Vygotsky – a pioneering Soviet psychologist who derived his genius from Marxism

vygotsky The name most associated with Soviet psychology is that of Lev Semyonovitch Vygotsky, who made outstanding contributions to the understanding of the subject. He is important in the areas of epistemology (theory of knowledge), pedagogy (application of his theory of knowledge to education) and ‘defectology’ (application of his theory of knowledge to solving problems of people with physical or mental disabilities).

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Vygotsky worked within the course set by the general assumptions of his cultural-historical theory, and, together with his colleagues, undertook broad and novel experimental investigations of child psychology and educational psychology. On the basis of the factual data which resulted, Vygotsky and his assistants wrote and published numerous scientific studies. After his early death, these investigations were enlarged upon and extended, which, naturally, led as well to definite changes in individual assumptions of the original theory. As a result, a powerful school of scientific psychology was forged in the Soviet Union, a school that we are now entirely justified in referring to as ‘Vygotsky’s school’. The basic assumptions of this school, together with Vygotsky’s principal conceptions, are widely represented in the scientific literature of many countries around the world” (V. V. Davydov).1

This quotation gives an indication of the importance of Vygotsky for the whole of Soviet scientific psychology, as well as the importance of Soviet scientific psychology for the science of psychology in general. It is also, however, an example of the way Vygotsky’s work tends to be distorted to make it more acceptable to the anti-Marxist and anti-Soviet academic community. To start with, Vygotsky based himself squarely on Marxist dialectical and historical materialism and it was from this that he drew his ‘assumptions’ – not ‘cultural-historical theory’ which was a brilliant theory he developed on the basis of Marxist philosophy, but did not have as wide a reach as is nowadays claimed for it. Indeed, Luria makes the point that ” Vygotsky was … the leading Marxist theoretician among us”2. However, to make Vygotsky’s theory acceptable to western academia, and to avoid their own careers being damaged by their admiration for his work, Vygotsky is frequently presented in bourgeois academic circles as someone who was a victim of Stalinist repression, and as someone who was critical of Marx and Marxism. The first ‘translation’ of his text ‘Thought and Language’ cut out his quotations from Marx and Engels on the principle that they were supposedly an unnecessary distraction from Vygotsky’s theses. However, these academics cannot hide the fact that Vygotsky had a brilliant career in the USSR and when he died in 1934 it was not as a result of ‘Stalinist purges’ but as a result of tuberculosis which he had contracted 10 years previously and had only survived as long as he did as a result of the medical care that he received at the hands of the Soviet state. Much is made of the fact that his works, we are told, did not continue to be published after his death, but the fact is that his followers and close collaborators, Luria and Leontiev, continued to work along the lines the three of them had worked out together without let or hindrance.

The context in which Vygotsky worked was the context of the October Revolution. The spirit of these times is very well rendered by Luria:

The limits of our restricted, private world were broken down by the Revolution, and new vistas opened up before us. We were swept up in a great historical movement. Our private interests were consumed by the wider social coals of the new, collective society” 3 .

This gave rise to a flurry of activity in academic circles as almost universally academics strived to incorporate at least the appearance of dialectical and historical materialism into their research – an endeavour which did indeed lead to earth-shattering developments in many academic fields, but also generated quite a bit of charlatanism, since people who have become experts in subjects that have been, or are being, developed internationally on the basis of idealistic or metaphysical thinking cannot easily shed that ideological viewpoint with which their subject has become imbued. It is in this context that Vygotsky did express distaste for those whose ‘academic’ work consisted of stringing together quotations from the Marxist classics rather than addressing themselves to real issues and searching for solutions.

Vygotsky, however, was trained in Marxism Leninism as a student, well before he studied psychology, as is admitted by one virulently anti-communist reviewer writing in the New York Review of Books in 1978, urging readers to take Soviet psychology very seriously indeed since ” Nobody in the American behavioral sciences has, it seems, the breadth of experience or general standing needed in order to do the integrative thinking typical of Luria or Vygotsky.”

“… Vygotsky’s and Luria’s quotations from the Marxist fathers, and their respectful references to Marx and Engels as foreshadowing their views about ‘inner consciousness,’ represent something more than hagiography or political lip service. This is something that even Vygotsky’s Western admirers have not always understood. For instance, when Evgenia Hanfman and Gertrude Vakar prepared the English translation of Thought and Language that appeared in 1962, they saw fit to omit many of Vygotsky’s references to the ideas of Marx and Engels. Just as the salon Cartesians of the late seventeenth century read all of Descartes’s references to God and the Creation as mere ecclesiastical face-saving, Vygotsky’s translators too apparently assumed that his allusions to Marx were mere concessions to the ideological demands of the Party, and so irrelevant to the intellectual contents of his argument.

“That was a mistake. … Vygotsky was more than happy to call himself a Marxist. And in any event, leaving all political issues aside, the general frame provided by a ‘historical materialist’ philosophy gave him the basis he needed for developing an integrated account of the relations between developmental psychology and clinical neurology, cultural anthropology and the psychology of art-an account that we in the West can afford to take very seriously today” 4 .

Crisis in psychology

It was with his Marxist-Leninist understanding that when he did broach the study of psychology Vygotksy was able immediately to identify an unholy mess, but a mess which provided a challenge to which it was the task of Soviet Marxist psychologists to find the solution:

“The various psychological disciplines have obviously reached a turning point in the development of their investigations, the gathering of factual material, the systematisation of knowledge, and the statement of basic positions and laws. Further advance along a straight line, the simple continuation of the same work, the gradual accumulation of material, are proving fruitless or even impossible. In order to go further we must choose a path.

“Out of such a methodological crisis, from the conscious need for guidance in different disciplines, from the necessity – on a certain level of knowledge – to critically coordinate heterogeneous data, to order uncoordinated laws into a system, to interpret and verify the results, to cleanse the methods and basic concepts, to create the fundamental principles, in a word, to pull the beginnings and ends of our knowledge together, out of all this, a general science is born” 5 .

The major currents in psychology at the time that Vygotsky began work in the field, and whose limitations he was drawing attention to in Crisis, were the mechanical materialism of the behaviourist school which at the time Vygotsky started out was hugely in favour in Soviet circles, and the idealism of the Gestalt school and of the psychoanalytical school. Their ideological confusion did not prevent experimental psychologists of these schools from uncovering important features of psychology, but the whole field was riven with contradictions and inconsistencies.

