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Stud Philos Educ (2010) 29:53–66 DOI 10.1007/s11217-009-9160-4

Chasing Vygotsky’s Dogs: Retrieving Lev Vygotsky’s Philosophy for a Workers’ Paradise Kelvin McQueen

Published online: 6 November 2009  Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Abstract In an article published in 1930, Lev Vygotsky refers explicitly to the seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Benedictus de Spinoza. From a close reading of Vygotsky’s remarkable piece, ‘The socialist transformation of man,’ the extraordinary parallels in the lives and philosophies of Vygotsky and Spinoza are revealed. Then the strengths and weaknesses are assessed of the analytical approach Vygotsky may have inherited from Spinoza. It is suggested that there are analytical ramifications arising from Vygotsky’s possible reliance on Spinoza’s nuanced but essentially dualistic philosophy. The conclusion is that the key limitation of this methodology is the elision of radical doubting with radical unknowability. Keywords Vygotsky  Spinoza  Soviet Union  Hypostatisation  Dualism  Unknowability

Introduction This is a tale of two men and their dogs. The men were separated by 200 years and by 2,000 km; their dogs were separated by 8.6 light-years or 81 trillion km. Yet these men are more closely connected than these distances suggest. Their biographical details are eerily similar and they share startling parallels of social and analytical purpose in their philosophies. Both lived in extraordinary times and in extraordinary societies; one supposedly a bourgeois paradise, the other supposedly a workers’ paradise. And despite these gulfs, the two dogs connect the two men philosophically across time and space. It is instructive to chase the nature of this connection and to retrieve the disconnection it produced in their analytical procedure. Despite their philosophical and methodological connection, examples drawn from both men’s works show that they slipped into a procedural disconnection that produced K. McQueen (&) School of Education, Faculty of the Professions, University of New England, Armidale, NSW 2351, Australia e-mail: kmcquee2@une.edu.au

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methodological dualism. This dualism took the form of a radical separation between cause and effect and arose from their hypostatising of causal categories. For these men, eternity or infinity or labour or education or socialist revolution became causal categories sitting at some distance from the process of political transformation that was these men’s core, but often tacit, object of study. By default, their necessarily indeterminate causes became connected to perfunctory assertions about historical and social processes. The result was the unfortunate and probably unintended consequence of having radical unknowability of ultimate causality lie at the base of their analyses. Probably for good reasons, both men averred from proposing that examining existing political relations—that is, investigating the social relations of power and associated struggles in which their societies were engaged—could be a constructive way to understand the processes of historical development and of social and educational transformation. There is an irony in the fact that while a deep concern with social and historical transformation was the key connection between these men’s analytical projects and philosophies, both fell into an unfortunate pattern of procedural disconnection that was unable to explain how societies could be transformed.

Chasing Vygotsky’s Philosophical Influences Of the two men, the one who lived nearest to us in time is Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky has become one of the most significant and influential educational psychologists of the latetwentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Lev Vygotsky has been credited with being the key figure in developing a social constructivist understanding of psychological development and for proposing an associated pedagogical concept known as the Zone of Proximal Development. This concept has been cited as the inspiration for Jerome Bruner’s notion of scaffolding (Langford 2005, p. 216). In sum, Margaret Gredler (2007, p. 233) declares that ‘Lev Vygotsky has rapidly become a much repeated name at all levels of educational psychology: theoretical, empirical, and pedagogical.’ He is credited with making contributions to the fields of pedagogy, special education, aesthetics, linguistics, history, neuropathology and neuropsychology. This is quite remarkable for someone whose work was not published outside the Soviet Union until 1962 and was only republished there more than 20 years after his death in 1934 (Vygotsky 1962; Lima 1995, pp. 490–491; Gillen 2000, pp. 186–191). Beyond the advances attributed to Vygotsky in pedagogical applications, Holzman (2002) has declared that Vygotsky’s ‘methodological insights and findings are far wider; indeed, they challenge the entirety of psychology, psychotherapy and their philosophical assumptions.’ Despite Vygotsky’s rising star, his concepts and theories have been criticised for being unnecessarily obscure and perhaps even cryptic. Stuart Rowlands (2000, p. 562) expresses the paradox in Vygotsky’s work that while he aimed to ‘provide solutions to problems in education…yet no teaching strategy was made apparent.’ Even Vygotsky’s most famous formulation, the Zone of Proximal Development, is conceptually vague.1 About this, 1

The usual quote given from Vygotsky (1978, p. 86) that describes the Zone of Proximal Development is the following one: ‘the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.’ The incredibly loaded terms such as distance, actual development, level, determined, independent, problem solving, potential development, guidance, collaboration, more capable, peers, not to mention the relationships between them, are never really explained adequately anywhere by Vygotsky.

