Marxist Writers: A.R. Luria

Introduction to “The Making of Mind”

by Michael Cole

First Published:1979;
Source: The Making of Mind: A Personal Account of Soviet Psychology;
Publisher: Harvard University Press 1979;
Translated: Mike Cole;
Transcription/Markup: Nate Schmolze;
Proofed and Corrected: Andy Blunden 2003;
Online Version: Psychology and Marxism Internet Archive ( 2000.

This work has been reproduced in accordance to § 108 of U.S. copyright law (Title 17, p. 16).  This distribution is made in accordance to the requirements under § 108: (1)  without the purpose of any commercial advantage; (2) in a collection that is open to the public; and (3)  includes a notice of copyright of the reproduced work.

Alexander Romanovich [Luria] began his professional era at a tumultuous moment in human history. The Bolshevik Revolution had interrupted his high-school career, in the provincial Russian commercial center of Kazan. Changes in educational regulations and curricula left him free to accelerate his passage through the accrediting process, and within three years he had completed the formal requirements for a college degree.

With little guidance from a faculty in disarray (owing to the abrupt change in the intellectual and political climate), Luria was allowed to fashion his own education. The product may not have been ideally systematic, but it represented a fascinating amalgam of the leading ideas in the social sciences of the times.

Luria was interested in Utopian socialism and, particularly, the problem of change: What was the source of ideas about society? How can one use such ideas to bring about social change? His social thinking (and hence the medium for his social activities) was, from the beginning, focused on the individual. How can the individual be linked to larger social units ?

In his search for an answer to this question, Luria was drawn to read the neo-Kantian social-science philosophers of the late 19th century — Dilthey, Richert, and Windelbandt, for whom the relationship between psychology and history was a pivotal issue. Although Wundt had set up a psychology laboratory in 1880, there was nothing approaching a consensus about what kind of science psychology could, in principle, represent. Even Wundt, who maintained that the experimental method was an appropriate tool of psychology, did not believe that laboratory methods were appropriate to all aspects of the science. Rather, experimental methods could be used to study only elementary psychological processes; folklore and ethnography had to be relied upon to supply information about higher psychological functions.

Dilthey and his colleagues were not willing to concede this interpretation of either part of Wundt's enterprise. One of their central questions was what kind of laws were possible from the study of human psychological processes. Should one strive for general (“nomothetic”) laws that describe “Man” but are unable to account for the specific behaviors of any individual “man”? This was the model of the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften ) and the model adopted by Wundt for the study of sensory processes. Or should psychology attempt only to describe the intricate complex reality of individuals, providing “idiographic” accounts in the tradition of the humane sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) such as history?

Luria's interest in these matters was not narrowly academic. Caught up in the romantic enthusiasm of the revolution, he sought a scientific basis for influencing human affairs. Perhaps for this reason, he was not satisfied with the choice between an idiographic, descriptive psychology and a nomothetic, generalizing psychology. The generalizing, “scientific” psychology of Wundt, Brentano, and other laboratory psychologists seemed too remote from any real-life process that one could observe outside the laboratory. It was bloodless, artificial, and of no use whatever in dealing with the problems facing humanity.

But the neo-Kantians offered no usable alternative. They could, to be sure, provide much more illuminating descriptions of recognizable psychological processes. But their method left them handcuffed as scientists; they could not lawfully influence the objects of observations. They were helpless to initiate or guide change.

What the situation seemed to require was a new kind of psychology that could deal with the richness of individual psychological experience but admit of generalizations of the sort that made the natural sciences powerful. For several years psychoanalysis seemed to Luria a promising basis on which to found the kind of psychology he sought. Freud's writings were the source of many interesting hypotheses about the motivational sources of behavior, but his hypotheses about various symbolic processes seemed overly abstract and difficult to study by objective means. Jung's studies using the free-association method, however, appeared a promising tool that could make the motivational determinants of individual behavior accessible to analysis. By elaborating the basic free-association technique, Luria hoped to create an experimental science of individual mental life, a science that would be both idiographic and nomothetic.

