Vygotsky. The Historical Meaning of The Crisis in Psychology: A Methodological Investigation
Lately more and more voices are heard proclaiming that the problem of general psychology is a problem of the first order. What is most remarkable is that this opinion does not come from philosophers who have made generalisation their professional habit, nor even from theoretical psychologists, but from the psychological practitioners who elaborate the special areas of applied psychology: psychiatrists and industrial psychologists; the representatives of the most exact and concrete part of our science. The various psychological disciplines have obviously reached a turning point in the development of their investigations, the gathering of factual material, the systematisation of knowledge, and the statement of basic positions and laws. Further advance along a straight line, the simple continuation of the same work, the gradual accumulation of material, are proving fruitless or even impossible. In order to go further we must choose a path.
Out of such a methodological crisis, from the conscious need for guidance in different disciplines, from the necessity – on a certain level of knowledge – to critically coordinate heterogeneous data, to order uncoordinated laws into a system, to interpret and verify the results, to cleanse the methods and basic concepts, to create the fundamental principles, in a word, to pull the beginnings and ends of our knowledge together, out of all this, a general science is born.
This is why the concept of a general psychology does not coincide with the concept of the basic theoretical psychology that is central to a number of different special disciplines. The latter, in essence the psychology of the adult normal person, should be considered one of the special disciplines along with zoopsychology and psychopathology. That it has so far played and in some measure still plays the role of a generalising factor, which to a certain extent forms the structure and system of the special disciplines, furnishes their main concepts, and brings them into line with their own structure, is explained by the historical development of the science, rather than by logical necessity. This is the way things have been and to some extent still are, but they should not and will not remain this way since this situation does not follow from the very nature of the science, but is determined by external, extraneous circumstances. As soon as these conditions change, the psychology of the normal person will lose its leading role. To an extent we are already beginning to see this happen. In the psychological systems that cultivate the concept of the unconscious, the role of such a leading discipline, the basic concepts of which serve as the starting points for the related sciences, is played by psychopathology. These are, for example, the systems of Freud, Adler, and Kretschmer.
In the latter, this leading role of psychopathology is no longer connected with the central concept of the unconscious, as in Freud and Adler, i.e., not with the actual priority of the given discipline in the elaboration of the basic idea, but with a fundamental methodological view according to which the essence and nature of the phenomena studied by psychology can be revealed in their purest form in the extreme, pathological forms. We should, consequently, proceed from pathology to the norm and explain and understand the normal person from pathology, and not the other way around, as has been done until now. The key to psychology is in pathology, not only because it discovered and studied the root of the mind earlier than other branches, but because this is the internal nature of things, and the nature of the scientific knowledge of these things is conditioned by it. Whereas for traditional psychology every psychopath as a subject for study is more or less – to a different degree – a normal person and must be defined in relation to the latter, for the new systems each normal person is more or less insane and must be psychologically understood precisely as a variant of some pathological type. To put it in more straightforward terms, in certain systems the normal person is considered as a type and the pathological personality as a variety or variant of this main type; in others, on the contrary, the pathological phenomenon is taken as a type and the normal as one of its varieties. And who can predict how the future general psychology will decide this debate?
On the basis of such dual motives (based half on facts, half on principle) still other systems assign the leading role to zoopsychology. Of this kind are, for example, the majority of the American courses in the psychology of behaviour and the Russian courses in reflexology, which develop their whole system from the concept of the conditional reflex and organise all-their material around it. A number of authors propose that animal psychology, apart from being given the actual priority in the elaboration of the basic concepts of behaviour, should become the general discipline with which the other disciplines should be correlated. As the logical beginning of a science of behaviour, the starting point for every genetic examination and explanation of the mind, and a purely biological science, it is precisely this science which is expected to elaborate the fundamental concepts of the science and to supply them to kindred disciplines.
This, for example, is the view of Pavlov. What psychologists do can in his opinion have no influence upon animal psychology, but what zoopsychologists do determines the work of psychologists in a very essential way. The latter build the superstructure, but the former lay the foundation [Pavlov, 1928, Lectures on Conditioned Reflex]. And indeed, the source from which we derive all our basic categories for the investigation and description of behaviour, the standard we use to verify our results, the model according to which we align our methods, is zoopsychology.
Here again the matter has taken a course opposed to that of traditional psychology. There the starting point was man; one proceeded from man in order to get an idea of the mind of the animal. One interpreted the manifestations of its soul by analogy with ourselves. In so doing, the matter was by no means always reduced to a crude anthropomorphism. Serious methodological grounds often dictated such a course of research: with subjective psychology it could not be otherwise. It regarded man as the key to the psychology of animals; always the highest forms as the key to the lower ones. For, the investigator need not always follow the same path that nature took; often the reverse path is more advantageous.
