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László Garai Theoretical Psychology Vygotskian Writings Теоретическая психология Выготскианские тексты contents

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Towards a social psychology of personality:
Development and current perspectives of a school
of social psychology in Hungary1

Points of departure: Dilemmas of a Marxian psychology

In 1970 there was organized in the Institute for Psychology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences a team-work with the scientific project of elaborating a psychological meta-theory that would be equally close to natural and to historical sciences.

The scientific program of the Department has its antecedents dating back to the 1960s. That period in Hungary was marked by a stabilization process of the socialist system combined with radical tendencies towards economic and social reforms.

Those rapid advances in society gave rise to many practical problems which, however, presupposed the answers to theoretical questions as well: What had the social reality of the preceding era been? What was the reformed society to be like? Does the direction of progress depend on free choice or on necessity independent of man?

Whether of a pragmatic, empirical, theoretical or axiological character, the ques­tions were not raised separately nor were they addressed to any specific area of intellec­tual life: answers to these unspoken but challenging questions, whatever their source, were commonly – sometimes publicly – expected to be provided by the “humanities”.

No such body of integrated knowledge really existed. But within the individual disciplines, separately reawakening or even reviving in the 1960s, the necessity for an integration of knowledge was felt in order to cope with the questions of that period. Moreover, the possibility for an integration of knowledge existed. As concerns the humanities it emerged in the course of events which Lukács called the renaissance of Marxism. Through this process, first of all, a wider circle of readers in Hungary gained access to those classic works (Marx, 1953 and 1963) which provided a theoretical-methodological groundwork to transcend the antagonistic approaches of Naturwissenschaft (sciences of nature) versus Geisteswissenschaft (sciences of the mind) which had provoked a scientific cleavage. Marx surmounted the problem by taking production, instead of nature or mind, as his starting point (Lukacs, 1973), production being just as much determined by spatio-temporal dimensions as nature, and just as creative as mind.

Had it not been for such an integrative principle, the humanities could not have prog­ressed, despite both the desire for integration and the need to solve current practical problems. Rather, such attempts would have remained trapped within the traditional boundaries of “Natur­wissenschaft” or “Geisteswissenschaft”, and would have been constrained forever to attempts to derive culture from human nature, or to trace everyday behavioral patterns back to man’s mind. This would have perpetuated the split between “explanatory” and “descriptive” human sciences.

Thus in the 1960s, when the need was more clearly felt in Hungarian society for the development “in Marxian terms” of various branches of the humanities, including psychology, it became more and more apparent that this need was identical with the one that urged psychology to make its findings available for integration by other disciplines, while itself developing the capacity to integrate research results from other disciplines.

The fact that there was a real need for a Marxian psychology, i. e. for a psychology capable of integration with the other humanities, is best demonstrated by the fact that there were representatives of other fields who attempted to anticipate the development of such a psycho­logy as long as none had yet been elaborated (cf. e.g. Lukacs, 1963, vol. 2, Chapter 11).

However, the elaboration of a Marxian psychology could have offered psychology much more than the mere possibility of integration with the rest of the humanities. Psycho­logy is in a unique position, for the “bisecting line” of the humanities cuts across psychology and divides it into a ‘scientific” (`Naturwissenschaft”) and a “humanistic” (“Geistes­wissen­schaft”) part, i.e. an “explanatory” and a “descriptive” psychology, the integration of which is in itself a longstanding problem. Now, Marx’s anthropological approach, which surpasses the two antagonistic approaches by stressing the principle of production, is especially promising in view of curing psychology’s innate schizophrenia.

To achieve integration, however, it will not suffice merely to add Marxian theses on the one hand, and psychological facts and interpretations on the other. In order to obtain a real degree of integration, the non-psychological, production-centered conceptual framework must be translated into terms appropriate for use in psychology. These new conceptual tools can then be used to interpret the available data and facts as well as to orientate further research.

Such was precisely the research strategy of the Vygotsky school which had its renaissance in the 1960s. It exercised a direct influence on the early phase of the work at the Department of Personality Psychology. Vygotsky’s basic argument was that man in his activity utilizes as psychic tools signs that are psychic products of his previous activity. These signs constitute a special i.e. psychic category of “means of production” i.e. they are means which have been derived as a product of production. Later, especially during the decade of the school’s renaissance, Vygotsky’s colleagues (Leontiev, Galperin, Luriya, Elkonin and others) extended their investigations from the sector of human activity producing and using psychic signs to the whole of activity oriented to real objects and made the general proposition that the phylogenesis and the ontogenesis of psychism take place in object-oriented activity (Leontiev, 1969).

However, the theory that was built around this general thesis contained a contradiction concerning the genesis of motivation. A motive was understood as an originally inner need objectified in some outer object, while the term object-oriented activity referred to a life process directed towards such a motivating object. But where then does a motive itself take its origin? It cannot be from activity itself since the latter, according to the theory, would already presuppose the existence of some motive. Hence if it is correct to argue that activity is organized by an originally inner need objectified as a motive, then there must be at least one psychic factor which cannot originate in object-oriented activity.

