L.S. Vygotsky 1925

“Consciousness as a problem in the
psychology of behavior”

First Published: 1925;
Source: Undiscovered Vygotsky: Etudes on the pre-history of cultural-historical psychology (European Studies in the History of Science and Ideas. Vol. 8), pp. 251-281;
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing 1999;
Translated: Nikolai Veresov;
Transcription/Markup: Nate Schmolze;
Online Version: Vygotsky Internet Archive (marxists.org) 2000

See “Consciousness as a problem in the psychology of behavior”, by the translator, Nikolai Veresov.

“The spider makes operations resembling the operations of the weaver, and the bee creating its waxen cells disgraces some architects. But from the very beginning, the worst architect differs from the best bee in that before building the cell of wax, he already has built it in his head. The result, which is received at the end of the process of work, already exists in the beginning of this process in an ideal form in a representation of a person. The person does not only change the form given by nature, but in what is given by nature he, at the same time, realises his conscious purpose, which as a law determines the way and character of his actions and to which he must subordinate his will.” K. Marx


The question of the psychological nature of consciousness is persistently and deliberately avoided in our scientific literature. Attempts are made even to take no notice of it, as if it does not exist for the new psychology. Owing to this, the systems of scientific psychology, which are developing under our eyes, have from the very beginning a number of organic defects. We shall mention a few, which in our opinion are the main and most fundamental ones.

1. By ignoring the problem of consciousness psychology has deprived itself of access to the study of some rather complex problems of human behaviour. It is forced to restrict itself to explaining no more than the most elementary connections between a living being and the world. That this is actually the case can easily be seen at a glance at the table of contents of Academician Bekhterev’s book “General foundations of human reflexology” (1923): “The principle of conservation of energy. The principle of continuous change. The principle of rhythm. The principle of adaptation. The principle of a counterforce equal to a force. The principle of relativity.” In a word, they are all-embracing principles, embracing not only animal and human behaviour but the world in its wholeness. Among all this we find not even one psychological law which formulates the relationship or interdependence of the phenomena, that would characterise the uniqueness of human behaviour in contrast to animal behaviour.

The other pole of Bekhterev’s book contains a classic experiment of establishing a conditional reflex – one small experiment, which in principle is extremely important, but not filling the space from the conditional reflex of first degree to the principle of relativity. Disparity between the roof and the foundation, the absence of a building between them, patently demonstrate that it is still too early to formulate universal principles on reflexological material, and how easy it is take laws from other areas of knowledge and apply them to psychology. Indeed, the broader and more comprehensive a principle we will take is, the easier it is for us to pull it onto any fact we require. We must just not forget that the volume and content of a concept are always in an inversely proportional relationship. Since the volume of universal principles tends toward infinity, their psychological content tends toward zero.

But this is not a defect particular to the Bekhterev’s course. The same flaw appears in one form or another elsewhere and leaves its imprint on every attempt to systematically produce a theory of human behaviour as mere reflexology.

2. The denial of consciousness and the attempt to construct a psychological system without this concept, as a psychology without consciousness, to use the expression of P. P. Blonsky [1] leads to the situation in which method has been deprived of the most necessary means and instruments for studying latent responses, such as internal movements, internal speech, somatic responses, etc., that are not observable with the naked eye. The study of only those reactions that are visible to the naked eye is totally powerless and untenable in explaining even the simplest problems of human behaviour.

But human behaviour is organised in such a way that, in fact, it is these internal movements, difficult to perceive, that actually direct and guide it. When we develop a conditional salivary reflex in a dog, we are organising by certain external devices the dog’s behaviour beforehand; otherwise the experiment will not succeed. We place the dog in a stand, wrap straps around it, etc. In the same way, we organise the behaviour of a human subject beforehand, with certain internal movements, through instructions, explanations, etc. If these internal movements suddenly become altered during the course of the experiment, the entire picture of behaviour changes sharply. Thus, we always make use of inhibited reactions; we know that they are constantly operating in the body; and we know that they play a very influential and regulatory role in behaviour because it is conscious. Nonetheless, we have no means of studying these internal reactions.

To say this simply, a human being is always thinking to himself; this is never without some influence on his behaviour; a sudden shift in thought during an experiment will always sharply make some impact on the subject’s overall behaviour (for example, sudden thought: “I will not look at the apparatus”). Yet we know nothing of how to assess this influence.

3. Any principal distinction between animal behaviour and human behaviour is obliterated. Biology devours sociology and physiology devours psychology. Human behaviour is studied as the behaviour of a mammal. What is essentially new, what consciousness and psyche brings in human behaviour, is ignored. As an example I shall mention two laws: the law of extinction (or internal inhibition) of conditional reflexes, discovered by Academician Pavlov [2], and the law of dominants, formulated by Professor Ukhtomsky [3].

The law of extinction (or internal inhibition) of conditional reflexes expresses the fact that with continued excitation elicited by one conditional irritant, not reinforced by another unconditional irritant, a conditional reflex gradually diminishes in strength until it finally disappears. Now let us turn to human behaviour. Let us develop a conditional reaction on some irritant in a human subject. For example, we give the instructions “When you hear the bell, press the button.” Now let us repeat this experiment 40, 50, or even 100 times. Does extinction take place? On the contrary, the connection is reinforced with each instance, with each passing day. Fatigue sets in, but this is not what the law of extinction is referring to. It is obvious here that simple extrapolation of a law from animal psychology to human psychology is not possible. We need some principal stipulation. But we do not know just what this stipulation is, nor do we even know where and how to look for it.

The law of dominants propounds the existence in the animal nervous system of focus of excitation that attract to themselves other subdominant excitations impinging on the nervous system at the same time. Sexual excitation in a cat, the acts of swallowing and defecation, the embracing reflex in a frog – all these, as experiments have shown, are strengthened at the expense of any other extraneous irritation. From this a direct step is made to the act of attention in humans, and it is asserted that a dominant is the physiological foundation of this act. Yet it turns out that attention is actually devoid of the capacity to be strengthened at the expense of any other extraneous irritation which is the characteristic feature of a dominant. On the contrary, any extraneous irritant distracts and weakens attention. Again, a step from laws concerning dominants in the cat or the frog to the laws of human behaviour needs some essential corrective.

