Vygotsky, Lev Semenovich

Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896-1934) grew up in Gomel', a provincial town in Belorussia. From 1913 to 1917 he studied history, philosophy, and law at universities in Moscow, and he returned to Gomel' from 1917 to 1924, where he taught literature and psychology at several schools and colleges. He also wrote extensively about language, pedagogy, drama, and poetry during this period.

After a brilliant presentation at a psychoneurological conference in 1924, Vygotsky was invited to join the staff of the Moscow Psychological Institute, and he continued to live and work primarily in Moscow until he died of tuberculosis in 1934. During the final decade of his life Vygotsky helped found several research and teaching institutions in the Soviet Union; he conducted extensive empirical studies on the history and ontogenesis of language and thought (Vygotsky 1987; Vygotsky and LURIA 1993); and he wrote about philosophy, pedagogy, and psychology (Vygotsky 1997), including the psychology of disabilities (Vygotsky 1993).

Throughout his career Vygotsky's fundamental concern was with how human mental functioning is shaped by its historical, cultural, and institutional context. The theoretical framework he developed for dealing with this problem can be summarized in a few basic themes. The first of these was his commitment to a genetic, or developmental, method. From this perspective mental functioning is understood by examining its origins and the transformations it undergoes in development. Vygotsky's formulation of this theme went well beyond the focus of contemporary accounts of child and lifespan psychology, seeking to address how mental functioning is shaped by phylogenetic, historical, and microgenetic, as well as ontogenetic, forces.

The second theme that runs throughout Vygotsky's writings is the claim that higher, uniquely human mental functioning in an individual has its origins in social processes and retains a "quasi-social" nature (Vygotsky 1981a). This claim led him to criticize psychological accounts that attempt to derive social from individual processes. In contrast to such approaches he argued that higher mental functions appear first on the social, or "intermental" plane -- often in the form of joint, adult-child problem-solving activity -- and only then emerge on the intramental, individual plane. The nature of intermental functioning and its role in shaping intramental processes has been the focus of recent research on the "zone of proximal development" (Vygotsky 1978) and related notions such as "scaffolding."

Vygotsky's claims about the social origins of individual mental functioning have some striking implications that run counter to widely held assumptions in psychology. Because he viewed terms such as "memory" and "thinking" as applying to social as well as individual processes, he argued for the need to identify an analytic unit that is not tied to the individual. His candidate for this unit was word meaning -- a unit that mediates both intermental and intramental functioning. Furthermore, he argued that the particular form that mental processes take on the intramental plane derives largely from their intermental precursors. This points to the importance of examining linguistic and social interactional dimensions of intermental functioning as a means for understanding mental processes in the individual.

The third theme that runs throughout Vygotsky's writings is that higher mental processes are mediated by socioculturally evolved tools and signs (Vygotsky 1981b). Under the heading of mediation by signs, or semiotic mediation, Vygotsky included items such as maps, mathematical formulas, and charts, but he was particularly interested in human language. His claims about mediation lie at the center of his approach, something that is reflected in the analytic primacy he gave to this, over the two other themes. Vygotsky identified major turning points, or "revolutions" in development by the appearance of new forms of sign use, and he formulated intermental and intramental functioning in terms of semiotic mediation. The developmental relationship that he saw between these two planes existed precisely because language and other sign systems mediate both and hence serve to link them.

Vygotsky (1986) developed his theoretical claims in several empirical studies. For example, he conducted investigations on the emergence of abstract concepts and their relationship to language development, and he examined the relationship between external, social speech and inner speech in the individual. In the latter connection he analyzed a form of speech used by children in which they speak to themselves as they engage in problem-solving or fantasy play. Because such speech does not appear to take listeners into account, Piaget (1955) had labeled it "egocentric." Though not disputing many of Piaget's basic observations, Vygotsky disagreed with his interpretation. Instead of viewing such speech as a manifestation of children's egocentricity, a symptom that dies away with the increasing ability to understand others' perspectives, Vygotsky argued that egocentric speech plays an essential role in the transition from social speech to inner speech on the intramental plane. He concluded that instead of simply disappearing with age, this speech form "goes underground" to become inner speech, thereby shaping mental functioning in a uniquely human way.

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-- James V. Wertsch


Piaget, J. (1955). The Language and Thought of the Child. Translated by Marjorie Gabain. New York: World Publishing.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. In M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, and E. Souberman, Eds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1981a). The development of higher forms of attention in childhood. In J. V. Wertsch, Ed., The Concept of Activity in Soviet Psychology. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, pp. 189-240.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1981b). The instrumental method in psychology. In J. V. Wertsch, Ed., The Concept of Activity in Soviet Psychology. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, pp.134-143.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1986). Thought and Language. Revised translation by A. Kozulin, Ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky. Vol. 1, Problems of General Psychology. Including the volume Thinking and Speech. Translated by N. Minick, Ed. New York: Plenum.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1993). The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky. Vol. 2, The Fundamentals of Defectology (Abnormal Psychology and Learning Disabilities). Translated with introduction by J. E. Knox and C. B. Stevens. New York: Plenum.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1997). The Collected Works of L.S. Vygotsky. Vol. 3, Theory and History of Psychology, Including the Chapter Crisis in Psychology. Translated by Rene Van Der Veer and Robert W. Rieber, Ed. New York: Plenum.

Vygotsky, L. S., and A. R. Luria. (1993). Studies on the History of Behavior: Ape, Primitive, and Child. Edited and translated by Victor I. Golod and Jane E. Knox, Eds. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Further Readings

Bruner, J. (1986). Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cole, M. (1996). Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Frawley, W. (1997). Vygotsky and Cognitive Science: Language and the Unification of the Social and Computational Mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rogoff, B. (1990). Apprenticeship in Thinking: Cognitive Development in Social Context. New York: Oxford University Press.

van der Veer, R., and J. Valsiner. (1991). Understanding Vygotsky: A Quest for Synthesis. Oxford: Blackwell.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1971). The Psychology of Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wertsch, J. V. (1985). Vygotsky and the Social Formation of Mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wertsch, J. V. (1991). Voices of the Mind: A Sociocultural Approach to Mediated Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wertsch, J. V. (1998). Mind as Action. New York: Oxford University Press .