Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (1896 - 1934) probeerde Spinoza toe te passen [4]

Lev Vygotsky als jongemanAan het eind van het blog wijs ik op een recente uitgave waarin geprobeerd wordt het werk van Vygotsky te voltooien. Hier wijs ik nog eens op het in het vorige blog vermelde zeer deskundige artikel van Giovana Reis Mesquita dat een heel goed beeld geeft van hoe Vygotsky het individu ziet als opgebouwd uit interacties van de eigen activiteiten te midden van de culturele context. In deze relaties verwerft het subject de specifieke instrumenten van taal en denken dat hem of haar in staat stelt te handelen in de wereld op een verdergaande manier dan (voorbij aan) de informatie die hij/zij van zijn zintuigen ontvangt. Vygotsky ziet een dialectische relatie tussen denken en taal. Eerst is er denken, maar het verwerven van taalvaardigheid veroorzaakt op zijn beurt een diepgaande verandering in het denken. Zo ontwikkelt zich de psyche en z’n hogere mentale functies via dit bemiddelingsproces van de taalverwerving. Dit speelt zich vooral op de kinderleeftijd af (Vygotsky schreef dan ook veel over ontwikkeling van kinderen), maar is een altijddurend proces. Cf.

• Giovana Reis Mesquita (Universidade Federal da Bahia, Salvador, Brasil), “Vygotsky and the Theories of Emotions: in search of a possible dialogue.” In: Psicologia: Reflexão e Crítica, vol.25 no.4 Porto Alegre  2012 [geheel te lezen cf.]. Aanbevolen.

Heel andere informatie vinden we bij Andrey Maidansky. Hij gaf in zijn artikel

• Andrey Maidansky, “The Russian Spinozists” [in: Studies in East European Thought, September 2003, vol. 55, no. 3, pp. 199-216 cf.] een uitvoerige en zeer informatieve paragraaf over Vygotsky [te vinden op zijn site]. Ik neem die paragraaf hierna in z’n geheel over - zonder de eindnoten [als u de noten aanklikt komt u op zijn site, reist u dus even naar Rusland]. Het voordeel is dat de Spinoza scholar Maidansky in zijn artikel méér van Spinoza behandelt.

Daarbij vermeld ik ook dat hij (zo is te zien in de Duitse Spinozabibliografie) enige jaren later tevens nog schreef:

• Vygotsky – Spinoza: dialog skvoz' stoletija [Vygotsky - Spinoza: a dialog through centuries], in: Voprosy filosofii [The Problems of Philosophy] 10 (2008), 116-127

Hier zijn paragraaf over Vygotsky in “The Russian Spinozists”

The famous Russian psychologist Lev Sem¸novich Vygotskij (1896‑1934) was carried away with Spinoza’s philosophy when studying it at the historian-philosophical faculty of the Shanjavskij Moscow University. He was attracted first by Spinoza’s strict causal explanation of mind by the principle of action of the human body. Being guided by this principle, Vygotskij established that the cultural mental functions originate as forms of human activity, which is directed to the outer (social) world. The distinctive feature of cultural mental functions in comparison with the natural ones is that the former are mediated by artificially created stimuli, signs. Using signs, a “thinking being” actively regulates its own behaviour. This idea, as Vygotskij believes, allows us “to demonstrate empirically the origin of human free will.” 18

The traditional model of free will is a “Buridan’s ass” situation, where an ass is forced to act by two different stimuli in equal extent. Its soul cannot perceive anything except the states of body, caused by these stimuli, thus the ass turns out to be unable to act in this or that way and dies.

According to Spinoza, a man does not merely perceive the states of his own body, which are caused by external stimuli. The human body is able to “move and dispose” external things, 19 thereby imparting to itself various states, which are adequate to (or conform with) the nature of other bodies. Perceptions of such states of the body constitute the contents of human intellect. The power of causes, which are perceived adequately by a “thinking thing” (res cogitans), infinitely exceeds the power of any external stimuli immediately affecting the human body. Therefore, the better one knows the nature of things, the smaller is the danger of dying like Buridan’s ass because of external causes. Herein lies the real freedom. It is directly proportional to our knowledge of causes of the things we come across or, more precisely, to our capacity for acting reasonably on external things and, by means of these things, on our own body and mind.

