Andy Blunden July 2011

Concepts in Vygotsky’s Cultural Psychology.

The Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) was convinced from his observations of infants and children that perception begins its development in the new-born or infant from an initial awareness of an undifferentiated whole, the child then gradually becoming aware of a more and more differentiated whole, eventually learning to pick out individual objects. But the psychologists of his time, just like the cognitive psychologists of today and the entire tradition of analytical philosophy since Kant, had a ‘bottom-up’ notion of perception. They held that perception must begin from a disorganised confusion of individual stimuli, gradually joining the ‘pixels’ together to build up images of individual objects and thus, the relation between them, with the child able to perceive an entire situation only at the end of the development.

A well-known experiment was used to validate this conception which is widely held in analytical science. W. Stern proposed a four-stage schema (object, quality, relation, action) for the development of perception based on the experiment. A child is shown a painting and asked to tell the researcher what they see. The child is at first able to name separate objects and only much later able to describe what is happening and thus finally the situation depicted in the painting. Vygotsky cited the experiments of H. Volkelt and W. Eliasberg (LSVCW v. 5:86) which demonstrated the opposite. When asked to describe the painting in words, children who could only name separate objects, if asked to act out what the painting depicted were able to perform a representation of the entire situation accurately. So what psychologists were testing was not the child’s perception, but their ability to bring their perception into conscious awareness and then translate it into words and articulate the words in answer to a question from a stranger – quite a different matter. And most of the works of cognitive psychology on concepts fall down on precisely this ground. Asking people to answer a questionnaire tests their written-language skills perhaps, but tells us only about one possible realisation of a concept in the laboratory, not the concept itself.

Nonetheless, the prejudice that perception can only occur by the joining together of arbitrarily small chunks or pixels remains deeply embedded in analytical philosophy. The great German poet and naturalist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was the first to challenge this prejudice, and his ideas were the inspiration for Gestalt Psychology as well as for Hegel’s philosophy and lie at the root of much of the discoveries of the American Pragmatists. It seems that the analytical prejudice is not just a mistaken theory of perception, but a deeply-ingrained conviction about the nature of reality itself, as if a musical note was perceived by mentally tracking air pressure up and down 1,000 times a second and computing the dominant frequency! The decisive break of psychology from this analytical tunnel vision essentially came from outside psychology. Vygotsky was a young student of aesthetics who had been won to Marxism by the Russian Revolution and, moved by the plight of children orphaned by the Wars of Intervention, became a teacher and psychologist. He made his first public intervention in 1924.

Lev Semenovich Vygotsky was raised in Gomel, within the Jewish Pale in Tsarist Russia. He was a brilliant student, reading avidly in history and philosophy, and running a reading group amongst his school friends around issues of Jewish history (Levitin 2011). His reading evidently also included the writings of the founder of Russian Marxism, Georgi Plekhanov. Being a Jew, even as a ‘gold medal’ student, he was lucky to be admitted to university in Moscow to study law in 1913.

During his time in Moscow, Vygotsky was involved in ideological struggles within the domain of aesthetics, theatre and literary criticism, in which Symbolists and Formalists did battle with Futurists and Constructivists. Deeply engaged with problems of hermeneutics and semiotics as they were being fought out on the European stage, this was a formative period in his intellectual life, and culminated in the writing of “The Psychology of Art.”

Graduating in 1917, and after taking a course in psychology and philosophy at the People’s University of Shanyavsky, he returned to Gomel to teach literature and psychology at the school there. He also conducted classes at a drama studio and delivered lectures on literature and science. In the wake of the Revolution, he organised a psychology laboratory at the Gomel Teacher’s College where he participated in the preparation of a new generation of teachers. He also wrote a manual for teachers called “Educational Psychology,” a somewhat eclectic overview of the main issues and approaches to the subject at the time.

Coming from the highly politicised pre-Revolutionary struggles over aesthetics, and the real problems of education in a country shattered by war and revolution, and inspired by the prospect of creating ‘Socialist Man’ in the Soviet Union, Vygotsky wanted a psychology which was up to its subject matter: the actual life of human beings, not just laboratory reactions. With early training in hermeneutics, phenomenology, linguistics, drama theory and literary criticism, rather than physiology and dog training, he approached the various currents of psychology he found around him in Russia critically. Vygotsky took an active interest in the whole sweep of science and culture, and appropriated what he needed to build a cultural psychology from wherever he found it. This approach was not well understood in that period in the Soviet Union, in which all the sciences and professions were highly politicised, Marxist orthodoxy was valued, and every theory associated with the bourgeois world was anathema. This made it difficult for people to understand Vygotsky; he could not be pigeon-holed.

The Soviet Union in the early 1920s was a cauldron of creativity, but the physical and intellectual conditions were desperately inadequate. The entire resources of the country which had not been destroyed were mobilised in a highly charged ideological atmosphere. Nothing was impossible or out of bounds. History was being made everywhere.

Early in 1925, Vygotsky set up an Institute for Defectology, i.e., for the treatment and education of children with all kinds of disability, in his home town of Gomel, and along with Alexander Luria became a student of medicine, side-by-side with teaching and research. This was soon interrupted however by a serious bout of tuberculosis, the illness which dogged Vygotsky’s life and would ultimately take it from him.

