Andy Blunden August 2011

Concepts and Activity

Words play the key role in the formation of human life in general and concepts in particular, but Vygotsky is at pains to emphasise that:

In speech ... the thought is partitioned into separate words. Thought [however,] is always something whole, something with significantly greater extent and volume than the individual word. Over the course of several minutes, an orator frequently develops the same thought. This thought is contained in his mind as a whole. ... What is contained simultaneously in thought unfolds sequentially in speech (LSVCW v.1: 281).

This is true of concepts. In particular,

A true and complex understanding of another’s thought becomes possible only when we discover its real, affective-volitional basis. ... Stanislavskii teaches that behind each of a character’s lines there stands a desire that is directed toward the realization of a definite volitional task. ...

Understanding the words of others also requires understanding their thoughts. And even this is incomplete without understanding their motives or why they expressed their thoughts. In precisely this sense we complete the psychological analysis of any expression only when we reveal the most secret internal plane of verbal thinking – its motivation (LSVCW v.1: 282-3).

So, to understand thought, and therefore concepts, we have to go behind speaking and thinking to the plane from which thought is motivated, “toward the realization of a definite volitional task.” But the life-tasks which confront people are not invented by the individual. Like the cognitive content of concepts, the affective and volitional content is also drawn from outside the individual, through collaboration in the various projects in which an individual produces and reproduces their life and that of others.

Even though our “inclination and needs, our interests and impulses, ...” reside deep within the psyche they do not originate in biological drives, but on the contrary, like all human psychological functions, are complex structural formations, mediating attention, memory, will, perception, .... fashioned and manifested through collaboration with others in furtherance of “volitional tasks.” The tasks, whose realisation motivate our activity, have their origin in the institutions of the wider society in which we participate.

The impelling force which determines the start of any process or initiates any evolving mechanism of behavior and propels it forward along the path of further development, is not to be found inside, but outside the adolescent and, in this sense, the problems thrown up in front of the maturing adolescent by the society around him, which are connected with the process of growing into the cultural, professional and social life of adults, are extremely important functional aspects which continually depend on the reciprocal conditionality and the organic coherence and internal unity of form and content in the development of thinking (Vygotsky, 1930: 213).

Concepts and Activity Theory

‘Activity Theory’ is usually taken to refer to the work of A N Leontyev (2009) and others such as Yrjö Engeström (2011), who developed his work, but not to include Vygotsky. Though he never used any name other than “Psychology” to characterise his work, Vygotsky was really the originator of Activity Theory. Admittedly, Vygotsky’s writings on the original creation of concepts, as opposed to their acquisition by individuals, would make an extremely small volume. We have had to largely extrapolate from what he said about the necessity of true concepts in adult life, the circumstances in which all concepts are acquired, and his theory of child development. The point is that word meaning is to be understood not as a linguist would have it, as the property of a word, but as an action, and actions find their ultimate rationale not in Spirit or biology or language-games, but in activity.

Word meaning is the action of using a word meaningfully. Every word has been invested with certain affordances through its use over many years by others within the language community of which we are a part. But by using a word in a particular context, we give the word a unique meaning. Meaning has its internal aspect, connecting thought and word, and its external aspect connecting us with other people. Like all actions, it is both subjective and objective. Word meaning is an artefact-mediated action in the strict sense of the term as used in Activity Theory (Blunden 2010). Word meaning is not just any action, because a word functions as the sign for a concept. Gestures, body language, tools, clothing, and the array of other artefacts which we use to convey meaning and interact with others, do not have the same power to signify concepts as does a word. “The meaningful word is the microcosm of human consciousness” (LSVCW v.1: 285).

But language-use cannot constitute an activity by itself. Speech, including written speech, if it is to be meaningful, must be directed towards the realisation of some volitional task, which in turn can only be meaningful only to the extent to which it furthers some project or resolves some problem arising in social practice, ultimately beyond language-use.

Vygotsky does not identify thinking with inner speech. Inner speech is a “plane of consciousness” which is to some extent open to observation, since we can observe its formation in childhood and it is intelligible via introspection. Inner speech is “pure meaning,” “idiomatic,” “almost without words” and “predicative” (LSVCW v.1: 275, 280).

