Luria’s mentor, Vygotsky, died of tuberculosis 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 enhancements 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 this essay, I will focus specifically on how shifts in cognition are closely tied up with our altruism.