Marxist  Writers: A. N. Leont'ev


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This small theoretical book was long in preparation, and even now I cannot consider it finished – quite a bit in it is still only noted and not explicated. Why did I decide to publish it in spite of this? I will admit at once that it was not from a love for theorizing.

Attempts to investigate methodological problems of psychology always evoke the constant need for theoretical reference points without which concrete investigation is doomed to remain shortsighted.

It is almost a hundred years since world psychology has been developing under conditions of crisis in its methodology. Having split in this time into humanistic and natural science, descriptive and explanatory, the system of psychological knowledge discloses ever new crevices into which it seems the very subject of psychology disappears. The subject is sometimes also reduced under the guise of the necessity of developing interdisciplinary research. Sometimes there even are voices heard openly inviting “Varangians” into psychology: “Come and rule over us.” The paradox consists in this that in spite of the theoretical difficulties, in the whole world there is now an exceptional impetus toward the development of psychological research under direct pressure of the requirements of life itself. As a result the contradiction between the mass of factual material that psychology has scrupulously accumulated in excellently equipped laboratories and the pitiful condition of its theoretical and methodological bases has become even sharper. Negligence and skepticism in relation to the general theory of the psyche, and the spreading of factologism and scientism characteristic for contemporary American psychology (and not only for it) have become a barrier blocking  the road to investigating the principal psychological problems.

It is not difficult to see the connection between this development and the disillusionment resulting from unfounded claims of the major Western European and American trends that they would effect a long-awaited theoretical revolution in psychology. When behaviorism came into being, they spoke of it as a match about to light and set off a keg of dynamite; after that it seemed that not behaviorism but Gestalt psychology discovered a general principle capable of leading psychological science out of the blind alley into which it was led by rudimentary, “atomistic” analysis; finally, very many had their heads turned by Freudism, as if in subconsciousness he had found a fulcrum that would make it possible to turn psychology right side up and make it really alive. Other bourgeois psychological directions were admittedly less pretentious, but the same fate awaited them; they all found themselves in the general eclectic soup that is now being cooked by psychologists – each according to his own recipe – who have reputations of “broadmindedness.”

The development of Soviet psychological science, on the other hand, took an entirely different path.

Soviet scientists countered methodological pluralism with a unified Marxist-Leninist methodology that allowed a penetration into the real nature of the psyche, the consciousness of man. A persistent search for resolutions of the principal theoretical problems of psychology on the basis of Marxism began. Simultaneously, work continued on the critical interpretation based on positive achievements of foreign psychologists, and specific investigations of a wide range of problems began. New approaches were worked out, as was a new conceptual apparatus that made it possible to bring Soviet psychology to a scientific level very rapidly, a level incomparably higher than the level of that psychology that was given official recognition in pre revolutionary Russia. New names appeared in psychology: Blonskii and Kornilova, then Vygotskii, Uznadze, Rubinshtein, and others.

The main point was that this was the way of continuous purposeful battle – a battle for the creative mastery of Marxism-Leninism, a battle against idealistic and mechanistic biologizing concepts in one guise or another. While developing these concepts, it was necessary also to avoid scientific isolationism as much as withstand being identified as a psychological school existing side-by-side with other schools. We all understood that Marxist psychology is not just a different direction or school but a new historical stage presenting in itself the beginnings of an authentically scientific, consistently materialistic psychology. We also understood something else, and that is that in the modern world psychology fulfills an ideological function and serves class interests; it is impossible not to reckon with this.

Methodological and ideological questions remained in the center of attention of Soviet psychology, particularly in the initial period of its development, which was marked by the publication of such books, fundamental in their ideas, as L. S. Vygotskii’s Thought and Speech and S. L. Rubinshtein’s Fundamentals of General Psychology. It is necessary, however, to acknowledge that in the following years the attention of psychological science to  methodological problems weakened somewhat. This, of course, does not mean in any way that theoretical questions became of less concern, or that less was written about them. I have something else in mind: the acknowledged carelessness in methodology of many concrete psychological investigations, including those in applied psychology.

This phenomenon may be explained by a series of circumstances. One was that there gradually came about a breakdown in internal connections between the working out of philosophical problems of psychology and the actual methodology of those conducting investigations. About the philosophical questions of psychology (and about the philosophical criticism of foreign, non- Marxist tendencies) not a few voluminous books were written, but questions pertaining to concrete means of investigating broad psychological problems have hardly been touched in them. They almost leave an impression of dichotomy: On the one hand there is the sphere of philosophical, psychological problematics, and on the other, the sphere of specific psychological, methodological questions arising in the course of concrete investigation. Of course the working out of strictly philosophical problems in one area or another of scientific knowledge is indispensable. Here, however, we are concerned with something else: with the working out on a Marxist philosophical basis of the special problems of the methodology of psychology as a concrete science. This requires penetration into the “internal economics,” so to speak, of theoretical thought.

