Vygotsky. The Historical Meaning of The Crisis in Psychology: A Methodological Investigation
There is one fact that prevents all investigators from seeing the genuine state of affairs in psychology. This is the empirical character of its constructions. It must be torn off from psychology’s constructions like a pellicle, like the skin of a fruit, in order to see them as they really are. Usually empiricism is taken on trust, without further analysis. Psychology with all its diversity is treated as some fundamental scientific unity with a common basis. All disagreements are viewed as secondary phenomena which take place within this unity. But this is a false idea, an illusion. In reality, empirical psychology as a science of general principle – even one general principle – does not exist, and the attempts to create it have led to the defeat and bankruptcy of the very idea of creating an empirical psychology. The same persons who lump together many psychologies according to some common feature which contrasts with their own, e.g., psychoanalysis, reflexology, behaviorism (consciousness – the unconscious, subjectivism – objectivism, spiritualism – materialism), do not see that within such an empirical psychology the same processes take place which take place between it and a branch that breaks away. They do not see that the development of these branches themselves is subject to more general tendencies which are being operative in and can, in consequence, only be properly understood on the basis of the whole field of science. It is the whole of psychology which should be lumped together. What does the empiricism of contemporary psychology mean? First of all, it is a purely negative concept both according to its historical origin and its methodological meaning, and this is not a sufficient basis to unite something. Empirical means first of all “psychology without a soul” (Lange), psychology without any metaphysics (Vvedensky), psychology based on experience (Høffding). It is hardly necessary to explain that these are essentially negative definitions as well. They do not say a word about what psychology is dealing with, what is its positive meaning.
However, the objective meaning of this negative definition is now completely different from what it used to be. Once it concealed nothing – the task of the science was to liberate itself from something, the term was a slogan for that. Now it conceals the positive definitions (which each author introduces in his science) and the genuine processes taking place in the science. It was a temporary slogan and could not be anything else in principle. Now the term “empirical” attached to psychology designates the refusal to select a certain philosophical principle, the refusal to clarify one’s ultimate premises, to become aware of one’s own scientific nature. As such this refusal has its historical meaning and cause – we will dwell upon it below – but about the nature of the science it says essentially nothing, it conceals it. The Kantian thinker Vvedensky (1917, p. 3) expressed this most clearly, but all empiricists subscribe to his formula. Høffding, in particular, says the same. All more or less lean towards one side – Vvedensky provides the ideal balance: “Psychology must formulate all its conclusions in such a way that they will be equally acceptable and equally binding for both materialism, spiritualism, and psychophysical monism.”
From this formula alone it is evident that empiricism formulates its tasks in such a way as to reveal their impossibility. Indeed, on the basis of empiricism, i.e., completely discarding basic premises, no scientific knowledge whatever is logically and historically possible. Natural science, which psychology wishes to liken through this definition, was by its nature, its undistorted essence, always spontaneously materialistic. All psychologists agree that natural science, like, of course, all human praxis, does not solve the problem of the essence of matter and mind, but starts from a certain solution to it, namely the assumption of an objective reality which exists outside of us, in conformity with certain laws, and which can be known. And this is, as Lenin has frequently pointed out, the very essence of materialism. The existence of natural science qua science is due to the ability to distinguish in our experience between what exists objectively and independently and what exists subjectively. This is not at variance with the different philosophical interpretations or whole schools in natural science which think idealistically. Natural science qua science is in itself, and independently from its proponents, materialistic. Psychology proceeded as spontaneously, despite the different ideas of its proponents, from an idealistic conception.
In reality, there is not a single empirical system of psychology. All transcend
the boundaries of empiricism and this we can understand as follows: from a purely
negative idea one can deduce nothing. Nothing can be born from “abstinence,”
as Vvedensky has it. In reality, all the systems were rooted in metaphysics
and their conclusions were overstated. First Vvedensky himself with his theory
of solipsism, i.e., an extreme manifestation of idealism.
Whereas psychoanalysis openly speaks about metapsychology, each psychology
without a soul concealed its soul, the psychology without any metaphysics – its
metaphysics. The psychology based on experience included what was not based
on experience. In short, each psychology had its metapsychology. It might not
consciously realize it, but this made no difference. Chelpanov (1924), who
more than anyone else in the current debate seeks shelter under the word “empirical”
and wants to demarcate his science from the field of philosophy, finds, however,
that it must have its philosophical “superstructure” and “substructure.”