On his return to activity, he began to work his way through all the current theories: Freud, Piaget, Adler, Koffka, James, ... critiquing them and appropriating the insights each had to offer. But political conditions were deteriorating. In 1931, the regime restored the pre-revolutionary curriculum in schools and new ideas were not welcome. Vygotsky worked prodigiously, as if in a hurry, and in the early 1930s gave lectures (transcribed by his students) and wrote the manuscripts in which his scientific legacy, the foundations of cultural psychology, were set down. The main works are “Thinking and Speech,” “The Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology,” “Lectures on Psychology,” “History of the Development of the Higher Mental Functions,” “Problems of Child Psychology,” “Tool and Sign in the Development of the Child,” and “The Teaching about Emotions.” The Institute for Defectology in Gomel provided a refuge for Vygotsky’s students to continue their work as the political pressure continued to mount.

Vygotsky was overtaken by a final bout of tuberculosis and died in 1934. During the following 12 months, some of Vygotsky’s works were published, but political conditions rapidly darkened as the Moscow Trials got under way. Stalin had almost the entire leadership of the Soviet state, the Army and the Party denounced as saboteurs and shot. Terror penetrated every profession, every workplace, every family. Vygotsky’s works were suppressed and could not even be discussed within professional circles until after Stalin’s death in 1953, and remained unknown in the West until 1962.

The dominant current of psychology at the time in both Russia and the U.S. was not the study of the psyche at all, but rather behaviourism. As J. B. Watson put it:

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).

Throughout the twentieth century several varieties of Behaviourism operated in Russia, with founding figures of the status of Pavlov, Bekhterev and Sechenov. At the time Vygotsky entered psychology, the dominant current was Reflexology which took the stimulus-response link, whether conditional or unconditional, as the basic unit of the nervous system: everything was a reflex. Vygotsky demonstrated that Reflexology was able to make only the most banal findings from its research while the actual life of human beings lay beyond its horizons.

On the other side, opposed to Behaviourism, was ‘subjective psychology’, that is, reliance on a subject’s introspection to observe their own consciousness, an insight available only to the subject themself and made available to the researcher through questioning. Subjective psychology, chiefly represented by Wilhelm Wundt’s Experimental Psychology, was rich in content, but scant in scientific credentials. In the atmosphere of post-revolutionary Russia, it was more or less dismissed as idealist and bourgeois. Vygotsky had studied under Gustav Shpet, the Russian proponent of Husserl’s Phenomenology, which took consciousness as apprehended by introspection as its subject matter, with the aim of creating an exact science of the forms of introspective consciousness. The problem is that, as Fichte had demonstrated more than a century earlier in philosophical terms, and Freud had demonstrated clinically, people are not generally aware of their own consciousness, and certainly not reliably so. The Freudian slip is evidence of what Freud called the Unconscious, which is inaccessible to introspection. Anyone who has practised music, acting, driving or other performance skills knows that as soon as we attempt to make our own thinking the object of attention, we lose the very object we wished to study. The fact is, we cannot know our own mind. Vygotsky concluded that what is studied in Phenomenology is appearance, not reality (LSVCW v. 3: 325), and therefore he had to agree with the behaviourists to the extent that introspection could not be the basis of a science (though this did not prevent Vygotsky from utilising the methods of Phenomenology from time to time).

On the other hand, it was perfectly obvious that consciousness formed an essential component of human life and no science of human behaviour was possible without including a concept of consciousness as the proximate cause of behaviour. Vygotsky defined consciousness as that which mediates between physiology and behaviour. “It does not exist in reality, but results from two non-coincidences of two really existing processes ... The subjective is appearance and therefore it does not exist” (ibid.). Science can only base itself on what exists: behaviour and physiology. Vygotsky therefore agreed with the American Pragmatists, that ideas could be imputed from the human actions, in which they were implicit. On the other hand, the physiology underlying consciousness could shed further light on the means by which consciousness was realised, but in his lifetime, little progress had been made along these lines. Neither physiology nor the study of behaviour could give us unmediated access to consciousness as such, but this was after all no different to the task of the historian, the physicist, the geologist, who must reconstruct the object of their science from the empirical traces given to the senses and their instruments.

In fact, the behaviourists were already using consciousness in their experiments: “Did you feel that? Tell me when you see two images,” etc., etc. Not only were the behaviourists relying on the subjects’ speech in reporting their reactions, and also their own speech in directing the subjects’ behaviour: “Would you please sit down,” but they were excluding subjects’ speech (as a mode of behaviour) and their own speech (as a mode of social interaction) from being taken as part of the experimental data. The normal human condition, in which all the phenomena of consciousness are manifested, is social. But the behaviourists set out, in the name of science, to exclude social interaction from their experiments, and not only did they generally fail to isolate their subjects from their source of motivation in everyday life, but they excluded the subjects’ social interaction with the researcher from the experimental data.

So Vygotsky concluded that it was both necessary and possible to create a science of consciousness, and that the method of studying consciousness would be the observation of behaviour, including interactions with the researcher and with artefacts belonging to the wider culture. Only in this way could the normal interactions with other people and using language and so forth, the normal conditions under which consciousness is manifested, be reproduced in a controlled situation. From these observations, the processes of consciousness could be reconstructed.

Vygotsky concentrated on the development of children on the basis that it was only possible to understand a phenomenon to the extent that you understood it as a process of coming-into-being, rather than being limited to observation of the finished product of development. The evolutionary and historical processes of the formation of human behaviour, were simply not available for observation, but child development and rehabilitation of people suffering from various processes of disintegration of the psyche, provided the opportunity to study the mind as a process of formation. Further, in order to be able to observe the development of psychological processes in children, it was never sufficient to passively observe them. It was necessary to actively intervene in a child’s development and assist them in completing tasks that they were as yet unable to accomplish. On the other hand, the study of people suffering from psychological or neurological illness or trauma, and the rehabilitation of such subjects, gave psychologists the opportunity to study psychological processes, not only in their process of formation, but also in their process of disintegration.

