Talk by Andy Blunden 23/24th February 2001

The Vygotsky School
“Spirit, Money and Modernity” Seminar


Lev Vygotsky was born in Byelorussia in 1896 and graduated in Literature from Moscow University in 1917. In 1924, he moved back to Moscow to work at the Institute of Psychology. He was widely involved in developing the education program of the young Soviet Union and in particular in the education of deaf and dumb children. He died of tuberculosis in 1934, entirely unknown outside of the Soviet Union.

But in the meantime he had created, with the collaboration of Aleksandre Luria and A N Leontiev a completely new and scientific approach to psychology, which did not become known at all in the West until 1958, and was not published in the West till 1962, and for example, it is only in the last few years that his work has become available in Australia.[1]

Vygotsky was a child of the Russian Revolution. All of them saw the Revolution as the beginning of creating a new world, and they all saw their work as contributing not only to overcoming the devastation of the Revolution and the Civil War and the legacy of Russia’s semi-feudal past, but of building a new “socialist human being”. Vygotsky saw the construction of a communist education system and the abolition of the boundary between education and work, along with the development of modern industry under conditions of socialist construction, as providing the conditions for the emergence of a new and higher type of human being.

Internationally, during the 1920s and 30s, psychology was in the midst of an enormous crisis, and Vygotsky subjected all the contemporary schools of psychology to painstaking critique, while freely drawing on the insights of every school from Wilhelm Wundt’s introspective “empirical psychology”, to Adler’s individual psychology, structuralism and Gestalt psychology.

Vygotsky read widely, his first major work being The Psychology of Art published in 1925, and he was well read in Hegel and Marx. The French Marxists Georges Politzer and Henri Wallon provided for Vygotsky the initial direction for a study of psychology. Vygotsky was acquainted with Georg Lukacs and found rich sources of inspiration in Marx’s early writings such as the 1844 Manuscripts and The German Ideology and Theses on Feuerbach, which were available in the Soviet Union by this time, not to mention Engels’ works such as Anti-Duhring.

However, we have to remember the incredibly difficult conditions that confronted genuine scientific work in the Stalinist USSR, quite apart from the fact of total isolation from the West and desperate poverty and social crisis.

Now, when the Bolsheviks came to power it became very fashionable, so to speak, to apply Marxism to any particular branch of activity. This generally involved whipping a few quotes out of the classics of Marxism, particularly Anti-Duhring or Dialectics of Nature and demonstrating that this or that line was in accordance with the precepts of Communism.

The whole period of Vygotsky’s professional life was a period of intense factional strife in the Soviet Union, and in particular the period during which Stalin established absolute power within the USSR.

Under these conditions, scientific debate, or any other kind of debate for that matter, became extremely difficult. All that was required was for your opponent to stand up and demonstrate that your position on this or that question of science or art was “bourgeois” while their own was consistent with Marxism, and you could find yourself in danger of denunciation and disappearance. No scientific debate could take place without intensive lobbying and bureaucratic positioning and the overall cultural level of the milieu in which your life was to be decided was a very low one.

To be added to this difficulty one has to take account of the fact of Pavlov. Ivan Pavlov was one of the greatest scientists of the time who had genuinely introduced a revolution into psychology with his scientific approach to the study of nervous reactions in animals. Pavlov was a behaviourist. His work was based exclusively on observable behaviour and physiology.

His discovery of the conditioned reflex was of enormous importance for biology and psychology, since it demonstrated the physiological basis for consciousness and also showed how organisms could develop complex behavioural reactions in adapting to their environment.

The Bolsheviks were desperate to keep Pavlov in Russia and provided him with every possible incentive to remain. He was a star.

Until 1923 the Moscow Institute of Psychology was headed by one Chelpanov who was an adherent of Wilhelm Wundt’s introspective psychology, but he was overthrown at this time by one Kornilov who claimed to have applied Marxism to psychology and put forward a species of behaviourism. The wedding of behaviourism with Marxism was a powerful formula for an official Soviet psychology.

Imagine then the impact when, only a year after Kornilov’s triumph, the unknown young graduate in literature from Byelorussia went to the rostrum at the Second Congress on Psychoneurology to deliver an attack on behaviourism.

This is the position with Behaviourism: states of mind are not observable, except by introspection; only behaviour is observable, only behaviour can be the subject of science. Consciousness is like the “ether” of nineteenth century physics or the Spirit of theology — it is a fiction.

Chomsky remarked that designating Psychology as “Behavioural Science” is like calling Physics the “Science of Meter Readings”.

Since behaviourism sees higher psychological functions as illusions, then it is predisposed to view the higher psychological functions as just highly elaborated forms of the same basic elements which are observable in animals, and therefore that the work of psychology is to begin with the detailed observation of animals, and their conditioned reflexes and work one’s way up to the more complex behaviour of human beings. For these people, all the phenomena of human culture are just self-delusion.

B F Skinner for example said, in 1989; “Human behaviour will eventually be explained, ... by the cooperative action of ethology (that’s study of the behaviour of animals in their natural environment), brain science (i.e neurology as a branch of biology), and behaviour analysis."

In considering the question “Can machines think?”, Alan Turing thought the question is meaningless and should be reduced to one of the capacity of a machine to imitate the behaviour of person, for which the answer is: “Any day now”.

