxist study of man which would be of service to people in a democratic, socialist society. In pursuing this goal, Luria brought to bear first-hand experience with all of the problems and insights accumulated throughout the world in psychology since its inception one hundred years ago. His work is a monument to the intellectual and humanistic traditions that represent the best of the human culture he labored to understand and improve.