4. But what is most important is that the exclusion of consciousness from the domain of scientific psychology to a considerable extent preserves all the dualism and spiritualism of former subjective psychology. Academician Bekhterev asserted that his system of reflexology did not contradict the hypothesis of the soul [4]. Subjective or conscious phenomena are depicted by him as second-order phenomena, as specific internal phenomena accompanying combinatory reflexes [5]. Dualism is reinforced by the fact that a special science, subjective reflexology [6], is admitted as not only possible in the future, but even as inevitable.

The main premise of reflexology, namely, the purported possibility in principle of explaining all human behaviour without any recourse to subjective phenomena and of constructing a psychology without psyche, is the hand-me-down dualism of subjective psychology, its attempt to study pure, abstract psyche. This is the other half of the old dualism: then there is a psyche without behaviour, here – behaviour without psyche; in both cases mind and behaviour are understood as two different phenomena.

No psychologist, even if he is an extreme spiritualist and idealist, has, precisely by virtue of this dualism, ever denied the physiological materialism of reflexology. Yet, on the contrary, it is idealism through and through, and indeed necessarily presupposed it.

5. Banishing the consciousness from psychology, we are trapped in biological absurdity for evermore. Even Academician Bekhterev warned against making the major mistake of regarding “subjective processes as completely superfluous or secondary phenomena in nature (epiphenomena), inasmuch as we know that everything superfluous in nature atrophies and is obliterated, whereas our own experience tells us that subjective phenomena achieve their highest development in the most complex processes of correlative activity” [7].

Thus we are left with two choices: either this is actually the case, and it is impossible to study human behaviour and the complex forms of human interrelated activity without reference to the human mind; or it is not the case, and mind is an epiphenomenon, a secondary phenomenon, and everything can be explained without mind, and we shall come to the biological absurd. No third possibility is given.

6. When the question is posed in this way, we are forever barred access to the study of the most important problems: the structure of our behaviour and an analysis of its composition and forms. We are forever doomed to retain the false notion that behaviour is the sum of reflexes. At the same time, “man is not at all a skin sack filled with reflexes and the brain is not a hotel for conditional reflexes that happen to pass by.”

A reflex is an abstract concept. Methodologically, it is extremely valuable, but it cannot become the fundamental concept of psychology as a concrete science of human behaviour. In reality we are [not] a leather bag filled with reflexes and the brain is not a hotel for complex groups; combinations and system built according to the most diverse types.

The study of dominant reactions in animals and of reflex integration has shown, persuasively, that the work of each organ, its reflex, is not something static, but only a function deriving from the overall state of the organism [8]. “The nervous system works as an integrated whole” – this formula of Ch. Sherrington [9] should serve as the foundation for a theory of the structure of behaviour.

Indeed, the sense in which we use the term “reflex” resembles very closely the story of Kannitfershtan, whose name a poor foreigner heard in Holland as a response to any question no matter what he asked: Whom are they burying? Whose house is this? Who just passed by? etc. He naively thought that everything in this country was done by Kannitfershtan, whereas actually, the word simply meant that the Dutchman he met did not understand his questions. A “reflex of purpose” or “a freedom reflex” can be presented as patent evidence of such a misunderstanding of investigated phenomena. It is clear to everyone that these are not reflexes in the usual sense, i.e., in the sense that a salivary reflex is a reflex, but rather are some sort of structurally distinct mechanism of behaviour. Only if we reduce everything to one common denominator can we explain everything in the same way: then a reflex is like this Kannitfershtan. But the very term “reflex” loses its meaning.

What is perception? It is a reflex. What is speech? What are gestures, facial expressions? They are also reflexes. And instincts, slips, emotions? They, too, are reflexes. All the phenomena the Wurzburg school have discovered in higher intellectual processes, or Freud’s analysis of dreams [10] are also reflexes. All this, of course, is really so, but the scientific infecundity of such empty statements is quite obvious. With such a method of discovery science neither sheds light nor brings any clarity to the problems it studies. Instead of dissecting and delimiting the objects, forms, and phenomena under its scrutiny, it, on the contrary, places everything in a dim penumbra, where everything is blurred and blended together, and there are no distinct borders between objects. This is a reflex and that is also a reflex, but what distinguishes this one from that one?

We ought to study not reflexes, but behaviour, its mechanism, its component parts, and its structure. Each time we conduct an experiment with animals or humans we have an illusion that we are studying a reaction or a reflex. Actually, what we are studying in every case is behaviour, since we invariably organise beforehand, in some way or other, the behaviour of the subject in order to ensure that this or that reaction or reflex will dominate; otherwise, we would achieve nothing.

Does the dog in Academician Pavlov’s experiments really react with a salivary reflex, but not with a multitude of the most varied internal and external motor reactions? Is it true that these reactions had no influence on the observed reflex? And is it true that a conditional irritant introduced into these experiments did not also itself elicit the same sort of reactions (orienting reactions of the ear, the eyes, etc.)? Why was a temporary connection formed between the salivary reflex and the bell, not vice versa, i.e., why didn’t the meat begin to elicit an orienting movement of the ears? And is it true that a subject who presses a button of a key at a signal is expressing his whole reaction? The general relaxation of the body, falling back in the chair, the tilting of the head, the sigh, etc., – aren’t all these essential components of the reaction?

All this shows how complex every reaction is, how this complexity depends on the structure of the behavioural mechanism the reaction is a part of, and that it is impossible to study a reaction in abstract form. Besides, we must not forget before we draw any major and crucial conclusions from classic experiments with conditional reflex, that this research has only just begun, and so far has covered only a very narrow circle, that only one or two types of reflexes, a salivary and a defensive motor reflex, have been studied, and then only the conditional reflexes of a first or second order and always of a type that is biologically disadvantageous for the animal. Why should an animal salivate in response to very remote signals, to conditional irritants of a high order? Therefore, we should beware of any direct transportation of reflexological laws into psychology. Professor Wagner [11] is right in saying that a reflex is a foundation, but the foundation tells us nothing about what is going to be constructed on it.

Owing to all these considerations, I think that we have to alter the view on human behaviour as a mechanism, which can be opened completely with the key of conditional reflex. Without having a preliminary working hypothesis concerning the psychological nature of consciousness, it is impossible to undertake a critical revision of the accumulated scientific knowledge in this area, to select and screen it, to translate it into a new language, to develop new concepts, and to create new problems.

