Psychology at High School in Late Imperial Russia

ResearchBlogging.orgIn the latest History of Education Quarterly, 48(2), Andy Byford examines the role of education in promoting psychology as a science at the turn of the twentieth century in Russia.

…psychology lacked the status of an independent academic discipline at Russian universities. It was taught only as a component of philosophy and had the reputation of the latter’s ‘‘handmaiden.’’ Its scientific credentials within philosophy departments were, moreover, under constant attack from physiologists, neurologists and psychiatrists, who sought to redefine the discipline from a biological point of view, and at times even denied psychology the right to legitimate existence.

In fact it was only in the sphere of education that psychology was able to portray itself as a respectable science in its own right, especially in relation to pedagogy, whose own academic legitimacy, as a lowly practical professional discipline, was even more problematic than that of psychology. Yet the eminent status of psychology in the educational realm (as the ‘‘scientific foundation’’ of pedagogy) had to be continuously maintained, which was how teachers became the most important ‘‘interested’’ public to whom psychologists of different persuasions promoted the idealized visions of their discipline.

For those not familiar with the history of Russian psychology, Byford’s article provides a fascinating look at the period in which Lev Vygotsky — who undertook graduate training at the newly created Moscow Institute of Psychology — developed as a student and teacher. See below the fold for annotated references.


Byford, A. (2008). Psychology at High School in Late Imperial Russia (1881–1917). History of Education Quarterly, 48(2), 265-297. DOI: 10.1111/j.1748-5959.2008.00143.x

See also:

  • Davydov, V. D. & Zinchenko, V. P. (1989). Vygotsky’s contribution to the development of psychology. Soviet Psychology, 27(2), 22-36. Discusses the significance of Vygotsky’s (1896-1934) ideas, as interpreted by the 3rd generation of cultural-historical theorists, for understanding the laws of human development as they apply to the relation between the individual and the social world. Vygotsky’s theory included the following postulates, which are discussed: Mental development is a qualitative change in the S’s social situation. Learning and upbringing are universal aspects of human development. New mental structures derive from internalization of the initial form of this activity. Sign systems play an essential role in the process of internalization.
  • Holowinsky, I. Z. (1988). Vygotsky and the history of pedology. School Psychology International, 9(2), 123-128. Discusses the growth and demise of pedology within the context of the early history of child study in Europe, the influence of the writings of Vygotsky (1931) on Soviet defectology, and the struggle of Soviet psychology for its Marxist-dialectical identity.
  • Kozulin, A. (1985). Georgy Chelpanov and the Establishment of the Moscow Institute of Psychology. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 21(1), 23–32. In the late 19th century, G. Chelpanov brought Wundtian psychology to Russia and established that country’s first institute of psychology. In 1911 to 1914, Chelpanov’s Institute was better staffed and equipped than any other psychological laboratory in Europe. As Director of the Institute, he supported studies that ranged from the behavioristic to the phenomenological. It is suggested that changing attitudes toward Chelpanov and his legacy could be used as an informative indicator of the development of later Soviet psychological doctrine.
  • Prawat, R. S. (2000). Dewey meets the “Mozart of Psychology” in Moscow: The untold story. American Educational Research Journal, 37(3), 663-696. Discusses the possibility that the Russian education and psychology scholar L. Vygotsky met and exchanged views with the US philosopher John Dewey during the trip of the latter to Russia in 1928. Evidence for the meeting of the 2 comes from diary entries of Dewey’s daughter-in-law, who accompanied him to Moscow. Both scholars at the time were wrestling with ways to honor both public and private knowledge in a way that was naturalistic or non-dualist. Findings call into question A. R. Luria’s account of how Vygotsky burst upon the Russian intellectual scene.
  • van der Veer, R. (2007). Vygotsky in context: 1900-1935. In H. Daniels, M. Cole, & J. V. Wertsch. The Cambridge companion to Vygotsky (pp. 21-49). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. It is a fundamental tenet of Vygotskian theory that in order to understand the inner mental processes of human beings, we must look at human beings in their sociocultural context. We should not look for the explanation of human behavior in the depths of the brain or the soul but in the external living conditions of persons and, most of all, in the external conditions of their societal life–in their social-historical forms of existence. By accepting this tenet and generalizing it to the understanding of the creative work of investigators, we might say that in order to more fully understand the work of a specific thinker, we should step outside of that thinker’s mind and take a look at the broader socioeconomic and sociocultural background in which he or she worked. The researcher’s private abilities and preferences undoubtedly play a role in the creation of major theories, but the shaping of character, inclinations, and abilities of the researcher takes place in a specific sociocultural context, and every scientist is dependent on the ideas and tools available in his or her time. There is no true understanding of an investigator’s theories, then, without an assessment of the broad context in which the theories were created. In this chapter, I discuss a number of Vygotsky’s Russian colleagues in psychology and related areas from the period of 1900 to 1935.
  • van der Veer, R. & Valsiner, J. (1988). Lev Vygotsky and Pierre Janet: On the origin of the concept of sociogenesis. Developmental Review, 8(1), 52-65. Suggests that the widespread appreciation of Vygotsky’s work by those in the field of developmental psychology has unfortunately carried with it an oversight of his intellectual interdependency with the thinking of his contemporary psychologists and psychiatrists. An analysis of the immediate intellectual roots of Vygotsky’s concept of social development of human personality is given.
  • Veresov, N. (2005). Marxist and non-Marxist aspects of the cultural-historical psychology of L. S. Vygotsky. Outlines: Critical Social Studies, 7(1), 31-49. It was not only Marxism which influenced Vygotsky. He was a child of the Silver Age of Russian culture and philosophy and the influence of this should not be underestimated. Some traits in Vygotsky’s theory, traditionally considered as Marxist – such as the concept of the social origins of mind or sign as psychological tool – have deeper and wider roots in works of Shpet, Blonsky, Sorokin and Meierhold. As for Marxism as such, it must be mentioned that during all three periods of his creative evolution Vygotsky had different approaches to what was true Marxist psychology and how it should be built. These are items this paper is focused on.

At AHP:

-JTB.

About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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