The symbolics of psychology under a totalitarian system: the case of Hungary in the 1960s1



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The symbolics of psychology under
a totalitarian system: the case of Hungary in the 1960s1

Csaba Pléh

Department of General Psychology

Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest 64

P.O. Box 4, 1378 Hungary pleh@izabell.elte.hu

Social symbolics and social determination in science studies



In the recent articulation of the strong program in science studies a special attention is paid to the issue of the separability of the scientific content on the one hand and the symbolic role of scientific theories on the other. Most of the proponents of the strong program (the Edinburgh program, if you like) take a rather clear stance here. Scientific content and social symbolism cannot be separated in the causal models of the development of science. Scientists are certainly looking for truth (which is itself a socially conditioned category in this view, but we can ignore this aspect for the moment) but they do this as full social beings. Scientists of the modern times participate in different networks. The intellectual network, the world of the "invisible colleges" is the most visible out of these, but the everyday private network (the personal life of the supposedly removed scholar), and the social network, including the political one are all penetrable to each other as Bruno Latour (1993) claims it most clearly. The different networks are competitive and sometimes cooperative determiners of the growth of science.

There are certain trivial aspects of this social determination. Regarding the "socialist Europe" it is hard to forget a rather direct social determination.2 Just think about the immediate power related social determination of the fate of genetics, and for that matter, psychology as well. (Joravsky, 1989 gives a detailed account of these practices regarding psychology.) "Progressive" science that promised sudden and immediate changes, both in agriculture, and in peoples's mind, in education, was not only symbolically related to a political "voluntarism", but through direct political control as well.


To counterbalance the genuine science, an agricultural science of a different style was being created, one which cynically used the weapons of promise and deceit, an opportunistic science that accepted the paragraphs of countless decrees as axioms of its logical structure. Medvedev, 1969, p. 248


There are, however, less transparent determinations. Scientific theories with their symbolic aspects, but also with their directly claimed causal mechanisms enter the social world. They are cultivated and developed not merely for their merits but due to this underlying determination by interests. Let us take an example close enough to psychology. Steven Shapin (1975, 1979) in his studies on the fate of phrenology in Edinburgh society claims for a social explanation for the spread of the multiplicity view of the human mind. Not only were people different from each other in this view, but some of these important differences were also observable on the basis of external signs (see of this semiotic aspect Lanteri-Laura, 1970). This was a new discipline. We should not forget that prior to phrenology there was no serious previous teaching about brain localization. The new discipline was cultivated by the new industrial and commercial classes of Edinburgh society, while the aristocracy together with official academia was motivated to claim a unified view of the mind, and therefore a unified vision of social power. Goldstein (1994) showed a similar distribution over a larger time scale. In nineteenth century France, throughout the whole century, there was a tension between unified and multiple views of the mind according to his interpretation. The multiple views were of different varieties: empiricist (Condillac), phrenological (Gall), or based on the clinical evidence of dissociation as in Charcot, Ribot, and Janet. This vision of the mind corresponded to a multiplicity vision of the world, and in its civil variety of the architecture of the mind to a claim that there are many different types of excellence. These approaches were in constant tension and debate with the centralized government related official philosophies that were lay versions of the view of the Catholic church regarding the soul, and symbolically, of centralized power.

According to the new strong proposals about the social determination of science, science should not be interpreted as the equivalent of a religious sacred realm that is not connected to profane and mundane issues (Bloor, 1991). It should be tied by its sociological study to its social background, and in this regard, not only an institutional history is in place, but a careful positioning of the theories and their social meaning as well, be them true or false from a later perspective (Shapin, 1992).



One can, of course, always raise the charge or challenge of hermeneutics here. It is questionable whether by showing the symbolic associations we really do uncover causal relations, which is the real intention of the strong program (Bloor, 1991) or do we merely reconstruct the workings of a semantic engine, i.e. the human mind that sees meaning, in this case social meaning, in all possible patterns. I sympathize with this latter view, with a serious restriction. We should not forget that not only are the people reconstructing the social interests behind a theory hermeneuticians, but the actors themselves whom they characterize also had been lay hermeneuticians. Therefore, in this symbolic domain one should not expect a simple linear determination.