Scientific psychology cannot ignore the facts of consciousness; it must materialise them, translate what objectively exists into an objective language, and once and for all unmask and bury the fictions, phantasmagoria, etc. Otherwise, no work is possible, neither teaching nor criticism nor research.

It is easy to see that consciousness cannot be regarded as a phenomenon of a second line, neither biologically, physiologically, nor psychologically. A place must be found for it, and it must be interpreted in the same line with all other reactions of the organism. This is the first requirement of our working hypothesis. Consciousness is a problem of the structure of behaviour.

Other requirements are: a hypothesis must, without stretch, explain the major questions pertaining to consciousness – the problems of conservation of energy, self-awareness; the psychological possibility of knowing other minds, the conscious character of the three major fields of empirical psychology (i.e., thinking, feeling, and will), the concept of the unconscious, the evolution of consciousness, and its identity and unity.

Here, in this brief and cursory essay we have only outlined the most preliminary, most general, and most basic thoughts that, when blended together, should, we think, provide the future working hypothesis of consciousness in the psychology of behaviour.


Now let us take a look at the question from outside, i.e., not from the field of psychology. In its most essential forms all animal behaviour consists of two groups of reactions: innate or unconditional reflexes and acquired or conditional reactions. Innate reflexes, in a certain sense, constitute a biological extract of the inherited collective experience of the entire species, whereas acquired reflexes are formed on the basis of this inherited experience through the formation of new connections provided by the personal experience of the individual. Thus, all animal behaviour may provisionally be designated as inherited experience plus inherited experience multiplied by personal experience. The origins of inherited experience were discovered by Darwin; the mechanism by which this experience is multiplied by personal experience is the conditional reflex Academician Pavlov discovered.

Generally speaking, this formula covers all animal behaviour.

The situation is different with human beings. If we are to cover human behaviour at all completely, new members must be introduced into the formula. First, it must be pointed out that the inherited experience of human beings is incomparably broader than that of animals. Man makes use not just of physically inherited experience. All our life, our labour and behaviour draw broadly on the experience of former generations, which is not transmitted at birth from father to son. We may provisionally designate this as a historical experience.

Ranked alongside this historical experience is social experience, the experience of other people, which constitutes a very important component in human behaviour. I do not possess only those connections that have been formed in my personal experience between unconditional reflexes and particular elements of the environment, but I also have a multitude of connections that were established in the experience of other people. If I know the Sahara and Mars although I have never travelled outside my country and have never looked into a telescope, obviously the origin of this experience is due to the experience of other people who have travelled to the Sahara and have looked into a telescope. It is just as obvious that animals have no such experience. Let us call this the social component of our behaviour.

Finally, what is fundamentally new in human behaviour is that man’s adaptation and the behaviour connected with it assume new forms compared with those of animals. Whereas animals passively adapt to the environment, man actively adapts the environment to himself. To be sure, in animals we encounter the rudimentary forms of active adaptation in their instinctive activity (making a nest, building a house, etc.); but in the animal kingdom these forms, first, do not have a dominant, fundamental importance and, second, are still passive in terms of their essential characteristics and the mechanisms by which they are carried out.

The spider that weaves his web and the bee that builds his cell out of wax do this out of instinct, mechanically, always in the same way, and in doing so they never display any more activity than in any other adaptive reactions. But the situation is different with a weaver or an architect. As Marx said, they first built their works in their heads; the result of their labours existed before this labour in ideal form [12].

Marx’s explanation, which is beyond dispute, means nothing more than a doubling of experience that is compulsory for human labour. Labour is repeated, in the movements of the hands and the changes produced in the material being worked on, what had already been done beforehand in the worker’s imagination, with models, as it were, of these movements and material. It is this doubled experience that enables man to develop forms of active adaptation that do not exist in animals. Let us call this new kind of behaviour doubled experience.

Now, the new part of our formula of human behaviour is: historical experience, social experience, and doubled experience.

The question remains: With what are the signs to connect these new parts in our formula with one another and with its original part?

The sign of multiplication between the inherited experience and the personal experience is clear for us; it refers to the mechanism of the conditional reflex.

We shall try to find the other connecting signs in the following sections of this article.


In the preceding section we outlined the biological and social aspects of the problem. Now let us take a brief look at its physiological side.

Even the most elementary experiments with isolated reflexes encounter the problem of co-ordination of reflexes or their transmission into behaviour. Above we mentioned in passing the fact that all of Academician Pavlov’s experiments had already presumed that the dog’s behaviour was organised beforehand in such a way that a single necessary connection was formed in collision of two reflexes. And Academician Pavlov was forced to deal with some other, more complicated reflexes in the dog as well.

Academician Pavlov more than once referred to the collision of two different reflexes occurring in the course of his experiments. The results of such a collision are not always the same: (see articles XXI and XXV – in one case he discusses the intensification of a food reflex by a simultaneous guarding reflex, and in the other case he talks about the victory of a food reflex over an guarding reflex). [13]. Two reflexes may be seen literally as two pans on a balance beam, observed Academician Pavlov on this point. He does not close his eyes before the unusual complexity of the accomplishment of a reflex. He says that “if we take into account that any reflex to an external irritation is limited and governed not only by another external simultaneous reflex act but also by a multitude of internal reflexes and by the effects of every conceivable sort of internal irritants – chemical, thermal, etc – impinging not only on different segments of the central nervous system but also directly on active tissue elements themselves, then, and only then, will we begin to have any full and realistic picture of the vast complexity of the phenomena of reflexes.” [14]

The basic principle of reflex co-ordination, as Sherrington [15] elucidated in his research, entails the struggle of different groups of receptors for the common motor field. The point is that there are many more afferent neurons in the nervous system than efferent ones; hence, each motor neuron has a reflex connection not only with one receptor but with many, and probably with all. A struggle is always going on in the body between different receptors for a common motor field, for the possession of one working organ. The outcome of this struggle depends on many extremely complicated and varied causes. Thus, any realised reaction, any victorious reflex, emerges after a struggle, only after a conflict “at a point of collision” [16].

Behaviour is a system of victorious reactions.

“Under normal conditions”, – says Sherrington, – “leaving questions of consciousness aside, all animal behaviour is made up of successive transitions of the final field, now to one group of reflexes, now to another.” [17] In other words, all behaviour is a struggle, which does not subside even for a minute. There are enough grounds to presume that one of the most important functions of the brain is to establish co-ordination between reflexes coming from outlying points, owing to which the nervous system is integrated into a whole individual.