It turns out that there are philosophical concepts which must be examined before
one turns to the study of psychology and a study which prepares psychology he
calls the substructure. This does not prevent him from claiming on the next
page that psychology must be freed from all philosophy. However, in the conclusion
he once more acknowledges that it is precisely the methodological problems which
are the most acute problems of psychology.
It would be wrong to think that from the concept of empirical psychology we
can learn nothing but negative characteristics. It also points to positive processes
which take place in our science and which are concealed by this name. With the
word “empirical” psychology wants to join the natural sciences. Here
all agree. But it is a very specific concept and we must examine what it designates
when applied to psychology. In his preface to the encyclopedia, Ribot [1923,
p. ix] says (heroically trying to accomplish the agreement and unity of which
Lange and Vaguer spoke and in so doing showing its impossibility) that psychology
forms part of biology, that it is neither materialistic nor spiritualistic,
else it would lose all right to be called a science. In what, then, does it
differ from other parts of biology? Only in that it deals with phenomena which
are ‘spirituels’ and not physical.
What a trifle! Psychology wanted to be a natural science, but one that would deal with things of a very different nature from those natural science is dealing with. But doesn’t the nature of the phenomena studied determine the character of the science? Are history, logic, geometry, and history of the theater really possible as natural sciences? And Chelpanov, who insists that psychology should be as empirical as physics, mineralogy etc., naturally does not join Pavlov but immediately starts to vociferate when the attempt is made to realize psychology as a genuine natural science. What is he hushing up in his comparison? He wants psychology to be a natural science about (1) phenomena which are completely different from physical phenomena, and (2) which are conceived in a way that is completely different from the way the objects of the natural sciences are investigated. One may ask what the natural sciences and psychology can have in common if the subject matter and the method of acquiring knowledge are different. And Vvedensky (1917, p. 3) says, after he has explained the meaning of the empirical character of psychology: “Therefore, contemporary psychology often characterizes itself as a natural science about mental phenomena or a natural history of mental phenomena.” But this means that psychology wants to be a natural science about unnatural phenomena. It is connected with the natural sciences by a purely negative feature – the rejection of metaphysics – and not by a single positive one.
James explained the matter brilliantly. Psychology is to be treated as a natural
science – that was his main thesis. But no one did as much as James to prove
that the mental is “not natural scientific.” He explains that all
the natural sciences accept some assumptions on faith – natural science proceeds
from the materialistic assumption, in spite of the fact that further reflection
leads to idealism. Psychology does the same – it accepts other assumptions.
Consequently, it is similar to natural science only in that it uncritically
accepts some assumptions; the assumptions themselves are contrary [see pp. 9 – 10
of Burkhardt, 1984].
According to Ribot, this tendency is the main trait of the psychology of the
19th century. Apart from this he mentions the attempts to give psychology its
own principle and method (which it was denied by Comte) and to put it in the
same relation to biology as biology occupies with respect to physics. But in
fact the author acknowledges that what is called psychology consists of several
categories of investigations which differ according to their goal and method.
And when the authors, in spite of this, attempted to beget a system of psychology
and included Pavlov and Bergson, they demonstrated that this task cannot be
realized. And in his conclusion Dumas [1924, p. 1121] formulates that the unity
of the 25 authors consisted in the rejection of ontological speculation.
It is easy to guess what such a viewpoint leads to: the rejection of ontological
speculations, empirism, when it is consistent, leads to the rejection of methodologically
constructive principles in the creation of a system, to eclecticism; insofar
as it is inconsistent, it leads to a hidden, uncritical, vague methodology.
Both possibilities have been brilliantly demonstrated by the French authors.
For them Pavlov’s psychology of reactions is just as acceptable as introspective
psychology if only they are in different chapters of the book. In their manner
of describing the facts and stating the problems, even in their vocabulary,
the authors of the book show tendencies of associationism, rationalism, Bergsonism,
and synthesism. It is further explained that Bergson’s conception is applied
in some chapters, the language of associationism and atomism in others, behaviorism
in still others, etc. The “L'Étaité” wants to be impartial,
objective, and complete. If it has not always been successful, Dumas [1924,
p. 1156] concludes, at least the difference of opinion testifies to intellectual
activity and ultimately in that sense it represents its time and country. We
couldn’t agree more.
