Andy Blunden. May 2009

Vygotsky’s Critique of Psychological Science.

In his speech to the Congress of Psychoneurology in 1924, Vygotsky spoke in the language of reflexology, building up to a point where he declares:

“Consciousness is only the reflex of reflexes. To claim that consciousness too has to be understood as a reaction of the organism to its own reactions, one has to be a bigger reflexologist than Pavlov himself. So be it.” (1997)

The conventional wisdom about this speech is that it represents the reflexologist stage in Vygotsky’s development, that is, that he was at this time a reflexologist, and later he became a reactologist and then ... (Veresov 1999). But a close look at this speech, taking account of Vygotsky’s experiences over the preceding decade, may lead to a different conclusion.

Vygotsky began by declaring that ‘the methods of the reflexological investigation of man have now reached a turning point ...’ explaining that ‘outside the domain of the elementary and primitive, reflexology was left only with its general bare claim – equally well applicable to all forms of behavior – that they constitute systems of conditional reflexes.’ Continuing with a damning characterization of the poverty of reflexological research, Vygotsky claimed that if reflexology was to become a general science of behavior then its methods would have to merge with those of ‘subjective psychology’, that is, methods which hinge around dialogue with the experimental subject.

He established this with a beautiful line of immanent critique: he quotes an eminent reflexologist to the effect that the most sensitive reflexes should be used in experiments; the most sensitive reflex is the ‘speech reflex’, therefore reflexology should focus on the ‘speech reflex’, rather than poking pins into someone’s foot and measuring how long it takes the person to withdraw their foot.

He then points out that in fact reflexologists continuously use speech interaction with experimental subjects: “Please sit down,” “Did you feel that?” and so on, but do so unscientifically, whereas in fact it is essential to recognize this interaction with the subject as part of the experiment and examine it scientifically.

He then takes up the objection of the reflexologists that self-observation is inherently unscientific by pointing out that the claim that an experimental subject’s utterance constitutes self-observation is an unwarranted and unscientific interpretation: such utterances are simply experimental data to be subject to scientific analysis. According to reflexology, thought is a speech reflex which is inhibited before it is manifest, and asks ‘why it is allowed to study complete speech reflexes ... and why it is forbidden to take account of these same reflexes when they are inhibited?’ ‘... either we refrain from the study of human behavior in its most essential forms, or we introduce the obligatory registration of these non-manifest reflexes into our experiment.’ If manifest reflexes are objective, then inhibited reflexes, i.e., thoughts, are also objective. The question is only the methods to be applied to study them.

Vygotsky goes on to talk about ‘the capacity of the reflex (the experience of an object) to be a stimulus (the object of an experience) for a new reflex (a new experience) – this mechanism of awareness is the mechanism of the transmission of reflexes from one system to another’, and makes a reflexological definition of consciousness:

“the act of thought, the act of consciousness is in our opinion not a reflex, that is, it cannot also be a stimulus, but it is the transmission mechanism between systems of reflexes.”

This speculative definition avoids both reductionism and dualism, allowing Vygotsky to ask rhetorically: “Is a scientific explanation of human behavior possible without the mind?” In fact, even the most extreme reflexologists, Pavlov and Bekhterev, accept that consciousness exists and that it forms an essential component of human behavior. They simply refuse to admit the study of thought into ‘objective’ science on the basis of the unsustainable claim that the study of thought is possible only by self-observation, which is by definition unscientific. This locks them into an inflexible dualism, with two sciences, reflexology and psychology, under conditions where reflexology is able to make only the most banal claims from their research.

Vygotsky accepts a claim by Pavlov that reflexology is building the foundation on which psychology will be able to build, but points out that as soon as any attempt is made to build on this ‘foundation’, reflexology falls into crisis.

Bekhterev admits that it would be inadmissible to make consciousness into an epiphenomenon of physiology, but Vygotsky shows by their own words that Bekhterev and Pavlov are committed to a dualism: ‘two sciences with the same subject of investigation – the behavior of man – and that use the same methods, nevertheless, despite everything, remain different sciences’. The problem is that the reflexologists can only conceive of consciousness as subjective states understood in a dualistic way, excluded in principle from interaction with the material world. Butis it not clear now that [subjective states] can be completely and fully reduced to reactions of the organism’. Vygotsky concludes with the paradox:

“Psychology has to state and solve the problem of consciousness by saying that it is the interaction, the reflection, the mutual stimulation of various systems of reflexes. It is what is transmitted in the form of a stimulus to other systems and elicits a response in them. Consciousness is a response apparatus. ... Consciousness is only the reflex of reflexes. ... to study the behavior of man without mind as reflexology wishes to do is as impossible as to study mind without behavior.”

Finally, to the supposed inaccessibility of subjective states to scientific investigation, Vygotsky points out that the geologist, the historian, ... all scientists in fact face the problem that the object of their science is not open to ‘direct’ unmediated observation. In every case, methods must be worked out to reconstruct the relevant facts from observation and experiment. These facts include the mind and the methods for reconstructing the facts include talking with the experimental subject whilst participating with them in the experimental activity.

So what we see is that Vygotsky has managed to argue exclusively from within the framework of reflexology to a point which completely negates reflexology. Without disturbing the universal claim that ‘everything is a reflex’, Vygotsky has turned the concepts and methods of reflexology against themselves and proved that reflexology, that is to say, the study of the physiology of the nervous system, must merge itself with the methods and concepts of subjective psychology, its opposite.

The point is that Vygotsky was applying the method of immanent critique, the method of critical development of science worked out by Hegel and applied by Marx in the writing of Capital. Instead of counterposing to a given theory or system of practice, an opposite point of view, the critic enters that system of ideas and argues in its own terms to disclose its inner contradiction and lead it through to its own negation. This allows the critic to recover the insights utilized by the theory, understand the limits of their validity, and maintain them, whilst laying the basis for a practice which transcends the limitations of the given theory.

This is the same way a literary critic approaches a work of art; the critic does not counterpose their own aesthetic sensibilities and preferences to those of the artist, but draws out of the work of art the insights it offers and explores where it might lead. It is the method Marx used in his critique of political economy: he did not counterpose a socialist idea to the capitalist idea, but simply entered into political economy as the method of thinking reflective of bourgeois society and disclosed its meaning.

Vygotsky’s Hegelianism

We know that Vygotsky had studied Marx – he quoted the passage in Capital about the architect and the bee to support the validity of consciousness as a concept in Marxist psychology, and Luria (1979) reports that he was a competent Marxist at the time they met in 1924. But the evidence is that Vygotsky never studied Hegel. Conventional wisdom holds, on the contrary, that Vygotsky studied Hegel while at school, but this claim is based exclusively on a 1970s interview with his school friend, Semyon Dobkin:

“We wanted to find answers to such questions as ‘What is history?’ ‘What distinguishes one people from another?’ ‘What is the role of the individual in history?’ In other words, we studied the philosophy of history. Vygotsky was at the time very enthusiastic about the Hegelian view of history. His mind was then engaged by the Hegelian formula ‘thesis, antithesis, synthesis’, and he applied it to analysing historical events.” (Levitin 1982: 17)

Despite widespread claims to the contrary, Hegel never used the formula, ‘thesis, antithesis, synthesis’, and anyone who had read Hegel would know this. After Hegel’s death a popularizer of philosophy, Heinrich Chalybäus (1796-1862), imputed it to Hegel, and is generally regarded as the source of the myth. Via Chalybäus, the French anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, for example, took up the formula in lieu of an actual study of Hegel, and Marx ridiculed Proudhon for this in his critique of Proudhon’s “Philosophy of Poverty.” The English Hegelian W T Stace used it in “The Philosophy of Hegel,” as did John McTaggart, thus infecting the English-speaking world with the myth. Even Karl Kautsky, the leader of international Social Democracy up to 1914, used the formula, but Hegel didn’t.

