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Dialectical Materialism

Chapter · January 2014

DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4614-5583-7_606

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Jeremy Ridenour
Austen Riggs Center


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Dialectical Materialism by Jeremy Ridenour and Richard Ruth
Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology · Article ID: 310597 · Chapter ID: 606
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Both mainstream and, to a lesser extent, critical psychology follow other social and
natural sciences in generally failing to engage with dialectical materialism as a
philosophical system contending to define scientific method and thought; at best,
dialectical materialism is consigned to a category of historical relic. But even this is
problematic: Standard histories of psychology devote space to alchemy and phrenology,
but do not mention dialectical materialism. Yet much psychological thought pays
particular attention to what goes unmentioned in conscious discourse, recognizing that
what is present but unrecognized – as Freud named it, the unconscious; as Lacan put it,
the Other – often has particular weight, role, and power. So perhaps psychology, and
critical psychology, can benefit from considering how dialectical materialism considers
psychological realities, and the ways, explicit and covert, dialectical materialism has
contributed to diverse areas of psychology.
Definitions and Central Concepts
To properly understand dialectical materialism in the context of critical psychology, we
first need to define both dialecticism and materialism.
Hegel felt that to study things in their essence meant to study them in their movement,
recognizing that understandings were inherently partial and incomplete. Thus, as against
notions of Newtonian physics and Renaissance materialism, interpreters of Hegel have
summarized his notion of the dialectic as universality of the movement from thesis to
antithesis to synthesis to philosophical understanding, which he located in the activity of
mind. (For a comprehensive contemporary critical treatment of Hegel’s notion of
dialectics, see Rosen, 1982.)
Marx and Engels saw Hegel’s view of dialectics as an advance over previous systems of
philosophical understanding, but fundamentally idealistic and therefore wrong. In several
texts, they relocated the center of action of the dialectic from mind to world – reality,
history – and insisted that economic, social, political, and psychological phenomena be
seen not just as they were, but as their negation, that is, what they could become through
struggle. Thus, they reframed Hegel’s dialectic as dialectical materialism.
In his Philosophical Notebooks, Lenin (1965/1914) provides perhaps the most clearly
articulated conception of dialectics in the dialectical materialist framing. Lenin argues
that the dialectician - working inherently in a framework of commitment to
transformative (primarily societal) change – should begin with the objectivity of the
phenomenon-in-itself. Next, the dialectician should investigate the phenomenon’s
relations to other forces and to the evolution of the life of the phenomenon. The
phenomenon is to be understood not only as composed of internal – by nature,
contradictory – forces; in fact, every phenomenon is seen as comprised of the unity and
contention of opposites, in interaction with their context. Dialectics was defined as also
needing to study how each phenomenon is inextricably connected to every other
phenomenon. Lenin argued that dialectics is not simply restricted to the union of the
opposites, but by obligation also examines the changes and movements of all properties
of a given phenomenon. Dialectics therefore concerns itself with the process of analyzing
how internal contradictions give rise to new forms and change.
Reading Lenin’s definition, one readily appreciates its developmental and behavioral
dimensions; it not only lends itself to psychological application, but it is inherently
psychological. Whether or not one agrees with the understandings of history Marxists
have developed, or how Marxists have applied their understanding of dialectical
materialist principles historically, it is this psychological understanding of dialectical
materialism that grounds our discussion.
Dialectical Materialism
Toward a History of Dialectical Materialism in Psychology
Theory and Metatheory
Wozniak (1975) outlines three laws of dialectical materialism relevant to psychological
understanding and practice. First, the law of transformation of quantitative into
qualitative change implies that an object can undergo an essential change only if the
inherent qualities of an object are changed quantitatively. Next, Wozniak articulates the
law of the unity and struggle of opposites – that all phenomena have as their essence
innate, antagonistic tendencies; the struggle between these competing forces is seen as
the motor of change and development. Finally, the law of the negation of the negation is
defined as the “replacement of the old by the new (negation) and the re-replacement of
the new by a newer still (negation of the negation) which serves to reinstate aspects of the
old but at a higher level than that at which they existed in the old” (Wozniak, 1975, p.