I will explain my idea using an example from one of the more difficult problems which has confronted psychological investigation for a long time, that is, the problem of the connection between psychological processes and physiological processes in the brain. It is scarcely necessary to convince psychologists now that the psyche is a function of the brain and that psychic phenomena and processes must be studied in conjunction with physiological processes. But what does it mean to study them in conjunction? For concrete psychological investigation this question is extremely complex. The fact is that no direct correlation between psychic and physiological brain processes has solved the problem. Theoretical alternatives that arise with such direct approach are well known: It is either a hypothesis of parallelism, a fatal picture leading to an understanding of the psyche as an epiphenomenon; or it is a position of naive physiological determinism with a resultant reduction of psychology to physiology; or finally, it is a dualistic hypothesis of psycho-physiological interaction which allows the nonmaterial psyche to affect material processes occurring in the brain. For metaphysical thinking there is simply no other solution; only the terminology covering all these alternatives changes.

In addition to this, the psycho-physiological problem has an entirely concrete and a very real meaning in the highest degree for psychology because the psychologist must constantly keep in mind the work of morphophysiological mechanisms. He must not, for instance, make judgments about the processes of perception without considering the data of morphology and physiology. The form of perception as a psychological reality is, however, something altogether different from the brain processes and their constellations of which it appears to be a function. It is apparent that we have here a matter with various forms of movement, and this necessarily presents a further problem about those underlying transitions that connect these forms of movement. Although this problem appears to be more than anything a methodological problem, its resolution requires analysis penetrating, as I have said, into the results accumulated by concrete investigations at psychological and physiological levels.

On the other hand, in the sphere of special psychological problematics, attention has been focused more and more on the careful working out of separate problems, on increasing the technical arsenal of the experimental laboratory, on refining the statistical apparatus, and on using the formal languages. Without this, of course, progress in psychology would now be simply impossible. But it is evident that something is still lacking. It is imperative that specific questions should not override general questions, that methods of research should not conceal methodology.

The fact is that a psychologist-research worker involved in the study of specific questions inevitably continues to be confronted by fundamental methodological problems of psychological science. They appear before him, however, in a cryptic form so that the resolution of specific questions seems not to be dependent on them and requires only the proliferation and refinement of empirical data. An illusion of “demythologizing” of the sphere of concrete research results, which increases even more the impression of a breaking up of the internal connections between fundamental theoretical Marxist bases for psychological science and its accumulation of facts. As a result, a peculiar vacuum is formed in the system of psychological concepts into which concepts generated by views that are essentially foreign to Marxism are spontaneously drawn.

Theoretical and methodological carelessness also appears sometimes in the approach to solving certain purely applied psychological problems. Most often it appears in attempts to use methods that have no scientific basis uncritically for pragmatic purposes. Making attempts of this kind, investigators frequently speculate on the necessity of linking psychology more closely with actual problems that are disclosed by the contemporary level of development of society and the scientific-technical revolution. The most flagrant expression of such attempts is the practice of mindless use of psychological tests, most often imported from the United States. I am speaking here about this only because the growing practice of testing exposes one of the “mechanisms” that generate empty methodological directions in psychology. 

Tests, as is known, are short questionnaires, the purpose of which is a disclosure (and sometimes measurement) of one or another preliminarily scientifically determined property or process. When, for example, the reaction of litmus to acid became known, then the “litmus paper” tests appeared – a change in color served as a simple indicator of acidity or alkalinity of a liquid that touched the paper; the study of specific properties of the color change led to the formation of the well-known Stilling tables, which, according to the difference of the figures shown on them, make it possible with sufficient precision to make judgments about the presence or absence of a color anomaly or its character. Tests of this nature are widely used in the most varied areas of knowledge and may be called “well founded” in the sense that they are supported by cogent concepts of the interdependences that connect the results of the testing with the properties being tested, the conditions, or the processes. Tests are not emancipated from science and are no substitute for more thorough research.

