Andy Blunden March 2008

Vygotsky’s Idea of Gestalt and its Origins

A notion of Gestalt is essential to Vygotsky’s psychology and his theory of development, but Vygotsky’s idea of Gestalt was not derived from the Gestalt Psychology of Koffka and Köhler. In the 1920s, Vygotsky did engage in a critique of Gestalt psychology, which presented itself at the time as the left-wing of psychology, with its critique of the dominant associationist psychology. Vygotsky did appropriate concepts of structural psychology from this critique, but his view of what constituted a Gestalt was larger than that of Gestalt Psychology. As he put it:

[H]aving smashed atomism, (Gestalt psychology) replaced the atom by the independent and isolated molecule. (Vygotsky 1997: 230)

What Vygotsky meant by this criticism was that the Gestalt should not be seen simply as a formation of the psyche “inside the head,” but must include the individual psyche within the whole system of social interactions “outside the head” which constitutes the individual as a person. From its origins with Goethe more than a century earlier, this larger concept of Gestalt had made its way to Vygotsky via Hegel and Marx, an entirely different route.

“Gestalt” is a common word in German, usually translated as “form” or “shape” according to context. In the sense in which it gave its name to Gestalt Psychology, “Gestalt” would be translated as “figure” as in “what a fine figure of a man,” specifically, according to Goethe, “the overall dynamic configuration of a living thing.” But in other languages “Gestalt” is used only in the sense given to the word by Gestalt Psychology, as an integral structure or indivisible whole (OED 1989).

Vygotsky’s Sources

Vygotsky’s early introduction to linguistics came from A. A. Potebnya and his introduction to educational theory from Wilhelm von Humboldt, architect of the Prussian public education system and friend of Goethe (also read and admired by Vygotsky).

Vygotsky himself testified to his fondness for Spinoza. Like many before and since, Vygotsky admired Spinoza’s efforts to overcome Descartes’ dualism, his refusal of the dichotomy between thought and feeling and his secular humanism. He frequently quoted Spinoza and wrote a book on Spinoza’s theory of emotions. However, it cannot be said that Spinoza was an “influence” on Vygotsky. Spinoza represented a struggle which manifested itself in philosophical struggle for holistic, humanist science over the span of 300 years separating him from Vygotsky. One must look closer to Vygotsky for proximate influence.

Before coming to notice as a psychologist in 1924, Vygotsky had already read widely across diverse disciplines. Despite the fact that every biography of Vygotsky (Levitin 1982; Yaroshevsky 1989; Kozulin 1990; van der Veer 1991) testifies that Vygotsky read Hegel as a youth, all base themselves on the same interview recorded by Karl Levitin with Vygotsky’s school friend, Semyon Dobkin. When Dobkin’s actual words are examined in the light of a knowledge of Hegel, the evidence is in fact that Vygotsky had not read Hegel. The evidence of his writing is that in his school days he had read Plekhanov, and from Plekhanov he had developed an interest in and understanding of both Hegel and Marx. However, it was only Marx whom he went on to actually study. Almost all the references to Hegel in Vygotsky’s writings are either well-known generalities or allusions to excerpts cited in the works of other Marxists.

Vygotsky worked closely for a time with Kurt Lewin, so it is likely that via Lewin Vygotsky acquired a deeper acquaintance, not only with Gestalt psychology, but also with Hegel’s psychological ideas.

It is remarkable that someone who had not actually read Hegel should have developed, as he undoubtedly did, such a profound practical understanding of Hegel’s dialectic. But it can be understood given his close study of Marx’s Capital, the 1844 Manuscripts, The German Ideology as well as Engels’ popularisations, and the social context in which he was writing. Luria may have had a hand here, too. Although Luria had not studied Marxism as a youth, he was raised in the spirit of German Romanticism.

From his very first engagement with Soviet Psychology in 1924, Vygotsky was already using the Hegelian method of immanent critique, systematically criticising the dominant currents of Behaviourism and later all the trends of Psychology worldwide, including Gestalt Psychology. The position to which he was led was a unique solution to problems which were posed, initially by Spinoza, but more relevantly by Goethe, Hegel and Marx.