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Chaiklin (2003, p. 42) states, ‘there is not an extensive corpus of material from which Vygotsky’s true meaning or official definition or interpretation can be found.’ Added to this are the complexity and uncertainty of Vygotsky’s philosophical foundations, which Langford (2005, p. 19) calls his ‘ideological heterodoxy’. Criticism has been made of theorists and practitioners purporting to use an authoritatively Vygotskyan paradigm that this ‘authority seems more to do with the way Vygotsky has been assimilated into people’s schema of things, than it has with the very perspective that he was constructing’ (Rowlands 2000, p. 537). More prosaically, Langford (2005, p. 123) has suggested that ‘His influence on education in the West was ambiguous for two main reasons. Some of his ideas have been misunderstood. In addition, he espoused three very different views of education in his career’. Jan Derry (2004, pp. 113–114) blames latter-day renderings of Vygotsky’s ideas for compounding these difficulties since she believes that ‘the philosophy informing Vygotsky’s work has not been fully appreciated in contemporary interpretations’. To put some distance between these ‘schema’, misunderstandings, misinterpretations and ambiguities, on the one hand, and Vygotsky’s actual intentions, on the other, researchers have begun to chase Vygotsky’s philosophical sources. In contrast with earlier relatively sweeping analyses, there has been a more fine-grained appraisal recently of the philosophical influences upon Vygotsky. Rowlands (2000) has suggested a path from Karl Marx, Frederick Engels and Vladimir Lenin, while Wayne Au (2007) has suggested a more consciously political link with Lenin’s 1902 tract, What is to be done? Bruner (1987, p. 2) also connects Marx and Vygotsky, but suggests that his intellectual outlook was ‘closer to Althusser, Habermas, and the Frankfurt School than to the Soviet Marxism of his time’. Blanck (1992, p. 40) opts for a less revisionist trajectory when he writes that ‘Vygotsky’s reliance on Marx’s Capital, Engels’ Dialectics of Nature, and Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks demonstrates his classical orientation to Marxism’. Nevertheless, Peter Langford (2005, pp. 163, 165–173), while recognising Vygotsky’s extensive debt to Marx, can also state that ultimately Vygotsky ‘disagreed with Marx in some respects’. Langford (2005, pp. 106, 152–153, 157–163) goes further and suggests a great variety of influences on Vygotsky’s thinking. These include Marx, Hegel and Spinoza, with contributions from Ludwig Feuerbach, the linguist Aleksandr Potebnya (but not Mikhail Bakhtin), with Vygotsky drawing empirical data from the anthropology of Lucien LevyBruhl (but not Emile Durkheim), the psychology of Pierre Janet (but not Ivan Pavlov) and, of course, Jean Piaget (while rejecting his particular view of psychological constructivism) (see also Rosa and Montero 1992, p. 76; on Piaget and Vygotsky, see also Minick 1987, p. 26; Pass 2004). This perhaps shows that Vygotsky absorbed no tradition in the social sciences or psychology uncritically, giving his oeuvre a somewhat eclectic caste exacerbated by regular revisions of approach. Adding to this uncertainty of estimating the degree of influence of various theorists on Vygotsky’s work is the difficulty that his ‘work was incomplete and it was probably influenced by political pressure’ (Langford 2005, p. 154). Closer to home, Vygotsky was influenced by ‘all the cross-winds of social movements that blew through the Soviet society’ in a time of revolutionary social construction (Van der Veer and Valsiner 1991, p. 296). Rowlands (2000, p. 559) suspects that ‘Vygotsky’s ‘‘scientific concepts’’ are ambiguous because he is actually drawing ideas from Lenin’s concept of the vanguard party: a party that struggles to attain the highest theoretical standards, and intervenes in the class struggle with ‘‘scientific socialism’’‘. On the other hand, Van der Veer and Valsiner (1991, p. 296) propose a less revolutionary source for at least one phase of Vygotsky’s thinking: ‘The educational experiments of the 1920s were only partially built upon ‘‘Marxist’’ ideology in their particulars. In fact, there was a

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remarkable continuity evident between the pre-1917 liberal intelligentsia’s educational philosophies, and the novelties introduced in the 1920s.’ Sheila Fitzpatrick (1979, pp. 10–11) sees these traditions as being transmitted in part by the leadership of Narkompros—the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment—which included between 1918 and 1929 ‘Old Bolshevik intellectuals’ such as Anatoly Lunacharsky and Lenin’s wife Nadezhda Krupskaya.2 Meanwhile, with the move in the Soviet Union after 1930 towards a more centralised education system with a prescriptive curriculum and reasonably conservative pedagogy, Langford (2005, p. 130) suggests that ‘Vygotsky did not resist these new teacher-centred methods when they became mandatory, but tried to make them work better and justify them.’

