Lev Vygotsky

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Historical Meaning Of The Crisis In Psychology

By Lev Vygotsky

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Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky

Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (Лев Семенович Выготский) (November 17 (November 5 Old Style), 1896 – June 11, 1934) was a Soviet developmental psychologist and the founder of the Cultural-historical psychology.



He was born in 1896 in Orsha, Belarus (then Russian empire) and grew up in Homel (southern Belarus) in a prosperous Jewish family. Vygotsky attended Moscow University, majoring in law, and, at the same time, studied history and literature at the Shanivsky University. He graduated in 1918 and returned to Homel where he worked as a school teacher and studied. In 1924 he moved to Moscow, working on a diverse set of projects. He died of tuberculosis in 1934, leaving a wealth of work that is still being explored.


Being a pioneering psychologist, Vygotsky was also a highly prolific author: the collection of his major works contains 6 volumes written over roughly 10 years. Vygotsky's interests in the fields of developmental psychology, child development, and education were extremely diverse. His innovative work in psychology includes several key concepts such as

  • psychological tools, mediation, and internalization
  • the zone of proximal development

and covers such diverse topics as the origin and the psychology of art, development of higher mental functions, philosophy of science and methodology of psychological research, the relation between learning and human development, concept formation, interrelation between language and thought development, play as a psychological phenomenon, the study of learning disabilities and abnormal human development (aka defectology), etc.

Cultural mediation and internalization

Vygotsky investigated child development and how this was guided by the role of culture and interpersonal communication. Vygotsky observed how higher mental functions developed through social interactions with significant people in a child's life, particularly parents, but also other adults. Through these interactions, a child came to learn the habits of mind of her/his culture, including speech patterns, written language, and other symbolic knowledge through which the child derives meaning and affected a child's construction of her/his knowledge. The specific knowledge gained by a child through these interactions also represented the shared knowledge of a culture. This process is known as internalization.

The easiest way to understand mediation is to start with an example and follow with the Vygotskian principles behind it.

It is a North American girl's fourth birthday. She is sitting at the table with three of her friends and her family. As mother lights the four candles on her birthday cake and places it on the table, the child beams from ear to ear. It is more than just a smile, it is a feeling of true and deep felt joy. Why? It is not that she knows the cake is sweet and she likes sweet food. Nor is it that the candles sparkle and the sparkling pleases her eyes. While this would be sufficient reason to arouse an emotional response in an ape, there are mental processes in a four year old that extend well beyond this. Indeed, rather than reaching out to eat the cake, she patiently waits (still beaming from ear to ear) as her family and friends sing happy birthday. She then blows out the candles, the cake is sliced and she is offered a piece. The joy is not in the cake itself but what it means to her. It is a sign that today is a special day for her in which she is the center of attention and that her friends and family are praising her. It is a sign that she is bigger and as such has higher status among her peers. It is not just a cake, it is a birthday cake and it is not just any birthday cake, it is her birthday cake. The true significance of the birthday cake then, is not in its physical properties at all, but rather in the significance bestowed upon it by the culture the daughter is growing into. This is not restricted to such obvious artifacts as a birthday cake. A classroom, a game of soccer, a fire engine are all first and foremost cultural artifacts from which children derive meaning.

This example can help us understand Vygotsky's approach to human development. Like other animals, we have lower mental functions tied closely to biological processes. In our birthday cake example, a toddler may well have reached out to take a handful of cream from the cake as soon as she saw it and the four year old may have been tempted to do the same. In humans, however, lower mental functions facilitate a new line of development qualitatively unique to humans. Vygotsky referred to this as the higher mental functions. The lower mental functions cannot be equated to those of an ape as they are interwoven with the line of higher mental functions and are essential to them. “The history of child behavior is born from the interweaving of these two lines. The history of the development of the higher mental functions is impossible without a study of their prehistory, their biological roots, and their organic disposition” (Vygotsky, 1978). However, it is this higher line of development that explains the birthday cake example with profound insight.

From the perspective of an individual child's development, the higher psychological line of development is one guided by the development of tools and signs within the culture. In our example above, the birthday cake is so much more than a source of nourishment, it is a sign with much deeper and broader meaning. The sign mediates between the immediate sensory input and the child's response, and in so doing allows for a moment of reflection and self-regulation that would not otherwise be possible. To the extent that these signs can be used to influence or change our physical or social environment they are tools. Even the birthday cake can be considered as a tool in that the father uses it to establish that his daughter is now older and has a new status in society. This is a sophisticated example. Tools and signs can be much simpler, such as an infant pointing to an object she desires. At first she may simply be trying to reach the object, but the mother's response of passing the object helps the infant realize that the action of pointing is a tool to change the environment according to her needs. It is from these simple beginnings that the world of meaning in the child mediated by tools and signs, including language, develops.

A fundamental premise of Vygotsky's therefore, is that tools and signs are first and foremost shared between individuals in society and only then can they be internalized by individuals developing in the society as is reflected in this famous quote:

"Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological), and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relations between human individuals" (Vygotsky, 1978: 57).

