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 senses."

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 Meshcheryakov's work."

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 sins.

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 practical reason."

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."

© 2009 Susan Welsh, All Rights Reserved.