Form and Content

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.

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...

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