The co-ordinating mechanism of the common motor field serves, according to Sherrington (1904, p. 466), “as the basis for the mental process of attention”. “The singleness of action from moment to moment thus assured is a keystone in the construction of the individual whose unity it is the specific office of the nervous system to perfect” (Ibid., p. 466).

“A reflex is an integral reaction of the organism.” Each muscle, each working organ, should be regarded “as a check payable to the bearer, which may be any group of receptors.” The general notion of the nervous system becomes clear from the following comparison.

“The system of receptors is to the system of efferent path ways as the wide top of a funnel is to its narrow bottom opening. But each receptor is connected not with one, but with many and perhaps with all efferent fibres; of course, these connections vary in strength. Hence, extending our comparison with the funnel, we must say that the whole nervous system is a funnel, one opening of which is five times wider than the other; within this funnel are receptors that are also funnels, whose wide openings are turned toward the outlet of the larger funnel and completely cover it” [18].

Academician Pavlov compared the hemispheres of the brain with a telephone switchboard where new temporary connections are established between elements of the environment and different reactions. [19] But much more than a telephone switchboard our nervous system resembles the narrow doors in some large building through which a crowd of many thousands is rushing in panic. Only a few people can get through the door. Those who entered successfully are only few from many thousand who died or were pushed back. This more closely conveys the catastrophic nature of the struggle, the dynamic and dialectic process between the environment and the person and within the person, that we call behaviour.

From all this follow two statements that are necessary for properly posing the problem of consciousness as a mechanism of behaviour.

1. The outside world “flows” into the wide opening of the funnel by thousands of irritants, attractions, and summons; a constant struggle and collision take place within the funnel; all excitations flow out of the narrow opening as responses of the organism in a greatly reduced quantity. What takes place in behaviour is only a negligible fraction of what is possible. At every moment the individual is full of unrealised possibilities. These unrealised possibilities of our behaviour, this difference between the wide and the narrow openings of the funnel, is a perfect reality; the same reality as the reality of victorious reactions, since all three aspects of a reaction are present in it.

This unrealised behaviour can have an extremely wide variety of forms, given even a slightly complicated structure of the final common field and of complex reflexes. “In complex reflexes, reflex arcs sometimes ally themselves with one portion of the common field and compete with one another for another part of the field” [20]. Thus, a reaction may remain half realised or realised in some, always indefinite, part.

2. Owing to the extremely complicated balance established in the nervous system by intricate struggle of reflexes, the outcome of the struggle is often decided by the quite insignificant force of a new irritant. Thus, in the complex system of competing forces, even a negligible new force can decide the outcome and direction of the resultant force; in a great war even a tiny country, allying itself with one side, can mean the difference between victory and defeat. This means that it is easy to imagine how reactions, insignificant in themselves, even negligible, can assume a dominant role depending on the conjuncture at the “point of collision” where they enter.


The most elementary, fundamental, and universal law of reflex relationships may be formulated as follows: reflexes are joined according to conditional reflex laws by which the response component of one reflex (motor, secretory) may, under appropriate conditions, become a conditional irritant (or inhibition) of another reflex, forming a reflex arc with a new reflex via the sensory pathway of peripheral irritations associated with it. A whole series of such connections may be given genetically and belong to the class of unconditioned reflexes. The rest of these connections are formed in the process of experience – a process that cannot not go on in the organism without ceasing.

Academician Pavlov called this mechanism a “chain reflex” and used it to explain instinct[21]. In his experiments, Doctor Zelenyi discovered the same mechanism in studying rhythmic muscular movements that also proved to constitute a chain reflex[22]. Thus, this mechanism provides the best explanation for unconscious, automatic combinations of reflexes.

But if we take into account not merely the same system of reflexes, but different ones and the possibility of reflection of one system on another, this mechanism is also essentially the mechanism of consciousness in its objective sense. The capacity of our body to be an irritant (through its own acts) for itself (for new acts) – is therein the basis of consciousness.

Now we can speak about the unquestionable interaction among different systems of reflexes, and of the reflection of one system by others. A dog reacts to hydrochloric acid by salivating (reflex), but the saliva itself is a new irritant for the reflex of swallowing or expectoration of the acid. In free association I pronounce “narcissus” on the word “rose.” This is a reflex, but it is also an irritant for the next word – gillyflower. All this takes place within a system or co-operating systems. The howl of a wolf, as an irritant, evokes in me somatic and mimetic reflexes of fear: altered respiration, heart beat, trembling, dryness in the throat (reflexes) – all these induce me to say or think: I am afraid. Here a transmission from one system to another takes place.

Our awareness or ability to be conscious of our deeds and states must be seen primarily as a system of transmission mechanisms from one set of reflexes to another, that is correctly functioning at every conscious moment. The more correctly every internal reflex, as an irritant, elicits a sequence of other reflexes from other systems or is transmitted to other systems, the more capable we are of giving an account to ourselves and others of what we are experiencing, and the more consciously is that experiencing (sensing, formulating in words, etc.).

Giving an account means transmitting one set of reflexes into another. The unconscious and psychical also refer to reflexes that have not been transmitted into other systems. There may be an infinite varied degrees of awareness, i.e., the interaction of systems participating in the mechanism of an acting reflex. To be conscious of one’s own experiences means nothing less than to possess them in object form (irritant) for other experiences. Consciousness is the experiencing of experiences, just as experience is simply the experience of objects.

But this capacity of a reflex (the experience of an object) to be a irritant (the object of an experience) for a new reflex, this mechanism of consciousness, is also a mechanism of transmission of reflexes from one system into another. This is more or less what Academician Bekhterev called accountable and non-accountable reflexes.

The problem of consciousness must be solved in psychology in a sense that consciousness is an interaction, reflection, and mutual excitation of different systems of reflexes. What is conscious is what is transmitted as an irritant to other systems in which it has a response. Consciousness is always an echo, a response apparatus. I will give three references to the literature.