Marx [MECW Vol 27] referred to this methodological principle of the “reverse” method when he stated that “the anatomy of man is the key to the anatomy of the ape.”
The allusions to a higher principle in lower species of animals can only be understood when this higher principle itself is already known. Thus, bourgeois economy gives us the key to antique economy etc., but not at all in the sense understood by the economists who slur over all historical differences and see bourgeois forms in all forms of societies. We can understand the quit-rent, the tithe, etc., when we are acquainted with the ground rent, but we must not equate them with the latter.
To understand the quitrent on the basis of the ground rent, the feudal form on the basis of the bourgeois form – this is the same methodological device used to comprehend and define thinking and the rudiments of speech in animals on the basis of the mature thinking and speech of man. A certain stage of development and the process itself can only be fully understood when we know the endpoint of the process, the result, the direction it took, and the form into which the given process developed. We are, of course, speaking only of the methodological transference of basic categories and concepts from the higher to the lower, not of the transference of factual observations and generalisations. The concepts of the social category of class and class struggle, for instance, are revealed in their purest form in the analysis of the capitalist system, but these same concepts are the key to all pre-capitalist societal formations, although in every case we meet with different classes there, a different form of struggle, a particular developmental stage of this category. But those details which distinguish the historical uniqueness of different epochs from capitalist forms not only are not lost, but, on the contrary, can only be studied when we approach them with the categories and concepts acquired in the analysis of the other, higher formation.
Marx [MECW Vol 27] explains that
bourgeois society is the most developed and diverse historical organisation of production. The categories which express its relationships and an understanding of its composition yield therefore at the same time an insight into the composition and the productive relations of all societal forms which have disappeared. Bourgeois society was built with the rubbish and elements of these societies, parts of which have not been fully overcome and still drag on and the mere indications of which have developed into full-fledged meanings.
Having arrived at the end of the path we can more easily understand the whole path in its entirety as well as the meaning of its different stages.
This is a possible methodology; it has been sufficiently vindicated in a whole number of disciplines. But can it be applied to psychology? It is precisely on methodological grounds that Pavlov rejects the route from man to animal. He defends the reverse of the “reverse,” i.e., the direct path of investigation, repeating the route taken by nature. This is not because of any factual difference in the phenomena, but rather because of the inapplicability and epistemic barrenness of psychological categories and concepts. In his words,
it is impossible by means of psychological concepts, which are essentially non-spatial, to penetrate into the mechanism of animal behaviour, into the mechanism of these relations [Pavlov, 1928, Lectures on Conditioned Reflex].
Thus it is not a matter of facts but of concepts, that is, the way one conceives of these facts. He [ibid.] says that
Our facts are conceived of in terms of time and space; they are purely scientific facts; but psychological facts are thought of only in terms of time.
The issue is about different concepts, not different phenomena. Pavlov wishes not only to win independence for his area of investigation, but to extend its influence and guidance to all spheres of psychological knowledge. This is clear from his explicit references to the fact that the debate is not only about the emancipation from the power of psychological concepts, but also about the elaboration of a psychology by means of new spatial concepts.
In his opinion, science, “guided by the similarity or identity of the external manifestations” [ibid.], will sooner or later apply to the mind of man the objective data obtained. His path is from the simple to the complex, from animal to man. He says [ibid.] that
The simple, the elementary is always conceivable without the complex, whereas the complex cannot be conceived of without the elementary.
These data will become “the basis for psychological knowledge.” And in the preface to the book in which he presents his twenty years of experience with the study of animal behaviour, Pavlov [ibid.] declares that he
is deeply and irrevocably convinced that along this path [we will manage] to find the knowledge of the mechanisms and laws of human nature [ibid.].
Here we have a new controversy between the study of animals and the psychology of man. The situation is, in essence, very similar to the controversy between psychopathology and the psychology of normal man. Which discipline should lead, unify, and elaborate the basic concepts, principles, and methods, verify and systematise the data of all other areas? Whereas previously traditional psychology has considered the animal as a more or less remote ancestor of man, reflexology is now inclined to consider man, with Plato, as a “featherless biped.” Formerly the animal mind was defined and described in concepts and terms acquired in the study of man. Nowadays the behaviour of animals gives “the key to the understanding of the behaviour of man,” and what we call “human” behaviour is understood as the product of an animal which, because it walks and stands erect, has a developed thumb and can speak.
And again we may ask: which discipline other than general psychology can decide this controversy between animal and man in psychology; for, on this decision will rest nothing more and nothing less than the whole future fate of this science.
