A. N. Leontiev 1979
In the present Collected Works, the main works of the eminent Soviet psychologist Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky are presented for the first time with sufficient completeness. Vygotsky was a prolific writer: in less than 10 years of activity as a professional psychologist he wrote about 180 works. Of these, 135 have been published, and 45 await publication. Many of Vygotsky’s publications have become bibliographic rarities.
Not only psychologists, but also representatives of the humanities – philosophers, linguists, etc. – have pointed to the need for a new edition of Vygotsky’s works. None of these scholars regard his works as belonging to history. Today, more than ever, they turn to Vygotsky’s works. His ideas have become so firmly established in scientific psychology that they are mentioned as being generally known, without reference to the corresponding works or without even mentioning Vygotsky’s name.
This is the situation not only in Soviet but also in international psychology. In recent years the works of Vygotsky have been translated into English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and other languages. And abroad as well he is not a historical figure, but a living, contemporary investigator.
It can be said that Vygotsky’s scientific destiny developed fortunately and unusually for the 20th century, which is characterized by tempestuous scientific developments in which many ideas are already obsolete the day after they are first expressed. Psychology is, of course, no exception here and we can hardly find concrete investigations in the international psychology of the 20th century that have retained all their topicality 45-50 years after they were first published.
In order to understand the “phenomenon Vygotsky,” the exceptionality of his scientific fate, it is essential to point to two aspects of his creative work. On the one hand, there are the concrete facts, the concrete methods and hypotheses of Vygotsky and his collaborators. Many of these methods and hypotheses have been brilliantly confirmed and were further developed in the works of contemporary psychologists. The methods elaborated by Vygotsky, the facts he found, are considered classic. They became very important component parts of the foundation of scientific psychology. And here contemporary psychology, having confirmed Vygotsky’s thinking and relying upon it, went further in the plane of facts, methods, hypotheses, etc. But, on the other hand, there is still another aspect in Vygotsky’s creative work – a theoretical methodological aspect. Being one of the greatest theoretical psychologists of the 20th century, he was truly decades ahead of his time. And the topicality of Vygotsky’s works lies in the theoretical methodological plane. That is why we should not speak about his conceptions as if they were somehow completed. His concrete investigations were just the first stage in the realization of his theoretical methodological program.
Vygotsky’s creative work was first of all determined by the time in which he lived and worked, the era of the Great Socialist October Revolution.
The deep, decisive reform which the revolution introduced in scientific psychology did not take place right away. As is well known, a spirit of idealism pervaded the official scientific psychology cultivated in the pre-revolutionary universities and gymnasia despite powerful materialistic and revolutionary democratic tendencies in Russian philosophy and psychology. Furthermore, from the scientific point of view it significantly lagged behind the scientific psychology of the leading European countries (Germany, France) and the US. Admittedly, around the turn of the century several experimental laboratories evolved in Russia, and in 1912 the first Psychological Institute of the country was created at Moscow University on the initiative of Chelpanov. But the scientific production of these centers was low and its content in many cases not very original.
Indeed, in the beginning of the 20th century in Europe were born such new psychological schools as psychoanalysis, Gestalt psychology, the Würzburg school, etc. The traditional subjective empirical psychology of consciousness obviously came to naught. In the US emerged a (for the time radical) current in psychology – behaviorism. International scientific psychology was in a frenzy; it went through an excruciating and intense period. In the same years Chelpanov and his co-workers were busy dealing with the replication of the experiments carried out in the Wundtian school. For them the latest news was still the works of James. In a word, they were at the periphery of international psychology and did not feel all the acuteness of the crisis which got hold of it. They lost touch with the most important problems of psychological theory. Psychology in Russia existed as a narrowly academic university science about the practical applications of which it was inconceivable to speak. And this at a time when in Europe and the US applied psychology or psychotechnics was rapidly developing, medical psychology made its first steps, etc.
The revolution brought radical changes for scientific psychology. Psychology was forced to regenerate in all respects, in its essence. A new science had to develop instead of the old psychology within a very short time frame.
The first requirement for scientific psychology was dictated by the life in the country itself, a country destroyed and ruined by the war. It was the requirement to proceed to the analysis of practical applied problems. Immediately after the revolution a new field of psychology – industrial psychology or psychotechnics – began to develop in Russia. This requirement of life was so much beyond doubt that even in the citadel of academic introspectionist psychology – the Psychological Institute headed by Chelpanov – a new section emerged: the section for applied problems.
But the main task for psychologists in these years was to elaborate a new theory instead of the introspective psychology of individual consciousness which was cultivated in the pre-revolutionary period and which rested upon philosophical idealism. The new psychology should proceed from the philosophy of dialectical and historical materialism – it was to become a Marxist psychology.
Psychologists did not immediately realize the need for such a reform. Many of them were students of Chelpanov. However, already in 1920, and more definitely in 1921, Blonsky began raising this matter (in his books The Reform of Science and Outline of a Scientific Psychology). But the decisive event of those years was Kornilov’s well-known talk “Psychology and Marxism” at the First All-Russian Congress on Psychoneurology which took place in Moscow in January 1923. It formulated the line for a development of Marxist psychology with great clarity. In this talk several fundamental theses of Marxism were presented that have direct relevance for psychology (the primacy of matter above consciousness, the mind as a property of highly developed matter, the societal nature of man’s mind, etc.). At the time, for many psychologists educated in the spirit of idealism, these theses were not only not obvious, but simply paradoxical.
After the congress a polemic broke out with the fervor characteristic of the revolutionary years of the 1920s. More correctly, it was a genuine struggle between the psychologists – materialists headed by Kornilov and the psychologists – idealists headed by Chelpanov. The overwhelming majority of scholars soon acknowledged that Kornilov was right in his struggle for the development of a Marxist psychology. An external expression of the victory of the materialistic current was the decision taken by the State Scientific Council in November 1923 to relieve Chelpanov of his duties as a director of the Psychological Institute and to appoint Kornilov in his place.
From the beginning of 1924 the reorganization of the Institute was rapid. New collaborators appeared. Some of the supporters of Chelpanov left the Institute. New sections etc. were created. Within a short period the Psychological Institute became fundamentally changed. It presented a very motley picture. Kornilov himself and his closest collaborators developed a reactological theory which did not become a generally accepted dominant current for the Soviet psychologists of those years. Many psychologists used the reactological terminology only superficially and shrouded the results of their own research in it, research which was very far from Kornilov’s ideas. This research went in very diverse directions and could not be reduced to the investigation of the speed, form, and strength of the reaction in which Kornilov himself was interested. Thus, N. A. Bernstein, who in those years worked at the Institute, began his classic investigations of the “formation of movements.” In the area of industrial psychology (psychotechnics), S. G. Gellerstein and 1. N. Spielrein and their collaborators began their work. The young scholars of the Institute, A. R. Luria and A. N. Leontiev, conducted investigations with the combined motor method. V M. Borovsky, who in those years adhered to behaviorism, occupied himself with zoopsychology. B. D. Fridman attempted to develop psychoanalysis, and M. A. Rejsner, who worked in the area of social psychology, incredibly combined reflexology, Freudian theory, and Marxism.
Despite this, many psychologists working in various fields and defending different positions agreed about the main thing. They attempted to develop a Marxist psychology and accepted this as the basic task of scientific psychology. But the concrete paths toward the development of a Marxist psychology were in that period still unclear. This completely new task did not have its analogues in the history of international psychology. Moreover, the majority of the Soviet psychologists of those years were not expert Marxists – they studied the rudiments of Marxism and its application to scientific psychology at the same time. It is not surprising that as a result they at times did no more than illustrate the laws of dialectics with psychological material.
A multitude of complex questions emerged: what was the connection of the various concrete psychological currents existing in the 1920s (reflexology, reactology, Freudian theory, behaviorism, etc.) to the future Marxist psychology? Must a Marxist psychology study the problem of consciousness? Can a Marxist Psychology use the methods of self-observation? Should Marxist psychology really emerge as the synthesis of empirical subjective psychology (the “thesis”) and the psychology of behavior (the “anti-thesis”)? How to solve the problem of the social determination of the human mind? And what place belongs to social psychology in the system of Marxist psychology?