Goethe (1749-1832)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was already an acclaimed poet before Immanuel Kant first gained his reputation as a philosopher with his Critique of Pure Reason in 1787. Goethe towered over the world of Hegel and Schopenhauer and even after his death, oversaw the education of German-speakers from Marx and Wundt to Freud and Jung and had a huge impact in Russia as well. In the context of development, Goethe explained Gestalt as follows:

The Germans have a word for the complex of existence presented by a physical organism: Gestalt. With this expression they exclude what is changeable and assume that an interrelated whole is identified, defined, and fixed in character.

But if we look at all these Gestalten, especially the organic ones, we will discover that nothing in them is permanent, nothing is at rest or defined – everything is in a flux of continual motion. This is why German frequently and fittingly makes use of the word Bildung[1] to describe the end product and what is in process of production as well.

Thus in setting forth a morphology we should not speak of Gestalt, or if we use the term we should at least do so only in reference to the idea, the concept, or to an empirical element held fast for a mere moment of time. (Goethe 1996)

So, Gestalt is a transitory, developing form, whilst the real whole is the whole process of development; to know something meant to comprehend its whole process of development. Goethe insisted that forms could be perceived by human beings, because human thought was part of the same whole which generated those forms. But it was the idea that human beings perceived a whole Gestalt, independently of and prior to the parts, which was taken up at first by Kant, in his aesthetics, and much later by Christian von Ehrenfels[2], and what later became Gestalt psychology.

Whilst the impact of sensations as a source of knowledge of the objective world seemed clear enough, since antiquity philosophers had been troubled by the source of conceptual knowledge (Robinson 1995). Kant, for example, had proposed a separate faculty of reason with access to the logical categories, working side by side with a faculty of intuition accessing the data of sensation (Kant 2007). Late 19th century scientists wanted to resolve these problems by finding the source of concepts, or at least form, in sensation itself. In his influential Analysis of Sensations, Ernst Mach (1914) went so far as to hypothesise additional sense organs which could acquire visual or auditory forms, alongside “elements” like colour, pitch, and so on. Drawing on Goethe’s of idea a person’s capacity to perceive the entire Gestalt, von Ehrenfels proposed that the whole form of a thing could be represented to consciousness, not just separately and alongside its elements, but prior to its elements (Anderson 1980). The Gestaltists, such as Köhler, insisted that mind itself had to have Gestalt properties in order to apprehend the Gestalt properties of phenomena (Herrnstein 1965), but nonetheless, for Gestalt Psychology the problem remained within the framework of an individual organism analysing a perceptual field. In the meantime, the problem of the source of conceptual knowledge had been quietly reduced to that of perception of form implicit in sensuous stimuli. The idea of a whole which is prior to its parts did lay the basis for a structural conception of consciousness, and a theory of development which involved structural transformations. But the general idea of the mind as a Gestalt structure, and problems of perception remained the only domain where Gestalt Psychology made real progress. Nonetheless, the idea of the mind as a Gestalt, with the complex interdependence between parts that this implies, and the sharp critique of the methodology of positivist psychology which the Gestaltists launched were to have a broad impact.

But Goethe’s insistence that forms could be perceived by human beings, because human thought was part of the same whole which generated those forms, was part of a very profound approach to science which went further than problems of perception.

In a thoroughgoing rejection of metaphysics, he insisted that living things, human beings included, must be known by their deeds. Goethe vigorously denied that the truth of a phenomenon could be some non-phenomenal formula, essence, principle or hypothetical mechanism, “vibration” or force “behind” phenomena. Thus, Goethe set himself against the dominant Newtonian method of seeking an explanation of natural phenomena in hidden laws and forces, in themselves inaccessible to perception, though inferred with the aid of mathematics. At the same time, in opposition to naïve Empiricism, he understood that all perceptions were ‘theory laden’. In his words:

The ultimate goal would be: to grasp that everything in the realm of fact is already theory. ... Let us not seek for something behind the phenomena – they themselves are the theory. (Goethe 1996)