From the analysis of the three types of psychological systems we have considered above, it is already obvious how pressing is the need for a general psychology with the boundaries and approximate content partially outlined here. The path of our investigation will at all times be as follows: we will proceed from an analysis of the facts, albeit facts of a highly general and abstract nature, such as a particular psychological system and its type, the tendencies and fate of different theories, various epistemological methods, scientific classifications and schemes, etc. We will examine these facts not from the abstract-logical, purely philosophical side, but as particular facts in the history of science, as concrete, vivid historical events in their tendency, struggle, in their concrete context, of course, and in their epistemological-theoretical essence, i.e., from the viewpoint of their correspondence to the reality they are meant to cognise. We wish to obtain a clear idea of the essence of individual and social psychology as two aspects of a single science, and of their historical fate, not through abstract considerations, but by means of an analysis of scientific reality. From this we will deduce, as a politician does from the analysis of events, the rules for action and the organisation of scientific research. The methodological investigation utilises the historical examination of the concrete forms of the sciences and the theoretical analysis of these forms in order to obtain generalised, verified principles that are suitable for guidance. This is, in our opinion, the core of this general psychology whose concept we will attempt to clarify in this chapter.
The first thing we obtain from the analysis is the demarcation between general psychology and the theoretical psychology of the normal person. We have seen that the latter is not necessarily a general psychology, that in quite a number of systems theoretical psychology itself turns into one of the special disciplines, defined by another field; that both psychopathology and the theory of animal behaviour can and do take the role of general psychology. Vvedensky (1917, p. 5) assumed that general psychology
might much more correctly be called basic psychology, because this part lies at the basis of all psychology.
Høffding, who assumed that psychology “can be practiced in many modes and ways,” that “there is not one, but many psychologies,” and who saw no need for unity, was nevertheless inclined to view subjective psychology “as the basis and the center, around which the contributions of the other approaches should be gathered.” In the present case it would indeed be more appropriate to talk about a basic, or central, psychology than about a general one; but to overlook the fact that systems may arise from a completely different basis and center, and that what the professors considered to be the basis in those systems, by the very nature of things, drifts to the periphery, would be more than a little dogmatic, and naively complacent. Subjective psychology was basic or central in quite a number of systems, and we must understand why. Now it loses its importance, and again we must understand why. In the present case it would be terminologically most correct to speak of theoretical psychology, as opposed to applied psychology, as Munsterberg does. Applied to the adult normal person it would be a special branch alongside child psychology, zoopsychology, and psychopathology.
Theoretical psychology, Binswanger notes, is not general psychology, nor a part of it, but is itself the object or subject matter of general psychology. The latter deals with the questions whether theoretical psychology is in principle possible and what are the structure and suitability of its concepts. Theoretical psychology cannot be equated with general psychology, if only for the reason that precisely the matter of building theories in psychology is a fundamental question of general psychology.
There is a second thing that we may reliably infer from our analysis. The very fact that theoretical psychology, and later other disciplines, have performed the role of a general psychology, is conditioned by, on the one hand, the absence of a general psychology, and on the other hand, the strong need for it to fulfil its function temporarily in order to make scientific research possible. Psychology is pregnant with a general discipline but has not yet delivered it.
The third thing we may gather from our analysis is the distinction between two phases in the development of any general science, any general discipline, as is shown by the history of science and methodology. In the first phase of development the general discipline is only quantitatively distinct from the special one. Such a distinction, as Binswanger rightly says, is characteristic of the majority of sciences. Thus, we distinguish general and special botany, zoology, biology, physiology, pathology, psychiatry, etc. The general discipline studies what is common to all subjects of the given science. The special discipline studies what is characteristic of the various groups or even specimens from the same kind of objects. It is in this sense that the discipline we now call differential psychology was called special. In the same sense this area was called individual psychology. The general part of botany or zoology studies what is common to all plants or animals, the general part of psychology what is common to all people. In order to do this the concept of some trait common to most or all of them was abstracted from the real diversity and in this form, abstracted from the real diversity of concrete traits, it became the subject matter studied by the general discipline. Therefore, the characteristic and task of such a discipline was seen to be the scientific study of the facts common to the greatest number of the particular phenomena of the given area [Binswanger].
This stage of searching and of trying to apply an abstract concept common to all psychological disciplines, which forms the subject matter of all of them and determines what should be isolated from the chaos of the various phenomena and what in the phenomena has epistemic value for psychology – this stage we see vividly expressed in our analysis. And we may judge what significance these searches and the concept of the subject matter of psychology looked for and the desired answer to the question what psychology studies may have for our science in the present historical moment of its development.
Any concrete phenomenon is completely inexhaustible and infinite in its separate features. We must always search in the phenomenon what makes it a scientific fact. Exactly this distinguishes the observation of a solar eclipse by the astronomer from the observation of the same phenomenon by a person who is simply curious. The former discerns in the phenomenon what makes it an astronomic fact. The latter observes the accidental features which happen to catch his attention.
