Notes on perezhivanie

Perezhivanie is a Russian word, usually translated as “a lived experience,” and used in connection with “social situation of development,” which has multiple shades of meaning. It indicates a person’s situation with special emphasis on the subjective significance, especially the emotional and visceral impact of the situation on the person, recollection of which summons up the entire situation. It is therefore inclusive of the surrounding conditions, as how these conditions affect the person, how they are perceived and felt by them, how they cope with them. Somewhat like “An experience!.” It is quite different from the word “experience” as in the opening words of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason: “There can be no doubt that all our knowledge begins with experience,” or when a job advertisement asks for a candidate “with experience.” A perezhivanie is the kind of unforgetable experience which contributes to the development of a person’s personality. The excerpts below are explanations culled from selected writers.

Excerpt from Vygotsky’s “The Problem of the Environment,” in the Vygotsky Reader

The case histories of children we have studied, have put us in a better position to be more exact and precise, and to say that the essential factors which explain the influence of environment on the psychological development of children, and on the development of their conscious personalities, are made up of their emotional experiences [petrezhivanija]. The emotional experience [perezhivanie] arising from any situation or from any aspect of his environment, determines what kind of influence this situation or this environment will have on the child. Therefore, it is not any of the factors in themselves (if taken without reference to the child) which determines how they will influence the future course of his development, but the same factors refracted through the prism of the child’s emotional experience [perezhivanie]. Let us now examine one such straightforward case from our clinic.

We are dealing with three children, brought to us from one family. The external situation in this family is the same for all three children. The essential circumstances were very straightforward. The mother drinks and, as a result, apparently suffers from several nervous and psychological disorders. The children find themselves in a very difficult situation. When drunk, and during these breakdowns, the mother had once attempted to throw one of the children out of the window and she regularly beat them or threw them to the floor. In a word, the children are living in conditions of dread and fear due to these circumstances.

The three children are brought to our clinic, but each one of them presents a completely different picture of disrupted development, caused by the same situation. The same circumstances result in an entirely different picture for the three children.

As far as the youngest of these children is concerned, what we find is the commonly encountered picture in such cases among the younger age group. He reacts to the situation by developing a number of neurotic symptoms, i.e. symptoms of a defensive nature. He is simply overwhelmed by the horror of what is happening to him. As a result, he develops attacks of terror, enuresis and he develops a stammer, sometimes being unable to speak at all as he loses his voice. In other words, the child’s reaction amounts to a state of complete depression and helplessness in the face of this situation.

The second child is developing an extremely agonizing condition, what is called a state of inner conflict, which is a condition frequently found in certain cases when contrasting emotional attitudes towards the mother make their appearance, examples of which we have previously been able to observe among one of our children and which, you may remember, we have called an ambivalent attitude. On the one hand, from the child’s point of view, the mother is an object of painful attachment, and on the other, she represents a source of all kinds of terrors and terrible emotional experiences [perezhivanija] for the child. The German authors call this kind of emotional complex which the child is experiencing a Mutter-Hexekomplex, or ‘a mother-witch complex’, when love for the mother and terror of the witch coexist.

The second child was brought to us with this kind of deeply pronounced conflict and a sharply colliding internal contradiction expressed in a simultaneously positive and negative attitude towards the mother, a terrible attachment to her and an equally terrible hate for her, combined with terribly contradictory behaviour. He asked to be sent home immediately, but expressed terror when the subject of his going home was brought up.

Finally, at first glance, the third and eldest child presented us with a completely unexpected picture. This child had a limited mental ability but, at the same time, showed signs of some precocious maturity, seriousness and solicitude. He already understood the situation. He understood that their mother was ill and he pitied her.

He could see that the younger children found themselves in danger when their mother was in one of her states of frenzy. And he had a special role. He must calm his mother down, make certain that she is prevented from harming the little ones and comfort them. Quite simply, he has become the senior member of the family, the only one whose duty it was to look after everyone else. As a result of this , the entire course of his development underwent a striking change. This was not a lively child with normal, lively, simple interests, appropriate to his age and exhibiting a lively level of activity. It was a child whose course of normal development was severely disrupted, a different type of child.