It is this theoretical contradiction which the hypothesis of the specifically human funda­mental need has been posited to resolve, adopting the Marxian strategy of drawing on a production-centered conceptual framework (Garai, 1962a, b, c; 1966a, b; 1966b; Eros and Garai, 1974). According to this hypothesis, a need, on either the human or the subhuman level, does not have to become objectified as motive in order to be able to organize an activity, since a need through the process of phylogenesis develops from the beginning as a need for object-oriented activity, evolving from those purely inner biological tendencies already given at the level of cells and directed towards the functions of nutrition, reproduc­tion, the regeneration of injured living structure and the isolation of intruding alien materials. This means that a need manifests itself as drive, inhibition, reward or punishment in various phases of such an object-oriented activity that has its structure determined according to the prevalent features of the given stage of phylogenesis (Garai, 1968, 1969b, pp. 119-134, and 160-168; Garai and Köcski, 1975).

Thus, the human character of a fundamental need is determined by the structure of activity specific to the human level of phylogenesis. The activity characteristic of the hu­man species is work activity. The hypothesis of the specifically human fundamental need suggests that man, as a result of his phylogenetic development and an ontogenetic process of maturation, possesses a need for some kind of activity, composed on the model of the structure of work activity, that is, consisting of the following phases: (1) appropriation: turning products of others” past activities into means for the individual’s future activity; (2) setting a new goal, which is an elaboration of tensions that appear between the already appropriated objects; (3) attaining the goal by producing some new object not existing previously; (4) alienation: a process that presents the product of the individual as a means to be used by others in their future activities (Garai, 1969b, pp. 178-200).

This hypothesis in itself presented a possibility of synthetizing various, sometimes contra­dictory psychological theories of motivation. For example, Lewin states that when a person has made a decision, the resulting intention will become a quasi-need for him and will maintain an inner tension until the decision has been carried out, regardless of whether it is kept in the focus of consciousness or not. Freud, on the other hand, speaks of “forgetting” certain intentions, i.e. purposefully expunging them from consciousness. Now, the hypothesis of the specifically human fundamental need explains that intentional actions have their special ways of fitting into man’s activity structure, and the fact of whether this adaptation happens to take place in a goal-fulfilling phase, or, on the contrary, in an alienating phase will determine whether the intention works according to Lewin’s or to Freud’s scheme. The hypothesis characterizes certain (mental) tactics, which were in part discovered empirically by social-psychological investigations of cognitive dissonance and in part by clinical psychoanalytical study of defense mechanisms, as fictitious manifestations of the specifically human need.

However, at this point of the development of the theory it became clear that such a level of abstraction overlooked a very important aspect of motivation.

In our approach, the existence of a specifically human need was taken for granted as an anthropological fact, one which motivates every normal individual to perform the successive phases of activity discussed above, with no more variation than permitted by the given stage of ontogenesis (Garai, 1969b, pp. 134-142). However, it is often found that there is a consi­derable variation in the way in which certain social expectations, concerning one phase or another, are met by different individuals. Some may feel that the activity which conforms to expectations is incited by their own inner motivation, whereas others regard the same acti­vi­ty as the result of some external pressure. There are some whose inner attitude corresponds to external expectations, yet the attitude does not become a motive of behaviour; finally, some do not at all, either in thought or in action, fulfill the given expectations.

Variation is even greater when the activities in question are not regulated by any explicit or implicit social expectations. Some people make scientific discoveries or produce technical inventions, others create works of art or lead a life that elevates them to acts of great moral value. They may attract followers who develop the discovery into a scientific school, the invention into an industrial enterprise, the work of art into culture, and the individual moral deed into a mass movement. Some will still be found who retain their passive attitude towards historical processes until a social expectation becomes clearly formulated.

How is this variation to be explained? It could seem natural to resort to a typological analysis to answer this question addressed to personality psychology. However, the approach which was adopted for the research program of the Department of Personality Psychology was essentially different. The methodological principle which led to rejecting the typological approach was found in Lewin (1935, pp. 41-90), who maintains that the modern, Galilean mode of thinking requires psychology to refrain from sorting the objects studied into different classes in which they would fall under different laws. The typological approach in psychology is a remnant of this abnegated “Aristotelian” way of thinking, which, in order to cover pheno­mena that are beyond the reach of the general psychological laws, designs other, independent laws instead of homogenizing “with respect to the validity of law” the world psychology investigates.

An important point to add to Lewin’s concept of homogenization was elaborated within the framework of the specifically human need hypothesis: individual motives and social determi­nants were not opposed to each other as biological needs to be described by natural laws, and cultural norms to be described by laws of the mind. One pole, the need of the individual, was represented as directed towards an activity modeled after the structure of work, while the other pole, the social determinant, was shown as a tension in the historical process of production (Garai, 1969b, pp. 81-111).

Work and production are two aspects, one individual and one social, of the same process. The same homogenization principle was also applied to the above-mentioned problem of variation, and resulted in the interpretation that the different responses of different individuals to the tensions arising in the historical process of production depended on the positions occupied in the total social structure of the relations of production.

The specifically human need hypothesis made just such a statement of this interconnection. The task of a Marxian psychology to render the production-centered conceptual framework adaptable was not carried further by means of this approach than to where the fundamental theoretical work of the Vygotsky school extended. Its work was in fact limited to the aspect of production as work activity and left the problems of production as a relation of property un­explored. While expounding the specifically human need hypothesis, the related contradiction of the theory can only be mentioned (cf. Garai b, 1969).

Since the question here concerned the mediation between social determinants and individual motives, a Marxian and therefore production-centered psychological investigation of human motivation could not be carried further unless the verbally stated interconnection was also made conceptually adaptable for psychological purposes.

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