Lenin’s predecessor as leader of Russian Marxism, Georgi Plekhanov was the chief popularizer of Hegel in Russia prior to the Revolution. In one of his most popular works, “The Development of the Monist View of History,” Plekhanov ridicules N. K. Mikhailovsky, the liberal anti-Communist who used the formula as the butt of his attacks on Hegel and Marx (Plekhanov 1961). Another well-known work of Plekhanov’s to which people in Vygotsky’s home town of Gomel would have had access to was “The Role of the Individual in History” (1961a). Presumably the youth of Gomel were not alone in their interest in these questions! Plekhanov sometimes used the phrase “laws of history” though this conception only became widespread under Stalin. Certainly, it was not a term that Hegel ever used.

So the import of Semyon Dobkin’s evidence is that Vygotsky had not read Hegel in those days, but his interest in Hegel may have been sparked by his reading of Plekhanov.

We know from Alex Kozulin that when Vygotsky attended university in Moscow, 1913-1917, he moved in a milieu of intense ideological struggle between Symbolists, Formalists and others schooled in the philosophical problems of aesthetics. It was during this period that Vygotsky wrote “The Psychology of Art” (1971). But the only reference to Hegel in this work is a dismissive jibe at the Hegelian Rosenkranz. In the same work, Vygotsky quotes Plekhanov’s views on art 10 times, six times in the first chapter alone. So it is clear that Vygotsky’s authority in matters of aesthetics as well as history, is Plekhanov not Hegel. Between 1917 and 1918 he took courses in psychology and philosophy at the People’s University of Shanyavsky, before returning to Gomel and dedicating himself to teaching and teacher-training. According to Wertsch (1985) it was during this period that Vygotsky studied Hegel, but also this is quite plausible, there is no evidence for it.

A search of all of Vygotsky’s works published in English for references to Hegel finds no reference to Hegel in writings prior to 1929. Of the 36 references, 15 are generalities which reflect no first-hand knowledge of Hegel at all; of the remaining 21 specific references to Hegel, in 16 of these Vygotsky is directly citing works by Marx (Capital), Engels (Dialectics of Nature and Anti-Dühring), Lenin (Philosophical Notebooks), and apparently Deborin and Lewin. This leaves 5 mentions of Hegel which could reflect a reading of Hegel. Three concern the senses which could just as easily have been culled from Goethe or Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts, one concern language, which could as easily have come from Marx’s German Ideology, and one is an extended description of Hegel’s psychology along the following lines: “All cultural development of the child passes through three basic stages that can be described in the following way using Hegel’s analysis: object-oriented, other-directed, self-directed.” This appears to come from some edition of Hegel’s Subjective Spirit, which includes his psychology, but unlike the allusions mediated by the writings of other Marxists, none of these 5 references can be traced to a specific source in Hegel. But none of Vygotsky’s allusions to Hegel reference the Phenomenology and there is absolutely no reason to believe that Vygotsky had read or knew anything about the Phenomenology.

It is impossible to say with certainty how much if any Hegel Vygotsky read. He is remembered as a prolific reader, so it is hard to believe that he did not read Hegel at all. But the evidence points to Vygotsky having appropriated Hegel in and through his interaction with other writers and co-workers, not through private study, apparently after 1928, certainly not as a youth in Gomel or as a university student in Moscow before the Revolution.

The claim by Valsiner (1991: 26) that Vygotsky used the method of ‘thesis, antithesis, synthesis’ by which Valsiner actually means ‘immanent critique’ is of no significance as Valsiner seems not to understand what either expression means. The claim by Kozulin (1990: 119) that Vygotsky used the master-slave narrative is supported by no evidence whatsoever, and Kozulin is unaware that the master-servant narrative only received widespread attention after 1947. Yaroshevsky’s biography says that while still in school Vygotsky started a debating society: “Hegel became his idol in philosophy; under Hegel’s impact, he attempted to apply the general schema of thesis-antithesis-synthesis to explanations of the course of historical events” (1989: 34). These claims are transparently an elaboration of Dobkin’s report combined with uninformed guesses about Hegel’s ideas.

With Levitin, Wertsch, Kozulin, Valsiner and Yaroshevsky all testifying to Vygotsky’s study of Hegel, this myth has been elevated to the status of established fact, but we are forced to the conclusion that even though, as we shall see, Vygotsky proved to be a consummate Hegelian and Marxist, beginning with his immanent critique of Reflexology, he never actually studied Hegel. And it can be well imagined that the idea of immanent critique went right over the heads of his audience at the Congress of Psychoneurology. In those days people addressed themselves to theoretical questions more or less in terms of affiliating themselves to the position of this or that political leader, and to this day this is the dominant approach in the case of politicized questions. But on the other hand, all his life, including his school days with Semyon Dobkin, Vygotsky worked collaboratively, so immanent critique came naturally to him. Collaboration in theoretical projects is immanent critique. Also, in the wake of the October Revolution, it was still an environment in which Hegel, Marx, Engels, Lenin and other Marxist writers were being read and their ideas were transmitted everywhere through the collaborative kind of work to which Vygotsky was committed, even under the darkening pall of Stalinism.

The idea of a ‘Marxist psychology’ to which everyone was committed was thought of in the way of a psychology ‘affiliated’ to Marxism. The dominant understanding of Marxism at this time was ‘dialectical materialism’, with emphasis on ‘materialism’. Claims by Marx such as “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” (Marx 1987), and claims of Engels like “In the last analysis, the material life conditions of the persons inside whose heads this thought process goes on determine the course of the process” (1990) and Lenin’s (1962) unforgettable defence of a ‘reflection’ of the mind, seems to have been widely taken to indicate that a ‘Marxist psychology’ would be one or another variety of Behaviorism. This expectation combined with the fact that Russia was already home to two of the most eminent physiological behaviorists in the world, Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) and Vladimir Bekhterev (1857-1927), whilst Ivan Sechenov (1829-1905), the founder of Russian physiology, was also a physiological behaviorist. Behaviorism was also the dominant trend in the US at that time.


By ‘Behaviorism’ I mean those approaches to the study of the mind which exclude consciousness as a legitimate category within the science. This is an intentionally broad definition of behaviorism, and includes a diversity of currents, whilst there are currents of behaviorism, such as that of Konstantin Kornilov, which do not exclude consciousness, but either reduce consciousness to an epiphenomenon or admit some form of dualism into the science. But the essence of Behaviorism is the study of observable behavior to the exclusion of consciousness; it’s unit of analysis is the reflex: S → R (Stimulus → Response). The nervous system may be conceived of as a network of such links, or for some writers, Stimulus and Response may refer to the whole organism.