So, scientific perception of an object obliged the observer to hold off so far as possible from making hypotheses, whilst expanding so far as possible the field of phenomena, and then using intuitive perception (Anschauung[3]), to find within the field of phenomena, the simple, archetypal form, the Urphänomen[4], which united all of the phenomena. Such a form would unify the domain of phenomena not by means of an abstract general “pseudo-concept,” that is, a common attribute shared by all, but as a genuinely generative principle, simultaneously conceptual and phenomenal:

The Urphänomen is not to be regarded as a basic theorem leading to a variety of consequences, but rather as a basic manifestation enveloping the specifications of form for the beholder. (Goethe 1996)

Goethe successfully applied this idea in his founding of the science of morphology, in which the Urphänomen is known as the cell (or germ-cell), but it must be granted that Goethe did not fully work out this idea as an approach to science in general. Nonetheless, his claim that phenomena could be understood only by means of a simple prototypical phenomenon which captures the properties of the whole process of development, was to be taken up by Hegel, Marx and Vygotsky, each in turn giving it a more definite worked-out formulation.

That is, the concept of Gestalt reached Vygotsky from Goethe by a completely different route. Via Ehrenfels, “Gestalt” referred to forms in the perceptual field and mental structures inside the individual’s psyche Via Hegel, “Gestalt” referred to a whole individual organism together with the field of social activity of which they are part.

Hegel (1770-1831)

In the late 18th century, a number of philosophers, including Kant and Herder (Herder 2004) as well as Hegel, were interested in the conditions which contributed to the formation of the national character or “spirit of a nation.” Herder’s ideas became important in the development of cultural anthropology in the 19th century and helped shaped ideas of people like Franz Boas (Foley 1997: 193). Hegel’s early investigations did not lead him to a developed study of national difference, but they did provide the basis for a psychology which approached the individual as a product of society, rather than seeing society as an product of individuals.

In his 1802/3 manuscript, System of Ethical Life (Hegel 1979), Hegel proposed a solution to the problem of the source of conceptual knowledge. Hegel proposed that knowledge was reconstructed by individuals through the practical use of artefacts which had been fashioned as objectifications of the inherited knowledge of a community. This would explain how practical, sensuous perception already included forms of conceptual knowledge and how thinking and perception developed along with social and cultural change. The paradigmatic activities which Hegel saw as constructing the universal ‘spirit’ of a community were: the labour process, using tools and means of production; communication, using words and other symbols; and the raising of children to be future bearers of the culture. The consciousness entailed in these activities, the artefacts being used and the collaborative forms of activity formed a single whole, i.e., a Gestalt. Each aspect of this trichotomy constituted the others: consciousness was the individual’s orientation to use of the artefact, the artefact was what it was only in and through its use in some particular activity through which it was (re-)created, and an activity was constituted by people’s motives or ideals and the artefacts they used to construct it.

As Daniel Robinson so aptly put it:

[Hegel] and Beethoven were born in the same year. One set Goethe to music, the other to philosophy. (Robinson 1995: 287)

This conception of a whole which is prior to its individual parts is possible only thanks to the transcendence of the thought-matter dichotomy. Hegel’s idea of a Gestalt, sometimes translated as “configuration” or “shape of consciousness” (Gestalt des Bewußtseins), which was simultaneously a social formation or ‘way of life’ (including both labour processes and superstructure), a “way of thinking” or spiritual culture/ideology of a community, and a material culture, including spoken words and human body forms as well as means of production, land, etc.

In order to reproduce itself and continue to develop, communities have to raise their children into the use of the culture. The following excerpt from the Preface to the 1807 Phenomenology of Spirit shows how Hegel saw the individual appropriating the culture of his or her community:

The particular individual, so far as content is concerned, has also to go through the stages through which the general mind has passed, but as shapes (Gestalten) once assumed by mind and now laid aside, as stages of a road which has been worked over and levelled out. Hence it is that, in the case of various kinds of knowledge, we find that what in former days occupied the energies of men of mature mental ability sinks to the level of information, exercises, and even pastimes, for children; and in this educational progress we can see the history of the world’s culture delineated in faint outline. This bygone mode of existence has already become an acquired possession of the general mind, which constitutes the substance of the individual, and, by thus appearing externally to him, furnishes his inorganic nature. In this respect culture or development of mind (Bildung), regarded from the side of the individual, consists in his acquiring what lies at his hand ready for him, in making its inorganic nature organic to himself, and taking possession of it for himself. Looked at, however, from the side of universal mind qua general spiritual substance, culture means nothing else than that this substance gives itself its own self-consciousness, brings about its own inherent process and its own reflection into self. (Hegel 1807/1910)