This disagreement – we have seen how far it goes – only convinces us
of the fact that an impartial psychology is impossible today, leaving aside
the fatal dualism of the “élaité de psychologie” for which
psychology is now part of biology, now stands to it as biology itself stands
Thus, the concept of empirical psychology contains an insoluble methodological contradiction. It is a natural science about unnatural things, a tendency to develop with the methods of natural science, i.e., proceeding from totally opposite premises, a system of knowledge which is contrary to them. This had a fatal influence upon the methodological construction of empirical psychology and broke its back.
Two psychologies exist – a natural scientific, materialistic one and a spiritualistic one. This thesis expresses the meaning of the crisis more correctly than the thesis about the existence of many psychologies. For psychologies we have two, i.e., two different, irreconcilable types of science, two fundamentally different constructions of systems of knowledge. All the rest is a difference in views, schools, hypotheses: individual, very complex, confused, mixed, blind, chaotic combinations which are at times very difficult to understand. But the real struggle only takes place between two tendencies which lie and operate behind all the struggling currents.
That this is so, that two psychologies, and not many psychologies, make up
the meaning of the crisis, that all the rest is a struggle within each of these
two psychologies, a struggle which has quite another meaning and operational
field, that the creation of a general psychology is not a matter of agreement,
but of a rupture – all this methodology realized long ago and nobody contests
it. (The difference of this thesis from Kornilov’s three directions resides
in the whole range of the meaning of the crisis: (1) the concepts of materialistic
psychology and reflexology do not coincide (as he says); (2) the concepts of
empirical and idealistic psychology do not coincide (as he says), (3) our evaluation
of the role of Marxist psychology differs.) Finally, here we are dealing with
two tendencies which show up in the struggle between the multitude of concrete
currents and within them. Nobody contests that the general psychology will not
be a third psychology added to the two struggling parties, but one of them.
That the concept of empiricism contains a methodological conflict which a
self-reflective theory must solve in order to make investigation possible – this
idea was made well known by Munsterberg . In his capital methodological
work he declared that this book does not conceal the fact that it wants to be
a militant book, it defends idealism against naturalism. It wants to guarantee
an unlimited right for idealism in psychology. He lays the theoretical epistemological
foundations of empirical psychology and declares that this is the most important
thing the psychology of our day needs. Its main concepts have been gathered
haphazardly, its logical means of acquiring knowledge have been left to the
instinct. Münsterberg’s theme is the synthesis of Fichte’s ethical
idealism with the physiological psychology of our day, for the victory of idealism
does not reside in its dissociating itself from empirical investigation, but
in finding a place for it in its own area. Munsterberg showed that naturalism
and idealism are irreconcilable, that is why he talks about a book of militant
idealism, says of general psychology that it is bravery and a risk – and
not about agreement and unification. And Munsterberg [ibid., p. 10] openly advanced
the idea of the existence of two sciences, arguing that psychology finds itself
in the strange position that we know incomparably more about psychological facts
than we ever did, but much less about the question as to what psychology actually
The unity of external methods cannot conceal from us that the different psychologists
are talking about a totally different psychology. This internal disturbance
can only be understood and overcome in the following way.
The psychology of our day is struggling with the prejudice that only one type of psychology exists. ... The concept of psychology involves two totally different scientific tasks, which must be distinguished in principle and for which we can best use special designations since, in reality, there are two kinds of psychology [ibid., p. 10].
In contemporary science all sorts of forms and types of mixing two sciences
into a seeming unity are represented. What these sciences have in common is
their object, but this does not say anything about these sciences themselves.
Geology, geography, and agronomics all study the earth, but their construction,
their principle of scientific knowledge differs. We may through description
change the mind into a chain of causes and actions and may picture it as a combination
of elements – objectively and subjectively. If we carry both conceptions
to the extreme and give them a scientific form we will get two “fundamentally
different theoretical disciplines One is causal, the other is teleological and
intentional psychology” [ibid., pp. 12-13].
The existence of two psychologies is so obvious that it is accepted by all. The disagreement is only about the precise definition of each science. Some emphasize some nuances, others emphasize others. It would be very interesting to follow all these oscillations, because each of them testifies to some objective tendency, to a striving toward one or the other pole, and the scope, the range of contradictions shows that both types of science, like two butterflies in one cocoon, still exist in the form of as yet undifferentiated tendencies.