American and Russian behaviorism developed over the same period, in parallel with one another, but it is J.B. Watson who is generally recognized as having defined behaviorism:

“Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior. Introspection forms no essential part of its methods, nor is the scientific value of its data dependent upon the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpretation in terms of consciousness. The behaviorist, in his efforts to get a unitary scheme of animal response, recognizes no dividing line between man and brute” (1913)

Let us recapitulate these four linked characteristics of behaviorism: (1) Its aim is the prediction and control of people’s behavior, (2) It excludes the use of evidence offered by the experimental subject, (3) It excludes the notion of consciousness and (4) As a part of natural science, it deals with human beings without culture, as brutes.

All four of these characteristics are incompatible with an emancipatory human science.

The aim of controlling human behavior answers to the needs of capitalist, prison guard, interrogator, marketer, politician and bureaucrat, but an emancipatory psychology aims to free people from manipulation so that they can have voluntary control over their own behavior.

An emancipatory science aims at self-emancipation, the point Marx made in Theses on Feuerbach (“... human activity or self-change can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice” for example), and an emancipatory science has the consciousness of the participants in history at its heart, and rejects the idea of a God’s eye view which pretends to view society from outside and above. As Vygotsky showed in his 1924 speech, the idea of excluding consciousness is ineffectual, unscientific and self-deceptive. The consciousness of both the researcher and their experimental subject always participate in scientific experiments, and experiments are only scientific to the extent that the researcher understands the role played by their own consciousness.

A psychology which is only interested in those forms of behavior which human beings share with the animals misses just those forms of behavior prevent human life from descending to the level of animal life, and except in instances of neuropathology or injury, are the subject matter of interest. Treating people like animals is useful only to those who already discount people as without rights and without value.

Most of these points were taken up in Vygotsky’s speech in the greater length that is demanded by immanent critique. At the end of his speech, he made reference to William James, suggesting to his audience an alternative to the physiological behaviorism which was (and remained) dominant in the Soviet Union. There are two broad lines of development of behaviorism: physiological behaviorism and social behaviorism. Pavlov and Bekhterev are representatives of physiological behaviorism, in that their aim is to predict and control behavior through an understanding of the physiological substratum of thinking and behavior. So, if you can manipulate a person’s physiology, inclusive of presenting subjects with verbal or other sensory stimuli, then you can predict the resulting behavior, and thereby ultimately control people’s behavior.

Social behaviorists share the conviction that consciousness is inaccessible to scientific observation. But unlike the physiological behaviorists, they prefer to study S → R relations in a sociological context and do not consider that study of the biological processes mediating between an external stimulus and observable response contributes to an understanding of behavior. Social behaviorists are more likely to turn to functionalist or structuralist descriptions of social processes for the systematic understanding of behavior.

William James (2005) and the other American Pragmatists, such as George Herbert Mead (1956) and John Dewey (1993), are the founders of social behaviorism. Social behaviorists recognize that people’s behavior is generally a response to stimuli which have social origins. From this standpoint, one thing leads to another, and there is still no place for the presumption of consciousness. Social behaviorists like Mead recognized that a person’s ‘attitudes’, the earliest phase of the production of actions, lying within the organism, cannot in general be revealed by physiological investigation, but play a crucial role in social interaction and behavior generally. Vygotsky seems to have drawn on these ideas in the preparation of his immanent critique of reflexology.

B.F. Skinner (1904-1990), developed the most consistent elaboration of Behaviorism, studying the S → R relation with the experimental subject as an absolute ‘black box’ or blank ‘input-output’ device. Skinner would not admit any characteristics of the person into science, not only excluding consciousness and physiology, but even character and motivation, which he saw as nothing but social constructs, invented for the purpose of the control and prediction of behavior, and fully reducible to behavioral analysis (Robinson 1995).

So it is only (3) above, the rejection of consciousness as a scientific category, that all lines of development of behaviorism share unambiguously. But the exclusion of consciousness necessarily implies the denial of agency to the experimental subject, so even though only indirectly, social behaviorists share the full range of characteristics of behaviorism, because they deny to human beings the main determinant of behavior, consciousness, and therefore the capacity for self-determination, equating human beings with animals, regarding culture as nothing more than a system of devices for conditioning behavior.

Vygotsky showed however, that there is no basis for the exclusion of consciousness on the assumption that consciousness can only be accessed by self-observation. Noam Chomsky (1968) famously asked: ‘Is physics the science of meter readings?’ – we infer consciousness from behavior, and in so doing we act in exactly the way that all sciences act, reconstructing the facts of the science from the available evidence.

Within physiological behaviorism different schools also competed with one another. Bekhterev and Pavlov were Reflexologists, that is, they regarded the basic unit of psychoneurology as the reflex. Reactology, the current led by Kornilov, was to be the subject of Vygotsky’s next critique: Consciousness as a Problem for Behaviorism (1997a). Reactology used a ‘bio-social’ concept of reaction, which differed from one society to the next. Kornilov tried to overcome weaknesses of reflexology with gestures to Marxism. A reaction is a response of the whole organism (both subjective and objective) not just a single organ and is acquired by social means. Instincts, simply based in physiology, are overridden by socially-acquired reactions. Kornilov included the concept of consciousness in his system, but only by means of a species of mind-body dualism.

But behaviorism is not to be simply cast aside. Vygotsky demonstrated that while self-observation is rightly excluded for the purposes of science, we can and must infer consciousness by objective observation of the behavior (including verbal behavior) of the experimental subject, based on their participation in the experiment as a shared project along with the researcher. This means that the researcher’s behavior and consciousness are treated with the same rigor as that of the experimental subject, denying the subject a privileged insight into their own consciousness, and the researcher an illusory God’s eye view.

Likewise, the physiological behaviorist, who studies the S → R relation by physiological investigation, has a legitimate place in the work of psychology, but because the central and most important process determining behavior – consciousness – can only be inferred from behavior, including speech, in most cases physiological investigations play a secondary role. In cases of trauma or other types of physiological pathology, the role of physiological investigation obviously becomes more important.

So from his very first entry onto the stage of psychology, Vygotsky posed the problem of working out an objective, scientific study of consciousness, declaring that this meant appropriating the work of both physiological and social behaviorists and well as that of ‘subjective’ (or ‘empirical’) psychology.

Vygotsky and Luria on Romantic Science

Vygotsky joined Luria and Leontyev at the Moscow Institute of Psychology, and they began work under Kornilov, resulting in a stinging critique of Reactology, along lines not dissimilar to Vygotsky’s Congress speech. Vygotsky visited his home town of Gomel, married Roza Smekhova, and took steps to set up the Institute of Defectology, where he created conditions for continuation of his research somewhat out of the spotlight of Moscow. Early in 1925, five new students were recruited to the ‘troika’ in Moscow, swelling the team to eight, all of them young, and four of them female. In 1926, Vygotsky suffered another bout of tuberculosis, but once he returned to work, the group began to work their way through the literature of all the currents of psychology at the time, in Europe and America as well as in the Soviet Union, and at the same time, they worked out their own methods of experimental work.

The chief characteristic of their work was collaboration (Stetsenko 2004).