Vygotsky’s ‘Transformation’ In sum then, a myriad of sources has been proposed for the formation and subsequent development of Vygotsky’s thinking and consequent concepts and theories. Ignoring the risk of overload, I shall add another and suggest that a much earlier philosopher may have had a considerable and unfortunate influence on Vygotsky’s orientation towards questions of methodology and analysis. The germ for chasing this particular intellectual progenitor arose because Vygotsky in an article in 1930 included a very peculiar aphorism about dogs. That article, called ‘The socialist transformation of man’ (Langford 2005, p. 282; in other sources translated as ‘The socialist alteration of man’, Vygotsky 1994a), was published in a national journal and provided Vygotsky’s vision of the future possibilities opened up in Russia by the Bolshevik Revolution. For someone who otherwise stuck assiduously to what was assumed to be Marx’s legacy of anti-utopianism, Vygotsky at times in this article suggests what appears at first glance to be a utopian vision of ways in which the Soviet Union could become a workers’ paradise. However, this apparently clear vision is deceptive. Vygotsky’s analysis of historical progress and social transformation can be criticised as being no less obscure, disjointed and ambiguous than his pedagogical and psychological formulations. And it may be that part of the fault lies in Vygotsky’s reliance on the dogs of an earlier philosopher. The article is unusual in that Vygotsky appears to drop his reticence in commenting on what in fact are issues of the political development of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless and at the same time, Vygotsky avoids clearly defining the issues he raises as ones of politics or governance. This may explain why Vygotsky’s analysis of the construction of a workers’ paradise privileges less politically controversial explanations and solutions such as the roles of technological development, technical and scientific advance and polytechnical education. Beyond this, the article’s main concern is with human transformation, which places it firmly within what had become, according to Fitzpatrick (1979, p. 141), the new Soviet educational orthodoxy by 1930 where ‘an environment in the process of revolutionary change…was expected to produce a revolutionary transformation of man.’ This understanding, clearly reflected in Vygotsky’s article, went so far as to suggest that ‘a radical environmental change such as that produced by social revolution could produce behavioural change that would subsequently become permanently characteristic of the species.’ 2

One more line of descent is revealed for the broad ideas that may have influenced Vygotsky when Fitzpatrick (1979, p. 11) states that Lunacharsky and Krupskaya were of the generation strongly influenced by Leo Tolstoy’s view of the influence of the cultural environment upon character formation (see also Wertsch 1985, p. 7).

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The key term here is ‘social revolution’. Vygotsky’s identification in his article of various causal factors and their expected results for human transformation shows that he was much more comfortable discussing transformation within a narrow conception of what constituted the social environment, including the educational environment, than he was suggesting that ongoing political transformation was just as necessary. This aversion causes ‘Transformation’ to wander between several causal attributions for capitalism’s ills and socialism’s potential. What is most frustratingly absent, at least for this reader, is any attempt by Vygotsky to set out logically and procedurally the transitional process not so much of how human beings may be transformed biologically, which rather bizarre task Vygotsky pushes to the front of his analysis, but of how society may be transformed, which allusively and surreptitiously Vygotsky acknowledges is necessary for the transformation of human beings. Vygotsky (1994a) is obviously comfortable in describing the evils of capitalism: its ‘crippling of human beings’, ‘distorted development of the human potential’ (p. 177), and ‘an ever deeper degradation of the human personality and its growth potential’. This is a severe litany indeed. He also feels comfortable in contrasting this in the broadest terms with the workers’ paradise, where there will be the final ‘conquest of nature by human beings’, the ‘endless possibilities for the development of the human personality’, ‘a higher form of a creation of a new type of human being’ (p. 179), and the creation of an ‘all-round developed, flexible person’ capable of ‘organizing the production process and controlling it’ (p. 180). The last is the boldest Vygotsky becomes in suggesting, here in reference to Lenin’s utopian sketch of communist governance in the State and Revolution (1917/1975), that a particular political form (even if disguised as a technical process of production) is necessary for producing the new human. Less bold is when Vygotsky (1994a, p. 181) describes the process of transition from one society to another. And this is where a disconnection surfaces between cause and effect. He states that the problems of Soviet society are ‘being resolved by the socialist revolution and a transition to a new social order’ so that ‘all the forces which oppress man and cause him to become enslaved by machines and which interfere with his free development will also fall away, disappear and be destroyed.’ From causal categories so vague and unmediated as to be almost intangible, like ‘socialist revolution’, ‘transition’, ‘fall away, disappear and be destroyed’, the utopian effect will be that ‘ideas, standards of behaviour, requirements and tastes are bound to change.’ This is hardly an epochal vision from someone currently regarded by some as a revolutionary psychologist and educationist (Newman and Holzman 1993). Indeed, while Vygotsky (1994a, p. 182) proposes as vaguely as always that this transition should produce a ‘higher form of human freedom’, bizarrely ‘this change in human behaviour, this change of the human personality, must lead to further evolution of man and to the alteration of the biological type of man’ (emphasis in original). Whether this is what the workers’ paradise was supposed to be all about would probably come as a great surprise to Marx and Lenin. In fact, Vygotsky’s causal juxtaposition of behavioural change and biological evolution suggests that while he understands that the transition to a workers’ paradise will be a radical one, he is also attempting to avoid saying anything about the political or governmental processes needed to effect this transition. Making causally dubious connections between personality and biology obviously seemed a more prudent analytical procedure.3 3

