Psychology and Marxism : Commentary: Nikolai Veresov

Some translator’s comments on the new translation of Vygotsky's

"Consciousness as a problem in the psychology of behavior"

First Published:  1999
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:  Psychology and Marxism ( 2000

The article that follows was published in Russian in 1925 (Vygotsky, 1925a), then reprinted in Vygotsky’s Collected Works (Vygotsky, 1982a). The title of the article is “Consciousness as a problem of the psychology of behaviour”, but, nevertheless, I decided to retain the title under which the article has been known to Western researchers since its publication in English in 1979 with comments of M. Cole (Vygotsky, 1979).

This article is considered as one of the most important and significant in the early period of Vygotsky’s work (Davydov & Radzikhovskii, 1985; Leont’ev, 1967, and others). The necessity of a new translation of this article is caused due to lot of reasons and circumstances mostly connected with historical, methodological and terminological mistakes and misunderstandings. The comments represented below will be mainly concentrated around these mistakes and misunderstandings.

Thus, in his comments to the first English edition of the article, M. Cole wrote that “it is the written version of a speech delivered by Vygotsky at the Second All-Union Congress of Psychoneurologists, held in Leningrad in 1924” (Vygotsky, 1979, p. 3). This assertion was not correct historically because the written version of Vygotsky’s report at the Second All-Russian (but not All-Union) Congress of Psychoneurologists, held in Petrograd (but not in Leningrad) in January, 1924 was the article “Methods of psychological and reflexological investigation”, published in 1926 (Vygotsky, 1926, pp. 26-46; Vygotsky, 1982c, pp. 43-62; Vygotsky, 1994, pp. 27-45). I assume that this mistake is the result of the circumstance that the article of 1926 was included in the text of the article of 1925 (the issue of 1926 was postponed by technical and organisational reasons) and this was not taken into account in the analysis of both Vygotsky’s works.

The two articles were essentially different in their methodological orientations. Thus, “Methods of reflexological and psychological investigation” represented the reflexological concept of human consciousness and Vygotsky called himself a bigger reflexologist than Pavlov (Vygotsky, 1982c, p. 58; Vygotsky, 1994, p. 40). Criticising the dualism of psychology, he argued the necessity to combine “subjective psychology” and reflexology on the basis of “an objective” method of study of the human consciousness. On the contrary, in “Consciousness as a problem in the psychology of behaviour” he rejected the idea of any reflexological explanation of consciousness: “we should beware of any direct transportation of reflexological laws into psychology” (Vygotsky 1982b, p. 83). Unfortunately, that change of Vygotsky’s theoretical position is not reflected in the literature, and therefore, in the “classical picture” of the development of Vygotsky’s thought, these two articles are referred to as one period of that development (Minick, 1987), which is not correct historically nor methodologically. Even a brief textual comparative analysis shows that these articles represent two essentially different, but historically connected, periods of theoretical development of Vygotsky’s views on the problem of human consciousness.

In Soviet literature we can also find some comments and opinions concerning Vygotsky’s article that are not completely correct. It is absolutely true that the article was “programmatic” for Vygotsky and its content was a methodological rather than a theoretical one (Leont'ev, 1967, p. 27). But, on the other hand, I cannot agree with the opinion that in the article Vygotsky “formulated three programmes of studying the consciousness; (1) consciousness is a reflex of reflexes, (2) consciousness is the problem of the structure of behaviour, and (3) consciousness is a feature of human labour activity.” (Davydov & Radzikhovskii, 1985, pp. 45-48).

The text itself shows that only one scientific program was formulated - consciousness is the problem of the structure of human behaviour. Moreover, this position was represented as a working hypothesis and Vygotsky strictly wrote about it (Vygotsky, 1982b, p. 83). It does not correspond with the opinion of V. Davydov and L. Radzikhovskii that “Vygotsky did not clarify the formula ‘consciousness is the problem of the structure of behaviour’” (Davydov & Radzikhovskii, 1985, p. 48).

As for English translation of the article made in 1979 I must say that it is hardly possible to understand the content of that scientific program and the working hypothesis, because of essential terminological mistakes and errors that largely destroys the sense of Vygotsky’s position. Let us have a look at these mistakes.

In the article Vygotsky used the terms “irritant” and “reaction” that was typical for that time. In spite of that, in the English version of 1979, the term “irritant” and the term “irritation” (that is not, of course, the same as “irritant”) were translated as “stimulus”, so sometimes it is difficult to understand whether Vygotsky is speaking of “irritation” or “irritant.” I have nothing against the terminological modernisation of the texts, but in this case we must be very careful since in other articles of the same period Vygotsky used the term “stimulus” quite widely (Vygotsky, 1925b; Vygotsky, 1982d). Moreover, the term “reaction” which does not correspond with the modern term “response” was translated in some places as “reaction” but in some places as “response.”

The behaviouristic theoretical concept of human consciousness presented in the article was also deformed in the English version. Thus, speaking of the consciousness as a system of inhibited reactions, Vygotsky mentioned that “we know that they play a very influential and regulatory role in behaviour, because it is conscious” (Vygotsky, 1925a, p. 177). In the English version this is translated as “we know that they play a very influential and regulatory role in behaviour – because they are conscious” (Vygotsky, 1979, p. 6).

There is one group of curious mistakes in the English version of Vygotsky’s article. For instance, the Sahara (Vygotsky, 1982b, p. 84) was translated as Berlin (Vygotsky, 1979, p. 13). In the English version the epigraph from K. Marx was omitted, and the passage where Vygotsky discusses Marx’s words was also transformed. Thus, in the Russian edition that statement is “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” (Vygotsky, 1982b, p. 98). Let us compare: “It proves to be a very complex structure of behaviour, in particular, the repetition of behaviour as James also observes in an epigram on the subject of work” (Vygotsky, 1979, p. 32). Finally, in concluding the article, Vygotsky mentioned that his views on the problem of human consciousness were very close to the formula of that of behaviourists. Consciousness is “a problem of the relationship between reactions” (Vygotsky, 1982b, p. 98). Nevertheless, that was translated as “relationship between actions” (Vygotsky, 1979, p. 35).

The newest translation of the article of Vygotsky’s (Vygotsky, 1997) is free from such type of mistakes. Nevertheless, the term “irritant” was translated as “stimulus.” But what must be specially mentioned is that the term “reflex” in some places was translated as “reaction” (look, for example, Vygotsky, 1997, p. 74) and vice versa, the term “reaction” was translated as “reflex” (Vygotsky, 1997, p. 64). Discussing the point of an instinctive behaviour of animals Vygotsky wrote: “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.” (Vygotsky, 1982b, p. 84). Here “adaptive reactions” was translated as “adaptive activities.” (Vygotsky, 1997, p.68). Discussing the ideas of Ch. Sherrington, Vygotsky used the term “common motor field” (Vygotsky, 1982b, p. 86, p. 89) that was very close to the ideas developed by N. Bernshtein (1966) that was translated as a “path” (Vygotsky, 1997, p. 69) and in other place as a “field” (Vygotsky, 1997, p. 72).

I hope that the new translation of one of the most important articles of Vygotsky made in accordance with its original publication (Vygotsky, 1925a) is free from such defects and will help to understand his path to the cultural-historical theory of the development of higher psychical functions.

Nikolai Veresov


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