With this introduction to Vygotsky and his method of work, let us move now directly to his investigation of concepts.


Vygotsky does tell us what a concept is, but he hardly puts it in bold type. In fact, most people who have read “Thinking and Speech” attentively will still be none the wiser on that score at the end of the book. Since Vygotsky’s answer is also somewhat challenging, we should postpone looking at what he says a concept is, and for the moment just follow his thinking, having in mind for ‘concept’ just what we usually have in mind when we say ‘concept’. But with one qualification.

Vygotsky distinguishes between concepts (in general) and ‘true’ concepts. He also talks about ‘everyday concepts’ or ‘spontaneous concepts’ in contrast to ‘scientific concepts’. He is adamant that true concepts do not enter a person’s thinking at least until adolescence. Before this time, the child uses thought processes which provide the basis for thinking in concepts, but which are not yet concepts. “At any stage of its development, the concept is an act of generalisation” (LSVCW v.1: 70) but it takes a decade or two for a young person to attain the kind of generalisation which adults use. Most of Vygotsky’s writing actually concerns concepts which are not yet true concepts. ‘Concept’ may cover anything from the earliest form of generalisation that a child uses as they interact with their environment up to a true concept; all are referred to as ‘concepts’. Thus, as Goethe had remarked, the same word is used for both the process and the final product.

A ‘true’ concept is a socially fixed and transmitted solution to some problem which has arisen in social practice in the past, not a bundle of attributes or features associated with some object. Such a bundle of attributes Vygotsky calls a ‘pseudoconcept’ and it is the kind of generalisation children acquire until they begin to go out into the world and become involved in the problems of social life and a profession. Children can use a word as the sign for a pseudoconcept to indicate the same object as an adult indicates using the same word as the sign for a true concept. This means that adults and children can effectively communicate with one another, except that from time to time it comes out that a child does not fully understand some concept or other, but both adult and child know what each other are talking about.

Concepts which are not yet concepts Vygotsky calls ‘complexes’, and the type of thinking facilitated by use of complexes he calls ‘complexive’ thinking. There are a number of distinct stages and lines of development of complexive thinking which children must go through before they are able to use true concepts. I will outline these at length below, tracing Vygotsky’s analysis of the development of complexive thinking.

The ‘Double Stimulation’ Experiment

There are two sources of information which Vygotsky draws on in this work. On the one hand, he draws on his own observation of infants and children and the reports of others, and on the other hand, a famous experiment he adapted to this purpose, known as the ‘functional method of double stimulation for the study of concept formation’. The ‘double stimulation’ experiment allowed him to reproduce in a controlled laboratory setting, the kind of thinking and problem-solving which can be observed in the real life behaviour of children. This allowed Vygotsky to verify in a controlled, repeatable experimental setting the observations he made about the development of the real thinking of human beings in their normal, social environment. This experiment has been reproduced both in 1942 by E. Hanfmann and J. Kasanin and by P. Towsey and C. Macdonald (2009). In both cases, Vygotsky’s observations were verified in very different circumstances and times.

Today’s Psychology of Concepts has produced a confusing array of contradictory claims and counterclaims as to what a concept is. Is a concept a dictionary definition, a visual image, an ideal type, a link on a network of associations, a list of features, a metaphor or what? By contrast, Vygotsky traced the development of a child’s ability to grasp the situations she finds in her environment, and as this ability develops, make generalisations which pass through a series of different modes of action from infancy to adulthood. In this way, there is some prospect of making sense of the seemingly contradictory results of the investigations and claims of contemporary psychology.

Vygotsky collaborated in 1927 with a young colleague, Leonid Sakharov, in adapting the double stimulation’ experiment from one devised in 1921 by Narziß Kaspar Ach of the Würzburg School. Now Ach, and it seems Sakharov as well, took a ‘concept’ to be synonymous with a bundle of features, just as today’s cognitive psychologists and analytical philosophers do. This has led to some confusion because Sakharov’s very well-known description of the experiment and indeed the very nature of Ach’s experiment itself, seems to take this for granted. The basic idea of Ach’s experiment is that the subject is asked to use a word to pick out a group of blocks sharing common features with each other but not other blocks, and thereby demonstrate that they have formed a concept of a certain type of block, e.g. the large-green blocks or the round-red blocks. The experiment allowed for no other action by the subjects and apart from the mistakes they made, and the verbalisations they uttered in response to their results, no other kind of action connected to concept formation was observable in this set up. As will be seen, Sakharov’s modification of the experiment required the child to freely create groupings of the blocks to solve a puzzle, rather than, as Ach had required, simply observing and memorising a grouping made by the researcher, and this provided a much richer experimental process. But nonetheless, the experiment to some extent has built into it the kind of result which could be expected, namely grouping blocks according to their contingent attributes. In the light of broader experience with children’s concept formation, this limitation of the experimental design turns out to have some justification for use with children, but we will have to return to this problem later. For the moment, we will take all such ‘concepts’ formed in the course of the experiment to be ‘artificial concepts’ since they are to be found only within the laboratory under artificial conditions and are not to be found in real life situations.

Ach used 48 blocks, each block with a unique combination of geometric shape, size, weight and colour: 4 colours, 3 shapes, 2 sizes and 2 weights. Each of the blocks was labelled with one of 4 nonsense words. The words corresponded to a unique combination of just two of the four possible type of feature.