A number of other questions emerged which were no less important and fundamental and which had to be solved to make further movement forward possible. The situation was complicated by the need to fight on two fronts: with idealism (Chelpanov, in particular, continued fighting the idea of a Marxist psychology) and with vulgar materialism (mechanism and Bekhterev’s energism, physiological reductionism and the biologizing of the mind, etc.).
Nevertheless, the main, decisive step was taken at that time: the Soviet psychologists were the first in the world to consciously proceed to the development of a new, Marxist psychology. Exactly at that time, in 1924, Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky made his appearance in psychology.
In January 1924, Vygotsky participated in the Second All-Russian Psychoneurological Congress which took place in Leningrad. He presented several communications. His talk “The methods of reflexological and psychological investigation” (later he wrote an article with the same name) made a strong impression on Kornilov, who invited him to come and work at the Psychological Institute. The invitation was accepted and in 1924 Vygotsky moved from Gomel, where he lived at the time, to Moscow and began working at the Psychological Institute. From this moment Vygotsky’s actual psychological career begins (1924-1934).
But although in 1924 the 28-year-old Vygotsky was still a beginning psychologist, he was already a mature thinker who had gone through a long spiritual development which logically led him to the need to work in the area of scientific psychology. This circumstance was of paramount importance for the success of Vygotsky’s psychological investigations.
His scientific activity began when he was still a student at the Faculty of Law at Moscow University (simultaneously he studied at the Historical-Philological Faculty at Shanyavsky University). In this period (1913-1917) his interests were of an outspoken humanitarian nature. Thanks to his unique capacities for serious education Vygotsky was able to work in several directions at the same time: in the area of dramaturgy (he wrote brilliant theater reviews), history (in his native Gomel he led a circle on history for students of the highest classes of the gymnasium), in the area of political economy (he spoke splendidly at seminars on political economy at Moscow University), etc. Of special importance for his creative work was his thorough study of philosophy which began at the time. Vygotsky studied the classical German philosophy on a professional level. In his student years began his acquaintance with the philosophy of Marxism, which he studied mainly using illegal editions. At this time was born Vygotsky’s interest in the philosophy of Spinoza, who would remain his favorite thinker for the rest of his life.
For the young Vygotsky the most important place in all these diverse humanitarian interests was occupied by literary criticism (this became definitely clear around 1915). From his youth he passionately loved literature and very early he began to deal with it on a professional level. His first works as a literary critic (the manuscripts have unfortunately been lost) – an investigation of Anna Karenina, an analysis of Dostoyevsky’s creative work, etc. – grew directly from his interests as a reader. Incidentally, that is why Vygotsky called his works a “reader’s critique.” The crown of this line of his creative work became the famous analysis of Hamlet (there are two variants of this work, written in 1915 and 1916, respectively; the second variant was published in Vygotsky’s book The Psychology of Art in 1968).
All these works are characterized by a psychological orientation. One may approach a work of art from various sides. One can clarify the problem of the author’s personality, try to understand his idea, study the objective orientation of the work of art (e.g., its moral or social-political meaning), etc. What interested Vygotsky was something else: how does the reader perceive a work of art, what is it in the text of the work of art that causes certain emotions in the reader, i.e., he was interested in the problem of the analysis of the psychology of the reader, the problem of the psychological influence of art. From the very beginning Vygotsky tried to approach this complex psychological problem objectively. He tried to suggest some methods for the analysis of an objective fact – the text of the work of art – and from that to proceed to its perception by the spectator.
The given period of Vygotsky’s creative career reached its completion in his extensive work The Psychology of Art which he finished and defended as a dissertation in Moscow in 1925. The ideas which he in 1916 in his analysis of Hamlet still expressed “in an undertone” now became a demand for the development of a materialistic psychology of art.
Vygotsky tried to solve two problems – to give both an objective analysis of the text of a work of art and an objective analysis of the human emotions that arise during the reading of this work. He rightfully picked out the internal contradiction in the structure of a work of art as its central aspect. But the attempt to objectively analyze the emotions caused by such a contradiction were not successful (and could not be successful in view of the level of development of the psychological science at the time). This predetermined the somewhat unfinished and one-sided nature of The Psychology of Art (apparently, Vygotsky himself felt this as well. He had the opportunity to publish it during his lifetime but nevertheless refrained from doing so).
The problems that revealed themselves during the work in the area of the psychology of art and the impossibility of solving them on the level of the scientific psychology of the 1920s made it inevitable that Vygotsky would move to actual scientific psychology. The transition took place gradually in the years 1922-1924. Toward the end of this period, Vygotsky, who in Gomel continued his work on The Psychology of Art had already begun his investigations in the field of scientific psychology. As has already been said, the transition became complete with his move to Moscow in 1924.
Having arrived in psychology, Vygotsky immediately found himself in a special situation compared to the majority of Soviet psychologists. On the one hand, he clearly understood the need to build a new, objective psychology as he independently arrived at these ideas while working on his psychology of art. On the other hand, particularly for Vygotsky, with his primordial interest in the higher human emotions caused by the perception of a work of art, the deficiencies of the actually existing objective currents in the international and Soviet psychology of the 1920s (behaviorism, reactology, reflexology) were especially intolerable. Their main shortcoming was the simplification of mental phenomena, the tendency toward physiological reductionism, the inadequate description of the highest manifestation of the mind – human consciousness.
Vygotsky needed to clearly expose the symptoms of the disease from which the objective currents in psychology suffered and then find ways for their cure. His early theoretical works were dedicated to these goals: his talk “The methods of reflexological and psychological investigation,” which he presented at the Second Psychoneurological Congress (1924), the article “Consciousness as a problem for the psychology of behavior” (1925) and the lengthy historical-theoretical work “The Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology” (1926-1927), which is published for the first time in this volume. Various ideas that were in keeping with these works can also he found in other works, including his last. Many of Vygotsky’s ideas which formed the key to his creative work as well as for much of Soviet psychology can be found in his work only implicitly or were expressed by him by word of mouth.
The shortcoming of the objective currents in psychology – their incapability of adequately studying the phenomena of consciousness – was seen by many psychologists. Vygotsky was merely one of the most active, but by far not the only participant in the struggle for a new understanding of consciousness in the Soviet psychology of the 1920s.
It is essential to note Vygotsky’s unique position. He was the first who already in his article “Consciousness as a problem for the psychology of behavior” raised the problem of the need for a concrete psychological study of consciousness as a concrete psychological reality. He made the (for that time) bold claim that neither the “new” psychology – behaviorism, which ignored the problem of consciousness – nor the “old” psychology – subjective empirical psychology, which declared itself to be the science about consciousness – really studied it. This seems a paradoxical way to state the problem. For Kornilov, for example, the study of consciousness meant the return to some milder version of subjective empirical psychology. Next he envisioned a concrete task – combining the introspective methods of the “old” psychology with the objective methods of the “new” psychology. This he called a “synthesis.”
Contentwise the “new” psychology could add nothing to the analysis of consciousness in the “old” psychology. It was simply a difference in appraisal. The “old” psychology saw the study of consciousness as its most important task and believed that it was really studying it. The “new” psychology saw no new methods whatsoever to study consciousness and farmed it out to “old” psychology. The representatives of the “new” psychology might evaluate the problem of consciousness as insignificant and ignore it, or consider it to be important and compromise with the “old” Psychology in solving it (Kornilov’s position).
For Vygotsky the problem looked quite different. He did not want to hear about a return to the “old” psychology. One must study consciousness differently from the way it was done (or, more correctly, “declared”) by the representatives of the psychology of consciousness. Consciousness must not be viewed as a “stage” on which the mental functions act, not as “the general boss of the mental functions” (the viewpoint of traditional psychology), but as a psychological reality which has tremendous importance for all the vital activity of the person and which must be studied and analyzed concretely. In contrast to the other psychologists of the 1920s, Vygotsky managed to view in the problem of consciousness not just a problem of concrete methods, but first and foremost a philosophical and methodological problem of tremendous importance, the cornerstone of the future scientific psychology.
This new psychology which dealt with the most complex phenomena of the mental life of man, including consciousness, could only evolve on the basis of Marxism. In such an approach the perspective of a materialistic treatment of consciousness reveals itself and the concrete, and not declarative, tasks of a Marxist psychology take shape.
