Thought and Language Essay - Critical Context

Lev Vygotsky

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Vygotsky’s work on thought and language was exciting to a generation of Soviet psychologists and inspired many of the leading figures in the field through the half century after his own premature death. Most members of the group who worked with him on the experiments reported in Thought and Language went on to do major research in psychology, education, and anthropology. Filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein and poets such as Osip Mandelstam used some of his ideas in aspects of their own work. His challenge to then-existing psychological practices did in fact change the course of Soviet psychology.

Nevertheless, that influence was both misapplied and interrupted as a result of Joseph Stalin’s political interference in linguistics and psychology. A subsequent book by Vygotsky (written with Alexander Luria), a comparative study of mental development in a section of the Soviet Union that represented several stages of human culture, was rejected for publication, as were other, shorter pieces. His Marxist orientation was called into question, and his citation of Western authorities bespoke what the Stalinist government considered an unhealthy bourgeois influence. As a result, his students, in developing his theories in a context which demanded strict Marxist applications, in fact distorted his work. Their theories of activity replaced his emphasis on semiotic mediation with a stress on behavior as well.

Only after the thaws following Stalin’s death did fuller publication and more critical examination reveal the richness of Vygotsky’s theoretical work. Themes in his papers and in the work under discussion which had remained undeveloped received new attention, both in the Soviet Union and abroad, where psychological emphases of the earlier period had given way to interests closer to Vygotsky’s own. Advances in the field of semiotics supported Vygotsky’s notion that words not only represent reality but actually mold it. Application of his theory of the role of the adult in children’s learning gave a distinctive shape to Soviet psychology and education. Vygotsky’s emphasis on the way culture changes over time, providing the available forms of knowledge, distinguishes his approach from Piaget’s. His concept of the importance of systems in mental activity makes his work fully contemporary.