Henri Wallon

Psychology and Dialectical Materialism

Written: 1951;
Source: "Psychologie et materialisme dialectique" in The World of Henri Wallon;
Translator: Michael Vale;
Publisher: Jason Aaronson 1984;
Transcription / Markup: Nate Schmolze;
Online Version: Wallon Internet Archive (marxists.org) 2001.

Is psychology a science? This question has often been posed by bourgeois theorists. It has two possible meanings: Does psychology have an object in the real world corresponding to it? Is the object of psychology compatible with scientific determinism?

Auguste Comte, the father of positivism, answered the first question in the negative. For him, the individual was no more than a biological being, whose study was properly the province of physiology, and a social being, explicable collectively by sociology — two determinisms between which the human person is reduced to nothing.

The second hypothesis is that of Bergson and his adherents and, in our own day, of the existentialists. Science, they maintain, is a collection of constructs that may well have a certain practical utility but that distort, adulterate, and pervert reality. Reality is what is immediately experienced, or lived, by each person; insight, by revealing us to ourselves, also reveals the world to us. The universe we imagine ourselves able to construct on the basis of this insight is no more than a collection of arbitrary systems that smother our spontaneity. In this way, we are alienated from our freedom. The only truth is that which expresses the essence of our being — that is, the perpetual, unforeseeable, unique, and incomparable recurrence of the impressions, feelings, or images that appear in an unending succession in our consciousness. As this succession eludes any form of determinism, the irrational becomes the very foundation of existence. In the name of absolute freedom, each person is abandoned to fate-a fate linked, to be sure, to the particular being of each, but no less inevitable on that account. This position also implies a kind of passive participation in the existence of things that emanate from our own existence-a kind of helpless and terrifying responsibility for all that might result from our reactions, over which we have no ultimate control. These despairing consequences of existentialism have been particularly developed by the French writer Sartre. They are an indication of the self-negation of the declining bourgeois class and evidence of its final decay. Self-negation is linked with ideas of vastness: in the pathology of the mind, ideas of personal negation and personal immensity always go hand in hand.

The trait common to the positivist and the existentialist concepts is the notion of the powerlessness of the individual, crushed under the dual necessities of the natural order and the social order, possessed of a certain grandeur with regard to the universe, but without power to change it. Although he contains it and contemplates it, the individual is also ruled by this universe and cannot intervene in it as an active force among all the other forces of which it is composed. The pretensions of bourgeois individualism thus finally founder in utter impotence.

These implications follow consistently from the two faults exposed by Lenin (Materialism and Empirio-Criticism) in the bourgeoisie’s notion of science, which is sometimes mechanistic, sometimes idealistic, and sometimes both at the same time. Mechanism portrays the world as ultimately reducible to basic and invariable elements and effects, to eternal laws which allow neither change, novelty, nor progress, and to an ineluctable necessity foreseeable at every moment by an intelligence vast enough to contemplate the universe in its entirety. Idealism begins with cognition in order to subordinate reality to it, posits consciousness before matter, and makes thought the principle of being, thus seeking to fetter the world to its definitions and thereby to hold in cheek the revolutions. The affirmation of a world that is basically always identical to itself is the point at which mechanism and idealism converge.

This static concept of science and the universe is counterbalanced by a specific distinction among the various disciplines of knowledge and among its various objects. Marx and Engels, however, insisted on the provisional aspect of these distinctions, seeing them as merely contingent on the limitations of our intelligence and on the technical means at our disposal to explore reality. Indeed, the development and interpenetration of the various sciences have borne them out. Nonetheless, certain barriers persist today that still seem insurmountable. Thus, psychology is sometimes classified as an outgrowth of biology and sometimes as the anteroom of the humanities. To many, the difference in nature between biology and the humanities seems to create an unbridgeable gap between them. Because of this ostensibly hybrid character of psychology, it is often regarded as being of negligible scientific worth. But because it is able to link together two domains that a reactionary metaphysics still maintains are opposites, psychology becomes a matter of utmost relevance for dialectics.

The hundredth anniversary of Pavlov’s birth provided an occasion for Soviet scholars to demonstrate the entire dialectical scope of his work. For a long time, psychology had been considered purely mechanistic. Pavlov was able to elaborate conditioned reflexes by the mere temporal juxtaposition of stimuli. However, he himself noted that his method went beyond the methods of traditional physiology, which studied the organism function by function — circulation, digestion, etc. — each with its specific reactions and equally specific stimuli. In fact, Pavlov himself proceeded along the same line in his initial studies. But with the conditioned reflex, not only are the interfunctional barriers transcended, but functional activity is also linked up with the environment. Onto the stimulus specific to the expected functional reaction are grafted other stimuli that may belong to any domain whatever of relational activity.