Via word meaning, words function as a connecting link between thinking and behaviour, such as speech. Word meaning is the psychological form taken by concepts, since a word functions as a sign for a concept, and the concept is a unit of thought. But as Vygotsky pointed out, when a concept is completely assimilated in thought, it becomes independent of the particular signs used to indicate it, just as a true concept can be defined in an infinite number of ways.

Thus, the processes connecting thought and words are extremely complex and dynamic. Equally, the relation between actual word-use in the course of social interaction, and the concepts for which the words are signs, is extremely complex and dynamic. But concepts are activities which transcend the immediate context in which words are used, just as the actions by means of which any project is realised are meaningful only in the light of the project being realised. A house is built by a bewildering variety of disparate actions and interactions, which nonetheless make sense as part of the completion of the house. The relation between any activity and the component actions through which it is realised is complex, and so is the relation between word meaning and concept. A concept is only really understood when we can identify its source, and the relation of all the actions by means of which it is realised will make sense.

We can observe the development of word meaning, a unit of thinking, and “psychologically, the development of concepts and the development of word meaning are one and the same process” (LSVCW v.1: 180), remembering that “thought is always something whole” (LSVCW v.1: 281), we can surmise that concepts are units of thought. The relation between a word meaning and a concept is the same as that between an action and an activity.

The unit (or aggregate of units that comprise the content of the thinking during the transitional age), the simplest action with which the intellect of the adolescent operates, is, of course, not a representation, but a concept (LSVCW v.5: 50).

Concepts and Predicaments

Concepts always arise from some kind of predicament, sometimes indicated by the problem (e.g. sexism) and sometimes by the solution (e.g. freeway). A concept arises along with a word coined for it, at some cultural and historical conjuncture, within some social practice, in which the problem suddenly becomes the focus of action. Men have behaved for millennia in a way we now characterise with the concept of ‘sexism’, but it was only in 1968, in the wake of the civil rights struggle, under conditions when the paternalistic institutions which had justified this behaviour were becoming unviable, that the problem was named, and became a focus for the women’s liberation movement. ‘Freeway’ originated in the US in the 1930s, together with the promotion of the automobile, the growth of the dormitory suburbs they serviced and the cheap labour provided by the Depression. Once a word has been coined and passed into the language, it may long outlive the particular circumstances which necessitated the coining of a word. Sometimes, changing circumstances mean that the word falls out of currency and the concept is lost or relegated to the history books. Sometimes, in the process of migrating out of the social situation in which it arose, the concept mutates and along with that mutation, word meanings change, often by analogy or metaphor with a former problem, or as Vygotsky observed, by isolating one contingent attribute of the object or situation named. Words and concepts each have their own trajectory.

This view, in which concepts arise from predicaments, is the basis of Vygotsky’s Activity Theory and is elaborated most fully in his work on child development (LSVCW v.5: 187-206).

The word ‘predicament’ is particularly apt to express this idea. ‘Predicament’ originates from the word ‘predicate’, something which can be said of a subject, the Latin version of the Greek, ‘kategoria’. ‘Predicament’ implies a ‘double bind’ of some kind, a ‘Catch 22’. That is, the problem presents itself as a contradiction, and as such has to be grasped by a concept. For example, I have little money; but that may not be a problem because I may not need money. The concept of ‘poverty’ however transcends the conditions of wants and needs, of disempowerment, isolation, social norms of consumption, availability of welfare or support, etc., and captures the situation as a contradiction between means and ends. It would require a whole essay to explain and define ‘poverty’. ‘Low income’, for example, is just an abstract general? concept and not a true concept because it does not capture what is problematic. A family may have a low income, but if their needs are small and they are well supported within an extended family or community, their low income is not a predicament. But poverty is a predicament. ‘Predicaments’ give rise to concepts because they are contradictions and demand an innovation in the relevant system of social practice. This innovation is manifested in the introduction of a new word, or the investment of new meaning in an old word and a modification in the normative practices of that institution. In that sense the institution is ‘composed of’ concepts. If there is no relevant system of social practice, no institution or social movement for which such a problem could arise and express itself, then no contradiction arises. Without a modern women’s movement and the social and technical conditions which made that possible, there could be no problem to be named ‘sexism’. In a country with no urban planning authority and automobile industry, there could be no project to build ‘freeways’.

