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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: May 2019

8 - Russian Reflexology


Johannes Müller's students had laid a new foundation for the study of physiology by insisting on the application of the experimental method and physicalist principles in explaining physiological phenomena. They were consistent in their rejection of vitalism and in their application of physical and chemical principles to the explanation of bodily processes. However, they were unwilling to apply physicalist principles to mental phenomena. Helmholtz seems to have regarded mental phenomena as a specific realm of events separate from that of physiology, and his friend Du Bois-Reymond declared in a famous address that science would never be able to explain consciousness.

The new German physiology attracted Russian physiologists, but, in contrast to their German colleagues, the Russians attempted to base the study of mental phenomena on physiology. Starting from Descartes's view that reactions in animals and bodily reactions in humans are reflexes, they held that the brain acts as a machine producing definite movements (definite responses) when definite forms of stimulations (definite stimuli) affect it. The Russian physiologists believed such great advances had been made in the understanding of the nervous system that it was now possible to account for the reflexes which, they believed, form the foundation of mental phenomena. They took notable inspiration from Germany, but they deviated radically from most of their German colleagues in their view of consciousness.

Boakes (1984) has given a fascinating presentation of the political, intellectual, and scientific background of the Russian reflexologists. He has made clear how their approach combined earlier European and new Russian ideas, and he has given a central place to Ivan Sechenov, who, fifty years before John Watson, presented a detailed plan for an objective, behavioristic psychology. In retrospect, the most important contribution of reflexology was probably that it produced an experimental technique for the study of associative learning. The innovators were two outstanding physiologists, Ivan Pavlov and Vladimir Bekhterev, the first of whom has had the most lasting influence on psychology.

Political and Cultural Setting

Compared to Germany and other Western European countries, Russia was industrialized slowly; before the revolution in 1917, it had been predominantly an agrarian country. Even though serfdom had been abolished in 1861, farmers continued to be economically dependent on their landlords, and across the country a large part of the population lived in poverty. The slow growth of the economy also limited the ability to fund science.

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A History of Modern Psychology
  • Online ISBN: 9781316272442
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