There is an imperative in publishing nowadays to ascribe every text to a specific author, and this is frustrated by the manuscripts left by the Vygotsky School from this period, because they often failed to ascribe authorship to works which may have been written by one person, but describing the research of another, or may have been written collaboratively or left unsigned. The group met frequently and discussed issues while someone took notes. They had a thoroughly collaborative method of work inasmuch as they all shared a common project, and their individuality was immersed in that common project. At that period, the Bakhtin Circle was also working collaboratively, with little attention to attribution of authorship; it seems that the collaborative approach was embedded in the collectivist ethos of the whole social system.

Also, their experiments entailed a collaborative relationship between the researcher and the experimental subject. Elsewhere psychological experimentation was founded on the positivist principle of ‘scientific objectivity’; this meant that the researcher must create a documented and repeatable experimental set-up and procedure, and then record the subject’s response without any ‘interference’ or ‘influence’ by the researcher, which would ‘corrupt’ the data. Nowadays, thanks to the impact on science of a number of anti-positivist currents in philosophy and social theory, there is widespread recognition of the validity of a variety of approaches to psychological testing and experimentation (Chow 2002), and the psychoanalytic tradition never accepted this stricture either. Nonetheless, the multiple-choice questionnaire, statistical sampling and standardized test procedure are as ubiquitous in psychological research today as ever. For almost as long as psychology has existed as a science in its own right, students of psychology have been inculcated with the idea of statistics as their principal research tool. Such methods have their place, but they are presaged on the assumption of indifference of the target population to the research objectives, the indifference of the researcher to the interests of the experimental subjects as individuals, and of a conception of the person as a social atom, whose normal condition is in isolation from others. Under these conditions, collaboration between researcher and subject is ruled out. The experimental subject is just a black box which converts input stimuli to output responses by some means.

If experimental subjects understand the idea of scientific research and what it means to be a research subject, they usually participate willingly as required by the researcher. When set a task, subjects will genuinely try to complete it. There are limits to this relationship to which we will return later on, but in the simplest case, all that is at issue is whether the researcher stands back and observes the efforts of the subject in isolation, or on the contrary, intervenes in some way so as to help the subject complete the task, these efforts then becoming part of the subject matter of the experiment.

So if the question is: how do people remember things? and how do people improve their memory? how do people attend to something? or how do people overcome fears? then the researcher can present the subject a task, and then assist them, and in that way learn about the relevant psychological function, be it memory or attention, or whatever. Talking to a person is an example, but speech is an exceedingly developed form of artefact, with multiple cultural ramifications, and there are many circumstances where such uncontrolled intervention would undermine research objectives. The simplest possible way of assisting someone in some task is to offer to them some useful artefact: a simple object, perhaps something of a certain shape or color or some kind of symbol or tool.

Thus arose the famous double-stimulation experiment (Sakharov 1994). It is called a ‘double stimulation’ experiment because the first stimulus is something the researcher presents to the experimental subject for a response, and to assist them in making the ‘correct’ response, the researcher offers a second, relevant stimulus, e.g., a card the subject has previously used as a cue. This scenario in which a person uses an artefact offered by another person in order to complete a psychological task is the simplest imaginable set up in which the use of culture in the formation of the mind can be represented.

In Vygotsky’s words:

“[In] the functional method of double stimulation ... we study the development and activity of the higher mental functions with the aid of two sets of stimuli. These two sets of stimuli fulfill different roles vis-à-vis the subject’s behavior. One set of stimuli fulfills the function of the object on which the subject’s activity is directed. The second function as signs that facilitate the organization of this activity” (Vygotsky 1987: 127)

The double-stimulation experiment opens up a wide range of possible research strategies and problems to be investigated. As a broad generalization, all the higher psychological functions, that is to say, the modes of psychological functioning which are peculiar to human society, all rest on lower psychological functions, which are shared with our primate cousins, but by learning to use cultural products through collaboration with others, can be developed to the level normal for adult human beings. There is a general form to this process: it begins with the use of an external object, such as a spoken word or a written numeral or ‘training wheels’, and gradually the external element of the process fades away, and the person is able to complete the relevant task ‘under their breath’ so to speak, apparently substituting something which exists only internally, subjectively, but nonetheless facilitates a mode of psychological functioning for which they formerly needed some kind of prop. While the subject’s behavior goes through this process of transformation, a researcher is able to observe the various stages of its ‘internalization’ and the conditions which facilitate or obstruct the learning process.

As an aside, it should be noted that the author of the canonical description of this experimental procedure and its historical antecedents, Leonid Sakharov, was a graduate student of the Vygotsky group, whose subsequent career has unfortunately been lost to us. But it is a measure of the collaborative nature of the work of the Vygotsky School, that an otherwise unknown student authored this seminal document.

The simple truth that in order to understand something one must be able to bring it into being out of its conditions (Engels 1990) need not be elevated into an epistemological absolute, but it is obvious enough that the idea has considerable merit. Vygotsky observed that the typical ‘objective’ experimental procedure ‘deals with the result of a previously competed process ... with a finished product, but does not catch the dynamics of this process, its development’ (Sakharov 1994), but when instead experimental work is designed to recreate the conditions under which psychological functions can develop and practically trace, step by step, the formation of the function and its successive transformation from the use of an external prop to an internally regulated function, then it is meaningful to say that one understands the function itself (Vygotsky 1994).

It should be observed that the double stimulation experiment requires collaboration between the experimental subject and the researcher at two levels. Not only will the researcher collaborate with the subject to assist them in completing a task which they cannot complete unaided (e.g. by offering a mnemonic cue), but the experimental subject must understand and collaborate in the researcher’s project. The People Living With AIDS experience in the 1980s brought out the fallacy of double-blind testing and placebos, competition for patents, and so on, and the fatal impact of disregard for the views and interests of the experimental subject (Epstein 1996). It is not just a question of ‘ethical standards’; only if the experimental subjects understand and solidarize with the research project can the research succeed.

Behaviorists also claim to study behavior by bringing it into being, that is, by controlling behavior (Chow 2002), but there is a profound difference between controlling another’s behavior and collaborating towards a shared goal. The two research strategies in fact result in two different kinds of knowledge, relevant to different social relationships in the world outside the laboratory.

By helping the experimental subject complete a task, the researcher gains immediate insight into the psychological processes at work and it is not necessary to repeat the experiment a thousand times and generate statistics. Statistics do not deliver understanding.

And there was a third way in which the work of the Vygotsky School was collaborative. Participation in science is always collaboration, inasmuch as every scientist participates in the common project of creating and documenting a shared corpus of scientific knowledge. However, this essentially collaborative relationship which embraces everyone who has contributed to scientific knowledge over the centuries, is often undermined by the ethos of professional competitiveness. Where science is dedicated to competition for funding, accumulation of intellectual property, rivalry over promotion, accolades and academic status, then cooperation is merely an unintended side-effect. On the other hand, where participants in the scientific project, test out each others’ work and use the results and methods acquired from others towards a common objective of understanding, then science is genuinely a collaborative project. And this was the kind of work to which the Vygotsky School was dedicated. The large-scale theoretical collaboration took the form of immanent critique of all the existing currents of psychology at the time and appropriation of the insights provided by each. The irony is that world politics dictated that they would be banned and suppressed in their own country and isolated from the rest of the world by the ‘Iron Curtain’.

So collaboration was integral to the Vygotsky School’s method of work at three levels: amongst the research team, between researcher and experimental subject, and in relation to other researchers in the field. As we shall see, collaboration was not only central to their way of working, but also to the content of the theory of psychology that they developed.

