In 1931 Soviet neuropsychologist Alexander Romanovich Luria traveled to central Asia to study the psychology of the people in that region. His goal was to test a bold hypothesis proposed by his colleague and mentor, Lev Vygotsky.
Though trained as a literary critic, who wrote a dissertation on Hamlet, Vygotsky became one of the giants of developmental psychology, the field that studies how behavior and thinking changes over a life span. It seems fair to say prior to Vygostky that most developmental theories emphasized the idea that the stages of cognitive development are encoded into the child at birth. It was also then common to use analogies from botany to describe child development. The child was seen as a plant unfolding through a prearranged sequence from seed to flower. It was no accident, as Vygotsky wryly noted, that children were sent to a place called kindergarten.
In contrast, Vygotsky embraced a radically different understanding of development. To him, the child’s major task is to become a competent member of society. This meant that the goals of development would be specific to particular cultures and historical contexts. For example, it is now considered important that children in the first years of school learn to read and write. Yet reading and writing are cultural inventions, less than 10,000 years old and the need for mass literacy arose only with the industrial revolution. In modern societies, the ability to read and write had become important developmental milestones. While some developmental sequences, such as the transition from crawling to walking, may indeed be hard wired into us, others are created by society and, then, transmitted by culture.
Vygotsky and Luria built on this observation. Just as people create and improve physical tools to manipulate the environment and pass this technology onto future generations, they also invent psychological tools. A psychological tool (sometimes called a cognitive tool) can be understood as a technique or strategy that alters human cognition or behavior. Physical tools alter the material environment, psychological tools are cultural inventions that change how we process information or how we behave. For example, the Hindu-Arabic number system is a case of just such a tool. Hindu-Arabic numbers allow us to perform calculations much more efficiently than previous systems of representing quantities. If you doubt this, try doing multiplication with Roman numerals. Reading and writing themselves are cognitive tools - they allow us to create an external form of memory and receive information from distant sources. Cognitive tools shift human consciousness in important ways. In a well documented example, mass literacy has allowed masses people to directly read and interpret scriptures, with the importance consequence of loosing the authority of priestly mediation.
An inescapable consequence of this view is that different cultures and different socio-economic arrangements encourage different mentalities. This would be particularly true of different historical stages and different levels of social complexity. From Vygostsky’s view we should not expect ancient people to think about the world in the same way as modern people do.
At the time Vygotsky wrote, there were, according to Luria, two dominant approaches to understanding the psychological difference between modern and ancient people. One point of view, associated with the French scholar Levy-Bruhl, argued that there is a fundamental psychological gap between modern and premodern peoples. The alternative view was to deny the existence of such a gap. This position was articulated by the anthropologist Franz Boas, who claimed that the ancient mind does not differ in any qualitative way from the modern mind.
Boas and his followers played an important role in discrediting claims of racial superiority, they argued, correctly, that the biological hardware of the human brain does not differ significantly between human groups, or between modern and ancient people. What they ignored, however, is that the cognitive software that we run on those brains could be different across historical epochs.
Working within a Marxist framework, Vygotsky and Luria proposed a third model. While they accepted the evolution of human mentality, they located the source of change not in biology, but in socio-economic and historical forces. They asserted that our own thoughts, which we believe to be private and intimate, are in fact, deeply shaped by social forces. In this view, the link between the individual and the larger society is language. So while animals can think, human thinking resembles an inner monologue.
Developmental psychologists had noted that children often spoke out loud to themselves, with little or no concern about an audience. Traditionally this behavior has been labeled egocentric speech as distinct from communicative speech, and it is thought to be related to the young child’s difficulty in taking the perspective of others. But Vygotsky amended this view with the hypothesis “that egocentric speech is actually an intermediate stage leading to inner speech.”
This is a startling proposal. Vygotsky is saying that in the course of development we internalize the external linguistic environment and, in this sense, even our thoughts are social in origin.
Vygotsky and Luria were explicit in their rejection of the central claim of the Cartesian world view. While Descartes asserted, “I think therefore I am” as the foundational axiom for all philosophy, Luria countered with,“the perception of others and the processes of self-perception are shaped through social activities.” In other words, self-consciousness itself is the product of socialization and impossible without language.
One can pause here and ask: how plausible is this Vygotskian claim? How could we think that consciousness is the exclusive property of humans or that animals cannot think because they lack a human language? Here we see the influence of a bias towards human thought which, in the light of emerging knowledge of animal cognition, is no longer tenable. Curiously, Descartes also had a similar bias against animal consciousness and cognition.
While it is clearly false to disparage the abilities and sentience of non-linguistic animals, it is clear, that for the human animal, language is a bridge to larger social forces and plays a strong role in shaping our mental architecture. In turn, our individual psychology binds us to and shapes the larger social world.