This substitution of social solutions for political ones was not new for Vygotsky. For example, in his 1926 work Educational Psychology, Chapter 12, he states: ‘Every attempt at constructing educational ideals in a society with social contradictions is a utopian dream, since, as we have seen, the social environment is the

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This severely incomplete and diverted utopian vision rests for its authority on Vygotsky’s reference to perhaps the most unfortunate piece that Frederick Engels ever wrote: the unfinished 13 page manuscript from 1876 known as ‘The part played by labour in the transition from ape to man’. This piece was included in the collection of Engels’ manuscripts and fragments published in the Soviet Union in 1925 as Dialectics of Nature. Engels’ (1886/1976, p. 172) manuscript has clear Lamarckian overtones when he writes that the ‘greater flexibility’ of the pre-human hand ‘thus acquired was inherited and increased from generation to generation.’ Engels was fully aware of Darwin’s theories, nevertheless the explanation in this piece is so sketchy and so lacking a clear chain of historical and biological causality and mediations that it can be construed as defending the idea that acquired characteristics are inherited. Engels appears to connect a biological accident with a necessary process of development: that it ‘increased from generation to generation’. In this way the piece appears to propose a teleological or at the very least an instrumental process of evolution. Engels’ obscuring of the actual processes of causal mediation—the inheritance of genetic mutations through natural and sexual selection—can be forgiven since this process was not really understood until Gregor Mendel’s research became more widely disseminated in the 1890s. Less forgivable was the political use of Engels’ piece during the First Five Year Plan (1928–1932) to justify the absurdities of the agronomist Trofim Lysenko (Callinicos 2006, p. 212). Just as with Engels’ sketch, Vygotsky (1994a) fails to describe the causal chain needed to make the bizarre biological transition to socialist humanity, except for it being ‘a result of the social liberation of man’ (p. 183; emphasis in original). And Vygotsky’s second most utopian proposition after this biological one is his claim that education was potentially the motor for this epochal social and biological transition: ‘It is education which should play the central role in the transformation of man [along] this road of conscious social formation of new generations’ (p. 181). Unfortunately, this appears to be nothing more than a retreat to the favoured liberal ideal that education is the panacea for all social ills. But when this sort of utopian and meta-historical role is assigned to education then the question as ever remains, who will educate the educators? (for an exploration of the philosophical framework from which such a view could arise, see Smith 2009, p. 360). This becomes an unanswerable question about political and historical processes lost within a wilderness of hypostatised categories jostling each other, like ‘social liberation’, ‘education’, ‘behaviour’, ‘personality’, ‘transition’ and ‘socialist revolution’. Finally, because Vygotsky throughout the entire article avoids explicit commentary on Soviet politics or governance, then he is forced to resolve the pedagogical and curricular issues attendant upon providing an appropriately socialist education simply by proposing one particular institutional mode of delivery and by gesturing towards the authority of Marx: Vygotsky (1994a, pp. 181–182) proposes that polytechnical education will be the solution to the transition to socialism. This is a remarkably meek panacea for such a ‘radical’ and ‘innovative’ educationist to propose. And this technical solution still avoids the political questions of, firstly, who has the decisive power to make some type of polytechnical education the tool for the transition, and, secondly and even more Footnote 3 continued only educational factor that can establish new reactions in the child, and so long as it harbours unresolved contradictions, these contradictions will create cracks in the most well thought-out and most inspired educational system.’ What Vygotsky could not admit, except by his refusal to construct clear ‘educational ideals’, was that ‘unresolved’ social contradictions continued to exist in the Soviet Union. How they were to be resolved was, of course, the issue about which Vygotsky was most obscure. Ewing (2001, p. 479) finds that this sort of aversion owing to political caution pervaded the work of Soviet pedologists.

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crucially, how will this decision be made: consensually or coercively; democratically or autocratically?

