Concrete Human Psychology

A most important idea Vygotsky took on from the materialist take of Spinoza’s work concerns a focus on the whole person in the fullness of life. In various places of his writing, Vygotsky makes reference to Feuerbach, who developed a materialist approach to Spinoza. One of the philosopher’s texts argues against dualisms emphasizes that thinking cannot be understood when it is separated from the human being in its flesh and blood (Feuerbach 1846). In a passage Vygotsky refers to and quotes repeatedly, Feuerbach suggests that psychology has not abandoned the distinction between thinking and being, but considers the two as different manifestations of a unit. It is not individual “mental” thinking that can be the real object and organizing principle. Instead, the lead is to be taken from Feuerbach, whose “whole materialism is expressed in the distinction of phenomenon and being within psychology and in the acceptance of being as the real object of study” (Vygotsky 1997: 322). Thus, thinking is not a mere subjective activity, as seen in the experience that thoughts come to us (“it thinks”) and that thoughts are subject to an organic development.[1] The whole being is becoming in the course of its life. This is the organizing principle, for example, when Vygotsky writes that the understanding of thinking requires us to view the person in its full life, where the motives and interests of the person come into play, and where intellect and affect are but two manifestations of the unit of person acting in the environment. If thinking is considered outside of the fullness of real life, then it becomes an epiphenomenon. Thus, we insist on the unity/identity of thinking-for-doing and doing-for-thinking. By disconnecting thinking from everyday life, “we cut ourselves off from any potential for a causal explanation of thinking” (Vygotsky 1987: 50). This again is a fundamentally Spinozist take, whereby the phenomenon can be understood only in its functional relation to the situation as part of ongoing life. Vygotsky thereby was working towards a concrete human psychology that emphasizes both the concrete—as opposed to ideal—and the human—as opposed to scientific psychology of animals, a human psychology that would be essentially a “psychology in terms of drama” (Vygotsky 1989: 58). He attributes these ideas to a contemporary materialist psychologist, Politzer, who was striving to work out a psychology based on the works of Marx and Engels.

The idea of psychology as drama, though deriving from the concrete (Marxist) psychology of Politzer, fits well into Vygotsky’s approach. This becomes clear in his principle that any higher psychological function was a social relation first, and, therefore, a real relation between people: “Hence the principal method of personifi?cation in the study of cultural functions” (Vygotsky 1989: 58). This is why all the analyses in this book focus on the real relations between people, where, what for some or all participants has been fused into one comes to be divided anew.[2] As Vygotsky suggests, higher processes may be experimentally unfolded into drama— which is the same kind of conceptual underpinning as we find in the breeching experiment characteristic of ethnomethodological studies (Garfinkel 1967). In breeching experiments, participants find themselves in situations where their normal ways of functioning no longer work, for example, because they wear inverting lenses or because they are blind (-folded). It is in such situations that the work going into making the everyday world structured and navigable, which tends to be invisible because it already forms part of our repertoires of moving and being, is made visible again. In {teaching | learning} situations,[3] we observe the very same phenomenon, because some practice that a person normally achieves on her own exists as the social relation between people, and, thereby, is visible again in its original (genetically prior) form (Chap. 5).

The concrete human psychology that Vygotsky aims at developing seeks its foundation in a practical understanding of human behavior, in how people actually do what they do. But it does not remain materialist in any simplistic way: It is in and through real praxis that subjectivities are produced. In a concrete human psychology, the questions of subjectification and of objectification are one and the same question because, “as individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production” (Marx and Engels 1978: 21). Concrete human psychology, a positive psychology by nature, takes up such an agenda and describes how we experience thinking and explains this thinking in terms of its function in real, concrete life of society. An aspect of behavior is psychological because it is part of the drama of life (Politzer 1928). A movement towards this view can be seen in the work on the psychology of the actor, which Vygotsky describes from a concrete human psychological approach as “a historical and class category” (Vygotsky 1999: 240). However, in his available writings Vygotsky still fell short of the goal of developing a concrete human psychology, because he investigated, for example, child development in a psychological laboratory and thereby was not taking into account that the thinking of a child in the drama of a scientific laboratory is different from the thinking of the child participating in life’s dramas in all the other (more familiar) locations where these unfold.

  • [1] In different places, Vygotsky (e.g. 1989, 1997) quotes the German physicist and founder ofGerman aphorisms G. C. Lichtenberg, which are in fact quotations that appear in the same passagefrom the works of Feuerbach, from which he also quotes in other places.
  • [2] Historically, our own sensitivity and attention to the social relations as educational researchershave a different intellectual origin, namely in ethnomethodology and conversation analysis.
  • [3] Throghout the book, we use the term {teaching | learning} as a means to emphasize the socialirreducibility of instructional situations, in which not the individuals alone, but the soci(et)al relation is the unit that learns and develops.
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