Vygotsky was very much impressed with the famous findings of Pavlov concerning conditioned reflexes. This work is often stripped out of its context and given claims to universalism by US behaviourist psychologists (Skinner in particular), as a result of which it has fallen somewhat into disrepute. However, Pavlov’s discoveries remain perfectly valid within the limits in which Pavlov worked and, moreover, opened an important door into understanding the workings of the mind. Pavlov’s discoveries established how external influences create connections in the brain, giving rise to predictable behaviour, and that this happened in a way of which the subject concerned was entirely unconscious. This discovery drove a powerful wedge into idealist concepts that the mind is of some distinct substance of uncertain origin (divine, and/or biologically inborn) which projects itself on to the external world which, for all we know, doesn’t even exist! Pavlov was able to demonstrate that external sequences of happenings get reflected by the brain. His experiments were with dogs, but the discovery proved to be applicable to humans as well. However, Pavlov did not claim that it was ONLY through conditioning that dogs learnt, let alone human beings.6

The aspect of Pavlov’s ‘reflexology’ that interested Vygotsky was not so much the directly observable parts of the experiment, i.e., the stimulus (ringing bell) and the behavioural response (salivation), as the process in between – the activity of the brain which connected the stimulus and the response. He pointed out that the stimulus (S) always first produces a response in the brain (X) and that X then may through repetition be conditioned automatically trigger the response R. However X may also be associated with a whole number of other possible responses, emotional, behavioural or simply ideas, and, once the child learns to speak, this may be a word-sound, and these various responses may all be triggered by X. So right from the start Vygotsky severely criticised the whole idea that conditioned reflexes could explain the whole of human behaviour. They certainly could not explain the central question of why it is that, unlike animals, human beings can deliberately change nature to serve their ends. As Engels said: “… the animal merely uses its environment, and brings about changes in it simply by its presence; man by his changes makes it serve his ends, masters it. This is the final, essential distinction between man and other animals, and … it is labour that brings about this distinction 7.

It was exploring and understanding the activity of the brain that was at the root of this distinction that was Vygotsky’s primary concern.

In fact Vygotsky first came to the notice of the Soviet academic community in 1924, while he was still a humble teacher at a teacher training college in Gomel teaching literature and psychology when he presented, at an All-Russian Conference on Psychoneurology, a paper pointing out the limitations of conditioned reflexes as a means of explaining human learning: ” it is for a concrete science of human behaviour as impossible to confine itself to it as it is for concrete physics to confine itself to the principle of gravity “, he quite rightly said.

It was at this conference that Luria first met Vygotsky and was quick to conclude that ” It is no exaggeration to say that Vygotsky was a genius. Through more than five decades in science I never again met a person who even approached his clearness of mind, his ability to lay bare the essential structure of complex problems, his breadth of knowledge in many fields, and his ability to foresee the future development of his science 8. As a result of having impressed Luria and no doubt other members of the Institute of Psychology of Moscow, Vygotsky was given a job at the Institute, where he quickly teamed up with Luria and Leontiev, experimental psychologists who were already established there. Luria writes:

With Vygotsky as our acknowledged leader, we undertook a critical review of the history and current status of psychology in Russia and the rest of the world. Our aim, overambitious in the manner characteristic of the times, was to create a new, comprehensive approach to human psychological processes” 9 .

But despite Vygotsky’s criticisms of ‘reflexology’ as it was being promoted at the Institute when he arrived there, it did not mean that he thought ‘reflexology’ was of no value or significance.10 On the contrary, he thought that its principles should be extended from the field of neurology, where it had been born, into the field of psychology, which should focus on what is happening in the brain. He explained that a thought was itself a ‘reflex’ stimulated by something in the material world, which was not necessarily reflected in directly observable behaviour.

Indeed, the person’s behaviour and the creation of new conditional reactions is not only determined by the exposed (manifest), complete, fully disclosed reactions, but also by reflexes that are not demonstrated in their external part, that are half-inhibited, interrupted. Following Sechenov, academician Bekhterev demonstrates that a thought is only an inhibited reflex, a reflex that is non-manifest, interrupted after two-thirds; verbal thinking, in particular, is the most frequent case of a non-manifest speech reflex .”11

But how is one to know what is happening in the mind if there is no scientifically observable behaviour accompanying the thought in question? Many believed that it was not possible to proceed scientifically in these circumstances. They objected that if the only way to ascertain what was happening in the mind was to ask the person what he was thinking, then this studying the mind smacked of ‘metaphysics’, Vygotsky answered:

Does the psychology without a soul, the psychology without any metaphysics, have to be transformed into a psychology without a mind – into reflexology? Biologically speaking it would be absurd to suggest that the mind is completely unnecessary in the behavioural system 12.

Yet it is of course well known that people lie, apart from all else, so how can anything anybody says be regarded as reliable evidence of anything? Vygotsky’s view was that, provided one took the possibility of unreliability into account, as does a court of law when it calls witnesses, true information can nevertheless be accessed.

Vygotsky went on to point out that the mind is full of different ‘reflexes’, which often conflict with each other, as a result of which there can be no simple S-R analysis to explain the outcome:

Reflexes do not exist separately, do not act helter-skelter, but club together in complexes, in systems, in complex groups and formations that determine human behaviour. The laws of composition of reflexes into complexes, the types of these formations, the sorts and forms of interaction within them and the interaction between whole systems – all these questions have paramount meaning for the most acute problems of the scientific psychology of behaviour. The theory of reflexes is only in its beginning, and all these areas still remain to be investigated. But already now we may speak, as if it were a fact, about the undeniable interaction of different systems of reflexes, about the reflection [interpenetration] of some systems on others, and we can even in general and rough traits provide a preliminary clarification of the mechanism of this reflection. The response part of each reflex (movement, secretion) becomes itself a stimulus for a new reflex from the same system or another system.”

Vygotsky recognised that in humans as well as in animals certain ‘instincts’ are inherent and affect behaviour. An instinct is a name for an unconditioned reflex, such as the instinct of a newborn baby to suck milk. Most of human behaviour, however, is purposive and not instinctive. It is nevertheless important to understand that human brains instinctively abstract patterns from the complex of stimuli offered by the natural world, giving rise instinctively to expectations that these patterns will repeat themselves. In this way, human beings instinctively form ideas representing phenomena of the material world in their minds. With regard to such ideas, their nature is clarified by Vygotsky.

In Thought and Language 13, he writes:

… there is a dialectical leap … between sensation and thought. There is every reason to suppose that the qualitative distinction between sensation and thought is the presence in the latter of a generalised reflection of reality …”.

It is not an exact copy of reality, but an instinctive abstraction of salient features. As Marx said:

If the essence and appearance of things directly coincided, all science would be superfluous“.14

Precisely because of this abstraction, we could cite the example of the ability of a small child to recognise almost any dog as a dog, even though individual dogs look very different from each other. Any child brought up in a society in which dogs are common instinctively and unconsciously abstracts and copies into its mind the broad features of what a dog is, at such a level of abstraction that such aspects as colour, size and shape are left out of account altogether in this basic, instinctive mental model.15 This abstraction of the typical features of ‘dog’ enables the person to generalise, to recognise as ‘dog’ a broad spectrum of ‘dog’ things, and in due course to associate a word sound with that concept. However, because the whole process is instinctive, unconscious and involuntary, it is difficult to separate out the different parts of the mental model created. The model is received as an integral whole16.