Take a trivial example. The social situation of the ethnically and linguistically divided Austro-Hungarian monarchy with the dissolution of the empire following World War I can be interpreted, as this has been done many times (see e.g. Janik and Toulmin, 1973) as the social explanatory background for the different deconstructionist views, be it regarding the mind and personality (Mach and Freud), or novel writing (Musil), language (Wittgenstein), and the whole world. Fair enough. As Nyíri (1992) pointed out, Austria can be seen as the first intellectual source and terrain of the "postmodern condition". But let us not forget that the same social setting was responsible for the flourishing of one of the strongest integrative attempts of modernity in the Vienna School, for theories that tried to reduce or model everything in a common language of a unified science. As a sensitive psychologist, you could of course claim that this unifying attempt was also related to the dissolution background. Certainly, as Toulmin (1990) indicates it for earlier versions of the unified views, for the Cartesianism of early modernity, unifying notions can be born due to the hopeless division and fragmentation of society, as a "compensatory reaction". (In the special case of early modernity, unifying conceptions appeared due to the devastation in the religious frictions in the Thirty Years War). All of this shows the complexity of the symbolic-social determination. Humans are agents in their social field, they act in it, but within the given circumstances. 3 There are a series of consequences of this for the symbolic relations that interest us here. As a first step, the acts of the human agents do not have a meaning fixed for ever: they have only contextual meaning. E.g. social progressivist movements tend to be tied to intellectual movements that question the dominant ideas in academia, whatever they be. Thus, there is no eternal social meaning to the different world views, their functional meaning depends on context. Second, the field does not simply determine the action of the people , but it does motivate them. Therefore, what we can reconstruct in the best case is "only" this chain of motivation, and not a clear determination.

This long preparation sets the tone to look for some similar symbolic determinations in the unfolding of psychology in the 1960s of socialist Hungary.



Passive organism versus activity
The issue of activity has become a central one in Central-Eastern Europe during the sixties. As a matter of fact, a loosely defined, fuzzy, "cloud like" opposition was setting up between two approaches to behavior and mind. They corresponded to two views on human nature, and, in fact, to two views of social organization, as shown in Table 1.



Fixed view


Dynamic, active view


Behavior science


Pavlovian conditioning passive sensation

(mirror)
one channel pathways

learning and reflection


Instrumental learning

active and motor perceptual models

orientation and selection multiple pathways

motivated learning

Corresponding social organization and philosophy


top-down organization

historical relativism individuals are passive subjects

fixed rewards

closed world

bottom-up organization

human nature as given

individuals are active initiating agents

changing rewards

open world



Table 1: Some features of the opposition between two views on man in behavior science and social organization





The non-orthodox visions of human behavior were united in a feeling of looking for more activity in humans. In the debates characterizing active and passive views of perception, regarding the importance of instrumental and Pavlovian conditioning and the like, there was a hidden underlying social issue: namely the issue of how far are we as subjects of the Big Brother, indeed, merely instances of large scale social laws, or are we ourselves agents, with intentions and an active self-determination. One could even say, that open minded psychologists were looking for more "agency". This latter issue, however, is rather a differentiating feature. "Agency" at the time also had an activist reform-Marxist connotation. Therefore some professional psychologists were happy with the idea of activity, "agency" being too speculative, and, too Marxist for many of them.

Due to the underlying factors and the social symbolism associated with them is easier to understand after three decades some of the fierce oppositions and also the centrality and emotional interpretation of some ideas that would have been considered to be as "mere" scientific issues.