Ach’s aim had been to observe the formation of concepts from scratch under laboratory conditions, using mainly adults, but also some children. The subjects were given a period of training in which they had an opportunity to learn the nonsense word attached to each block (corresponding in fact to a specific combination of the block’s features). Then a grouping of blocks was shown to the subject and the subject asked to recall the nonsense word shared by all the blocks in the given grouping. The subject’s mistakes and their explanation were recorded, along with the number of periods of training and searching required to correctly solve the puzzle.

Ach’s methodology had been based firstly on recognition that concepts could not be understood by simply observing the finished product, but on the contrary, it was necessary to observe the formation of a concept. Consequently, it was necessary to create an experimental set-up in which a concept could be formulated by a subject for the first time, and therefore the concept had to be entirely artificial. Secondly, he wanted to study how a word took on the significance of indicating a specific combination of features or ‘concept’, so it would be necessary to use nonsense words given an artificial meaning, but which would initially have no meaning for the subject. Thirdly, the subject must be motivated to solve some kind of task, rather than relying on the false assumption that a concept could be formed and a word could acquire significance simply by repeated passive exposure and association. Thus the experimental set-up was designed so that it would be possible for the subject, by paying attention to which blocks had which name, to work out the meaning of the nonsense word, and use the newly-acquired word meaning to solve the puzzle and correctly name a group of unlabelled blocks.

Sakharov and Vygotsky found that this methodology did not fully demonstrate the processes that they were interested in, and modified Ach’s procedure in favour of the following procedure. (A full description of Ach’s experiment and a number of its predecessors, and Sakharov’s criticisms are given in Sakharov (1928). Here I am bringing out only the points which are essential for our theme.)

The blocks are laid out in a higgledy-piggledy fashion, and the child told that these are the toys of children of a foreign land. One of the blocks is shown to the child, and the name underneath read out (say gur) telling the child that this is the name given to this toy in the foreign land, and would the child like to see if they can pick out which of the other blocks are gur. The child then picks out a group of blocks that they think are also gur; after each such attempt, the experimenter turns over either one of the selected blocks which is not gur or one of the discarded blocks which is gur, thus revealing the child’s mistake. Thus the words used to name the various categories of block are revealed to the child only gradually. The child’s first guess is made without any help from the names whatsoever, and the experimenter is able to see how the child spontaneously groups the blocks in an ‘uneducated guess’. As the experiment progresses, the experimenter is able to see how the child makes use of the names given to the blocks to improve her guesses. For use with very small children arbitrary coloured shapes were used instead of words.

This allows the researchers to see how the child’s spontaneous grouping of the objects of the adult world is modified by the use of symbols provided from the adult world. The child is confronted with a problem which is actually impossible for them to solve, though they make guesses according to however they make sense of what is presented to them. The word is offered as a means of solving the puzzle with which the child is already engaged. The way the child organises the blocks into categories using the word realises the process of concept formation by means of the word. The method is called ‘double stimulation’ because it follows a model Vygotsky used to investigate a number of psychological functions. The subject is confronted with a task which they cannot solve (the object stimulus); they are then offered a cue, such as an aide mémoire (the sign stimulus), which they can use to help them in solving the task. In learning to use the sign stimulus, the child forms a ‘higher psychological function’ in order to solve problems which their existing psychological functions cannot solve. An example would be remembering with an aide mémoire, rather than having to rely simply on biological memory. This is a general model of the cultural formation of the mind. A sign from the surrounding culture is incorporated into a child’s problem-solving, utilising existing psychological functions in a new combination which is both more powerful and more under the control of the subject themself as well as being adapted to the culture into which they are growing up.

So the ‘double stimulation’ experiment allows us to observe how a child groups blocks according to the blocks’ attributes, and then modifies their categorisation by the use of the new word. I will review the results of this experiment by following the development of concepts in two parallel lines. On the one hand, I will follow observations of the behaviour of children as they grow up in their normal cultural environment, tracing the normal development of concepts in real life. On the other hand, I will follow the successive grades of concept recreated in the double stimulation experiment.


At first, the child, an infant, is quite unable to abstract from the visual image of the blocks any of the attributes or features, and nor would they be able to make any use of the signs which have been offered to them as a means of solving the problem.

During the first year of life, a child will be quite unable to use the sign-stimulus, will not understand the directions from the experimenter and can relate to the objects only haphazardly. It is really senseless to talk of concepts at all at this stage of development. The child is in the process of developing their strength and energy and control of their own body, establishing social connections with those around them, and relates to objects in the world only via the mediating action of other people. They do not clearly differentiate the limits of their own body or between engaging an adult for help and direct action on an object itself. But during the crisis of development which the child experiences around one year of age, when the child first begins to try to talk, then we have the first beginnings of the development of concepts. This crisis happens generally around the same time as the child makes its first clumsy efforts to walk, but the significant point is that embryonic concepts appear only at the same time as embryonic words make their appearance. (See LSVCW, v. 5: 207-241)

Nonetheless, there will be those people who insist that an infant does have concepts, such as a concept of their mother, as evidenced by the infant’s response to its mother’s presence, reaching for her breast and so on. For that matter, there are some who will insist that the fox has a concept of chicken and the chicken a concept of fox. This raises again the question of what is meant by ‘concept’. Is it just a question of having a word for something? Clearly not, for I will show presently that, for Vygotsky, being able to name an object is not evidence of having a concept of it, at least not of a true concept. But nor is concept-use just a question of behaving appropriately in response to an object or situation, something machines and lower animals do well. A concept is a specific form of mediated activity in which the person distances themself from the situation, as opposed to an immediate relation of an individual to their environment: a concept stands between the subject and the object.

