Marxist Psychology (PSYL10092)

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Marxist Psychology (PSYL10092)

“Please explain what is meant by a significance level of .05” is an interview question commonly used in assessing someone for a psychology teaching or tutoring job. And psychologists are rightly concerned with the proper use of statistics. But “Please explain your philosophical views on causality … or explanation … or abstraction” is a question very few psychologists are ever asked over their whole career. It represents a profound crisis for our field if psychologists do not know the philosophical status of the entities they are counting or putting into their theories and models.

And as Frederick Engels wrote: “(People who) imagine that they are emancipating themselves from philosophy when they ignore or abuse it … in the long run … prove after all to be prisoners to philosophy, but, unfortunately, for the most part philosophy of the very worst quality … of the worst vulgarized relics of the worst philosophical systems."

Everyone operates with a set of philosophical assumptions, both inside and outside the laboratory, even if they are unaware of those assumptions and cannot articulate them. This course is all about exploring those assumptions in Psychology, from neuropsychology to education practice.

Marxism has been an influential philosophy, not least concerning scientific practice, for the last 150 years. Marxists see the world as a single totality based in movement and change, and emphasize the interconnectedness, mediatedness, complexity and specificity of that world. They prioritise the role of activity and practice, and the social and historical construction of individual cognition. A working human society is the most complex thing in the known universe. (Usually in Psychology we are told that the most complex entity known is the – isolated – human brain; that claim illustrates the problem.) Understanding psychology is all about making abstractions from such complexity, and Marxists have a carefully worked-out position on just this issue.

The precise academic content of your Psychology degree (this particular experiment, that particular technique) will become out of date with time, and you may not find yourself in a life in which that knowledge is useful. But it will always be useful to be able to sit and talk to someone and get your point across in an intellectually powerful way, referring to those universal topics in Psychology such as individual development, education, scientific theory, the individual and society, and human nature. This course is designed to give you this ability and the required background knowledge, both to apply to the rest of your studies and to take with you from the degree.

Aims and objectives

We will look at theoretical positions and empirical research directly influenced by Marxism, studying the contribution of particular psychologists, exploring particular issues, reconstructing particular debates, and studying philosophical dimensions of psychological theories and models.

We will explore the impact of Marxist philosophy on psychological theory and practice. We will predominantly be concerned with the psychology of language and higher cognition, but the philosophical and scientific conclusions apply across all of Psychology.

There are no course requirements of previous knowledge of philosophy or cognitive modelling.

Fridays 11:10 - 13:00
Semester 1, Block 1
7 George Square, Room S.1
7 George Square, Room S.1
21/09/2018 - 11:10am to 1:00pm
7 George Square, Room S.1
28/09/2018 - 11:10am to 1:00pm
7 George Square, Room S.1
05/10/2018 - 11:10am to 1:00pm
7 George Square, Room S.1
12/10/2018 - 11:10am to 1:00pm
7 George Square, Room S.1
19/10/2018 - 11:10am to 1:00pm
Learning Outcomes: 

To complete the course, students will:

1. Acquire a working literacy in general philosophical terminology useful for psychologists.

2. Acquire a basic understanding of Marxist theory relevant to understanding natural phenomena, cognition, and the emergence of the individual.

3. Acquire a detailed understanding of how to apply a Marxist perspective to a particular issue in Psychology, of the student’s choosing.

4. Develop critical powers and persuasion skills concerning the philosophical and ideological assumptions present in research.


There is a fully ‘flipped classroom’ format, in this course. Lectures are replaced by short (@10-minute) films in which the lecture material is explained by the lecturer with reference to the slides (also seen in the film). The 11.00–1.00 teaching time in which the whole course meets involves students revisiting the central points of the films/slides in a variety of interactive ways, instead of formal lectures, and extending that work to the particular topic that the individual student wishes to work on.

Students must come prepared to each of the five double-slot sections of the course (even if you are just auditing the course – which you are very welcome to do).

For the first meeting, please arrive with a personal choice of three topics or issues in Psychology. They can be large or small, something from your degree course or something you would like to have seen in your degree course, something from your proposed dissertation or not, and you don’t have to be the only one in the class working on that topic. Of those three, you will narrow down to just one. You can change your choice at any point in the course. Your assessed work for this course will be a Marxist analysis of research on that topic, and a proposal for further research on that topic. The point is, we have to be able to make such an analysis of any topic in Psychology, from neurons and genes through to introspection and group behaviours; so pick something you’re interested in. We will compile a list of the topics, so everyone will know what everyone else is interested in.

For the first meeting, you must also have read a book chapter that you will receive by email and/or will find on the Learn pages. This text has been specially written for the course; it is in easily assimilable dialogue-form, taking the reader through the arguments, starting from scratch, but you must give yourself time to read the chapter and think about it. There may be other short readings too.

For the first meeting, you should also have watched the films, posted on Learn, that correspond to this first double-slot. You should have got a fair idea of the content from reading the relevant book chapter.

The other four weeks will proceed in this way, with you developing your ideas in 1:1 discussions with other students and in other structured activities. If you don’t like the idea of presenting to a group, then this is the course for you! You will learn (in a very humane way) how to do just that, and with no marks or stress attached!