1. It is pertinently to remind ourselves that the psychological literature has been pointed to a circular reaction as a mechanism that returns to the organism its own reflex, with the aid of the centripetal currents thus arising and that this mechanism lies at the basis of consciousness [23]. The biological significance of such a circular reaction was often stressed: a new irritation sent by a reflex elicits a new secondary reaction, which either intensifies and repeats or weakens and suppresses the first reaction, depending on the general condition of the organism and on the value ascribed by the body to its own reflex. Thus, a circular reaction is not a simple combination of two reflexes, but a combination in which one reaction is steered and regulated by another. This describes a new aspect in the mechanism of consciousness: its regulatory role with respect to the behaviour.

2. Ch. Sherrington distinguishes exteroceptive and interoceptive fields, the field on the outer surface of the body, and the internal surface of certain organs into which “some portion of the external environment enters.” Elsewhere he speaks of a proprioceptive field, which is excite by the organism itself, by changes taking place in muscles, tendons, joints, blood vessels, etc.

“In contrast to the receptors of the extero- and interoceptive fields, the receptors of the proprioceptive field are excited only secondarily by influences coming from the external environment. The irritant of these receptors is the active state of some organ or organs, for example, contraction of a muscle, which in turn serves as a primary reaction to the irritation of the surface of the receptor by factors of the external environment. Usually, reflexes elicited by stimulation of proprioceptive organs join with reflexes elicited by irritation of exteroceptive organs” [24].

As research has shown, the combination of these secondary reflexes with primary reactions, this “secondary connection,” can combine reflexes of both allied and antagonistic types. In other words, a secondary reaction can intensify or terminate a primary one. This constitutes the mechanism of consciousness.

3. Finally, Academician Pavlov has said that “the reproduction of neural phenomena in the subjective world is very unique, and so to say, refracted many times over, so that, on the whole, a psychological understanding of nervous activity is, to a considerable extent, only tentative and approximate.” [25].

Although here Pavlov did not mean anything more than a simple comparison, we are ready to understand his words in the literal and precise meaning and assert that consciousness is the “multiple refraction” of reflexes.


With this, the problem of mind is resolved without any waste of energy. Consciousness is wholly reduced to the transmitting mechanisms of reflexes operating according to general laws, i.e., no processes other than reactions can be admitted into the organism.

The way is also paved for the solution of the problem of self-awareness and self-observation. Inner perception and introspection are possible only thanks to the existence of a proprioceptive field and secondary reflexes, which are connected with it. This is always the echo of a reaction.

Self-awareness as the perception of what takes place in a person’s own soul, to use J. Locke’s expression, is wholly exhausted by this. It now becomes clear why this experience is accessible to only one person – the person experiencing his own experience. Only I, myself, and alone can observe and perceive my secondary reactions because my reflexes serve as new irritants of the proprioceptive field only for myself and myself alone.

It is also now easy to explain the fundamental split nature of experience: the mental is not like any other because it is affected by irritants sui generis that occur nowhere else but in my own body. The movement of my arm, which is perceived by the eye, may also be an irritant for both my eye and the eye of another; but the awareness of this movement, those proprioceptive excitations that occur and elicit secondary reactions, exist for me alone. They have nothing in common with the first irritation of the eye: completely different neural pathways, different mechanisms, and different irritants are here.

Another very complicated question of psychological procedure is closely connected with this: it is the question of the value of self-observation. Previous psychology considered self-observation to be fundamental and the main source of psychological knowledge. Reflexology rejected self-observation completely or placed it under the control of objective data, as a source of supplementary information. [26]

The presented approach to the problem enables us, in a very rough and general outline, to understand the (objective) meaning which the verbal report of a subject may have for scientific research. Undetected reflexes (tacit speech), internal reflexes inaccessible to the direct perception of the examinee can be detected often indirectly by mediation, through observable reflexes for which they serve as irritants. The presence of a complete reflex (a word) serves as an indicator of the presence of a corresponding irritant that plays a dual role. In this case it is an irritant for the complete reflex and is itself a reflex relative to the previous irritant.

In view of the tremendously important and paramount role the mind (i.e., this undetected group of reflexes) plays in the system of behaviour, it would be suicide for science to reject its discovery by an indirect method, through its reflection on other systems of reflexes. Actually, we do take into account reflexes to internal irritants hidden from our view. Here the logic, the train of thought, and the proof are the same.

In this view a subject’s report is in no sense an act of self-observation that interferes like getting a spoon of tar into the barrel of honey of objective scientific investigation. No self-observation at all. The subject is not at all in the situation of an observer; he does not help an experimenter observe reflexes hidden from his view. To the very end, and during the actual giving of an account, a subject fully remains the object of an experiment; but certain changes or transformations are introduced into the experiment itself, through subsequent questioning; a new irritant is introduced (a new questioning), and a new reflex enables us to assess the undetected portions of the preceding one. The entire experiment passes through a “double lens.”

It is necessary to include such a passing of an experience through the secondary reactions of consciousness in the methods of a psychological investigation. An individual’s behaviour and the establishment of new conditional reactions are governed not only by disclosed, complete, and fully detected reactions, but also by reactions, undisclosed in their external part, invisible to the naked eye. If it is possible to study complete speech reflexes, why then can’t we take into account reflexes-thoughts, “torn off at two thirds of the way along” [27], although these, too, are really existing, unquestionable reactions?

If I pronounce the word “evening,” which comes to me by free association, so that it is audible to the experimenter, it is subject to be account as a verbal reaction, a conditional reflex. But if I pronounce it inaudibly, to myself, when I think it, does it cease to be a reflex and change its nature? Where is the border between an uttered and an unuttered word? If my lips moved, if I uttered a whisper that was still inaudible to the experimenter – what then? May he ask me to repeat this word aloud, or will this be a subjective method admissible only to me? If he may (and almost everyone will probably agree with this), then why can’t he ask me to utter aloud a word that I have uttered in my thoughts, i.e., without moving my lips and whispering? Indeed, it always was and still is a speech motor reaction, a conditional reflex without which thoughts are impossible. This is already an interrogation, the utterance of the subject, his verbal account of those undetected reactions unperceived by the experimenter’s hearing (and this is the only difference between thoughts and speech), but the reactions were still objective nevertheless. We can be convinced by many methods that these reactions did take place and that they really did exist with all the attributes of material existence. The development of the methods is one of the most important tasks of psychological methodology. Psychoanalysis is one of these methods.

