Thought and Language

by Lev Vygotsky
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 939

Designed for the general reader, Lev Vygotsky’s Thought and Language is a proposed resolution of the materialist-idealist split in Soviet psychology of the 1920’s, a critical review of previous theories about the connection of language and thought, and an account of his and his colleagues’ experimental results that supported a new formulation of the interrelationship of thought and speech. The study takes the form of an assessment of major theories, both Western and Soviet, in psychology and linguistics, with references to literary theory. Vygotsky finds such an interdisciplinary approach helpful for clarifying the different roots of thought and speech and for forming an “interfunctional interpretation of higher mental functions.” Vygotsky’s version of this relation grows out of and diverges from the developmental theories of Jean Piaget, with whom Vygotsky maintains a sort of running dialogue throughout the book. The underlying hypothesis of Vygotsky’s work is that the developmental approach must be applied to thought and speech.

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The book is organized in seven chapters, the first of which states the problem and Vygotsky’s approach. Here he shows that previous studies of consciousness have focused on separate functions, though in principle psychologists accept the unity of consciousness and the interrelation of all psychological functions. He argues that they must shift to a study of developmental changes in the interfunctional structure of consciousness. He establishes word meaning as the minimal unit of verbal thought and makes semantic analysis his method in pursuing the nature of verbal thought—the development, function, and structure of this unit. Any word is already a generalization of reality and therefore an act of thought.

The second chapter critiques Piaget’s developmental theory of thought and language in children, accepting much of Piaget’s approach but challenging his explanation of egocentric speech. Piaget sees the child’s talking aloud to himself as a midpoint between his asocial exclusive focus on self (autism) and his developing capability for directed thought—that is, his socialization. Vygotsky argues instead that speech is social from the beginning and that egocentric speech is an instrument of thought which seeks and plans solutions to problems, an intermediate stage leading not to socialization but to the inner speech of the adult.

In chapter 3, Vygotsky objects to William Stern’s theory of language development on the grounds that the understanding of symbol comes much later than Stern thinks, but he likes Stern’s realization of the great moment when the child learns the “grandiose signality” of speech. Vygotsky sees this phenomenon as the internalization of psychological tools. Human beings communicate through semiotic mediation.

In chapter 4, Vygotsky pursues the way in which this perception of speech as symbol comes into being, phylogenetically and ontogenetically. By distinguishing between communication among animals and that among human beings, he concludes that thought and speech have different genetic roots and that their curves of development come together in human beings at about age two, when words flood into the child’s speech. Thought then becomes verbal and speech rational. At school the child begins the long process of internalizing speech, with the final achievement of “speech-for-oneself.” With a rich cultural environment, that inner speech gradually becomes capable of greater abstraction and multileveled thought. In this chapter Vygotsky also shows how inner speech develops in stages: external speech, egocentric speech, and inner speech.

The following two chapters present Vygotsky’s research group’s experimental investigations on the development of word meanings in childhood and on the child’s acquisition of “scientific” and “spontaneous” concepts. He uses the terms “complexes,” “pseudo-complexes,” and “potential concepts” as stages in the development of thinking. Concept formation, too, is shown to occur in stages, the highest stage being the application of an abstraction to new concrete situations that must be viewed in abstract terms. Mature thought, he says, must alternate between moving from the particular to the general and moving from the general to the particular.

This analysis has pedagogical application, and Vygotsky explores the way in which the different kinds of concepts can be supported by adult cooperation in the home and the school. He introduces the term “zone of proximal development” in explaining the point at which a child can most benefit from instruction.

The last chapter summarizes the outcomes of the study:(1) providing experimental evidence that meanings of words undergo evolution during childhood, and defining the basic steps in that evolution; (2) uncovering the singular way in which the child’s “scientific” concepts develop, compared with his spontaneous concepts, and formulating the laws governing their development; (3) demonstrating the specific psychological nature and linguistic function of written speech in its relation to thinking and clarifying, by way of experiments, the nature of inner speech and its relation to thought.

His group found that thought and word are not connected by a primary bond; instead, their connection originates, changes, and grows in the evolution of thinking and speech. Study of the union of these elements in the unit, word meaning, made clear that not merely the content of the word changes but also the way in which reality is generalized and reflected in the word.

Vygotsky looks forward to further studies when he notes at the end of his work that “a true and full understanding of another’s thought is possible only when we understand its affective-volitional basis.” In reality, the development of verbal thought moves “from the motive that engenders a thought to the shaping of the thought, first in inner speech, then in meanings of words, and finally in words.” He sees thought and speech as the key to human consciousness, and a word as a microcosm of human consciousness.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 145

Cole, Michael, and Sylvia Scribner. Introduction to Mind in Society: The Development of Psychological Processes, by Lev Vygotsky, 1978.

Emerson, Caryl. “The Outer World and Inner Speech: Bakhtin, Vygotsky, and the Internalization of Language,” in Critical Inquiry. X (December, 1983), pp. 245-264.

Kozulin, Alex. “Psychological and Philosophical Anthropology: The Problems of Their Interaction,” in Philosophical Forum. XV (1984), pp. 443-458.

Kozulin, Alex. Psychology in Utopia: Toward a Social History of Soviet Psychology, 1984.

Kozulin, Alex. “Vygotsky in Context,” in Thought and Language, by Lev Vygotsky, 1986.

Lucid, Daniel P., ed. Soviet Semiotics: An Anthology, 1977.

Luria, Alexander. The Making of Mind: A Personal Account of Soviet Psychology, 1979.

Wertsch, James V. “The Semiotic Mediation of Mental Life: L.S. Vygotsky and M.M. Bakhtin,” in Semiotic Mediation: Sociocultural and Psychological Perspectives, 1984. Edited by Elizabeth Mertz and Richard J. Parmentier.

Wertsch, James V., ed. and trans. The Concept of Activity in Soviet Psychology, 1981.

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