Vygotsky’s Dogs Perhaps an attempt at an answer to the conundrums that Vygotsky poses for his readers can be drawn from the last sentence of ‘Transformation’. Vygotsky (1994a, p. 183) includes there yet another causal proposition for social transformation: ‘new forms of labour’. The quote is: ‘new forms of labour will create the new man and…this new man will resemble the old kind of man, ‘‘the old Adam’’, in name only, in the same way as, according to Spinoza’s great statement, a dog, the barking animal, resembles the heavenly constellation Dog.’ The last reference is to Benedictus de Spinoza’s key work, the Ethics.4 What was Vygotsky’s point in concluding his article by referring to an obscure seventeenth century philosopher to justify making a radical separation between the natures of humans in different societies? Does Vygotsky’s categorically absolute separation between a barking dog and the constellation known as Canis Major5 give an insight into the philosophical underpinnings of his analytical procedure? To answer these questions it is perhaps best to begin by asking who Benedictus de Spinoza was and why Lev Vygotsky would give his dogs the final say in an article written for scientific and technical workers. The biographies of the two men have eerie similarities. Both Lev Vygotsky and Baruch (later Benedictus) de Spinoza were Jewish. Both lived in revolutionary societies: the Soviet Union of the 1920s and 1930s and the Dutch Republic of the 1650s and 1660s. Both died young from tuberculosis: Vygotsky at 38 in 1934; Spinoza at 45 in 1677. Both lived in places where unorthodoxy could be punished severely: as a young man Spinoza was excommunicated from the Amsterdam Jewish community for his heretical views, while in his final years Vygotsky was placed under covert surveillance and secret investigation. In both societies self-censorship was prudent: Spinoza published only two works in his lifetime, one anonymously; Vygotsky withheld from publication at least two works that he felt were too politically contentious. After their deaths the publication of their works was officially proscribed. Both saw the atmosphere of relative philosophical liberty and tolerance that marked one phase of their new societies succumb slowly to a renewed intolerance. Most dramatically, both felt that they were engaged in constructing a radically new understanding of human existence that would sweep away old prejudices (Langford 2005; Nadler 2001). Benedictus de Spinoza was part of what Margaret Jacob (1981) and Jonathan Israel (2001) have called the ‘radical Enlightenment’. This was the period in European history when, according to Foster et al. (2008, p. 47), a revival of philosophical materialism challenged the orthodoxy of Aristotelian and Platonic idealism and Christian teleology. 4

Vygotsky had used this phrase before, in the concluding sentence of a manuscript written in 1926–1927 entitled The Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology. The paraphrase appears there after the following: ‘In the future society, psychology will indeed be the science of the new man.’ Vygotsky then qualifies this: ‘There is no necessity for this psychology to correspond [any closer to] the present one as—in the words of Spinoza—the constellation Dog corresponds to a dog, a barking animal’ (quoted in Rieber and Robinson 2004, p. 224). Here is yet another causal candidate for aiding the socialist transformation of humans—a new psychological method.

5

Canis Major (the greater dog) along with Canis Minor (the lesser dog) are two constellations accompanying the hunter Orion. In the northern polar sky, Canis Major stands on its hind legs and holds in its jaws Sirius, the ‘dog star’ and the brightest star in the sky, whose name in Greek means ‘scorching’ and at 8.6 light-years’ distance from Earth is the ninth closest star. Sirius is a binary star composed of Sirius A, a white giant, and Sirius B, a white dwarf.

