Vygotsky’s psychological views

Explicate and extend a theoretical approach that tried to avoid pitfall the approach of the Soviet psychologist and semiotics Lev Semenovich Vygotsky. Biographical sketch. The three themes that form the core of Vygotsky's theoretical framework.

Рубрика Психология
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Язык английский
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The Russian State Social University

Report on Psychology.

Vygotsky's psychological views

Moscow 2005

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A biographical sketch

Vygotsky`s theoretical approach


Bibliographic list


Like the humanities and other social sciences, psychology is supposed to tell us something about what it means to be human.

However, many critics, including such eminent members of the discipline as J.S. Bruner (1976), have questioned whether academic psychology has succeeded in this endeavor. One of the major stumbling, blocks that has diverted psychology from this goal is that psychologists have too often isolated and studied phenomena in such a way that they cannot communicate with one another, let alone with members of other disciplines. They have tended to lose sign of the fact that their untimate goal is to contribute to some integrated, holistic picture of human nature.

This intellectual isolation is nowhere more evident than in the division that separates studies of individual psychology from studies of the sociocultural environment in which individuals live. In psychology we tend to view culture of society as a variable to be incorporated into models of individual functioning. This represents a kind of reductionism which assumes that sociocultural phenomena can ultimately be explained on the basis of psychological processes. Conversely, sociologists and social problems because the derive straightforwardly from social phenomena. This view may not involve the kind of reductionism found in the work of psychologists, but it is no less naпve. Many aspects of psychological functioning cannot be explained by assuming that they derive solely and simply from the sociocultural milieu.

This disciplinary isolation is not attributable simply to a lack of cooperation among various scholars. Rather, those interested in social phenomena and those interested in psychological phenomena have defined their objects of inquiry in such different ways that they have almost guaranteed the impossibility of mutual understanding. For decades this problem has been of concern to those seeking to construct a unified social science. Critical theorists such as T. Adorno and J. Habermas (1979) have struggled with it since the 19405. According to Adorno, “the separation of sociology and psychology is both correct and false” (1967, p. 78). It is correct because it recognizes different levels of phenomena that exist in reality; that is, it helps us avoid the pitfalls of reductionism. It is false, however, because it too readily “encourages the specialists to relinquish the attempt to know the totality”.

Keeping sight of this totality while examining particular levels of phenomena in social science is as elusive a goal today as earlier in the twentieth century. Indeed the more progress we make in studying particular phenomena, the more distant this goal seems to become. My purpose here is to explicate and extend a theoretical approach that tried to avoid this pitfall--the approach of the Soviet psychologist and semiotician Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896-1934).

Vygotsky, of course, did not make his proposals in order to deal with today's disciplinary fragmentation, but many of his ideas are relevant to the quandaries we face. To harness these ideas, they must first be interpreted in light of the milieu in which they were developed. Hence I shall explicate the cultural and historical setting in which Vygotsky worked and then extend his ideas in light of theoretical -- advances made during the half-century since his death.

Vygotsky is usually considered to be a developmental or educational psychologist. Much of what I shall have to say, however, is based on the assumption that it is incorrect to categorize him too readily as a psychologist, at least in today's restricted sense. It is precisely because he was not only a psychologist that he was able to approach this discipline with a fresh eye and make it part of a more unified social science. In fact the Soviet philosopher and psychologist G. P. Shchedrovitskii has argued that one of the main reasons for Vygotsky's success in reformulating psychology in the USSR is that he was not trained as a professional psychologist.

Under normal circumstances an outsider is not given the opportunity to reformulate a discipline such as psychology in a major country. Vygotsky, however, did not live in normal circumstances: he entered adulthood just as his country was experiencing one of the greatest social upheavals of the twentieth century--the Russian Revolution of 1917. This event provided two decades or so of what is perhaps the most exciting intellectual and cultural setting of our time. It was largely because of this setting that Vygotsky was able to develop his ingenious ideas and that these ideas could have a significant impact.