But now we are not interested in the contradictions, but in the common factor
that lies behind them. We are confronted with two questions: what is the common
nature of both sciences and what are the causes which have led to the bifurcation
of empiricism into naturalism and idealism?
All agree that precisely these two elements lie at the basis of the two sciences,
that, consequently, one is natural scientific psychology, and the other is idealistic
psychology, whatever the different authors may call them. Following Munsterberg
all view the difference not in the material or subject matter, but in the way
of acquiring knowledge, in the principle. The question is whether to understand
the phenomena in terms of causality, in connection with and having fundamentally
the same meaning as all other phenomena, or intentionally, as spiritual activity,
which is oriented towards a goal and exempt from all material connections. Dilthey
[1894/1977, pp. 37-41], who calls these sciences explanatory and descriptive
psychology, traces the bifurcation to Wolff, who divided psychology into rational
and empirical psychology, i.e., to the very origin of empirical psychology.
He shows that the division has always been present during the whole course of
development of the science and again became explicit in the school of Herbart
(1849) and in the works of Waitz. The method of explanatory psychology is identical
to that of natural science. Its postulate – there is not a single mental
phenomenon without a physical one – leads to its bankruptcy as an independent
science and its affairs are transferred into the hands of physiology (ibid.).
Descriptive and explanatory psychology do not have the same meaning as systematics
and explanation – its two basic parts according to Binswanger (1922) as well – have
in the natural sciences.
Contemporary psychology – this doctrine of a soul without a soul – is
intrinsically contradictory, is divided into two parts. Descriptive psychology
does not seek explanation, but description and understanding. What the poets,
Shakespeare in particular, presented in images, it makes the subject of analysis
in concepts. Explanatory, natural scientific psychology cannot lie at the basis
of a science about the mind, it develops a deterministic criminal law, does
not leave any room for freedom, cannot be reconciled with the problem of culture.
In contrast, descriptive psychology
will become the foundation of the human studies, as mathematics is that of the natural sciences [Dilthey, 1894/1977, p. 74].
Stout [1909, pp. 2-6] openly refuses to call analytic psychology a physical
science. It is a positive science in the sense that it investigates matter of
fact, reality, what is and is not a norm, not what ought to be. It stands next
to mathematics, the natural sciences, theory of knowledge. But it is not a physical
science. Between the mental and the physical there is such a gulf that there
is no means of tracing their connections. No science of matter stands to psychology
in a relation analogous to that in which chemistry and physics stand to biology,
i.e., in a relation of more general to more special, but in principle homogeneous,
principles. Binswanger [1922, p. 22] divides all problems of methodology into
those due to a natural scientific and those due to a non-natural scientific
concept of the mind. He openly and clearly explains that there are two radically
different psychologies. Referring to Sigwart he calls the struggle against natural
psychology the source of the split. This leads us to the phenomenology of experiencing,
the basis of Husserl’s pure logic and empirical, but non-natural scientific
psychology (Pfander Jaspers).
Bleuler defends the opposite position. He rejects Wundt’s opinion that
psychology is not a natural science and, following Rickert, he calls it a generalizing
psychology, although he has in mind what Dilthey called explanatory or constructive
We will not thoroughly examine the question as to how psychology as a natural
science is possible and the concepts by means of which it is constructed – all
this belongs to the debate within one psychology and it forms the subject of
the positive exposition in the next part of our work. What is more, we also
leave open another question – whether psychology really is a natural science
in the exact sense of the word. Following the European authors we use this word
to designate the materialistic nature of this kind of knowledge as clearly as
possible. Insofar as Western European psychology did not know or hardly knew
the problems of social psychology, this kind of knowledge was thought to coincide
with natural science. But to demonstrate that psychology is possible as a materialistic
science is still a special and very deep problem, which does not, however, belong
to the problem of the meaning of the crisis as a whole.