What is most common to all phenomena studied by psychology, what makes the most diverse phenomena into psychological facts – from salivation in a dog to the enjoyment of a tragedy, what do the ravings of a madman and the rigorous computations of the mathematician share? Traditional psychology answers: what they have in common is that they are all psychological phenomena which are non-spatial and can only be perceived by the experiencing subject himself Reflexology answers: what they share is that all these phenomena are facts of behaviour, correlative activity, reflexes, response actions of the organism. Psychoanalysts answer: common to all these facts, the most basic factor which unites them is the unconscious which is their basis. For general psychology the three answers mean, respectively, that it is a science of (1) the mental and its properties; or (2) behaviour; or (3) the unconscious.
From this it is obvious that such a general concept is important for the whole future fate of the science. Any fact which is expressed in each of these three systems will, in turn, acquire three completely different forms. To be more precise, there will be three different forms of a single fact. To be even more precise, there will be three different facts. And as the science moves forward and gathers facts, we will successively get three different generalisations, three different laws, three different classifications, three different systems – three individual sciences which, the more successfully they develop, the more remote they will be from each other and from the common fact that unites them. Shortly after beginning they will already be forced to select different facts, and this very choice of facts will already determine the fate of the science as it continues. Kofflka was the first to express the idea that introspective psychology and the psychology of behaviour will develop into two sciences if things continue as they are going. The paths of the two sciences lie so far apart that “it is by no means certain whether they will eventually lead to the same end.”
Pavlov and Bekhterev share essentially the same opinion. They accept the existence of two parallel sciences – psychology and reflexology – which study the same object, but from different sides. In this connection Pavlov [1928, Lectures on Conditioned Reflex] said that “certainly psychology, insofar as it concerns the subjective state of man, has a natural right to existence.” For Bekhterev, reflexology neither contradicts nor excludes subjective psychology but delineates a special area of investigation, i.e., creates a new parallel science. He talks about the intimate interrelation of both scientific disciplines and even about subjective reflexology as an inevitable future development. Incidentally, we must say that in reality both Pavlov and Bekhterev reject psychology and hope to understand the whole area of knowledge about man by exclusively objective means, i.e., they only envision the possibility of one single science, although by word of mouth they acknowledge two sciences. In this way the general concept predetermines the content of the science.
At present psychoanalysis, behaviourism, and subjective psychology are already operating not only with different concepts, but with different facts as well. Facts such as the Oedipus complex, indisputable and real for psychoanalysts, simply do not exist for other psychologists; for many it is wildest phantasy. For Stern, who in general relates favourably to psychoanalysis, the psychoanalytic interpretations so commonplace in Freud's school and as far beyond doubt as the measurement of one's temperature in the hospital, and consequently the facts whose existence they presuppose, resemble the chiromancy and astrology of the 16th century. For Pavlov as well, it is pure phantasy to claim that a dog remembers the food on hearing the bell. Likewise, the fact of muscular movements during the act of thinking, posited by the behaviourist, does not exist for the introspectionist.
But the fundamental concept, the primary abstraction, so to speak, that lies at the basis of a science, determines not only the content, but also predetermines the character of the unity of the different disciplines, and through this, the way to explain the facts, i.e., the main explanatory principle of the science.
We see that a general science, as well as the tendency of various disciplines to develop into a general science and to spread their influence to adjacent branches of knowledge, arise out of the need to unify heterogeneous branches of knowledge. When similar disciplines have gathered sufficient material in areas that are relatively remote from each other, the need arises to unify the heterogeneous material, to establish and define the relation between the different areas and between each area and the whole of scientific knowledge. How to connect the material from pathology, animal psychology, and social psychology? We have seen that the substrate of the unity is first of all the primary abstraction. But the heterogeneous material is not united merely by adding one kind of material to another, nor via the conjunction “and,” as the Gestalt psychologists say, nor through simply joining or adding parts so that each part preserves its balance and independence while being included into the new whole. Unity is reached by subordination, dominion, through the fact that different disciplines renounce their sovereignty in favour of one single general science. The various disciplines do not simply co-exist within the new whole, but form a hierarchical system, which has primary and secondary centers, like the solar system. Thus, this unity determines the role, sense, meaning of each separate area, i.e., not only determines the content, but also the way to explain things, the most important generalisation, which in the course of the development of the science becomes its explanatory principle.
To take the mind, the unconscious, or behaviour as the primary concept implies not only to gather three different categories of facts, but also to offer three different ways of explaining these facts.