A concept is a mediated relationship of a person to their environment in which a word, acting as a sign for a problem or solution encountered by the community in the past, is used to organise the individual’s actions, but which necessarily also includes immediate sensorimotor interactions with the environment. It is this relationship to one’s own activity which is both culturally mediated and immediate, which is essential to concepts. But a simpler form of action which lies on a line of development leading to true concepts, may be described as a concept, in that most general sense. Infants and animals do not in general use signs to organise their activity, and insofar as animals do use signs, this behaviour cannot be further developed into conceptual thought properly so called.

But the activity of an infant only develops into conceptual thinking in this most general sense after the child has passed through a crisis which puts the child’s activity on to an entirely different basis. In not fully differentiating themself from the objective world, in not fully differentiating the objects in the world from the adults who help them with those objects, their psychological relationship to the world and their activity in the world is immediate and not mediated. In so far as their relationship to the world is mediated (for example through sensorimotor activity itself) the mediating element is their own body – grasping, crying, sucking and so on. In such a condition a child is not able to develop concepts at all. Indeed, in their first efforts at using words, they completely fail, but, as the saying goes, in order to swim one must get into the water, and once the child throws themself into speech, they begin to learn and the most embryonic phenomena of conceptual thinking can be said to have come into being.

Syncretic Concepts

When the child begins to vocalise and tries to make words, they are not at first able to form the words of the adult language and instead utter words like poo-poo and ba-ba and so on. At this very first stage it is not possible for adult carers to make any sense of what the child is trying to say. This is the beginning of what is called ‘autonomous speech’ (LSVCW v. 5:249). When a very young child attempts to respond to the researcher’s urging to find all the gur, the result is that the child simply collects blocks at random, just whatever next strikes the child’s eye. The following excerpt appears in the context of a presentation of the ‘double stimulation’ experiment with very young children.

The first stage in the formation of concepts is most frequently manifested in the behavior of young children. Faced with a task that an adult would generally solve through the formation of a new concept, the child forms an unordered and unformed collection. He isolates an unordered heap of objects. The child’s isolation of these objects, objects that are unified without sufficient internal foundation and without sufficient internal kinship or relationships, presupposes a diffuse, undirected extension of word meaning (or of the sign that substitutes for the meaning of the word) to a series of elements that are externally connected in the impression they have had on the child but not unified internally among themselves.

At this stage of development, word meaning is an incompletely defined, unformed, syncretic coupling of separate objects, objects that are in one way or another combined in a single fused image in the child’s representation and perception. A decisive role is played in the formation of this image by the syncretism of the child’s perception and action. This image is, therefore, extremely unstable (LSVCW v 1: 134).

These are the kinds of concepts which I referred to in the introduction as syncretic concepts, that is, concepts which are not so much formed by the subject themselves, but which simply happen by, one after another, as if watching the countryside from the window of a moving train. This form of concept is also called a ‘heap’.

In the second phase of development of syncretic concepts, the spatial relationship between the blocks gathered into a heap comes forward as the determining feature.

Once again, the purely syncretic laws that govern the perception of the visual field and the organization of the child’s perception are critical. The syncretic image or heap of objects may be formed on the basis of the spatial or temporal encounter of isolated elements, the direct contact among these elements, or some more complex relationship arising among them in the direct process of perception. The factor that continues to be basic to this period is the fact that the child is guided not by the objective connections present in the things themselves, but by the subjective connections that are given in his own perception. Objects are brought together in a single series and subordinated to a common meaning not on the basis of general features that are inherent to them and that have been isolated by the child but on the basis of a kind of kinship that has been established between them by the child’s impressions (LSVCW v 1:135).

In the third phase of this earliest stage of concept formation, the child’s entirely unstable and unconscious behaviour is unified and given some stability by the child bringing all the blocks together in a heap and giving them their name. The category of “these ones here” is at least a step towards some kind of stability, albeit entirely subjective. These syncretic concepts are the first major stage of concept formation, in Vygotsky’s classification scheme. The last major stage is true concepts. The majority of Vygotsky’s writing on concept development concerns the main stage in between syncretic concepts and true concepts, which Vygotsky calls ‘complexes’.

It might be noted as an aside that the concepts formed in the first major stage (Syncretism) correspond well to Hegel’s concept of Being, whilst ‘true concepts’ correspond to the third Book of the Logic, The Concept. The intervening stage, complexes, belongs to what Hegel calls Essence, the genesis of the Concept. Vygotsky makes no reference anywhere in those of his writings which have been translated into English to the structure of the Logic, though he had closely studied Lenin’s Annotations on Hegel’s Logic. If he was aware of this relationship, he never said so.


According to Vygotsky, the first phase of complexive thinking also emerges in this crisis period of the child’s development. Complexes go through a process of development, in which Vygotsky identifies five different types, which do not neatly fall into phases because two parallel processes of development are at work: analysis and synthesis, and two unifying factors: function and similarity. The child must both abstract attributes of the blocks from the concrete perceptual field (analysis), and at the same time, the child must group different blocks together in collections (synthesis); and the child may do so on the basis of either functional connections between objects or sensory likeness. Also, at the beginning of the process of development, the complexes are entirely concrete groupings. The concept is fixed as a concrete image of just these blocks or something resembling them. By the end of the process, the child has acquired a thought form which is fully abstracted from the perceptual field and is in that sense a preconcept. But I shall outline the phases of development of complexive thinking, with the caveat, that the sequence is not stable because of the possibility of uneven development of analysis and synthesis, function and similarity.