Slightly more generally, the word ‘situation’ includes both predicaments and their states of becoming and resolution. ‘Situation’ is a word which captures in the most general way what is named by a concept. Conversely, true concepts are the most satisfactory and scientific way of understanding situations. When we can only describe a conjuncture in terms of various measures and contingent attributes, as is often the case, then we are forming only an abstract general concept of the conjuncture or event or whatever. This would not be a true concept, but is nonetheless necessary at certain stages of understanding a situation (LSVCW v.5: 198, 293).

When a situation or predicament arises historically, and a word is coined for the situation, very often the response to the predicament also entails the creation of an artefact as well as a related system of practice in order to resolve the situation. In the case of “freeway,” we not only created the concept of “freeway,” we built material freeways from concrete and bitumen, and we also instituted laws and regulations to entrench the practice. Once the word “sexism” was created a whole literature on the topic was created and a range of anti-discrimination laws put into legislation, as well as instituting a range of social practices to oppose it. The creation of artefacts realising a concept, including technology, images, regulations, laws and literature, secures the place of a concept in our lives. This way, a concept will never be completely forgotten or misconstrued, and some stability is given to the meaning of the concept. The continued use of material realisations of a concept in social practices, institutionalises the concept and consolidates it.

A concept arises in some culturally and historically formed system of practice, some institution in the most general sense of the term, and a word, acting as a sign for the concept, passes into the language. Concepts arise for individuals also when confronted with situations.

Where these situations arise within a child’s system of activity, the child may form a complex in the course of resolving their situation. But an adult or adolescent confronting problems which arise within institutions and the social practices of the wider community, will be able to call upon the wisdom of the past, the corporate knowledge of the institution, which is organised around the word denoting the relevant situation, a sign for a true concept. This is part of their professional knowledge and ideology, part of the means by which institutions and traditional social practices are maintained.

The concept of predicament or situation plays a key role also in Vygotsky’s theory of child development, with his concept of ‘social situation of development’. According to Vygotsky, each stage in the development of a child is characterised by a situation in which the child plays a certain role and their needs are met by a corresponding specific system of activity. This system of support and the expectations placed on the child are represented by the concept of a child of the given age in the given community (infant, toddler, schoolchild, problem child, little prince, etc.). But at a certain point in the child’s development, they outgrow this role, and the system by means by which their needs are being met becomes simply an affront to them. Their role then becomes an actual barrier to fulfilment of their real needs. Healthy development can only be achieved by an overthrow of this system of activity and an escape from the predicament in which the former system of support had placed the child. The child must take on a new role, and its carers must respond by recognising this new role and entering into a new system of support for the child’s new needs.

To grasp this situation, we have to form a true concept of the child in its stage of development and circumstances, not in terms of various contingent factors (age, sibling rank, social class and parental income, etc.) but as a concept (LSVCW v.5: 293). This requires us to grasp the child as being in a situation, a situation which has arisen from one predicament and becomes at a certain point, another predicament. The child must be grasped as a true concept. Vygotsky’s analysis of child development is a model for understanding every aspect of social life and its development.

True, Scientific and Everyday Concepts in Social Life.

If we understand the content of thinking to be not simply the external data that comprise the subject thinking at any given moment, but the actual content, we will see how, in the process of the child’s development, it constantly moves inward, becomes an organic component part of the personality itself and of separate systems of its behavior. Convictions, interests, world view, ethical norms and rules of behavior, inclinations, ideals, certain patterns of thought – all of this is initially external and becomes internal specifically because as the adolescent develops, in conjunction with his maturation and the change in his environment, he is confronted by the task of mastering new content, and strong stimuli are created that nudge him along the path of developing the formal mechanisms of his thinking as well.

The new content, which confronts the adolescent with a series of problems, leads to new forms of activity, to new forms of combining elementary functions, and to new forms of thinking. ... Together with the transition to thinking in concepts, the adolescent is confronted by a world of objective, societal consciousness, a world of societal ideology (LSVCW v.5: 42).