We see that the tendency to generalise and unite knowledge turns or grows into a tendency to explain this knowledge. The unity of the generalising concept grows into the unity of the explanatory principle, because to explain means to establish a connection between one fact or a group of facts and another group, to refer to another series of phenomena. For science to explain means to explain causally. As long as the unification is carried out within a single discipline, such an explanation is established by the causal linkage of the phenomena that lie within a single area. But as soon as we proceed to the generalisation across different disciplines, the unification of different areas of facts, the generalisation of the second order, we immediately must search for an explanation of a higher order as well, i.e., we must search for the link of all areas of the given knowledge with the facts that lie outside of them. In this way the search for an explanatory principle leads us beyond the boundaries of the given science and compels us to find the place of the given area of phenomena amidst the wider circle of phenomena.
This second tendency, which is the basis of the isolation of a general science, is the tendency toward a unified explanatory principle and toward transcending the borders of the given science in the search for the place of the given category of being within the general system of being and the given science within the general system of knowledge. This tendency can already be observed in the competition of the separate disciplines for supremacy. Since the tendency of becoming an explanatory principle is already present in every generalising concept, and since the struggle between the disciplines is a struggle for the generalising concept, this second tendency must inevitably appear as well. And in fact, reflexology advances not only the concept of behaviour, but the principle of the conditional reflex as well, i.e., an explanation of behaviour on the basis of the external experience of the animal. And it is difficult to say which of these two ideas is more essential for the current in question. Throw away the principle and you will be left with behaviour, that is, a system of external movements and actions, to be explained from consciousness, i.e., a conception that has existed within subjective psychology for a long time. Throw away the concept of behaviour and retain the principle, and you will get sensationalist associative psychology. About both of these we will come to speak below. Here it is important to establish that the generalisation of the concept and the explanatory principle determine a general science only together, as a unified pair. In exactly the same way, psychopathology does not simply advance the generalising concept of the unconscious, but also interprets this concept causally, through the principle of sexuality. For psychoanalysis to generalise the psychological disciplines and to unite them on the basis of the concept of the unconscious means to explain the whole world, as studied by psychology, through sexuality.
But here the two tendencies – towards unification and generalisation – are still merged and often difficult to distinguish. The second tendency is not sufficiently clear-cut, and may even be completely absent at times. That it coincides with the first tendency must again be explained historically rather than by logical necessity. In the struggle for supremacy among the different disciplines, this tendency usually shows up; we found it in our analysis. But it may also fail to appear and, most importantly, it may also appear in a pure form, unmixed and separate from the first tendency, in a different set of facts. In both cases we have each tendency in its pure form.
Thus, in traditional psychology the concept of the mental may be explained in many ways, although admittedly not just any explanation is possible: associationism, the actualistic conception, faculty theory, etc. Thus the link between generalisation and unification is intimate, but not unambiguous. A single concept can be reconciled with a number of explanations and the other way around. Further, in the systems of the psychology of the unconscious this basic concept is not necessarily interpreted as sexuality. Adler and Jung use other principles as the basis of their explanation. Thus in the struggle between the disciplines, the first tendency of knowledge – the tendency towards unification – is logically necessary, while the second tendency is not logically necessary but historically determined, and will be present to a varying degree. That is why the second tendency can be most easily and comfortably observed in its pure form – in the struggle between the principles and schools within one and the same discipline.
It can be said of any important discovery in any area, when it transcends the boundaries of that particular realm, that it has the tendency to turn into an explanatory principle for all psychological phenomena and lead psychology beyond its proper boundaries into broader realms of knowledge. In the last several decades this tendency has manifested itself with such amazing strictness and consistency, with such regular uniformity in the most diverse areas, that it becomes absolutely possible to predict the course of development of this or that concept, discovery, or idea. At the same time this regular repetition in the development of widely varying ideas evidently – and with a clarity that is seldom observed by the historian of science and methodologist – points to an objective necessity underlying the development of the science, to a necessity which we may observe when we approach the facts of science from an equally scientific point of view. It points to the possibility of a scientific methodology built on a historical foundation.
The regularity in the replacement and development of ideas, the development and downfall of concepts, even the replacement of classifications etc. – all this can be scientifically explained by the links of the science in question with (1) the general sociocultural context of the era; (2) the general conditions and laws of scientific knowledge; (3) the objective demands upon the scientific knowledge that follow from the nature of the phenomena studied in a given stage of investigation (in the final analysis, the requirements of the objective reality that is studied by the given science). After all, scientific knowledge must adapt and conform to the particularities of the studied facts, must be built in accordance with their demands. And that is why we can always show how the objective facts studied by a certain science are involved in the change of a scientific fact. In our investigation we will try to take account of all three viewpoints.
We can sketch the general fate and lines of development of such explanatory ideas. In the beginning there is some factual discovery of more or less great significance which reforms the ordinary conception of the whole area of phenomena to which it refers, and even transcends the boundaries of the given group of phenomena within which it was first observed and formulated.