Before moving on to review some of the psychological ideas and theories which are relevant to our project, there are a number of methodological concepts which the Vygotsky School established during the late 1920s which are central to this study.

Luria (1979) was an advocate of what he called, with direct reference to Goethe, ‘romantic science’. Luria saw romantic science, in contrast to classical science as follows:

“Classical scholars are those who look upon events in terms of their constituent parts. Step by step they single out important units and elements until they can formulate abstract, general laws. These laws are then seen as the governing agents of the phenomena in the field under study. One outcome of this approach is the reduction of living reality with all its richness of detail to abstract schemas. The properties of the living whole are lost, which provoked Goethe to pen, “Gray is every theory, but ever green is the tree of life.”

“Romantic scholars’ traits, attitudes, and strategies are just the opposite. They do not follow the path of reductionism, which is the leading philosophy of the classical group. Romantics in science want neither to split living reality into its elementary components nor to represent the wealth of life’s concrete events in abstract models that lose the properties of the phenomena themselves. It is of the utmost importance to romantics to preserve the wealth of living reality, and they aspire to a science that retains this richness.” (Luria 1979)

Along with his commitment to romantic science, Luria developed an interest in idiographic as opposed to nomothetic science, an interest which he said was shared by Vygotsky. Nomothetic science seeks to make generalizations from a large number of individual cases, formulating laws and explanatory principles on the basis of an exhaustive mass of data, but presumes that the explanatory principle is categorically different from the data itself. Following Kant, the principle or law itself is deemed not to be given in perception, but nonetheless governs the phenomenon to a greater or lesser degree of significance alongside other forces and principles. This is the approach which is most typical in classical science and often involves statistical validation.

Idiographic science on the other hand, entails the sustained and exhaustive study of just one case, or class of cases, which function as an archetype. During his career, Luria followed over decades, the development of certain individuals who possessed exceptional psychological characteristics, such as a photographic memory, and developed his understanding by a thorough familiarity with their development and all the associated characteristics of the personality of this individual. This approach is most common in ‘clinical’ medicine, as opposed to medical research as such. Rather than compiling a statistical survey of 10,000 people having variable mnemonic ability, ideographic science makes a really in-depth study of the whole personality of just one eidetic.

This is an interpretation of Goethe’s concept of Urphänomen, different from that of Hegel or Marx, but it does help to give us a feel for the shape of a ‘romantic science’, which is similar to the idea of an emancipatory science which is suggested here. The word was coined by the Kantian philosopher Wilhelm Windelband, and introduced to psychology in the English speaking world by Gordon Allport (1897-1967) (Frank 1986). Vygotsky and Luria worked very closely together, so it is safe to assume that Vygotsky was familiar with the origins of this approach to science in Goethe and other German writers such as Verworn, Freud and Windelband.

The kind of knowledge developed by self-help groups, in which people suffering from a particular medical condition accumulate in-depth knowledge of just that one condition, in contrast to the medical practitioner or even scientist, who specializes, but nonetheless are required to have expertise across a range of conditions and can never develop the kind of knowledge acquired by self-help groups (Borkman 1999). People with AIDS had similar experiences (Epstein 1996).

Units and Microcosms.

There is another application of this idea which stimulated Vygotsky’s methodological reflections. Vygotsky praised Pavlov for his study of just one reflex:

“Pavlov is studying the activity of the salivary gland in dogs. What gives him the right to call his experiments the study of the higher nervous activity of animals? Perhaps, he should have verified his experiments on horses, crows, etc., on all, or at least the majority of animals, in order to have the right to draw these conclusions? Or, perhaps, he should have called his experiments “a study of salivation in dogs"? But it is precisely the salivation of dogs per se which Pavlov did not study and his experiments have not for one bit increased our knowledge of dogs as such and of salivation as such. In the dogs he did not study the dog, but an animal in general, and in salivation a reflex in general, ... his conclusions do not just concern all animals, but the whole of biology as well. The established fact that Pavlov’s dogs salivated to signals given by Pavlov immediately became a general biological principle ... Pavlov maximally abstracted the phenomenon he studied from the specific conditions of the particular phenomenon. He brilliantly perceived the general in the particular.” (Vygotsky 1997b)

The approach which Vygotsky admired here is not quite the same as the idiographic approach which studies one individual. Here the object is a particular abstracted from everything irrelevant. Pavlov perceived that the susceptibility of a particular reflex to training offered to science a general principle of biology, now famously known as the conditional reflex. And nor is the training of the salivary gland in a dog an Urphänomen, since it remains a particular alongside innumerable other particulars. Nonetheless, it functions in biology as a universal archetype as it readily suggests a model relationship for all living organisms, which is represented in the concept of ‘conditional reflex’.

On the other hand, Vygotsky was sharply critical of Pavlov, in the words of his inaugural speech:

“... outside the domain of the elementary and primitive, reflexology was left only with its general bare claim – equally well applicable to all forms of behaviour – that they constitute systems of conditional reflexes. But neither the specific details of each system, nor the laws of the combination of conditional reflexes into behavioural systems, nor the very complex interactions and the reflections of some systems on others, were clarified by this general, far too general statement and it did not even prepare the way for the scientific solution of these questions. ... [He] reduces everything to a common denominator. And precisely because this principle is too all-embracing and universal it does not yield a direct scientific means for the study of its particular and individual forms.” (Vygotsky 1997)

The Reflexologists mistook their concept of the substance of organic life (the reflex) for an explanatory principle of universal scope. By ‘substance’ is meant the conception of the underlying reality of the science. The simple declaration that ‘everything is a conditional reflex’ does provide a base upon which an explanatory principle can be built, but precisely because everything, all organic life, is a conditional reflex, it cannot constitute an explanatory principle for one kind of organic life, human consciousness. A simple unmediated identity of the universal and particular cannot form an adequate concept of the science; as an abstraction, it fails in ‘the romantic aim of preserving the manifold richness of the subject’ (Luria 1979).

Another important methodological principle Vygotsky developed at this time was the idea of microcosm. Vygotsky referred back to his study of Hamlet in his University days for the Psychology of Art, in which he tried to ‘deduce the laws of the psychology of art on the basis of the analysis of .. one tragedy’, quoting Marx’s aphorism that ‘the anatomy of man provides the key to the anatomy of the ape’ (Vygotsky 1997b). The idea here is that a science must address itself not to the most primitive but the most developed, since in the most developed particular or individual, phenomena can be studied in their purest and independent formations:

“When our Marxists explain the Hegelian principle in Marxist methodology they rightly claim that each thing can be examined as a microcosm, as a universal measure in which the whole big world is reflected. On this basis they say that to study one single thing, one subject, one phenomenon until the end, exhaustively, means to know the world in all its connections. In this sense it can be said that each person is to some degree a measure of the society, or rather class, to which he belongs, for the whole totality of social relationships is reflected in him.” (Vygotsky 1997b)

This could be taken as an argument for the idiographic approach, but he goes on in what is the final paragraph of his most famous work:

“The consciousness of sensation and thinking are characterised by different modes of reflecting reality. They are different types of consciousness. Therefore, thinking and speech are the key to understanding the nature of human consciousness. If language is as ancient as consciousness itself, if language is consciousness that exists in practice for other people and therefore for myself, then it is not only the development of thought but the development of consciousness as a whole that is connected with the development of the word. Studies consistently demonstrate that the word plays a central role in the isolated functions but the whole of consciousness. In consciousness, the word is what – in Feuerbach’s words (Feuerbach 1972) – is absolutely impossible for one person but possible for two. The word is the most direct manifestation of the historical nature of human consciousness.