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Foster et al. (2008, p. 21) state that the defining characteristic of this philosophical materialism and its stablemate naturalism (i.e., that everything can be explained by reference to natural causes) was ‘its opposition to all teleological explanations, i.e., final causes (whether God or Logos).’ As a starting point, this description of the most extreme trend in proto-Enlightenment philosophy precisely conveys Spinoza’s position. For example, his anonymously published Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (Theological-Political Treatise) of 1670 (1670/1958) begins by noting the abundant inconsistencies and absurdities in the Old Testament if it is read literally. He then proposes a humanist and historical reading of the text as a political work created by Jewish intellectuals in the process of creating a Jewish people (or nation). Spinoza then moves on to categorise and evaluate different forms of political governance, including despotism, autocracy, monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, republican democracy and ‘popular’ democracy. He proposes that for the free pursuit of philosophical inquiry (which appears to be the yardstick by which he measures the efficacy of these political forms) a large measure of tolerance of unorthodox opinions is necessary and this is best achieved in a republican democracy whose leadership is drawn from an enlightened class. Rather pragmatically, this most efficacious form of government largely equated to the way the Dutch Republic was governed, especially in its most enlightened province, Holland, and in its most enlightened towns, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague during the stadholdership (premiership) of Spinoza’s enlightened friend, Johan de Witt. Foster et al. (2008, pp. 20–21) note the epochal importance of the type of philosophical analysis provided by Spinoza and others: ‘it was this revival of materialism…that led to the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and ultimately to the Enlightenment’. Nevertheless, Spinoza’s philosophical propositions have their shortcomings. To try to abbreviate a potentially compendious discussion of all the nuances and inconsistencies found in Spinoza’s works, just a few complex and significant examples will be taken from his Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata, usually known as the Ethics, published after his death in 1677 (1677/1955), but probably written on-and-off from the mid-1660s. The Ethics seeks to fulfil analytically what Descartes had promised but did not deliver; a highly systematic and transparently argued series of philosophical propositions uncovering fundamental truths. The Ethics proceeds by stating each of its propositions and then offering proofs, both logical and observed. Its first part attempts to uncover the nature of God. This is the context of the quote about dogs to which Vygotsky refers: For intellect and will, which should constitute the essence of God, would perforce be as far apart as the poles from the human intellect and will, in fact, would have nothing in common with them but the name; there would be about as much correspondence between the two as there is between the Dog, the heavenly constellation, and a dog, an animal that barks (Spinoza 1677/1955, p. 17). Spinoza is proposing a radical separation here between the nature of God and the nature of human existence and understanding. The separation is so radical that God, or final causes, or teleology, or the fundamental substance of nature (Spinoza tends to elide differences between these categories; Den Uyl 2003, p. 30), appears to be unknowable to humans (Kashap 1977, p. 543). Yet Spinoza (1677/1955, p. 7) does propose that certain attributes of God are knowable: ‘God or a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exists’. These attributes are perceived to be discrete elements

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or entities where each could not ‘be produced from another’, yet ‘each of them expresses the reality or being of the [infinite and eternal] substance.’ So here is a radical separation of final cause from its effect or attributes as well as a radical separation of each attribute from others. Paradoxically though, while Spinoza (1677/1955, p. 7) seems to know that God, or the motivating force of nature, is eternal and infinite,6 nevertheless, ‘if any one still asks by what sign we shall be able to know the difference of substances…he will ask for that sign in vain’. This is because for Spinoza there is only one substance, a type of universal substance of which everything is composed or formed and while those forms, such as barking dogs or constellations, are apprehendable, the nature of the substance is not. So this radical separation between the divine and the mundane is on the one hand an epistemological one of our inability to know the final cause of things, but on the other hand at times Spinoza treats it as an ontological separation—that there really is a gulf between final cause and ultimate effect. So Spinoza’s proposal for a singular ‘God’ or substance is followed immediately by the proposition that it exists as an uncountable multitude of attributes or apprehendable elements whose ‘first cause’ or own essence is that they are generated from the infinite and eternal substance that is unknown and probably unknowable. This means that Spinoza substitutes intangibles (infinity, eternity) without ‘attributes’ for first causes: that is, to dodge the problem of teleology (the existence of a divine plan), Spinoza proposes causal categories without material existence or their own causes. Nevertheless and quite paradoxically, these intangibles are expressed in multiple material forms existing in nature. So for Spinoza, everything has both a tangible and an intangible existence and is both knowable and unknowable. While this lurching from the infinite to the mundane and muddying cause and effect may be fine for seventeenth century philosophers, it will hardly do in a more positivist age where measurable causality is accorded the highest priority and is an outlook to which Vygotsky certainly subscribed. Yet Vygotsky (1994b, pp. 341–342) makes a remarkably similar proposition to Spinoza’s for the procedure he favours for scientific analysis: If you recall, when we were discussing the methods we employ in our science, I attempted to defend the idea that in science the analysis into elements ought to be replaced by analysis which reduces a complex unity, a complex whole, to it units. We have said that, unlike elements, these units represent such products which do not lose any of the properties which are characteristic of the whole, but which manage to retain, in the most elementary form, the properties inherent in the whole. The distance between this statement of analytical procedure, ignoring the fine distinction made by Vygotsky between elements and units, and that of Spinoza’s where he suggests that God, or nature (or for Vygotsky the totality), expresses its attributes in a multiplicity of material emanations or forms, is infinitesimally small. At the same time, Spinoza seems to distinguish overall in his thought between ‘substantial’, infinite and ever-lasting entities like constellations or stars, as Galileo earlier and Newton later permitted, and ‘lesser’, transient entities like dogs. Perhaps he meant that studying the stars like Galileo would give more insight into ‘infinite’ or first causes than studying more banal entities like dogs. Yet when Spinoza’s humanist, historical and political reading of the Old Testament is combined with his contention of the 6

Spinoza (1677/1955, p. 7): ‘an entity must be defined as absolutely infinite which consists of infinite attributes, each of which expresses a certain eternal and infinite essence’.