Behaviourism is quite incapable of accounting for the higher psychological functions, for the simple reason that behaviourism itself discounts consciousness altogether.

But more importantly, behaviourism is the theory corresponding to the practice of seeking compliance: “How can I get the subject to do x or y?” By eliminating the subject’s consciousness from the equation, one creates a technology of stimulus and reaction.

A word on Pavlov. Vygotsky was rightly a great admirer of Pavlov. While it was a great mistake to try to account for the higher psychological functions by the conditioned reflex, any such understanding has to rest on this foundation.

Also, Vygotsky learnt a great deal from Pavlov in terms of experimental method; the way Pavlov focused on just one reaction, and instead of observing it in its finished and static state, Pavlov studied how a reaction could be introduced into the organism by the intervention of the experimenter. In this way, Pavlov was able to understand the genesis of a reflex, and in this way uncovered the secret of the whole organism.

There are a number of aspects of the Vygotsky School’s method of work which clearly have their origin in Pavlov.

The Character of the Vygotsky School

Now I just want to mention a couple of things about the Vygotsky School which made it difficult for their views to become accepted in the West. The first is their consistently collaborative style of work. All their papers were written in collaboration, frequently experimental work or even conclusions by other members of the School are included without acknowledgment and people moved around from lab to lab, town to town sharing ideas, frequently working through difficulties and arriving at new ideas in discussion.

The Western academic tradition is based on academic promotion and hierarchy, and has difficulty coping with publications and ideas whose authorship is unclear.

The other crucial innovation that Vygotsky made is in their experimental method. The traditional “scientific” method of investigation is observation, in which the experimenter endeavours to isolate the object of observation from the subjective influence of the observer and other “outside influences”. The psychologist creates an experimental set up and then more or less unobtrusively observes the behaviour of the experimental subject in the given situation. Vygotsky pointed out that such a method could allow the experimenter only to observe a given phenomenon in its finished, habitual state.

What was necessary however, was to uncover the genesis of a phenomenon — how and under what conditions it is brought into being, and through what stages and forms it develops. This could only be done by challenging the subject with a problem which they are unable to solve at their given stage of psychological development, and providing within the experimental situation, the means for solving the problem.

This is, in fact, the usual situation in which the human psyche invariably develops. The experimenter then intervenes and prompts the subject to use the material which has been made available and observes the efforts of the subject to overcome the problem at hand.

The experimenter thus actually enters into collaboration with the experimental subject. A number of crucial concepts emerge from this approach. For example, instead of measuring intellectual development according to what a child, for example, can do in a given test (which is more reflective of their experience and acquired level of skill), Vygotsky sees the measure of development in what the subject can achieve in collaboration with the experimenter!

Learning and Development

This area between what the subject can do unassisted and what they can do if prompted, Vygotsky calls the “Zone of Proximal Development”.

Vygotsky’s contemporary, Piaget, who knew nothing of Vygotsky’s work until much later, by the way, introduced Genetic Psychology to the West.

Piaget held that development leads learning, that is, children can only learn what is possible for their given stage of development, which originates from an innate program of developmental stages.

Vygotsky on the contrary, held that learning leads development, that is, being presented with challenges and assisted in overcoming these challenges induces the development of new abilities.

Each stage forces the child to “re-arm” themself using the means provided by the culture and then presents them with new challenges.

But one of the most important aspects of Vygotsky’s psychology is that it addresses itself to the normal and specifically human condition, rather than approaching the human being as a naked ape, or through psycho-pathology. Also, while Piaget’s theories of child development become basically irrelevant once the child completes their innate program of development, Vygotsky’s theory goes to the heart of knowledge itself, and he is able to describe specific stages of intellectual development well up into the secondary school years.

Let us move to look at how Vygotsky builds his psychology.

Three Phases of development of the Psyche

The psyche of the adult human being in modern society is the outcome of three successive processes of development:

the biological evolution of species which produced the apes with their elementary intelligence and a very similar array of biological equipment as we human beings have today,

the cultural development which has been achieved over many thousands of years, during which the human organism has undergone virtually no biological development at all, and finally

the individual development which every one of us goes through from early childhood to adolescence and adulthood.

Many people have observed the parallels between these three processes of development. Even Piaget tried to impose the stages of development he had discovered in the development of mathematical understanding in children on to the social history of mathematics, so convinced was he of the parallel. However, Vygotsky was absolutely opposed to what he called the “bio-genetic hypothesis” pointing out that while parallels between processes of development are always apparent, it is precisely what is unique about a process which provides the key to its understanding, rather than what is uniform and common.

Using Sense and Memory

Let us look at the senses which Nature has given us, our seeing and hearing, which appears to be the very foundation of our communication, our language, our perception of Nature, and everything. In almost all respects, the senses of us human beings are inferior to those of our nearest relatives in the animal world, while tribal people appear to have superior senses to modern city dwellers. Equally, it is frequently observed that blind people have better hearing, and so on. Closer examination showed however, according to Vygotsky, that the raw power of all our senses is near to identical with those of people who live in the tribal way, close to Nature, and the hearing of blind people is in fact no more acute than that of sighted people.

This, despite the obvious superiority which anyone who investigates this question finds on the basis of casual observation.

Likewise, the senses of a child are fully developed at a very young age and may actually deteriorate after the age of 12.