In speaking about the development of a Marxist psychology, Vygotsky managed to see the main error of the majority of the psychologists of the 1920s who set themselves this same task. It was that they saw this task as one of merely finding the proper methods. In addition, they approached this task from some concrete psychological theory and tried to combine this with the basic theses of dialectical materialism through simple addition. In his work “The Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology,” Vygotsky wrote directly about the fundamental incorrectness of such an approach. He pointed out that psychology is, naturally, a concrete science. Each psychological theory has its philosophical basis. Sometimes it is manifest, sometimes it is hidden. And in each case this theory is determined by its philosophical foundations. That is why we cannot take psychology’s results ready-made and combine them with the theses of dialectical materialism without first having reformed its foundations. We must really build a Marxist psychology, i.e., we must begin with its philosophical foundations.
How can we concretely build a Marxist psychology proceeding from the theses of dialectal materialism? To answer this question Vygotsky suggests turning to a classical example – Marxist political economy, explained in Das Kapital, where a model is given of how to elaborate the methodology of a concrete science on the basis of the general theses of dialectical materialism. Only after the methodological basis of a science has been elaborated can the concrete facts be considered which have been gathered by researchers taking different theoretical positions. Then these facts can be organically assimilated and we do not become their victims. We do not become captivated by them and do not turn the theory into an eclectic conglomerate of diverse methods, facts, and hypotheses.
Thus, Vygotsky was the first among Soviet psychologists to pick out such an important stage in the creation of a Marxist psychology as the development of a philosophical and methodological theory of an “intermediate level.”
In the same works of the years 1925-1927, Vygotsky made an attempt to determine a concrete path for the development of a theoretical methodological basis of Marxist psychology. Thus, the epigraph in the work “The Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology” is the well-known saying from the gospel: “The stone which the builders rejected is become the head stone of the corner.” He further explains that he is referring to the builders of scientific psychology. This “stone” is two-fold: on the one hand, the reference is to the philosophical and methodological theory of an “intermediate level”; on the other hand, to the practical activity of man.
The thesis about the extreme importance for psychology of man’s practical activity was paradoxical for the international and Soviet psychology of the 1920s. At the time the dominating current studied the person’s external motor activity by fragmentizing it into different elementary behavioral acts (behaviorism), motor reactions (reactology), or reflexes (reflexology), etc. No one dealt with the analysis of practical activity in all its complexity, if we do not count the specialists of labor psychology. But these and other psychologists treated it as a purely applied area and assumed that the fundamental regularities of man’s mental life cannot be revealed when we analyze his practical labor activity.
Vygotsky held a diametrically opposed opinion. He emphasized that the leading role in the development of scientific psychology belongs to the psychology of labor, or psychotecnics. Admittedly, he added that it is not a matter of psychotechnics itself with its methods, results and concrete tasks, but its general problem. Psychotechnics was the first to proceed to the psychological analysis of the practical, labor activity of man, although it did not yet understand the full importance of these problems for scientific psychology.
Vygotsky’s idea was clear – the elaboration of the theoretical methodological foundations of a Marxist psychology must begin with a psychological analysis of the practical, labor activity of humans on the basis of Marxist positions. It is precisely in this plane that the basic regularities and primary units of the mental life of man lay hidden.
To realize the idea of which Vygotsky found the vague outlines was, of course, exceedingly difficult. But the idea of a reform of psychology was profoundly in keeping with the revolutionary era of the 1920s. Such ideas could not but draw talented youth toward Vygotsky. In these years Vygotsky’s psychological school developed, which played a great role in the history of Soviet psychology. In 1924, his first collaborators became Leontiev and Luria. Somewhat later they were joined by L. I. Bozhovich, A. V Zaporozhec, R. E. Levina, N. G. Morozova, and L. S. Slavina. In the same years the following persons took active part in the investigations carried out under the guidance of Vygotsky: L. V Zankov, Yu. V Kotelova, E. I. Pashkovskaya, L. S. Sakharov, I. M. Solov’ev, and others. After that Vygotsky’s Leningrad students started to work with him – D. B. El’konin, Zh. I. Shif, and others.
The bases for the work of Vygotsky and his collaborators were in the first place the Psychological Institute at Moscow University, the Krupskaya Academy for Communist Education, and also the Experimental Defectological Institute founded by Vygotsky. For Vygotsky the scientific contacts with the Clinic for Nervous Diseases at the First Moscow Medical Institute were of great importance (officially he began working there in 1929).
The period in Vygotsky’s scientific activity which lasts from 1927 to 1931 was extremely rich and important for the subsequent history of Soviet psychology. In that period the foundations for the cultural-historical theory of the development of the mind were developed. Its basic theses are expounded in Vygotsky’s works The Instrumental Method in Pedology (1928), The Problem of the Cultural Development of the Child (1928), The Genetic Roots of Thinking and Speech (1929), “Outline of the cultural development of the normal child” (1929, manuscript), The Instrumental Method in Psychology (1930), “Tool and Sign in the Development of the Child” (1930, first published in this series), Studies in the History of Behavior (1930, together with Luria), The History of the Development of the Higher Mental Functions (1930-1931, first part published in 1960 in the book of the same name, second part first published in this series), and some others. Many key ideas of the cultural-historical theory are stated in Vygotsky’s most well-known book Thinking and Speech (1933-1934). Apart from these, important for the understanding of the cultural-historical theory are the works of his collaborators: On the Methods of Investigating Concepts by L. S. Sakharov (1927), The Development of Memory by A. N. Leontiev (1931), The Development of Everyday and Scientific Concepts by Zh. I. Shif (1931), and others.
In keeping with his fundamental views, Vygotsky did not turn to the examination of mental phenomena in themselves, but to the analysis of labor activity. As is well known, the classics of Marxism saw this activity as first and foremost characterized by its tool – nature, the mediation of the tabor process by tools. Vygotsky decided to begin his analysis of the mental processes with this analogy. He hypothesized: cannot we find the element of mediation in the mental processes of people through some unique mental tools? An indirect confirmation of this hypothesis he found in Bacon’s (1620/1960, p. 39) well-known words, which he afterwards would often cite: “Neither the naked hand nor the understanding left to itself can effect much. It is by instruments and aids that the work is done.” Of course, Bacon’s idea is not at all unequivocal; it can be understood in different ways. But for Vygotsky it was important simply as one of the confirmations of his own hypothesis which rested upon Marx’s theory of labor activity.
According to Vygotsky’s idea, we must distinguish two levels in human mental processes: the first is mind left to itself; the second is mind (the mental process) armed with tools and auxiliary means. In the same way we must distinguish two levels of practical activity: the first is the “naked hand,” the second the hand armed with tools and auxiliary means. Moreover, in both the practical and the mental sphere the second, tool level is of decisive importance. In the area of mental phenomena Vygotsky called the first level the level of “natural” and the second level the level of “cultural” mental processes. A “cultural” process is a “natural” process mediated by unique mental tools and auxiliary means.
It is not hard to see that the analogy Vygotsky drew between labor processes and mind is rather crude. The human hand is both the organ and a product of labor, as the Marxist classics have pointed out. Consequently, contraposition of the “naked hand” and the hand armed with tools in such a sharp form is not justified. Nor is sharp contraposition of “natural” and “cultural” mental processes justified. The terminology used by Vygotsky led to misunderstandings as the justified question was raised whether not all mental processes of modern humans are cultural processes. These weaknesses in Vygotsky’s ideas caused justified criticism both during his lifetime and after his death.
At the same time, we must note that Vygotsky needed such contrasts in the first stage of his work in order to set off the basic thesis of his theory which regarded the decisive importance of psychological tools in the course of mental processes.
It is true that in the 1920s Köhler approached the problem of the role of tools in mental life from a totally different angle. At that time the results of his experiments with anthropoid apes were published. They showed, in particular, that external material objects – sticks, boxes, etc. – can play a nonpassive executive role in the apes’ problem-solving process and are actively included in the structure of their mental processes (the introduction of sticks into the situation led to a restructuring of the animal’s optical field, and for the Gestalt psychologist Köhler this meant that the structure of the mental process was changed as well).