Spinoza, however, gives only a general solution to the problem of free will. Admitting his complete agreement with this solution, 20 Vygotskij makes a series of experiments with children to verify it. [204]

He creates a state of the equilibrium of motives and comes to the following conclusion:

A man placed in the situation of Buridan’s ass throws lots... Here is an operation impossible for an animal, the operation in which the whole problem of free will manifests itself with experimental distinctness. 21

What is the nature of lot? It is a neutral stimulus, to which man transfers the function of choice between two equally possible actions. By means of the neutral stimuli, signs, he acts upon his own behaviour making it reasonable, precisely like he acts with material tools upon an external nature. Whence, however, does man receive this amazing ability to direct his own actions reasonably, i.e. by means of signs? Here occurs a decisive turn of Vygotskij’s thought: signs originally appeared as instruments by means of which one man acted upon another; and human behaviour becomes reasonable when someone begins to apply towards himself the same instruments by which formerly other people directed his actions. Signs are ideal ‘clots’ of social relations, so the individual internalizes the human mind in the course of communication. Therefore, all human forms of mental activity are of social origin; the individual absorbs them from outside, viz. from his cultural surroundings.

Vygotskij strictly adheres to a key thesis of the psychological theory of Ethics:

The object of an idea constituting the human mind is a body... and nothing else. 22

Meanwhile, there is a distinction in the human mind between the idea of an individual organic body and the idea of its collective, social “quasi‑body” (quasi corpus, nempe societatis, as Spinoza expressed once 23). The organic body is the substance of natural forms of mental activity, and the social “quasi‑body” is the substance of cultural mental forms. Further, Vygotskij undertakes an inquiry of the “natural history of signs” or, in other words, of the development of cultural psychical functions from natural ones.

Spinoza solved this problem on a purely logical plane, as the problem of correlating imagination (vague ideas of the states of the organic body) with intellect (clear and distinct ideas about the nature of things). Spinoza considers these two forms of thinking as [205] essential instances of the universal “method of interpreting Nature” (methodus interpretandi Naturam). The imagination delivers to human mind some data about the external existence of singular things; then the intellect prepares these data, i.e. images, by means of reason (ratio), revealing the essence of things, and finally, at the supreme level of intuitive knowledge (scientia intuitiva), it forms an adequate idea of the actual existence of this or that thing.

It is the subject of thinking alone which endures changes in the described process of theoretical thinking. Logical forms of imagination by no means turn into the forms of intellect or even somehow commingle with them.

“Those operations, whereby the imaginative acts are produced, take place according to other laws, quite different from the laws of the intellect,” Spinoza warned. 24

Vygotskij’s “natural history of signs” solves the problem of the genesis of thought in the psychological perspective, which differs from the logical angle of vision predominating in Spinoza’s works. Here the natural (imaginative) mental form itself is to be transformed into the cultural (intellectual) form. Vygotskij called this act “vrasshivanije” (enrooting) and explored its general features experimenting with memory, sense perception and conceptual thinking. A sign is the instrument that converts the natural mental form into the cultural one. The question arises then, what makes an indifferent exterior of a sign to be significant for the individual? What induces him to take part in the symbolic activity of social “quasi‑body”? At this point Vygotskij appeals to Spinoza for aid once again.

As the proximate cause of human activity Spinoza considers the natural organic need, appetitus. The ‘appetite’

is in fact nothing else but man’s very essence, from the nature of which necessarily follow that, which serves to his preservation, and so man is determined to act in that way. 25

The state of body or mind caused by this appetitus Spinoza denotes by the term affectus. Thus, society forms mental activity of an individual by means of signs from outside, and appetitus determines it from inside via affects, Vygotskij decides. Now he concentrates his attention on the ‘internal’, affective determinant of mind. He writes: [206]

An idea is born not from another idea, but from the motivating sphere of our mind. This sphere covers our inclination and needs. Behind an idea the affective and willing tendency is hiding. It alone can give an answer to the last ‘why’ in the analysis of thinking. 26

Thus was defined the plan of Vygotskij’s last major work, A Study of Emotions (1933).

In the early 1930s the state of problem was constituted by the opposition of W. James – K. Lange visceral theory of emotions and intensional theory of emotions, descended from W. Dilthey and F. Brentano. According to the first theory, emotion is an ordinary epiphenomenon of physiological processes; the other one rests on the assumption that human emotion is a manifestation of the ego’s inward activity. Vygotskij carries out a thorough historical analysis of the opposing doctrines and comes to conclusion that the principal statements of both parties are variations on the theme of Descartes’ treatise Les passions de l’âme. They conceal in the long run the idea of psychophysical parallelism.

Descartes seems to be present on every page of psychological works about emotions, which have been published for the last 60 years. 27

On the other hand, Vygotskij points out that the new conception of emotions is emerging in modern science and its main idea goes back to Ethics.