Nevertheless, the fact that a child is not born with the ability to recognise dogs has been definitively established in recent times by the development of surgical operations that can give sight to a person who has been blind from birth. After a successful operation of this type on a teenager who had been blind from birth17, it was established that a person who has previously always been blind is unable at first to make any sense at all of even the most obvious of the visual stimuli surrounding him. In this he finds himself in a similar situation to a newborn baby. However, in a very short time the baby is able to recognise given stimuli extracted from the mass of stimuli around it. By about the age of 3 months, for instance, it can recognise which people are familiar and which are not. In the interim its brain has instinctively been abstracting and categorising various stimuli of the material world, and building mental models mimicking what it perceives to be the working of the phenomena of the material world. In time the older person whose sight is restored learns to do likewise with visual data, but not perhaps with the same rapidity that the uncluttered mind of the baby is able to do. It is this instinct for pattern extraction and model building that enables a child to categorise not only visual but also olfactory and auditory stimuli. It is well known how certain smells evoke memories, as in Proust’s madeleines in A la recherche du temps perdu:

“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection” .

As for auditory stimuli, it is registering patterns in these that enables a child to learn language – and to do so extremely rapidly and effortlessly while its brain is relatively uncluttered. From the age of 10 or so, however, language learning tends to become a laborious process. Natural, unconscious, absorption of concepts (patterns) continues throughout life, but becomes a minor component of learning as compared to the learning acquired through participation in society.

Spontaneous versus scientific concepts

At the very heart of Vygotsky’s analysis of the human mind, a distinction is drawn between spontaneous and scientific concepts, the former being learnt at a subconscious level but the latter by conscious effort (and generally through the mediation of language) either from other people or developed through one’s own conscious thought processes18.

Also instinctive is the arousal of interest/curiosity in an individual when expectations are not met, or where faced with conflicting patterns, or where new information improves the mental model, promising to render it more effective in use.

Vygotsky regarded these instinctively acquired concepts as primitive. They are concepts that not only humans but also several species of animal also acquire naturally and spontaneously. They do not on their own without more give rise to conscious thought.

Vygotsky quotes from Engels’ Dialectics of Nature with approval in this context:

Man and animals have all forms of intellectual activity in common: induction, deduction, abstraction, analysis, synthesis, and, as their unity, experiment (when an unexpected obstacle emerges). Typologically, all these methods, i.e., all logical constructions employed by science, are common to animals and man. Only the developmental level differs “.

On this point the American commentator on Soviet science Loren Graham claims that Vygotsky fell out of favour with Stalin, as a result of which his work was allegedly suppressed after his death as from 1936. In support of this extraordinary allegation he quotes, out of context, a trenchant denunciation of Stalin’s aimed at the linguistic theories of N Marr as though it had been directed at Vygotsky.

What Stalin wrote in Marxism and Linguistics, written in 1950, at a time when the linguistic theories of N Marr had been flourishing completely unsuppressed in Soviet linguistics departments for many years, was:

It is said that thoughts arise in the mind of man prior to their being expressed in speech, that they arise without linguistic material, without linguistic integument, in, so to say, a naked form. But that is absolutely wrong. Whatever thoughts arise in the human mind and at whatever moment, they can arise and exist only on the basis of the linguistic material, on the basis of language terms and phrases. Bare thoughts, free of the linguistic material, free of the ‘natural matter’ of language, do not exist. ‘Language is the immediate reality of thought’ (Marx). The reality of thought is manifested in language. Only idealists can speak of thinking not being connected with ‘the natural matter’ of language, of thinking without language “.

This is interpreted by Graham as denouncing Vygotsky’s acceptance of the idea that primitive concepts are generated spontaneously in the mind. Clearly, Stalin was not prepared to equate primitive concepts to actual thought, but then neither did Vygotsky. As has been pointed out, Vygotsky’s interest was not in primitive concepts but in higher mental processes which as far as he was concerned were all mediated by language. N Marr, on the other hand, was putting forward the view that one could very well do without language altogether, and idea which would have been a complete and outrageous anathema to everything Vygotsky ever stood for:

Listen to what N. Y. Marr says“, Stalin urges us:

Language exists only inasmuch as it is expressed in sounds; the action of thinking occurs also without being expressed…. Language (spoken) has already begun to surrender its functions to the latest inventions which are unreservedly conquering space, while thinking is on the up-grade, departing from its unutilized accumulations in the past and its new acquisitions, and is to oust and fully replace language. The language of the future is thinking which will be developing in technique free of natural matter. No language, even the spoken language, which is all the same connected with the standards of nature, will be able to withstand it ” (see Selected Works by N. Y. Marr).

Stalin continues: “If we interpret this ‘labor-magic’ gibberish into simple human language, the conclusion may be drawn that:

“a) N. Y. Marr divorces thinking from language; b) N. Y. Marr considers that communication between people can be realized without language, with the help of thinking itself, which is free of the ‘natural matter’ of language, free of the ‘standards of nature’; c) divorcing thinking from language and ‘having freed’ it from the ‘natural matter,’ of language, N. Y. Marr lands into the swamp of idealism .”

It is clear that there is absolutely nothing in Stalin’s very correct criticism of Marr that could possibly apply to Vygotsky who, had he been alive, would have undoubtedly been utterly contemptuous of Marr’s idealistic and ahistorical thinking19. For Vygotsky, as we shall see, language lies at the whole heart of the difference between human beings and other animals, and the human ability to manipulate nature at will rather than having to accept it as it is.

Nevertheless, studies on chimpanzees have established that even these spontaneous concepts can, to a very limited extent, be manipulated in the course of problem solving in practice. An ape is able to work out that it can use a stick lying within its visual field in order to reach a goodie that without the stick is slightly out of reach. So limited is this primitive reasoning, however, that even an ape who has frequently used a stick as a tool in this way will not go to look for a stick if there isn’t one immediately present20. Provided it is within their visual field, however, chimpanzees can substitute any stick-like object for an actual stick.

So the question Vygotsky was interested in was, how come animals do not go beyond this primitive level of reasoning while human beings do? His answer lay in the role of socially-evolved signs, especially language, in facilitating not only communication between human beings but also, and most importantly, conscious thought as well.


Although language is acquired instinctively by humans as they associate sounds with certain concepts and master grammar partly through instinctive pattern recognition and partly through learning from others, once language is acquired it transforms humans’ mental capabilities.

· Language enables thoughts to be communicated from the knowledge of society to individuals within it

· Language gives human beings control over their reflexes, which need no longer all be limited by what is instinctive

· Language facilitates the analysis of integral mental models into its component parts

· Language facilitates the recall of previous ideas that might be useful in a new situation

· Language permits the creation of new combinations that have not been witnessed in practice of components of mental models (this makes analogy possible which can provide creative solutions to new problems)

Perhaps the most central issue in Vygotsky’s work is his study of the uses of language. As he points out, it is language which ” carries within it the generalised concepts that are the storehouse of human knowledge” and enables these to be passed on to, and be instrumental in developing the mind of, the human child.

How does this happen? A major issue that requires understanding and explanation, said Vygotsky, is the way language can be used to stimulate or inhibit a reflex. While he was prepared to consider that language itself was a reflex – provoked by a stimulus to which in a society it is conventionally attached, it is a reflex that itself acts as a stimulus by, inter alia, bringing to mind the phenomenon to which any given word or phrase is conventionally attached:

The process of stimulus discrimination is not quickly established in man. Much time is required for the established reflex to turn from generalised into differentiated, that is, for man to learn to react only to the main stimulus, and to inhibit his reactions to irrelevant ones. And here ‘it turned out (my emphasis, LV) that by influencing the object with corresponding suitable speech it was possible to create both inhibition and excitation of the conditional reflexes’. When we explain to a person that only one specific sound will be combined with the electric current and no others, discrimination is realised immediately. Through speech we can also evoke the inhibition of the conditional reflexes to the main stimulus and even of the unconditional reflex to an electric current – we only have to tell the subject not to withdraw his hand.