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unknowability of God’s motive or purpose, then the corollary is that the motives and purposes of that most banal of entities, human beings, becomes by default the measure of all knowable things. This humanism is no doubt a key part of the appeal of Spinoza’s philosophy for Vygotsky (Kozulin 1990, p. 279). Unfortunately, these categorical hypostatisations, radical separations, dualisms, multiplicities, paradoxes and conundrums that Spinoza proposes where intangibles and tangibles exist simultaneously and where everything is knowable except the root cause of everything, means that Spinoza swerves from a radical doubting, which is the methodological starting point for his investigations and indeed for Enlightenment philosophy as a whole, towards a more methodologically dubious position of radical unknowing. It appears impossible for Spinoza to concede that everything may be knowable, even the nature of the mysterious ‘universal substance’. And he also seems to be proposing that even a rigorous tracing back of the cause of the ‘attributes’ of discrete entities will lead only to a frustrated outcome because of the innate unknowability of that generative cause. Perhaps quite rightly for his time and place, but by a sleight of hand, he dismisses a search for first causes which in the absence of a rigorous scientific method and in his society’s censorious circumstances would always be led back to the theological proposition of teleological intervention by God.

‘Dead Dogs’?7 This is a less tenable position, I believe, for Vygotsky to take in 1930. His aversion to searching for basic causes and layers of mediations to explain social and historical transformation stems from his aversion to commenting on their political corollary. Proposing educational, psychological and even biological transformation of humans obviously seemed a safer bet. The unfortunate result found in ‘Transformation’ was the gulf between his overly abstract, vague and hypostatised categories that were supposed to explain and guide the social and historical trajectory and their actual usefulness for his and others’ immediate tasks as educators. The useful beginning point for any scientific investigation of a radical doubting of basic assumptions became indistinguishable in Vygotsky’s hands from a radical unknowability of the actual object under investigation: the political transformation of the Soviet Union. The barking dog and the constellation were as far apart as ever. This is patently obvious in ‘Transformation’ where Vygotsky is chasing a causality expressed in only the most obscure terms; where broad and ill-defined categories such as ‘labour’ or ‘technology’ or ‘education’ become the counterpart of Spinoza’s just as obscure and obscuring ‘universal substance’. This is the connection between these two men separated by time and distance and it is found in the disconnection between the two dogs of Spinoza. The idea of a radical separation of discrete realms and then of a multitude of discrete elements, a proposition that may arise initially from a healthy and radical doubting of existing categorisations, becomes 7

This section title comes from Marx (1873/1977, p. 29): ‘But just as I was working at the first volume of Capital, it was the good pleasure of the peevish, arrogant, mediocre epigones who now talk large in cultured Germany to treat Hegel in same way as the brave Moses Mendelssohn in Lessing’s time treated Spinoza, i.e., as a ‘‘dead dog.’’’ This article, rather than treating Spinoza or Vygotsky as dead dogs, attempts to challenge the latter-day epigones in educational research who claim an uncomplicated descent of their ‘social constructivist’ imaginings from an uncomplicated, ahistorical reading of Vygotsky and/or his epigones.

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untenable when it elides to become a radical unknowing of causality. Vygotsky’s analysis of and proposals for the transformation of humans suggests all sorts of causes and processes because, as much as he would have liked it not to be the case, when he ventured into the realm of commenting on social transformation he had not simply raised a technical, educational or even a social question but had raised a political question that demanded political answers. And in Stalin’s Russia that was becoming a dangerous place for intellectuals to venture (Rosa and Montero 1992, p. 69; Fitzpatrick 1979, p. 193; Bauer 1952, pp. 120–123). Yet it was not just political caution that affected Vygotsky’s work, but an overreliance on a flawed analytical system inherited from the philosophy of Spinoza. Van der Veer and Valsiner (1989, p. 130), while praising Vygotsky for his proposition that modern ‘psychology’s theoretical apparatus is essentially dualistic’, go onto suggest that Vygotsky fell into a similar trap because of his dependence on Spinoza’s philosophy. They come to this conclusion, firstly, because ‘one can doubt whether a developmental theory [like Vygotsky’s] can benefit from the study of Spinoza’s writings’; and, secondly, because Vygotsky appears to reproduce a dualistic approach in his own psychological theory: ‘Is not some form of dualism retained in the distinction between lower and higher psychological processes?’ This analytical difficulty arises from Vygotsky’s ‘‘‘rather naı¨ve and strange’’ attempt to connect classical philosophy and modern psychological research,’ according to Van der Veer and Valsiner (1991, p. 359). Besides this, there is no doubt that Vygotsky’s procedural method of hypostatising relatively vague quasi-social categories and then connecting them haphazardly with precipitate verbs avoided hard political questions. This aversion to analysing issues of political power wreaked its revenge on the usefulness of Vygotsky’s procedure for understanding the transition to a workers’ paradise. At least Spinoza did not aver from a study of political forms, as in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and more directly in his unfinished Tractatus Politicus (Political Treatise; 1677/1958), even if his social contractarianism and hypostatised categorisations of forms of governance provided no procedural way to effect political transformation.8 So while Vygotsky certainly larded his ‘Transformation’ with quotes and paraphrases from Marx and Engels and with gestures towards Lenin—the pre-eminent philosophers of political transformation—it is his quote from Spinoza that points to his greatest methodological failing: the acceptance of an unbridgeable gulf between observed effects and ultimate causes. And if the causes of political change remain unknowable, as were the mechanisms of genetic variation and inheritance in the nineteenth century and the birth and death of stars in the seventeenth century, then how can society and education be transformed?