The case of conditioning
One of the most clearcut opposition was between Pavlovian and instrumental learning, as summarized in Table 2. The good guys, of course, stood for instrumental learning. One factor in this was, of course, institutional. In Hungary, the Pavlovization of much of biology and psychology was a rather drastic and fast process in the 1950s, and the self-awakening psychologists in the sixties were reacting to that heritage. Pavlov was, so to say, the officialdom. Some of the experimental psychologists were trying to overcome it, or live with it by showing that it was possible to reconcile Pavlov with experimental (horribile dictu, American) psychology (Kardos, 1960). For the majority, however, a new road was open by emphasizing the importance of instrumental conditioning. Pavlovian conditioning had several features that predestined it to become "classical" conditioning. The very situation of the animal in the experimental setting is rather symbolic. Pavlov's dogs are constrained on the experimental podium. They are tied with scratches. The animal cannot move, typically it's only possible action is to modify its salivation. (Or, to move its one untied leg.)

The instrumental learning situation is, of course, opposed to this on a trivial symbolic level as Russian versus American. There is, however, a further, semantically more rich symbolic opposition as well. The animal in a Skinner-box seems to have much more initiative. "Cats in the puzzle box", to use Thorndike's expression (Thorndike, 1898), try several movements, and one is selected due to the consequences. Thus, in instrumental conditioning there is a role for chance.

In a way, the precursor of instrumental conditioning, trial and error learning corresponded to that constantly moving and pragmatic Darwinian image of man the new canonizers, like Rorty (1979) see in John Dewey (1910). Instrumental learning indeed corresponds to an "instrumental vision" of knowledge. And in the framework of this image, an active, crucial and not merely background role is played by motivation. Learning only happens if their is reinforcement. In some interpretations of the Pavlovian case, however, learning happens merely by contiguity. Again, there is a social implication that can be easily projected to this image: on one image, you need to make people interested in what they do, in the other image, you do not need immediate rewards for any social activity. In the instrumental view of knowledge and in instrumental learning you need direct motivation and also the self initiated activity of the animal. Table 2 summarizes these contrasts.




Classical conditioning




Instrumental conditioning

constrained animal


freely moving animal


learning by association


learning from consequences


motivation not required


motivational essential


role of chance reduced


chance is essential



Table 2. Some contrasts of the two views of learning





All of these features made for a strange position, if I dare to say, a strange "ideological position" of instrumental learning in a strictly restrictive society. The same Skinnerian model of learning that has become in the late sixties the symbol of control, manipulation, and a lack for freedom, a deterministic view of man in American society, and in the high intellectual circles, a symbol for the over ambitious reductionism of Skinner (Chomsky, 1959), in Eastern Europe became a symbol for activity and freedom as contrasted to Pavlov's dogs who were merely subjected to interventions and were undergoing learning without doing too much. The small textbook by Barkóczi and Putnoky (1968), and the neurophysiological theory of reinforcement elaborated by Endre Grastyán from the early sixties on, and presented to broader audiences as well (Grastyán, 1967) were clear examples for this interpretation. The troubled fate of some Pavlov followers in Russia like Beritashvili who dared to use more naturalistic settings with freely moving animals clearly shows that the symbolic aspect of the Pavlov orthodoxy was extremely strong (see Joravsky, 1989 for details). The symbolic side of experimentation there became a moving of social reality. Conditions in the sixties were not as trivial in Hungary. People were not persecuted for taking Skinner or Konorski seriously, but there certainly was a symbolic side to their preferences.

Perception and activity: The mirror revived


The same underlying issue, the role of activity, showed up in perceptual research and theory. Both in physiology and in philosophy (and of course, psychology) there was an implied or de facto passive view of perception that would take perception to be a mere information intake. This was the clearest example of the "mind as mirror of the world" image of modernity criticized so sharply by Rorty (1979). One could even say that the combination in official ideology of the Leninist version of epistemology where the mind "mirrors the world" and Pavlovian physiology with the "two signaling systems" was a sad caricature of scientific modernity and its representational view of the mind. The social symbolics of this official image had to do with passivity again: mirrors and signals do not do too much, things happen to them. In contrast to this official passive vision the good guys were claiming that perception was to be an active process. There were several rival varieties of these claims even within Hungary. First of all, there were attempts within Marxist theory for a change towards a more active image of man, including a concept of "active mirroring". That meant, among other things, a return and a cultivation of the anthropology of the young Marx (Márkus, 1968a), and an in depth philosophical analysis of perceptual research from the point of view of "activity theory", social categorization in perception, and concepts coming from analytic philosophy (Márkus, 1968b). This was heretic enough for traditional "Leninist theories of mirroring", but was not appealing to all psychologists.