Next comes a stage during which the influence of these ideas spreads to adjacent areas. The idea is stretched out, so to speak, to material that is broader than what it originally covered. The idea itself (or its application) is changed in the process, it becomes formulated in a more abstract way. The link with the material that engendered it is more or less weakened, and it only continues to nourish the cogency of the new idea, because this idea accomplishes its campaign of conquest as a scientifically verified, reliable discovery. This is very important.
In the third stage of development the idea controls more or less the whole discipline in which it originally arose. It has partly changed the structure and size of the discipline and has itself been to some extent changed by them. It has become separated from the facts that engendered it, exists in the form of a more or less abstractly formulated principle, and becomes involved in the struggle between disciplines for supremacy, i.e., in the sphere of action of the tendency toward unification. Usually this happens because the idea, as an explanatory principle, managed to take possession of the whole discipline, i.e., it in part adapted itself, in part adjusted to itself the concept on which the discipline is based, and now acts in concert with it. In our analysis, we have found such a mixed stage in the existence of an idea, where both tendencies help each other. While it continues expanding due to the tendency toward unification, the idea is easily transferred to adjacent disciplines. Not only is it continually transformed, swelling from ever new material, but it also transforms the areas it penetrates. In this stage the fate of the idea is completely tied to the fate of the discipline it represents and which is fighting for supremacy.
In the fourth stage the idea again breaks away from the basic concept, as the very fact of the conquest – at least in the form of a project defended by a single school, the whole domain of psychological knowledge, or all disciplines – this very fact pushes the idea to develop further. The idea remains the explanatory principle until the time that it transcends the boundaries of the basic concept. For to explain as we have seen, means to transcend one's proper boundaries in search of an external cause. As soon as it fully coincides with the basic concept, it stops explaining anything. But the basic concept cannot develop any further on logical grounds without contradicting itself. For its function is to define an area of psychological knowledge. By its very essence it cannot transcend its boundaries. Concept and explanation must, consequently, separate again. Moreover, unification logically presupposes, as was shown above, that we establish a link with a broader domain of knowledge, transcend the proper boundaries. This is accomplished by the idea that separates itself from the concept. Now it links psychology with the broad areas that lie outside of it, with biology, physics, chemistry, mechanics, while the basic concept separates it from these areas. The functions of these temporarily co-operating allies have again changed. The idea is now openly included in some philosophical system, spreads to the most remote domains of being, to the whole world – while transforming and being transformed – and is formulated as a universal principle or even as a whole world view.
This discovery, inflated into a world view like a frog that has swollen to the size of an ox, a philistine amidst the gentry, now enters the fifth and most dangerous stage of development: it may easily burst like a soap-bubble. In any case it enters a stage of struggle and negation which it now meets from all sides. Admittedly, there had been a struggle against the idea in the previous stages as well. But that was the normal opposition to the expansion of an idea, the resistance of each different area against its aggressive tendencies. The initial strength of the discovery that engendered it protected it from a genuine struggle for life just like a mother protects her young. It is only now, when the idea has entirely separated itself from the facts that engendered it, developed to its logical extremes, carried to its ultimate conclusions, generalised as far as possible, that it finally displays what it is in reality, shows its real face. However strange it may seem, it is actually only now, reduced to a philosophical form, apparently obscured by many later developments and very remote from its direct roots and the social causes that engendered it, that the idea reveals what it wants, what it is, from which social tendencies it arose, which class interests it serves. Only having developed into a world view or having become attached to it, does the particular idea change from a scientific fact into a fact of social life again, i.e., it returns to the bosom from which it came. Only having become part of social life again, does it reveal its social nature, which of course was present all the time, but was hidden under the mask of the neutral scientific fact it impersonated.
And in this stage of the struggle against the idea, its fate is approximately as follows. Just like a new nobleman, the new idea is shown in light of its philistine, i.e., its real, origin. It is confined to the areas from which it sprang. It is forced to go through its development backwards. It is accepted as a particular discovery but rejected as a world view. And now new ways are being proposed to interpret this particular discovery and the related facts. In other words, other world views which represent other social tendencies and forces even reconquer the idea's original area, develop their own view of it – and then the idea either withers away or continues to exist more or less tightly integrated in some world view amidst a number of other world views, sharing their fate and fulfilling their functions. But as an idea which revolutionises the science it ceases to exist. It is an idea that has retired and has received the rank of general from its department.
Why does the idea as such cease to exist? Because operating in the domain of world views is a law discovered by Engels, a law that says that ideas gather around two poles – those of idealism and materialism, which correspond to the two poles of social life, the two basic classes that fight each other. The idea reveals its social nature much more readily as a philosophical fact than as a scientific fact. And this is where its role ends – it is unmasked as a hidden, ideological agent dressed up as a scientific fact and begins to participate in the general, open struggle of ideas. But exactly here, as a small item within an enormous sum, it vanishes like a drop of rain in the ocean and ceases to exist independently.