Köhler’s experiments greatly impressed psychologists and in the 1920s several scholars tried to transfer them to child psychology. These experiments proved in keeping with Vygotsky’s thinking. He was the initiator of the translation into Russian of Köhler’s The Mentality of the Great Apes and wrote a foreword to it. Afterwards, Vygotsky often (in Thinking and Speech, The History of the Higher Mental Functions, etc.) referred to the results of Köhler’s investigations and to those scholars who attempted to conduct similar experiments in the field of child psychology (Buhler, Koffka, and others). Vygotsky, who was oriented toward the study of practical, objective activity, viewed in Köhler’s experiments (which showed the active role of external tools in the restructuring of mental functions) an approach for the study of one of the aspects of this activity.
Köhler studied this issue merely on the experimental methodical level. His theoretical methodological starting points as a major Gestalt psychologist were opposed to Vygotsky’s positions. Köhler was far from an understanding of the important role of labor activity and could not, of course, mark out the tool as the central aspect of the mediation of mental functions. It is a paradox that Köhler, who first described the restructuring of the mental process by an external tool, did not see the specific character of the tool and considered it as just one of the elements of the optical field. That is why he could not see the problem of activity which was central to Vygotsky. Vygotsky himself emphasized the specific character of the tool-level of the mediation of mental processes, particularly in the social-historical determination of the human being.
When we now evaluate the meaning of the analogy between labor and mental processes offered by Vygotsky and the two levels of mental processes he contrasted, we must not examine these views in themselves, but in the context of the assumptions and the further development of his whole theory, in connection with the results to which they led.
What did the hypothesis of the “psychological tools” and the two levels of mental functions concretely yield? This question, which to a significant degree served to verify the correctness of the hypothesis, was the question of the real analogues of the “natural” and “cultural” mental processes. And exactly the answer to this question showed to which degree the hypothesis was justified and fruitful for scientific psychology. As is well known, starting from completely different parameters (their degree of being meaningful and voluntary), psychologists had distinguished all mental functions into higher (thinking in concepts, logical memory, voluntary attention, etc.) and lower (imagistic thinking, mechanical memory, involuntary attention, etc.) ones. The fact of such a division itself was an important achievement of scientific psychology. However, later a number of questions arose about the nature of the relation between the higher and lower functions, about what makes for the presence of such specific qualities of the higher functions as their voluntary and conscious nature, etc. Each major theory had to give an answer to these questions one way or the other. But some currents (associative psychology, behaviorism) practically lost the qualitative distinction between higher and elementary functions when translating it into their own language, i.e., they both dissolved into some elementary component parts (such an approach Vygotsky called “atomistic”). The obvious nature of the qualitative distinction between the lower and higher mental functions made the weakness of such approaches apparent.
The opposite currents (“understanding psychology”), on the contrary, regarded the qualitative distinction of the higher and elementary functions as a fundamental fact. They moved the integral nature of the structure and the goal-directed character of the mental processes to the forefront. These currents categorically protested against the “atomistic” approach. But they “threw away the baby with the bath water.” The psychologists of this orientation occupied idealistic positions in the philosophical plane and entirely denied the possibility of a causal explanation of mental phenomena. They rejected natural scientific methods in psychology. For them psychology can at most strive for an understanding of the connections that exist between the mental phenomena and should not attempt to include them in the web of cause-result relations which covers events in the real physical world. As a result, the psychology of this orientation could not find the link between higher and lower mental functions.
The hypothesis proposed by Vygotsky offered a new explanation for the problem of the relation between the higher and the elementary mental functions. The lower, elementary mental functions he connected with the stage of the natural mental processes and the higher with the stage of the mediated, “cultural” ones. Such an approach explained both the qualitative difference between the higher and the elementary functions (it consisted in the mediation of the higher mental functions by “tools”) and the connection between them (the higher functions develop on the basis of the lower ones). Finally, the properties of the higher mental functions (e.g., their voluntary nature) were explained by the presence of “psychological tools.”
By means of the hypothesis about the mediation of mental processes through unique “tools,” Vygotsky attempted to introduce the directives of Marxist dialectical methodology into scientific psychology in a nondeclarative and concrete methodical way. This was the basic property of all of his creative work to which he owes all his successes.
The question of methodology is all but the main question when we are dealing with Vygotsky’s creative work. Internal dialectics, in principle, always formed the characteristic feature of his thinking. It suffices to think of his early works (e.g., The Psychology of Art). Thus, when he defines our perception of works of art Vygotsky is not afraid to single out the contradiction inherent in the work itself. The same position showed in his inclination to discern two polar, struggling sides in a phenomenon when he analyzed it and to regard this struggle as the moving force of development.
Historicism in the examination of the phenomenon is characteristic of Vygotsky’s thinking (in this connection it is important to bear in mind the humanitarian roots of his creativity, particularly the great influence upon his school of Potebnya and the historical method in literary criticism that he developed). All these premises helped Vygotsky to understand Marxists dialectics and to master the Marxist historical method. The understanding of the foundations of Marxist dialectics lifted Vygotsky’s thinking to a qualitatively new level.
The hypothesis about the mediated nature of mental functions implicitly contained elements of an integral historical method. They were precisely expressed and carried to their logical end by Vygotsky himself in such works as The History of the Development of the Higher Mental Functions and Thinking and Speech.
Vygotsky’s fundamental idea that the mental functions are mediated by unique “psychological tools” only made sense insofar as the mental functions themselves were seen as integral formations with a complex internal structure. Such an approach immediately swept aside the “atomistic analysis,” which for Vygotsky formed a particularly intolerable shortcoming of the materialistic currents in the psychology of the 1920s (behaviorism, reflexology, etc.). At the same time it opened the perspective of an integrative materialistic and objective approach to the analysis of the mental, which was conceived as a complex structured nonclosed system which was open to the outside world (for Vygotsky the closed nature of the mental formed the main shortcoming of the integrative idealistic views which were developed in, for example, “understanding psychology”).
Naturally, in the 1920s and 1930s it was not only Vygotsky who tried to examine the mental functions as complex structured formations which are open to the outside world. Such views were held by the Gestalt psychologists as well. Their works, particularly Köhler’s experiments, which investigated the intellect of anthropoid apes, made a great impression upon Vygotsky (see above). But to reveal the inner difference of his methodology from the positions of the Gestalt psychologists, it is important to take another aspect of his holistic theory into account: its historicism.
Generally speaking, the idea of historicism was foreign to the Gestalt psychologists, who attempted to study the situation “here and now.” For Vygotsky, his very starting idea of the mediation of natural functions by unique “psychological tools” already contained the need to approach the cultural, higher mental functions as historical formations and, thus, the need to study them via the historical method. In principle, Vygotsky viewed three possible paths for the historical investigation of the formation of the higher mental functions: the phylogenetic and ontogenetic path plus pathology (tracing the loss of these functions in patients). Ontogenetic investigations occupied the most important place in his creative work (The History of the Development of the Higher Mental Functions and Thinking and Speech).
It is important to note that in Vygotsky the integrative approach and historicism were, in principle, inseparable. They are two dimensions of one idea – the idea of the mediated nature of mental processes conceived from dialectical positions.
Speaking about Vygotsky’s historicism, it is essential to distinguish it from the historical approaches which could be found in the work of other psychologists of the 1920s and 1930s. It is well known that one of the distinguishing characteristics of the psychology of the 20th century was that it started to conceive itself as a historical science, as a science about development. Many psychological schools of that time which attempted to cover the sum total of the mental phenomena (depth psychology, the French school, etc.) described the mind as being organized according to the principle of system levels. But the question was: what was it in the various theories that acted as the determinants of the phylo- and ontogenetic development of the mind?
The idea of development (in the ontogenetic plane) was central for the child psychology which took shape toward the end of the 19th century (Darwin, Preyer, and others). From the very beginning it developed under the decisive influence of evolutionary theory, and the development of the child’s mind was considered from the viewpoint of its adaptive meaning (the comparison of onto- and phylogenetic development was carried out in this connection – cf. Hall’s law of recapitulation which is, in principle, very close to the biogenetic law). The idea of development, also understood in the biological evolutionary plane, was also central to zoopsychology, which developed in that same period.
