The history of psychology is characterized by unparalleled complexity of its methodology and uniquely ambiguous subject matter closely entangled with issues of power, social justice, and ethics. This complexity requires inordinate levels of reflexivity and conceptual sophistication. In effect, a historian of psychology needs to explicate no less than one’s worldview—a broad position as to how people are situated in the world, relate to, change, and get to know it, and how knowledge develops through time—all coupled with one’s broad sociopolitical ethos. Traditional histories of psychology have operated with an astonishing lack of reflection about these issues. One of many deplorable results is that psychology still grapples with its racist and sexist legacies and lacks awareness of social injustices in existence today. The recently emerging approaches have begun to remedy this situation by focusing on situated practices of knowledge production. This article addresses how human agency can be integrated into these approaches, while focusing on knowledge production as not only situated in context but also, and critically, as a world-forming and history-making process. In tackling the shortcomings of relational approaches including social constructionism, the transformative activist stance approach draws on Marxist philosophy and epistemology—infused with insights from Vygotsky’s psychology and other critical theories of resistance. The core point is that knowledge is achieved in and through collaborative community practices realized by individually unique contributions as these come to embody and enact, in an inseparable blend, both cultural-historical contexts and unique commitments and agency of community members. The acts of being-doing-knowing are non-neutral, transformative processes that produce the world, its history and also people themselves, all realized in the process of taking up the world, rather than passively copying it or coping with it. And since reality is in-the-making by people themselves, knowing is about creating the world and knowing it in the very act of bringing about transformative and creative change. Thus, the historicity and situativity of knowledge are ascertained alongside a focus on its ineluctable fusion with an activist, future-oriented, political-ethical stance. Therefore, the critical challenge for the history of psychology is to understand producers of knowledge in their role of actors in the drama of life (rather than only of ideas), that is, as agents of history- and world-making, while also engaging in self-reflection on the historians’ own role in these processes, in order to practice history in responsive and responsible, that is, activist ways.
The interdisciplinary connections between psychology, the humanities, and the arts in Russia played a powerful role in delineating the unique character of the psychological field in the country. During the 19th and early 20th centuries an approach in Russian psychology that drew on the work of philosophers and theologists, art and literature critics, poets and writers represented a powerful current in the Russian quest for self-understanding. The interdisciplinary exchanges between psychology, sciences, and the arts intensified after the October Revolution of 1917. The revolution’s imperative of reshaping the world in a socialist mold ushered in a period of bold experimentation in the arts and the formulation of similarly ambitious research agendas in the sciences. The first 15 years following the revolution saw intense traffic between scientific laboratories, research institutes, and teaching institutions, on the one hand, and theaters, art studios, and the cinema industry, on the other, reconfiguring what had traditionally been understood as the distinct domains of science and art. The ideal of synthetic knowledge and the imperative of integration, especially in the domain of psychology, was also the main driving force behind the emergence of the cultural-historical paradigm proposed by Lev Vygotsky. Moreover, many of Vygotsky’s key concepts—including sign, mediation, and “perejivanie” (emotional work)—are indebted to his early encounters with literature, theater, and art criticism. A non-classical paradigm, the most recent and original development in Russian psychology, continues to draw important insights from aesthetic theories and philosophy. Overall, the Russian tradition in psychological humanities provides a powerful example of epistemological practice that brings art, humanistic inquiry, and scientific research well and truly together, generating a remarkable synthesis of knowledge.
Marxist ideas influenced and inspired psychological thinking and practice in the 20th century in a range of ways. In different parts of the world, unique versions of Marxist psychology emerged as answers to questions and problems raised by specific historical contexts. As shown in the early 21st century scholarly interventions in Lev Vygotsky studies, the Soviet psychologist’s work was deeply embedded in the sociopolitical, cultural, and ideological context of early Soviet Russia. In countries such as Brazil and Italy, Marxism had a more indirect influence as an emancipatory discourse. In the wider framework of Latin American liberatory ideas and struggles, the educational philosopher Paulo Freire and psychologists Ignacio Martín-Baró and Maritza Montero wanted to increase the autonomy of those in poverty with their radical ideas and practices. In Italy, mental health reformers Franco Basaglia and Franca Ongaro Basaglia wanted to end the social alienation of psychiatric patients by allying with contemporary Italian Marxists and members of other social movements to change institutions from within. In the communist countries of Eastern Europe, psychology and Marxism had a complex relationship. Marxist psychology could be used rhetorically to make psychology somehow safe for socialism, but there were also psychologists who were truly inspired by Marx and used his work to further their wider social and educational agendas. These cases all highlight the importance of the interplay between local, regional, and global aspects in the history of Marxist psychology. Taken together, they show how Marxism has been a discourse utilized for various social, cultural, and scientific ends within psychology. Rather than existing in a purely political form, Marxist ideology and thinking has often manifested in the field as (re)interpretations, traveling ideas, and conceptual hybrids. The history of Marxist psychology can be regarded as a continuous effort to reinterpret and reprocess Marx’s ideas about the human condition. The history of Marxism and psychology also reveals an inner contradiction between control and emancipation, between the ideological aim of molding “collective men” and encouraging individual autonomy.