Hegel did not and could not, at the turn of the 19th century, solve the problem of exactly how individuals learn, and the notion of history as progress of spirit in his work is a matter of considerably dispute, but he set the terms in which the problem of individual learning could be solved. None of the Gestalt psychologists ever acknowledged a debt to Hegel (Robinson 1995: 353), but Marx was quite explicit in what he owed to Hegel.

Marx (1818-1883)

In his appropriation of Hegel’s philosophy, Karl Marx made a number of important modifications relevant to the question of how the idea of Gestalt was received in the twentieth century. (Marx 1996: 19) In the relevant contexts in which the word ‘Gestalt’ appears in Marx’s writing it is usually translated as ‘form’ or ‘shape’ (as in ‘value in the shape of a commodity’) or ‘formation’ (as in ‘social formation’). Like Hegel, Marx always treated consciousness as the relation of the individual to its environment, not as a form distinct from its content. Marx differed with Hegel over the terms in which the whole formation (Gestalt) had to be understood. In his own words:

The premises from which we begin are ... the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. (Marx 1976: 31)

So for Marx the developing whole which Hegel took to be an aggregate of “thought-forms,” Marx took to be activity: “the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions.”

8. All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice. (Marx 1976: 5)

Marx makes practical human activity the key category. The Gestalt is here not primarily a thought-form, but a social formation, inclusive of the individuals enacting them and the conditions of their existence, and he makes the material production of people’s needs the archetypal activity, determinant in relation to the spiritual life of the community in general:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. (Marx 1987: 263)

As the productive forces of society develop, the system of relations in which these forces are activated become an actual fetter on production and impede development, so they have to be overthrown. Thus, Marx makes the struggle of people to emancipate themselves from the very system of relations whereby their needs are met, the motor force of development.

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. (Marx 1987: 263)

Like Hegel, Marx saw individual psychology as a moment of the social formation (Gestalt) of which it is a part, but not the “unit of analysis” or concept from which an understanding of a social formation could be understood.

Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934)

Almost everything about how Vygotsky appropriated the ideas of Goethe, Hegel, and Marx flowed from his situation in the early years of the Soviet Union, an environment saturated with Marxism and with a mandate to work towards fostering a new, higher type of human being, “socialist man.”

This situation made it possible for Vygotsky to draw on the insights of Marx and Hegel which had been lost as a result of the analytical kind of science preferred by the dominant positivist ideology of the late 19th/early 20th century. Like Marx, Vygotsky conceived of the Gestalt, not just as a brain structure or scheme of perception, but as a system of social relationships and activity, which included the person in the social situation through which the person’s needs are met. In constructing a psychology, Vygotsky’s focus moved to the sphere of activity of a single individual, in contrast to Marx’s focus on whole social formations. But both Marx and Vygotsky took social practice, individual consciousness and material culture to mutually constitute one another, as part of a Gestalt. This structural approach contrasts with methodological individualism, characterised by mind/matter and individual/society dichotomies. The conception of mind as a Gestalt in which practices, culture and thinking mutual constitute one another, does not mean that sociology and psychology become identical; the oppositions are not abolished but mediated.

The child is the child of the existing social formation, but not simply and immediately so, for the relation between the whole social formation and an individual child is mediated through the family and other institutions. Equally, the whole is not conceived as something which exists side by side with individuals, or on another “level,” but exists only in and through individuals.

What is characteristic of the Gestalt is that it is practical activity, consciousness and material conditions are taken together, mutually constituting each other as part of a whole.

Social Situation of Development

Vygotsky’s unfinished work on child development, “The Problem of Age” (published in English for the first time in the Collected Works, Vygotsky 1998) provides an opportunity to illustrate the character of his concept of Gestalt.

A key concept in this work is the social situation of development. In his view, the social situation in which the child finds herself constitutes a predicament, a predicament from which the child can only emancipate herself by making a development. (An “Uh-oh!” moment, rather than an “Ah-ha!” moment, perhaps?)