The founder of descriptive psychology, Dilthey, and his followers tried to introduce the principle of historicism into psychology. Dilthey, as is well known, took idealistic positions and treated mental life as being purely spiritual. Speaking about history, he essentially had in mind the history of culture which he also considered from idealistic positions, i.e., merely as a manifestation of the spiritual activity of the person. That is why, when he criticized Dilthey’s follower, Spranger, in his The History of the Development of the Higher Mental Functions, Vygotsky wrote that by bringing history and psychology closer together he, essentially, brings together the spiritual with the spiritual (this fully applies to Dilthey himself as well).
The French psychologists treated the principle of historicism in their own way and intimately connected it with the problem of the social determination of the mind. Thus, Durkheim, one of the founders of the French school, regarded society as the sum total of collective representations. Lévy-Bruhl, in his well-known works about the psychology of primitive people, expressed the idea that not only the content, but also the ways of human thinking themselves (human logic, more precisely – the relation of logical and pre-logical aspects in human thinking) is a historical, developing concept.
Toward the 1920s the leading position in the French school was occupied by the great scholar Janet, who tried to combine historicism with an activity approach. This allowed Janet to arrive at a number of profound ideas about the nature and development of the mind which exerted influence upon the subsequent development of scientific psychology. In particular, he proposed the hypothesis that the child in the process of development internalizes the social forms of behavior which were first used vis-à-vis the child itself by adults. This investigator attempted to investigate this process of internalization in detail in memory and thinking. But in doing so Janet, just like the whole French school, proceeded from the assumption that the person is initially asocial, that socialization is forced upon him from outside. In the analysis of human activity and social life Janet was very far from Marxism. He regarded the relation of cooperation as the basic social relation, which is only natural for a scholar who sees the external picture of the social connections, but does not attach fundamental importance to the economic relationships which form their basis.
Vygotsky’s historicism has a fundamentally different character from the approaches examined above. His historicism is an attempt to apply Marx’s historical method in psychology. Thus, for Vygotsky the determinants of human mental development are not biological maturation in ontogenesis and biological adaptation in the course of the struggle for life in phylogenesis (child psychology and zoopsychology in the evolutionary tradition), it is not the mastery by the human being of the ideas of the universal spirit [Weltgeist] embodied in the products of culture (Dilthey’s “understanding psychology”) and not the relation of social cooperation (Janet’s theory), but human tool-mediated labor activity. It is this approach which was organically tied to the hypothesis of the mediation of mental processes by tools.
Before Vygotsky, the method for the ontogenetic investigation of the mind itself can be called the method of cross sections. At different ages the level of development and behavior and the condition of the different mental functions of the child were measured and then it was attempted to reconstruct the general picture of development judging by the results of the different measurements which gave discrete points on an age axis.
For Vygotsky the shortcomings of such an approach were obvious. He considered that the mediation hypothesis indicated the path toward another method of investigating the mental development in ontogenesis which allows us to model (to put it in the terminology of the 1960s) this process. And indeed, Vygotsky’s historical-genetic method in a number of cases yielded results that were, in principle, inaccessible for the method of cross sections.
The study of the formation of the higher mental functions in ontogenesis and phylogenesis as structures which develop on the basis of elementary mental functions and are mediated by psychological tools became the major theme of the research of Vygotsky and his collaborators.
When we state the goal this way the central question becomes the question concerning psychological tools: what are they and what is the mechanism of mediation?
At first, when the idea of mediation was born, Vygotsky illustrated it with the example of a patient with Parkinson’s disease who lay in Rossolimo’s clinic. When the patient was asked to walk he could only respond with an increase in his tremor and could not walk. After that white pieces of paper were laid down before him on the floor and the request was repeated. Now the tremor decreased and he actually began to walk, stepping on each paper successively.
Vygotsky explained these experiments by saying that the patient is confronted with two series of stimuli. The first series consists of the verbal commands which are incapable of eliciting the adequate behavior in the patient. Then the second series of stimuli – the pieces of white paper – comes to the rescue. The patient’s initial reaction is mediated by this series. It is the second series of stimuli which serves as the means to guide the behavior. That is why Vygotsky called them means-stimuli. In this description, it seems as if Vygotsky’s idea was close to the positions of behavioral psychology, but soon it will become clear that this affinity is purely terminological. For the behaviorist the matter ends with the investigation of behavior, but for Vygotsky this is just an example whose basic meaning is the study of the process of the mediation of mental functions by means-stimuli and not at all the study of behavioral reactions. And the circle of means-stimuli immeasurably widened. Thus, in the theses for his talk “The instrumental method in psychology” (1930), Vygotsky mentioned, as examples of stimulus-means language, different forms of numeration and counting, mnemotechnical adaptations, algebraic symbolism, works of art, writing, schemas, diagrams, maps, drawings, all sorts of conventional signs, etc. Here we must again take account of the scientific courage of Vygotsky, who dared to combine in one series objects which seem incompatible. The generally accepted viewpoint at the time was that the psychologist examines secondary adaptations which play an executive role (tying a knot to remember something), on the one hand, and fundamental psychological structures (e.g., speech), on the other hand.
What do these heterogeneous objects – from the word to the “knot to remember something” – have in common? First of all, they have all been artificially created by humanity and represent elements of culture (hence the name of Vygotsky’s theory as “cultural-historical”). In addition, they are all means-stimuli, or psychological tools, and they are first directed outward, to a partner. Only afterwards are the psychological tools applied to the self, i.e., they become for the Person a means to steer his own mental processes. Subsequently, the in-growing of the means-stimuli proceeds. The mental function is mediated from inside and the need for an external (with respect to the given person) means-stimulus ceases to exist. This whole process from the beginning to the end Vygotsky called the “full circle of the cultural-historical development of mental functions.”
In his article “The problem of the cultural development of the child” (1928), he described this process in detail using the example of the experiments with memorization of words which he and his collaborators carried out with children. Pictures formed the means-stimuli in these experiments. While in the first stage the experimenter had to present the pictures to the child, in the second stage the child already selected the corresponding pictures himself (applying the tool to himself), and in the third stage the in-growing took place, i.e., the need for the picture no longer existed. In his article Vygotsky mentioned several different types of in-growing: simple replacement of external stimuli by internal ones, the stitch type which combines in a single act parts of the process which were at first relatively independent, and the mastery of the structure (principle) of mediation itself (this is the most advanced type of in-growing).
Thus, the internal logic of the development of his theory closely led Vygotsky to the problems of internalization which were in those years being elaborated by the French psychological school. But there existed a difference in principle between the conception of internalization of this school and Vygotsky’s. The first conceived of internalization as the forcing from outside upon the primordially existing and primordially asocial individual consciousness of some forms of societal consciousness (Durkheim), or of the elements of external social activity, social cooperation (Janet). For Vygotsky, consciousness is only formed in the process of internalization – there is no primordial asocial consciousness, neither phylogenetically nor ontogenetically speaking.
In these experiments Vygotsky’s basic hypothesis was experimentally confirmed. Due to the mediation by psychological tools the mental process itself became changed, its structure became reformed (for example, logical memory was formed on the basis of sensory memory). Here we see another of Vygotsky’s hypotheses in embryonic form: in the process of mediation thinking becomes attached to memory, which plays an enormous role in logical memory. Later this became the starting point for the ideas he developed about psychological systems (see below).
Vygotsky’s historical-genetic method was of principal importance in the investigations of the process of mediation. Here the heuristic power of this method was revealed on concrete material. The facts which Vygotsky discovered were already partly known in scientific psychology. He himself in his article “The problem of the cultural development of the child” mentions, for example, Binet’s experiments with memorization, which showed that a subject can apply certain methods to enhance the quantity of numbers he must memorize. However, neither Binet nor other psychologists who knew such facts perfectly well (there existed a well-known term “mnemotechnics”) were able to interpret them adequately. They were seen as just a convenient technical trick for memorizing which had at best applied meaning, if not as simply a curiosity, a conjuring trick (Binet wrote about the simulation of memory by means of mnemotechnics).
No one was capable of seeing here the key to disclosing the fundamental regularities of mental life. We should realize that these investigations were carried out with adults and that the experimenters who studied, for instance, the span of attention, did not deal with the question of the onto- and phylogenetic development of the corresponding mental functions. One could only lay bare the fundamental meaning of the corresponding facts by following, just like Vygotsky, the path of historical-genetic investigation (historical-genetic investigation which permits us to follow the formation of some function and not just to investigate it by means of the cross-sectional approach).