Every discovery in psychology that has the tendency to turn into an explanatory principle follows this course. The ascent of such ideas itself may be explained by the presence of an objective scientific need, rooted in the final analysis in the nature of the studied phenomena, as it is revealed in the given stage of knowledge. It can be explained, in other words, by the nature of the science and thus, in the final analysis by the nature of the psychological reality studied by this science. However, the history of the science can only explain why, in a given stage of its development, the need for the ideas developed, why this was impossible a hundred years before. It cannot explain more. Exactly which ideas turn into world views and which not; which ideas are advanced, which path they cover; what is their fate – this all depends upon factors that lie outside the history of the science and determine this very history.
We may compare this with Plekhanov's (1922) theory of art. Nature has provided man with an aesthetic need, it enables him to have aesthetic ideas, tastes, and feelings. But precisely which tastes, ideas, and feelings a given person in the society of a given historical period will have cannot be deduced from man's nature; only a materialistic conception of history can give the answer. Actually, this argument is not even a comparison, nor is it a metaphor. It literally falls under the same general law which Plekhanov specifically applied to matters of art. Indeed, the scientific acquisition of knowledge is one type of activity of societal man amongst a number of other activities. Consequently, scientific knowledge acquisition, viewed as the acquisition of knowledge about nature and not as ideology, is a certain type of labor. And as with any labor, it is first of all a process between man and nature, in which man himself confronts nature as a natural force. This process is determined in the first place by the properties of the nature which is being transformed and the properties of the natural force which is transforming, i.e., in the present case, by the nature of the psychological phenomena and the epistemic conditions of man. But precisely because they are natural, i.e., immutable, these properties cannot explain the development, movement, and change in the history of a science. This is generally known. Nevertheless, in each stage of the development of a science we may distinguish, differentiate, or abstract the demands put forward by the very nature of the phenomena under investigation as they are known in the given stage, a stage determined, of course, not by the nature of the phenomena, but by the history of man. Precisely because the natural properties of mental phenomena at a certain level of knowledge are a purely historical category – for the properties change in the process of knowledge acquisition – and because the sum total of known properties is a purely historical quantity, they can be considered as the cause or one of the causes of the historical development of the science.
To illustrate the model for the development of general ideas in psychology just described, we will examine the fate of four ideas which have been influential in the last few decades. In doing so our sole interest will be the fact that made the development of these ideas possible, rather than the ideas in themselves, i.e., a fact rooted in the history of the science, not outside of it. We will not investigate why it is precisely these ideas and their history that is important as a symptom or indication of the stage that the history of the science is going through. At the moment we are interested not in a historical but a methodological question: to what extent are the psychological facts elicited and known at the moment, and what changes in the structure of the science do they require in order to make possible the further acquisition of knowledge on the basis of what is already known? The fate of the four ideas must bear witness to the need of the science at the present moment, to the content and dimensions of this need. The history of the science is important for us insofar as it determines the degree to which psychological facts are cognised.
These four ideas are: psychoanalysis, reflexology, Gestalt psychology, and personalism.
The idea of psychoanalysis sprang from particular discoveries in the area of neuroses. The unconscious determination of a number of mental phenomena and the hidden sexuality of a number of activities and forms, until then not included in the field of erotic phenomena, were established beyond doubt. Gradually this discovery, corroborated by the success of therapeutic measures based on this conception, i.e., sanctioned by practice, was transferred to a number of adjacent areas – the psychopathology of everyday life and child psychology – and it conquered the whole field of the theory of neuroses. In the struggle between the disciplines this idea brought the most remote branches of psychology under its sway. It has been shown that on the basis of this idea a psychology of art and an ethnic psychology can be developed. But psychoanalysis at the same time transcended the boundaries of psychology: sexuality became a metaphysical principle amidst all other metaphysical ideas, psychoanalysis became a world view, psychology a metapsychology. Psychoanalysis has its own theory of knowledge and its own metaphysics, its own sociology and mathematics. Communism and totem, the church and Dostoyevsky's creative work, occultism and advertising, myth and Leonardo da Vinci's inventions – it is all disguised and masked sex and sexuality, and that is all there is to it.
The idea of the conditional reflex followed a similar course. Everybody knows that it originated in the study of mental salivation in dogs. But then it was extended to a number of other phenomena as well. It conquered animal psychology. In Bekhterev's system it is applied and used in all domains of psychology and reigns over them. Everything – sleep, thought, work, and creativity – turns out to be a reflex. It ended up dominating all psychological disciplines: the collective psychology of art, industrial psychology and pedology, psychopathology, even subjective psychology. And at the moment reflexology only rubs shoulders with universal principles, universal laws, first principles of mechanics. Just as psychoanalysis grew into a metapsychology via biology, reflexology via biology grows into a world view based on energy. The table of contents of a textbook in reflexology is a universal catalogue of global laws. And again, just as with psychoanalysis, it turned out that everything in the world is a reflex. Anna Karenina and kleptomania, the class struggle and a landscape, language and dream are all reflexes (Bekhterev, 1921; 1923).