Tolman (1987) provides a philosophical definition of materialism for psychological
application. He describes materialism as positing that all that exists in the world is
matter; that matter exists independent of the mind’s apprehension of it; and that the laws
that govern the world are objectively knowable. Materialists disagree with the
philosophy of idealism because idealism does not assume the independent existence of
objects outside of the mind’s conception of these objects. Materialism also opposes
positivism’s narrow conception of objectivity and knowledge and argues that, for
psychology to be objective, it has to account for the subjective influence of the knower.
(An extrapolation of Tolman’s thinking would be that materialism sees clinical
psychology as not fundamentally hermeneutic, agreeing, for example, with the
fundamental Kleinian stance [O’Shaughnessy, 1994].)
Luria (2002) suggests that dialectical materialism is based on two premises: Dialectical
materialism is the study of the material relationships between events as the primary
determinant of consciousness; and dialectical materialism assumes that the material
conditions of reality are in flux, always in motion. Thus, change is not linear, and its
process is not constant. This fundamental understanding inextricably links psychology to
the social – it becomes impossible to simply accept social reality at face value because
social phenomena are a product of socioeconomic realities. Perception of social reality
then becomes mediated through human understanding and linked to action, a view in
sharp contrast with much contemporary social cognition theory. While Marxism has
been criticized as negating and annihilating the psychological, Luria (2002) argued that,
to the contrary, dialectical materialism centers on an essential human, and thus
psychological, role in social life.
Dialectical materialism provides a unique foundation for conceptualizing psychological
methods. First, let us analyze how a dialectical materialist psychology differs from other
approaches methodologically. Vygotsky (Van der Veer & Valsiner, 1994) criticized two
competing psychologies (Packer, 2008) – behaviorism, focused on uncritical bondage to
material reality, and introspectionism, which he also identified as idealistic and saw as
mental activity delinked from material reality. Vygotsky understood both approaches as
fundamentally flawed because they separate wholes from their parts and incorrectly
assume that this is the best way to understand psychological phenomena (Bickley, 1977).
Vygotsky also criticized behaviorism for jettisoning consciousness from the study of
psychology and believed introspectionism was idealistic and flawed for isolating the
functions of consciousness and studying them independently of one another (Van der
Veer & Valsiner, 1994).
Vygotsky believed the way beyond these competing psychologies was to unite practical
and academic psychology in the project of individual and collective transformation.
Related to this, Vygotsky believed that dialectical materialism, as a scientific method,
needed a strong historical foundation, recognizing the various social forces that
contribute to the science of psychology (Packer, 2008).
Similarly, Wallon (1972) argued that dialectics allows psychology to be simultaneously a
human and natural science. Like Vygotsky, he distinguished dialectical materialism from
idealism and behaviorism (Wallon, 1972). Wallon (1972) argued that psychology erred
when it attempted to derive immutable, timeless laws governing psychological
phenomena or when it subordinated matter to consciousness. Wallon noted that both
behaviorism and idealism/introspectionism assume that the world is identical to itself,
while dialectical materialism assumes that the world is constantly changing because of
the various social forces struggling and opposing one another.
Wallon rejected behaviorist theory because he recognized the unavoidable impact of the
researcher’s subjectivity on empirical research (Van der Veer, 1996). On the other hand,
Wallon (1972) was suspicious of Lewin and the gestalt psychologists, whom he saw as
failing to acknowledge the impact of history and development on consciousness. For
Wallon, dialectical materialism incorporates both higher mental processes (which
idealism/introspectionism reductionistically claimed as its domain) and the material
influences behaviorism claimed as its territory but then distorted by decontextualizing
and viewing them as static rather than in constant struggle and motion. Ultimately,
Wallon argued, dialectical materialism provides psychology the tools to understand the
subject and its reciprocal relationship with the environment (Wallon, 1972).
Riegel (1979) argued that a dialectical psychology offers a superior philosophical and
methodological approach to research. Rejecting the conventional focus on stability,
equilibrium, and balance emphasized in dominant psychology, Riegel suggested that
individuals develop along four dimensions: inner-biological, individual-psychological,
cultural-sociological, and outer-physical; whenever these dimensions are not advancing at
the same pace, crisis emerges. This asynchrony can be regressive, or it can provide the
very conditions of possibility for growth and progress. For Riegel (1979), dialectical
psychology conceptualizes change as arising from the conflicting antagonisms (crises)
amongst these dimensions.