For Vygotsky the hypothesis of the mediation of mental functions, combined with the historical-genetic method, opened new perspectives for his research. This approach allowed him to isolate the basic unity of mental life. Thus, in his articles “The instrumental method in psychology” and “The problem of the cultural development of the child,” he examines it for the example of the processes of memorization. In the first article he writes: “In natural memorization a direct link IS established between the stimuli A and B; in artificial mnemotechnical memorization of the same impression instead of this direct link A-B two new links A-X and X-B are established by means of the psychological tool X; each of these is as natural a conditional reflex process . . . as the link A-B; new, artificial, instrumental is the fact that the single link A-B is replaced by the pair A-X and X-B, which lead to the same result but via another path” (see Chapter 5 of the present volume).
In order to understand Vygotsky’s idea properly we must take into account the following. The processes of memorization were for him just a model. According to his hypothesis, the processes of mediation are of paramount importance for any mental function. That is why the proposed schema has universal meaning. We are talking about the replacement of the bipartite schema, which was generally accepted in the 1920s, by a tripartite schema in which a third, intermediate, mediating part – the means-stimulus or psychological tool – is placed between the stimulus and the reaction. The crux of Vygotsky’s idea is that only the tripartite schema which cannot be further decomposed can be the minimal unit of analysis which preserves the basic properties of the mental functions.
Thus, a decisive question arose: does the hypothesis of mediation suggested by Vygotsky really allow us to isolate a new and adequate universal unit of the structure of mental functions? If this were true, then Vygotsky might proceed to the solution of the problem of consciousness from the position of the historical-genetic method. But first this general hypothesis had to be verified. Models for such a verification became first memory and later attention (“The development of higher forms of attention in childhood,” 1925). In the course of the experiments on attention, the mediation hypothesis was once again confirmed – the structure of the processes of attention also became restructured due to psychological tools.
The further program of investigations of Vygotsky and his collaborators concerned the verification of the mediation hypothesis on the example of such a fundamental mental process as thinking. These investigations, however, led to new and unexpected results.
It is well known that thinking is closely interwoven with speech. Some psychologists (e.g., Watson) drew the conclusion that thinking can simply be reduced to internal speech. Watson imagined the ontogenesis of thinking to proceed along the following line: loud speech – whispering – internal speech. However, the investigations of the Würzburg school carried out at the beginning of the century showed that thinking and speech do not at all coincide.
Thus, there were two viewpoints in this area: the claim that thinking and speech fully coincide and the claim that they are totally different. The one-sidedness of these positions led to the development of many compromising intermediate theories. From the very start Vygotsky did not agree with the way they were developed. It consisted of examining the process of verbal thinking in adult civilized persons, which psychologists then decomposed into its component parts. Thought was considered independent of speech, and speech independent of thinking. Then psychologists tried, in the words of Vygotsky, to picture the link between the one and the other as a purely external mechanical dependency between two different processes (Thinking and Speech, Chapter 1). Here he found the two main shortcomings of psychology in a most obvious form: analysis into elements and anti-historicism.
The true answer to the question of the relation between thinking and speech was, consequently, only to be found on the path of historical-genetic investigation. Psychology had already gathered some factual material for such an approach. Thus, in the 1920s Köhler’s investigations had shed new light on these questions. On the one hand, he discovered in apes what he called instrumental intellect. It seemed likely that this instrumental intellect was linked to human (particularly, verbal) thinking. It could be seen as one of the levels which phylogenetically preceded human thinking. On the other hand, in the apes were discovered several analogues of human-like speech. But most interesting was that Köhler himself and other investigators who replicated his experiments agreed about the absence of a link between the instrumental intellect and these rudiments of speech in apes. It turned out, consequently, that the genetic roots of human thinking and human speech were different and only crossed at a certain stage.
In light of these facts and in keeping with the general logic of his conception, Vygotsky came to the conclusion that speech is a psychological tool which mediates thinking in its early stage (by the early stage of thinking he meant practical activity). As a result of such mediation verbal thinking develops. Vygotsky expressed this idea in an aphoristic manner, paraphrasing the famous words from Faust. Instead of the biblical “In the beginning was the word” Goethe writes “In the beginning was the act.” For Vygotsky, in the problem of the genesis of thinking the logical emphasis is transferred to the words “in the beginning.” Thus, in the beginning was the act (practical activity), which became mediated by the word. Vygotsky suggested that this was the kernel of the problem in the phylogenetic plane.
In principle, something similar must take place in ontogenesis as well. In the 1920s ontogenetic investigations of thinking and speech were carried out by Piaget. They made a strong impression on Vygotsky. Actually, the book Thinking and Speech is to a great extent structured as a polemic with Piaget, although it does not form, of course, the main part of the content of his work. (Interestingly enough, Piaget himself read Thinking and Speech only in the late 1950s and largely agreed with Vygotsky’s critical remarks.) Piaget managed to observe and describe the phenomenon of egocentric speech which he interpreted as the manifestation of the child’s would-be primordial intrinsic asocial nature. In further development, as the child becomes socialized, egocentric speech gradually dies off.
In the course of the experiments Vygotsky convincingly showed that it is exactly the opposite. Egocentric speech is originally social. It does not fade away, but becomes internal speech. It is internalized. It is the most important means of thinking which is born in the external, objective activity of the child. Verbal thinking develops insofar as activity is internalized. Here Vygotsky’s hypothesis was again confirmed: the thinking which develops from practical activity is mediated by speech, by the word.
But a still more important verification of this hypothesis took place with the material of the investigations of the formation in children of such a product of verbal thinking as generalization. The task was to verify whether the word indeed is such a means, such a psychological tool, which mediates the process of generalization and the formation of concepts in children.
The investigations to which we refer were begun in 1927 by Vygotsky, together with his collaborator Sakharov, and after the latter’s death (in 1928) they were continued from 1928 to 1930 by Vygotsky and Ju. V Kotelova and E. I. Pashkovskaya (the most detailed exposition of the methods and results of these investigations are given in Vygotsky’s work Thinking and Speech and in Sakharov’s article “On the methods of investigating concepts”).
For the investigation of the processes of generalization, Vygotsky and Sakharov developed a new variant of the method of double stimulation, which was in fact a particular version of the method of artificial words introduced by Ach at the beginning of the century for the study of concepts. The investigation was carried out along the same fundamental lines as the investigations of the other mental functions. The subject had to group a number of three-dimensional geometrical figures according to their features. The figures differed in size, form, and color. The role of the second series of stimuli – the means-stimuli – was to be carried out by meaningless artificial words introduced in the experiment.
In the course of the experiments an unforeseen result was found which changed the direction of the investigation. It turned out that for the subject the task of generalizing the figures by means of the means-stimuli turns into another task – of discovering the meaning of these means-stimuli by way of selecting the geometrical figures. Thus, the psychological tools, the means-stimuli, showed a new side – they turned into the bearers of certain meanings. These data permitted the investigators to change the terminology of the investigation. Psychological tools, or means-stimuli, came to be called signs. Vygotsky began using the word sign in the sense of “having meaning.”
It must be said that Vygotsky was already interested in the question of the role of signs in the mental life of humans before he became involved in scientific psychology. The first time he faced this question was in the years he worked in the area of the psychology of art. Already in his book The Psychology of All he wrote that human emotions are caused by certain signs and that his task was to proceed to the analysis of emotions on the basis of the analysis of these signs. Here by sign is also meant a symbol which has a certain meaning.
Such a viewpoint was traditional for literary criticism and dramaturgy, but unexpected for psychology or physiology (a reflexologist might also say that a sign causes an emotion, but he would mean that the sign is a conditional stimulus in the system of the conditional reflex). It is precisely the humanitarian (particularly, his semantic and semiotic) education that Vygotsky acquired in the years of work on The Psychology of Art which allowed him to resist the reflexological schemes in the analysis of his experiments on generalization and to view them as an entrance to the problem of meaning.