The situation is the same with memory. Although an adult is capable of retaining and recalling a vast quantity of information, quite beyond what a young child is able to memorise, careful experiment aimed at measuring the mneme, the raw capacity of an organism to retain and recall an earlier sensual stimulus, demonstrates that this physiological property is more or less constant across all kinds of people, until approaching old age.

And yet, it is obvious that ability to remember, just like ability to observe is highly variable, both from person to person and across different cultures and age groups.

It is well known that Eskimos have many words for what we call just “snow”, just as we have many words for what an Eskimo would call “car”. However, it is not just a question of the relative weight given to different things in our vocabulary.

The other day I was lucky enough to find myself sharing a table after lunch with a visiting Shakespeare scholar, so I took the opportunity to question him about Shakespeare’s enormous vocabulary. He confirmed to me my suspicion that Shakespeare’s audience did understand his plays, and that audience was not an audience of literate people, but as is frequently depicted in movies, a rough-and tumble audience of common people of late 17th-early 18th century England. Shakespeare’s writings account for a huge proportion of the words found in today’s dictionaries.

The vocabulary of his characters and his audience was vastly greater than the spoken vocabulary of even a highly literate person of today. What has happened to that rich vocabulary?

Commonly, tribal people have a name for every single variety of plant and animal in their world, and different names for young and old, big and small ones, male and female, single ones as opposed to those in groups, standing ones as well as running ones.

Some of these words are still preserved in our language but are slipping out of use, like a gaggle of geese or a murder of crows, a quire of paper, a dozen eggs, and so on, and yet the same people lacked words like tree or plant.

We see a similar situation with counting. The Mongolian herdsman who knows of no number above 5, will know instantly if one of the hundred horses he is looking after goes missing. He doesn’t need to count them; a glance at the herd tells him one is missing.

Clearly, the herdsman and the tribal person use their natural gifts in an entirely different way from how we do. We have no time here to look at the pressures which have obliged people to change the way they use their natural powers. Suffice it to say that life delivers up problems which cannot be solved in the old way, and we have had to invent ways of overcoming them.

Nature and Technique

For example, Vygotsky tells the story of a New Guinean tribesman who had to visit all the villages in the district to inform them of a tax they had to pay in retribution for participating in a recent rebellion. He had to memorise a complete inventory of the population and wealth of each village and a list of the animals and produce which each had to pay in compensation. The journey would take two weeks and involved several dozen villages. The official recited to him the list of items he had to remember, and at each item the old man placed an object in a particular position on the ground, broke a twig in two or touched a part of his body, and so on. He asked to go through the list a second time, using his aide memoire and rehearsed it again in the morning. He then announced that he no longer needed the bits and pieces and headed off and successfully carried out his mission. It is probably as mysterious to you as it is to me exactly how he managed this task, but it is doubtless similar to the well-known technique of memorising mental images of things situated at each corner you pass on the way into work each day. It is easy then to reproduce the list by retracing your mental steps and recalling the image evoked at each successive corner.

In other words, we learn to enhance our natural memory by technique.

Now, Vygotsky makes this point: the laws of physics are just the same inside a Mercedes Benz as they are in Nature. And yet, through the skill we have developed in handling the laws of Nature, we have learnt to build something the like of which does not exist in Nature. He points out: “Psychological laws as well as physical ones can be utilised in such a way as to serve our ends”. In other words, faced with tasks and difficulties that they cannot solve with their existing mental capacity, people use technique. If we can’t remember things, we tie knots in our hanky or cut notches in a stick, and in the course of history we have invented some very sophisticated aides memoire.

Using these external tools we can master tasks that would otherwise be beyond us.

The remarkable thing is though, the thing that marks the tools which we use to work on our own nature from those we use to work on external nature, is that once we have learnt, for instance, to memorise something with the aid of symbols, we get to a point where we don’t need to use the symbols any more, we can do it in our heads! Thus, in the course of working with tools fashioned from external nature we change our own internal nature.

At first, you count aloud on your fingers, before long, you can count silently without pointing. Thus, in the process of accomplishing mental tasks using external tools, people learn to master their own nature; by learning to master Nature, human beings learn to master their own internal, psychological Nature.

[I'll return to this question of an instrumental attitude towards Nature later.]

People learn to master their own internal nature just as we learn to master external nature, according to its own laws. We use tools — words, symbols, rituals — as aids in this, but in “stage two”, we learn to do without the external tool. We find our way around a new city at first using a map, and afterwards, we don’t need a map, we have an image of the city inside our heads.

Tool and Symbol

I am just trying to get across a general idea here. The memory of a tribal person is very concrete. What we call “photographic memory” is in fact the norm not the exception. This very concrete memory corresponds to a correspondingly concrete perception and is reflected in a language which is replete with proper names but lacks the names for species and kinds of things. [Note that Claude Lévi-Strauss contradicted this view in his 1962 “The Savage Mind”]

But there are limits to what this kind of perception, this kind of memory can achieve. Confronted with certain difficulties culture has invented a vast array of aide memoire, — having learnt to use numbers, we can no longer see the difference when one horse is missing from the herd.