“Thus, ‘corresponding suitable speech’ is included in the methods of the experiment in order to establish discrimination. But the same means can not only be used to evoke inhibition but also to stimulate the reflex activity . ”

Thus it is clear that through speech humans can be liberated from conditioned reflexes, and can equally learn to be liberated from unconditioned reflexes such as their spontaneously developed mental models. But why should that be so?

Primarily it is through language that a child is guided by adults, especially its parents, away from spontaneous responses towards behaviour that will better assist it in achieving its goals. Eventually, the child generates the language for itself and tells itself what to do, drawing on its memory of past activity. But more than that, language enables mental models to be dissembled so that any of their parts can be detached and used to create a possible theoretical model. This is something that happens for instance when children fantasise to imagine a pink elephant or a talking frog, but will also be used by and by to formulate possible new ways of solving problems for which there is no solution among existing mental models.

The analytical power of language

At the heart of the issue is the fact that “The role of language in perception is striking because of the opposing tendencies implicit in the nature of visual perception [on the one hand] and language [on the other]. The independent elements in the visual field are simultaneously perceived; in this sense, visual perception is integral. Speech, on the other hand, requires sequential processing. Each element is separately labelled and then connected in a sentence structure, making speech essentially analytical ” (Vygotsky21).

Vygotsky’s realisation of the power of language considerably anticipated, and probably provoked, the deep interest taken by philosophers and psychologists in language throughout the course of the 20th century, the transfer to the academic mainstream of the various theories of ‘semiotics’, and attempts to claim that elements of language are biologically ingrained in order to perpetuate idealist concepts of the world that deny primacy to matter in relation to the mind (see for example Chomsky22 and Wittgenstein).

However, in his study of the role of language, Vygotsky was not in the slightest influenced by idealism, as we shall see.

How the uses of language evolve

His main thesis is that language is socially acquired and functions when first acquired by a child as a means of social communication. At a certain point, however, it becomes something more than that: it becomes a vehicle for thought, enabling humans to transcend the intellectual limits of even the cleverest of other animals.

The principal work in which he discusses the role of language is variously called Thought and language or Thinking and speaking, or Thinking and speech, which was published in 193423. In this book Vygotsky set himself the following tasks:

“… (1) providing experimental evidence that meanings of words undergo evolution during childhood, and defining the basic steps in that evolution; (2) uncovering the singular way in which the child’s ‘scientific’ concepts develop, compared with his spontaneous concepts, and formulating the laws governing their development; (3) demonstrating the specific psychological nature and linguistic function of written speech in its relation to thinking; and (4) clarifying, by way of experiments, the nature of inner speech and its relation to thought.” 24

In the analysis of thinking and speech, the central problem is that of the relationship of thought to word 25. Vygotsky said that up to then psychologists had made little progress in understanding this relationship because either they considered the word and the thought to be coterminous (i.e., the same thing – thus excluding the possibility of a relationship altogether); or they tried to understand the relationship by decomposing it into speech and thought as separate component parts to be studied separately. Vygotsky says that this would be no more enlightening than hoping to understand the properties of water by examining hydrogen and oxygen separately. As with water, he said, it was necessary to study the molecule as a whole – speech in its interaction with thought, and not speech and thought independently of each other. The basic molecule that is to be studied is the result of the interaction of speech and thought, i.e., word meaning.

Moreover, it was necessary to study the relationship in its development, as it did not remain static throughout a person’s life, but was subject to quantitative and qualitative changes. Thought and speech at the beginning of a person’s life develop quite separately – thought from the impact of the material world on the mind and speech from the need to communicate. ” In the speech development of the child, we can with certainty establish a preintellectual stage, and in his thought development, a prelinguistic stage. Up to a certain point in time, the two follow different lines, independently of each other. At a certain point these lines meet, whereupon thought becomes verbal, and speech rational” 26.

Vygotsky points out that it is when thought and speech come together in a relationship that human development starts to depart radically from that of animals.

Thus, Vygotsky observed that ” the initial and the primary function of speech is communicative. Speech is a means of social interaction, a means of expression and understanding .” 27

At the same time, “The word does not relate to a single object, but to an entire group or class of objects. Therefore, every word is a concealed generalization28. From this Vygotsky concludes: “Therefore, it may be appropriate to view word meaning not onlyas a unity of thinking and speech but as a unity of generalization and social interaction, a unity of thinking and communication.” However, as stated above, generalisation is an instinctive mental process. If a person needs to communicate that generalised concept (e.g. ‘chair’) to another, his words too will necessarily reflect the generalised nature of the concept, which will be understood by his interlocutor because the latter’s mind has also performed the act of generalisation and contains the concept ‘chair’. As Vygotsky explained:

… In order to convey one’s experience or thought, it is imperative to refer them to some known class or group of phenomena. Such reference, however, already requires generalisation. Therefore communication presupposes generalisation and development of word meaning … The higher, specifically human forms of psychological communication are possible because man’s reflection of reality is carried out it generalised concepts.” 29

Having established, then, that the meaning of words relates to generalised abstractions from the material world, the primary purpose of which is the communication of thought from one person to another, Vygotsky then demonstrated that language gradually takes on an additional role, i.e., the role of CONSCIOUS thought, which in turn facilitates far greater accuracy in understanding the workings of the material world and of what can be done therefore to maximise human interests (e.g., the provision of food and shelter) as well as to mobilise or be mobilised within human society to bring about the necessary interventions that will produce the desired result, i.e., engaged in the activity of labour.

Vygotsky used the research findings of people like Jean Piaget to show how the use of language develops in children, which in turn causes the development of thinking processes. He needed, however, to reject Piaget’s unconscious idealist assumptions, borrowed from Freud and the school of psychoanalysis. The latter assumed that a child is born egocentric, interested only in promoting its own interests in pursuit of ‘pleasure’ (the so-called ‘pleasure principle’) but gradually becomes socialised as it matures. Vygotsky rejected this thesis absolutely in favour of the view that a child is a social animal from the moment of birth. However, what interested both Vygotsky and Piaget was that small children after they learn to speak go through a period of some years when a great deal of their speech is ‘egocentric’, i.e., directed at themselves without any communicative function. While Piaget took this type of speech as evidence of lack of socialisation, Vygotsky appreciated that what he was witnessing was the process of language gradually becoming an instrument of conscious thought. Since a child uses language initially to communicate its needs, it is accustomed to speaking its thoughts aloud, and this aloudness, though not necessary, continues for some considerable time after the child begins to use language for conscious thought (much as crying continues to accompany communicative speech when a child wants something for quite some time after it has learnt to speak and the crying is no longer necessary).

