Lev Vygotsky

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (vi-GOT-skee) pioneered work in psychology which belatedly influenced the study of art, literature, linguistics, and education as well as psychology. What little is known of his life comes from the accounts of his colleagues. He was born in 1896 in White Russia, the son of a small-town banker. He was educated by private tutors and later in the Jewish Gymnasium, where he developed an interest in Jewish history and culture. He attended medical school in Moscow in deference to his parents’ practical concerns, but he later switched to the study of law, to be nearer humanistic subjects. While pursuing his studies at Moscow University, Vygotsky also attended Shanyavskii People’s University, an unofficial institution established in reaction to government repression at the state universities. Following his graduation from Moscow University, Vygotsky returned to the provinces to teach literature and psychology. He attracted the notice of professional psychologists at a convention in 1924, at which he delivered a brilliantly original paper. His wife, Roza, accompanied him to Moscow in 1924, when he joined the staff of the Institute of Psychology there.

In the ten years following his appointment to the Psychological Institute, Vygotsky was extraordinarily productive. He founded a new institute for the study of children with physical handicaps and learning disabilities. While maintaining a heavy schedule as a researcher and lecturer, he produced a great number of articles and book-length studies. At the time of his death, of tuberculosis, in 1934, much of this work had not yet been published. As a result of the caprices of Stalinism, Vygotsky’s approach to psychology fell out of favor, and it was not until the 1950’s that his work began to appear again in the Soviet Union. Between the 1950’s and the 1980’s, many of his works were published for the first time, along with reissues of previously published material.

Vygotsky reacted against the work of such contemporaries as Ivan Pavlov, who, he believed, placed too much emphasis on reactions as the primary component of human behavior. In the early 1920’s Vygotsky developed his concept of “mediation,” which distinguishes humans from other animals in their ability to connect stimuli and responses by means of various kinds of links, such as language. These means of mediation then become themselves stimuli of more complex responses, or “inner language,” as Vygotsky called it. Vygotsky also assumed that language and thought developed independently, both in the individual and in the history of the human species. This presupposition led him to postulate that intelligence is a function of the ability to connect signs with concepts. On the basis of this presupposition, he developed the Vygotsky blocks, a test for schizophrenia which was the only one of Vygotsky’s concepts widely known before the 1960’s, when his works were first translated into English.

Vygotsky’s first book, The Psychology of Art, unpublished even in Russian until 1965, was a revision of his doctoral thesis at the Moscow Institute of Psychology. This work, which reveals a broad interest in literature and philosophy, exhibits two important qualities of Vygotsky’s thought: first, his notion that human psychology is a very complex phenomenon; and second, that psychology is a means to study culture, rather than an end in itself. In other works of the 1920’s Vygotsky addressed the divisions and schools of psychology in his day and outlined his own method, compatible with Marxism but not rigidly subject to it.

In the early 1930’s Vygotsky collected seven essays and fitted them together to compose his most important and influential work, Thought and Language . In this book Vygotsky again surveys various...

(This entire section contains 899 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

approaches to the subject, focusing primarily on that of his contemporary Jean Piaget. He argues that speech and thought have different roots and that the two are joined only at a given stage in the development of the individual, after which they exert a mutual influence on future development. The child, he showed, exhibits both speech without meaning and intellectual activity without words. It is the joining and subsequent interaction of the systems of language and thought that mark the maturation of the child. His natural interest in the learning process led Vygotsky to study children in educational settings. There he observed that two forms of conceptual learning can be distinguished: one formal and systematic, the other spontaneous and loosely organized. This division led, in turn, to his theory of “inner speech,” whereby the social function of communication in language is internalized as a set of psychological relations.

Vygotsky and his slightly younger colleague Alexander Luria undertook pioneering studies in cross-cultural psychology, comparing the reasoning processes of uneducated rural people with those of people who had varying levels of formal education. Luria, who went on to enjoy a long career and attained worldwide recognition as a neuropsychologist, always credited Vygotsky’s influence and played a part in the revival of his work. Vygotsky’s researches also led him into the field of psychopathology; one of his papers on mental illness, “Thought in Schizophrenia,” was published in English in 1934.

Vygotsky left his mark not only on Soviet psychology—in his resistance to crudely dogmatic Marxist ideology and insistence on a pluralistic methodology, and in his influence on the work of his students—but also on the fields of art, literature, and linguistics. The belated translation of his works into English has brought increasing recognition of Vygotsky’s immense contribution to twentieth century thought.