In this connection, it is interesting to note that already in the late 1920s to early 1930s Vygotsky had resumed the investigation of the role of signs in the psychology of art, i.e., he resumed his, in modern language, semiotic investigations (semiotics as a science did not yet exist at the time). Together with Eisenstein, he began working on the theory of film language (their collaboration was severed by Vygotsky’s death; some material is preserved in the Eisenstein archives).
Thus, for Vygotsky the study of the problem of generalization, the development of concepts, the problem of word meaning became the path to investigate the ontogenesis of thinking, which became the nerve-center of his whole theory.
The experiments carried out with the method of double stimulation proved that, in their development, concepts (and words together with them) go through several stages.
The first stage (the early preschool period) is the stage of syncretic wholes. In this stage the word has no fundamental meaning for the child. Figures are combined according to accidental features (e.g., because they are spatially close or have some striking external feature, etc.). Such a combination based on accidental impressions was, of course, not stable.
The second stage is the stage of complexes. The complex-generalization has several different forms. They have in common that the child still combines objects on the basis of the immediate sensory experience, but according to factual connections. Each connection may serve as the basis for the inclusion of an object in a complex, provided it is present. In the process of the development of the complex these connections constantly change place as the basis of the grouping. They slip away, lose their contours, and the only thing they have in common is that they have been discovered through some single practical operation. In this stage children cannot yet examine some feature or connections between objects outside the concrete, present, visible situation in which these objects display their abundance of mutually intersecting features. That is why children slip from one detail to another and so on.
All features are equal in functional meaning, there is no hierarchy between them. A concrete object enters a complex as a real visual unit with all its inalienable factual features. In the formation of such a generalization a paramount role is played by the verbal sign. It functions as a family indication of the objects, combining them according to some factual feature.
A special place amid the complexes is held by one of its forms – the pseudoconcept, which, in Vygotsky’s words. forms “the most widespread form of complex thinking in the child of the preschool period which prevails above all other forms and is often almost exclusively present.” (Selected Psychological Investigations, 1956. p. 177). According to its external features the child’s generalization is a concept, but according to the process which leads to the generalization it is still a complex. Thus, the child can freely select and combine into a group all triangles independent of their color, size, etc. However, special analysis shows that this combination is carried out by the child on the basis of a visual comprehension of the characteristic visual feature of “triangularity” (closure, the characteristic intersecting of the lines, etc.) without any isolation of the essential properties of this figure as a geometrical figure, i.e., without the idea of a triangle. To the extent that such a grouping can be done by a person who has already mastered this idea, the pseudoconcept and the concept coincide as a product, but behind them are various working methods, various intellectual operations.
The third stage is that of the actual concept. It is formed on the basis of the selection of a group of objects which are combined according to one feature that has been abstracted. When the abstract features have been isolated and the different elements have been abstracted from the visual situation in which they are presented in the experiment, this is the first stage of concept formation. The concept itself develops when a number of abstracted features are again synthesized. The decisive role in the formation of concepts is played by the word as a means to guide attention to the corresponding features and as a means for abstraction. Here the role of the word (the meaning of the verbal sign) is totally different from its role at the level of complexes.
This investigation yielded a number of important results and raised a number of problems. In the context of Vygotsky’s general theory, the discovery of the fact that the meaning of words-signs changes in ontogenesis is very important. Their function changes from a family indication to means of abstraction. Important is also that the method of double stimulation again justified itself and showed that the sign in the processes of generalization acts as a means of mediation (its role is different in the various stages).
However, with respect to the problem of concept formation and the problem of generalization itself, Vygotsky’s investigation raised more new questions than it answered old ones. His most important achievement in this connection became the discovery of the level of complexes and, particularly, the pseudoconcepts. Here the natural question arises: why did traditional psychology before Vygotsky pass by and ignore the pseudoconcepts? The thing is that traditional psychology took the pseudoconcept to be a concept and did not have the means to distinguish them. Traditional psychology viewed generalization, the isolation of some common features, as the concept’s only characteristic. In such an approach to the problem, the pseudoconcepts and the genuine concepts indeed become indistinguishable.
It is important to keep in mind that such a characterization of concepts was not psychological, but formal logical. Its uncritical transferral from formal logic, where it really functioned, to psychology, where it was without content, did psychology harm of which the psychologists themselves were not aware. Such a treatment of the concept received its first blow by Jaensch’s investigations in the 1920s, and Vygotsky’s work put an end to it. The fundamental psychological historical-genetic method of Vygotsky’s investigations revealed the lack of content of the formal logical definition of the concept, which united psychologically diverse phenomena – the genuine concept and the pseudoconcept.
But the paradox of Vygotsky’s discovery resided in the fact that he himself in his work on concepts went along the line of the development of generalizations which started from the visual situation and that at the end of his investigation, due to the historical-genetic method, he showed the psychological inadequacy of such a path. Of course, the object relatedness remains an indisputable aspect of the materialistic explanation of the concept, but it should not be confused with situational visuality. Vygotsky sensed that even the highest stage of generalizations of the visual situation is nevertheless not the highest stage of development of the concept itself. Despite all its abstractness the concept revealed in this way was related to the pseudoconcept and the complex. It formed with them a continuum. They were linked by the content of the generalization that lies behind them. In order to make one’s way to the highest level of the concept, it was necessary to proceed from another principle of generalization, to approach the concept from another side.
Vygotsky’s further search went this direction. He did not manage to accomplish very much, but the little he did (in the years 1930-1931 Shif worked on this problem under his guidance) left a fundamental trace in psychology and was widely practically applied subsequently.
Vygotsky distinguished two types of concepts: everyday concepts and scientific concepts. The everyday concepts are the concepts revealed in the experiments described above. It is the highest level to which a generalization can be elevated which proceeds from the visual situation, the abstraction of some visual characteristic. These concepts are general ideas which go from the concrete to the abstract. They are spontaneous concepts. They are the “generalization of things” as Vygotsky himself expressively said in his work Thinking and Speech.
Shif established in her investigations that the child develops scientific concepts in another way. They are the “generalization of ideas.” Here a connection is established between concepts, and systems are formed. Then the child becomes aware of his own intellectual activity. Due to this the child develops a special relation to the object, which allows him to view in them what is inaccessible to empirical concepts (the penetration into the essence of the object). The path of the formation of the scientific concept is, Vygotsky showed, opposite to the path of the formation of the everyday, spontaneous concept. It is the path from the abstract to the concrete during which the child is more conscious of the concept than of the object from the very beginning.
Vygotsky could not fully investigate this process at the time, but his great scientific achievement was that he managed to experimentally establish the psychological difference between the processes of the formation of everyday and scientific concepts.
How can the development in the child of everyday and scientific concepts be connected? Vygotsky connected this problem with the broader problem of teaching and learning. In the process of his investigation he stumbled upon the fact that the development of scientific concepts proceeds faster than the development of spontaneous concepts (Thinking and Speech, Chapter 6). The analysis of this fact led him to the conclusion that the degree of mastery of the spontaneous concepts indicates the level of the child’s actual development while the degree of mastery of scientific concepts indicates the child’s zone of proximal development. With the introduction of the concept of the “zone of proximal development,” Vygotsky rendered psychology and pedagogics a great service.
Everyday concepts indeed develop spontaneously. Scientific concepts are brought into the child’s consciousness in the course of instruction. “Scientific concepts stimulate a segment of development which the child has not yet passed through . . . . This allows us to begin to understand that instruction . . . plays a decisive role in the child’s mental development” (ibid., p. 220). “Instruction is only useful when it moves ahead of development (ibid., p. 212). Then instruction “calls into life a whole number of functions which are in a stage of maturation lying in the zone of proximal development” (ibid., p. 212).
Thus, the zone of proximal development characterizes the difference between what the child is capable of himself and what he can become capable of with the help of a teacher.
Such a view was revolutionary for its time. It is well known that at the time dominated views according to which instruction must follow development and strengthen what it has accomplished. It seemed impossible that instruction would move ahead of the child’s development – we cannot teach something for which the basis has not yet matured in the child. It seemed natural to determine the level of development of the child by what he can do independently. Analysis of the child’s development using the cross-sectional method could not, in principle, yield any other conclusion. But things changed radically after the application of Vygotsky’s historical-genetic method, which allowed investigators to reveal the potential level of the child’s cognitive development, the zone of proximal development.