“Consciousness is reflected in the word like the sun is reflected in a droplet of water. The word is a microcosm of consciousness, related to consciousness like a living cell is related to an organism, like an atom is related to the cosmos. The meaningful word is a microcosm of human consciousness.” (Vygotsky 1987: 285)

This quote comes from “Thinking and Speech,” the most well-known and influential of Vygotsky’s works, published in Russian for a short time just after his death, and then in several translations outside the Soviet Union beginning in the 1960s. He asks, in the context of a discussion of the subject matter of the title:

“What then is a unit that possesses the characteristics inherent to the integral phenomenon of verbal thinking and that cannot be further decomposed? In our view, such a unit can be found in the inner aspect of the word, its meaning. ...

“Is word meaning speech or is it thought? It is both at one and the same time; it is a unit of verbal thinking. It is obvious then, that our method must be that of semantic analysis. Our method must rely of the analysis of the meaningful aspect of speech; it must be a method of studying word meaning” (Vygotsky 1987: 47)

We will come to what precisely Vygotsky meant by ‘unit’ and a more detailed explanation of his idea of ‘unit of analysis’ presently, but to be clear about what Vygotsky is claiming, we need to clarify the distinction between ‘microcosm’ and ‘unit of analysis’

He says that word meaning is ‘a microcosm of human consciousness’ and also that word meaning is a ‘unit [of analysis] of verbal thinking’. If we make the mistake of putting an equals sign: microcosm = unit of analysis, then we also put an equals sign: consciousness = verbal thought. The conclusion is very wrong. Verbal thinking is the highest development of consciousness, arising in human beings only at a certain point in child development, but consciousness is more ubiquitous and multifaceted; verbal thinking is tied up with the act of verbal thought; ‘its reflection of reality differs radically from that of immediate sensation or perception’ (Vygotsky 1987: 47). It also differs from affect, physical activity, artistic activity and so on, in how it reflects reality. The point is that because verbal thinking is arguably the highest conquest of the development of consciousness, its study sheds light on the entire problem of human consciousness, ‘the sun is reflected in a droplet of water’. But contrary to the belief of the enthusiastic linguist, we do not live in a world of (literal) texts; human beings are suffering, feeling, laboring material organisms, and an understanding of human consciousness presupposes a study of all modes of human activity, not just verbal thought. But if – like Pavlov with his salivary reflex and Luria with his eidetic – we study this one phenomenon to the end, then we will unlock the entire domain of human consciousness for analysis.

So although Vygotsky’s research covered every imaginable domain of psychological research, he came to the conclusion that verbal thinking was “the key to understanding the nature of human consciousness.” But word meaning is not a ‘unit of analysis’ for human consciousness in general, but a unit of analysis for verbal thinking.1

What did Vygotsky understand by ‘word meaning’?

“... word meaning is an act of speech. In psychological terms, however, word meaning is nothing other than a generalization, that is, a concept. In essence, generalization and word meaning are synonyms. Any generalization – any formation of a concept – is unquestionably a specific and true act of thought. Thus word meaning is also a phenomenon of thinking” (Vygotsky 1987: 244).

So even though we have good reason to believe that Vygotsky never studied Hegel, in coming to the conclusion that the unit of analysis for verbal thinking is the concept, he is in complete agreement with Hegel. We will later explore how far from verbal thinking this observation can be taken, but let us move on to the very important concept of unit of analysis.

Vygotsky approaches the problem of the concept of a science through the contrast between analysis by elements and analysis by units. For Vygotsky, word meaning, or concept, is an integral whole – a molecule in the sense of being a unity of elements just like water is a unity of hydrogen and oxygen, H20. Hydrogen and oxygen taken on their own demonstrate none of the properties of water, which can on the other hand, be observed in the water molecule, which is the smallest unit of water to exhibit the properties of the whole. Word meaning has two elements: the semantic and the phonetic. His claim is that verbal thinking, the highest development of human consciousness cannot be understood through the study of phonetics and semantics, the ‘elements’ of verbal thinking:

“In our view, an entirely different form of analysis is fundamental to further development of theories of thinking and speech. This form of analysis relies on the partitioning of the complex whole into units. In contrast to the term ‘element’, the term ‘unit’ designates a product of analysis that possesses all the basic characteristics of the whole. The unit is a vital and irreducible part of the whole. The key to the explanation of the characteristics of water lies not in the investigation of its chemical formula but in the investigation of its molecular movements. In precisely the same sense, the living cell is the real unit of biological analysis because it preserves the basic characteristics of life that are inherent in the living organism.” (Vygotsky 1986)

In order to explore this unit of verbal thinking, Vygotsky traced the origins of speaking and thinking:

“1. As we found in our analysis of the phylogenetic development of thinking and speech, we find that these two processes have different roots in ontogenesis.

“2. Just as we can identify a ‘pre-speech’ stage in the development of the child’s thinking, we can identify a ‘pre-intellectual stage’ in the development of his speech.

“3. Up to a certain point, speech and thinking develop along different lines and independently of one another.

“4. At a certain point, the two lines cross: thinking becomes verbal and speech intellectual.” (Vygotsky 1986)

Thus the designation of the semantic and the phonetic/lexical as elements of verbal speech was established by a painstaking experimental investigation of the development of speech and the development of thinking as children acquired the socially constructed practice of verbal thinking, through a series of distinct stages in which the relationship between speech and thinking goes through transformations. The discovery of the different roots of thinking and speech and the distinct trajectories of the development of each, and thus the creation of verbal thinking as a unique conjunction of two distinct psychological functions, was uniquely Vygotsky’s, a discovery which made possible a scientific founding of the science of verbal thinking.

The claim that verbal thought is a unique mode of behavior alongside other types of speech and other forms of intelligence, was established experimentally. Thus, unlike the reflexologists’ claim that ‘everything is a reflex’, it cannot be said that word meaning as a unit of verbal speech ‘reduces everything to a common denominator ... because [it] is too all-embracing and universal’ (Vygotsky 1997).

One final methodological point: all of Vygotsky’s observations, both theoretical and experimental, are focused on interactions between individual persons. The sociological aspect these interactions is implicit in the artefacts used (words of the language for example) and the way they are used, by people already educated in their use. The only way in which generalized sociological conceptions play a role in his theory is in and through the cultural products (such as words and concepts) figuring in the practices of and interactions between individual people, and how these products are used. This gives Vygotsky’s work a particularly concrete character resting on real premises “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 1975c).

Gestalt and Bildung.

The victory of Hitler in Germany and the crushing of the powerful German Communist Party heralded a turn away from the insane optimism of earlier Soviet foreign policy, but inside the Soviet Union it meant a ramping up of political repression. Everyone was in danger, and fear of denunciation by one’s enemies prompted pre-emptive denunciation of potential enemies. The various trends of Marxist psychology soon came under political ‘criticism’ under conditions in which only the most deadening conformism could hope to survive. The writing was on the wall.