Let me give one more example of this business of internalising problem solving, this time from our cousins among the primates. When chimps are given a difficult task they at first engage in frantic efforts to solve the problem and get their hands on the banana. Thwarted in their efforts, they may then lapse into quiet and what is obviously deep reflection. So long as all the elements of the solution to his problem lie within his visual field he may sooner of later stumble upon the solution, at which point he jumps up and immediately solves the problem. What he doing is internally engaging in this frantic activity until he sees the solution. He lacks words and he certainly lacks concepts, he thinks very, very concretely. The intelligence of the chimpanzee is a concrete one. But once he has mastered a particular technique he can reproduce it at will.

The chimp has an elementary kind of intelligence; he is not just a bundle of conditioned reflexes. He is generally speaking only able to solve problems which are relevant to the conditions of life in the forest, when all the elements of the solution lie within his visual field and he is able to fit all the elements of the problem into a structure. She learns from her fellow chimps, loves to play games and is inventive. She uses tools, she invents tools.

But what, according to Vygotsky’s sources, a chimp does not do is invent mental tools to aid her thinking. Human beings do. All the peoples of the world, however isolated they may have been, have elaborate languages, and, when faced with intellectual problems which they cannot solve with their existing means, invent symbols of some kind or other to help them solve the problem. While most chimps are able to copy each others’ banana-reaching techniques, only human beings have at hand the benefit of all the accumulated stock of symbols invented by previous generations.

I mention the example of Chimpanzee intelligence to make a specific point. Vygotsky rejects the aphorism that “thinking is silent speech”. Intelligence and Language have different roots. Intelligence is there, in however limited a form, even among chimps, and is found among all the peoples of the world in much the same degree and is exercised by young kids before they can talk.

Words on the other hand are social and cultural products which people inherit from past generations — along with techniques and means of production, laws and myths — and use, at first for the most immediate and basic tasks of survival, and later to accomplish new feats.

Development

The history of evolution of animals was the development of more and more complex and elaborate networks of conditioned reflexes until the basis for the higher psychological functions of human beings had been created.

The history of the cultural development of humanity has been the invention of more and more complex tools for mastery of external nature and symbols for mastery of our internal nature, with people becoming more and more dependent on their tools and symbols without which they are powerless, and their mentality becomes more and more taken up with abstractions and symbols and less and less concerned with concrete sensuality.

The history of a child’s growing up begins from utter helplessness and is concerned with becoming skilled in the use of the tools and symbols provided by the adult world for the mastery of their own nature.

Intelligence and Language have different roots. Even before she learns to speak, the young child exercises intelligence; her first words on the other hand — “Gi'mme”, “Mine”, “Mummy” — have nothing to do with intelligence, being more like verbalisations which the child utters quite unconsciously as a kind of enhancement of certain activities.

Initially, a child uses words as tools not symbols for something, but tools which are inseparable from action of which they are a part. A word is not the name of a something for a very young child. “Things” in fact barely exist for the very young child who is not yet aware of themself as a subject standing opposite to an objective world.

As a child develops self-consciousness and begins to become aware of the relation between themself and the objective world, between their actions and their perceptions, words, and for that matter things, are entirely instrumental. They exist only in connection with this or that activity of the child. A word is not so much the name of a thing, but the handle by which she grasps.

Concrete and Abstract Thinking

I would now like to make a very telescoped run through the successive stages which Vygotsky identified in the development of a child’s use of words. This run through will demonstrate that the way a child deals with the world goes through a succession of transformations in which the child totally “re-arms” themself at critical stages in their development.

Vygotsky used the kind of experimental technique I mentioned earlier, posing to a child problems which were too difficult for them to solve and prompting them to use various things to help them. A lot of use was made of sets of geometrical objects of various shapes, sizes, colours and so on and the child’s efforts to organise them into groups and so on.

The first stage in a child’s perception, which is reflected in the way she uses words, is what Piaget called “Syncretism”. If you've been to any of my previous talks on Hegel you'll know immediately what syncretism is about. It’s much like a stream of consciousness, “one damn thing after another”. The child organises things into groups quite subjectively, just as they strike her attention. When shown a “triangle” and asked to point to another “triangle”, it’s the first thing that strikes her eye.

Complexes

The next range of forms Vygotsky observed are called “Complexes”. Gradually the child learns to identify likeness and makes what are called “Chain complexes”. The big red triangle is like the little blue triangle, but then the child links the little blue triangle with the little green disc and then the big black disc and then the big white square ....

The complex is a kind of extended family, and the nanny and the lodger are as much a part of the family as mum and dad at this stage.

The next stage, my brother recently observed in his young daughter. He reported to me that Marissa was forming everything she saw into family groups: “mummy, daddy and baby one”. This is in fact the most common type of grouping in a child’s life-experience: knife, fork and spoon; dress, tee-shirt and panties, and so on. The child makes “family groups” and things are deliberately excluded from the group on the basis of likeness. She wants one of each.

On the basis of the experience of forming these groups the child begins to become aware of the range of properties of things separately from their concrete existence, at first by their distinctness in a group of unlike things. In making this next transformation, she is assisted by the adult use of words. The child’s world is dominated by this adult world and achieving understanding with adults and the way they use words is a survival matter for the child.

The child begins to be able to sort things into groups sharing a common attribute, but at first this is somewhat chaotic and inconsistent, their concept of likeness is often somewhat far-fetched, and she uses the same word to grasp things which to the adult mind are miles apart, like calling the doorbell a “phone” because it rings and the TV a “phone” because it’s a plastic thing that also makes noise. Vygotsky called these words “diffuse complexes”.