The social situation is made up of the child’s adult carers and all the material conditions surrounding her. This situation is a microcosm of the whole society, inasmuch as all the expectations, practices, customs, social conditions and so on of the larger society flow through any such group. It is in just such a group that children are raised into the culture. Every child of course is in a different situation and no two are just alike; in understanding the social situation of development as a Gestalt, there is no implication that the situation is a whole in the sense of being self-sufficient, isolated or independent from the rest of the society or indeed the world.

There are two things which are important to grasp about this concept however. Firstly, it is only in and through the cultural and material conditions and the adults with whom the child interacts that the larger society penetrates the child’s life and development, and this social situation constitutes, with the child, a sovereign and viable form of life, within the norms acquired from the larger society.

Secondly, the “social situation of development” is the concept through which the researcher grasps the dynamics of the child’s development. By grasping the situation as a predicament rather than simply as an inventory of attributes (number in family, sibling position, parents’ education and employment, etc., etc.), the researcher gains an insight into exactly how the social situation conditions the child’s development.

The child’s social situation of development is defined as a predicament because it is constituted as a kind of trap from which the child can only emancipate herself by a qualitative transformation of her own psychological structure and (what amounts to the same thing) the structure of her relationship with those who are providing for her needs. Development means transforming the mode of psychological functioning and transcending the social situation of development. Overcoming the barriers and developing the new formation constitutes an escape from the social situation of development. This self-emancipation is only possible if the child manifests a drive which transcends the limits of her situation; absent this drive, and there can be no development.

For any social group, reproduction of its culture and institutions down the generations is an imperative. Historical experience ensures that the norms to which a child is subject are to some degree rational with respect to the developmental capacities of a child of the given age, and all societies to some degree build age-level expectations into their institutional practices (Rogoff 2003), with the children of a society motivated to conform to these yardsticks. So the social situation of development is a product of these culturally and historically inherited expectations which the adults bring with them.

At the same time, the fact of development of infants into adult citizens can be made intelligible only by the fact that, beginning with birth itself, individuals strive to emancipate themselves from barriers to their self-determination, barriers which bar them from full participation within the horizons of their own expectations. Although this drive takes on uniquely human forms that are culturally constructed, it is reasonable to presume the existence of a drive of this kind even in a newborn child. That is to say, at any stage in development, the child will normally strive to overcome barriers which frustrate their control over their own conditions of existence insofar as they are capable of perceiving them.

In any given social situation of development, the child is required to behave in a certain way for which some psychological function is key. Once such a key psychological function has developed beyond a certain limit, the child finds that she has outgrown the social situation of development and the role she plays in that situation. This faces the child with a new kind of predicament: she does not yet have the capacity to adopt a different role, nor in fact can she even imagine of such a role, but she finds her present position a continual insult and offence (Bozhovich 2004). The result is a period of crisis where by an exercise of will, at whatever stage of its development, the child refuses the role in the only way open to her and thereby creates conditions for a new social situation of development in which her needs can be met. Freed of the former constraint and free of the threats suffered during the transitional period of crisis, the child thus enters a new period of stable development. The period of crisis is often conflictual for both the child and her carers; the child can have no clearly formed aim in its ‘rebellion’ against the confinement of her activity within oppressive bounds; her carers have to construct a new concept of the child and accommodate themselves and the child to a new set of relationships. If the adult carers fail to make an appropriate adjustment, then there may be a developmental pathology.

The child starts life with very little of what she needs to become a fully participating citizen of the society into which she has been born. Each of the Gestalten through which the child and her social situation passes constitutes a viable form of life, and at each step along the way different psychological functions develop in response to the social situation of development, building on what has been constructed in previous phases of development and each with different psychological functions playing a central role.

Through the concept of the social situation of development, with the relations by which the child’s needs are met, seen equally as bonds enslaving them, Vygotsky grasped the social life of the child as a concept, as a Gestalt. In just the same way Marx grasped capitalism as specific set of relations (wage labour and capital) characteristic of a definite social formation.