When such an example is taken into account, and any researcher’s experience who investigates concrete material is full of such examples, one can easily see that the same environmental situation and the same environmental events can influence various people’s development in different ways, depending at what age they happen to find them.

How can one explain why exactly the same environmental conditions exert three different types of influence on these three different children? It can be explained because each of the children has a different attitude to the situation. Or, as we might put it, each of the children experienced the situation in a different way. One of them experienced it as an inexplicable, incomprehensible horror which has left him in a state of defencelessness. The second was experiencing it consciously, as a clash between his strong attachment, and his no less strong feeling of fear, hate and hostility. And the third child experienced it, to some extent, as far as it is possible for a 10-11 year old boy, as a misfortune which has befallen the family and which required him to put all other things aside, to try somehow to mitigate the misfortune and to help both the sick mother and the children. So it appears that, depending on the fact that the same situation had been experienced by the three children in three different ways, the influence which this situation exerted on their development also turns out to be different.

By citing this example, I only wished to clarify the idea that, unlike other disciplines, paedology does not investigate the environment as such without regard to the child, but instead looks at the role and influence of the environment on the course of development. It ought to always be capable of finding the particular prism through which the influence of the environment on the child is refracted, i.e. it ought to be able to find the relationship which exists between the child and its environment, the child’s emotional experience [perezhivanie], in other words how a child becomes aware of, interprets, [and] emotionally relates to a certain event. This is such a prism which determines the role and influence of the environment on the development of, say, the child’s character, his psychological development, etc.

In connection with this example, I would like to turn your attention to one more factor. If you recall, when we were discussing the methods we employ in our science, I attempted to defend the idea that in science the analysis into elements ought to be replaced by analysis which reduces a complex unity, a complex whole, to its units. We have said that, unlike elements, these units represent such products of analysis which do not lose any of the properties which are characteristic of the whole, but which manage to retain, in the most elementary form, the properties inherent in the whole.

Today, whilst basing myself on a concrete example of the theory about the environment, I would like to show you a few such units with which psychological research operates. One example of such a unit is the emotional experience [perezhivanie]. An emotional experience [perezhivanie] is a unit where, on the one hand, in an indivisible state, the environment is represented, i.e. that which is being experienced – an emotional experience [perezhivanie] is always related to something which is found outside the person – and on the other hand, what is represented is how I, myself, am experiencing this, i.e., all the personal characteristics and all the environmental characteristics are represented in an emotional experience [perezhivanie]; everything selected from the environment and all the factors which are related to our personality and are selected from the personality, all the features of its character, its constitutional elements, which are related to the event in question. So, in an emotional experience [perezhivanie] we are always dealing with an indivisible unity of personal characteristics and situational characteristics, which are represented in the emotional experience [perezhivanie].

That is why from the methodological point of view it seems convenient to carry out an analysis when we study the role the environment plays in the development of a child, an analysis from the point of view of the child’s emotional experiences [perezhivanija] because, as I have already said, all the child’s personal characteristics which took part in determining his attitudes to the given situation have been taken into account in his emotional experience [perezhivanie]. For example, do all of my own personal constitutional characteristic elements, of every type, participate fully and on an equal basis? Of course not. In one situation some of my constitutional characteristics playa primary role, but in another, different ones may play this primary role which may not even appear at all in the first case. It is not essential for us to know what the child’s constitutional characteristics are like per se, but what is important for us to find out is which of these constitutional characteristics have played a decisive role in determining the child’s relationship to a given situation. And in another situation, different constitutional characteristics may well have played a role.

In this way the emotional experience [perezhivanie] also helps us select those characteristics which played a role in determining the attitude to the given situation.