Our humanness is then tied up with our sociality. To understand how our mind evolved we need to understand human social cooperation. Indeed, standard evolutionary models do not seem to predict the high degree of altruism we observe in people. No explanation of human cooperation is possible without an understanding of human culture and psychology. To understand our sociality we must understand how cultural change has shaped the mind.
Now, if the Vygostskian view is correct, then we can expect that people living a premodern life would think about the world in a radically different way than modern people. The dramatic transformations that took place in Soviet Uzbekistan during the 1930s, where illiterate people living a traditional life style, resided in proximity to people receiving modern education and taking employment in schools, factories or on collective farms, provided an opportunity to test this proposition.
The people Luria interviewed included illiterate villagers “not involved in any modern social activities,” as well as people who had “access to a technological culture and mastery of mechanisms such as literacy and other new forms of knowledge.”
Luria’s research consisted of lengthy interviews where he presented “specially developed tests that the subjects found meaningful and open to several solutions, each indicating some aspect of cognitive activity.” Luria was particularly skilled at neuropsychological diagnosis. A number of tests he developed are still used by physicians today.
In this case, the tests Luria used consisted of deductive reasoning problems where “the solution could be either graphic-functional and situational, or abstract and categorical.” He borrowed this functional-situational versus categorical-abstract distinction from the work of psychiatrist Kurt Goldstein.
Goldstein described these two orientations as concrete and abstract and wrote “in the concrete attitude we are given over passively and bound to the immediate experience of unique objects or situations.” In the abstract orientation, he claimed that “we transcend the immediate given specific aspect of sense impressions, we detach ourselves from the latter and consider the situation from a conceptual point of view.”
In a typical interview Luria would ask participants to classify and name geometric figures such as circles, triangles, and squares. Only the most educated, students in the teacher training program, identified the figures with their geometric names. Indeed when, given an incomplete figure they would say it was “something like a circle,” or “something like a triangle.”
In contrast individuals with less formal education tended to describe the shapes with names of everyday objects. For example, they would describe a circle as a plate, a bucket, or the moon. A square might be called a door, a house, or an apricot drying board. When shown an incomplete circle, Luria would receive responses such as a bracelet or an earring. For Luria, such response confirmed his view “that the perception of geometrical shapes varies from one culture to another.”
Prior to Luria’s work, most psychologists assumed that basic syllogistic reasoning is a universal feature of the human mind. But when Luria asked unschooled and illiterate peasants to reason syllogistically, he received surprising responses.
For example, when presented with this problem:
“In the far north, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zemlya is in the far north. What color are the bears there?”
Luria found that “as a rule, many refused to accept the major premise, declaring, ‘I’ve never been in the north and never seen bears.’” The interviews revealed that while people could reason well about their direct experience, they were unable to abstract the process to events and objects outside of the particularities of their lives.
From these observations, Luria concluded “the facts show convincingly that the structure of cognitive activity does not remain static during different stages of historical development.”
Luria’s mentor, Vygotsky, died of tuberculous in 1934. Around this time his work fell out of favor with Soviet authorities and, until 1956, three years after Stalin’s death, his books were banned. Luria continued to research and publish but refocused his work onto more strictly neurological topics.
While a Marxist, Vygotsky’s approach was too heterodox for the new Stalinist orthodoxy. Vygotsky had read widely in a number of languages and his writing bears the influence of thinkers such as William James, Jean Piaget, and Spinoza. Moreover, Vygotsky’s cultural psychology was accused of chauvinism. It was claimed that his theories devalued the thinking of peasants and workers.
This last point is important to explore because similar accusations have been made against other efforts to understand the evolution of the human psyche. Let us be clear, Vygotsky and Luria rejected any notion of biological inferiority of premodern people. They saw the differences embedded in social and historical forces. They did, however, accept a theory of progress.
Notions of progress have fallen out of favor, and the phrase “the myth of progress” has become an unexamined truisms.
Progress can be understood as some directional change toward the good. It is hard to draw up a balance sheet on history. One can find trends that have improved, such as improvements in health and literacy. At the same time it is easy to see trends, such as climate change, that imperil our future.
The work of Vygotsky and Luria offers us an avenue for constructing a viable theory of human progress. Shifts in technology and sociocultural arrangements are closely linked to shifts in human mentalities. At certain historic junctures, there have been dramatic revolutions in our cognitive architecture.
Understanding these changes will help us solve some enduring mysteries. These include the origins of human hyper-altruism, the fact of moral progress, and the rise of abstract philosophic thought.
In addition, using ideas borrowed from sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, I will demonstrate that there is a dialectic in modern thought between secular and spiritual ideas that powerfully shapes our behavior.
Finally, I will argue that further refinement of rational/scientific thinking and the fact of moral progress will result in both a new consciousness and a new more altruistic civilization.