A Biographical Sketch

Vygotsky's biography can be divided into two basic periods: the first, from his birth in 1896 until 1924, the year in which he made his initial appearance as a major intellectual figure in the USSR; the second, from 1924 until his death from tuberculosis in 1934.

Vygotsky was born on November 17, 1896, in Orsha, a town not far from Minsk in Belorussia. Vygotsky changed his name from Vygodsky in the early 1920s because he believed that it derived from the name Vygotovo, where his family had its origins. Other members of his family, such as his daughters retained the “d” in the spelling of their name.

The picture that emerges from information about Vygotsky's early years is one of a happy, intellectually stimulating life -- in spite of the fact that, like other members of his family, he was excluded from several avenues of opportunity because he was Jewish.

Instead of attending public schools, Vygotsky studied with a private tutor for several years and then finished his secondary education in a Jewish gymnasium. He profited enormously from his early years of study with his tutor, Solomon Ashpiz. Ashpiz's pedagogical technique was apparently grounded in a form of ingenious Socratic dialogue, which left his students, especially one as gifted as Lev Semenovich, with well-developed, inquisitive minds.

By the age of fifteen Vygotsky had become known as the “little professor”, because he often led student discussions on intellectual matters. For example, he examined the historical context of thought by arranging debates and mock trials in which his peers played the role of figures such as Aristotle and Napoleon. These debates were a manifestation of one of Vygotsky's main interests during that period of his life -- philosophy.

While still a child in Gomel, Lev Semenovich also began to show fervent interest in the theater and in literature.

Vygotsky graduated from his gymnasium in 1913 with a gold medal. Though widely recognized as an outstanding student, he had great difficulty entering the university of his choice -- largely because he was Jewish.

During this period there was a quota on the number of Jews who could enter Moscow and Saint Petersburg universities: no more than 3 percent of the student bodies could be Jewish. As Levitin points out, this meant that all the Jewish gold medalists and about half the silver medalists would be admitted. Since Lev Semenovich had every reason to expect a gold medal, his matriculation to the university of his choice seemed assured.

Midway through Vygotsky's deputy examinations, however, the tsarist minister of education decreed a change in procedures by which Jews would be chosen for Moscow and Saint Petersburg universities. The 3 percent quota was maintained, but Jewish applicants were now to be selected by casting lots, a change apparently designed to dilute the quality of Jewish students at the best universities. But then the incredible happened: late in August, the Vygodskys received a cable from their friends in Moscow telling them that Lev had been enrolled at the University by the draw.

In 1914, while in Moscow as a student, Vygotsky also began attending the Shanyavskii People's University, an unofficial school that sprang up in 1911 after a minister of education had expelled most of the students and more than a hundred of the faculty from Moscow University in a crackdown on an antitsarist movement.

Vygotsky graduated from Moscow University in 1917 with a degree in law. Although he received no official degree from Shanyavskii University, he profited greatly from his studies in psychology, philosophy, and literature. He returned to Gomel after his graduation to teach literature and psychology.

Very little information is available about the impact of the 1917 Revolution on Lev Semenovich. Lev Semenovich continued living in Gomel's relatively peaceful setting for seven years after his return in 1917. With his cousin David Vygodsky he taught literature at a school in Gomel. He also conducted classes on aesthetics and the history of art in a conservatory and gave many lectures on literature and science. Furthermore, he organized a psychology laboratory at the Gomel Teacher's College, where he delivered a series of lectures that provided the groundwork for his 1926 volume, Pedagogical Psychology.

In 1920 Vygotsky was in poor health. The disease that was eventually to kill him, tuberculosis, had begun to take its toll. It was already a serious enough threat to Vygotsky's life in 1920 that he spent a brief period in a sanatorium and asked one of his former professors from Shanyavskii University to publish his collected manuscripts in the event of his death. He recovered from this bout of tuberculosis, however, and continued his projects in Gomel. In 1924 he married Roza Smekhova. They had two daughters.

In retrospect all this work seems to have been preparation for an event in 1924 that was to change Vygotsky's life irrevocably. This turning point, which separates the two major periods of Vygotsky's biography, was his appearance on January 6, 1924, at the Second All-Russian Psychoneurological Congress in Leningrad. There he made a presentation, "Methods of Reflexological and Psychological Investigations."