The application of this concept had direct practical significance for the diagnosis of the cognitive development of children which now could he carried out both on the actual and the potential level.
After the hypothesis of the mediation of mental processes had been verified in the formation of various mental functions (thinking, memory, attention, etc.) and after the corresponding new methods for psychological investigation had been created, Vygotsky returned to his initial, fundamental problem for which the cultural-historical theory served as a prelude – the problem of consciousness. Vygotsky did not finish this work; it was broken off by his death. That is why his psychological theory cannot be regarded as completed. But he did nevertheless sketch some of the general contours of a theory of consciousness which are of great interest. Particularly important for the understanding of his approach to the problem are such works as Thinking and Speech (especially the last chapter), the talk “The problem of the development and loss of higher mental functions” (1934), the lecture “Play and its role in the child’s mental development” (1933), the unfinished manuscript “Spinoza’s and Descartes’ theories about the passions in the light of modern psychoneurology” (1934), and the talk “Psychology and the theory of the localization of mental functions” (1934). Many ideas regarding this problem can also be found in his earlier works, especially The History of the Development of the Higher Mental Functions, and in his talk “On psychological systems” (1930).
What were the main conclusions at which Vygotsky arrived? Mental functions develop In the course of the historical development of mankind. The decisive factor in this development are signs. Vygotsky (1960, pp. 197-198) wrote that “In a higher structure the sign and the way it is used are the decisive functional whole or focus of the whole process.” A sign is any conventional symbol which has a certain meaning. The word is the universal sign. A higher mental function develops on the basis of an elementary one which becomes mediated by signs in the process of internalization. Internalization is the fundamental law of development for the higher mental functions in onto- and phylogenesis. “Each function in cultural development . . . appears on the stage twice, in two planes. First as a social, then as a psychological function. First between people, as an interpsychological category, then . . . as an intrapsychological category” (The History of the Development of the Higher Mental Functions, 1960, pp. 197-198). Human consciousness is formed in the process of internalization.
Toward the end of the 1930s, Vygotsky’s understanding of the process of internalization became fundamentally changed. He himself said this about it: “In the process of development . . . it is not so much the functions which change, as we studied this earlier (this was our mistake), not so much their structure ... but it is the relations, the connections between the functions which become changed and modified. New groups develop which were unknown at the preceding stage” (“On psychological systems,” p. 110). Here Vygotsky wants the listeners to pay close attention to the distinction between these two aspects of the problem and is being unfair to himself. Had he not begun his study of the fact that the structure of different functions changes under the influence of mediation with such a “mistake,” he could never have arrived at the new conclusion that the connections between functions change in the course of development.
Speaking about the problem of interfunctional connections, Vygotsky turned to the works of the major Russian evolutionary theorist and zoopsychologist Vagner, in whose work he found the concept of evolution along mixed or pure lines which was very important for him. Evolution along pure lines is characteristic for the animal world, i.e., “the appearance of a new instinct, a variant of an instinct which leaves ... unchanged the system of functions which developed before” (“The problem of the development and loss of higher mental functions,” 1960, p. 368). In contrast, for the development of human consciousness, “most important ... in the development of higher mental functions is not so much the development of each mental function ... but the change of the interfunctional connections” (ibid.).
In connection with this turning point in his investigation of the interfunctional relationships, Vygotsky turned to the new concept of the psychological system. In various vague meanings it had been used in psychology already before Vygotsky, but he meant the system of interfunctional connections, the interfunctional structure responsible for a specific mental process (perception, memory, thinking, etc.). In his Lectures on Psychology (1932/1987, p. 324) he wrote that “the development of thinking is of central importance to the whole structure of consciousness, central to the entire system of mental functions.”
The concept of the psychological system proved very fruitful for Vygotsky’s theory. Thus, for example, psychologists had known for a long time that in the processes of logical memory not only memory but also thinking participates. But Vygotsky succeeded in showing, using the historical-genetic method, how the formation of a psychological system takes place in the process of the mediation of the elementary mental functions by signs. This fact already manifested itself during the experiments on the development of mediated memory (“The problem of the cultural development of the child”). But then it had meaning in the context of the mediation hypothesis. Now it has meaning in the investigation of psychological systems, and due to this fact Vygotsky arrives at a number of new interesting psychological problems.
Only here do we find the answer to the final “why” in the analysis of thinking” (Vygotsky, 1934/1987, p. 282). The work “Spinoza’s and Descartes’ theories about the passions in the light of modern neuropsychology,” which he began in this connection, remained unfinished. Vygotsky basically managed to give an analysis of Descartes’ creative work (this manuscript is published for the first time in the present series).
In his last works, Vygotsky pointed to yet another point where activity and consciousness meet (e.g., in his lecture “Play and its role in the mental development of the child,” read in 1933). Whereas he demonstrated earlier that the child’s activity determines the formation of his thinking in early childhood, he now attempted to show how external activity (play) determines mental development (“creates a zone of proximal development”) and is a leading activity. In keeping with this new aspect of his interests, Vygotsky now started paying more attention to the affective-emotional aspect of play.
In one article it is hardly possible to give even a concise characterization of all the problems which Vygotsky dealt with and developed. He was one of the last persons of encyclopaedic learning in scientific psychology. Thus, we left his defectological, pedagogical and other works out of consideration. These problems will be treated in the corresponding volumes of the present series. We saw it as our task to show the evolution of Vygotsky’s general psychological theory, which is the most important part of his many-sided creative work. Vygotsky’s goal was to build the foundations of a Marxist psychology, more concretely – a psychology of consciousness. He managed to see that for Marxist psychology human objective activity must become the central category. And although the term “objective activity” is not to be found in his works, this is the objective meaning of his works, these were also his subjective plans. The first manifestation of this category in psychology was Vygotsky’s cultural-historical theory with the idea of the mediation of mental processes by psychological tools – by analogy with the way the material tools of labor mediate human practical activity. Via this idea Vygotsky introduced the dialectical method into psychology and elaborated his historical-genetic method in particular.
These ideas of Vygotsky allowed him to arrive at a number of brilliant scientific achievements. At the same time, such a dimension of activity as the emotional-affective sphere appeared at the center of his attention. But this new program of investigations he could not realize.
Fifty years separate us from the ideas voiced by Vygotsky. But the central problems to the solution of which Vygotsky dedicated his life remain central to contemporary psychology as well, and their solution must rest upon the theoretical methodological principles he developed. This is his major achievement and the best assessment of the creative work of this great psychologist of the 20th century – Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky.
1. It is essential to note that already in 1920 Blonsky in his book The Reform of Science voiced the idea of the importance of labor activity for the analysis of the psychology of the person. Somewhat later than Vygotsky, Basov (1927) in his General Foundations of Pedology stated deep ideas about the meaning of external and labor activity for psychology. However, Vygotsky’s and Basov’s concrete analyses of activity were different. It is important to remark that both tied the meaning of the investigations practical, labor activity of humans directly to the task of building a Marxist psychology. Among the foreign psychologists it was the great French scholar Janet who in the 1920s developed interesting ideas about the meaning of work and labor activity for psychology.
2. Vygotsky more than once wrote about two methods of analysis – into elements (atomistic analysis) and into units. The analysis into elements breaks down a whole into its simplest components parts which, however, have lost the properties of the whole (e.g., breaking down water into hydrogen and oxygen atoms). The analysis into units breaks down a whole into the smallest possible components parts which still retain the properties of the whole (e.g., the breaking down of water into molecules). In psychology Vygotsky counted the breaking down of mental processes into reflexes as well as the bipartite system of the behaviorists (S—R) as analysis into elements.
3. We must understand that such a use of the word “stimulus” was very unusual. It suffices to compare it with the way the behaviorists, reflexologists, etc., dealt with the stimulus. Such terminological “sloppiness” by Vygotsky formed one of the difficulties of the proper understanding of his work, and it can be explained first and foremost by the unfinished state of his conception. He was in a great hurry—in a hurry to realize his ideas, to complete, albeit in rough outlines, his theory. In this process terminological precision was a matter of secondary importance.
4. At approximately the same time, Bernstein arrived at a similar concept following a different route. This was the concept of the dynamic motor systems (one and the same movement can be taken care of by various mutually interchangeable physiological organizations.)