Tag Archives: Ivan Pavlov

New Book: Daniel Todes’s Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science

Historian Daniel Todes, of Johns Hopkins University, has just published a biography of Ivan Pavlov with Oxford University Press. The book is also discussed in a recent piece in The New Yorker, “Drool: Ivan Pavlov’s Real Quest.”

Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science is described on the publisher’s website as,

a definitive, deeply researched biography of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) and is the first scholarly biography to be published in any language. The book is Todes’s magnum opus, which he has been working on for some twenty years. Todes makes use of a wealth of archival material to portray Pavlov’s personality, life, times, and scientific work.

Combining personal documents with a close reading of scientific texts, Todes fundamentally reinterprets Pavlov’s famous research on conditional reflexes. Contrary to legend, Pavlov was not a behaviorist (a misimpression captured in the false iconic image of his “training a dog to salivate to the sound of a bell”); rather, he sought to explain not simply external behaviors, but the emotional and intellectual life of animals and humans. This iconic “objectivist” was actually a profoundly anthropomorphic thinker whose science was suffused with his own experiences, values, and subjective interpretations.

This book is also a traditional “life and times” biography that weaves Pavlov into some 100 years of Russian history-particularly that of its intelligentsia—from the emancipation of the serfs to Stalin’s time. Pavlov was born to a family of priests in provincial Ryazan before the serfs were emancipated, made his home and professional success in the glittering capital of St. Petersburg in late imperial Russia, suffered the cataclysmic destruction of his world during the Bolshevik seizure of power and civil war of 1917-1921, rebuilt his life in his 70s as a “prosperous dissident” during the Leninist 1920s, and flourished professionally as never before in 1929-1936 during the industrialization, revolution, and terror of Stalin.

Todes’s story of this powerful personality and extraordinary man is based upon interviews with surviving coworkers and family members (along with never-before-analyzed taped interviews from the 1960s and 1970s), examination of hundreds of scientific works by Pavlov and his coworkers, and close analysis of materials from some twenty-five archives. The documents range from the records of his student years at Ryazan Seminary to the transcripts of the Communist Party cells in his labs, and from his scientific manuscripts and notebooks to his political speeches; they include revealing love letters to his future wife and correspondence with hundreds of lay people, scholars, artists, and Communist Party leaders; and unpublished memoirs by many coworkers, his daughter, his wife, and his lover.

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For Your Consideration: Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow

61Hx4oueqcLThis summer I read Thomas Pynchon’s legendary, post-modern novel Gravity’s Rainbow. Published in 1973, the novel takes place during the latter part of WWII, beginning in London and eventually traversing the European (and occasionally other) landscapes. Pynchon’s work is of such a non-traditional nature that describing a plot is a preposterous attempt; but the novel’s linchpin is the Germans’ rumoured Rocket 00000, and the hitherto unknown power and destruction it may contain. Gravity’s Rainbow is replete with characters and circumstances pertinent to those interested in the history of science, particularly psychology. Though the author attends to and obsesses over the esoteric verbiage and theories of physics, engineering, and espionage, Pynchon devotes a considerable amount of his novel (and the characters therein) to matters related to Psychology. Indeed the main character, Tyrone Slothrop, is at the forefront of this novel due to his intimate physiological and psychological connection with Rocket 00000 (and the Schwarzgerät [AKA ‘black device’] within it). This conditioned connection was wrought when Tyrone was a neonate—the experimental situations of such reflexive conditioning emphasizing Pavolvian theory, while echoing the setting of Watson and Rayner’s Little Albert experiments. An entire club of scientists in this book revere Pavlov as a demigod, and rotate their lone copy of his Lectures on Conditioned Reflexes, simply referring to it as ‘The Book’.

infanttyronePynchon also includes scenes of the supposedly supernatural, where the faithful and the skeptical alike attend séances. These scenes mirror Psychology’s early history of actively debunking supernatural occurrences, unmasking the deceptive charlatans; concurrently there are other organizations, such as the Psi Section(s), that are professionally interested in the parapsychological for potential military and espionage tactics. Other characters and scenes concentrate on statistics and probability, and their predictive utility in the unpredictable chaos of war (with a particular focus on the Poisson Distribution). Many of these scenes recall the involvements of psychologists in military and government matters, and shines a light on their bizarre and variegated positions within the national and transnational bureaucratic machines of WWII.

Pynchon-simpsonsThese are a smattering of how the history of Psychology makes it way into Gravity’s Rainbow, and Pynchon develops the complex ramifications of these new theories and technologies for his seemingly endless assemblage of characters. These examples related to the history of psychology are ensconced within a fictional world that reflects the consequences of our scientific and technological progress: the fragmentation and disorganization of our selves and our societies that result from our systems of unification and organization. Tyrone Slothtrop’s continually evolving and confused selves, his nomadic lifestyle leading to places that are in constant destruction and reconstruction, and Pynchon’s own ceaseless change in narrative genre, tone, and syntax, illustrate the dizzying fragmentation-reorganization cycle that revolves more quickly the further we progress in our sciences and technologies. This book is Pynchon’s attempt at capturing the impossibly convoluted state of our post-WWII and post-modern lives.

Though Gravity’s Rainbow encompasses much more than only issues related to disciplinary Psychology, I would still like to recommend it as an excellent source of interest, inspiration, bewilderment, and discussion for anyone interested in the history of Psychology.

Buy it here.

Page-by-page annotations here.

Page-by-page artwork by Zak Smith here.

Learn more about Pynchon here, here, and here.


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