These early speculations about the future direction of psychology were never published, although Luria prepared a manuscript on the subject, when he was 19 years old, that he kept throughout his career. They did, however, guide his early clinical and experimental work. He spent time at Kazan's psychiatric hospital, where, using Jung's free association method, he interviewed patients. Accepting a position in a laboratory devoted to increasing the efficiency of industrial workers, he carried out studies of the effect of fatigue on mental activity. It was in the course of this work that he developed the first, rudimentary techniques for combining experimental procedures with the free-association technique; he used an old Hipp chronoscope to measure the reaction time of workers, at different levels of fatigue, who were asked to associate to various verbal stimuli.

This very early activity would be of little interest if it were not so clearly and generally reflected in Luria's later work; but as the articles collected here attest, the basic techniques Luria developed while still a student were retained and applied through all the many phases of his career.

1923 was a turning point for Soviet psychology, a turning point that affected Luria almost immediately. Until that year, academic psychology remained relatively unaffected by the October (1917) Revolution. The leading Russian psychologist was G. I. Chelpanov, who had been the director of the Institute of Psychology in Moscow since its founding in 1911. Chelpanov was a psychologist in the tradition of Wundt and Titchener, a “brass instrument” psychologist for whom introspection under highly controlled conditions provided the essential data of psychology. His institute pursued pretty much of the same issues, by the same techniques, as those pursued in many laboratories in Germany and the United States.

By 1923 this approach to psychology was under attack for a number of reasons, many of which were similar to the reasons used in arguments against similar approaches to psychology in the United States. Introspectionist psychology was criticized for its methodological shortcomings; different laboratories could not agree on basic elements produced by trained introspectors. Arguments about the existence or nonexistence of imageless thought and “determining tendencies” had produced sufficient theoretical chaos to make many psychologists receptive to Watson's call for a psychology of behavior that eschewed the concept of conscious experience altogether. There was also widespread dissatisfaction with the very narrow limits of introspective psychology; it could not include the study of small children, of mental patients, or of people engaged in productive activity. To these complaints Soviet critics added the charge that introspective psychology was neither materialist nor Marxist.

The issue of the proper framework for Soviet psychology, especially for its titular leader, Chelpanov, came to a head at the First Psychoneurological Congress, held in Leningrad in 1923. Chelpanov tried to defend the activities of his institute. He even admitted a role to Marxism as a set of ideas applicable to the social organization of human activity. His defense failed, and he was removed from his post and replaced by K. N. Kornilov, a former schoolteacher from Siberia, who had been on the staff of Chelpanov's institute for several years.

Kornilov was an advocate of a kind of objective psychology that was similar in many respects to Watson's behaviorism, although he did not reject discussion of mental states in the same, thoroughgoing way as Watson. Kornilov called his approach “reactology,” which he took to mean the study of mental effort as reflected in peripheral motor activity. He “measured” mental effort by studying the reaction time and strength of simple motor responses, assuming that the more strength spent on the motor component of a response, the less remaining for the “mental” component. Confirmation of this generalization was seen in the fact that the strength of simple reactions was greater than the strength of complex reactions. Kornilov pointed to his method as manifestly a materialist interpretation of mind; and with this achievement as a rallying point, he was able to gather a group of young scholars to undertake the reconstruction of psychology along materialist and, he asserted, Marxist lines. One of those invited to the institute in Moscow was A. R. Luria, whose research on worker fatigue using reaction time methods made him a pioneer reactologist in Kornilov's eyes.

Psychoanalysis as a System of Monistic Psychology (1925) dates from this very early period in the history of Soviet psychology (and Luria's scientific career), when the proper subject matter and theoretical stance of psychology in the USSR were very much a subject of debate. Only a very few propositions were generally accepted: Psychology should be an objective science, based wherever feasible on experimental methods; it should be consistent with the principles of Marxist dialectical materialism.

Agreeing on these principles and implementing them turned out to be two very distinct tasks. It was not clear what ideas and techniques from previous psychological research could be retained.

Neither was it clear what Marxist writing implied for psychology (a problem that existed for many branches of Soviet science, and was to be the source of repeated disputes over the years). In this atmosphere of uncertainty and change, a wide variety of scientific programs were offered, among them Luria's suggestion that psychoanalysis be used as a model upon which to build a materialist, Marxist psychology. Although this suggestion did not prevail, the terms in which Luria made it are clearly prophetic of both his own later work and those influential movements in psychology that attempted to incorporate psychoanalytic notions of motivation into experimental psychology.