Those tests that serve to circumvent the difficulties of acquiring truly scientific psychological knowledge have a fundamentally different character. A typical example of such tests are the tests of mental development. They are based on the following procedure: First, the existence of any kind of  “psychological phlogiston,” so-called intellectual endowment, is denied; next, a series of questions- problems is devised from which are selected those that have the greatest differentiating capability, and from these a “test battery” is made up; finally, on the basis of statistical analysis of the results of a large number of trials, the number of properly solved problems included in such a battery is correlated with age, race, or social class of the persons being tested. An empirically determined fixed percentage of solutions is used as a unit, and a deviation from this unit is recorded as a fraction that expresses the “intelligence quotient” of the given individual or group.

The weakness in the methodology of such tests is obvious. The only criterion for the test problems is item validity, that is, the degree of correlation between the results of the problems being solved and one or another indirect expression of the psychological properties being tested. This brought into being a special psychological discipline, the so-called testology. It is not difficult to see that behind such a transformation of methodology into an independent discipline lurks nothing but a substitution of flagrant pragmatism for theoretical investigation.

Am I saying here that we must forgo psychological testing? No, not necessarily. I have given an example of a long since discredited test for giftedness in order to emphasize once again the need for a serious theoretical analysis even in deciding such questions, which at fist glance seem narrowly methodical.

I have given consideration to those difficulties that scientific psychology is experiencing, and I have said nothing about its unquestionable and very substantial achievements. But it is particularly the recognition of these difficulties that makes up, so to speak, the critical content of this book. It is not, however, the only foundation on which the positions developed in it are based. I have also supported my positions in many cases with positive results of concrete psychological investigations, my own as well as those of other scientists. The results of these investigations I have constantly had in view even if they are mentioned directly only rarely and as passing illustrations; in most cases they were left quite outside the limits of this work. This is explained by the necessity of avoiding long digressions in order to bring out the author's general conceptions more graphically and obviously.

For this reason this book does not pretend to be a review of scientific literature covering the questions broached. Many important works that are known to the reader are not cited in it, although they are alluded to. Since this may leave an erroneous impression, I must stress that even if these psychological works are not named, it is by no means because they do not, in my opinion, deserve mention. The situation is the same for philosophical-historical sources: Without difficulty the reader will detect theoretical judgments supported cryptically by analysis of some unnamed categories of pre-Marxist classical philosophy. All of these are but losses, which can be made up only in a new, large book written in a completely different way. Unfortunately at this time I have no opportunity to do this.

Almost every theoretical work can be read in different ways, sometimes completely differently from the way it appears to the author. For this reason I want to take this opportunity to say what, in my view, is most important in the pages of this book. I think that the most important thing in this book is the attempt to comprehend psychologically the categories that are most important for constructing an indisputable psychological system as a concrete science of the origin, function, and structure of the psychological reflection of reality that the life of the individual mediates. These are the category of subjective activity, the category of consciousness of man, and the category of personality. The first of these is not only primary but also most important. In Soviet psychology this position is expressed consistently but is demonstrated in essentially different ways. The central point, forming something of a watershed between the various comprehensions of the position of the category of activity, consists in this: Should subjective activity be considered only as a condition of psychic reflection and its expression, or should it be considered as a process containing in itself those internal, impelling contradictions, dichotomies, and transformations that give birth to the psyche, which is the indispensable moment of its own movement of activity, its development. If the first of these positions evoked an investigation of activity in its basic form – in the form of practice – beyond the limits of psychology, then the second position proposes that activity, independent of its form, enters into the subjective psychological science, although it is understood in a completely different way from the way it is understood when it enters into the subject matter of other sciences. In other words, psychological analysis of activity consists, from the point of view of the second position, not in isolating from it its internal, psychological elements for further isolated study but in bringing into psychology such units of analysis as carry in themselves psychological reflection in its inseparability from the moments that give rise to it and mediate it in human activity. This position that I am defending requires, however, a reconstruction of the whole conceptual apparatus of psychology, which in this book is only noted and, to a large degree, is a matter for the future. Even more difficult in psychology is the category of consciousness. The whole study of consciousness as a higher, specifically human form of psyche arising in the process of social interaction and presupposing the functioning of language constitutes the most important requisite for the psychology of man. The problem therefore of psychological investigation lies in not being limited by the study of phenomena and processes at the surface of consciousness but in penetrating into its internal structure. For this consciousness must be considered not as a field contemplated by the subject on which his images and conceptions are projected but as a specific internal movement generated by the movement of man's activity. The difficulty here is confronted even in isolating the category of consciousness as a psychological category, that is, in understanding those real transitions that interconnect the psyches of the specific individuals and the forms of social consciousness. This, however, cannot be done without preliminary analysis of these "formers" of individual consciousness, the movement of which characterizes its internal structure. A special chapter of this book is dedicated to an account of an experiment of such analysis, the basis of which is analysis of movement of activity. It is not up to me, of course, to judge whether or not this experiment was successful. I want only to turn the reader's attention to the fact that the psychological "secret of consciousness" remains a secret to any method, except the method revealed by Marx, which makes it possible to demonstrate the nature of supersensitive properties of social objects of which man, as an object of consciousness, is one. The view that I have developed, which holds that personality is a subject of strictly psychological study, will probably evoke great reaction. I think this because my views are definitely not in agreement with those of metaphysical, cultural, and anthropological concepts of personality (based on the theory of its dual determination, biological heredity, and social environment) that now flood world psychology. This incompatibility is particularly evident in reviewing the question of the nature of the so-called internal springs of personality and the question of the connection between the personality of man and his somatic characteristics.