Vygotsky's brilliant, performance so impressed the director of the Psychological Institute in Moscow, K. N. Kornilov, that he immediately invited this "Mozart of psychology" to join himself and others in restructuring the institution. Lev Semenovich accepted and later that year left Gomel to begin his new career.

In 1925 Lev Semenovich completed his dissertation, “The Psychology of Art.” During the fall of that year he received permission to have a public defense, but a renewed and serious bout of tuberculosis made that impossible. Recognizing this fact, the qualifying commission excused him from a public defense, and he was passed.

The years between 1924 and 1934 were extremely busy and productive for Vygotsky. Soon after his arrival in Moscow, Aleksandr Romanovich Luria (1902-1977) and Aleksei Nikolaevich Leont'ev (1904-1979) joined him as students and colleagues. Together these three became known as the "troika" of the Vygotskian School. Several other students and followers eventually joined the school, but it was Luria and Leont'ev who were destined to be the major developers of Vygotsky's ideas after his death.

The excitement that Vygotsky generated among his students and colleagues is perhaps impossible to appreciate in today's setting.

In 1925 he produced the written version of his 1924 presentation at the Second All-Russian Psychoneurology Congress; between November of 1925 and the spring of 1926, while in the hospital with another attack of tuberculosis, he wrote a major philosophical critique of the theoretical foundations of psychology, “The Historical Significance of the Crisis in Psychology”.

Between 1931 and 1934 Vygotsky produced manuscripts for reviews, articles, and books at an ever accelerating pace. He edited and wrote a long introduction for the 1932 Russian translation of Piaget's volume Le langage et la pensйe chez l'enfant (1923). His introduction was later to serve as the second chapter of his posthumous volume Thinking and Speech (1934). During Vygotsky's last few years of life, he lectured and wrote at an almost frenetic pace.

Throughout this period Vygotsky's bouts of tuberculosis became increasingly frequent and severe. His protracted, terrifying spells of coughing led to exhaustion for several days, but instead of resting, he tried to reach as many of his goals as possible. In the spring of 1934 his health grew much worse. His doctors insisted that he enter the hospital, but he refused because of work he needed to complete by the end of the school year. One May 9 he had a very severe attack at work and was brought home. At the end of May his bleeding began again, and on June 2 he was hospitalized in Serebryanii Bor Sanatorium. Shortly after midnight on June 11 he died. He was buried in Novodevechii Cemetery in Moscow.

In all, Vygotsky produced approximately 180 works.

Vygotsky's Theoretical Approach

vygotsky psychologist semiotician approach

The three themes that form the core of Vygotsky's theoretical framework are (1) a reliance on a genetic or developmental method; (2) the claim that higher mental processes in the individual have their origin in social processes; and (3) the claim that mental processes can be understood only if we understand the tools and signs that mediate them.

Each of these themes can be fully understood only by taking into account its interrelationships with the others.

Vygotsky originated the cultural and historical concept in psychology which has received further development in psychological theories of the activity worked out by A. N. Leont'ev, A. R. Luria, P. Ya. Gal'perin, D. B. El'konin and others. The main idea of Vygotsky's creative work is thesis about the socio-historical nature of human mentality, human consciousness as opposed to naturalism with its various forms.

Following the idea of the socio-historical nature of mentality, Vygotsky interpreted the social environment not as “factor”, but as “source” of person's development. In child's development, he said, there are two bound lines. The first is natural maturing. The second consists in mastering the culture, ways of behaviour and thinking. Systems of signs, symbols (for example, language, script, notation, etc.) are auxiliary methods of organization of the behaviour and thinking which the mankind has created during the historical development.

Vygotsky introduced thesis about higher mental processes (thinking in concepts, reasonable speech, logic memory, voluntary attention, etc.) as specifically human form of mentality.

Child's mastering the connection between sign and value, use of speech by application of instruments marks occurrence of new psychological functions, systems underlying higher mental processes which distinguish person's behaviour from animal's one.

