Another crisis in the psychology:
A possible motive for the Vygotsky-boom3
Deals with disintegration of the psychology to a science based on experimentation according to the positivistic methodology of natural sciences, and another one founded on interpretation according to the hermeneutic methodology of historical sciences. Considers the possibilities to reintegrate the psychology by a Vygotskian methodology that would deal with signs and tools as functioning within the same structure.
key words: hermeneutic vs positivistic methodology; historical vs natural sciences; Vygotsky, Leontiev; signs and tools
A psychologist in Hungary today does not necessarily want to be acknowledged for what he does as a scientist; actually, the number of those who fancy themselves artists or magicians is growing. On the other hand, those of us who make a point of our theoretical or practical work being of a scientific nature are willing to consider psychology a natural science. Indeed, how could something be scientific if not in the same way as physics, chemistry, biology are?
But how could it be thought otherwise, when in our university studies the foundations of our major are laid by anatomy, physiology, ethology, and we graduate without having had to learn a bit of sociology, linguistics, economics, or history as areas relevant to our special subject. True, some time earlier a subject called Cultural History and Anthropology was introduced in psychologist training at Budapest University, for example, but a more recent reform swept if out of the curriculum.
On the other hand, why on earth should we burden our special training with material seemingly belonging to general culture, if we are firmly convinced that psychology is a natural science – if a science at all. Or, why should we add to a study of such border areas of our science as psycho-physiology, psycho-physics, pharmaco-psychology, the study of such border-disciplines as economic psychology, political psychology, the social psychology of macro-systems in general, the psychology of history or philosophic psychology?
Now, this kind of reasoning in which the arguments mutually validate each other is not only known to be discussed in chapters on logical error in textbooks of logic. It is also evident that the vicious circle is the most unfailing means to get an idea fixed. It comes as no surprise then, that when some thirty years ago I studied the profession, my generation was trained the same in psychology as a natural science.
Two international congresses of psychology: headliner and crisis
This generation began after 1956, actually at the same time as the revival of Hungarian psychology, which had to be revived because in 50s the psychology was considered “an idealistic pseudo-science in the service of imperialistic interests”. Now, for our generation it was self-evident that once this stamp had been removed, we were eager to demonstrate that ours was just as genuine a science as were physics, chemistry or biology, that it studied as real a material system as those natural sciences, and that practical application of scientific knowledge in this domain was as profitable for society as in the rest of the natural sciences.
Thus, we were eager to see these expectations to be clearly substantiated by the 18th International Congress of Psychology held in Moscow in 1966. The congress whose weight was due to the prestige of the great generation of Soviet psychologists (Luria, Galperin, and congress chairman Leontiev) and the attendance of Piaget and Neal Miller who gave plenary lectures, and of Berlyne, Broadbent, Festinger, Fraisse, Grey Walter, Moreno, and Pribram, was clearly focused on brain research. By way of illustrating the expectations that dominated not only our consciousness but even, so to speak, our unconscious, we must mention three lectures that produced, as I remember it, the greatest sensation:
In his plenary lecture Neal Miller4 reported of experiments in which the functioning of internal organs controlled by the vegetative nervous system had been modified, contrary to a long tradition, by instrumental conditional reflexes. For instance, in an experiment a water-supplying machine was started by the functioning of the salivary glands in one group of thirsty dogs, while in the another group of them the same device was started by the lack of saliva secretion. Thus, in the former group the animals learnt to salivate a lot, but – unlike in the classical experiments of Pavlov – not because water got into their mouths thereby activating the unconditional reflex of saliva secretion, but in order to get water in their mouths. In the latter group, the animals learnt in the same way to moderate their saliva secretion. Since at that time a great role in forming mentally controlled achievements was attributed to instrumental learning operating with the relation between ends and means, and not cause and effect, we listened to Miller’s lecture as a forecast of an issue by which the functioning of internal organs controlled by the vegetative nervous system will turn into a mentally controlled performance.
Even greater a sensation was produced at the session chaired by Pribram by papers on what had been recorded by the special literature as the “learning transfer via cannibalism”. When planarians swallowed their fellows in which the experimenting psychologist had previously developed some conditional reflex, they acquired some of the knowledge of their mates in that the reflex at issue was easier (and the opposite reflex was harder) to develop in them than either in the original learner or in those cannibalistic specimens which had swallowed their untrained fellows (they being the control group for testing the original experiment).
The third headliner of the congress reported an experiment dealing with a topic for the social sciences by way of a natural science. It could be considered a natural antecedent of the social power relations in which, in a group of animals, interaction among certain individuals results in selection of a leader of that group. Delgado implanted a microelectrode in the brain of such a leader and, by means of that electrode, was able to control the targeted area’s tone that produced just that force necessary for behaviour that ensured leadership. Then one of those subordinated to the leader was taught how to handle a wave-emitting gadget by means of which an impulse could be transmitted to the implanted electrode and, by changing the leader’s cerebral tone, tame the leader’s behaviour. The whole audience probably agreed in 1966 in Moscow with this paper’s conclusion about the possibility of changing the social order of an entire group – and not just of animals. Most of those who attended the Congress became convinced that the natural sciences could thus direct humanity, as Delgado put it in his monograph’s title, Toward a psycho-civilized society.5
In such an atmosphere of the Moscow congress it was then no wonder that in his lecture (which became a real social happening of the congress) Moreno declared that attracting and repelling, likes and dislikes were similar to the tendencies manifest in chemical double decomposition, and that by optimizing those relations’ micro-structure the macro-structure of society would be harmonized.
In any case, on behalf of several participants of the International Congress of Psychology in Moscow, I can safely declare that we returned home in genuine euphoria, and that this elation had an intellectual cast: our certainty that psychology was on the right track, the track that had earlier seen running the trains of physics, chemistry or biology and of many other branches of natural science from which psychology differed, if at all, only in the greater degree of complexity of its subject-matter. To quote Pribram, who expressed this feeling of euphoria in his closing address: “It was a truly historic congress. I am confident that future generations, when talking of this event, will declare that here in Moscow we were witnesses to psychology having developed fully as an experimental science.”6
In light of this, it indeed came as a surprise that, ten years later, another international congress, the 21st, was opened by Paul Fraisse in Paris with an address whose first sentence was: “The field of psychology is in a state of crisis.”
The ten years separating the two congresses had been devoted to professional work dominated both in research, teaching and applied areas of psychology by the certainty we carried away from Moscow. And now we listened to the Congress president stating: “The crisis is more than a paroxysm of growth, however, because it is theory that is really at stake. We are in fact in the midst of a scientific revolution and in Kuhn’s terminology, we are working our way toward a new paradigm.”7 Fraisse claimed the search for the new paradigm was progressing in a direction in which behaviour would be but the raw material of research, man becoming its real subject.
Doubts whether the positivistic method of natural science is suitable for comprehensive study of man are not new. Known are the considerations which prompted Dilthey, for example, to oppose a geisteswissenschaftliche to a naturwissenschaftliche psychology. One of the crucially important considerations was expressed by Dilthey as follows: “The first precondition for a possible Geisteswissenschaft is that I myself am a historical being, that the person who researches history is identical with the one who makes it.”8
I assign fundamental importance to this consideration because, for example, Gadamer derives from it that the experience of the social world cannot be converted into a science by the inductive method of natural sciences9.