Imagine I possess certain constitutional characteristics – clearly, I will experience this situation in one way, and if I possess different characteristics, it is equally clear that I will experience it in quite a different way. This is why people’s constitutional characteristics are taken into account when differentiating between those who are excitable, sociable, lively and active and others who are more emotionally slack, inhibited and dull. It is therefore obvious, that if we have two people with two opposite types of constitutional characteristics, then one and the same event is likely to elicit a different emotional experience [perezhivanie] in each of them. Consequently, the constitutional characteristics of the person and generally the personal characteristics of children are, as it were, mobilized by a given emotional experience [perezhivanie], are laid down, become crystallized within a given emotional experience [perezhivanie] but, at the same time, this experience does not just represent the aggregate of the child’s personal characteristics which determine how the child experienced this particular event emotionally, but different events also elicit different emotional experiences [perezhivanija] in the child. A drunken or mentally ill mother amounts to the same thing as a mentally ill nanny, but it does not mean the same as a drunken father or a drunken neighbour. Which means that the environment, which in this case was represented by a specific concrete situation, is also always represented in a given emotional experience [perezhivanie]. This is why we are justified in considering the emotional experience [perezhivanie] to be a unity of environmental and personal features. And it is precisely for this reason that the emotional experience [perezhivanie] is a concept which allows us to study the role and influence of environment on the psychological development of children in the analysis of the laws of development.

Excerpt from The Psychology of Experiencing, Fyodor Vasilyuk

The aim of this book is to construct a theory of the psychological processes whereby a human being copes with critical situations in life. These processes are best denoted, in Russian, by the word perezhivaniye. It is a very comprehensive word: in colloquial speech the verb perezhivat’ can mean “to be alarmed, worried, upset”; “to suffer mental torment”; “ to undergo some trial and survive it, having overcome the difficulties and troubles involved”; “to experience a state or feeling and then outlive or vanquish it,” and many other things. Out of all these meanings, scientific usage takes only one – here perezhivaniye means the direct sensation or experience by the subject of mental states and processes. We propose to use this term to denote also a particular activity, a particular internal work, by means of which a person overcomes and conquers a crisis, restores lost spiritual equilibrium, resurrects the lost meaning of existence. (Fyodor Vasilyuk, The Psychology of Experiencing, Foreword to the English Edition, 1991)

Footnote from editors of the Reader, R. van de Veer and J. Valsiner:

The Russian term perezhivanie serves to express the idea that one and the same objective situation may be interpreted, perceived, experienced or lived through by different children in different ways. Neither ‘emotional experience’ (which is used here and which only covers the affective aspect of the meaning of perezhivanie), nor ‘interpretation’ (which is too exclusively rational) are fully adequate translations of the noun. Its meaning is closely linked to that of the German verb ‘erleben’ (cf. ‘Erlebnis’, ‘erlebte Wirklichkeit’).

Excerpt from the Dissertation of Beth Ferholt

The concept of perezhivanie has the potential to be a powerful tool in the project of reintegrating the subjects of emotion and cognition in psychological and educational studies of development and learning. Unlike any terms with roots in the English language, the term perezhivanie encompasses the dynamic relations of imagination and creativity, emotion and cognition. Translation of “perezhivanie” is difficult because the English language itself separates emotion and cognition, but I hope both to strengthen the concept by discussing it in English, and also to minimize its dilution by turning to technical uses of “perezhivanie” within the disciplines of theater (Stanislavski, 1949) and psychology (Bozhovich, 1977; Vasilyuk, 1988; Vygotsky, 1994).

Perezhivanie was first used as more than an everyday word in the dramatic system of Constantin Stanislavski (1949). For Stanislavski (1949) perezhivanie is a tool that enables actors to create characters from their own re-lived, past lived-through experiences. Actors create a character by revitalizing their autobiographical emotional memories and, as emotions are aroused by physical action, it is by imitating another’s, or a past self’s, physical actions, that these emotional memories are re-lived.

Vygotsky himself described perezhivanie thus:

The emotional experience [perezhivanie] arising from any situation or from any aspect of his environment, determines what kind of influence this situation or this environment will have on the child. Therefore, it is not any of the factors themselves (if taken without the reference of the child) which determines how they will influence the future course of his development, but the same factors refracted through the prism of the child’s emotional experience [perezhivanie]. (“The Development of Thinking and concept formation in adolescence,” Vygotsky Reader, pp. 338-339)

In this way Vygotsky (1994) explains, generally, how cognition and emotion are dynamically related. And he follows this statement with two mandates that describe the import of this observation. The first makes more explicit the fact that, for Vygotsky, perezhivanie is the relationship between individual and environment, and therefore that this phenomenon is central to his theory of development: “It (Psychology) ought to be able to find the relationship which exists between the child and its environment, the child’s emotional experience [perezhivanie]” (p. 341). The second states that perezhivanie avoids the loss of those properties that are characteristic of the whole, that perezhivanie retains the properties inherent in the whole, thus allowing analysis through units rather than elements:

In an emotional experience [perezhivanie] we are always dealing with an indivisible unity of personal characteristics and situational characteristics, which are represented in the emotional experience [perezhivanie]. That is why from the methodological point of view it seems convenient to carry out an analysis when we study the role the environment plays in the development of a child, an analysis from the point of view of the child’s emotional experiences [perezhivanie]. (p. 342)

Van der Veer adds that the concept of perezhivanie “also captures the idea of development by insisting on the ever-changing character of interpretations or emotional experiences (which are also dependent on changing word meaning, another of Vygotsky’s units of analysis)” (Chaiklin, 2001, p. 103 as cited in Robbins, 2007a, no page number). And L. I. Bozhovich (a follower of Vygotsky’s who focused on the relation of his theories of higher mental functions to the affective sphere of personality (Robbins, 2004)), argued that “for a short period of time Vygotsky considered perezhivanie as the “unity” of psychological development in the study of the social situation of development” (Gonzalez-Rey 2002, p. 136 as cited in Robbins, 2004).

Fyodor Vasilyuk (1988) adapts Vygotsky’s use of the term perezhivanie to describe a form of inter-subjectivity in which we insert ourselves into the stories of others in order to gain the foresight that allows us to proceed. He describes perezhivanie as an internal and subjective labor of “entering into” which is not done by the mind alone, but rather involves the whole of life or a state of consciousness. And although, for Vasilyuk, perezhivanie is the direct sensation or experience of mental states and processes, another person is needed for this experience. It is this inclusion of another that allows a person to overcome and conquer despair through perezhivanie.

Vasilyuk (1988), who is working from within the framework of cultural historical activity theory, gives us at once a broader and more specific definition of perezhivanie than does Vygotsky. But he has not actually moved further from the non-technical definition of the word “perezhivanie.” As Robbins explains:

perezhivat” means, if you look at it closely, that you have passed as if above something that had made you feel pain ... There, inside of a recollection that we call an “again living” -lives your pain. It is the pain that doesn’t let you forget what has happened. And you keep on coming back to it in your memory, keep living through it over and over again, until you discover that you have passed through it, and have survived. (2007a, no page number)

There are also, of course, a range of scholars and artists whose studies of the properties of perezhivanie have converged, often without their using, or possibly even being aware of, the term “perezhivanie.” Richard Schechner, whose work is most useful for us here, integrates the work of the psychoanalytic play theorist D. W. Winnicott, Victor Turner and Bateson (in his discussion of the “play frame” (1972)) with his own work as a theater director. He (1985) claims that the underlying processes of the ontogenesis of individuals, the social action of ritual, and the symbolic / fictive action of art are identical, and he supports this claim by describing, in concrete detail, the process of perezhivanie without using the term itself (although he is, of course, familiar with Stanislavski).

For Schechner, performance is perezhivanie. He writes: “Performance means: never for the first time. It means: for the second to nth time. Performance is “twice-behaved behavior” (1985, p. 36). Schechner calls this “restored behavior” and adds: “Put in personal terms, restored behavior is “me behaving as if I am someone else” or as if I am ‘beside myself,’ or ‘not myself,’ as when in a trance” (1985, p. 37).

The essence of Schechner’s argument is that there are three parts to the process of performance, not two, and that in performance time flows in more than one direction:

Although restored behavior seems to be founded on past events – ... – it is in fact the synchronic bundle (of three parts) ... The past ... is recreated in terms not simply of a present, ... but of a future ... This future is the performance being rehearsed, the “finished thing” to be made graceful through editing, repetition, and intervention. Restored behavior is both teleological and eschatological. It joins first causes to what happens at the end of time. (1985, p. 79)

Specifically, the way that the flow of time becomes multidirectional is that “rehearsals make it necessary to think of the future in such a way as to create a past” (1985, p. 39). As Schechner explains: “In a very real way the future - the project coming into existence through the process of rehearsal - determines the past: what will be kept from earlier rehearsals or from the “source materials” (1985, p. 39).