The “family” is now coming to be united, not by subjective caprice, but by a common, objective, sensible attribute.

Pseudo-concepts

Gradually, being guided by the adult use of words, the child gets more and more skilled at abstracting properties from the concrete perception of objects and is able to form sets of blue things, sets of round things and so on. Vygotsky calls these “pseudo-concepts”. All the other strands of cognitive psychology of his time held that at this stage in a child’s development she has learnt to use concepts and subsequent development is nothing more than getting better and better at it.

This error is understandable for two reasons. Firstly, the child and the adult do understand each other as they must, because the word is being used to refer to the same concrete things. This does not however mean that the child is thinking the same way as an adult. On the contrary.

The second reason is that while Vygotsky had the advantage of a familiarity with Hegel and Marx, even the pinnacles of philosophy and science in the West held that concepts are nothing more than symbols standing for a set of objects. This position of positivism is still widely held and in fact more or less accurately describes what Vygotsky calls a “pseudo-concept”.

How do you explain to a young child who has learnt to identify “fish” that she is wrong when she refers to a dolphin as a “fish"? The child has learnt that the adult means by a fish all those long slippery things with a tail and two eyes that live in the water, and now ...! In fact, as a concept, “fish” has nothing at all to do with the sensuous attributes of things. “Fish” are united by an ideal called Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (or whatever). Although the adult and the child have been understanding each other, they have been talking about entirely different things.

Concepts

Philosophers like Rudolph Carnap or psychologists like B F Skinner would be with the child on this one: words indicate groups of objects in the real world. But this is not the case. As Hegel, and Pragmatist philosophers like Dewey and Bridgman for example, understood, words are meaningful only within the context of a whole theory of the world and how human beings act within it.

Words actually designate both an ideal and sensuous objects in the real world. It is generally in the course of school education based formal disciplines and the written languages that the modern child makes the transition to thinking in concepts.

The same process was involved in the induction of young adults into the laws, magic, and so on of earlier cultures.

From Childhood to Adolescence

Now just a couple of points: although the child uses, in her own way, the words provided by the adult world and the objects they name from a very early age, it is by no means possible for the child to make the leap straight to the adult way of thinking. That is only possible through a series of transformations which begin with a very childish, ego-centric way of thinking.

While imitation plays a certain role in learning how to deal with the world like an adult, the child is at first quite unable to imitate adult behaviour and has to freely invent solution to problems using the means provided by adults. Doesn’t this confirm our life experience? Each generation has to re-invent itself under the conditions and with means provided by the previous generation.

Thinking and Speaking

Another point: before a child utters their first word they are using their intelligence, but it is a sensori-motor intelligence. The way a child uses words goes through a series of stages. At first words are used unconsciously in securing the assistance of adults, and continue to be used instrumentally as we mentioned above, in the child’s increasingly independent activity with objects.

So, there is pre-verbal intelligence and unconscious speaking. The child who uses words to get what she wants, almost invariably from adults, or with the help of adults, is soon using words as a means of communication with adults and other children. These aids to getting things done the child finds so useful that she continues to use them even when there’s no-one around; the child goes through a phase of “talking to herself” while doing the things that she can now do without adult assistance. She uses words like “handles” to grasp things with.

Eventually, the child realises that words can be used as names of things, and the child uses the words of the adult world to identify the things which populate this world. It is at this point in the child’s development that she wants to know the names of everything and her vocabulary suddenly explodes.

Internalising

The verbalisation dies away to silent speech and eventually even the silent speech dies away and the population of objective things has now been reconstructed in a mental world that the child is able to move around in and manipulate in thought. Learning to read is of course the classic instance of this process of “silent speech”.

Just as the chimp solves problems by internalising his frantic efforts to get to the banana, the child internalises the whole activity that goes along with the ego-centric speech. When the child discovers that words can be used as names for things she is now able to internalise the visual picture of the thing and her own activity with the thing and an idealisation of the thing in the form of its name.

Abstract and Concrete Knowledge

Whereas in her pre-school years her knowledge grows, in a sense from the bottom up, abstracting from her own experience, at school she is introduced to words which denote things that lie entirely outside her experience — far away countries, science and foreign languages — and the task of learning is to acquire a concrete knowledge out of these abstractions, of connecting these abstractions with her concrete experience — from the top down! And this is true of life in the adult world as much as it is in school.

The problem confronting the young person in this stage of their learning is the direct opposite of the problem facing the child: the problem now is to deal with abstractions which lie outside experience, whereas the child had the problem of making abstractions from experience. Thus in order to make this transition the child must leave entirely behind them the concrete world of childish experience, and reconstruct themselves out of abstractions.

Memory: Nature and Technique

I would just like to go over these points from one other angle. Vygotsky made a special investigation of the development of memory. His collaborators would give a child a memorising task which was quite beyond them. The child would then be given a set of cards and invited to use them to help solve the problem. For the very young child these cards were just a distraction and they would invariably perform worse when they tried to use the cards.

Later on, if they were given cards selected by the experimenter to stimulate their recollection, they would get better results.

But if they were then invited to choose a “reminder card” themselves they would exhibit the rather charming behaviour called “magical thinking”. Having seen how useful it is to have a reminder card, they readily choose a card to help them, but they haven’t realised that the card has to have something reminiscent of the thing to be remembered. For example if given a pile of marbles to help remember a series of numbers, they put all the reminders into one big pile, and when it comes to doing the recall they are disappointed to find that their aide memoire has proved quite useless.

