Andy Blunden October 2009

Vygotsky held that scientific concepts are one of many types of true concept

Vygotsky held that true concepts can only be acquired by an adolescent when they enter the ‘real world’ of work and politics, and he does not say that true concepts can only be acquired at school. A true concept is a thought-form which solves some problem which has arisen in the development of social practice in the past, which accrues multiple nuances and connotations. By contrast, a “pseudoconcept” is an aggregate of attributes which identifies things referred to by others, but not yet truly understood. Scientific concepts are used as exemplars of true concepts because the person receives them through the relevant institution, independently of personal experience. Real thinking is a unity of sensuous representations arising from personal experience and true concepts arising from social history. (As Hegel would say: the Concept is the unity of Being and Essence.)

Vygotsky held that true concepts can only be acquired by an adolescent when they enter the ‘real world’ of work and politics.

In the sections I am quoting here there are only incidental references to school, where Vygotsky points to the interest young adolescents show in abstract topics, and how they later develop an interest in politics. I see no evidence whatsoever that Vygotsky thinks that school plays any special role in the development of conceptual thinking in the adolescent. The overwhelming emphasis is on the entry of the adolescent into “the cultural, professional and social life of adults” where he is confronted with problems and ideology. “The dialectical unity of form and content in the evolution of thinking is the beginning and end of contemporary scientific theory of speech and thought.” Only when the child participates in social life, in the forms of activity in which concepts have been created, do they have the opportunity to acquire true conceptual thought.

Yes, an adolescent can acquire a true concept through instruction in school, and school will promote conceptual thought within a certain style of living. One could construe all the quotes above as referring to the curriculum at school, i.e., schooling which “set life-tasks” and “confronts the adolescent with problems,” etc. This is not excluded, but this is simply construing school as a part of life. School might be continued into university life. But adolescents do participate in social life.

A concept arises in social history as a solution to some problem in social practice, and is sedimented in a word, around which further meaning is accrued.

Nothing about “science” here, but concepts do originate out of some “general structure of judgments,” but these could be religious, political, aesthetic, and they make their way into everyday life over a long period of time.

In his treatment of the pseudoconcept Vygotsky remarks:

It is not to be presumed that the adult has studied zoology, but simply that the adult knows dogs within the framework of conceptual thought, where “a dog, the barking animal, resembles the heavenly constellation Dog.” (Vygotsky Reader p. 262)

In Chapter 6 of “Thinking and Speech,” Vygotsky contrasts scientific and everyday concepts in children, NB, not pseudoconcepts and true concepts. He says that “The fundamental difference between the problem which involves everyday concepts and that which involves scientific concepts is that the child solves the latter with the teachers help.” The everyday concept is acquired through the child’s everyday personal experience; the scientific concept is acquired by instruction from the teacher. There is no claim that the everyday concept is a pseudoconcept. In fact, there is no mention of pseudoconcepts in this chapter and no mention of “everyday concept” in the previous chapter. Of course, if the subject is a child, we know from what Vygotsky has said repeatedly, that it cannot be a true concept, but adult also have everyday concepts, such as “dog.” The unreflective adult may not attain dialectical thinking (Vol. 5, p. 46), but as adults they will think in concepts, and I see nothing to suggest that Vygotsky thought otherwise.

In Chapter 6 of “Thinking and Speaking,” Vygotsky says:

So we see that it is not that, with schooling, the child develops a ‘scientific’ concept of “dog,” but rather, through instruction in scientific concepts, the child gets to know about concepts, and transfers this awareness to their spontaneous knowledge, and forms everyday concepts which are not pseudoconcepts, but the elementary beginnings of a true concept. All schools surely teach concepts that do not arise spontaneously from the child’s experience, but not only scientific, children also learn artistic and religious concepts. At first these concepts are separate from personal experience, and it is only later that they fill out with content.

I believe that Vygotsky uses “scientific concepts” in this chapter because this was the conception of Soviet schooling at the time, that they were teaching the children a “scientific world outlook,” and in any case formal instruction in scientific concepts is a pure archetype of true concepts, a microcosm, whose social history can be traced in minute detail, and which can be defined with precision and is directly connected with the formal institutions which are the bearers of the concepts. The concepts which the child develops and acquires outside this setting are not pure archetypes, but nonetheless reflect the accrued wisdom of society and its institutions. Schooling is a formal intervention in the development of the thinking of the child, promoting certain forms of collaboration at the expense of others. But it is not in my view a question of conceptual thought versus pseudoconceptual thought.

Of all the things schooling does to a young person’s thinking, making it scientific is low down on the list of likely candidates. The child learns certain forms of activity and relationships in the process of being introduced to words and meanings which are quite strange to their experience. Because the words have no referent in their everyday experience, the young person begins with a word and is conscious of the word as indicating a thought-form, rather than simply being the name of a thing. This wisdom will inevitably cause young people to reflect on the pseudoconcepts they have acquired in their everyday life and a merging of the two lines of development takes place. Vygotsky describes this process in terms of scientific concepts learnt at school:

Scientific concepts are the subject matter of the chapter. The point is, how does this mutual transformation of everyday experience and formal instruction proceed when the concepts acquired from instruction or in adult life (whether formal schooling, apprenticeship in a job or involvement in religious, artistic, political, literary or other forms of societal institutions with the societal ideologies that these activities transmit)? I think it fair to say that the conceptions acquired through spontaneous everyday experience and the ideological concepts acquired through institutional activity will transform one another, and the kind of knowledge the adult builds will be the outcome of both.

Vygotsky only discusses this process of mutual transformation between true concepts acquired in an institutional setting and spontaneous everyday concepts, which leads to the acquisition of concrete conceptual thought across the whole range of experience, in terms of scientific concepts acquired in school. I see no reason to suppose that the general process of interaction is any different in the case of true concepts being acquired in different institutional settings other than the obvious fact that the institutional settings will colour the adult’s form of knowledge accordingly. A person raised by Jesuit monks will have a different view of the world than a child brought up in a workhouse or in a guerrilla camp.