One type of complex is called the Chain complex, and according to Vygotsky, the first to describe this behaviour was Charles Darwin, who observes his own grandson using ‘words’ for the first time.

[Charles Darwin] noticed that before going on to the speaking period, the child spoke an original language. The originality consisted of the fact that, first, the sound composition of the words used by the child differed sharply from the sound composition of our words. In its motor aspects, that is, from articulation and phonetic aspects, that speech did not coincide with our speech. ... The second difference, more essential and more important, to which Darwin called attention, is that the words of autonomous speech differ from our words in meaning also. ... Once, on seeing a duck swimming in a pond, his grandson, whether imitating its sounds or what the adults called it, began to call it ‘ooah’. These sounds were pronounced by the child when he was at a pond and saw a duck swimming in the water. Then the boy began to use the same sounds for milk spilled on the table, for any liquid, wine in a glass, even milk in a bottle, obviously transferring the name because there was water or a liquid. Once the child was playing with old coins with pictures of birds. He began to call them ‘ooah’ also. Finally, all small, round, shiny objects that resembled coins (buttons, medals) began to be called ‘ooah’ (LSVCW v. 5:249).

Altogether, using the ‘double stimulation’ experiment, Vygotsky identifies four different types before the final type of complex which he calls a pseudoconcept, which crowns the development of this stage of concept development and which we will consider last. “The foundation of the complex lies in empirical connections that emerge in the individual’s immediate experience. A complex is first and foremost a concrete unification of a group of objects based on the empirical similarity of separate objects to one another” (LSVCW v. 1:137). These may be sensuous attributes of objects, functional or other contingent associations discovered in immediate experience.

The first of the types of complex is built around the perception of one object which forms the nucleus of the complex, and is referred to as an ‘associative complex’:

because it is based on an associative connection between an object that is included in the complex and any of the features that the child notices in the object that acts as the complex’s nucleus. Around this nucleus, the child can build an entire complex composed of the most varied objects. Some objects may be included in the complex because they are the same color as the nucleus. Others may be included on the basis of similarity in form, dimension, or any other distinguishing feature that the child notices (LSVCW v. 1: 137).

The second type of complex is based on supplementary grouping of objects, and this is called a ‘collection-complex’:

Here, the various concrete objects are united in accordance with a single feature, namely, on the basis of reciprocal supplementation. These objects form a unified whole consisting of heterogeneous, though supplementary, parts. ...

The most frequent form of generalization of concrete impressions that the child’s concrete experience teaches him is a set of mutually supplementary objects that are functionally or practically important and unified. Sets such as the cup, saucer and spoon, or the fork, knife, spoon and plate, or sets of clothing are good examples of the kinds of complex-collections that the child encounters in his daily life (LSVCW v. 1: 138-9).

and Vygotsky was able to reproduce this kind of complex in the ‘double stimulation’ experiment:

Under experimental conditions, the child selects objects to match the model that differ from it in color, form, size of some other feature. However, the child’s selection of these objects is neither chaotic nor accidental. Objects are selected in accordance with features that differentiate them from the model (LSVCW v. 1: 138).

So the child endeavours to collect together a complete set of all the colours or all the shapes, and so on, like ‘mummy bear, daddy bear and little baby bear’.

These two types of complex exhibit in the most basic form, the two fundamental psychological processes entailed in the formation of complexes and presupposed by conceptual thought. These two processes are the ability to abstract a single feature from a complex whole (analysis), and the ability to gather things together into sets of some kind (synthesis). The second type, the collection-complex, does not necessarily entail abstraction of a common feature from the individual components. What unites the individual objects subsumed in the group may be their making up a ‘complete set’ or their belonging to things used in the same practical task, such as eating a meal or getting dressed. What is important is the synthesis of this collective and its isolation. Which is the odd one out?: (hammer, nail, board, drill)? One might answer drill, because hammer and nail are used to drive a nail into the board, and you can’t use a drill for that. Or one might answer board, as hammer, nail and drill all have metal in them and the board doesn’t. We see two basic ways in which individual objects can be unified into a category: functional and likeness.

The following two types of complex represent the further development and stability of these processes of analysis (or abstraction) and synthesis, in which the original nucleus is left behind in the formation of the representation of a concrete complex of objects.

Firstly, the chain complex, described above in Darwin’s observation of his grandson, in experimental conditions:

The child selects an object, or several objects, to match the model on the basis of some type of associative connection they have with it. The child then continues to select concrete objects to form a unified complex. However, his selection is guided by the features of objects selected in previous stages of this action, features that may not be found in the model itself. For example, the child may select several objects having corners or angles when a yellow triangle is presented as model. Then, at some point, a blue object is selected and we find that the child subsequently begins to select other blue objects that may be circles or semicircles. The child then moves on to a new feature and begins to select more circular objects (LSVCW v. 1:139).

Then we have the diffuse complex. Here the child unites objects according to empirical connections between objects, but extended into domains in which the child has no practical experience. The attempt by the child to unite objects according to a common feature, therefore becomes more and more diffuse, somewhat like the family resemblance between people sharing more or less remote family connections. In the ‘double stimulation’ experiment:

Given a yellow triangle as a model, for example, the child selects not only a triangle, but a trapezoid. With its sharp angles, the latter reminds the child of the triangle. Subsequently, a square is affiliated with the trapezoid, a hexagon with the square, a polygon with the hexagon and finally a circle with the hexagon (LSVCW v.1:141).

In everyday life, “What is unique to the diffuse complex is that it unifies things that are outside the child’s practical knowledge. The result is that the connections which provide its unity depend on false, vague, and undefined features” (LSVCW v. 1:141).