Later on still, they get the idea of choosing a good card to remember the particular thing given to them and at a later stage they are able to recall things by means of the most inventive and elaborate associations. That is, they get better and better at using symbols.

Thus it is that by the use of symbols, human beings are able to successfully coordinate their interactions with the external world. By symbols I mean external material objects which have a meaning. By shedding the use of these external aids, and internalising symbol activity, human beings master their internal psychological nature, just as by incorporating material tools into their activity in the world people master their external material nature.

Constructivism and Anthropologism

I liked what Piaget said in his book: Genetic Epistemology: “... it can be helpful to make use of psychological data when we are considering the nature of knowledge. ... it is indispensable. In fact, all epistemologists refer to psychological factors in their analyses, but for the most part their references to psychology are speculative and are not based on psychological research.” And he goes on to demonstrate that the premises of a number of trends in the theory of knowledge are based on what turn out to unsubstantiated speculation, on bad psychology.

It is of course a different thing to reflect on the validity and limits of human knowledge, than to study the social and biological processes through which it actually comes into being in any given human being. But, having taken the time, as we have, to look at some soundly based study of how knowledge is built, I think we have a right to go on to make some broader statements about knowledge in general.

Now ever since I began my study of Hegel a few years ago and started to work with this stuff, I found myself getting into strife with a lot of my old Marxist friends. I started to sound, to them, like I was questioning the existence of the material world. Vygotsky himself had similar problems. In his 1927 Crisis in Psychology he vigorously denounced what he called “Marxist psychology” — a brave move for a scientist in the Stalinist Soviet Union! So I just want to say a word or two about materialism and idealism.

“All that is Rational is Real”

We just looked at how a child develops the ability to use concepts. Does it make sense to say that the thing referred to by a concept is an objectively existing thing? What do we make of old scientific ideas? Before Priestley discovered oxygen, the theory was that when something burnt it released a substance called plogiston; Like the ether of pre-relativistic physics, this phlogiston started to acquire a peculiar set of physical properties to stand up to experimental investigation.

Does oxygen exist? Does phlogiston exist for that matter? What about the four elements? Really, if we see concretely how concepts come about, how they are built by long-drawn out cultural and historical processes and given meaning in the practical life of people, we must observe that a concept is the union of both an ideal component and a sensuously concrete component.

In common parlance oxygen exists and phlogiston doesn’t exist. But what do we mean by that? Well, we have the benefit, such as it is, of a whole vast range of interconnected theory which we call modern natural science; the concept “oxygen” is only meaningful within that theory.

That theory, modern natural science, is in turn meaningful only in connection with a specific range of human activity, of measuring, dissecting, analysing, counting and so on, and the industrial activity from which it is inseparable.

When we say that oxygen exists we mean in the first place that certain activities are valid, that we can make sense of this activity. If I say this table exists, I mean that among other things I can bang my knuckles on it like this (!). And all those other concepts which have been overtaken by modern natural science, were in their day just as meaningful in relation to the cultural practices of their day. Were those cultural practices valid?

That’s another question, decided not by theory or experiment, but by history.

Are oxygen and phlogiston “equal” in that respect then, are they both equally valid? Well, no. We say that phlogiston is not real because it objectively has lost its reality, because people no longer act in accordance with it; to work with phlogiston would be “unreal”. The “reality” of an abstraction like this can be measured in no other way than in terms of human activity. A concept is just as good and just as real as the social relations and activity of which it is a part. When people stop acting with it, it is no longer real.

Modern natural science is as valid as the life we lead with it, no more no less. Did I say that it is only valid because we live by it? No. It’s validity is equal to the validity of our activity with it. If our activity with an abstraction is not valid, if it is irrational, cruel, inhuman and unethical, then that abstraction is not valid. It may be real, for a time, but it is not valid.

So if I reject behaviourism it’s because it is the psychology of control, the psychology that treats other people inhumanly. And the same goes for those theories which are used to develop drugs to coddle people’s minds so they stop causing trouble. Suppose I run into a big ugly looking guy with a stick down a dark alley. My first choice is going to deal with him collaboratively, to work out what are his legitimate needs and let him know my legitimate needs, and try work out how we can both get what we need. But honestly if that doesn’t work out I'll resort to behaviourism — offer him a bribe, threaten him or whatever to try to control his behaviour, and if I had the opportunity I'd give him a shot of laughing gas. If I lived in a world filled with such brutes, I would have to be a behaviourist, I might wish for a world where people worked together, but that would only be a dream, it'd be utopian.

Now I want to make an important point here. It is one thing to say that knowledge is built from the materials provided by a given culture or that the meaning of concepts is relative to the culture within which they operate. However, it is quite another thing to say that people are a product of their culture. This is what we call a theory of culturalisation or what is sometimes called anthropologism. Feuerbach, for instance said “The task of the modern era was the realisation and humanisation of God - the transformation and dissolution of theology into anthropology.” What this means is that the individual is the product of their culture.

Against this view Marx said, in his Third Thesis on Feuerbach that “The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by people and that it is essential to educate the educator themself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice”. That is, anthropologism is the politics of doing good and helping the masses from above, of regarding society as an object.

Marx says: “The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism — that of Feuerbach included — is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism -- which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such.”