Internalization can be understood in one respect as “knowing how”. For example, riding a bicycle or pouring a cup of milk are tools of the society and initially outside and beyond the child. The mastery of these skills occurs through the activity of the child within society. A further aspect of internalization is appropriation in which the child takes a tool and makes it his own, perhaps using it in a way unique to himself. Internalizing the use of a pencil allows the child to use it very much for his own ends rather than draw exactly what others in society have drawn previously.

Psychology of play

Lesser known is his research on play, or child's game as a psychological phenomenon and its role in the child's development. Through play the child develops abstract meaning separate from the objects in the world which is a critical feature in the development of higher mental functions.

The famous example Vygotsky gives is of a child that wants to ride a horse but he cannot. As a child under three, he would perhaps cry and be angry, but at around the age of three the child's relationship with the world changes "Henceforth play is such that the explanation for it must always be that it is the imaginary, illusory realization of unrealizable desires. Imagination is a new formation that is not present in the consciousness of the very young child, is totally absent in animals, and represents a specifically human form of conscious activity. Like all functions of consciousness, it originally arises from action." (Vygotsky, 1978)

He wishes to ride a horse but cannot, so he picks up a stick and stands astride of it, thus pretending he is riding a horse. The stick is a pivot. "Action according to rules begins to be determined by ideas, not by objects..... It is terribly difficult for a child to sever thought (the meaning of a word) from object. Play is a transitional stage in this direction. At that critical moment when a stick – i.e., an object – becomes a pivot for severing the meaning of horse from a real horse, one of the basic psychological structures determining the child’s relationship to reality is radically altered".

As children get older, their reliance on pivots such as sticks, dolls and other toys diminishes. They have internalized these pivots as imagination and abstract concepts through which they can understand the world. "The old adage that children’s play is imagination in action can be reversed: we can say that imagination in adolescents and schoolchildren is play without action" (Vygotsky, 1978).

Another aspect of play that Vygotsky referred to was the development of social rules that develop, for example, when children play house and adopt the roles of different family members. Vygotsky cites an example of two sisters playing at being sisters. The rules of behavior between them that go unnoticed in daily life are consciously acquired through play. As well as social rules the child acquires what we now refer to as self-regulation. For example, as a child stands at the starting line of a running race, she may well desire to run immediately so as to reach the finish line first, but her knowledge of the social rules surrounding the game and her desire to enjoy the game enable her to regulate her initial impulse and wait for the start signal.

Thinking and Speaking

Perhaps Vygotsky's most important contribution concerns the inter-relationship of language development and thought. This concept, explored in Vygotsky's book Thinking and Speaking, establishes the explicit and profound connection between speech (both silent inner speech and oral language), and the development of mental concepts and cognitive awareness (metacognition). It should be noted that Vygotsky described inner speech as being qualitatively different than normal (external) speech. Although Vygotsky believed inner speech to develop from external speech via a gradual process of internalization, with younger children only really able to "think out loud", he claimed that in its mature form it would be unintelligible to anyone except the thinker and would not resemble spoken language as we know it (in particular, being greatly compressed). Hence, thought itself develops socially.

The infant learns the meaning of signs through interaction with her mother. She learns that pointing can be a tool and that pointing can be accompanied by cries and gurgles to express what she wants. Through this activity with her caregivers she learns that sounds are signs with which to conduct social interaction and soon the child begins to ask for the names of objects.

Language starts as a tool external to the child used for social interaction. As she grows into her second year, the child uses this tool to guide her own activities in a kind of self-talk or "thinking out loud". Initially, self-talk is still very much a tool of social interaction, tapering away to negligible levels when the child is alone or with deaf children that cannot hear her. Gradually, however, self-talk is used more as a tool for self-directed and self-regulating behavior. Around the time the child starts school, her self-talk is no longer present, not because it has disappeared but rather because speaking has been appropriated and internalized. Self-talk "develops along a rising not a declining, curve; it goes through an evolution, not an involution. In the end, it becomes inner speech” (Vygotsky, 1987). Inner speech develops through its differentiation from social speech.

Speaking has thus developed along two lines, the line of social communication and the line of inner speech, by which the child mediates and regulates her activity through her thoughts which in turn are mediated by the semiotics (the meaningful signs) of inner speech. This is not to say that thinking cannot take place without language, but rather that it is mediated by it and thus develops to a much higher level of sophistication. Just as the birthday cake as a sign provides much deeper meaning than its physical properties allow, inner speech as signs provides much deeper meaning than the lower psychological functions would otherwise allow.

Inner speech is not comparable in form to external speech. External speech is the process of turning thought into words. Inner speech is the opposite, it is the conversion of speech into inward thought. Inner speech for example contains predicates only. Subjects are superfluous. Words too are used much more economically. One word in inner speech may be so replete with sense to the individual that it would take many words to express it in external speech.