Vygotsky used the Russian word, novo-obrazovaniye[5], usually translated as “neoformation,” to refer to a unique mode of socio-psychological functioning (memory, motor control, perception, etc.). He conceives of the entire social and psychological functioning of the child in terms of the numerous “neoformations” which make up the Gestalt. Each neoformation has its own path of development, each interacting with the others, and undergoing qualitative changes at different stages in the child’s development. The dynamics of development of the whole is understood through the distinct and interconnected development of the neoformations. What is important to understand however is that the child together with the social situation constitutes a Gestalt. So each novo-obrazovaniye, is simultaneously a psychological function and a mode of behaviour, embedded in the participation of a child in its social situation of development.

The child’s mental and physical life entails numerous neoformations which are increasingly differentiated from one another and gain increasing independence from each other in the course of development and their development of a diversity of needs and modes of activity.

Paradigmatically, the social situation of development is unitary in the sense that it is made up of a group of individuals (the child’s carers) who collaborate in the raising of the child, using shared artefacts such as language and resources to meet the child’s needs according to norms and practices characteristic of the social group of which they are a part. Although beginning as an organism which is only marginally social, the child quickly becomes an active part of the project into which they are being raised. But things are never as simple as this. All the adults participating in raising the child have different expectations and hopes and bring different opportunities and pressures to bear on the child. As the child’s horizons broaden, such as when the child attends school, the internal differentiation of the social situation of development will become extensive. Even in the very first moments that mother and father lay eyes on the infant, they react differently. So the social situation of development and the child’s character is differentiated and internally contradictory from the very beginning.

The social situation of the child’s development is one of a multitude of intersecting projects going on in the world. All of these activities, together with shared language(s), norms and customs, and so on, are transmitted into the child’s experience and the development of their personality via the adults meeting the child’s needs.

The general schema of development from newborn to adult is that the child begins life physically, biologically, psychologically, materially, socially and culturally dependent on their immediate system of support. In that sense they are an undifferentiated and subordinate part of the Gestalt constituted by the social situation of development. Equally, the child’s psychological structure and social interaction begins as an undifferentiated whole. The child and their circle of interaction then pass through a series of Gestalten, undergoing a series of transformations in which a certain psychological function and mode of activity differentiates itself and gives rise to a new formation, a “neoformation.” This process continues up to adulthood, when, if the process of development has been successfully completed, the person is now fully socialized and qualifies as a free agent operating within the norms of the culture, capable of a large number of distinct modes of activity. As the child’s horizons expand, the Gestalt expands from the immediate family circle to the nation state. Only as a physically, biologically, psychologically, materially, socially and culturally independent citizen does she become a fully integrated member of the social group, whose consciousness constitutes and is constituted by the social practices of the whole. Internally, this process of socialization corresponds to the successive differentiation of psychological functions, and successive levels of emancipation, articulated within the individual’s overall psychological structure or personality.

Central Neoformations and Lines of Development

As noted above, Vygotsky says that each stable period of development takes place within a social situation of development, created by the child’s forceful breaking of the former situation together with the carers’ adjustment of their relationships with the child. According to Vygotsky, each period begins with a still immature central neoformation, made possible by the new social situation of development, but not yet fully differentiated and still bearing the hallmarks of the former relationships. Strengthening under the influence of activities enabled by the social situation, the central neoformation begins to reorganise other psychological functions, which gradually realign themselves around the central neoformation in the leading developmental role. Subsequently, in the latter phase of an age period, the central neoformation begins to come into conflict with the social situation of development. Having opened up new possibilities, the central neoformation discloses possibilities beyond the confines of the social situation of development and a period of crisis begins.

The above process Vygotsky called the “central line of development.” There are other, peripheral, lines of development unfolding at the same time which are secondary at this stage in that they do not contribute to the building up and resolution of the specific predicament which characterizes this period of development. In subsequent periods of development, the line of development which was at a certain stage central, continues, but is no longer central, and plays a peripheral role. Likewise, a line of development which was formerly in the background, may step forward into the central role.

So during the stable periods of development it is the gradual growth of the central neoformation which ultimately creates the predicament which forces the child to transform itself. During crisis periods on the other hand, it is the transformation of relationships and the mode of the child’s activity which drives the changes in all the psychological functions and their rearrangement in a new structure.