“The tenor of Spinoza’s thinking finds some historical sequel in Lange and in Dilthey also,” but at the same time “Spinoza’s teaching holds something that forms its deepest inherent core and what is lacking in the both two detached branches of modern psychology of emotions, namely the unity of causal explanation with problems of the vital significance of human passions... Spinoza’s problems are waiting to be solved, and tomorrow of our psychology is impossible without their solution.” 28

Unfortunately Vygotskij did not have time enough to answer these questions himself. His manuscript remained unfinished. Being only 37 years old, Vygotskij died, like Spinoza, because of chronic lung disease. Nevertheless he managed to outline some aspects of his theory of emotions.

First of all he discovered that the physiological theory of homeostasis, created by Walter Cannon, had paved the way for [207] the new psychology of emotions. The experiments on sympathoectomized animals in Cannon’s laboratory proved that peripheral neural processes could not be considered as the proper cause of emotions. The American scientist suggested that physiological and psychological processes, forming an emotional behavior, were caused by a need of a living being to preserve the existing mode of internal life, contrary to external impacts disturbing this mode of life. Is it not very close to Spinoza’s definition of affect as a state of thing that “promotes or constrains” its acting for preservation of its own being? 29 Having noticed this resemblance, Vygotskij regards Cannon’s experiments as “an empirical proof of Spinoza’s idea.” 30Cannon’s investigations, although very important, do not touch upon the difficult problem of distinguishing simple organic emotions from higher, rational ones. For Spinoza, as a philosopher, this problem was central. Rational emotions (especially the “intellectual love to God,” caused by the scientia intuitiva) aid people in preservation of their existence, joining them to the eternal being of Nature.

Descartes considers the problem of passions as a physiological problem and a problem of mind with body interaction, whereas in Spinoza this problem appears as a problem of relating of thought with affect, concept with passion. It is really the other side of the moon... 31

Vygotskij was engrossed mainly in the analysis of specific conditions of the transformation of organic emotions into rational ones. Most likely, he intended to deal with this matter in the rest of the manuscript. He wished also to elaborate a new classification of emotions, since he found inconvenient the nomenclature of the Ethics. Vygotskij bequeathed these works to the Spinozist psychology of tomorrow. 


In het voetspoor van Lev Vygotsky

Laat nu net eind vorig jaar, maar gedateerd 2017, bij Springer het volgende boek uitkomen, waarvan de uitgever stelt: “Extends the little known work started but never finished by the late L. S. Vygotsky.”

Wolff-Michael Roth & Alfredo Jornet, Understanding Educational Psychology. A Late Vygotskian, Spinozist Approach. Springer, 2017 – books.google

This book takes up the agenda of the late (but unknown) L. S. Vygotsky, who had turned to the philosopher Spinoza to develop a holistic approach to psychology, an approach that no longer dichotomized the body and mind, intellect and affect, or the individual and the social. In this approach, there is only one substance, which manifests itself in different ways in the thinking body, including as biology and culture. The manifestation as culture is premised on the existence of the social.
In much of current educational psychology, there are unresolved contradictions that have their origin in the opposition between body and mind, individual and collective, and structure and process—including the different nature of intellect and affect or the difference between knowledge and its application. Many of the same contradictions are repeated in constructivist approaches, which do not overcome dichotomies but rather acerbate them by individualizing and intellectualizing our knowledgeable participation in recognizably exhibiting and producing the everyday cultural world. Interestingly enough, L. S. Vygotsky, who is often used as a referent for making arguments about inter- and intrasubjective “mental” “constructions,” developed, towards the end of his life, a Spinozist approach according to which there is only one substance. This one substance manifests itself in two radically different ways: body (material, biology) and mind (society, culture). But there are not two substances that are combined into a unit; there is only one substance. Once such an approach is adopted, the classical question of cognitive scientists about how symbols are grounded in the world comes to be recognized as an artefact of the theory. Drawing on empirical materials from different learning settings—including parent-child, school, and workplace settings—this book explores the opportunities and implications that this non-dualist approach has for educational research and practice.  


Opmerkelijk is dan weer dat Spinoza in het geheel niet voorkomt op een speciaal aan Vygotsky gewijde uitgebreide website: The Vygotsky Project

In een recnte uitgave komt Vygotsky (vanzelfsprekend als je de titel ziet) veel voor (Spinoza slechts 1x, maar wel uiterst positief als de  "philosophical tradition which provides the basis for a more sustainable complex scientific engagement [w.b. "Models of mind and brain"]", p. 40):

Thalia Dragonas, Kenneth J. Gergen, Sheila McNamee, Eleftheria Tseliou  (eds.), Education as Social Construction: Contributions to Theory, Research and Practice. Taos Institute Publications/WorldShare Books, 2015 - PDF