E. Ilyenkov and the Deaf-Blind Children:
Soviet Psychologists Show Pavlov the Door
by Susan Welsh
This article was first published in New Solidarity newspaper on June 10,
1977. Although much has changed since that time, the work reported is of enduring interest, and this article has been edited only slightly. The author would be interested to hear from anyone in Russia who has been involved in this work, or who knew Evald Ilyenkov (contact me here). A Communist philosopher whose coexistence with the official bureaucracy was uneasy at best, he committed suicide in 1979. (For more information.)
This year the graduating class at Moscow State University
will contain four highly unusual students, the products
of a unique "experiment" in Soviet psychology with
broad-ranging theoretical implications. The students
are deaf and blind. But with only tactile and olfactory
input from their surroundings, they have fully
assimilated human culture and are presently engaged
in scientific research of their own.
Kommunist, the theoretical
journal of the Soviet Communist Party's Central
Committee, drew attention to the theoretical significance
of this accomplishment, and called for redoubled efforts
by Soviet scientific institutions to deepen and extend
the work (no. 2, 1977). Kommunist's endorsement is a victory
for that humanist faction of Soviet psychologists
and philosophers which demands that the study of the
human mind become, for the first time, a genuine science.
For decades this faction has waged a (frequently
subterranean) fight against the reductionist Pavlovian
emphasis in Soviet psychology--the crippling heritage
of the Stalin period. For these humanist scientists
and teachers, the startling success with the deaf-blind
children has been a kind of crucial experiment, proving
beyond any doubt that their epistemological approach
has been the right one all along.
Besides the four university graduates, there
are over 50 deaf-blind students now being successfully
trained in Zagorsk, near Moscow. Western science,
on the other hand, has been relatively unsuccessful
in developing such severely handicapped children. The "miracle" of Helen
Keller in the early 20th century has proven almost
impossible to replicate, leading western authorities
to conclude that her accomplishment was either a gift
from God or a fluke based on her exceptional brain
and genetic endowment.
No `Miracle' at All
The article in Kommunist by philosopher Evald
Ilyenkov, who has closely observed the work with
deaf-blind children for a decade, says bluntly that
no sort of "miracle" is involved here, but the most
rigorous scientific method. Basing their work, not on "diamat," but on humanist principles reaching back to Spinoza, Soviet researchers and pedagogues have discovered highly
effective means for developing the mental capacities
of not just deaf-blind children, but all children.
As Ilyenkov emphasizes, the general problems
of the formation of the human intellect are posed
most sharply in these handicapped children, since
absolutely no human qualities--reason, will,
consciousness--will develop "by themselves." All must
be painstakingly cultivated by the teacher, following
rigorous scientific precepts, until the child develops
sufficiently that his further mental growth comes
under his own self-conscious control.
In a symposium on the subject held in 1975 at
Moscow State University, leading psychologist A. Leontiev
described what happens if a deaf-blind child is left
in a "touchy-feely" world of objects which he is supposed
to somehow assimilate into a Gestalt of the outside
world: "There is a complete helplessness in space
and--what is more astonishing--a practical absence
of orientation reactions [the effort to explore around
oneself for food, water, etc., which is observed in
lower animals, and is a cornerstone of Pavlovian
psychology--SW]. There are no objective requirements,
only elementary organic needs which cannot give rise
to any organized and oriented behavior.
"In this case the psyche--if one can at all speak
of the psyche--is totally amorphous, unorganized, and
chaotic in both the objective and subjective aspects.
No stable images crystallize in this torrent of the
The alternative, Leontiev says, "was found in
the process of action with objects.
Here I must make the reservation: human action with
human objects." While an animal adapts itself to
its environment in the process of satisfying its
biological needs, adds Ilyenkov, it is totally different
with man, who changes nature according to his needs.
The process of labor makes him man, and labor changes
not only the environment, but the nature of man himself.
This is what makes him human.
Pavlov vs. Spinoza
The pioneer in this Soviet effort was Ivan A.
Sokolyansky (1889-1960), who began his career as
a pupil of the physiologist and dog-trainer Ivan Pavlov
and of the arch-reductionist "psychologist" V.M.
Bekhterev, the founder of the infamous school of
"reflexology" which was in vogue in the U.S.S.R. in
the 1920s. Ilyenkov relates how Sokolyansky "quickly
became convinced that this route was a dead-end. Animal
training--even if very adroit and clever by animal
standards--is all that a `pedagogy' based on such
conceptions could provide. Human behavior, revealing
the existence of specifically human mental
functions--consciousness, will, intellect, and
self-consciousness--did not arise, and no `rewards'
or `punishments' could be of the slightest help."
