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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1309

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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 Piaget, Vygotsky believes that autistic dreaming persists into adulthood, as a response to frustrations and disappointments in the real world. The autism of the artist, however, can generate new symbols, new language which itself can enter the stream of intellectual life, changing reality. The history of language is a history of human conceptions of reality.

Vygotsky’s theory of a child’s developing ability to abstract has important implications for teaching practice. Understanding the way mental functions develop allows educators to find the best methods to foster that growth. Vygotsky’s distinction between “scientific” and “spontaneous” concepts reveals the specialized function of school instruction: to introduce concepts for which the child’s real experience has already prepared him or her to understand. Constant interaction between concepts encountered in education and rich natural experience in the world (itself permeated with concepts) enables the child to reach higher levels of thought. The young child thinks in complexes, giving “family” names to experience. Just prior to true conceptual thinking is the stage Vygotsky identifies as “pseudoconceptual,” in which the child appears to be abstracting, but is in fact achieving the result on the basis of concrete, visible likenesses rather than principle. Because adult thinking occurs concurrently on several planes, including the pseudoconceptual plane, children’s pseudoconceptual thinking makes possible an interchange between them and adults.

Vygotsky’s analysis of the differences between written and spoken language also has relevance for teaching. Writing is a tool whose importance in the developing ability to use symbols is not at first apparent to the child. Writing is speech at its most formal: It uses more words, addresses an absent audience, and makes the greatest syntactical differentiation.

Vygotsky’s developmental theory also has implications for testing. He finds that the measurement of mental age, or of concepts already mastered, or indeed the use of standardized tests in general is not so accurate as the measurement of the results a child can achieve in solving a problem with some slight help. The discrepancy between a child’s actual age and the level he can achieve in solving problems with assistance is the zone of proximal development, a truer measure of intellectual progress.

An important part of the Vygotsky group’s work is the devising of a new experimental methodology to study speech and thought. He insists that indirect as well as direct evidence is appropriate to the analysis of thought, and he applies the insights of the then-new linguistics to the study of children’s and adults’ speech. His account of the experimental investigation is integral to the formulation of his theory.

One other result of the work represented in this volume is Vygotsky’s interest in the mentally and physically handicapped. He learned much about ordinary mental activity from his work with schizophrenics, and his ideas about schizophrenia have even in the late twentieth century been useful to Western psychologists.

Vygotsky’s achievements, then, are the development of a new methodology of linking the world and the mind through study of word meaning as a basic unit; the understanding that word meanings evolve and that the level of abstraction a person achieves varies with behavioral and psychological circumstances; and the idea that the relation of word and thought is a process, and that thought is an inner movement through a series of planes. He showed that in mastering speech, the child moves from the part to the whole, but in meaning, the child moves from the whole to the part; that the increasingly complex movement from meaning to sound must be developed; and that the achievement of inner speech is part of the transition from the child’s social activity to more individualized activity. Vygotsky’s work did in fact make possible an experimental psychology of higher mental activity.

Language and Thought shows Vygotsky to have been a highly literate investigator. To illustrate the way in which the meaning of words can vary according to context, for example, he quotes Konstantin Stanislavsky’s clarification of the subtext of lines from a play. He uses epigraphs from contemporary poets and shows how thought between sympathetic pairs can proceed almost without words by citing a famous passage from a novel by Leo Tolstoy. Furthermore, it is evident that Vygotsky brings to his study a sophisticated philosophical background. He is familiar with the work of major Western and Soviet psychologists, he knows the works of German and French sociologists and biologists, and he uses linguistics and literary theorists as resources. All this learning is worn lightly; he introduces quotes and allusions unobtrusively in the construction of his own argument. Since the book is not addressed solely to psychologists, explicit documentation does not overwhelm the reader, and the book is clear and accessible. Though full of new and fruitful ideas, many as yet unexplored, it is never dense, but always stimulating.


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