In studying this ‘egocentric’ speech, the Soviet psychologists gained important insights into the way intellectual processes developed in a child. In the early years the speech follows action by the child – it comments on what it is doing – but gradually as it gets a little older the speech ‘comes to the front’, showing that the child is developing the ability to plan and order its activity. Thus through language children gain control over their actions and gradually free themselves from the bonds of spontaneity.

Eventually, around the age of 7 or 8, the child stops voicing its conscious thought aloud unless it needs to communicate with others. Vygotsky supported his theory with the observation that children’s ‘egocentric’ speech increases when they are faced with a problem, such as how to reach sweets that are out of reach, or how to draw when their pencil is broken. Problems in fact arise only insofar as the child has no spontaneous model which will help it to achieve its goal. Therefore it uses its language, as far as it is able, as a means of actively searching its memory for a possible alternative.

Conscious concept formation in adults

Vygotsky did not imagine, however, that thought ceased to develop once it became internalised. He demonstrated experimentally that reasoning powers develop from infancy to early adulthood, becoming increasingly effective.

The various stages in this development can most readily be understood, perhaps, if we assume an instinctive urge in humans to create reliable and compatible mental models of all phenomena of the material world that are likely to impinge on their ambitions and/or well being. At the most primitive stage, as we have seen, humans develop spontaneous and unconscious mental models, in the same way that apes or dogs might do. Because of language, however, children from quite an early age are able to acquire or perfect existing mental models with the help of adults or other children more advanced than themselves. Where a child acquires a concept from an adult, say, the ability to apply algebraic formulas, although he does not fully understand it, he is able to use it functionally, and Vygotsky considers him to have formed a quasi concept. In early adolescence, however, Vygotsky established that people begin to be able to develop ‘real’ concepts.

For the creation of a real concept it is necessary for a person to be able to break down mental models into their component parts and rearrange the components in various ways with a view to seeing whether a different configuration would in practice bring about a solution to a problem for the solution of which that person had no effective mental model and was unable to find anyone who could provide one for him. A ‘real’ a concept has to be consciously and voluntarily acquired as a result of a person’s own thought processes, and capable of being consciously and voluntarily applied to the material world (and, of course, checked against the material world to assess its validity).

Children, according to Vygotsky, are unable to create real concepts for themselves (though they will readily adopt them from adults via language) since they are still partly tied to their spontaneous, integral, models, and are therefore limited to thinking in ‘complexes’ rather than in concepts:

He explains:

“The critical characteristic of complexive thinking is the establishment of the connections and relationships …. At this stage, the child’s thinking forms complexes of objects that are isolated in perception and it connects them in groups. In the process, it forms the initial foundations for the unification of distinct impressions. This is the first step in the process of generalising isolated elements of experience.

“In its natural developed form, however, the concept presupposes more than the unification and generalisation of the distinct concrete elements of experience. It presupposes the isolation and abstraction of separate elements, the ability to view these isolated, abstracted elements independently of the concrete and empirical connections in which they are given. Complexive thinking is helpless in this respect. It is permeated with an over abundance of connections and is characterised by a paucity of abstraction. The capacity to isolate features is extremely limited. The true concept, however, depends equally on the processes of analysis and synthesis. Partitioning and connecting are equally important internal aspects of its construction…” 30 .

It is only on the verge of adulthood that a person’s thinking matures sufficiently to be capable not only of fully isolating different components of a mental model (e.g., greenness or liquidity or loudness) – which clearly does happen at the stage of complexive thinking – but ALSO of mentally rearranging various such components in a new way and reassigning them to a new model, deliberately to form a theoretical concept whose validity can then be tested in the material world but which has not arisen spontaneously from that world.

In order to prove his theory of lower and higher levels of conceptualisation developing with maturity, Vygotsky utilised the famous ‘double stimulus’ experiment devised by his collaborator Lev Sakharov in which subjects were asked to ascertain what six nonsense words ‘meant’ through observing the very numerous disparate objects to which these words had, and had not, been attached by the experimenter. Whether a word was attached to an object would depend on that object having two specific characteristics (e.g., long and thin, red and round, green and large) among all its various other characteristics. It turned out that only those who had left childhood behind were able to do this effectively, and even they often had difficulty in putting their reasoning into words. But the experiment also showed what stage of concept development the children attempting the task had reached, enabling Vygotsky both to identify the successive stages and identify the approximate ages at which children would typically reach them.

Children proved able to group objects together in accordance with a given trait that they shared, thus demonstrating the child’s ability to separate a given trait from its perception of an object and to generalise to include other different objects sharing the same trait. Nevertheless, Vygotsky did not think that this demonstrated high level intellectual ability since he said even hens could be trained to do it 31. But still the ability to do this was a first essential step towards ‘real’ concept formation. That this complexive thinking is still not fully rational is demonstrated by the fact that there is a tendency for the child to feel that the objects that share a single trait are in other respects somehow related to each other. This is because the trait in question has not been fully separated in the person’s mind from the spontaneous concept of which it was part, but drags the whole concept in its wake.

The adolescent, however, is able to free any given trait totally from its original context, a process facilitated by language, and to create totally new imaginary concepts that include the trait in question even though it was not something that he had ever observed in nature. Even then, however, there is a tendency, albeit that the new concept has been developed with the aid of language, to keep the new mental model that has been developed and throw away the language which was merely a tool for the acquisition of the model. In higher education a great deal of effort has to be put into reconverting the mental model back into language (identifying the principles involved in a given process) in order to be able to apply the concept more generally, as well as for the purpose of identifying any possible flaws.

Practical applications

The whole point of studying psychology at all was, for Vygotsky and his followers as much as for the Soviet government, in order to find ways to maximise the learning of all members of society, in particular the young, so as in turn to maximise the contribution that they could make to the development and advance of Soviet society. Vygotsky throughout his life made a point of working with children with learning difficulties with the mission of helping them overcome these difficulties for their own benefit and for the benefit of society. His interest in this was stimulated by his conviction, which Luria found quite original, that to understand the workings of the normal mind, it was necessary to study the workings of those who were not normal, which could yield clues as to the reasons for the differences.

One of the first implications arising from Vygotsky’s theory of development of concept formation was the observation that when children learnt scientific concepts at school, these start off as quasi concepts which the child is able to use correctly but which have not to start with built up an internalised concept, a mental model, in the child’s mind. However, he was quite certain that the acquisition of scientific concepts in this way was of great importance in promoting the development of real concepts. For one thing, scientific concepts are by their nature structured and therefore provide the child with the means of structuring all concepts, including those which were spontaneously acquired.