Conclusion: Laelaps and the Teumessian Fox In contrast to Vygotsky and Spinoza’s acceptance at a certain point of radical unknowing, Engels (1894/1978, p. 140) in Anti-Duhring quotes a quip from Spinoza’s Ethics: ‘Ignorance is no argument.’ Spinoza uses this to counter theological views of the unknowability of final causes by their ascription to the will of God, which thereby makes the outcomes of human actions unknowable. For Spinoza, when philosophers retreat to this mode of 8

Stuart Hampshire (1951, p. 194) states that Spinoza’s ‘radical lack of the idea of history…is the essential reflection of his general philosophy’. Van der Veer and Valsiner (1991, p. 359) find a similar methodological problem in Spinoza: ‘a developmental perspective seems to be entirely lacking in his work’.

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explanation, or lack of explanation, then it means a refusal to discuss causality and/or teleology by recourse to the excuse of ignorance: that first causes or God’s plan are decisive in history but unknowable to mere humans. In rejecting this disingenuous procedure, Spinoza was happy to move humdrum causality from the realm of God to the realm of humans, but still for Spinoza the final motivating cause remained unknowable in its infinity and eternity. Questions of both teleology and ignorance had simply been placed at one remove. Yet the stars and their constellations are not eternal nor infinite nor unknowable. As universal forces fluctuate so they are transformed, and we know more about those forces today and their causes than ever dreamt of or ignored by philosophers. But Vygotsky’s particular analytical method in ‘Transformation’ draws a line beyond which causal explanation dare not go. He uses the apparently acceptable Marxist justification of anti-teleologism to deny toto coelo a political basis for social scientific prediction. For him, this no doubt would be a pragmatic position to take since the Central Committee, and soon Stalin, would decide all questions of what counted as philosophical analysis and social and educational progress in the workers’ paradise. For readers of Vygotsky’s ‘Transformation’, this aversion simply presents a frustrating indeterminism. Vygotsky refuses to be explicit about his sense of ultimate social causality and thereby renders indeterminate all its mediating levels. For example, for Vygotsky, precisely what types of labour, his ‘universal substance’, lead to what types of social development? If human potential is ‘distorted’ under capitalism (Vygotsky 1994a, p. 177), then what does undistorted human potential look like? And most crucially of all and going to the heart of Vygotsky’s aversion to stating clearly his philosophical understanding of social and political causality is the following question: if non-alienated labour and proper polytechnical education produce the workers’ paradise, how do we produce the circumstances that permit non-alienated labour and proper polytechnical education? And if this sort of education ‘should play the central role in the transformation of man’ (Vygotsky 1994a, p. 181), then who will decide of what exactly that education should consist and who will educate the educators to put it into practice? In his failure to answer these questions it is clear that, just like Spinoza’s dogs, Vygotsky’s dogs of epistemology and ontology always remain radically separate and discrete, and therefore the causal connection between present and future is always just out of reach. In fact, the Greek myth of Laelaps, the dog in the constellation, cleverly captures the analytical issues at stake—hypostatisation, radical separation of causal categories and consequent dualism, and ultimately a resulting unknowability of causation: Laelaps was a magical dog that always caught its prey. Its owner Cephalus of Athens used the hound to hunt the Teumessian Fox, which was laying waste to the countryside of Thebes. However, the fox was destined never to be caught and Zeus, pondering the dilemma of the uncatchable fox being chased by the inescapable hound, turned the pair to stone and placed Laelaps as the constellation Canis Major. The location of the fox is a mystery.

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Chasing Vygotsky’s Dogs: Retrieving Lev Vygotsky’s Philosophy for a Workers’ Paradise  

Chasing Vygotsky’s Dogs: Retrieving Lev Vygotsky’s Philosophy for a Workers’ Paradise

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