Riegel (1979) went on to outline a “manifesto” for dialectical psychology. He felt
dialectical psychology must focus on activity and change, encompassing what he called
primitive and scientific dialectics. The study of primitive dialectics included the
investigation of the mutual interaction between caretaker and child. Scientific dialectics
required analysis of the antagonistic debates between competing scientific theories.
Dialectical psychology would analyze how individuals evolve through interactions with
others, and it would recognize that the individual comes in contact with others who are
likewise in the process of evolving and changing.
Riegel (1979) distinguished a dialectical materialist psychology from other approaches in
three ways. First, he felt, although the dominant psychology gains knowledge through
experimentation, it fails to take into account the cultural and historical factors that
invariably impact research. Second, while dialectical psychologists welcome the
developmental approach of some psychologists, they question developmental
psychologists’ lack of appreciation for historical social influences. Finally, dialectical
psychology was seen as needing to consider both developmental and historical influences
as the proper domain of study.
Dialectical materialist approaches to psychology privilege the role of consciousness.
Vygotsky understood consciousness as the proper locus of study for a dialectical
materialist psychology (Bickley, 1977). A dialectical approach necessarily would
analyze the intersections and interactions of the functions of consciousness with social
realities. Vygotsky (Van der Veer & Valsiner, 1994) understood that meaning is
established through the communication of individuals. The intersection between thought
and language is inherently social because the major purpose of language is social
communication; this then contextualizes psychological phenomena as such.
The study of higher mental functions, as a concrete praxis, examines how the mind is
impacted by the historical, social, and economic forces (Elhammoumi, 2009). Dialectical
materialism offers psychology a perspective that emphasizes how the deep structures of
society (labor, social power, and capital) give form to the mental functioning of the
individual. This vantage point offers a complex and comprehensive view of the totality of
the reality that produces consciousness.
A dialectical materialist account of consciousness does not understand consciousness to
be a simple reflection of the values, ideals, and material conditions of society (Bickley,
1977). For example, Bickley (1977) offers the example of why certain individuals in a
society prefer a movie. Dialectical materialist psychology has to account for the reasons
why some individuals accept and other individuals reject the implicit ideology of a
particular movie.
Leontiev (1978) and Luria (1979) recognized that both interpersonal relationships and
material forces impact consciousness. They saw factors mediating the relationship
between consciousness and society as including family, friends, institutions of learning,
and work. While material forces were seen as shaping these various institutions,
individuals were seen not as passive recipients impacted by these forces, but also giving
shape to and part of the development of social and systemic forces. This dialectical
materialist emphasis understands that the reciprocal interactions between consciousness
and social forces shape and influence one another.
Wozniak (1975), suggesting that psychology must always be developmental in focus,
emphasizes the grounding assumption in dialectical materialist psychology that every
individual has the capacity to change. Internal struggle allows individuals to use
competing forces as a vehicle to become self-determined, efficacious agents. In this
view, the action of an individual is mediated by human consciousness. Although
consciousness arises from processes located in the brain, it is not reducible to neural
activity. Wozniak (1975) argues that this conclusion is in line with the law of the
transformation of quantity into quality, which is contingent on a belief that matter is
hierarchical in organization. Wozniak (1975) argued that development does not occur
through a linear process. The law of the negation of the negation suggests that
development happens in non-linear spirals, influenced by consciousness.
While standard psychological treatments discount dialectical materialist contributions,
Google, evidently, does not. “Dialectics + psychology” yields more than 15,000,000
results, “dialectical materialism + psychology” more than a million. We will mention
briefly three lines of application.