Development and Gestalt

Vygotsky was formulating a completely new vision of the structure of the human personality, a structure for which there were few satisfactory existing concepts, but there can be no doubt that he drew on Marx’s conception of the forms of movement of social formations. Marx remarked:

There is in every social formation a particular branch of production which determines the position and importance of all the others, and the relations obtaining in this branch accordingly determine the relations of all other branches as well. It is as though light of a particular hue were cast upon everything, tingeing all other colours and modifying their specific features. (Marx 1986: 43)

It was this same conception of the development of a complex whole or Gestalt which characterised Vygotsky’s conception of personality and a person’s relation to their social situation. Just as Marx and Hegel had conceived of history in terms of periods of gradual change punctuated by periods of crisis and transformation, Vygotsky conceived of child development in the same way. Talking of these developmental crises, Vygotsky noted:

The age levels represent the integral, dynamic formation, the structure, which defines the role and relative significance of each partial line of development. At each given age period, development occurs in such a way that separate aspects of the child’s personality change and as a result of this, there is a reconstruction of the personality as a whole - in development (i.e., the critical periods) there is just exactly a reverse dependence: the child’s personality changes as a whole in its internal structure and the movement of each of its parts is determined by the laws of change of this whole. (Vygotsky 1998: 196)

In the early phase of stable periods of development, development consists in consolidating the immature central neoformation characteristic of this period. In the later phase, development consists in preparing the child for a new social situation transcending the bounds of the central neoformation. During critical periods, development consists in facilitating a total rearrangement of the relationships and modes of activity under conditions when the child is not yet ready but is nonetheless striving to break through.

Zone of Proximal Development

Vygotsky understands the child’s psychological functioning as a Gestalt which (1) includes both the internal life of the child and their behaviour in interaction with those around them, and (2) passes through a series of qualitatively distinct phases, in each of which the child occupies a distinct social position and exhibits a structurally distinct mode of behaviour, separated by critical periods of more or less rapid change.

From this standpoint, Vygotsky’s well-known concept of the ‘zone of proximal development’ takes on very clear outlines. Its significance for Vygotsky is exclusively in terms of development, that is to say, in relation to how the activities in which the child may be engaged contribute to preparing and resolving the ‘predicament’ which defines the child’s phase of development. All other learning is secondary in relation to development. Further, the intervention of the adults in the child’s social situation is indispensable to create for the child a social space receptive to the transformation of the child’s behaviour and interactions. Transformation of the child’s mode of behaviour entails the adults acting in relation to the child in a way to which the child is not yet fully capable of responding, because it entails acting as if the child had already completed the passage to a new stable phase of development. The adults’ behaviour then will not be simply reactive but is directed towards the adults’ cultural expectations of the child’s development.

On the other side, the child may respond according to the characteristics of the next and higher stage of their development, with the adults’ assistance, and there can be no doubt that such a ‘rehearsal’ of behaviour of a new and higher mode, prepares the child for abandoning their former identity and taking on the new mode of behaviour. But this relation is only relevant to development if the activity in which the child is being coached corresponds to the leading neoformation for their “age level.” Otherwise, they may learn, but such learning will not contribute to their development, will not contribute to the child emancipating themselves from the social position in which they have hitherto been located so as to enter a new phase of development, a new mode of interaction and a new social situation of development.


Dualism - the division of the world into two mutually exclusive substances at a fundamental level - is a problem which has dogged philosophy since Descartes. Spinoza’s was only a formal solution and was not incorporated into any scientific program. Far from solving this problem, Immanuel Kant left a multiplicity of dichotomies in his wake, and it was only Hegel who was able to overcome these dichotomies. Hegel’s solution to Kant’s dichotomies was his concept of Gestalt (Hegel 2009).

But in his published works Hegel expressed this solution in a logical form: the unity of Individual, Universal and Particular moments in the Concept. It was far from obvious how this solution to the problem of dualism could be implemented in Psychology. As has been explained, Vygotsky did not tackle this problem directly, by a study of Hegel, but relied on Marx and others in working out a scientific solution to the problems of creating a materialist psychology using Hegel’s idea of Gestalt. Marx’s Capital provided his model, but reaping the benefit of half a century of efforts to build a scientific psychology, Vygotsky was able to go further than Marx.