Gestalt psychology also originally arose in the concrete psychological investigation of the processes of form perception. There it received its practical christening; it passed the truth test. But, as it was born at the same time as psychoanalysis and reflexology, it covered the same path with amazing uniformity. It conquered animal psychology, and it turned out that the thinking of apes is also a Gestalt process. It conquered the psychology of art and ethnic psychology, and it turned out that the primitive conception of the world and the creation of art are Gestalten as well. It conquered child psychology and psychopathology and both child development and mental disease were covered by the Gestalt. Finally, having turned into a world view, Gestalt psychology discovered the Gestalt in physics and chemistry, in physiology and biology, and the Gestalt, withered to a logical formula, appeared to be the basis of the world. When God created the world he said: let there be Gestalt – and there was Gestalt everywhere (Kofflka, 1925; Kohler, 1917, 1920; Wertheimer, 1925).
Finally, personalism originally arose in differential psychological research. Being an exceptionally valuable principle of personality in the theory of psychometrics and in the theory of occupational choice, etc., it migrated first to psychology in its entirety and then crossed its boundaries. In the form of critical personalism it extended the concept of personality not only to man, but to animals and plants as well. One more step, well known to us from the history of psychoanalysis and reflexology, and everything in the world is personality. The philosophy which began by contrasting the personality with the thing, by rescuing the personality from the power of things, ended up by accepting all things as personalities. The things disappeared altogether. A thing is only a part of the personality: it does not matter whether we are dealing with the leg of a person or the leg of a table. But as this part again consists of parts etc. and so on to infinity, it – the leg of a person or a table – again turns out to be a personality in relation to its parts and a part only in relation to the whole. The solar system and the ant, the tram-driver and Hindenburg, a table and a panther – they are all personalities (Stern, 1924).
These fates, similar as four drops of the same rain, drag the ideas along one and the same path. The extension of the concept grows and reaches for infinity and according to the well-known logical law, its content falls just as impetuously to zero. Each of these four ideas is extremely rich, full of meaning and sense, full of value and fruitful in its own place. But elevated to the rank of universal laws they are worthy of each other, they are absolutely equal to each other, like round and empty zeros. Stern's personality is a complex of reflexes according to Bekhterev, a Gestalt according to Wertheimer sexuality according to Freud.
And in the fifth stage of development these ideas meet with exactly the same criticism, which can be reduced to a single formula. To psychoanalysis it is said: the principle of unconscious sexuality is indispensable for the explanation of hysterical neuroses, but it can explain neither the composition of the world nor the course of history. To reflexology it is said: we must not make a logical mistake, the reflex is only one single chapter of psychology, but not psychology as a whole and even less, of course, the world in its entirety (Vagner, 1923; Vygotsky, 1925a). To Gestalt psychology it is said: you have found a very valuable principle in your own area. But if thinking consists of no more than the aspects of unity and the integrated whole, i.e., of no more than the Gestalt formula, and this same formula expresses the essence of each organic and even physical process, then the picture of the world becomes, of course, amazingly complete and simple – electricity, gravity, and human thinking are reduced to a common denominator. We must not throw both thinking and relation into one single pot of structures: let it first be shown that it belongs in the same pot as structural functions. The new factor guides a broad though limited area. But as a universal principle it does not stand up to critique. Let the thinking of bold theoreticians in their attempts to explain be characterised by the motto “it's all or nothing.” But as a sound counterpoise the cautious investigator should take account of the stubborn opposition of the facts. After all, to try and explain everything means to explain nothing.
Doesn't this tendency of each new idea in psychology to turn into a universal law show that psychology really should rest upon universal laws, that all these ideas wait for a master-idea which comes and puts each different, particular idea in its place and indicates its importance? The regularity of the path covered with amazing constancy by the most diverse ideas testifies, of course, to the fact that this path is predetermined by the objective need for an explanatory principle and it is precisely because such a principle is needed and not available that various special principles occupy its place. Psychology, realising that it is a matter of life or death to find a general explanatory principle, grabs for any idea, albeit an unreliable one.
Spinoza  in his “Treatise on the improvement of the understanding” describes a similar state of knowledge:
A sick man struggling with a deadly disease, when he sees that death will surely be upon him unless a remedy is found, is compelled to seek such a remedy with all his strength, inasmuch as his whole hope lies therein.
Vygotsky Internet Archive | Crisis in Psychology | Chapter 5