Vasilyuk is describing the same phenomenon when he writes of the proleptic nature of perezhivanie in the development of Raskolnikov, the main character in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment:

Although the given schematism “fault - repentance - redemption - bliss” is formally expressed as a series of contents following one another in time, this does not mean that the later elements in the series appear in consciousness only after the earlier stages have been traversed. They respond to one another psychologically and all exist at once in consciousness, as a Gestalt, though it is true they are expressed with varying degree of clarity as the series is gone through. Bliss is conferred even at the beginning of the road to redemption, as a kind of advance payment of emotion and meaning, needed to keep one going if a successful end is to be reached.” (1988, pp. 190-191)

Schechner outlines the three stages of this phenomenon:

The workshop-rehearsal process is the basic machine for the restoration of behavior ... (whose) primary function ... is a kind of collective memory-in/of-action. The first phase breaks down the performer’s resistance, makes him a tabula rasa. To do this most effectively the performer has to be removed from familiar surroundings. Thus the need for separation, for “sacred” or special space, and for a use of time different than that prevailing in the ordinary. The second phase is of initiation or transition: developing new or restoring old behavior. But the so-called new behavior is really the rearrangement of old behavior or the enactment of old behavior in new settings. In the third phase, reintegration, the restored behavior is practiced until it is second nature. The final part of the third phase is public performance. (1985, pp. 113-114)

These stages closely match those stages of perezhivanie that Vasilyuk presents, even though Schechner and Vasilyuk’s terms differ. (I will discuss this further in my analysis, chapter four.)

Cole (2007) has used the term “temporally double sided” to describe this phenomenon of growing back and towards the future and the past simultaneously. (He has used it to describe Dewey’s relation of the notion of object to prolepsis.) It is the juxtaposition of temporal double sidedness with these stages that creates perezhivanie. What Schechner argues is that this juxtaposition provides the rhythm that allows us to raise ourselves up and hover, suspended momentarily in a state of being simultaneously ourselves and not ourselves: our past and future selves (someone else).

Winnicott writes of play:

Whereas inner psychic reality has a kind of location in the mind or in the belly or in the head or somewhere within the bounds of the individual’s personality, and whereas what is called external reality is located outside these bounds, playing and cultural experience can be given a location if one uses the concept of the potential space between the mother and the baby. (1971, p. 53) (as quoted in Schechner, 1985, p. 110)

According to Schechner, this potential space is the workshop-rehearsal:

The most dynamic formulation of what Winnicott is describing is that the baby - and later the child at play and the adult at art (and religion) - recognizes some things and situations as “not me.” By the end of the process “the dance goes into the body.” So Olivier is not Hamlet, but he is also not not Hamlet. The reverse is also true: in this production of the play, Hamlet is not Olivier, but he is also not not Olivier. Within this field or frame of double negativity, choice and virtuality remain activated. (1985, p. 110)

Schechner explains a central component of the formation of this doubleness by referring to Winnicott’s transitional object (the blanket or stuffed animal that is the first “not-me,” representing the mother (primary caretaker) when she (he) is absent):

Restored behaviors of all kinds ... are “transitional.” Elements that are “not me” become “me” without losing their “not me-ness.” This is the peculiar but necessary double negativity that characterizes symbolic actions. While performing, a performer experiences his own self not directly but through the medium of experiencing the others. [italics added] While performing, he no longer has a “me” but has a “not not me,” and this double negative relationship also shows how restored behavior is simultaneously private and social. A person performing recovers his own self only by going out of himself and meeting the others - by entering a social field. The way in which “me” and “not me,” the performer and the thing to be performed, are transformed into “not me ... not not me” is through the workshop-rehearsal/ritual process. (1985, pp. 111-112)

The workshop-rehearsal process allows one to use another person/fictional character as a pivot, to detach emotions that are personal from the self and to relive them through another, and this is the process that allows one to be that which one could not imagine without this process. As Vygotsky writes in The Psychology of Art:

Art is the social technique of emotion, a tool of society which brings the most intimate and personal aspects of our being into the circle of social life. It would be more correct to say that emotion becomes personal when every one of us experiences a work of art; it becomes personal without ceasing to be social.” (1971, p. 249)