On the other end of the scale, experimental psychologists were mainly busy treating the motor components of perception as essential, and at the same time campaigned for some version of a template based view of perception where perception would be infiltrated by background knowledge. Experimental programs were initiated by Zsolt Tánczos (for a late review see Tánczos, 1984) for the explanation of the fine role of motor components in compensating retinal image distortions. The Innsbruck studies of Kohler belonged to the popular issues of the time. Motor theories were combined in this view with a Brunerian New Look approach. The emphasis on perceptual learning carried the implication of a nonrigid world that is not predetermined, neither by nature nor by society.

The reader edited by Magda Marton (1975) was a clear and trend setting example for this approach. At the same time, some other psychologists took up the "neomarxist" interpretations of the issue of activity and the Soviet work towards an active view of perception and human "agency" (Leontev,1978). Again, a reader this time edited by Ibolya Váriné-Szilágyi (1974) was a clear summary of this attitude.


The two lines were rivals in a sense due to some of their ideological connotations. The latter group thought that it would form a perceptual theory that is reconcilable with a view of man that treats man as more "active", more agent-like in the sense of the early writings of Marx. The more experiment oriented group thought, on the other hand, without spending to much time to spell it out dangerously, that psychology was an issue for the psychologists and should not be messed up with a reinterpretation of Marxism along more action theoretic and activist lines. It should to be the least possible "infected" by philosophical considerations whatsoever. This should not be taken as an aversion towards philosophy as such, but, rather as an experience based attitude that showed that association with politically interpreted philosophies already lead several times during this decade to later politically based professional discrimination in Hungarian psychology (see about this László and Pléh, 1992, Pléh, 1997). Though experimental psychologists had a symbolically motivated preference for an active view of the mind, they did not see any need to ally this to a reform Marxist orientation. For them, the battle for more "activity" in models of the subject was also a battle for more autonomy and independence of the whole field. In the official jargon of the time that corresponded to the idea that psychology was a "natural science", therefore not part of the "superstructure", therefore it is ideologically not sensitive to "class interests" or what not.

Thus, for both directions anything that was "active" was supposed to be good and progressive by the psychologists. Notice, that those were times when the ideological debates were going on for a proper interpretation of "progress". "Progress" was not yet an unwelcome four-letter word. Everybody still believed in the idea of progress. But some thought progress entailed a more natural science view of man, with a deterministic flavor, while others thought progress entailed a more social, or even a more voluntaristic and undeterministic image of man.


Motivation
The issue of curiosity, orientation reaction, cognitive motivation and spontaneous activity also played a crucial role in this self-definition of modern Hungarian psychology. That appeared in several forms. In psychophysiology, Moruzzi and Magoun (1949) became the bibles, and the most intensive research unfolded regarding the importance of activation in learning, their connection to sensory reinforcement, and relationship to play and self initiated activity. The work of Endre Grastyán from the fifties well into the eighties was the clearest example for this trend (Grastyán, 1961, 1985). Indeed, he was the first to propose a model about the role of hippocampus in learning through the regulation of orientation.