As Vygotsky points out, ” Concepts do not lie in the child’s mind like peas in a bag, without any bonds between them … The study of the child’s concepts at each age level shows that the degree of generality (plant, flower, rose) is the basic psychological variable according to which they can be meaningfully ordered.” 32 . Spontaneously acquired concepts are not as amenable to being ordered hierarchically in order of their generality as those which are acquired through conscious learning. To manipulate concepts effectively a person must be aware of the level of generality he is dealing with when using any given concept. Real concepts in fact involve new generalisations of pre-acquired generalisations. It is this ability to create ‘real’ concepts in the imagination which gives humans their problem-solving capacity:

To solve “the problem X that is the subject of our thought [it] must be transferred from structure [mental model] A within it was first apprehended to the entirely different context of structure B, in which alone X could be resolved. But to transfer an object or thought from structure A to structure B, one must transcend the given structural bonds, and this … requires shifting to a plane of greater generality, to a concept subsuming and governing both A and B”. 33

Unlike his predecessors, such as Piaget for example, Vygotsky sees scientific instruction of a child as not merely increasing his knowledge but also (through acquainting him with bodies of knowledge that are hierarchically structured and involve movement through different levels of generality) as facilitating his intellectual development, since this movement is a process that can be imitated and transferred to other fields of a person’s understanding. However, it is not a question of ANY learning facilitating intellectual development. One cannot assume that being subjected to lessons in Latin and Greek or even mathematics, for instance, is going automatically to transfer into superior thought processes. That idea has been conclusively disproved, as Vygotsky pointed out. Learning to write, however, he thought was particularly important because, unlike speech, there is nothing unconscious about it. Writing forces thought out of the unconscious into the conscious and helps to bring it under the control of the person thinking and writing – the conscious control of concepts being the hallmark of intellectual thought. That is why according to modern teaching and counselling methods, anybody who wants to take control of their own thinking processes is encouraged to write. In fact one of the most valuable methods for training communist cadres is to get them to write, or prepare presentations (which involves writing for the purpose) in order that they become consciously aware of the principles involved. This is also why the teacher invariably learns even more effectively than the taught.

The zone of proximal development (ZPD)

It follows from the above that through the learning of quasi-concepts from others, the basis is laid for further quantitative advance of a child’s mind towards the qualitative leap to full intellectual maturity and the ability to form real concepts. Hence from a teacher’s point of view, it is not as interesting to know what intellectual level a pupil has reached, but what their potential is for advancing further. It is in this context that Vygotsky developed the concept, which has been very widely these days accepted in the West, of the zone of proximal development. Simply stated, the concept posits that there is a zone that starts with what a child can already do without help and extends to the limits of what it can achieve with the help of others. Giving the child assisted practice enables it to learn the techniques needed to perform the task on its own. A familiar example might be the way a child learns to read. Invariably it is asked to read aloud to an adult who will help it with the words that are too difficult. By the end of the reading session the child will by a process of imitation of the adult have improved on its ability to read unaided. The adult’s assistance is likened to a scaffold which assists the child to ascend to higher levels of competence. A good teacher is able to construct effective scaffolds to promote a child’s learning. To do so requires judgment of the appropriate level – there is no point in helping a child to learn to read by getting it to read Das Kapital, for instance, but at the same time the tasks set for the child must present sufficient difficulty as to promote a development in the child’s abilities. 34

One implication of this, whose proof Vygotsky attributes to the American researcher Dorothea McCarthy, is that every effort should be made to put children in contact with people whom they can imitate and thus learn from. Ms McCarthy’s experiments proved that children learn a great deal from each other, and therefore children working in groups to perform a task somewhat beyond their abilities to perform independently will maximise their learning, while at the same time increasing their potential for intellectual development. This effect is magnified by the fact that children working in groups need to translate their thoughts into language in order to communicate with the other members of the group which, as we have seen above, in itself also promotes development.

Vygotsky’s work on this question was only with children. However, it is suggested that the zone of proximal development arises even in adults trying to master a new area of knowledge. At the initial stages of learning a new area of knowledge, even adults do not have the means to develop real concepts in that area at higher levels of abstraction until they have accumulated quite a bit of lower level understandings. As a result of this, adults too can benefit from effectively constructed group work in which the group is asked to perform a task that is slightly beyond them individually and which therefore presents as a ‘problem’. Nowadays, many schools of medicine, for instance, organise students’ learning round ‘problems’ to be solved – e.g., finding the correct diagnosis of a patient’s illness, with the groups given the theoretical material to be able to find the answer. Although this material does yield the answer, the text would be somewhat beyond the ability of the students to comprehend unaided, so, with their focus on solving the ‘problem’, the students support each other in reaching a sufficient level of understanding. This method of teaching also has the merit of maintaining students’ interest levels, making learning easier. Of course, what is not at all ‘easy’ is setting up the series of problems at the right level to carry the medical students through everything they need to know and understand all the way to competence as doctors. It has, however, been done, by gifted teachers acting in collaboration and developing courses, with suitable testing of all its proposed elements, over a number of months. The pioneer here was the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia, whose highly successful problem-based medical course took their teaching team two years of full-time work to devise.


Finally, Vygotsky’s work has also implications for the education of people with learning difficulties as a result of ‘defects’ such as deafness, dyslexia, autism or whatever, as well as the treatment of people suffering with mental illnesses. In capitalist society there is little incentive to devise ways of helping people to overcome incurable disadvantages since their education is invariably more time-consuming, and therefore expensive, than for a normal person and, even after all the effort that is expended on it, the disabled person concerned may never become as productive – i.e., yield as much from his exploitation – as the normal person. Once exploitation has been done away with, however, and the cash nexus has ceased to be the most important factor determining relations between people in society, what comes to the fore is the well-being of all members of society, which is facilitated by all members of society contributing to society as much as they are able, even if some are able to contribute less than others.

Vygotsky wrote:

It goes without saying that blindness and deafness are biological facts and not at all of a social nature, but the teacher has to deal not so much with these facts as with the social consequences of these facts. When we have a blind child as an object of education before us, we are compelled to deal not so much with blindness in itself, as with the conflicts which arise therefrom within the child when it enters life. It is obvious that its contact with surroundings does not proceed in the usual way as compared with a normal child. Blindness or deafness, as a psychological fact, is not at all a misfortune, but, as a social fact, it becomes such .”35.

With regard to teaching deaf children to speak, he insisted that this should as far as possible follow the natural process followed by children who can hear. Therefore, from as young as possible they must be encouraged to lip read which provides them with the natural motivation arising from participation in society. Even if they learn to sign they are cut off from most people they meet as most people don’t know sign language. But patterns of lip movement in speech can attach to meanings just as much as auditory sounds, so the same natural instincts that prompt a normal child to learn to speak will prompt a deaf child to learn to lip read, after which the attachment of sound to the imitated lip movement proves relatively easy.

Above all, the lip reading provides the child with language with all its important contributions to the development of intelligence as we have seen above.

Importantly, Vygotsky took the view that children with ‘special needs’ should not be treated as invalids but should be integrated into the life of society, with the same rights and duties as anybody else. To prepare them for this, the Soviet Union set up the world’ s first experiment of self-governing among deaf and dumb children: the children organised their own life, had ” their own school governing body, with sanitary, cultural and other committees … As a result, social habits, conscious instincts, initiative, organising abilities, collective responsibility are developing and strengthening through this system .

Then comes the deaf and dumb Children’s communist movement, participation of children in detachments of young pioneers. The pioneer movement is, from a pedagogical point of view, an experiment of building and organising children’s games in an international and universal spirit. Through these games, children are put in direct touch with the life of the working class; they learn to understand the experiences and hardships of the grown-ups. The pulse of universal life is beating in the pioneer movement, and the child learns to realise that it takes part in universal life … It is obvious that, in this manner, the deaf and dumb child enjoys life just as fully as the normal one …” 36.