But what is most important here is that these reactions themselves will take care to see that we are convinced of their existence. In the further course of reactions they will express themselves with such strength and forcefulness that they will force the experimenter to pay attention to them or to refuse to study the course of reactions into which they burst. Actually, are there many examples of such behaviour into which inhibited reflexes would not intrude? So, either we refuse to study human behaviour in its most essential forms, or we are forced to introduce the obligatory registration of these internal movements in our experiments.

Two examples will show this necessity. If I recall something and establish a new speech reflex, is it true that it does not matter what I am thinking during this time – whether I am simply repeating a given word to myself or establishing a logical connection between this word and another? Is it not clear that the results in both these cases will be essentially different? In a free association I say the word “snake” in response to the cue word “thunder,” although first the thought of “lightning” flashed. Is it not clear that if I do not take this thought into account, I will get a deliberately false notion that my reaction to the word “thunder” was “snake” and not “lightning”?

It goes without saying, that what we are talking about here is not a simple transferring of experimental self-observation from traditional psychology into the new psychology. Rather, the point is the urgent necessity to develop a new method for studying inhibited reflexes. We have merely advocated the fundamental necessity and possibility of that.

In order to finish with the question of methods, let us stop briefly on the curious metamorphosis recently undergone by the method of reflexological investigation when applied to humans. Professor Protopopov [28] discussed in one of his articles that “initially reflexologists applied an electro-dermal irritation to the sole of the foot. Then it proved to be more profitable to choose a more perfect apparatus, more suited to orienting reactions as the criterion of a response. So the leg was replaced by a hand. But once ‘a’ was said, it was necessary to say ‘b’. The human being has an immeasurably more accomplished apparatus, with which he has established more extensive connections with the world, – the speech apparatus. We should turn to verbal reactions. But the most curious are ‘certain facts’ upon which investigators stumbled in their work. The point was that the differentiation of a reflex was extremely slow and sluggish in human beings and what has appeared was that conditional responses might be inhibited or excited depending on the speech stimulus presented to the object.”

In other words, the discovery is reduced to the point that with a human being it may be stipulated with words that he withdraw his hand in response to a certain signal, and then, when a different signal is given, that he not withdraw his hand. The author has to assert two statements that are important for us here.

1. “Undoubtedly in the future reflexological studies on human beings will have to be carried out mainly with the aid of secondary conditional reflexes.” This means nothing other than that consciousness bursts even into the experiments of reflexologists and has essentially changed the picture of behaviour. Turn the consciousness out the door and it will enter through the window.

2. The inclusion of this research technique in the reflexological method makes this method non-distinguishable from the method of studying reactions long established in experimental psychology. Professor Protopopov mentions this, but he considers this coincidence as incidental and external only. For us, on the contrary, it is clear that what it amounts to is a thorough capitulation of pure reflexological method, which is used so successfully on dogs, to the problems of human behaviour.

It is extremely important to show that all three spheres into which empirical psychology has divided the mind – cognition, feeling, and will – also readily reveal the same nature of conscious awareness that is relevant to them, and can be easily reconciled with this hypothesis and with the method it entails, if one looks at them from the point of view of the hypothesis we have presented here.

1. James’s theory of emotions paves the way for such an interpretation of conscious awareness of feelings. Taking three usual components – A – the cause of a feeling, B – the feeling itself, and C – its corporeal manifestations – James rearranged them in the following way A-C-B. [29]. I shall not repeat his arguments that are known to all. I should only like to point out that his formulation laid bare (1) the reflex character a feeling, a feeling as a system of reflexes – A and B, and (2) the secondary, derivative character of conscious awareness of a feeling when one’s own reaction serves as an irritant for a new internal reaction – B and C. The biological significance of a feeling as a quick evaluating reaction of the entire organism to its own behaviour, as an act of engagement of the entire organism in the reaction, and as the internal organiser of all behaviour manifest at a particular moment is also rendered understandable. I can also note that Wundt’s three-dimensional model of a feeling essentially describes this evaluative character of the emotions as the organism’s echo to its own reaction. This accounts for the unrepeatability and singularity of emotions in every particular case.

2. The acts of cognition of empirical psychology also reveal their dual nature, since they take place consciously. Psychology clearly distinguishes two “floors” in them: acts of cognition and the consciousness of these acts.

What is especially curious in this respect is the results of the extremely refined self-observation of the Wurzberg school, that “pure psychology of psychologists.” One of the conclusions from these studies establishes that an intellectual act itself is unobservable, that it eludes perception. Self-observation here exhausts itself. We are at the bottom of consciousness. The paradoxical conclusion that suggests itself here is the unconscious character of acts of thought. The elements of thought that we find in our consciousness are rather surrogates of thought than its actual essence: they are fragments, detritus, and scum of thought.

O. Külpe noted that ‘we have experienced that the “I” cannot be divided. We cannot completely surrender to our thoughts, immerse in them and observe these thoughts at the same time’[30]. This means, therefore, that consciousness cannot focus on itself, that it is a secondary moment. One cannot think one’s thoughts, i.e., grasp the very mechanism of consciousness, because this mechanism is not a reflex, i.e., it cannot be the object of experience, the irritant of a new reflex, and is only a transmitting mechanism between systems of reflexes. But as soon as a thought is completed, i.e., as soon as a reflex is formed, it may be consciously observed: “First one, and then the other,” as O. Külpe says.

In one of his articles Professor Krol comments on this point, that the new phenomena discovered by the Wurzburg studies of the higher processes of consciousness surprisingly resemble Pavlov’s conditional reflexes [31]. The spontaneity of thought, the fact that it is found ready-made, the complex feelings of activity, of inquiry and search, etc., bear this out. The impossibility to observe the thought also speaks in favour of the mechanisms we have outlined here.

3. Finally, the will most fully and patently of all reveals those essential characteristics of its consciousness. The fact that motor representations (i.e., secondary reactions from the movements of organs) are present beforehand in consciousness clarifies the point. Any movement must first be accomplished unconsciously. Then its kinesthesia (i.e. secondary reaction) becomes the basis of its conscious awareness [32]. Bair’s experiments with ear movements illustrate this. Our conscious awareness of our will creates the illusion of two aspects: I thought, and then I did. Indeed, there are two reactions here, but they are in the opposite sequence: first comes the secondary reaction and then basic or primary one. Sometimes the process is more complicated; and the theory of a complex volitional act and its mechanism, complicated by motives, i.e., the collision of several secondary reactions, also agrees completely with the thoughts propounded above.