Without ever naming Pavlov--who remains something
of a sacred cow in the Soviet Union, following decades
in which all psychology was Pavlovian ("materialist")
by decree--Ilyenkov ridicules Pavlov's whole system,
and particularly the "second signal system" (language),
which the Pavlovians had constructed to explain the
existence of the human mind. "Non-dialectical thinkers,"
says Ilyenkov, try to reduce human psychology to that
of animals "only more complicated," alleging that
there is no fundamental distinction between animals
and man. Such notions are good only for training circus
animals, Ilyenkov says. "Starting with innate
(`unconditional') reflexes, you build on them, on
their base, ever new levels of `conditional' reflexes.
Start with the `first' and on top of it put the `second
signal system'--speech, language. And as a result,
lo and behold, you get man."
Alongside the reductionist trend in Soviet
psychology, there has historically existed a humanist
current, in which the present work is rooted. In
the 1930s Leontiev's teacher, L.S. Vygotsky, developed
a theory of child development that stressed
the importance of social relations as the precondition
for developing cognitive powers and language. For
a time Vygotsky's work was banned, and his students
and followers have often had to compromise his principles
by grafting on Pavlovian appendages, but nevertheless
his influence has been strong. In the Moscow State
University symposium on the deaf-blind, Professor
V. Davydov, director of the Institute of Psychology
of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Pedagogical Sciences, noted
the similarities between the approaches of Vygotsky
and Sokolyansky (and the latter's chief collaborator,
A.I. Meshcheryakov, 1923-1974). Davydov called for
a full reevaluation of the history of Soviet psychology.
The situation requires "a restoration of historical
justice," he said, since "regrettably, historians
of our science have lost sight of the dialectical
tradition of the theoretical reproduction of the psyche,
the `I,' the `soul,' `self,' by the method that was
used by Descartes, Spinoza, and later Fichte. Without
taking this into account it is impossible to understand
the modern method of penetrating the mysteries of
the `soul.' Precisely this method is the soul of all
Ilyenkov himself has been a leading fighter for
this humanist tradition in epistemology, and in 1968
he provoked an uproar among the ensconced Pavlovians
when he wrote in the official philosophy journal that
no amount of inquiry into physiology and "reflexes"
will reveal a single thing about the human mind. The
Pavlovians, frothing at the mouth, wrote letters to
the editor denouncing him for "revisionism" and other
Tracing the development of dialectical philosophy
in a book published in 1974, Ilyenkov identified
Spinoza's monism as the foundation for a
science of psychology: "... the anatomical-physiological
study of the brain, of course, is an interesting
scientific question, but the most complete conceivable
answer to it has no bearing on the question `what
is thought?'... (How strange it is that even to this
day, 300 years after Spinoza, we find people who still
do not understand this ... and try to create a logic--a
science of thought--on the basis of and as a result
of the `structure of the brain,' `structure of language,'
`formal structures of scientific theory' and all kinds
of other `structures.'... The process of thought itself,
or `thought as such,' a process going on under definite
conditions and leading to definite results, remains
completely outside the bounds of such an approach.)"
In his recent Kommunist article, Ilyenkov blasts
the granddaddy of the reductionists, American rat
psychologist B.F. Skinner. Skinner's "rewards" can
be compared only to the "pieces of sugar that are
given to bears in the circus for riding on a bicycle.
When such reward-reinforcements turn out to be
insufficient, `negative reinforcements' are brought
in--punishment." This, Ilyenkov says, is how "bourgeois capitalist
society" achieves "behavior modification" in its schools,
factories, and prisons, to shape the workforce into
the desired contours. "It is no surprise, therefore,
that Skinner's co-thinkers are more and more frequently
placing their main hopes on direct, forcible intervention
into the working of the brain through surgery and
chemistry, electronics and hypnosis. This is a fully
logical outcome, demonstrating the complete bankruptcy
of such `pedagogy,' its openly anti-human character."
Development of the Sovereign Individual
The fundamental principle used to educate the
deaf-blind children, as Ilyenkov describes it, is
to develop them as the subject of actions on other
people and the world. "They were only objects of
investigation at the beginning of their road, when
the process of forming their personality began....
The rest is their own accomplishment." By taking
initiatives, the child develops self-consciousness,
"that is to say, the ability to be conscious of oneself
as if from the side, to look at one's own activity
as if through the eyes of another, from the point of
view of the `human race,' constantly checking one's
work against the ideal standards (norms) provided
by the history of culture, and striving to surpass
these norms, bringing them to a new level."