All the concepts which the adolescent comes across have their origins in institutions of some kind. Scientific concepts are one, particularly ‘pure’ example of true concepts, but every branch of industry and technology, every branch of the state, churches and social movements, sports, and so on, create concepts. Concepts originate in some problem in social life. In the course of their development institutions come up against problems which, if the institution is to survive, they have to overcome. Each of these institutions adds a concrete concept to the life of the community as a whole, as well as a series of concepts flowing from their further development. Insofar as these institutions interact with the wider society, the words, which are bearers of these concepts, enter into the language.

It is one thing to form a general conception of what is meant by the ‘Big Bang’ but quite another to understand this term in the context in which it arose in making sense of measurements of cosmological radiation. Likewise, we all know what is meant by ‘war’ but how many of us know this concretely, as active participants? Through language, the words which function as signs for a concept disperse much more widely than the systems of social practice to which they are native, and long after a social practice may have disappeared, the words it coined may continue to carry the concepts which were created by that social practice, albeit in a modified form. It is evident that outside of participation in the forms of social practice to which the concept in question is indigenous, only a superficial, abstract knowledge of a concept can be acquired. Under these circumstances, people may not form true concepts of the situations they come to know by hearsay, so to speak. More likely, people form an abstract general concept of it. But everyday life is not something other than the social practices of the various institutions in society. Rather, everyday life is a kind of mosaic, melting pot or organic combination of these institutions, all interpenetrating and modifying each other, as Hegel described in the section on Objectivity.

Even participation in the relevant form of practice need not be sufficient to acquire a true concept of a practice or the situation to which it is responding. An employee performing relatively routine tasks – ‘abstract labour’ in the Marxist sense of this term – may have good practical knowledge of the process, but lack a developed understanding of the larger context, and so may develop only a potential concept of it. Equally, someone performing a supervisory role may well understand the place of an activity within the larger scheme of things, but without experience and competence in the practical tasks entailed, may have a true, but abstract and undeveloped concept of it.

A concept may ‘migrate’ from the institution where it originated and find a place in everyday life, as part of the lingua franca. In the process, such a concept may shed the very sharp constraints which created the predicament which gave birth to it, but nonetheless remain a true concept. In everyday life, we are generally able to use such concepts appropriately and can if necessary provide a definition for them. There is no sharp line between scientific (or other true concepts) and everyday concepts, just as none of the institutions of modern society are sealed off from everyday life by an impenetrable wall.

In our complex society, marked by a highly developed division of labour, a genuinely concrete understanding of a true concept may be distributed knowledge, not well understood by any individual.

Concepts and Material Culture.

Alexander Meshcheryakov (1923-1974) was a student of Vygotsky’s colleague A. R. Luria, who, in 1960, assumed leadership of a school for deaf-blind children. Those who had developed Activity Theory had criticised Vygotsky’s theory for being unable to account for the source of motivation in social life, and it must be granted that Vygotsky had not taken up this problem at any length. Meshcheryakov (2009) was able to respond in practice to criticisms of Vygotsky’s concept of activity.

A child who is deaf and blind from infancy will generally not develop a fully human consciousness without scientific intervention. This work gave Meshcheryakov’s staff the opportunity to bring consciousness into being where it did not previously exist. In Meshcheryakov’s practice, the teacher manually helped the deaf-blind child complete a task using an artefact taken from the cultural life of society, and then gradually withdrew that assistance, in such a way that the novice was able to take over the teacher’s actions and complete the task autonomously using the artefact.

In using a spoon to eat, the child does not just satisfy its immediate need for nourishment, but by mastering practical-sensuous actions with the spoon, forms an internal image which contributes to a reconstruction of the whole universe of social conventions and practices with which the spoon, its shape and its presence at dinner time is associated. Meshcheryakov takes us through the process whereby his students learnt, step by step, the skills of self-care, play and communicating with others, learnt the lay-out of their home, their neighbourhood and the activities which went on in the various buildings, learnt a daily timetable, a calendar, the important national holidays and their meaning, learnt to grow and prepare food, learnt to travel by public transport and explored the country and so on and so forth. In other words, the children learnt to reconstruct in their own consciousness and activity the entire sweep of the culture of their society. The key to Meshcheryakov’s approach is the shared use of an artefact to meet the child’s needs:

A kind of vicious circle develops: in order to know how to act with the tool the child has to know it, and in order to know the tool it is essential that the child act with it. The vicious circle is broken when the adult begins to teach the child to act with the tool in the process of satisfying its needs. This instruction is only possible in the form of joint object action shared between the adult and the child (Meshcheryakov 2009: 239).