Vygotsky made his most important and unique contribution with the concept of mediation. The notion of mediation (oposredovanie) became increasingly important and well formulated in Vygotsky's theory of human mental functioning. Mediation of the development of human mentality by means of “psychological instruments” is also characterized that operation of the sign use, standing in the beginning of development of each of higher mental processes, primordially has the form of external activity, i.e. turns from interpsychic in intrapsychic.

This transformation passes some stages. Initial one is connected with the other person (adult) with the help of the certain means operates behaviour of the child, directing realization of his any "natural", involuntary function. At the second stage the child himself becomes the subject and, using given psychological instrument, directs behaviour of another (believing him as object). At the following stage the child starts to apply to himself (as to object) those ways of management of behaviour which others applied to him, and he - to the others. Thus, Vygotsky wrote, each mental function appears on the stage twice - at first as collective, social activity, and then as an inner way of child's thinking. Between these two “appearances” is located the process of interiorization, the function “taking roots” inside.

Back process of interiorization is also possible - process of exteriorization - removal outside the results of cerebration which are carried out all over again as an intention in the internal plan.

Transition from interpsychic to intrapsychic functions occurs in cooperation with other children and in child's dialogue with the adult. Vygotsky emphasized the important role of relations between the child's person and the social environment surrounding him at each age step. These relations vary from age to age and make “completely original, specific to the given age, exclusive and unique relation between the child and the reality surrounding him, first of all social one. We shall name this relation a social situation of development at the given age ». From researches of child's mental development appeared a new approach to studying the relation between development and training.

Higher mental processes have as the source cooperation and training. The conclusion about the leading part of training in mental development has been made. It means that training goes ahead of development. The area accessible to the child in cooperation has received the name of a zone of the nearest development; area self-administered is an area of actual development. “The zone of the nearest development has more direct value for changes of intellectual development and success of training, than an actual level of their development ».

Vygotsky thought, these researches should be put in the basis of student teaching: “the pedagogic should be guided not on yesterday, but tomorrow's day of children's development”, - wrote L. S. Vygotsky.

In Vygotsky's views the person has social character. It does not cover all attributes of individuality, but puts an equal-sign between child's person and his cultural development. The person “is not congenital, but appears as the result of cultural development”. Developing, person masters own behaviour. However, the necessary precondition of this process is person's education, because development of this or that function is always derived from person's development as a whole and caused by it”.

In person's development passes a number of changes having the stage nature. Owing to destruction of one social situation of development and occurrence another, more or less stable developments are replaced by the critical periods in person's life during which there is a rough forming of new psychological formation. Crises are characterized by unity of negative (destructive) and positive (constructive) parties and play a role of steps on a way of further child's development.

Arisen during this or that period new formations qualitatively change person's psychological functioning. For example, occurrence of teenager's reflection completely reconstructs his mental activity. New formation is the third level of self-organizing: “Alongside with primary level of an individual mentality (inclinations, heredity) and secondary level of his education (environment, acquired characteristics) here (during puberty) act tertiary conditions (reflection, self- mounting)”. Tertiary functions make a basis of consciousness. Finally, they too represent the psychological relations that transferred in the person, earlier it was relations between people. However, connection between the socio-cultural environment and consciousness is more difficult and consists not only in influence of environment on rates of consciousness development, but also in conditionality of the type of consciousness, character of his development.


Vygotsky managed to tie various strands of inquiry together into a unique approach that does not separate individuals from the sockA cultural setting in which they function. This integrative approach to social, semiotic, and psychological phenomena has substantial relevance today, a half century after his death.

Bibliographic list

1) Fred Newman, Lois Holzman. Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary Scientist. New York, USA: Psychology, 1993. 192 p.

2) James V. Wertsch. Vygotsky and the social formation of mind. - London, England: Harvard University Press, 1985. 262 p.

3) Ждан А. Н. История психологии: от античности к современности: Учебник для студентов психологических факультетов университетов. Изд. третье, исправленное. М.: Педагогическое общество России, 2003. 512 с.

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