The teacher facilitates this process of
self-development by providing the child with a social
context for learning, and by posing tasks which will
further expand his capacities. But most important,
Ilyenkov stresses, is to decrease adult guidance
as the child develops his own competence at a given
task. Thus in teaching a child to eat with a spoon,
the teacher must respond to the slightest sign of
independent initiative from the child by immediately
lessening the pressure of his own
hand. "It is here that the child's first step into
the realm of human culture occurs: He is trying to
cross the border which separates the psychic world
of the animal from the psychic world of man. This
is nothing less than a specifically human form of
activity. Do not stop it, do not extinguish it! If
you, not noticing it, continue to guide the child
with the same force and persistence as before, the
activity of his own hands will weaken and die out,
and no urgings on your part will reawaken it. Therefore
immoderate guiding pressure, not taking into account
the independence that has already developed in the
child, only hinders the process of mental development,
slows it down and puts it off to a later period, with
other, more complex types of activity. And this in
itself leads to distortions in mental development,
including in relation to such an important component
of it as the formation of will, that is to say, of
Ilyenkov emphasizes that what is true for deaf-blind
children in this respect is no less true for normal
children. How often, he asks, does a parent do something
for a child which the child could do for himself?
"Don't we frequently hesitate to give him full
responsibility for decisions, for actions--justifying
ourselves that we can do it quicker, more intelligently,
better than he knows how to yet? And isn't it from
this that we get `amiable,' passive people, lacking
in initiative and will, too `dutiful,' fearful of
making independent decisions and not knowing how to
make them, much less how to carry them out?"
In the case of Helen Keller, says Ilyenkov, Western
scientists concluded that the reason she was able
to develop an intellect was that she learned speech--that
once she learned simple words, human mental capabilities
began to develop in her. Dead wrong, he says--it works
the other way! Only when a child has developed a
rudimentary human identity can language develop.
Otherwise, by teaching a child one simple word, "water,"
through a Pavlovian process of pairing the word with
the object a thousand times over, you will get a circus
animal perhaps, but not a human being. In the case
of Keller herself, what is generally overlooked by
Western observers, says Ilyenkov, is that before she
ever learned the word "water," she had been socialized,
"humanized" under the guidance of her playmate, a
servant girl, who taught her all kinds of things about
life on her father's farm. It was this which laid
the preconditions for her talented teacher, Anne
Sullivan, to teach her speech.
Professor Davydov, at the Moscow State University
symposium, explained why this is so. The system devised
by Sokolyansky and Meshcheryakov, he said, "raises
the curtain not only over the mystery of the birth
of the psyche but also over the mystery of the birth
of language generally. Attention is focused mainly
on the fact that in the experiment words are not
so much the symbols of things as symbols of activity
with them...." That is, it is the child's actions
on the world around him which enable him to form the
conceptions or Gestalts which he will then learn to
express through language.
These Soviet researchers emphasize that it is man's
social relations which make him human, and therefore
that the social context in which deaf-blind children
learn is of the utmost importance. One of the four
graduating from Moscow State University, Natalya
Korneyeva, describes her experience this way: "Take
the example of a group of small children who are
taken out for a walk. They have learned how to serve
themselves and understand simple gestures, but they
do not as yet have active contact. Purposeful activity
must be organized for them, for instance, by scattering
snow to allow it to melt faster. The children are
given shovels, but for them these are not yet implements
of labor, only new objects which they can manipulate,
drag along the ground, or spin. They are shown how
to take the snow on the shovel and throw it on the
dark asphalt; they enter into the novel notion with
pleasure. But then the observer begins to worry that
the children are trying to get too close to each other,
placing themselves in danger of being hit with a
comrade's shovel in the zeal of the moment. They are
made to stand farther apart from each other. They
resist. Then they submit under the threat of being
left without a shovel.
"What is the matter here?... Attentive observation
has shown that the problem was in the motivations
of the actions. At first the child was attracted by
the novelty of the action, but this motivation soon
faded, and he began to manipulate the shovel, abandoning
purposeful activity, for he did not yet have the
motivation to work for the common good. A child loses
all interest in working alone, all the familiar
manipulations with the shovel have been made, and
the assistance of the adult demonstrating purposive
actions is accepted submissively and negatively, as
something imposed and incomprehensible. It is quite
another matter to look and act with other children.
But because their vision is bad, they huddle together.
The extent to which joint work attracted them may be
gauged by the fact that after long work the children
did not want to give up their shovels."
Ilyenkov draws out the more profound epistemological
implications of this in a description of an address given
by the students to an overflowing hall at the university.
An anxious "dialectical materialist" in the audience sent
a question up to the podium: "Doesn't your experiment
refute the materialist truth? (`Nothing in the mind that
is not in the senses.') Why, they see nothing and hear
nothing, and yet they understand things better than we
do." Ilyenkov relayed the question to one of the four,
Sasha Suvorov, who replied: "Who told you we see nothing
and hear nothing? We see and hear through the eyes and
ears of our friends, all people, the entire human race."
Through these healthy processes of cognitive
development, the Soviet scientists have shown,
"talent"--something normally viewed as a gift, a genetic
endowment of the privileged few--can become universal,
even for the severely handicapped. "This quality,"
Ilyenkov concludes, "is the result of the harmonious,
all-sided development of man, his higher mental functions
(capacities), brought together into a unified
personality, and concentrated on the solution of great
tasks of general significance."