In human psychology as well, activation mechanisms were presented as crucial (Marton, 1964) and they were even put into the center of research on modern experimental typology (Marton and Urbán, 1965). The importance of "manipulative behavior" and the central role of self based sort of actively searching cognitive motivation was also central to studies on infant development (Barkóczi, 1970). This was coupled with an emphasis on less restraint in infant education (the so called Loczi method of institutional infant care). All of this implied a view of man where man is not only a passive information and knowledge intake unit under Prussian control, but is actively seeking knowledge and the truth. Elicited behavior was contrasted with spontaneity. Parallel to this there was an emphasis on the role of non homeostatic elements in motivation (Barkóczi and Putnoky, 1968, Grastyán, 1967, 1985). The underlying was again there: strict homeostatic mechanisms were equivalent to a closed world, while curiosity, activation and so on represented the idea of an open universe. Interestingly enough, there were frictions between neomarxist trends and the "naturalist' psychologists regarding motivation as well. Ågnes Heller (1979) campaigned for a reduced role of "natural" moments in human emotions and motivation, and argued for a constructivist theory of motivation, not unlike the one proposed by Garai in a philosophical psychology inspired largely by the activity theory of the Vygotsky school (1969, 1993). Meanwhile, the "naturalists", referring to ethology for support argued for specific human instincts and a biological explanation of the non-homeostatic motivation systems.
Group organization
In the revival of social psychology in Hungary in the sixties there was a clear trend towards showing the superiority of the spontaneous and emotion or attraction based groupings versus the formal ones. This happened in a society where the official ideology paid an enormous amount of lip service to "communal organization" and to the idea of an abstract predominance of the social over the individual. The de facto society was based on strong hierarchies (forget about the egalitarian slogans). Societal organization was bureaucratic in the sense of being formal, not in the sense of being efficient. This was accompanied by an open emphasis on the importance of class, class interest and so on.

The good guys contrasted with this an emphasis on spontaneous structures. The sixties were the prime time of sociometric research and activism in Hungary. The clear implication being that primary groups should be based on real affinity and as Ferenc Mérei's (1989) extensions of Moreno showed, on efficiency or competence based organization, rather then the official one. There was a constant undertone suggesting that official groupings were simply bad. The officialdom was inefficient in selecting leaders: we are in fact the alternative, the "real leaders". That is what any vote, be it a sociometric vote, would show. Thus sociometry in a way was a substitute for politics: it implied an organization outside politics, but at the same time it was based on voting and choice that did not really exist in Hungarian official politics at all. With its emphasis on emotionality, immediate social power, and on choice, sociometry had a hidden threatening message. Even more threatening than the mere idea of social engineering was. Remember that the communist credo in its early forms had a clear social engineering commitment.

Ferenc Mérei, the leader of the sociometry movement was the archetypical network guru. His entire life was defined and fulfilled through the networks he not only belonged to, but brought to life. At the same time his main scientific contributions also had to do with the issue of the relationships between the group and the individual, between good and bad networking from the perspective of democracy and individual happiness. His early paper (Mérei, 1947, 1949) pointed out that group interaction can create an "experiential surplus" that is different from the mere sum of the individual experiences. Later on, he developed this notions into several directions: elaborated the notion of "allusion" as a semiotic way to remind us of our group belongingness (see e.g. Mérei, 1994 ) and also worked out a theory of the relationships between leaders and groups where efficient leaders always take over the values of the group.

Mérei's life and work later on can be seen as an example of the implications of some of his early insights. His life was also a living witness for the intervention of politics into the life of the scholar and the other way around. As Erôs (1995) recently pointed out, the active political leader of educational reform of the forties, when fallen from grace and even put into prison, learned from his own example two important things for a Central European scholar. First, the shaky nature of life and power, the constant shift between inner and outer circles, which lead to a reflective consideration of the relationships between power and real human groups. A theory and a practice with hundreds of followers claimed a central place for spontaneity and for spontaneous group formation on the scientific level. Second, a de facto practice of unofficial groups followed where togetherness, training, and the supportive value of group relations against the power structure of society was constantly reexperienced. Primary groups and their emotional aspects had become for Mérei both the cementing factors of human life at large and the keys to survival and protection of individual integrity against officialdom.


