Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1337
Luria’s childhood was passed in Kazan, where his father taught at Kazan Medical School. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, despite the fact that he had completed only six years of an eight-year Gymnasium curriculum, Luria entered Kazan University and began a program of study which covered major trends in European philosophical, psychological, and psychoanalytical thought. The most powerful influence on Luria’s thought in this period was the Revolution itself. He writes in the first chapter,The Revolution freed us . . . to discuss new ideas, new philosophies and social systems. . . . We were swept up in a great historical movement. Our private interests were consumed by the wider social goals of a new, collective society.
In addition to the Marxist social theory which pervaded the intellectual climate during his youth, other influences on his work and thought included German neo-Kantian theory, the psychoanalytical school (dominated by Sigmund Freud), Anglo-American psychology (such as that of William James), and Russian psychology. Even at this early stage of his career, Luria noticed the tendency within psychological study to distinguish too sharply between the “nomothetic” approach, that is, the application of generalized laws which characterize scientific inquiry, and the “idiographic” approach, that is, the study of individual cases, which seems to prevail in the human and social sciences.
When Luria went to Moscow in 1923 to study with Kornilov, he encountered another of the rifts in psychological theory and practice which was to concern him throughout his long career: “the idea of splitting the brain from the mind.” This split was clearly an example of the rift in psychology which Luria had already defined as the distinction between the nomothetic and the idiographic. The association with Kornilov also had practical results; with him, Luria began the clinical and experimental work which culminated in The Nature of Human Conflicts: Or, Emotion, Conflict, and Will (1932), a pioneering study leading to the development of the lie detector. The Moscow experience confirmed Luria’s commitment to clinical and experimental psychology, along with his interest in theory.
The following year, Luria met Lev Vygotsky, who was to be a lifelong inspiration and, even after his death, a mentor. The project of the psychologists in the Vygotsky circle was to create a new psychology which would synthesize conflicting trends which they saw in their profession. A student of Karl Marx, Vygotsky took the approach that all human behavior must be studied as the product of human interaction, as well as individual growth; he believed that higher psychological functions, in particular, must be studied as interactive phenomena. The most significant single element in Vygotsky’s theory was the principle of “mediation,” that is, the process by which the human mind breaks down and recombines elements in complex mental operations. Attention to language, the principal means of mediation, more clearly focused Luria’s work into the areas of theoretical and applied linguistics, brain damage which affects language competence and acquisition, and, more generally, the interaction between brain and mind in the production of language. These interests were to underlie Luria’s work for fifty years.
Luria’s mature period began with full integration into the Vygotsky circle. The most elaborate piece of work carried out under Vygotsky’s impetus was a long series of interviews in Uzbekistan in the early 1930’s with peasants of various degrees of literacy. These interviews were meant to discover how literacy affects modes of thinking, developmental levels, and attitudes toward language. Among Luria’s conclusions, as outlined in Ob istoricheskom razvitii poznavatelnykh protsessov (1974; Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations, 1976), was the idea that psychological development and change could occur at any point in an individual’s life if he or she were provided with the necessary intellectual tools. Luria’s next major project in the 1930’s, on the mental development of twins, had a clear theoretical connection with the work in Uzbekistan. Through a series of experiments with twins, Luria and his associates clarified the dual role of nature and nurture in human development and worked out some teaching strategies for critical thinking. One of the foci of this work was the mediating role of language in the development of higher psychological functions.
Luria’s interest in children continued into the following two decades with his move in the early 1950’s to the Institute of Defectology, which Vygotsky had founded many years earlier. Using techniques developed by Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, but at the same time attempting to transcend Pavlov’s mechanistic interpretation of human behavior, Luria explored fundamental differences in reasoning and language skills between normal and retarded children. Luria regarded his work during this period as a series of “pilot studies,” most of which he did not have time to pursue, but he reiterates at this point in the narrative his conviction that a methodology combining statistics, controlled experimentation, and informal observation is the most fruitful for psychological inquiry.
Luria’s work with brain-damaged patients during the 1940’s and 1950’s was more coherent and even closer, perhaps, to his true interests. Building on the work of British neurologist John Hughlings Jackson, Luria tested disturbances of higher psychological functions in aphasic patients with Parkinson’s disease and other types of brain damage. He describes and assesses these data in a book on traumatic aphasia, whose publication was interrupted by World War II. Characteristically, Luria was able to make his necessary work with war casualties productive in terms of his professional career. In the early 1940’s, he organized a military hospital in Chelyabinsk, where he tested and treated brain-damaged soldiers, noting especially the effects of trauma on language facility. This time, his inquiries led him to consider the difficulties with writing which resulted from brain damage. Luria’s account of this period ends with his usual regret that he did not have enough time to follow through on organizing the data he had collected.
During the 1950’s Luria was able again to focus more directly on the interest in language facility he had developed during his association with Vygotsky, and once again he was able to engage more directly in the theoretical enterprise of combining the nomothetic and the idiographic aspects of his work. In this phase of his career, he began to identify important parallels between the higher psychological functions of children and those of brain-damaged adults. He felt more compelled at this point to explain higher psychological functions in terms of both nature, or physiology, and nurture, or the social and political environment which Marx and Vygotsky so emphasized. Most revealing from a human perspective is a summarizing statement near the end of this section about the significance of his lifework: “We must never forget that an individual human life is at stake, not a statistical abstraction which, on the average, supports a theory.”
This statement prepares the reader for the last section of Luria’s work, a meditation on classical and romantic science. Luria comes to the end of his career still motivated by the desire to mediate between two approaches to his profession: the statistical, empirical, and generalizing approach versus the approach which treats the complexity of the individual in a nonreductive way. It is clear, however, that if forced to choose, Luria would choose the romantic side. He would follow the impulse to explore the unquantifiable mysteries of science. In this vein, he wrote Malenkaia knizhka o bolshoi pamiati (1968; The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory, 1968), about a man with a synaesthetic memory, and Poteriannyi i vozvrashchennyi mir (1971; The Man with a Shattered World: The History of a Brain Wound, 1972), in which he narrated the slow and painful recovery of a severely brain-damaged soldier. Each of these books describes “an individual and the laws of his mental life.” Finally, Luria finds in his own life a kind of case study, not as interesting a piece of romantic science, perhaps, but a revealing account, nevertheless, of a career which was shaped by a combination of personal idiosyncrasies and the powerful forces of a particular moment in history.
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