Zaporozec (1980) discusses Soviet psychologists’ application of dialectical materialism
to empirical psychological research. Luria (1979, 2002), Leontiev (1978), Vygotsky
(Van der Veer & Valsinas, 1994) and generations of others studied psychology and
psychological topics from a dialectical materialist perspective. Luria and Vygotsky
described the social origins of different psychological functions, viewing psychological
functions as developing via labor and through the thinking of individual subjects. For
example, they argued, verbal signs evolve as means of communications between people;
as subjects develop mastery of these signs, they employ them as means to exercise power
over their labor. As subjects’ use of tools increases physical strength, prolonged use of
these signs builds up mental functions. Luria (1979) also conducted studies in various
cultures to analyze the dialectical and historical materialist notion that consciousness is
mediated through social forces. He studied the people of Uzbekistan (Luria, 1979) and
analyzed how socioeconomic and historical forces shaped the consciousness and praxis
of individuals. Zaporozec (1980) observes that this dialectical materialist orientation to
research dispels racist notions that various ethnic groups are defined by inherent,
decontextualized, fixed properties. Rather, individual characteristics emerge as
determined by external factors that act upon and then become acted upon by subjects in
their environment. Beyond this research, various Soviet psychologists applied dialectical
materialism to a vast range of psychological topics.
Where dialectical materialism is not acknowledged as a dominant influence in US
psychology, it widely guides psychological practice throughout the Third World and in
some European circles (Buss, 1979).
Debates and Non-Debates
Because mainstream psychology marginalizes dialectical materialism, despite the wealth
of psychological theory, research, and practice it has nourished, one cannot speak
meaningfully about traditional or critical debates. (We except here debates in critical
psychology about how dialectical materialist approaches have been applied, at times,
with oppressive intent and effect.) However, it is interesting to observe that schools of
psychology have appropriated dialectical materialist thinking and re-named it. One could
view chaos and complexity theories, systemic therapies, open systems thinking in clinical
and organizational/industrial psychology, emerging work on how the so-called
information revolution is changing thinking and relationships, and even psychology’s
contemporary shift from melting pot to multicultural approaches as informed by notions
arising, unacknowledged, from dialectical materialist thinking. Whether certain schools
of psychology will acknowledge their theoretical origins, or return to debate the
fundamental philosophical commitments of dialectical materialism, remains to be seen.
Bickley, R. (1977). Vygotsky's contributions to a dialectical materialist psychology.
Science And Society, 41, 191-207.
Buss. A. R. (1979). A dialectical psychology. New York: New York: Irvington.
Elhammoumi, M. (2009). Vygotsky’s scientific psychology: Terra incognita. Cultural-
Historical Psychology, 3, 49-54.
Lenin, V. I. (1965/1914). Collected works. Vol. 38. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Pp. 220-222.
Leontiev, A. N. (1978). Activity, consciousness, and personality. New York: Prentice
Luria, A. R. (1979). The making of mind. Cambridge: Harvard.
Luria, A. R. (2002). Psychoanalysis as a system of monistic psychology. Journal of
Russian and East European Psychology, 40, 26-53.
O’Shaughnessy, E. (1994). What is a clinical fact? International Journal of Psycho-
Analysis, 75, 409-432.
Packer, M. J. (2008). Is Vygotsky relevant? Vygotsky's Marxist psychology. Mind,
Culture, and Activity, 15, 8-31.
Riegel, K. F. (1979). Foundations of dialectical psychology. New York: Academic
Rosen, M. (1982). Hegel’s dialectic and its criticism. New York: Cambridge
University Press.
Tolman, C. W. (1987). Dialectical materialism as psychological metatheory. In H. J.
Stam, T. B. Rogers, & K. J. Gergen (Eds.). The analysis of psychological theory:
Metapsychological perspectives (pp. 211-229). Washington: Hemisphere Publishing
Van der Veer, R. (1996). Henri Wallon's theory of early child development: The role
of emotions. Developmental Review, 16, 364-390.
Van der Veer, R., & Valsiner, J. (1994). The Vygotsky reader. Cambridge, MA:
Wallon, H. (1972). Psychology and dialectical materialism. International Journal Of
Mental Health, 1, 75-79.
Wozniak, R. H. (1975). A dialectical paradigm for psychological research: Implications
drawn from the history of psychology in the Soviet Union. Human Development, 18, 18-
Zaporožec, A. V. (1980). A. R. Luria's role in the development of Soviet psychology.
Psychological Research, 41, 103-112.
Online Resources
Alexander Luria.
A.N. Leont’ev.
Definitions of Dialectics.
Lev Vygotsky Archive.
Psychology and Marxism.

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