By means of finite interactions with people and artefacts which are part of a definite cultural-historical society, the child gradually learns the ways of this society and very soon develops their own will, their own life-goals, and goes on to become a full and equal member of the society. The key insight to be taken from this is that interaction between two individuals is not in itself sufficient to reconstruct the social life of the community, that is, to appropriate true concepts. True concepts can be acquired through a person collaborating with another person only thanks to the collaborative use of an artefact, usually, but by no means only, words.

The fact that archaeologists are able to reconstruct in their minds almost the entire life-world of a long-dead ancient society by the study of artefacts recovered from the soil, is evidence enough of the fact that artefacts and not just words are bearers of concepts. The activities which characterise almost any institution depend on the use of artefacts provided through an elaborate division of labour. Such activities cannot exist without these artefacts, and in turn leave their mark on the artefacts.

The reason why, in his short working life, Vygotsky did not elaborate a theory of activity of the kind developed by A. N. Leontyev and others is two-fold. Firstly, Vygotsky was concerned to retain the focus of his research on well-defined, empirically observable human behaviour and to not rely on any kind of abstraction. Indeed, those who developed an Activity Theory had to create some conception of an activity or a system of activity, and invariably fell into using some kind of abstraction (See Blunden 2010). On the other hand, the artefact-mediated action of two people collaborating is a clearly circumscribed, well-defined research object. Secondly, as demonstrated by Meshcheryakov, Vygotsky was able, in principle, to unfold the whole of social life, from analysis of the collaborative use of an artefact to complete some task. The artefact bears the stamp of the whole social organism which had given birth to it and at the same time enables and constrains the actions for which it can be used, according to the expectations and practices of the source culture.

The problem of the role of artefacts in the development of concepts is also two-fold. Vygotsky insisted on the categorisation of artefact-use in terms of tools and symbols (or ‘psychological tools’).

The invention and use of signs as auxiliary devices for solving any psychological problem confronting man ... is, from the psychological aspect, at one point analogous to the invention and use of tools. As such an essential trait of the two concepts being compared, we consider the role of these devices in behavior to be analogous to the role of the tool in a work operation, or, what is the same, the instrumental function of the sign (LSVCW v.4: 60).

But on the other hand:

The tool serves for conveying man’s activity to the object of his activity, it is directed outward, it must result in one change or another in the object. The sign changes nothing in the object of the psychological operation, it is a means of psychological action on behavior, one’s own or another’s, a means of internal activity directed toward mastering man himself; the sign is directed inward. These activities are so different that even the nature of the devices used cannot be one and the same in both cases. ... Mastery of nature and mastery of behavior are mutually connected because when man changes nature he changes the nature of man himself (LSVCW v.4: 62).


The use of auxiliary devices, the transition to mediated activity radically reconstructs the whole mental operation just as the use of a tool modifies the natural activity of the organs, and it broadens immeasurably the system of activity of mental functions. We designate both taken together by the term higher mental function, or higher behavior (LSVCW v.4: 63).

Thus we see that Vygotsky recognised two distinct ways in which artefacts are used to mediate actions, and therefore two distinct roles played by artefacts in the formation of concepts: tools and signs. At the beginning of the development of a child’s practical intelligence, the child does not clearly distinguish between objects, the adults who assist them in using the objects, and the objects’ names. So at the very beginning of the child’s development, tool-use and symbol-use are merged, but according to Vygotsky, tool-use and symbol-use have divergent lines of development.

The qualification I would make here is that while there is a clear conceptual distinction between using an artefact to control one’s own or someone else’s mind, and using an artefact to control material objects, I don’t believe that either the devices used for these actions or even the actions themselves can be so clearly delineated. We live in a time when the same keyboard can be used to control a machine or to ask for assistance from someone else. The following series of cultural means of opening a door: crow-bar, handle, key, swipe card, PIN code, password and a smile to the doorkeeper – does not admit of any neat division between tool and symbol. But this does not take away from the clear conceptual distinction between the impact of tools in the development of activities, and the impact of signs in the development of mind.