But what is most important is to clarify, in the light of these ideas, the development of consciousness from the moment of its birth, its origin in experience, its secondary nature, and, consequently, its psychological determinateness by the environment. Being determines consciousness; this law can, after some elaboration, for the first time receive a precise psychological meaning and reveal the actual mechanism of this determinateness.


There is one group of easily distinguishable reflexes in humans that one could correctly call reversible reflexes. These are reflexes to irritants that in turn can be created by man. A word that is heard is the irritant, and a word that is pronounced is a reflex producing the same irritant. The reflex is reversible here, since an irritant can become a reaction, and vice versa. These reversible reflexes, which constitute the foundation for social behaviour, serve for collective co-ordination of behaviour. In the whole multitude of irritants one group clearly stands out for me, the group of social irritants coming from people. What distinguishes them is that I, myself, can reproduce the same irritants and that they become reversible for me very early, and hence determine my behaviour in a different way from all others. They make me comparable to another, and make my actions identical with one another. Indeed, in the broad sense, we can say that the source of social behaviour and consciousness lays in speech.

It is extremely important here to establish, if only in passing, that if what we have said is correct, it means that the mechanism of social behaviour and the mechanism of consciousness are the same. Speech, on the one hand, is a system of “reflexes for social contact” [33], and, on the other, a system, most eminently, of reflexes of consciousness, a system for reflecting other systems.

Here, too, is the root of the question of another person’s “I”, i.e., of how I can know the mind of another person. The mechanism for knowing oneself (self-awareness) is the same as the mechanism for knowing others. Usual theories of our knowledge of another’s mind either proclaim forthwith its unknowability [34] or, by means of a variety of hypotheses, endeavour to construct a plausible mechanism that essentially is the same in a theory of sensations or a theory of analogy: we know others because we know ourselves; in getting to know the anger of someone else, I am reproducing my own anger [35].

Actually, it would be more correct to say just on the contrary. We are conscious of ourselves because we are conscious of others; and in an analogous manner, we are conscious of others because in our relationship to ourselves we are the same as others in their relationship to us. I am aware of myself only to the extent that I am as another for myself, i.e., only to the extent that I can perceive anew my own reflexes as new irritants. Between the fact that I can repeat aloud a word spoken silently to myself and the fact that I can repeat a word spoken by another there is no essential difference, nor is there any principal difference in their mechanisms: both are reversible reflexes – irritants.

Therefore, a direct consequence of this hypothesis will be the “sociologising” of all consciousness, the recognition that the social moment of consciousness is primary in time and in fact. The individual aspect of consciousness is constructed as derived and secondary, based on the social and exactly according to its model. [36].

A dual nature of consciousness comes from here: the idea of a “double” is the picture of consciousness that is the closest to reality. This is very close to the division of the individual person into an “Ego” and an ‘Id’, which S. Freud analytically describes. “In its relation to the ‘Id’, ‘I’ is like a horseman who must keep rein on the outstanding strength of a horse, with the difference that the horseman tries to do this with his own forces, while ‘I’ employs borrowed forces. This analogy may be extended. Just as a horseman who does not want to dismount from his horse must often perforce allow himself to be taken where the horse desires, so, too, the ‘I’ ordinarily transforms the will of the ‘Id’ into an action that appears to be its own will” [37].

The excellent confirmation of this thought of the identity between the mechanism of consciousness and the mechanism of social contact and the idea that consciousness is, as it were, social contact with oneself, is the process of development of an awareness of speech in the deaf-mutes and partly by the development of tactile responses in the blind. The speech of the deaf-mutes usually does not develop but remains frozen at the stage of a reflex cry not because the speech centres are damaged, but because, owing to the loss of hearing, the possibility of reversible speech reflexes is paralysed. Speech cannot return as an irritant to the speaker himself. Because of this it remains unconscious and asocial. The deaf-mutes are usually limited to a conventional language of gestures that links them to the narrow circle of social experience of other deaf-mutes and develops consciousness in them by virtue of the fact that these reflexes revert back to the mute himself through his eyes.

The education of the deaf-mute from the psychological side entails restoring, or compensating for, the destroyed mechanism of reflex reversibility. The mutes learn to speak by reading articulatory movements of a speaker’s lips and learn to speak themselves by making use of the secondary kinaesthetic irritations occurring during speech motor reactions.[38]

What is most remarkable in all this is that conscious awareness of speech and social experience emerge simultaneously and completely parallel with one another. It is in some sense a specially arranged experiment of nature that confirms the main thesis of this article. In a special work I hope to demonstrate this more clearly and fully. The deaf-mute learns to be conscious of himself and his movements to the extent that he learns to be conscious of others. The identity of the two mechanisms is amazingly clear and almost obvious.

Now we can bring together the terms in our formula of human behaviour that we presented in one of the earlier sections. Historical and social experience are not in themselves different entities, psychologically speaking, since they cannot be separated in experience and are always given together. We can link them with a sign +. As I have tried to show, their mechanisms are exactly the same as the mechanism of consciousness, since consciousness must be regarded as a particular case of social experience. Hence, both these parts may be readily designated to with the same index of doubled experience.


In concluding this essay I think it is extremely important and essential to point out the agreement between the conclusions I have developed here and those of the brilliant analysis of consciousness made by William James. Thoughts pursued in completely different fields and along completely different paths have led to the same view as that presented by James in his speculative analysis. I should like to see this as a partial confirmation of my ideas. Already in his Psychology James declared that the existence of states of consciousness, as such, is not a fully proven fact but rather a deeply entrenched prejudice. It was the data of his brilliant self-observation that persuaded him of this.

“Any time I attempt to impute to my thinking an activity as such, I invariably come up against a purely physical fact, some impression coming from the head, the brow, the throat and the nose” – he wrote. [39]. In his essay “Does consciousness exist?” he argues that the whole difference between consciousness and the world outside (between a reflex to a reflex and a reflex to an irritant) lies only in the context of phenomena. In the context of irritants, it is the outside world; in the context of my reflexes, it is consciousness. Consciousness is only a reflex of reflexes.