Vygotsky’s creative life-time in psychology was very short. After bursting on to the scene in 1924, it was only in 1928 that he could be said to have shaped his own approach, tuberculosis was undermining his ability to work, and by the early ‘30s, the dark clouds of Stalinist repression threatened to make scientific work impossible. During the last years of his life Vygotsky worked frenetically, knowing that his time was running out, he prepared books, often in disconnected and unfinished chapters which would not see the light of day for 50 years, whilst students took notes of his lectures. The Moscow Trials condemned to death as saboteurs, all the leaders of the October Revolution and the Red Army. Although he died before their beginning, Vygotsky’s private papers show that he was preparing for an uncompromising defence of his work. In reading his papers from this period, we are presented with a comprehensive vision of psychology, but only in a series of glimpses, which the author had time only to illustrate, summarize and suggest principles and directions for further work.

How is human freedom is possible? How is that human beings can subject their behavior to their own control, while at the same time they remain natural beings, subject entirely to the laws of biology, physics and everything else?

The early physiologists of the nervous system established that the basic unit of the nervous system, is the stimulus-response reaction (S → R), a network of which forms the natural substrate of the psyche. These may be unconditional or conditional, but in either case they are the natural scientific foundation for psychology, in turn rooted in the basic laws of physics, chemistry and biology. Nothing in the human nervous system can contradict these laws. The artificial or constructed aspect of the human nervous system arises from the insertion of new, mediating links between stimulus and response, illustrated schematically with the relation S → X → R:

Both S → X and X → R are stimulus-response reactions just like S → R, but have been introduced into the natural system artificially. X is a means of achieving the object R, which entails to use of an element of culture, an artefact of kind.

Thus just as every single component of a machine obeys the laws of physics, the machine nevertheless acts according to some human purpose for which it was designed, in just this same way, the human body is obedient to the laws of nature while at the same time serving human purposes. The human body is a natural organism, and at the same time an element of culture, and just as human beings are able to control material objects and subject them to their will, so also, we learn to master our own behavior and our own nervous system, by the inclusion of cultural products in our behavior.

In general X can be visualized as an artefact of some kind, S → X meaning the use of the artefact, and X → R meaning the indirect achievement of the object. The subject (S) confronts two objects; one, the object (R) to which the act of behavior is directed, and the other (X) a means of achieving R. Both are material objects, but our relation to them is different. This mediating element can be visualized as a tool or symbol.

While ‘tool’ and ‘symbol’ have different meanings, there is no sharp line between them. Consider the following series of means of opening a door: crow-bar, key, swipe card, PIN code, password and ability to sweet-talk the doorkeeper. Isn’t it clear that all are artefacts used as a means of gaining access, and psychologically speaking play exactly the same role? At one end of the series the relation between the physical properties of X and R is most pronounced, at the other, the symbolic properties of X are more prominent. So tool and symbol form a continuum. Whether tool or symbol, the artefact always entails a relation, direct or indirect, to other people.

Vygotsky introduced the idea of a ‘psychological tool’, a tool used for the purpose of directly realizing some psychological operation – a map or diagram, a calculation or word, a smile or a gesture. The inclusion of the tool (X) in the behavioral process modifies the mental processes which were formerly mobilized around S → R and reconstructs the entire process, now dictated by S → X. For natural science, the unit of analysis remains S → R, but the ‘instrumental act’ illustrated by S → X → R, ‘is the simplest piece of behavior with which research is dealing: an elementary unit of behavior’ (Vygotsky 1997c).

So here we have the ‘unit of analysis’ for behavior, in general – an ‘instrumental act’. Clearly enough word meaning, or concept, is the most important of all ‘psychological tools’ but a gun or a telescope is also just as much a psychological tool, through the use of which the psychological structure of a human being is transformed, though not only the subject’s psychology. The use of any artefact has the effect of restructuring the nervous system, turning the natural brain tissue into a product of cultural development, bearing the stamp of human activity, while obedient every moment to the laws of nature.

Thus the human psyche is shaped from the outside; individual human beings learn to control their own behavior only by means of using the tools introduced to them by those who around them. The behavioral act is normally directed at some external state of affairs, but in using the artefact a person changes themself in a way consonant with the culture they draw upon. So human beings acquire freedom by appropriating it from other people, who, as Fichte put ‘summon us to exercise our freedom’ (2000) and give us the means of doing so.

We are born with a range of psychological functions which are rooted in biology and function according to the law of the conditional reflex, S → R: visual perception, vocal ability, practical intelligence, and so on. These psychological functions are rooted in distinct biological systems that we share with the animals. A human infant, when confronted, for example, with a task calling for the exercise of practical intelligence will approach the problem just like a chimpanzee, captive to the visual field, with eyes only for the object, until they begin to talk. Once speech enters the scene, children use speech to control their own behavior just as they would use it to control the behavior of others. Luria describes the following auto-dialogue recorded by Levina of a child who was endeavoring to reach a jar of candy:

“That candy is up so high. [Here the child climbs up on the divan and jumps up and down.] I have to call Mommy so she will get it for me [jumps some more]. There’s no way to get it, it’s so high. [Here the child picks up the stick, looking at the candy.] Papa also has a big cupboard and sometimes he can’t reach things. No, I can’t get it with my hand, I’m too small still. Better to stand on a stool [climbs on a stool, waves the stick around, which bangs the cupboard]. Knock, knock. [Here the child laughs. Glancing at the candy, she takes the stick and knocks it off the cupboard.] There! The stick got it. I’ll have to take this stick home with me.” (Luria 1979)

So we see that the child mobilized speech to structure her perception of the entire field and instead of asking Papa and Mommy to fetch the candy for her, turns this ability to solving the problem through her own behavior. Speech – the use of a word-tool – here mediates between the child’s existing practical intelligence and the object, and in the process her own practical intelligence is being restructured.

Vygotsky pointed out that speech develops in two directions at this point; in its communicative use speech is becoming more sophisticated, but as it enters as an element into an internal psychological function, it becomes at first more primitive, reduced to the level of the infantile practical intelligence. Thus a child’s egocentric speech like that above, gradually becomes more abbreviated and ultimately incomprehensible as it becomes a subordinate part of practical intelligence, a psychological function of the child which rested hitherto on very primitive faculties. In the process, the child’s practical intelligence is restructured and transformed, no longer relying just on the visual field.

This is a general pattern: psychological functions develop by subordinating and incorporating other psychological functions so that they operate in a mediated way. The S → X → R relation illustrated above then applies to whole systems of reflexes.

Here Vygotsky appropriates the conception of the psyche promoted by the Gestaltists. The psyche cannot be conceived of as a set of independent functions but is at every point in its development, a whole, a Gestalt; when the faculties of speech and visual-practical intelligence merge with one another, visual perception is changed as is the intellect. Similarly, at a certain age, the child ‘thinks’ by remembering; but at a later stage, she remembers by thinking. There is a faculty of memory, a natural faculty not dissimilar to that of any other mammal, but ‘natural memory’ is inferior in its capacity and operates by quite different laws as compared to the memory of a normal adult human being. The mnemotechnique doesn’t really ‘improve’ natural memory, which in fact remains just as it was, but incorporates it into a new function of intellectual/verbal memory. Thus even though we can talk of memory or intelligence as distinct human faculties that an individual may exercise with greater or lesser skill, both faculties are remote from the common endowment with which we were born, and can only be understood as different aspects of a single Gestalt.

