Tuesday, 16 May 2017


Further thoughts on Vygotskii's brain

A loving family together again: Lev Vygotskii,
his wife Roza, and daughters Gita and Asya

A few days ago I published an item on the preservation of L. S. Vygotskii's brain in the Museum of the Institute for the Study of the Brain in Moscow:

Museum of the Moscow Brain Research Institute (photo A. A. Vein 
As far as I know, there it remains.

A corrective comment

Vsevolod Geil has commented on this posting on Facebook –

Just wondering what is so revolting and sad in the depicted facts?! Soviet fellows like Vygotsky, Bekhterev and much more of others, which is really hard to believe for some people, would have been happy if they had known that they may serve the humankind/society even after death as sort of same as organ donors nowadays.

His Comment deserves serious reply...

Of course you are 100% right, Vsevolod. Preserving a brain for physiological or medical research is no different from preserving an arm or a kidney, or any other body part for such purposes, or a whole body. This is a biological matter.

I would, however, maintain that selecting out a brain because of a dead individual's thoughts or activities (whether these had been glorious or to the contrary) raises questions on a qualitatively different plane. The same goes for the brains of groups. 
The distinction is at two levels (maybe more):
  • selection criteria
  • theoretical basis
But you also remind me to watch my language.

Why pick on Vygotskii?

To my mind (not to my brain!) the process of selection is far from unproblematical. Just whose brains merit such post mortem investigation? Extreme categories social like 'genius', 'wickedness', 'saintliness, 'creativity', 'scholarship', are social constructs, variables subject to cultural and ethical (and therefore also political) definition, as is the value that is accorded them. The same can of course be said for the everyday variabilities of human personalities that all of us manifest (as do the geniuses, monsters, creatives, scholars etc.).

In 1934, in a particular point in history and in a particular place,  Vygotskii's brain was reserved for biological study. Why? Presumably because aspects of his life and his achievements were valued (or regarded as at least remarkable). This was done by those in a position to act on this. 
  • His brain is still being kept there. Why? Institutional inertia? Are the same values still respected as in Moscow in the nineteen-thirties, for the same reasons? But surely not out of sentiment.
  • Which of his achievements and/or attributes were/are valued. For what, by whom? Perhaps because he was a s psychological theorist, or perhaps because he was a Marxist philosopher? 
More fundamentally
  • Vygotskii had other human attributes. He loved poetry, and he was a loving family man – and there would have been uncountable other features that have not come down to us, most unlikely to be considered to merit biological study (though both the examples just given may have been important in creating including his total world view and the directions that he took).
  • Not to mention his social and historical circumstances – and the fact that he was a German-speaking and German-reading Jew as well as a Russian-speaking Marxist. And that for most of his adult life he endured the hideous tuberculosis that eventually killed him. These and innumerable other ontological factors contributed to the human whole that was Vygotskii's personality, his Seele (Germ.), his психика (Russ.).
If one wants to learn the origin of  L. S. Vygotskii's creativity then this surely lies in his historical and social circumstances, and in his ontological, personal-historical experience of these.

Speaking figuratively – and wholly within the framework of Vygotskii's own apparent understandings – if anything here is worthy of 'autopsy', the more appropriate line of scientific enquiry would be to study his particular social-historical context, his personal development within this, and his practical activity. Better to study the practice and ideas that helped form this human being, and the social context in which he incorporated and sought to develop these, than charge futilely up the blind alley of psycho-biology.

Personally speaking...

How do I know this? Vygotskii told me, back in the nineteen-seventies, since when my whole developing understanding of the human world (including that tiny corner of this that is Conductive Education) has been framed by this.

How, Vsevolod, do I account for my describing the appropriation of Vygotskii's dead brain for biological research 'revolting and sad'. At one level I cannot. This is an out-of-place subjective response. I should have denied myself this emotional outburst. I suppose that I could have stated it simply as 'ironic' but, though less emotional, this would still be subjective.

The underpinning biological statement of the human brain's being the seat of consciousness does not mean that our brains are also the unmediated source of our consciousness. Lev Semenovich Vygotskii devoted his short life to combatting this simplistic assumption, for which he thoroughly deserved singling out as one of the greats of human thinking of the twentieth century.

It is ironic then that in death his mortal remains fell into hands that representing what he had struggled against in life, for his brain to be passed on to the successor-organisation of a project founded by the reflexologist V. M. Bekhterev to study brains that no longer function.

Many years ago I was taken to Lev Semenovich's grave by his daughter Gita L'vovna, who now shares it. I did not know at the time that part of his remains reside elsewhere (in retrospect I now wonder whether she did at the time, though I suppose that she must have). I think that I might have been the first Westerner to have asked to go, and it was a sombre enough experience as it was without having that in mind.

Perhaps I am wrong in finding the attempt to biologise our humanity as a perversion of science and a brake on human well-being. But believe this I do.. Others, I know, believe quite to the contrary. To me, what has happened here, is more than simply ironic. Yes,  'revolting' was indeed the wrong word to use in this context, unnecessary and distracting, but  I do find what has happened here not just saddening but unsettling. To me it speaks volumes.

I will settle for 'telling'.

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