Almost all Russian authors who have written anything of importance about psychology
accept the division – from hearsay, of course – which shows the extent
to which these ideas are generally accepted in European psychology. Lange (1914),
who mentions the disagreement between Windelband and Rickert on the one hand
(who regard psychology as a natural science) and Wundt and Dilthey on the other,
is inclined with the latter authors to distinguish two sciences. It is remarkable
that he criticizes Natorp as an exponent of the idealistic conception of psychology
and contrasts him with a realistic or biological understanding. However, according
to Munsterberg, Natorp has from the very beginning demanded the same thing he
did, i.e., a subjectivating and an objectivating science of the mind, i.e.,
Lange merged both viewpoints into a single postulate and expounded both irreconcilable tendencies in his book, considering that the meaning of the crisis resides in the struggle with associationism. He explains Dilthey and Munsterberg with real sympathy and states that “two different psychologies resulted.” Like Janus, psychology showed two different faces: one turned to physiology and natural science, the other to the sciences of the spirit, history, sociology; one science about causal effects, the other about values (ibid., p. 63). It would seem that what remains is to opt for one of the two, but Lange unites them.
Chelpanov proceeded in the same way. In his current polemics he implores us to believe him that psychology is a materialistic science, refers to James as his witness and does not with a single word mention that in the Russian literature the idea of two sciences belongs to him. This deserves further reflection.
Following Dilthey, Stout, Meinong, and Husserl he explains the idea of the analytic method. Whereas the inductive method is distinctive of natural scientific psychology, descriptive psychology is characterized by the analytic method which leads to the knowledge of a priori ideas. Analytic psychology is the basic psychology. It must precede the development of child psychology, zoopsychology, and objective experimental psychology and provide the foundation for all types of psychological investigation. This does not look like the relation of mineralogy to physics, or like the complete separation of psychology from philosophy and idealism.
To show what kind of jump Chelpanov made in his psychological views since 1922, one must not dwell upon his general philosophical statements and accidental phrases, but upon his theory of the analytic method. Chelpanov protests against mixing the tasks of explanatory psychology with those of descriptive psychology and explains that they are absolutely contradictory. In order not to leave any doubt about the question as to which psychology he~ regards as of primary importance, he connects it with Husserl’s phenomenology, with his theory of ideal essences, and explains that Husserl’s eidos or essence is basically equivalent to Plato’s ideas. For Husserl, phenomenology stands to descriptive psychology as mathematics does to physics. Phenomenology and mathematics are, like geometry, sciences about essences, about ideal possibilities; descriptive psychology and physics are about facts. Phenomenology makes explanatory and descriptive psychology possible.
Despite Husserl’s opinion, for Chelpanov phenomenology and analytic psychology partially overlap and the phenomenological method is completely identical with the analytic method. Chelpanov explains Husserl’s refusal to regard eidetic psychology and phenomenology as being identical in the following way. By contemporary psychology he understands only empirical, i.e., inductive psychology, despite the fact that it also contains phenomenological truths. Thus, there is no need to separate phenomenology from psychology. The phenomenological method must be laid at the basis of the objective experimental methods, which Chelpanov timidly defends against Husserl. This is the way it was, this is the way it will be, the author concludes.
How can we square this with his claim that psychology is only empirical, excludes
idealism by its very nature and is independent from philosophy? We can summarize.
Whatever the division in question is called, whatever shades of meaning in each
term are emphasized, the basic essence of the question remains the same and
it can be reduced to two propositions.
1. In psychology empiricism indeed proceeded just as spontaneously from idealistic premises as natural science did from materialistic ones, i.e., empirical psychology was idealistic in its foundation.
2. For certain reasons (to be considered below), in the era of the crisis empiricism split into idealistic and materialistic psychology. Munsterberg (1920, p. 14), too, interprets the difference in terminology as unity of meaning. We can speak of causal and intentional psychology, or about the psychology of the spirit and the psychology of consciousness, or about understanding and explanatory psychology. But the only thing of principal importance is that we recognize the dual nature of psychology. Elsewhere Munsterberg [1920, pp. vii-viii] contrasts the psychology of the contents of consciousness with the psychology of the spirit, the psychology of contents with the psychology of acts, and the psychology of sensations with intentional psychology.
We have basically reached an opinion which established itself in our science long ago: psychology has a deeply dualistic nature which pervades its whole development. We have, thus, arrived at an indisputably historic situation. The history of the science does not belong to our tasks and we may leave aside the question as to the historical roots of dualism and confine ourselves to pointing out this fact and explaining the proximate causes which led to the exacerbation and bifurcation of dualism in the crisis. It is, essentially, the fact that psychology is attracted to two poles, this intrinsic presence of a “psychoteleology” and a “psychobiology,” which Dessoir [1911, p. 230] called the singing in two voices of contemporary psychology, and which in his opinion will never cease.