With regard to mental illness, Vygotsky’s studies suggested that the schizophrenic patient loses or never develops the ability to form real concepts, and therefore the ability to create hierarchies of concepts in his mind. Luria observed the same phenomenon many years later in patients suffering from semantic aphasia, who can recognise things but not relationships between things (an indication that there has been damage to some part of the parietal lobe of their brain). A schizophrenic patient, therefore, is apparently limited to the complexive thinking of the child with its tendency to identify things with each other on the basis of a given isolated characteristic. He has instinctive mental models but they reside in a mind that is not capable of ordering them for the purpose of establishing their relationship to each other and thus reflecting accurately the way that these phenomena interrelate with each other in the material world. That the writer is aware of, Vygotsky had no suggestions for the treatment of these mental patients, but merely pointed to the degeneration of the functioning of the mind, causing it to revert to an earlier stage of development that he thought might have been the height of development reached by primitive peoples – although that view could be challenged, as primitive brains, even the brains of animals, are not by definition disordered. Luria who worked for many years on this problem, among others, was unable to find a way to restore the structuring function of the mind once it had been lost, although he did develop devices to get round the deficiency in those suffering semantic aphasia to a limit extent. Interestingly he also discovered that if brain damage occurred in a very young person, before adolescence, then it could nevertheless develop structuring ability in some different physical part of its brain so that the effect of brain injury could be much less traumatic than if it happened to an adult. This observation lends further credence to Vygotsky’s idea that the structure of the brain evolves throughout a person’s life, especially through childhood and adolescence, and of course tends to disintegrate towards the end of life.

Vygotsky was also involved in the study of patients with Parkinson’s disease. He and Luria noticed that this often attacked areas of the brain concerned with sequences of activity we engage in without consciously thinking about them, such as walking down the road. They noticed that a person who could not because of brain impairment walk across a room could nevertheless climb a flight of steps. They deduced that each step represented a separate stimulus to a single response – stepping up – and therefore stair climbing was not affected by the patient’s mental impairment. So they placed a series of postcards in a line on the floor 18 inches or so apart and asked the patient to step over them. He was able in this way to walk across the room because each card became a stimulus for taking another step. It seemed like a miracle.37


Vygotsky died of TB at the early age of 38 which was a great loss as he would otherwise undoubtedly through his research broken still more fresh ground.

Nevertheless, throughout his working life he worked as part of a team, not only with his close collaborators Alexander Luria and Alexei Leontiev, but also with the hundreds of other employees and students who passed through the Institute. When he died he left behind him a legacy of thought and practice that informed Soviet psychological research forever thereafter. As Luria says, his own ” studies evolved from Vygotsky’s belief that human beings’ higher psychological functions come about through the intricate interaction of biological factors that are part of our physical makeup as Homo Sapiens and cultural factors that have evolved over tens of thousands of years of human history”. Based on that, his colleagues had “developed two complementary strategies for discovering the interplay of biological and social factors in the structure of higher psychological functions. The first was to trace the development of such functions out of the natural, biologically determined functions which preceded them. The second strategy was to study the dissolution of higher psychological functions as the result of some kind of insult to the organism” 38 .

This framework was to see Luria during the war working with people who had received head injuries, to analyse exactly what mental processes had been damaged and to develop the means of compensating wherever possible for the faculties that had been lost.

Moreover, continuing research into language as a means of controlling and organising thought enabled Luria to develop the science of neuro linguistics, which has led to the flourishing field of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) that enables therapists to help people overcome irrational obsessive behaviour in some cases and can help to give people a level of control over their own spontaneous emotional reactions.

At the philosophical level, Vygotsky, by sticking firmly to dialectical and historical materialism, was able to solve the riddle of how the mind can appear to have a content that has not arisen from the material world. Moreover, it can hardly be denied that through his work he and his collaborators made a giant leap forward in establishing psychology as a scientific study, while at the same time bringing it into close cooperation with the allied disciplines of neurology and linguistics.

But perhaps the most extraordinary part of the work of Soviet psychologists was that, amidst all the batteries of tests and experiments and new electronic devices for measuring brain activity and the like, they never lost sight of the human beings whom they were serving. Luria noticed that with modern technological developments “Many scholars began to suppose that observation could be replaced by computer simulation and mathematical models” and he noted that he was ” inclined to reject strongly an approach in which these auxiliary aids become the central method and in which their role as servant to clinical thought is reversed so that clinical reasoning follows instrumental data as a slave follows its master”. 39 Luria is right. The life work of the Soviet scientists of Vygotsky’s school has made it clear that the human brain has a capacity for creative problem solving far beyond anything that can be achieved by any machine so far invented. All real scientific advance arises from that essential interaction between mind and matter.


1. Vasily Vasilievich Davydov was Director of the Institute of General and Pedagogical Psychology in Moscow until it was dissolved in 1983.

2. The making of the mind, p.43.

3. The making of the mind, p.11.

4. Stephen Toulmin, ‘The Mozart of Psychology’, 28 September 1978.

5. Vygotsky, Crisis, ch.1

6. This is admitted, for instance, by Toumlin in his article in The New York Review of Books (see note 4 above):

“Despite his central preoccupations with physiology, Pavlov’s theoretical ideas were broader and more flexible than is generally realized. He understood very well that ‘signaling systems’ have a crucial part to play in the lives of human beings, and he never imagined that any naïve theory of ‘conditioned reflexes’ could account for the symbolic or intellectual activities of human beings, just as it stood. More significantly: Pavlov himself by no means saw all human behavior as fundamentally ‘conditioned’-i.e., as a passive response to external stimuli. On the contrary, his central questions had to do not with conditioning, viewed in the modern Western way as a quasi-mechanical process, but rather with the differences between reflexes that manifest themselves unconditionally and those that do so only on certain conditions“.

7. From The part played by labour in the transition from ape to man.

8. Luria, p.38

9. ibid. p.40

10. On the contrary, the Institute of Psychology undertook extremely painstaking work in studying unconscious responses to stimuli, and as a result of this research, initially carried out from purely theoretical interest, Luria was able to develop the lie detector.

11. ibid.

12. ibid.

13. p.6

14. Capital, Vol III, p.956

15. Interestingly, a child is not likely to mistake a cat for a dog or vice versa even though, even for an adult it would be difficult to put the differences into words!

16. The result is that young school children tend to be more advanced when it comes to applying scientific concepts consciously learnt than they are at applying concepts unconsciously acquired where in the early stages at least they tend to confuse cause and effect. The child’s acquisition of scientific concepts, however, does eventually influence its ability to understand its own spontaneously acquired concepts properly.