We see here how the child’s as yet imperfect ability to abstract common features from perceived objects, hold those features stable and recognise them in other objects, and synthesise collections accordingly, leads to the child forming complexes which are not yet sufficiently stable and precise to form a reliable basis for action and communication. The crowning achievement of this line of development is the pseudoconcept, the distinguishing feature of which is that the abstraction and synthesis of objects or situations is directed by a word in the adult language. Here the abstraction of common features, whether from the field of practical action or from the field of sense perception, reaches a sufficient degree of precision and stability that the child is able to form groups of objects or situations which, within the bounds of their own experience, match those that adults indicate with the same word.

The pseudoconcept is the most common form of complex in the preschooler’s real life thinking. It is a form of complexive thinking that prevails over all others. It is sometimes the exclusive form of complexive thinking. Its wide distribution has a profound functional basis and significance. This form of complexive thinking gains its prevalence and dominance from the fact that the child’s complexes (which correspond to word meanings) do not develop freely or spontaneously along lines demarcated by the child himself. Rather, they develop along lines that are preordained by the word meanings that have been established in adult speech.
It is only in the experiment that we free the child from the directing influence of the words of the adult language with their developed and stable meanings (LSVCW v. 1:142-3).

The crucial point here is that because the child and an adult indicate the same things with the same word, not only is communication between adult and child now maximally effective, but the adult may be unaware that the child actually means something quite different:

The child formed a complex with all the typical structural, functional, and genetic characteristics of complexive thinking. For all practical purposes, however, the product of this complexive thinking corresponded with the generalization that would have been constructed on the basis of thinking in concepts.
This correspondence in the result or product of thinking makes it extremely difficult for the researcher to differentiate between cases where he is dealing with thinking in complexes and those where he is dealing with thinking in concepts (LSVCW v.1:143-4).

So difficult in fact that no cognitive psychologist or analytical philosopher before Robert Brandom has ever even noticed the difference. This point cannot be fully clarified however, until we have dealt with true concepts. For the moment, we just need to note some distinguishing features of this mode of thinking, which reaches its high point in pseudoconcepts, in which a complex has been associated with a word from the adult language, accurately reflecting the concrete features of the objects and situations indicated by the word, within the bounds of the child’s limited experience.

Firstly, the complex is composed exclusively from the empirical features abstracted from concrete practical or sensuous experience with the objects. In this sense it is like the ‘concept’ defined by cognitive psychology as a mirror image of a category of objects, representing the concept’s ‘extension’, united by a bundle of contingent attributes.

Secondly, perhaps unlike the concept of cognitive psychology or analytical philosophy, the complex is a concrete mode of thinking. That is, the child who has formed a group of objects according to some common feature (for example their trapezoidal shape) does not thereby necessarily have a concept corresponding to that common feature (for example, the concept of a trapezoid). All we know is that the child is capable of picking out shapes according to their trapezoidal shape whenever new objects are present to her. That is, the abstraction process involved in singling out this feature is still merely implicit in the performance of grouping objects according to a complex. But an adult observer can see that the selection process is based on this or that feature. We must all have had the experience of meeting a person for the first time, and recognising them immediately as the sister of someone we already know, but without being able to say exactly what it is about the person which makes them so recognisable. Being able to make an association does not necessarily mean being consciously aware of the basis of that association.

In this precise sense, complexes up to and including pseudoconcepts are concrete thought-forms. Such thought-forms exist as forms only by implication, thanks to someone else observing a child’s behaviour perhaps, and not as a look-up table of features or as a series of ideals or exemplars, as supposed by cognitive psychology. Nonetheless, it can be seen that in the context of an experimental set-up, a subject who is thinking in terms of complexes, may exhibit behaviour as if they held such look-up tables or exemplars in their mind. In this sense, for children at this stage of cognitive development, the most rigorous cognitive psychology, which does not claim the actual existence of such formations in the mind, but merely that people act as if they existed, is validated by Vygotsky’s analysis up to this point.

Even less does use of a pseudoconcept suggest the existence of a dictionary definition, specifying in words, the necessary features of an object. This was demonstrated in the example concerning interpretation of a painting, given at the beginning of this chapter. Being able to define a concept is a high level cognitive and linguistic task.

One final note before moving on from consideration of complexes and pseudoconcepts in particular. Although we have presented this idea chiefly in the context of child development, it is by no means the case that pseudoconcepts are solely a feature of ontogeny, that is to say, of the development of an individual person’s psychological functioning during childhood. Vygotsky makes it clear that as adults, many of the words we use in everyday life are signs for pseudoconcepts, and often we do not have true concepts of the entity or situation indicated by the word in its most fully developed form. Further, in day-to-day life adults frequently make a transition back from true concepts to concrete concepts, in dealing with concrete instances of a concept (LSVCW v. 1:155), when the concept under which an object or situation was first understood, recedes into the background.

Also, Vygotsky points out that the development of word meaning in history, its etymology, also exhibits the processes discussed under the heading of complexes. For example, the word for raven [voron] is at the root of the word for black [voronoi], so the word for black carries traces in its etymology of a complex in which things resembling the raven by just one of its features, its black colour, took on a meaning at the centre of which was the raven. In English we are familiar with this phenomenon. Parliament, for example, is a place for talking, as suggested by the French root parler to talk, while the Legislature refers to the same body, but this time by the feature of being a proposer of laws, as indicated in the Latin root, legis. Thus the development of concepts, as indicated by the traces left in the etymology of the words acting as signs for the concept, exhibit the same features of complexive thinking. This by no means implies that the individuals who first formulated the concept thought in complexes. Not at all! The invention of concepts which enter the language and are sustained as words in the language for centuries, is the paradigm of true conceptual activity. But the traces fixed in etymology demonstrate homologous activity in the process of embedding the word in the language.

