Thought and Language Essay - Critical Essays

Lev Vygotsky


Vygotsky’s first interest was creativity, and his studies in psychology began as an attempt to explain the reason for the “inexpressible” in art. His first book, in 1925, was on the psychology of art (based on his doctoral thesis), and he had friends among the Russian Formalists, filmmakers, poets, and painters.

Alex Kozulin, translator and interpreter of Vygotsky’s legacy, sees the psychologist’s focus as the “problem of the structural transformation of the lower functions into the higher ones.” This is a developmental problem, and Vygotsky, in an analogy to Karl Marx’s notion of mechanical tools for the human transformation of nature, sees psychological tools as the way human beings master themselves by means of interaction with the environment. Marxist and Hegelian ideas of the material basis of reality and the mastery of human phenomena through the study of their origins and history underlie Vygotsky’s work. Thus, he took a developmental approach to the study of the individual’s acquisition of psychological tools, the stages of his or her transformation of natural psychological functions into higher ones, and the formative role of language in human thought. Vygotsky intended, too, to study the historical development of psychological tools and higher mental functions in human life, but did not live to accomplish this aim. Drawing from Emile Durkheim and Pierre Janet, Vygotsky sees “the very mechanism underlying mental functions [as] a copy from social interaction; all higher mental functions are internalized social relationships.”

His evidence that thought and speech have different roots but flow together to interact at early stages of development ultimately suggests the interaction of higher mental functions—that is, functional systems. The ability to move between planes of these systems allows the highest understanding of reality an individual human being can achieve.

Thus it is that Vygotsky’s theory of the nature of inner speech is an essential element of his view. Inner speech for Vygotsky is the internalization of the social world in the form of personal consciousness. Accepted symbolic systems are here remodeled into individual human thought. Thought and Language analyzes the process by which children develop the ability to use the symbols their society has generated. Mastery of generalizations at one level allows mastery of increasingly abstract generalizations. What the person eventually achieves is the interrelating of concepts in a system. Productive thought is based on the ability to move rapidly from one plane of generality to another.

Vygotsky’s description of the most advanced stage of inner speech constitutes a guess at the nature of creative thinking and his explanation of why some experience is inexpressible. He makes a distinction between the sense of a word (the interiorization of the total context in which the word is encountered) and the meaning (its socially agreed upon definition). This distinction makes clear the intensely personal inner world of each human being. Sense is more important than meaning, the sentence more than the word, the context more than the sentence in inner speech. Unlike...

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