The publication in which “Psychoanalysis as a system of monistic psychology” appeared, Psychology and Marxism, contained papers from the Second Psychoneurological Congress. Kornilov, who wrote the lead essay, was its editor. This volume contained contributions from several branches of psychology, all of them offering programs of research for a reconstructed Soviet psychology. Most interesting from the vantage point of history was an essay by a former schoolteacher, Lev Semyonovitch Vygotsky, who had begun to do research on problems of education, especially education of the handicapped and retarded. On the basis of his presentation, which treated consciousness as the internalized modes of behavior from one's social environment, Vygotsky was invited to join the staff of Kornilov's institute. This event became the central organizing point of the remainder of Luria's scientific career.

Although Vygotsky became a major figure in Luria's life almost from the outset of their acquaintance, his influence on Luria's research and writing came about more slowly. There were reasons for a gradual, rather than an abrupt, change in the course of research. As the initial essay in this volume suggests, Luria had already evolved a rationale for research which was operative when he met Vygotsky at the beginning of 1924. The extent of the research completed by Luria and his colleagues in the early 1920s is difficult to judge, because there were few journal outlets for Soviet psychologists (Luria enjoyed telling how he got the paper for printing research carried out in Kazan from a soap factory); but Luria's (1932) monograph The nature of human conflicts contains several studies that appear to have been carried out in 1923 and 1924. (That monograph is worth reading both for the intrinsic interest of the research it reports and for fascinating glimpses into the history of Luria's career and Soviet psychology.) The early chapters explain “the combined motor method,” in which the subject had to carry out a simple movement in response to verbal stimuli while reaction time and the dynamics of the movement were being recorded. Using this technique, Luria (assisted by Alexei N. Leont'ev, his lifelong colleague and current Dean of the Psychology Faculty at Moscow University) studied the influence of motives on the organization of voluntary motor activity. This academic research was carried out in such real-life settings as a purge of Moscow University (where students with inadequate academic records or “undesirable “ family backgrounds were appearing before a board of examiners). It not only was relevant to an experimental psychoanalysis (an idea Luria was no longer pursuing when the book was written in 1930) but had promising potential for application, which Luria pursued in the criminal justice system, where he developed the combined-motor method, into the prototype of the modern lie detector. The very popularity of the research seems to have extended his participation in it.

It is important to keep in mind that when Vygotsky appeared on the scene he was still a very young man, a 26-year-old who had been a philologist until a very few years earlier, when his attention was drawn to problems of psychology. By no means was the sociohistorical school of psychology he pioneered a finished product. It was no more than a schema, a point of view that had to be fleshed out in theory and experimental practice. In the years between 1924 and 1934 (when Vygotsky died of tuberculosis) the “troika” of Vygotsky, Leont'ev, and Luria began to carry out its reconstruction of psychology from first principles. It was a slow task, and Luria was not a man to put all else aside while waiting for new ideas to ripen when he had not finished harvesting the fruits of his previous labor. Instead, he seems to have applied his prodigious energy to both tasks simultaneously he continued to extend his original methods to new problems while slowly changing their content and contexts to incorporate the ideas that were growing out of the continuous interactions with Vygotsky.

Progressively, as the years pass, we can see the central ideas of the sociocultural approach coming to dominate Luria's research.

“A Child's Speech Responses and the Social Environment” (1930) reports one of several large research projects using the free-association technique to determine how a child's social environment affects the form and content of his/her linguistic and cognitive processes. In this use of the free-association technique, Luria is applying his notion that Jung's method for studying the dynamics of individual behavior can also reveal social determinants of mental life. But the theoretical rationale for this work no longer retains any references to Jung (in part, most likely, because Luria was severely criticized for his earlier advocacy of psychoanalytic ideas). Instead, we see the prototype of ideas that were to be made famous by Vygotsky in his book Thought and language, first published in 1934: language is the product of sociohistorical circumstances and the forms of interaction between child and adult; it is a vital tool of thought and is susceptible to specific influences, which differ in their cognitive impact depending on the social context in which they are imbedded.

Perhaps because these ideas have remained very much alive in our own psychological tradition, the research Luria reported retains considerable relevance. His insistence that the street urchin is not generally more backward, but certainly less educated, than children raised in normal families is as contemporary as any current journal article discussing the education of “culturally different” children (“He is not more backward than the schoolchild ... He is just different....”). His demonstration that a given child will be at different “stages of development” with respect to familiar and abstract (school-based) words and that schooling “levels” different cultural experiences is an extremely important finding that seems to have been lost by the time cross-cultural research came into vogue in the 1960s.