People actively build meaning out of the cultural material provided by the society of which they are a part. Everyone has their own way of dealing with the world, of internalising their own activity in the world of perceiving and judging things. But if you create one new concept in a life time you're doing well. Everything we do we do with other people, and the words and concepts and abstractions and rituals we use in the course of this work are social products.

Now, as I said above, theory is meaningful in relation only to specific set of practices, activities. But it is quite possible for people to collaborate with one another, and certainly to live in a modern economy together, without sharing the same theory. But it’s not the same in the Church. If you all belong to the same religion, then you all share the same theory.

But there’s an interesting contradiction here. We have found that thinking has its origins in collaboration, in working together with other people, in overcoming problems together in the world outside. If we can agree on what has to be done it doesn’t matter that we understand what we are doing in different ways. In fact, nowadays it’s difficult to imagine how we could ever get anything done at all, if we all had to agree on theory before we took the next step.

But isn’t that activity together the basis for our thinking? If we are all out there collaborating, using the socially produced symbols and tools, and if for example we were all pursuing a common goal — I don’t think it’s the same if we are all pursuing our own personal goals — if we have to use words in such a way that we manage to communicate with one another as we go through the same activity together, surely this is a basis for coming to share the same ideals and if not the same theory?

Theories of Psychology

Now we mentioned above how behaviourism fits into this picture, as a theory of psychology which supports a particular way of working with other people, namely trying to control the behaviour of other people. The old carrot and stick psychology is pretty deeply embedded in a our social system, isn’t it? “Give me a bowl of pasta and I'll give you ten bucks”.

There is a cybernetic theory of learning: about people “processing data”, about communication, sending signals, “decoding” messages and so on. The cybernetic theory of knowledge is linked to some kind of decision theory, according to which people make rational decisions about what do according to information received. Unsurprisingly, this is a favourite theory of those who earn their living as collectors and distributors of information. It is also a favourite among those who collect and distribute value, in the finance industry, as well as the media, higher education, politics and so on.

The various biologically based theories of psychology, of genetic determinism and biochemical determinism, are based on practices of medical production and intervention. They treat people like bits of meat really. Which we are, sometimes, when we're really dysfunctional!

Vygotsky school is based on collaborative problem solving. Co-laboration, working together. It began in the early days of the Soviet Union, with people treating each other with respect and struggling to overcome the enormous social problems of the young workers’ republic, working together.

I just want to make a few points which I think are the limitations of Cultural Historical Activity Theory, the Vygotsky School, as it has come down to us historically.

Limitations of the approach

I think it has to be said that the Vygotsky School, which started off with a very advanced understanding of Marxism, suffered for its existence within a bureaucratised workers’ state, that it was to a great extent uncritical of its own society, though it had little choice in that, and that the whole instrumental attitude towards Nature and uncritical industrialism has limited its development.

Personality and Culture

So the Vygotsky School was based on collaboration. But anyone who has worked in organisations — worked in a collaborative way that is, rather than pursuing a personal agenda, or just to earn a living or trying to control the activity of others — will be aware of a very important element in this process: I will call it individual difference for the moment, teachers talk about students’ “preferred modes of learning”, organisers often talk about people preferring this or that role in organisations; managers often talk about roles as well, in the context of work-teams.

Personality and Play

Now, there are a lot of theories of personality type, not all of them of equal merit. In general theories of personality from Astrology onwards, hinge around some range of Archetypes. It was Jung, a contemporary of Vygotsky, who developed the theory of Archetypes, and Isabel Briggs Myer who gave the Jungian archetypes a systematic and practical elaboration. My own view is that the Vygotsky School’s approach to play — how children develop their own way of dealing with the world, honing their sensorimotor and social skills and their imagination, learning how to suspend disbelief — that there is an opportunity to develop a scientific approach to understanding personality, of understanding the basis for these archetypes and their development in the course of play.

Anyone who builds an organisation has to know about this stuff, you have to know about your own personality and you have to know about individual preference, about the kind of difficulty so-and-so is going to have being Treasurer and so-and-so is going to have being facilitator, of the important contribution so-and-so is making even though he never speaks, about the important role of so-and-so who always sees the difficulties and pitfalls ahead but never sees the big picture, and so on and so on. The most important skill an organiser needs is consciousness of their own personal preferences, without which disaster is almost inevitable.

Now I think that Activity Theory is an excellent basis for placing a theory of personality type like Briggs-Myer on a sound, ethical footing. But in my experience, this just hasn’t happened, and real experimental and theoretical work is needed to do it.

Vygotsky School psychology as it exists today seems to completely miss individual difference, personality type, and that is a big problem.

Defending a Theory

Isolated within the Soviet Union and struggling to exist even there at all, the School which began with people collaborating and struggling to solve problems of building socialism, turned into a group of people defending a common theory. A very good body of theory, worthy of defending, but once a group of people is formed around defending a common theory, we have problems.

Vygotsky and his collaborators drew concepts and insights from the most diverse sources. While criticising the work of Piaget, Buhler, Köhler, Freud, Adler, Pavlov and so on and so on, they freely incorporated insights from these other schools, to help them overcoming the enormous problems they faced.