Another central feature of early Hungarian social psychology is the constant emphasis on anti-authoritarian attitudes and on the importance of democratic group leadership. While the Lewin and Adorno inspired and mediated notions retained their original antifascist meaning, at the same time they transmitted a more general anti-authoritarianism (see about this Erôs, 1979). I.e. they carried an implication, though openly not spelled out, but tacitly assumed that our own society also showed signs of the illness of authoritarianism, and cannot really face democratic leadership practices on any level.
Motherhood and the state

The seemingly absolutely innocent issue of mother-child relationship was also not an easy and trivial one. Comparative psychologists like Magda Marton and Ilona Barkóczi, as well as developmentalists in textbooks (Mérei and Binét, 1970), psychoanalysts dealing with attachment problems, and even the openly not psychoanalytic case study literature constantly reemphasized the importance of motherhood and maternal love in infant development. One has to understand the symbolic undertones of this, again, not in the context say of present day American feminism but in the Hungary of the fifties and sixties. One of the "party lines" suggested an idealized version of Makarenko based communal education. It suggested that as a matter of fact, it is the state that has to care about children, in all levels of their development. The state should have thereby, of course, control over the moral development of children. This way, one of the great issues of educational publicity a the time, "double education" (home being religious, school being materialistic-atheistic) would be overcome.

Seen from this perspective reemphasizing of maternal roles, and the arguments pulled for it from research on hospitalism and the Harlows, was not a return to traditional role models. rather it was an attempt to use the cultivation of scientific facts to protect children's rights against attempted organized hospitalization. To phrase it anachronistically, it was an early children's right movement.



The issue of knowledge and truth
There is an interesting underlying problem all over Central and East European intellectual history in the times after Khrushchev. Scientists always believed that they were standing on the right side, in the sense that they were in the side of real progress. Society and power might have biased the notion of progress, but there was a belief in real progress. For science, this implied that there is going to be more freedom of research, and a clear stance against obscurantism. Truth will be victorious. Truth cannot be oppressed on the long run, and there is an affinity between reformist social changes and the truth as delivered by science itself. Belief in "positivistic truth" as hard as it may to accept it now, in the context ot the time was an act of moral an intellectual revolt, and not a comfortable stance. It would of course be very difficult not to believe in the objectivity of the truth in a social organization where you constantly experience not the unconscious but the planned and manipulative distortion of truth.

Present day hermeneutically based relativistic views on truth challenge this enlightenment version of belief in progress in the former socialist part of Europe well as in the "educated West". Both the scientist and the hemeneutician believe in the need to increase human freedom. But they diverge in the fact that the hemeneutician would extend his flight for freedom towards a total freedom of interpretation as well. In this view, it would be an unfounded reification to believe in the objectivity of truth. Truth itself is a construction. The scienticist scientist, on the other hand, believes that his freedom of interpretation is constrained. He fights society in the very name of these constraints on freedom, while the hermeneutician challenges the notion of truth in the name of the freedom as well.



A version of these different revolts against authority was true for the non-existing dialogue between Neomarxists and experimental scientists. Both groups were looking for more freedom but each one suspected the other in compromising freedom for new constraints. The data oriented social and behavioral scientist was supposed to be too much involved in building a deterministic image of man which would counterbalance the socially deterministic but the same time factually voluntaristic official view. The Neomarxist at the same time overemphasized the "constructed character" of social life and social determination. In the eyes of the scientist working in the direction of providing an intellectual sanctuary from the voluntaristic politics at the top, this latter one seemed to be a rather threatening perspective.

One can only hope that in the politically clearer perspectives of today a more open dialogue will develop between the naturalist and the constructive images of man, and small intellectual communities like the one existing in Hungary can even become interesting in these dialogues.


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1 While working on this paper the author had enjoyed the hospitality of the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, California. His work was supported by a Gardner Lindzey Fellowship of the Mellon Foundation. The author would like to thank Zsuzsa Vajda for letting him express his ideas at the conference.

2 Incidentally, this "social determination" based on political directives and expectations makes it hard for Central and East European scholars to deal without personal emotional involvement with the whole issue of social determination in science.

3 This is a hidden Marx reference, by the way. "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past." (Marx, 1852/1963, p. 15).



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