The sensation of being at the center of this workshop-rehearsal process is what Schechner calls an experience of the “present moment”:

Actions move in time, from past thrown into future, from “me” to “not me” and from “not me” to “me.” As they travel they are absorbed into the liminal, subjective time/space of “not me ... not not me.” This time/space includes both workshops-rehearsals and performances. Things thrown into the future (“Keep that.”) are recalled and used later in rehearsals and performances. During performance, if everything goes right, the experience is of synchronicity as the flow of ordinary time and the flow of performance time meet and eclipse each other. This eclipse is the “present moment,” the synchronic ecstasy, the autotelic flow, of liminal stasis. Those who are masters at attaining and prolonging this balance are artists, shamans, conmen, acrobats. No one can keep it long. (1985, pp. 112-113)

Schechner also describes this phenomenon through experience in the space of performance:

A performance “takes place” in the “not me . . . not not me” between performers; between performers, texts and environment; between performers, texts, environment, and audience. The larger the field of “between,” the stronger the performance. The antistructure that is performance swells until it threatens to burst. The trick is to extend it to the bursting point but no further. It is the ambition of all performers to expand this field until it includes all beings, things, and relations. This can’t happen. The field is precarious because it is subjunctive, liminal, transitional: it rests not on how things are but on how things are not; its existence depends on agreements kept among all participants, including the audience. The field is the embodiment of potential, of the virtual, the imaginative, the fictive, the negative, the not not. The larger it gets, the more it thrills, but the more doubt and anxiety it evokes, too. (1985, p. 113)

Robbins describes this “present moment” and “field of between” of twice-behaved behavior, created in the juxtaposition of temporal double sidedness with the progressive stages of the workshop-rehearsal process, as the “anchor” of perezhivanie. She writes: “Perezhivanie ... is an anchor in the fluidity of life, it represents a type of synthesis (not a concrete unity of analysis), but an anchor within the fleeting times we have on this earth, dedicated to internal transformation and involvement in our world” (2007b, no page number). And Virginia Woolf, in her novel To the Lighthouse, describes this heart of perezhivanie most eloquently and accurately.

Email from Dot Robbins to xmca listserv 1 December 2007

The history of my interest in Bozhovich came from trying to understand perezhivanie, when Akhutina, Glozmann, Moskovich and I were putting together a book: Festschrift Celebrating the Centennial of the Birth of Luria (2002). There were so many words that I could not really understand. At that time, I wrote to approx. ten people around the world asking for their definitions of perezhivanie. Unfortunately, I did not save all of that. But, it led me to Bozhovich, a most remarkable woman, and a person loyal to Vygotsky in very difficult times. In those early discussions, it was clear that perezhivanie is difficult to understand for us outside of Russia, because it really captures the “Russian soul” in so many ways. What I understood (and if I am wrong, please correct me), was that there is an “intensity, pain, sorrow [Russian]” involved in perezhivanie, and it is a type of “unity” of affect/cognition with so many other things, forming a “unit” (of analysis) for Vygotsky (at one point in his life). Van der Veer (in Chaiklin, 2001, p. 103) states: “The concept of perezhivanie captures the ideas of analysis in units rather than elements....[It] also captures the idea of development by insisting on the ever-changing character of interpretations or emotional experiences (which are also dependent on changing word meaning, another of Vygotsky’s units of analysis). ....

It is the problem of trying to describe verbs by using nouns only, but never really using verbs, becoming ‘verbs’... it is the problem of trying to prove one’s theory, and using case studies, and offering definitions, but not trying to radically change one’s self and trying to really “light the torch of motivation” of those around us.... so, perezhivanie for me is an anchor in the fluidity of life, it represents a type of synthesis (not a concrete unity of analysis), but an anchor within the fleeting times we have on this earth, dedicated to internal transformation and involvement in our world. ...

The Russian language has preserved a lot of magic, almost as much as Sanskrit. In Russian it sounds like “perezhivanie.” What does it mean? It is a state of mind in which we are excited, worried, nervous, suffering from something. Something to that effect. And if we look at the corresponding verb “perezhivat’,” we will see two stems: “pere” and “zhivat’.