“Experimental Psychology and Child Development” (1930) and “Paths of Development of Thought in the Child” (1929) review research on intellectual development in children as it was then being carried out in the Soviet Union, Western Europe, and America. It was characteristic of both Luria and Vygotsky that they attempted to place their research within the general circle of contemporary scientific ideas influencing psychology. In order to be maximally persuasive, they sought to demonstrate both the correctness of their own approach and the points where it made contact with (and then diverged from) the ideas of their contemporaries.

These articles show, even more clearly than previously translated works, Luria's early and pervasive interest in the development of behavior. They show, too, the strong influence of Piaget, Werner, Karl and Charlotte Buhler, and William Stern, both as positive contributors to an eventual psychology of higher psychological functions and as foils against which Luria, Vygotsky, and their colleagues pitted their own theories.

Of special interest in terms of current research is Luria's report on the development of writing, a topic that has emerged in the mid-1970s as a major area of concern in educational research and practice. His study of written language represents a rejection of notions (such as De Saussure's) that writing is simply language written down or the contention of the Prague linguistic circle that writing is merely the graphic representation of language elements that are reacted to in a static way for purposes that are almost entirely restricted to language's communicative function. Rather, he subsumes language under the general category of a mediated psychological activity whose specifics are determined by the activities that implement the purposes of writing in the first place. Thus, instead of beginning with a study of writing as a way of representing language, Luria traces the “prehistory” of writing back to primitive mnemonic activities whose purpose is the representation of past events in the present. This approach to writing (see also Vygotsky's article “The prehistory of written languages,” in Vygotsky, 1978) suggests interesting ways to introduce writing into young children's school activities and serves the more general purpose of motivating studies of the relation between writing and talking in the course of human development.

[During the mid-1930s], Luria and his colleagues carried out [a series of studies] with identical and fraternal twins. ... Very little of this work was published in either Russian or English. In 1935 and 1936 a few articles were published in the Works of the Medical-Genetic Institute (the institution in which the work was carried out); and one article, on the comparative development of elementary and complex mental functions in twins, was published in the now-defunct American journal Character and Personality (Luria, 1937). ... It was not until the late 1950s that more accessible accounts of this work appeared in Russian; and when they did, the study of twins as a means of differentiating biologically and culturally determined psychological processes (which was the impetus for the work) had disappeared entirely. In keeping with this de-emphasis on the significance of twins in cognitive research, no mention is made in the title of the article of the fact that the subjects in Luria's studies of constructive play were identical twins. Selecting them for study is justified only on the grounds that their identical heredity and similar home environments make it easier to discern the effects of planned environmental (educational) intervention.

This discussion of constructive play is an excellent example of the way in which Luria linked basic, theoretically oriented research with problems of broad social concern. The article appeared in a publication devoted to educational applications of research, and Luria places the problem squarely in the context of conflicting programs of pedagogy. But the intervention experiment he describes is firmly rooted in the sociohistorical theory of mental development. This is evident in his discussion of the conceptual underpinnings of the different approaches to organizing preschool curriculum units devoted to constructive activities. In his rejection of the highly structured approach attributed to Montessori and her followers or resort to totally unguided free construction, we see reflected Vygotsky's insistence on a distinction between elementary functions, involuntarily applied, and higher functions that incorporate planning elements in a deliberate manner. It is the task of the educator to create an environment to move the child from the spontaneous application of elementary skills to the deliberate application of higher, analytic skills. The test of the effectiveness of such a program of instruction is more than the satisfactory completion of the instructional task itself. If the educational program is really successful, it will result in qualitative changes in the structure of the child's activity in a variety of seemingly remote tasks that, theory dictates, bear a specific analogy to the instructional tasks. The latter part of the paper, which assesses the children's ability to handle a variety of perceptual and classificatory tasks, represents the more general test of the consequences of differential tuition in the block-building task, and a test of the basic theory as well. ...