While Vygotsky was able to appropriate structuralist principles from Gestalt Psychology, he clearly saw that on the crucial issue of the dichotomy of thought and matter, they had made little progress relative to the associationist psychology they criticised. This is the meaning of Vygotsky’s aphorism: “having smashed atomism, Gestalt psychology replaced the atom by the independent and isolated molecule.” It is one thing to make declarations against dualism, but quite another to develop a highly differentiated scientific psychology on a non-dualistic basis. Vygotsky did not take the road of monism, but rather of a “trichotomy” in which thought was tied up with the use of material artefacts in social practices.

Just as Goethe’s scientific ideas have been generally dismissed as quaint and misconceived, and the influence of these ideas on Hegel and Marx overlooked, so has the significance of this current of thought leading from Goethe via Hegel and Marx to Vygotsky been overlooked and misunderstood. The understanding of Gestalt which can be recovered from Goethe-Hegel-Marx, rather than Koffka and Köhler, may offer a new and powerful insight into Vygotsky’s understanding of development and a re-examination of his most well-known ideas in the light of this insight, and a profoundly new approach to the relation between the various human sciences.

Activity Theory

Vygotsky’s concept of Gestalt created a viable scientific solution to the thought/matter dichotomy. As has been demonstrated above in the context of his theory of child development, Vygotsky also developed a fruitful approach to resolving the individual/society dichotomy. This means that this concept is a crucial component of the project of Activity Theory, which aims to expand the domain of application of cultural-psychology to problems beyond the boundaries of psychology, narrowly understood. The current of thought beginning with A. N. Leontyev and including contemporary researchers such as Yrjö Engeström and many others, have continued much of Vygotsky’s legacy, but differ with Vygotsky over the question of the need for a ‘unit of analysis’ for activity (Blunden 2009, Leontyev, A. A. 2006). The problem of Gestalt and the problem of ‘unit of analysis’ are essentially the same problem: the formation of a concept of the object under consideration. Activity Theorists instead reify societal phenomena as “activity,” something distinct from “actions” executed by individuals which constitutes the Activity. This distinction between action and activity is valid, and indeed important, but can only succeed if activity and action are aspects of a single concept or Gestalt in the manner pioneered by Hegel and utilised by Vygotsky in his psychology.

A fruitful development of Activity Theory as an interdisciplinary concept thus depends on a recovery of Vygotsky’s concept of Gestalt, in which societal entities are not reified. This task is attempted in “An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity” (Blunden 2009).


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1. Bildung is another uniquely German word meaning the process of acquiring the culture of one’s times, becoming a cultured person. Originally, Bildung referred only to the shaping, forming, cultivating of objects, but took on the meaning of ‘education’ in the 18th century; Goethe is renowned for his Bildungsroman, novels narrating the personal development of the central character, and it became a central concept for Herder, Hegel, Schiller and &c.

2. Christian von Ehrenfels (1859-1932) Austrian philosopher and precursor of Gestalt Psychology.

3. Anschauung is usually translated as ‘intuition’. The verb schauen means to see or view as in Weltanschauung = worldview, and entered philosophy when Meister Eckhart translated the Latin contemplatio, the activity of contemplating something, especially the divine. Kant however took Anschauung to be exclusively sensory, rejecting the possibility of intellectual intuition, so the senses were the only source of form or shape.

4. Urphänomen is unique to Goethe; the prefix ‘ur’ means primitive, original or earliest, and is usually translated as ‘archetypal’. Phänomenon means phenomenon, that is appearance. Is represented as ‘abstract notion’ in Hegel’s Logic, exemplified by the ‘commodity relation’ in Marx’s critique of political economy, and ‘word meaning’ in Vygotsky.

5. Novo-obrazovaniye is usually rendered as ‘neoformation’. novo- means new; obraz means ‘picture’ (as does the German Bild) and obrazovaniye or ‘picturing’, is usually translated as ‘education’, but seems to have a similar meaning to the German Bildung. So according to its etymology, novo-obrazovaniye means a new ‘accomplishment’ or unique mode of social functioning.