This is the broader consequence of what Pavlov referred to as higher nervous activity, whose site be placed in the cerebral cortex -where connections are established between every aspect of the life of the organism and all the stimuli that may come to act upon it from the outside. Higher nervous activity is bound to the organisation of the nervous system: it is not an added or supplementary activity; rather, it is essential and integral. It arises out of the indispensable union between organism and environment and furnishes the organism with systems of signs that enable it to respond appropriately to all circumstances. For the environment to which the organism must respond is not only the physical environment, but also the environment on which each must depend for his existence. For man, it is the environment he himself has created through his activity and in which he is immersed from birth-the social environment.

But in these interactions, at all times under the selective control of higher nervous activity, between the organism and the environment, the biological is no longer wholly distinct from the social. The interrelation of the two is primary and fundamental. It is no longer valid to determine separately the properties of the two according to their particular nature. A process is involved of which the two, the biological and the social, are complementary constituents. This substitution of process for property, of act for substance, is precisely the revolution that dialectics has brought about in our modes of cognition.

The reciprocal interaction between the organism and the environment is also incompatible with mechanism and idealism in all their forms. It is impossible to fit it within the framework of the generally deductive relationship that mechanism seeks to establish between elements and their various combinations. The encounters between the organism and its environment necessitate responses that cannot be predicted on the basis of the elements alone because they must be adapted to frequently accidental situations and hence are forced to evolve into new forms of behaviour.

This reciprocity of action is also opposed to idealism, which seeks to subordinate the real world to consciousness because, contrary to idealism, consciousness cannot set the order of the events that confront it and determine or guide its responses. Finally, dialectical materialism is opposed to existentialism and to its essential indeterminism, because, in fact, our mental life is perpetually conditioned by the situations in which it is engaged, be they in accord with its own propensities or contrary to them.

But relationships between the organism and the environment are further enriched by the fact that the environment itself is not constant. A change in the environment may result in either the extinction or the transformation of the organisms existing within it.

Thus, it becomes the role of different environments, according to their differences, to evoke or bring to the fore different capacities, already potentially present, in a species or in individuals. In the history of mankind, therefore, a succession of different civilisations has given rise to diverse forms of activity. Historical materialism extends and crowns dialectical materialism. In transforming the conditions of his life, man transforms himself. Modern techniques, to be understood, developed, and often even applied, require a knowledge of abstract formulas, systems of symbols in which perceptual images of the real world are replaced by cues designating operations to be performed at the level that Pavlov termed the second signal system-that is, the system in which the cuing or conditioned stimulus is no longer a sensation, but words, and those increasingly abstract substitutes for words: mathematical symbols.

In human activity speech has served as the instrument of a transformation that has brought speech by degrees from purely muscular activity to theoretical activity, entailing a reorganisation of cerebral operations. This does not mean, however, that the second activity has replaced the first.

Through language, the conceptual sphere has acquired an organisation and structure based on stable, coherent, and logical systems. Our impressions and actions for the most part terminate in, or proceed from, this sphere. But although it rules over them, it has not abolished them. Underneath conceptual (representational) thought are still found the gestures and attitudes that seem to underline representational thought in children or the simple-minded, and which provide representational thought with its first rough contours in the form of rituals or rites (Wallon 1942). The rituals of primitive peoples usually draw on tremendous emotional resources, which are dissipated as the intellectual image emerges in their stead. Intellectual reflection dampens emotional agitation. But emotionality persists. When kept within bounds, it can act as a stimulant; but when it holds sway, it cuts short or distorts reflection. In this way opposing activities come into conflict, though one may initially stem from the other. These affinities and oppositions are consonant with the laws of Marxist dialectics.

It is dialectics that has given psychology its stability and its meaning, and which has delivered psychology from the alternatives of elementary materialism or vapid idealism, of crude substantialism or hopeless irrationalism. Through dialectics psychology is able to be at once a natural science and a human science, thus abolishing the division between consciousness and things that spiritualism has sought to impose on the universe. Marxist dialectics has enabled psychology to comprehend the organism and its environment, in constant interaction, as a single, unified whole. And finally, in Marxist dialectics, psychology has a tool for explaining the conflicts out of which the individual must evolve his behaviour and develop his personality.

Psychology is by no means unique in this respect. Dialectical materialism is relevant to the entire realm of knowledge, as well as to the realm of action. But psychology, the principal source of anthropomorphic and metaphysical illusions, must, more than any other science, find in dialectical materialism its normal base and guiding principles.