Thus, consciousness does not occur as a specific category, as a specific mode of being. It proves to be a very complex structure of behaviour, in particular, the doubling of behaviour as it is presented relatively to labour in words taken as an epigraph. “As for myself, I am convinced that the flow of thoughts is only a facile term for what on closer analysis turns out essentially to be a respiratory flow” – he said. “The ‘I think’ that, according to I. Kant, accompanies all my objects is nothing other than an ‘I breathe’ that actually accompanies them. Thoughts are made of the same matter as things.” [40]

In the present essay a few thoughts of preliminary character were briefly and cursorily outlined. I think, however, that it is with them that the study of consciousness should begin. Our science is still a long way from the concluding formula of a geometric theorem, culminating the ultimate argument – Q. E. D [what was to be proved]. We must still schedule what is to be proved, and only then set about proving it. We must first put forward the task and then solve it.[41] I hope the present essay should serve as a statement of the task.


1. Blonsky, P. P. (1921). Essays in scientific psychology. Gosudarstvennoe izdatelstvo; Chapter 1, p. 9.

2. Academician Pavlov, I. P. (1923). Twenty years of experience in the objective study of higher nervous activity of animals. Moscow; Chapter 9 and others.

3. Ukhtomsky, A. A. (1923). The dominant as a working principle of nervous centres. Russkii Fiziologicheskii Zhurnal, 6.

4. Bekhterev, V. M. (1923). General foundations of human reflexology. Chapter 3.

5. Ibid., p.78. See also his Mind and Life.

6. Ibid., Chapter 46.

7. Ibid., Chapter 4.

8. See the article by Ukhtomsky, A. A., Vinogradov, M. I., and Kaplan, I. I. (1923). Russkii Fiziologicheskii Zhurnal, 6.

9. Sherrington, Ch. (1906). The integrative action of the nervous system. New York: Charlres Scribner’s Sons.

10. Bekhterev, V. M. (1923). General foundations of human reflexology, Chapters 50 and 51.

11. Vagner, V. A. (1923). Biopsychology and allied sciences. Petrograd; Chapter 4.

12. K. Marx. Das Kapital. Vol. 1; Part 3; Chapter 5.

13. Pavlov, I. P. Twenty years of experience...

14. Ibid., Chapter 25.

15. Sherrington, Ch. (1912). The correlation of cerebrospinal reflexes and the principle of a common field. (Russian translation in Uspehi Biologii, Odessa; 1912.)

16. Hering’s expression.

17. Sherrington, Ch. The correlation of cerebrospinal reflexes...

18. Sherrington, Ch. The correlation of cerebrospinal reflexes...

19. Pavlov, I. P. Twenty years of experience in the objective study of higher nervous activity in animals, Moscow.

20. Sherrington, Ch. (1912). The correlation of cerebrospinal reflexes and the principle of a common field.

21. Pavlov, I. P. Twenty years of experience..., Chapter 25.

22. Dr. Zelenyi, D. T. (1923). On rhythmic muscular movements. Russkii Fiziologicheskii Zhurnal, 6. In a school of Pavlov the same term is also used to designate several other mechanisms for the combination of reflexes into a chain. Cf. D. S. Fursikov (1922). On chain conditional reflexes. Russkii Fisiologicheskii Zhurnal, 4.

23. Lange, N. N. (1914). Psychologiya. Itogi nauki. Vol. 8. Mir Publishers.

24. Sherrington, Ch. The correlation of cerebrospinal reflexes and the principle of a common field.

25. Academician Pavlov, I. P. Twenty years of experience..., Chapter 23.

26. Bekhterev, V. M. General foundations of human reflexology. Chapter 2.

27. Sechenov’s definition.

28. Protopopov, V. (1923). The methods of the reflexological studies of man. Zhurnal Psikhologii, Nevrologii i Psikhiatrii, 3, p. 22.

29. James, W. (1905). Psychology. St. Petersburg. Translated by Lopatin; Chapter 24.

30. Külpe, O. (1922). Uber die Bedeutung der modernen Denkpsychologie. In O. Külpe, Vorlesungen über Psychologie, Russian translation in Novie idei v filosofii, 16.

31. Krol, M. B. (1922). Thinking and speech. In Trudi Belorusskogo gosudarstvennogo universiteta, 1.

32. See the analysis of a volitional act in Munstenberg, H. (1909). Psychology of a teacher. Chapter 20 and Ebbingaus, G. (1902). Grundzüge der Psychologie [Foundations of psychology.] Moscow; Vol. 1, 2, Chapter IV.

33. Zalkind, A. (1924). Essays on the culture of the revolutionary time. Moscow;

34. Vvedenskii, A. (1917). Psychology without metaphysics, p. 71 and Vvedenskii, A. (1892). On the limits and attributes of being animated.

35. Lipps, Th. (1907). Das Wissen von fremden Ichen. See also Lapshin, I. I. (1910). The problem of other person’s mind in modern philosophy.

36. See Natorp, P. (1899). Sozialpädagogic, p. 95: “There is no understanding of the self without the understanding of others as its basis.” He goes on to say “Even in isolation from others, when we silently think to ourselves, we constantly use words and, consequently, maintain at least the fiction of communication.” Consciousness, in our view, is just this “fiction of communication.”

37. Freud, S. (1923). The Ego and the Id. Moscow; Chapter 2, p. 25.

38. W. Jerusalem (Laura Bridgman, V, pp. 54-55), analysing the process of thinking and consciousness in a deaf-mute and blind Laura Bridgman noted: “Thus, for her, thinking was one of the sensory organs, at first, of course, because it provided information, but then also because she perceived the process of thinking sensuously.” Laura herself considered that she had four sense organs (thinking and nose and mouth and fingers). (Lamson, p. 56). Here it is perfectly obvious that thinking is ranked with the work of analyzers.

39. Epilogue.

40. James, W. (1913). Does consciousness exist? Russian translation in Novie idei v filosofii, Vol. 4.

41. This article was already in print when I got acquainted with several works by behaviourist psychologists concerning this problem. The problem of consciousness is formulated and solved by these authors very closely to the thoughts developed here, as a problem of the relation between reactions (See “unverbalized behaviour” in Watson, J. B. (1924). The unverbalised in human behaviour. Psychological review, 31, p. 273-280 and also Lashley, K. S. (1923). The behaviouristic interpretations of consciousness. Psychological review, 30, p. 237-272; 329-353).