Widespread is the view of the needs and appetites of man that the needs and appetites themselves determine the activity of the personality, its tendencies; correspondingly, the principal task of psychology is the study of which needs are natural to man and which experiences (appetites, wishes, feelings) they evoke. The second view, as distinct from the first, is to understand how the development of human activity itself, its motives and means, transforms man’s needs and gives rise to new needs so that the hierarchy of the needs changes to the extent that the satisfaction of some of them is reduced to the status only of conditions necessary for man’s activity and his existence as a personality. It must be said that the defenders of the first anthropological or, better said, naturalistic point of view bring forth many arguments, among them those that can metaphorically be called arguments “from the gut.” Of course, filling the stomach with food is an indispensable condition for any subjective activity, but the psychological problem is composed of something else: What will that activity be? how will its development proceed? And, in conjunction with this there is the problem of the transformation of the needs themselves.

If I have isolated the given question here, it is because in this question opposite views confront each other in the perspective of the study of personality. One of them leads to the construction of a psychology of the personality based on the primacy, in the broad sense of the word, of needs (in the language of behaviorists, “reinforcement”); the other, toward the structure of a psychology of the primacy of activity in which man confirms his human personality.

The second question – the question of the personality of man and his physical characteristics – becomes acute in connection with the position that a psychological theory of personality cannot be constructed principally on the basis of the difference in man’s constitution. In the theory of personality, how is it possible to get along without the usual references to Sheldon’s constitution, Eising’s factors, and finally Pavlov’s types of higher nervous activity? This question also arises from the methodological misunderstandings that in many instances stem from the ambiguity of the concept of “personality.” This ambiguity, however, disappears if we adopt the well-known Marxist position that personality is a particular quality that a natural individual commands in a system of social relations. The problem then inevitably changes: Anthropological properties of the individual appear not as determining personality, or as entering into its structure, but as genetically assigned conditions of formation of personality and, in addition, as that which determines not its psychological traits but only the form and means of their expression. For example, aggressiveness as a trait of personality will, of course, be manifested in a choleric in a different way from the way it is manifested in a phlegmatic, but to explain aggressiveness as a property of temperament is as scientifically absurd as to look for an explanation of wars in the instinct for pugnacity that is natural to people. Thus, the problem of temperament, properties of the nervous system, etc., is not “banished” from the theory of personality but appears in a different, nontraditional way as a question of use, if it can be so expressed by the personality of inborn, individual traits and capabilities. And this is a very important problem for concrete characterology which, like a number of other problems, has not been considered in this book.

Slips that occurred in this preface (and they might have been more numerous) are due to the fact that the author saw his problem not so much as a confirmation of one or another concrete psychological position as a search for a method of extracting them as they flow out of the historical-materialistic study of the nature of man, his activity, consciousness, and personality.

In conclusion, I must say a few words about the composition of the book. The thoughts contained in it were already expressed in earlier publications of the author, a list of which is given in notes to the chapters. Here they are presented systematically for the first time.

In its composition the book is divided into three parts. The first part contains Chapters 1 and 2, which analyze the concept of reflection and the total contribution that Marxism has made to scientific psychology. These chapters serve as an introduction to the book’s central part in which the problems of activity, consciousness, and personality are considered. The last part of the book has a completely different place: It does not seem to be a continuation of the foregoing chapters but is one of the earlier works of the author on the psychology of consciousness. Since the publication of the first edition, which has now become rare, more than 20 years have passed, and much in it has become outdated. It contains, however, certain psychological – pedagogical aspects of the problem of consciousness which are not touched on at all in other parts of this book, although these aspects remain even now close to the heart of the author. This inspired their inclusion in the book.

Chapter 1: Marxism and Psychological Science