... “Zhivat’” – means “to live.” And “perezhivat’” means to be able to survive after some disaster has overwhelmed you – over-live something.

And “pere” means carrying something over something, letting something pass beneath and overleaping it. “Pere” – means something like cutting out a piece of space, time or feeling.

Pereterpet’” – (“terpet’” – to endure some pain) means to live until a time when no pain is left.

Pereprignut”- exactly like English overleap means to overcome some obstacle – a pit or a stone – with a jump, meaning that you don’t walk on it, but in some way fly over it.

And, in just the same way, “perezhivat’” means, if you look at it closely, that you have passed as if above something that had made you feel pain. And the fact that in the base of each “again living” lies a pain – you know that. There, inside of a recollection that we call an “again living” – lives your pain. It is the pain that doesn’t let you forget what has happened. And you keep on coming back to it in your memory, keep living through it over and over again, until you discover that you have passed through it, and have survived.

Bella Kotik-Friedgut’s response

To your excellent analysis of semantics of “perezhivanie” I want to add one aspect which was not enough clear: it is really a unity of affect and intellect, but it is not only negative affect (pain, traumatic events etc.) we can use it also in a positive context. I remember hearing about a friend: “She is going through (perezihivaet) a cats’ period” which meant: she is happy, crazy with in love. We can speak about a profound joy of victory as perezivanie etc.

From Lydia Bozhovich (here perezhivanie is translated as “experience”)

True to the principle that analysis of complex phenomena should be conducted not in terms of elements but in terms of “units” that preserve in simplest form properties intrinsic to the whole, Vygotsky began to seek a corresponding “unit” to use in studying the “social situation of development.” He identified emotional experience (or the child’s “affective relationship” to the environment) as such a unit. Experience, from Vygotsky’s perspective, is a “unit” that, in indissoluble unity, represents, on the one hand, the environment, that is, what the child experiences, and, on the other, the subject, that is, what introduces the child into this experience and, in turn, is defined by the level of mental development the child has already achieved. From this it can be concluded that in order to understand exactly what effect the environment has on children, and, consequently, how it affects the course of their development, the nature of children’s experience must be understood, the nature of their affective relationship to the environment. Vygotsky’s proposition and the concept of experience that he introduced appear to us to be very important and productive for child psychology. However, he did not fully develop the concept of experience. In fact, even taking analysis of children’s experience as our point of departure in understanding the causes that condition individual (or age-related) features of children’s minds, we will still be forced to go back and examine of all the circumstances of their life and activity and all the currently existing features of their personality. Only then will we be able to understand the nature of the experience itself and its function within mental development.

So it could be said that the concept of experience introduced by Vygotsky isolated and denoted an essential psychological reality, the study of which must be the first step in analyzing the environment’s role in child development; experience is like a node where the varied influences of different external and internal circumstances come together. But this is exactly why experience must not be viewed as a whole that will not be broken down any further, why it is essential to address the problem of the subsequent deciphering of this concept and, consequently, uncover the forces that underlie it and, in the final analysis, condition the course of mental development.

Vygotsky himself was willing to accept the need to formulate and solve this fundamental problem. He also attempted to find that decisive link within the dynamics of mental development that determines the character of experience itself and, consequently, how the influence of the external environment is refracted by its subject. However, in this, it seems to us, Vygotsky was taking a step backward, retreating to a certain extent beyond old boundaries. He felt that the nature of experience in the final analysis is determined by how children understand the circumstances affecting them, that is, by how developed their ability to generalize is. If, he said, children will understand (perceive, conceptualize) one and the same event in different ways, it will have absolutely different meanings for them and, consequently, they will experience it differently. For example, a mother’s illness is usually very upsetting for young school-aged children or adolescents, while for very young children it does not generate negative emotions and may even be experienced as a cause for happiness and joy, since they are unable to understand the situation and grownups will permit them to do things they otherwise might not.


