- Ivan Pavlov and the Moral Physiology of Self
In many respects, Daniel Todes’s new book serves as a shining example of an academic biography. He makes use of a great number of previously unknown archival materials to put forth a history of the scientific research of Ivan Petrovich Pavlov. This research would earn Pavlov the 1904 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine and eventually turn his name into a symbol of rational control of the human psyche. By using these new archival sources, Todes allows his readers to better imagine not only Pavlov but also an entire generation of educated Russians.
This is especially true for the first two sections of the book, “The Seminarian Chooses Science, 1849–1875” and “The Wilderness Years, 1875–1890.” Pavlov’s attraction to the works of the highly esteemed Dmitrii Pisarev, whose popularity soared during the 1860s and 1870s, goes a long way toward explaining his decision to become a physiologist, despite the many obstacles he faced. It also accounts for Pavlov’s strong belief in the ability of the natural sciences to solve many of the important issues of human life. In the sections “Man of Tsarist Science, 1891–1904” and “Nobelist in the Silver Age, 1904–1914,” Todes analyzes Pavlov’s research on the physiology of digestion, which brought him the Nobel Prize, and his subsequent shift away from that research for a new and very ambitious project—the study of conditional and unconditional reflexes in dogs.1 Through this new project, Pavlov aspired to find the “key” to understanding the human psyche. Todes then shows, in the fifth part of the book “War and Revolution, 1914–1921,” how the catastrophes of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Russian Civil [End Page 203] War for all intents and purposes brought this research to a complete halt. After these cataclysmic events, however, Pavlov was able to continue his studies on a much greater scale, thanks to the generous support of the Bolsheviks. As Todes shows in the sixth section of the book, “Prosperous Dissident,” Pavlov received this support despite his open criticism of the Bolsheviks’ politics and conceptions of society. In part 7, “Icon of Soviet and World Science,” Todes explores how Pavlov’s study of the human mind brought him worldwide fame. He also discusses a bitter disappointment in Pavlov’s life and career: the ideas that were dearest to Pavlov were misunderstood not only by the general public but also by other scientists, who misinterpreted his theory as a mere variant of behaviorism.
The essence of Todes’s book is founded on his attempt to understand Pavlov’s values, which in no small measure shaped the nature of his research. The key to understanding Pavlov’s Weltanschauung is the Russian word pravil´nost´, which Pavlov defined as regularity, lawfulness, and correctness. Following such logic, the worst thing that can await one in life is sluchainost´, which Todes translates as “chance, accident, or randomness.” Suffering from an unbalanced and quick-tempered personality, Pavlov, like many who are nervous and temperamental, was inclined to apply the values of pravil´nost´ not only to his own life but also to the lives of those around him. By the end of the 1870s, Pavlov was already working as a young assistant doctor to Professor Sergei Botkin. At this point in his career, he was able to organize the work done in Botkin’s laboratory in a new way; eventually he came to pride himself on his managerial skills. Having founded his own laboratory in 1891, Pavlov started to conduct new research on the nervous regulation of the activity of the digestive glands. He frequently used the metaphor of the factory, highlighting similarities between the properly functioning body and his own laboratory. Like the factory and the laboratory, the human body relied on the division and coordination of labor. The effects of the psyche on the activity of the digestive glands in dogs turned out to be as undeniable as they were irregular...