Vygotsky's Cultural-Historical Theory and Marx's Ethnological Notebooks

Mohamed Elhammoumi, Ahmed Alnajjar


Psychology by no means holds the “secret” of human affairs, simply because this “secret” is not of a psychological order. Georges Politzer, 1929, p. 170.In the 1920s, a vision arose which was to captivate the Soviet psychologists’ imagination for the next six decades: the vision of molding a new man for a new society as rationally ordered as the Marxian view of society. While fueling extraordinary advances in all fields of human, social, and natural sciences, this vision perpetuated a hidden yet persistent agenda: the delusion that human nature and society could be fitted into precise and manageable rational categories. Indeed, the question of molding a new human being was very soon to dominate the debates which took place in the early 1920s and 1930s. It was in the course of these debates that the foundations of the cultural-historical theory were laid in psychology for carrying forward the vision of molding a new human being for a new society. This new society will create a new human being, “In the future society, psychology will indeed be the science of the new man. Without this perspective of Marxism and the history of science would not be complete. But this science of the new man will still remain psychology. Among the prominent psychologists who seriously confronted that agenda in his writings is Lev Vygotsky, he stated that “man … is social person - an aggregate of social relations, embodied in an individual (psychological functions built according to social structure)" (1989, p. 66).  Vygotsky’s ideas are rooted in Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks. Marx put the Sixth Thesis on Feuerbach to the test in his critique of Maine (Henry Sumner Maine, 1875). Marx's conception of the social individual as an ensemble of social relations became the kernel of Vygotsky's cultural-historical theory. Vygotsky, like Marx, moved away from the conception of the individual as a self-contained agency and grounded his theory on Marx's conception of the social individual as an ensemble of social relations. Social individuals do not simply produce the means and conditions of their own lives and live under these conditions but produce the conditions under which they live. Vygotsky engaged in developing a theoretical framework to the two-sided reality of social individuals as not merely subject to their life conditions but simultaneously creating them. The ethnological notebooks were in circulation in Moscow as early as 1923. In sum, the Ethnological Notebooks is perhaps as important for cultural-historical psychologists as the Method of political economy is for economists. It is suggested that the Ethnological Notebooks should be reexamined for their implications for most present-day debates on Vygotsky's cultural-historical psychology.

Keywords: Cultural-historical theory; Ethnological Notebooks, Sixth thesis on Feuerbach; Main concepts of cultural-historical theory; Human nature; Social change; postmodernism and foundationalism interpretations of cultural-historical theory.

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