Influence and development of Vygotsky's ideas

In the Soviet Union, Russia, and East Europe

In the Soviet Union, the work of the group of Vygotsky's students known as the Kharkov School of Psychology was vital for preserving the scientific legacy of Lev Vygotsky and identifying new avenues of its subsequent development. The members of the group laid foundation for the Vygotskian psychology systematic development in such diverse fields as the psychology of memory (P. Zinchenko), perception, sensation and movement (Zaporozhets, Asnin, A. N. Leont'ev), personality (L. Bozhovich, Asnin, A. N. Leont'ev), will and volition (Zaporozhets, A. N. Leont'ev, P. Zinchenko, L. Bozhovich, Asnin), psychology of play (G. D. Lukov, D. El'konin) and psychology of learning (P. Zinchenko, L. Bozhovich, D. El'konin), as well as the theory of step-by-step formation of mental actions (Gal'perin), general psychological activity theory (A. N. Leont'ev) and psychology of action (Zaporozhets).

In the West

In the West, most attention was aimed at the continuing work of Vygotsky's Western contemporary Jean Piaget. Vygotsky's work appeared virtually unknown until its "rediscovery" in the 1960s, when the interpretative translation of Thought and language (1934) was published in English (in 1962; revised edition in 1986, translated by A. Kozulin and, as Thinking and speech, in 1987, translated by N. Minick). In the end of the 1970s, truly ground-breaking publication was the major compilation of Vygotsky's works that saw the light in 1978 under the header of Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes.

Vygotsky's views are reported to have influenced development of a wide range of psychological and educational theories such as activity theory, distributed cognition, cognitive apprenticeship, second language acquisition theory, gesture theory, etc. Strong influences of Vygotskian thought can be found in the work of a number of scholars such as Jerome Bruner, Michael Cole, James V. Wertsch, Sylvia Scribner, Vera John-Steiner, Ann L. Brown, Courtney Cazden, Gordon Wells, René van der Veer, Jaan Valsiner, Pentti Hakkarainen, Seth Chaiklin, Alex Kozulin, Nikolai Veresov, Anna Stetsenko, Kieran Egan, Fred Newman, David McNeill and Lois Holzman, to mention but a few.

Critiques of Vygotsky

Tetzchner[1] raises critique of the social constructivist field of psychology in general, pointing out that these theoreticians (including Vygotsky) pay little or no attention to the systematical exploration of objects most commonly exhibited by infants.

Also, a child may be interested in other people, but it takes time before it realizes that it can actually use these people to solve the problems it encounters. Even when a child is able to ask for help, it's not always interested in receiving any. In particular, two- to three-year-olds tend to want to do things on their own.

Furthermore, Tetzchner writes that social constructivist psychologists mostly have focused on language and cultural activities that include cooperation, such as playing and eating. However, "A theory about cognitive development must comprise both the exploration the child does on its own and the knowledge mediated through cooperation with adults" (Tetzchner, 2005: 206).

Secondary literature

Major monographs about Vygotsky's Work

  • Wertsch, J. V. (1985). Vygotsky and the Social Formation of Mind, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., and London.
  • Kozulin, A. (1990). Vygotsky's Psychology: A Biography of Ideas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Van der Veer, R., & Valsiner, J. (1991). Understanding Vygotsky. A quest for synthesis. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Newman, F. & Holzman, L. (1993). Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary scientist. London: Routledge.
  • Van der Veer, R., & Valsiner, J. (Eds.) (1994). The Vygotsky Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Daniels, H. (Ed.) (1996). An Introduction to Vygotsky, London: Routledge.
  • Vygodskaya, G. L., & Lifanova, T. M. (1996/1999). Lev Semenovich Vygotsky, Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, Part 1, 37 (2), 3-90; Part 2, 37 (3), 3-90; Part 3, 37 (4), 3-93, Part 4, 37 (5), 3-99.
  • Veresov, N. N. (1999). Undiscovered Vygotsky: Etudes on the pre-history of cultural-historical psychology. New York: Peter Lang.

Articles and books related to Vygotsky

  • Cole, M. & Wertsch, J. Beyond the individual-social antinomy in discussions of Piaget and Vygotsky
  • Ratner, C. Historical and contemporary significance of Vygotsky's sociohistorical psychology
  • Cole, M. (1996). Cultural Psychology, Reitzels
  • Danielsen, E. (1996). Vygotsky, Psykologiens Mozart, DPF
  • Strandberg, L. (2006). Vygotskij i praktiken, Nordsteds Akademika forlag


Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher mental processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Vygotsky, Lev (1934). Thinking and Speaking. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. Written 1934: Edited and translated in 1962 by Eugenia Hanfmann and Gertrude Vakar

See also

  • Ecological Systems Theory

Vygotsky's texts online

In English

  • XMCA Research Paper Archive Scolarly articles on Vygotskian psychology
  • Lev Vygotsky archive @ all major works (in English)

In Russian

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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