Personal note by Boris Meshcheryakov

The word “experience” can be translated in different ways:

1. experience = опыт (непосредственный опыт = immediate experience)
2. experience = переживание

In the Russian language, the word "опыт" (opyt) has different meanings, eg.:

1) опыт as "the accumulated body of knowledge and skills" (the man with a wealth of experience),
2) опыт as an empirical study, including an experiment, and
3) (непосредственный=immediate) опыт as the current state of mind (that is closest to the meaning of "переживание").

So it all depends on the context.

The word "переживание" (perezhivanie) has several meanings:

1) in the narrow sense - it's an emotional experience (feeling), including empathy, and
2) in a broad sense - is any current state of consciousness (direct or immediate experience), and
3) in addition, it can be a long-term human activity in coping with a difficult life situation.


Dewey’s on ‘Having An Experience

John Dewey had a concept of ‘An Experience’, (which, it should be noted is quite distinct from the Empiricists’ notion of ‘Experience’) more or less identical with Vygotsky’s concept of perezhivanie. For Dewey, An experience is both subjective and objective: “simultaneous doings and sufferings” (“The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy,” 1917 PJD: 63).

“‘Experience’ is what James called a double-barreled word. Like its congeners, life and history, it includes what men do and suffer, what they strive for, love, believe and endure, and how men act and are acted upon, the ways in which they do and suffer, desire and enjoy, see, believe, imagine – in short, processes of experiencing. ... It is ‘double-barreled’ in that it recognizes in its primary integrity no division between act and material, subject and object, but contains them both in an unanalyzed totality. ‘Thing’ and ‘thought’, as James says in the same connection, are single-barreled; they refer to products discriminated by reflection out of primary experience” (“Experience and Philosophic Method,” 1929 PJD: 256-7).

Dewey’s notion was also a unit, “An experience” is not a mass noun like “Experience”:

Whereas experience is always somewhat inchoate, there are certain episodes of which we would say “That was an experience!” Experience “is a thing of histories [NB plural], each with its own plot, its own inception and movement toward its close, each having its own particular rhythmic movement” (“Having an Experience,” 1934 PJD: 555). These experiences are transformative.

Dewey’s notion of “An experience” was an original unity, not the product of synthesis:

“The existence of this unity is constituted by a single quality that pervades the entire experience in spite of the variation of its constituent parts. This unity is neither emotional, practical, nor intellectual, for these terms name distinctions that reflection can make within it. In discourse about an experience, we must make use of these adjectives of interpretation” (“Having an Experience,” 1934 PJD: 556).

Dewey’s notion of “an experience” was also underpinned by a notion of mediation like that of Vygotsky.

“Without some kind of symbol, no idea; a meaning that is completely disembodied can not be entertained or used. Since an existence (which is an existence) is the support and vehicle of a meaning and is a symbol instead of a merely physical existence only in this respect, embodied meanings or ideas are capable of objective survey and development. To ‘look at an idea’ is not a mere literary figure of speech ... if [facts] are not carried and treated by means of symbols, they lose their provisional character” (“The Pattern of Enquiry,” 1938 PJD: 231-2).

For Dewey, “an experience” was a source of development because it confronts the subject with a crisis situation:

“The unsettled or indeterminate situation might have been called a problematic situation. ... the necessary condition of cognitive operations or inquiry. In themselves they are precognitive. The first result of evocation of inquiry is that the situation is taken, adjudged, to be problematic. To see that a situation requires inquiry is the initial step in inquiry. ... Without a problem, there is blind groping in the dark” (“The Pattern of Enquiry,” 1938 PJD: 229).


Dilthey (1833-1911) considered human experience (erlebnis, usually translated 'lived experience') to be concrete and historical, always shaped by the context of the past and by the horizon of the future, and he argued that lived experience is the basis for all understanding. Lived experience is a direct, immediate, pre-reflective contact with life, an act of perceiving in which the person is unified with the object of their understanding. It is made up not of static cognitive categories but of meaningful unities which are prior to the separation between emotion, willing, with knowing. Lived experience contains within it the temporality of living, and of life itself.

“That which in the stream of time forms a unity in the present because it has a unitary meaning is the smallest entity which we can designate as an experience” (Dilthey, Collected Works 7, 194).

“The experience does not stand like an object over against its experiencer, but rather its very existence for me is undifferentiated from the whatness which is present for me in it” (Collected Works 7, 139).