Also, any practice which gets caught up in academia, so that it becomes a body of theory which relates to the world outside academia as an object is in dire trouble, and although it would be wrong to exaggerate this observation, the Vygotsky School has to some extent become victim of this. In the 1920s and 30s it was an active participant in building the revolution; nowadays it has a tendency to study social struggle from the outside. Until Activity theorists become active participants in the struggle to discover how people can live and sruggl eto make that change, the theory is in trouble.

Money and Psychology

Now, the ideas we have been discussing have a clear lineage in the social philosophy of Hegel, but not really just Hegel, more Hegel via Marx. And it is in Marx’s early works like the 1844 Manuscripts that you'll find these ideas worked out in some detail, as well as in the references to language in the German Ideology. It is very clear, say in Vygotsky’s article The Socialist Alteration of Man that Vygotsky saw the replacement of capitalism with the collaborative working relations of socialist society as the key to the creation of a “new and higher type of human being”. But there is no detailed critique in his work of the role of money in the formation of the psyche.

While we find stuff about how adolescents learn to understand concepts like class struggle and state, we find nothing about how the class struggle and the state figure in the formation of the psychology of a people.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the difficulties confronting a Soviet scientist in talking about such highly political issues as this. When their work was translated into English and introduced to the West through Finland and the U.S., this same blindness to the role of the most important social institutions in the construction of knowledge and mentality was carried over, but now not in the context of an isolated and degenerated workers’ state, but in the capitalist world.

Now it is important to realise that when we internalise our activity with external objects which are acting as socially defined symbols, we internalise not just an image of the symbol itself, but the whole structure of relationships and transformations which are built into the symbolic world.

In working with numbers, we get the feel for quantity, and if we work with base-ten numbers the whole structure of ten-ness in incorporated in that. Working with money, with symbols of quantitative value is fundamental to the whole conception of abstract measure as well as value and worth in the economic sense. Just as everything that exists in the world today is what it is very much as the result of organising the social division of labour around money, our internal world — both from an ethical point of view and from a cognitive point of view — is formed around the relations inherent in the money relation.

Now the Cultural Historical Activity Theory is very well placed to help us shed light on this problem, but really there has been nothing done on this at all. Some work around how kids learn about money and some work around perceptions of social value and worth and some stuff about learning mathematics, but really, to me, nothing, and that work needs to be done.

Psychology & Social Change

So why all this interest in psychology? Is Andy saying that we need to change everyone’s minds so that they'll be better people? That the key to social change is psychology? No, that’s not what I'm saying. But you can’t have a real change without the spiritual aspect being there, can you? You're not going to have a revolution with people who don’t believe in anything, you're not going to build socialism with people who don’t know the meaning of solidarity and care more about their superannuation than youth suicide. We have to have a meeting of minds. I think that what we have looked at here helps a lot in understanding the relation between the kind of people we are, how we think and how we change, and our life in the world with other people.

I'm going to leave that discussion for later. Let me just refer to one point, because it’s the question we put forward in the publicity for this seminar: how is it possible that in a world where our activity is more interconnected and integrated with everybody else’s, on a world-wide scale, that at exactly the same time, inseparably from the growth of this global village situation, we have ever more fragmentation?

So long as we all share a common ideal, then we have no need of controlling each other’s behaviour.

But what if our shared ideal is money, a quantity, and a material thing outside of us, something capable of being someone’s property.

The resulting society will eventually replace all social relations with the relation of buyer to seller, of service provider to customer.

I am free of dependence upon any specific person, but I am enslaved to money.

Every person can be an object for every other, and no-one is a subject for anyone. The more and more ubiquitous becomes the cash nexus, inserting itself into every human relation, the more we are freed from our relation to any specific person, but the more and more we are bound into one single division of labour.

The more we are freed from specific oppression we are enslaved to generalised oppression.

The more we are equal before the law, the more we are unequal in fact.

The more our consciousness is freed from all mythology, tradition and prejudice, the more we are enslaved to one inhuman fiction.

But I don’t want to say any more about that just now, because that is going to be the subject of Anitra’s talk.


1. Since delivering this talk, I have become aware that Vygotsky's ideas were being taught in Australian Universities in the 1960s, and French thinkers had contact with the Vygotsky School as long ago as the 1930s. In addition, John Joseph of the University of Edinburgh writes:

Jacob Serge Kasanin (1895-1946) and Eugenia Hanfmann (1905-1983), who went to Russia to visit Vygotsky's lab in 1930, did a great deal to publicise and even publish the work of Vygotsky et al. in the big psychology and psychiatry journals in the 1930s-40s. Vygotsky's article Thought in Schizophrenia, written at Kasanin's request and translated into English by him, appeared in the American Medical Association's journal Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry vol. 31 in 1934. Another paper by Vygotsky, Thought and Speech Psychiatry, translated by Hanfmann, Kasanin and Helen Kogan, appeared in the Journal of the Biology and Pathology of Interpersonal Relations vol. 2 in 1939. Besides the numerous articles Kasanin and Hanfmann published on the Vygotsky-Luria-Leontiev approach, they produced their own Americanised version of the Vygotsky test in 1942. Also, in 1939 Kasanin organised a session on Language and Thought in Schizophrenia at the meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, the collected papers from which were published in 1944 by University of California Press and received wide circulation in at least the English-speaking world. Vygotsky's work features prominently in them.

Clearly, I have exaggerated the limitations of knowledge of the Vygotsky School in the West prior to the 1980s.