Dialogical and Cultural Theory

Over and above the fact that Vygotsky was able to develop a substantial body of psychological research, Vygotsky’s work stands in sharp contrast to that of a number of others who may at first sight seem to share a great deal with Vygotsky. I have in mind among others Mikhail Bakhtin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, George Herbert Mead, Robert. R. Williams, Axel Honneth and Robert Brandom. Like Vygotsky, all these writers see every individual’s mind as developing only through interaction with other individuals. However, two aspects of Vygotsky’s work are responsible for the fact that he has been able to develop a theory of concepts: artefact-mediation and collaboration in shared tasks.

Unlike Vygotsky, these writers either minimise or entirely overlook the fact that there can be no interaction between one individual’s mind and another without the use of words, symbols or other kind of material artefacts, and that these artefacts are provided by a culture already existing independently of the interacting subjects.

The crux of the matter is that the immediate communication of consciousness is impossible not only physically but psychologically (LSVCW, v.1: 282).

In fact, nothing can come of interaction between two subjects lacking any means of mediating their interaction, other than a fight to the death or mutual retreat. Even interactions which lead only to the subjugation of the one by the other are possible only because one has needs which can be met by the labour of the other, the minimal means of mediation.

The role of artefacts in the interaction between subjects may be elided by subsuming the production of words, gestures and practical actions into the subject itself. Mead, for example, takes the gesture as the archetypal communicative device, and sees the gesture as simply an action, overlooking the fact that a person can only wave if they have an arm, and cannot speak without an already-existing common language. If symbol-production is reduced to the actions of the subject, then the cultural determination of meaning is elided. The inclusion of the artefact in the analysis of interaction, introduces the whole community into the research scenario without taking the focus away from interaction between two individuals.

The other specific quality of Vygotsky’s approach which makes it uniquely able to give insight into human action is that the normative relationship between subjects of interaction is always taken to be collaboration in the completion of some task or project, rather than just a communicative task. People have to have a reason to talk to each other and something to talk about as well as a means of talking to each other. Again, the “volitional task” supplies a mediating element to the interaction between two individuals. It is within this relationship of working towards a shared objective that communicative partners use words. I believe that it is these two qualities of Vygotsky’s work: the focus on the collaborative use of artefacts and the collaboration in a shared task, which allowed Vygotsky to give us an adequate theory of concepts. Dialogic and interactionist approaches cannot account for the creation and development of concepts, which are essentially societal products, and generally such dialogical theories do not attempt to account for concepts.


Vygotsky has brought us to the brink of an answer to our question: what is a concept? Using his genetic method, Vygotsky has traced the development of the intellect, from an infant uttering its first words, through an adolescent learning to use true concepts as they are inducted into the cultural life of their community, to adults whose concepts have lost their dependence on words and merge into the indivisible whole of a human mind.

At the same time, Vygotsky has shown how our concepts are shaped by participation in the life of a real community, in whose words, material culture and social practices, the resolution of all the contradictions which have arisen in the evolution of the life of that community are sublated. Thus Vygotsky has shown us what it is which is represented by a concept, namely situations which have arisen in social practice and found their resolution in the further development of that social practice, and transmitted via words and their meanings.

Psychologically, the development of concepts and the development of word meaning are one and the same process (LSVCW v.1: 180).

Vygotsky has given us a complete analysis, explanation and description of word meaning, but a word meaning is not a concept. In the mature adult, “any concept can be represented through other concepts in an infinite number of ways” (LSVCW v.1: 226). Thus, the relation between word meaning and concept is much like the relation between an action and an activity, between an individual and the universal. No single image or definition can represent a concept. The concept is given only by an infinity of such definitions. A city cannot be represented by its name, or its location on a map or a photograph of its main street. A concept is not simpler than a city. We do need to name it and know where to find it and what its most famous feature looks like, but exploring it is a lifetime’s work.

On the other hand, the situation is much the same in social life, where activities are instantiated only by an infinite variety of individual actions. Vygotsky did not spell out an approach to understanding social life, a task which was tackled by the Activity Theorists. But unlike thought, social life is empirically given to us, if only we have a method, and know where and how to begin. Vygotsky gave us an approach, and demonstrated his method of analysis by units in his study of thinking and speech. With some help from Hegel, I believe I can now complete this task, and explain what a concept is.