17. “In 2011, Dr. Pawan Sinha, a professor of vision and computational neuroscience at M.I.T., published his answer to an almost-four-hundred-year-old philosophical problem. The philosopher William Molyneux, whose wife was blind, had proposed a thought experiment in the seventeenth century about a person, blind from birth, who could tell apart a cube and a sphere by touch: If his vision were restored and he was presented with the same cube and sphere, would he be able to tell which was which by sight alone? The philosophical camps on Molyneux’s question divided roughly through the centuries into those who believe that certain qualities, such as the roundness of spheres, are innate and shared among the senses (the Yeses), and those who insist that, to understand roundness, the eyes must have already seen roundness (the Nos). …

Since 2003, Sinha, through a non-profit that he founded called Project Prakash, has organized and supervised sight-restoration surgeries for more than two hundred blind children from some of the poorest regions in India. … After sight had been restored, Sinha posed Molyneux’s question.

“The results might have disappointed those in Molyneux’s Yes camp. Sinha showed me a video in which a teen-age boy, blind since birth because of opaque cataracts, sees for the first time. The boy sits still and blinks silently, the room around him reflecting in his eyes as a kind of proof of their new transparency. Sinha believes these first moments for the newly sighted are blurry, incoherent, and saturated by brightness-like walking into daylight with dilated pupils-and swirls of colors that do not make sense as shapes or faces or any kind of object. ‘The moments immediately following bandage removal are not quite as ‘magical’ as Hollywood movies would have us believe,’ Sinha told me. To answer Molyneux, then: No. A cube and a sphere are both lost in this confusion.” (Patrick House, ‘What people cured of blindness see’, The New Yorker, 28 August 2014).

18. Nevertheless, an unconsciously acquired concept (e.g., such as the belief that a heavy marble will fall to the ground faster than a lighter one) can conflict with a socially accepted, scientifically established, concept, and it may thus prove an obstacle (albeit a surmountable one) to learning. Occasionally the unconsciously acquired concept of an individual will be a truer reflection of reality than the socially accepted one, giving rise to a ‘feeling’ that something is not quite right, thus stimulating enquiry.

19. If there was an eclipse of Vygotsky’s work in the Soviet Union after he died, it could well be as a result of the rise of unMarxist elements in the academic world of psychology in parallel with the rise of such charlatans as N Marr in linguistics. The person who dominated Soviet psychology after Vygotsky died was one Sergei Leonidovich Rubinshtein who made a name for himself by emphasising that it was social activity that was most important in developing the human mind and on that basis criticised Vygotsky for overemphasising the role of language! Rubinshtein published a textbook of psychology which was given the Stalin prize in 1942. However, at about the same time as Marr was exposed by Stalin, Rubinshtein was deposed from all his academic positions on the grounds of his ‘cosmopolitanism’. His works do not appear to be available in English so it has not been possible to make any analysis of his theoretical contribution, but from some of his thoughts that are accessible online, he does seem to have been an appalling poseur. This is a paragraph picked at random from On philosophy and the philosopher: Cognition of the world as discovery of the truth, struggle (sometimes heroic) for this truth, on the one hand, and mastery of the world for the benefit of man, on the other hand, perception of beauty in nature, creation of beauty in art, courage in the struggle with nature, overcoming dangers – all of this (without relating directly to the ethical, an attribute of which is the attitude of one person to another and to others) leaves the kind of spiritual wealth and nourishes the spiritual force of man, which creates the necessary precondition, basis, and inner condition for an ethical treatment of one person by another. Only a rich and strong person is good to others, because he has something to give others – the question is: Wherein lies this richness and strength of the soul?

20. Though a dog might go and look for its lead if it wanted to be taken out for a walk. However, it is clear that because they do not and never have engaged in long-term collaborative labour, the passing of time is largely irrelevant to animals and they have not therefore tended to attach much of a time dimension to their spontaneous mental models (the only kind they have). So a dog or chimpanzee which can learn words for things, and even in the latter case, learn some sign language, will never understand the concept of ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow’ or even ‘later’, much less master grammatical patterns of human language that express these concepts as they are reflected in the human mind.

21. Vygotsky, Mind in Society, p.33. This is really something of a precis and paraphrase on the part of the book’s editors of what Vygotsky and Luria had to say in their 1930 article, ‘Tool and symbol in child development’, which is reproduced as originally written in René van der Veer and Jaan Valsiner, The Vygotsky reader, pp. 99-174).

22. Chomsky’s theory of inborn grammatical structure has recently been comprehensively disproved by a young missionary called Daniel Everett who lived among a lost tribe of hunter-gatherer Indians in Brazil and learnt their language. Curious things about their language include the limited nature of the concept of past or future, the absence of subordinate clauses, the lack of words for numbers higher than four, the lack of words for colours. These are people who have not yet made much advance along the path of labour and have clearly not developed these concepts because they were irrelevant to their lives. See Daniel Everett Don’t sleep, there are snakes.

23. References here are to Thinking and speaking, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1962.

24. Note that, contrary to what is sometimes alleged, Vygotsky did not claim that concepts (such as generalisations) could not arise spontaneously rather than socially.

25. Thinking and speaking, p.3.

26. Thought and speech, p.83

27. ibid., p.8.

28. ibid.

29. ibid., pp.7-8.

30. Thinking and Speaking, ch.5 part 16

31. It has been established that even fish have this ability. An experiment details of which were published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, involved archerfish being shown pairs of faces on a screen above their tank.

“Archerfish, above, were chosen because of a unique skill they have. The fish eat insects flying above the water, and they get them by squirting water into the air to bring them down.

“The fish were given food as a reward for shooting at one face but not at the other. After their training they were presented with the “reward” face among 44 new faces – and were able to spot it even if it was partially changed, with the outline of the head removed” (Tom Whittle, ‘They’re not so stupid after all – fish never forget a familiar face’, The Times, 8 June 2016).

32. Thought and Language p.197.

33. ibid., p.205.

34. Vygotsky points out that even to be able to imitate effectively requires a certain level of intellectual development. For instance, I would be quite unable to imitate a professional golfer’s swing as I have never played golf, but it is conceivable that I could imitate at least certain aspects of a professional swimmer’s movements. The same is true of intellectual activities. And incidentally Vygotsky noted that even the cleverest animal is quite incapable of learning anything other than mechanical movements by imitation.

35. The Vygotsky Reader p.20.

36. Ibid., p.25.

37. Described by Luria @ p.128-129

38. ibid.. p.56

39. ibid., p.176-177


Davydov, V.V. , ‘Lev Vygotsky and educational psychology’, introduction to L S Vygotsky, Educational Psychology, St Lucie Press, Boca Raton, 1997.

Everett, D., Don’t sleep, there are snakes , Profile Books, London, 2010

Graham, L., Science and philosophy in the Soviet Union, Albert A Knopf, New York, 1972

Luria, A., The making of the mind, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1979, p.11 – edited by Michael and Sheila Cole

Marx, K., Capital, Vol III, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1991

Van der Veer, R. and Valsiner, J. (eds), The Vygotsky reader, Blackwell, Oxford, 1994,

Vygotsky, L.S. ‘ The Historical Meaning of The Crisis in Psychology: A Methodological Investigation’ (1927)

Vygotsky, L.S., Thought and Language (1934) MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1996

Vygotsky, L.S., Mind in Society, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1978

Vygotsky, L.S., Thinking and speaking , MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1962

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.