Shalizi on A. R. Luria and The Neuropsychology of Praxis

Cosma Shalizi offers us this piece:

Today’s find, via Mind Hacks, is an online archive at UCSD dedicated to the memory of the great Soviet neuropsychologist Alexander R. Luria. (Lots of the links are broken, though.)

Today Luria’s probably best known for the “neurographies” he wrote, like The Mind of a Mnemonist and The Man with a Shattered World, which inspired Oliver Sacks’s famous ventures in this line. But he actually made really important scientific contributions, which deserve to be remembered.

Luria began his career as a disciple of Lev Vygotsky, who had a fascinating pre-cognitive theory of how individuals acquire higher mental functions through a scaffolding provided by cultural traditions (especially language) and social interaction. Vygotskyism was an explicitly Marxist theory: it was supposed to be a scientific account of how thought arises from practice. While it is very hard to accept some of Vygotsky’s more extreme statements, there is I think a core of very real insight here, about both individual development and collective cognition, and one which moreover is fundamentally compatible with sound computational views of the mind.

To support the theory, Luria led an expedition to Uzbekistan which sought to document how the Soviet introduction of modern education and collective agriculture (!) was transforming the mentality of the natives. The resulting report — translated as Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations — is an astonishing mixture of fascinating experiments and conjectures, and equally fascinating displays of colonialist blindness. Most of Luria’s subjects were Uzbekistani peasants who’d been forced onto collective farms a few years earlier; a decade previously the whole province was the scene of the basmachi revolt, which was suppressed by the Red Army with the usual measures. It never crossed Luria’s mind, so far as I can tell, that a bunch of Russian academics, asking questions which clearly indicated that the Russians thought the Uzbeks were idiots, would meet with anything less than full and sincere cooperation.