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Lev Vygotsky

Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (Лев Семенович Выготский) (November 12 1896 – June 11, 1934) was a Belarusian developmental psychologist, discovered by western psychology in the 1960s. In developmental psychology, his theories are often compared and contrasted with those of one of his contemporaries, Jean Piaget.


He was born in Orsha, Belarus (then part of the Russian empire) and grew up in Gomel (southern Belarus) in a prosperous Jewish family. Vygotsky attended Moscow University, majoring in law. He graduated in 1918 and returned to Gomel where he worked as a school teacher and studied psychology. In 1924 he moved to Moscow, working on a diverse set of projects. He died of tuberculosis in 1934, leaving a wealth of work that is still being explored.


Being a pioneering psychologist, Vygotsky was also a highly prolific author: the collection of his major works contains 6 volumes written over roughly 10 years. Vygotsky's interests in the fields of developmental psychology, child development, and education were extremely diverse. His innovative work in psychology includes several key concepts such as

and covers such diverse topics as the origin and the psychology of art, development of higher mental functions, philosophy of science and methodology of psychological research, the relation between learning and human development, concept formation, psycholinguistics, language development, interrelation between language and thought development, Play as a psychological phenomenon, the study of learning disabilities and abnormal human development (aka defectology), etc.

Cultural mediation and internalization

Vygotsky investigated child development and how this was guided by the role of culture and interpersonal communication. Vygotsky observed how higher mental functions developed through social interactions with significant people in a child's life, particularly parents, but also other adults. Through these interactions, a child came to learn the habits of mind of her/his culture, including speech patterns, written language, and other symbolic knowledge through which the child derives meaning and affected a child's construction of her/knowledge. This key premise of Vygotskian psychology is often referred to as cultural mediation. The specific knowledge gained by a child through these interactions also represented the shared knowledge of a culture. This process is known as internalization.

Internalization can be understood in one respect as “knowing how”. For example, riding a bicycle or pouring a cup of milk are tools of the society and initially outside and beyond the child. The mastery of these skills occurs through the activity of the child within society. A further aspect of internalization is appropriation in which the child takes a tool and makes it his own, perhaps using it in a way unique to himself. Internalizing the use of a pencil allows the child to use it very much for his own ends rather than draw exactly what others in society have drawn previously.

Psychology of play

Lesser known is his research on play, or child's game as a psychological phenomenon and its role in the child's development. Through play the child develops abstract meaning separate from the objects in the world which is a critical feature in the development of higher mental functions.

The famous example Vygotsky gives is of a child that wants to ride a horse but he cannot. As a child under three, he would perhaps cry and be angry, but at around the age of three the child's relationship with the world changes "Henceforth play is such that the explanation for it must always be that it is the imaginary, illusory realization of unrealizable desires. Imagination is a new formation that is not present in the consciousness of the very young child, is totally absent in animals, and represents a specifically human form of conscious activity. Like all functions of consciousness, it originally arises from action." (Vygotsky, 1978)

He wishes to ride a horse but cannot, so he picks up a stick and stands astride of it, thus pretending he is riding a horse. The stick is a pivot. "Action according to rules begins to be determined by ideas, not by objects..... It is terribly difficult for a child to sever thought (the meaning of a word) from object. Play is a transitional stage in this direction. At that critical moment when a stick – i.e., an object – becomes a pivot for severing the meaning of horse from a real horse, one of the basic psychological structures determining the child’s relationship to reality is radically altered".

As children get older, their reliance on pivots such as sticks, dolls and other toys diminishes. They have internalized these pivots as imagination and abstract concepts through which they can understand the world. "The old adage that children’s play is imagination in action can be reversed: we can say that imagination in adolescents and schoolchildren is play without action" (Vygotsky, 1978).

Another aspect of play that Vygotsky referred to was the development of social rules that develop, for example, when children play house and adopt the roles of different family members. Vygotsky cites an example of two sisters playing at being sisters. The rules of behavior between them that go unnoticed in daily life are consciously acquired through play. As well as social rules the child acquires what we now refer to as self-regulation. For example, as a child stands at the starting line of a running race, she may well desire to run immediately so as to reach the finish line first, but her knowledge of the social rules surrounding the game and her desire to enjoy the game enable her to regulate her initial impulse and wait for the start signal.

Thinking and Speaking

Perhaps Vygotsky's most important contribution concerns the inter-relationship of language development and thought. This concept, explored in Vygotsky's book Thinking and Speaking, establishes the explicit and profound connection between speech (both silent inner speech and oral language), and the development of mental concepts and cognitive awareness (metacognition). It should be noted that Vygotsky described inner speech as being qualitatively different than normal (external) speech. Although Vygotsky believed inner speech to develop from external speech via a gradual process of internalization, with younger children only really able to "think out loud", he claimed that in its mature form it would be unintelligible to anyone except the thinker and would not resemble spoken language as we know it (in particular, being greatly compressed). Hence, thought itself develops socially.

The infant learns the meaning of signs through interaction with her mother. She learns that pointing can be a tool and that pointing can be accompanied by cries and gurgles to express what she wants. Through this activity with her caregivers she learns that sounds are signs with which to conduct social interaction and soon the child begins to ask for the names of objects.

Language starts as a tool external to the child used for social interaction. As she grows into her second year, the child uses this tool to guide her own activities in a kind of self-talk or "thinking out loud". Initially, self-talk is still very much a tool of social interaction, tapering away to negligible levels when the child is alone or with deaf children that cannot hear her. Gradually, however, self-talk is used more as a tool for self-directed and self-regulating behavior. Around the time the child starts school, her self-talk is no longer present, not because it has disappeared but rather because speaking has been appropriated and internalized. Self-talk "develops along a rising not a declining, curve; it goes through an evolution, not an involution. In the end, it becomes inner speech” (Vygotsky, 1987). Inner speech develops through its differentiation from social speech.