In the late 1940s psychology again came under attack, but this time in a way that involved the direct and active intervention of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and its chairman, Joseph Stalin. ... Stalin strongly favored adoption of Pavlovian psychophysiology as a model upon which all of psychology should be built. All other approaches were considered erroneous, and their adherents were put under tremendous pressure to renounce their previous activities and join in the reconstruction of psychology along Pavlovian lines.

Luria was not exempted from this general requirement, all the more so since he had been associated with a school of psychology that had come under special scrutiny in the past. From approximately 1937 through 1947 he left the study of cognitive development and embarked on a career as a neurologist (the fruits of this work are surveyed in the third section of this book). About 1948, however, he was told to leave the Institute of Neurosurgery, where he had been working for several years, and was assigned to the Institute of Defectology, an institution that had been founded by Vygotsky about twenty years earlier. There he turned once again to the problems that had occupied him earlier in his career, but it was not possible to approach them in the style he had come to adopt in the 1930s.

What Luria fashioned was an experimental approach that has its closest parallel in studies contained in The nature of human conflicts, but with a conceptual structure that grew directly out of the basic principles of the sociohistorical school and a language that was thoroughly Pavlovian. Thus, the basic method is the combined-motor method, but with a very careful concentration on the way the verbal and motor components of a child's response enter into complex functional systems to enable the child to meet the requirements of the task. Critical here is the issue of whether speech comes to precede and guide the motor response (which is possible only when its excitatory and inhibitory components are well integrated) or whether it only accompanies action. This issue has its direct parallel in the studies of writing, carried out 20 years earlier, in which it was important to discern when the child's writing came to precede and guide his activity instead of following or accompanying it.

It is somewhat ironic that this work, which in some respects camouflaged Luria's main lines of concern, generated enormous interest in his work among American psychologists. One cannot be certain, but I suspect that the Pavlovian framework Luria used to describe and motivate this work, especially the promise that reflex theories could be extended to the study of language (Pavlov's “second-signal system”) were the cause of the work's popularity in the United States. The late 1950s and early 1960s were the high watermark of neobehaviorist theorizing about language, and many psychologists found an obvious parallel between Luria's view that language responses come to mediate motor responses and various lines of mediational stimulus-response theories that had been elaborated here on the conditioning models of Hull, Spence, and Skinner. This was also the period when experiential studies of children's intellectual development within a learning-theory tradition were just beginning to come into vogue, and Luria's ideas about the role of speech in this process were exceedingly congenial.

During the last decade and a half of his life, [Luria] published several books summarizing his work on [the study of the brain's organization of higher psychological functions], a body of learning he liked to call neuropsychology. ...

“L.S.Vygotsky and the problem of functional Localization” (1966) is an overview of Vygotsky's theory and its implications for the study of brain-behavior relations. This article certainly deserves study by anyone interested in Luria's approach to neuropsychology (and, I would argue, anyone interested in the study of human cognition) because it lays out in capsule form his general enterprise, of which neuropsychology was only one aspect. ...

This suggestion is completely consistent with Vygotsky's view that “localization of higher nervous functions can be understood only chronologically, as the result of mental development.” American colleagues have often bridled at Luria's characterization of their neuropsychology as “atheoretical.” They correctly point to the theories of brain function that guide their work and their meticulous attempts to establish the reliability and validity of their tests.

Unfortunately, Luria and his Western counterparts never really understood each other on this point. Luria's summary of Vygotsky's views (which he had a large role in shaping) makes it clear that his idea of theory is an enterprise infinitely more ambitious than all those undertaken by any but a handful of psychologists from other countries. He often said that in order to have a theory of brain-behavior relations, it is necessary to have a theory of both the brain and behavior. ...

“Psychoanalysis as a Monistic Psychology,” in The Selected Writings of A.R.Luria ed. by Cole, Michael, pgs. 3-41.

“A Child's Speech Responses and the Social Environment,” in The Selected Writings of A.R.Luria ed. by Cole, Michael, pgs. 45-77.

“Experimental Psychology and Child Development,” in The Selected Writings of A.R.Luria ed. by Cole, Michael, pgs. 78-96.

“Paths of Development of Thought in the Child,” in The Selected Writings of A.R.Luria ed. by Cole, Michael, pgs. 97-144.

“L.S.Vygotsky and the Problem of Functional Localization,” in The Selected Writings of A.R.Luria ed. by Cole, Michael, pgs. 273-281.