During the whole course, from Monday of Week 1, there will be a Discussion Board open on Learn for this course. You are required to contribute to this forum. Your default activity in the forum will be that you open a thread with the title of your topic, and say whatever you think is useful for yourself and the rest of the students on the course. You can solicit ideas, make suggestions in other threads about other topics students are working on, or start a new thread on any topic you like about the course content not specifically related to your topic. I will monitor the discussions and chip in as appropriate. I am happy to meet students to talk about the course (office hour 9.00-10.00 every weekday, Room 4.24, Informatics Forum, no appointment necessary).

Each week there will be a couple of other readings that are relevant; these will appear on Learn. There is one book-length reading (in pdf form), by A. Spirkin (see below). This is a comprehensive textbook-introduction to dialectical materialism (a.k.a. Marxism), which you might want to access throughout the course; the subject matter is very clearly flagged and you can skip about in the book electronically.

Although each week’s specially-written chapter will contain crucial material, together with the slides (which are often quite sparse), you should also take notes during each session, and when you watch the films.

The additional readings and other materials will be supplied weekly on Learn, corresponding to the details below, all in pdf form. The readings below give some idea of what we will cover, but they are subject to change.

Week 1: Introduction to dialectical materialism and the implications for Psychology

Levins, R. (2006). Strategies of abstraction. Biology and Philosophy, 21, 741–755.

Ollman, B. (2003). Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx's Method. University of Illinois Press. Chapter 1.

Further background reading

Spirkin, A. (1983). Dialectical Materialism.

Week 2: Philosophical issues in cognitive modelling

Shillcock, R. (2014). The concrete universal and cognitive science. Axiomathes 24, 63-80DOI 10.1007/ s10516-013-9210-y.

Ollman, B. (2003). Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx's Method. University of Illinois Press. Chapter 5: “Putting dialectics to work” in Dance of the Dialectic.

Further background reading

Engels, F. (1896, 1898, 1925). Dialectics of Nature.

(This collection of fragments, mostly unpublished during Engels’ lifetime give a flavour of scientific and philosophical debate at the time.)

Week 3: The materialist program for language research, from Vygotsky onwards

Bakhurst, D. (1991). Consciousness and Revolution in Soviet Philosophy: From the Bolsheviks to Evald Ilyenkov. Modern European Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Chapter 3.

Wertsch, J.V. & Tulviste, P. (1992). L. S. Vygotsky and contemporary developmental psychology. Developmental Psychology28, No. 4, 548-557.

Shillcock, R. (submitted). The Schwa Sound in Language Use; The Philosophical Understanding of a Psychological Domain and the Case for a Critical Extension of the Cognitive Research Paradigm. Ms.

Further background reading

Mikhailov, F. (1976). The Riddle of the Self. Chapter 3. “Man and his thought”.

Week 4: The Meshcheryakov Experiment: Soviet work on the education of blind-deaf children

30-minute film, in class, on the education of blind-deaf children, in Russia in the 1990s.

Bakhurst, D. & Padden, C. (1991). The Meshcheryakov experiment. Learning and Instruction, 1, 201–215.

Meshcheryakov, A.I. (1979). Awakening to life: forming behaviour and the mind in deaf-blind children. Progress Publishers. Conclusion chapter.

Further background reading

Mikhailov, F. (1976). The Riddle of the Self. Chapter 2. “Social and Individual Consciousness”.

Week 5: The history of the debate on IQ and human nature

Deary, I.J., Lawn, M., Brett, C.E., & Bartholomew, D.J. (2009). “Intelligence and Civilisation”: A Ludwig Mond lecture delivered at the University of Manchester on 23rd October 1936 by Godfrey H. Thomson. A reprinting with background and commentary. Intelligence 37, 48–61.

Deary, I.J. (1999). Book review. Intelligence 34, 621–622.

Lawler, J.M. (1978). IQ, Heritability and Racism. Lawrence and Wishart Ltd. Chapter 9.

Further background reading

Charney, E. (2012). Behavior genetics and postgenomics. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 35, 331–410 doi:10.1017/S0140525X11002226

(A recent review, plus peer commentaries, addressing some of the complexities of the relationship between genetics and psychology).

Additional Information: 


Students will take a psychological phenomenon of their own choosing and, during the course, produce: (a) a short (e.g. 10-20 articles) annotated bibliography of research papers on that topic, to demonstrate knowledge of the topic, and introduce a non-expert psychologist to the topic; (b) a 2000-word exploration of the assumptions embedded in that research (relevant to the dialectical materialist approach developed in the course), (c) a 1000-word discussion of how that research topic might be advanced within the perspectives of the course. This three-part essay (equivalent to 3000 words) is the sole assessed work (100% of the mark).

An electronic copy must be submitted through an own work declaration confirmation form and Turnitin link in Learn by the deadline. The electronic submission allows us to check for plagiarism and word count.

The submission deadline must be observed. Failure to comply with the deadline without good reason will incur mark penalties as follows:

  • Up to 7 calender days, 5 marks per calender day will be deducted
  • More than 7 calender days late a mark of zero will be given