Speaking has thus developed along two lines, the line of social communication and the line of inner speech, by which the child mediates and regulates her activity through her thoughts which in turn are mediated by the semiotics (the meaningful signs) of inner speech. This is not to say that thinking cannot take place without language, but rather that it is mediated by it and thus develops to a much higher level of sophistication. Just as the birthday cake as a sign provides much deeper meaning than its physical properties allow, inner speech as signs provides much deeper meaning than the lower psychological functions would otherwise allow.

Inner speech is not comparable in form to external speech. External speech is the process of turning thought into words. Inner speech is the opposite, it is the conversion of speech into inward thought. Inner speech for example contains predicates only. Subjects are superfluous. Words too are used much more economically. One word in inner speech may be so replete with sense to the individual that it would take many words to express it in external speech.

Influence and development of Vygotsky's ideas

In the Soviet Union, Russia, and East Europe

In the Soviet Union, the work of the group of Vygotsky's students known as the Kharkov School of Psychology was vital for preserving the scientific legacy of Lev Vygotsky and identifying new avenues of its subsequent development. The members of the group laid foundation for the Vygotskian psychology systematic development in such diverse fields as the psychology of memory (P. Zinchenko), perception, sensation and movement (Zaporozhets, Asnin, A. N. Leont'ev), personality (L. Bozhovich, Asnin, A. N. Leont'ev), will and volition (Zaporozhets, A. N. Leont'ev, P. Zinchenko, L. Bozhovich, Asnin), psychology of play (G. D. Lukov, D. El'konin) and psychology of learning (P. Zinchenko, L. Bozhovich, D. El'konin), as well as the theory of step-by-step formation of mental actions (Gal'perin), general psychological activity theory (A. N. Leont'ev) and psychology of action (Zaporozhets).

In the West

In the West, most attention was aimed at the continuing work of Vygotsky's Western contemporary Jean Piaget. Vygotsky's work appeared virtually unknown until its "rediscovery" in the 1960s, when the interpretative translation of Thought and language (1934) was published in English (in 1962; revised edition in 1986, translated by A. Kozulin and, as Thinking and speech, in 1987, translated by N. Minick). In the end of the 1970s, truly ground-breaking publication was the major compilation of Vygotsky's works that saw the light in 1978 under the header of Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes.

Vygotsky's views are reported to have influenced development of a wide range of psychological and educational theories such as activity theory, distributed cognition, cognitive apprenticeship, second language acquisition theory, gesture theory, etc. Strong influences of Vygotskian thought can be found in the work of a number of scholars such as Jerome Bruner, Michael Cole, James V. Wertsch, Sylvia Scribner, Vera John-Steiner, Ann L. Brown, Courtney Cazden, Gordon Wells, René van der Veer, Jaan Valsiner, Pentti Hakkarainen, Seth Chaiklin, Alex Kozulin, Nikolai Veresov, Anna Stetsenko, Kieran Egan, Fred Newman, David McNeill and Lois Holzman, to mention but a few.

Critiques of Vygotsky

The school of Vygotsky and, specifically, his cultural-historical psychology was much criticized during his lifetime as well as after his death. By the beginning of the 1930s the school was defeated by Vygotsky's scientific opponents who criticized him for "idealist aberrations", which at that time equaled with the charge in disloyalty to the Communist Party and frequently entailed very serious consequences not only for the academic work but also for freedom and even life itself. As a result of this criticism of their work a major group of Vygotsky's students including Luria and Leontiev had to flee from Moscow to Ukraine where they established the Kharkov school of psychology. Later the representatives of the school would, in turn, in the second half of the 1930s criticize Vygotsky himself for his interest in the cross-disciplinary study of the child that was developed under the umbrella term of paedology (also spelled as pedology) as well as for his ignoring the role of practice and practical, object-bound activity and arguably his emphasis on the research on the role of language and, on the other hand, emotional factors in human development. Much of this early criticism of the 1930s was later discarded by these Vygotskian scholars themselves. Another line of the critique of Vygotsky's psychological theory comes from such major figure of the Soviet psychology as Sergei Rubinshtein and his followers who criticized Vygotsky's notion of mediation and its development in the works of students.

Secondary literature

Major monographs about Vygotsky's Work

  • Wertsch, J. V. (1985). Vygotsky and the Social Formation of Mind, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., and London.
  • Kozulin, A. (1990). Vygotsky's Psychology: A Biography of Ideas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Van der Veer, R., & Valsiner, J. (1991). Understanding Vygotsky. A quest for synthesis. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Newman, F. & Holzman, L. (1993). Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary scientist. London: Routledge.
  • Van der Veer, R., & Valsiner, J. (Eds.) (1994). The Vygotsky Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Daniels, H. (Ed.) (1996). An Introduction to Vygotsky, London: Routledge.
  • Vygodskaya, G. L., & Lifanova, T. M. (1996/1999). Lev Semenovich Vygotsky, Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, Part 1, 37 (2), 3-90; Part 2, 37 (3), 3-90; Part 3, 37 (4), 3-93, Part 4, 37 (5), 3-99.
  • Veresov, N. N. (1999). Undiscovered Vygotsky: Etudes on the pre-history of cultural-historical psychology. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Daniels, H., Wertsch, J. & Cole, M. (Eds.) (2007). The Cambridge Companion to Vygotsky

Vygotsky's texts online

In English

In Russian

See also

External links