But how does this happen? How does the infant become a self-determining adult member of this or that culture? The child is not born free but is everywhere in chains, that is to say, utterly dependent on those around her: physically, biologically, psychologically, materially, socially and culturally dependent on her immediate system of support, and in that sense an undifferentiated and subordinate part of that system.

The Social Situation of Development

At the time of his death, Vygotsky was working on a new book on child development (Vygotsky 1998), in which he sketched the dynamics of this development through a series of stages from birth to adulthood. We are all born much the same, and as independent adults we differ from each other along the axes of culture and character, but in between, but the whole structure of the path from newborn to adult differs markedly from one society or social class to another. Only the general idea can be indicated here.

The key concept that Vygotsky presented in this work is the social situation of development. In the context of cultural psychology it would be a truism to state that the social situation determines the course of child’s development, but what does this mean? what attributes of the social situation are important? and is the process of development determined solely by the social situation or does the child herself determine the course of development in some way? Vygotsky resolves this problem brilliantly and in the spirit of Goethe, Hegel and Marx as follows.

At any given moment, 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, that is to say, by a qualitative transformation of her own psychological structure and the structure of her relationship with those who are providing for her needs, a transformation which frees her from the constraints in which she was trapped. The new type of psychological functioning which the child attains is not implicit in the (former) social situation of development; on the contrary, development towards the new formation is actually an escape from and termination of the social situation of development. This self-emancipation is only possible if the child manifests a need which transcends the limits of her situation; absent this need, and there can be no development.

This is the basic concept of the social situation of development: a predicament from which the child emancipates herself by developing. Note that this concept is radically different from the conception of social advantage/disadvantage used in positivist social science, made up of a list of factors to be added up for and against development; rather than a list of attributes, Vygotsky gives us the concept of the social situation.

At any given point in the child’s development, the child’s needs are met in and through a system of social relations and activity which constitutes a Gestalt: a concept of the child which is embedded in both the expectations of the adults around the child and the level of development of the child’s physical and psychological functions, together with some gap between the two and the actions in which this relation is objectified.

For the members of any society, reproduction of its culture and institutions from generation to generation is an imperative and 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. All societies to some degree build age-level expectations into their institutional practices, and the children of a society are motivated to conform to these yardsticks. So the developmental process is conditioned by these cultural-historically inherited expectations which the adults bring to the social situation of development: the concept of a child of such-and-such stage of maturity.

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, to their full participation within the horizons of their own expectations. Although this drive takes on uniquely human forms which 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 emancipate itself from whatever frustrates or threatens control over their own conditions of existence insofar as they are capable of perceiving them.

Broadly speaking, Vygotsky’s approach to development is that any given social situation of development, which meets the child’s needs in a manner consonant with the level of development of the various physical and psychological functions of the child, is also a constraint on the child’s self-determination and may be described as a kind of trap. Once a key psychological function has developed within this social situation of development beyond a certain limit, the child finds that she has outgrown the situation and the role she is obliged to play in that situation. This faces the child with a kind of predicament: she does not yet have the capacity to adopt a different role, nor in fact can she even conceive 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 in a way freed of the former constraint and free of the threats suffered during the transitional period of crisis, thus opening up a new period of stable development. The period of crisis is often traumatic for both the child and her carers; the child has no aim in mind, just a blind refusal, or 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 their social situation pass 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.

The child’s mental and physical life entails numerous psychological functions which are successively differentiated from one another and gain increasing independence from each other in the course of development. For example, although speech and intellectual rest on distinct biological bases, they cannot be mobilized independently by the child. To the extent that the child develops cultured forms of speech and intellect, she is able to mobilize them as independent faculties. The psychological functions become independent only insofar as they remain aspects of a unitary psychological structure in which the biological bases are subordinated to the whole Gestalt.

The social situation of development is generally unitary; the child is treated by adults as a single, unitary individual and the social arrangements through which the child’s needs are met are normally though not necessarily integral. (As the child’s horizons broaden, such as when the child attends school, there is a possibility for the social situation of development to be internally differentiated and contradictory.) The child’s development takes place along a number of different lines of development at any given age, all within a single system of relations through which the child’s needs are met, and in which at each stage, one line of development is central, central to the completion of that stage of development and the initiation of the next.

In general, the social situation of development presupposes a certain mode of dependence of the child, namely, the way in which the child’s needs are met. During a period of stable development the central function develops to a point where the child senses that it is capable of transcending this mode of dependence; but the mode in which their needs are being met entails restrictions presaged on the immaturity of the given function. So it is the child, by an act of will, who responds to their frustration by refusing the existing relations of dependence, often displaying a characteristic kind of negativism. There may be no intention on the part of the child to change the social situation; it is just that the child now finds the situation insufferable.

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 social system of support and mode of life, and in that sense they are an undifferentiated and subordinate part of the Gestalt. Equally, the child’s psychological structure begins as an undifferentiated whole, and in passing through a series of Gestalten, the psychological structure of the child undergoes a series of differentiations in which a given psychological function and role within the Gestalt, differentiates itself and gives rise to a new formation. This process continues up to adulthood, the child gaining independence along successive axes, and once the process of development is successfully completed, the person is fully socialized and qualifies as a free agent operating within the norms of the culture. Only as a fully independent citizen does she become a fully integrated member of the society. Internally, this process of socialization corresponds to the successive differentiation of psychological functions, articulated within the individual’s psychological structure: perception is freed from handling, thinking is freed from remembering and vice versa, intelligence is freed from speech, and so on.

The mode of social interaction and the corresponding mode of psychological functioning, created by the child’s exercise of will during a period of critical development which marks the transition from one period of stable development to another, reshapes the relationships of the social situation of development and normally the child demonstrates to her carers and herself her capacity to play a different role, around which a new social situation is constructed, new expectations and a new role for the child, and an entirely new kind of development ensues.

Thus we see that Vygotsky captures the developing individual as a Gestalt, in which the individual and their social situation has the form of a concept. Vygotsky does not begin from an inside/outside dichotomy, but on the contrary, the self-conscious and independent individual confronting an external world of social structures, emerges as the outcome of a long drawn out process of differentiation of a mode social interaction and mode of psychological functioning constituting a Gestalt. This Gestalt hinges around the interchange of needs and the means of their satisfaction through an unfolding system of social practices and the developing psyche which is at the heart of the process. The individual is constituted by the expectations of those around them in unity and conflict with the emerging will of the growing personality.

The raising of the child is a joint project in which the child is both project and participant, both concept and subject. We are both products and producers of society and culture of which we are a part.


Vygotsky said of the Gestaltists, that “having smashed atomism, [they] replaced the atom by the independent and isolated molecule” (1997c) and was able to show how the person can be conceived together with their social situation of development as a Gestalt in which the inside/outside dichotomy is genuinely transcended. Psyche and forms of practical activity emerge through a process of internal differentiation of an integral whole: the child in their social situation. Taken together with his concept of the ‘instrumental act’, Vygotsky has given us a definite, empirical form of Hegel’s idea of a Gestalt as a system of concepts. Through this concept we see that the sovereign individual is not the presupposition, but the outcome of a collaborative project. Vygotsky’s conception of this process of becoming a person reproduces the ‘manifold richness of the subject’ rather than the reducing the person and their situation to just so many contingent attributes.