This brings to a close all that will be said here about complexes and pseudoconcepts, other than to point out that there is no road forward from the perfectly formed pseudoconcept directly to the true concept. A true concept is simply nothing to do with combinations of features abstracted form the perceptual field, even though, to recognise something, we rely on the perception of certain combinations of features and the association of the concept with those features. As Dewey put it: “Recognition is perception arrested before it has a chance to develop freely ...” (Dewey 1934 : 570). Or we may be obliged to resort to criteria to determine a concept for the purpose of making bureaucratic decisions of various kinds. At such points we relapse from a true concept to the masquerade of pseudoconcepts and the minefield of misrecognition entailed in the use of pseudoconcepts. No amount of tweaking of contingent attributes can lead us to a definitive definition of a true concept. The move to the concept is a leap.

Potential Concepts and Preconcepts

Vygotsky identified two more phases in the development of thinking towards concepts which facilitate the transition to thinking in concepts. These were potential concepts and pre-concepts. These forms of action fall short of true concepts because, unlike true concepts, they are not utilised with conscious awareness. However, in other respects these forms may exhibit a sharp break from pseudoconcepts, and mark a transition from thinking in complexes to thinking in concepts. It seems that Vygotsky takes preconcepts as representing a distinct stage in the genesis of concepts, while potential concepts he sees as ‘pre-intellectual’.

Potential concepts are, according to Vygotsky, pre-intellectual forms of activity which people share in common with most animals. It is like a pseudoconcept (though in animals it may not be formed under the direction of the adult human language) but it is not formed as a combination of features abstracted from the field of perception. On the contrary, the potential concept is the significance of the object, situation or event for practical action, as a sign or signal for some action which has become a habitual response to the whole given situation. That is, it has a functional meaning (LSVCW v. 1:158).

If we consider the child’s first words, it becomes apparent that they are similar in meaning to these potential concepts. They are potential, first, because of their practical relatedness to a certain circle of objects, and, second, because of the isolating abstractions that underlie them. They have the potential for being concepts, but this potential has not been realized. ...
Earlier, we introduced examples indicating that a new word arises through the isolation of some single feature that strikes the observer and serves as the basis for the construction of a generalization of a series of objects that are named or designated by a single word. Potential concepts often remain at this stage of development, not making the transition to true concepts. Nonetheless, they play an extremely important role in the development of a child’s concepts. It is in the potential concept, in the associated abstraction of distinct features, that the child first destroys the concrete situation and the concrete connections among the object’s features. In this process, he creates the prerequisites for the unification of these features on a new foundation. Only the mastery of the processes of abstracting, combined with the development of complexive thinking, can lead the child to the formation of true concepts, that is, to the fourth and final phase in the development of the child’s thinking (LSVCW v.1:158-9).

So we can see here that Vygotsky intends the potential concept as a mode of action which arises from the child’s practical activity (which is how these forms may be shared with animals, who are capable of developing habitual responses to regular stimuli). In that sense, the potential concept has its partner in the collection-complex, where objects are grouped according to complementary functional significance. Because of the practical and functional significance which the child attaches to an object or situation, the potential concept can form the starting point for the formation of a true concept. The child can use the ability to abstract, fostered in the development of complexes, and the ability to be guided by the words of adults, utilised in the pseudoconcept, to fix what is to all intents and purposes a true concept. It falls short of a true concept because it is limited in its formation and use to practical interactions within the child’s environment. Consequently, the child is not aware of the potential concept as a concept. It just functions as the stimulus for a conditioned reflex. Nonetheless, the potential concept bears many of the features of a true concept and may form the foundation for true concepts if freed from the immediacy of the concrete situation.

Pre-concepts form only in older children, typically those who are already attending school and being confronted with school-like tasks, or engaged in social activities including processes such as measuring, buying and selling, calculating time, and so on. Such activities oblige the child to use culturally transmitted symbols of some kind (not necessarily numbers, for example coins or measuring sticks) to carry out processes requiring the abstraction of features from a concrete situation. These will be quantities in the Hegelian sense, i.e., qualities that which may change without changing what the thing itself is. These are the type of processes Vygotsky mentions, but I think it is likely that preconcepts are involved in learning the rules of games. This kind of activity requires the child to abstract features from a situation and treat them as an object within the bounds of a finite circle of activities or setting. In the ‘double stimulation’ experiment, it has been suggested that the artificial concepts created in the laboratory setting may make the transition to pre-concepts when they are used in a different context. For example, the nonsense word for round-short may be applied to candles or glasses of that shape. Towsey and Macdonald found that the success in transferring the artificial pseudoconcepts to candles or glasses increased sharply among subjects of 11- to 13-years-old. Note that by “pre-concepts” Vygotsky does not mean all those thought forms used prior to the formation of true concepts. Rather he meant just certain types of the immediate predecessors of true concepts.

Preconcepts differ from true concepts in as much as those using them are not aware of them as concepts. Initially a child learns to handle numbers without having a concept of number. But out of their earliest concept of number, as a preconcept, a true concept may be constructed, by the child becoming aware of their own mental operations using the pre-concept. And there is nothing of the shared attribute or functional relation in preconcepts like number. Children may arrive at the use of preconcepts via the use of pseudoconcepts and potential concepts, but a preconcept is already a leap from complexive thinking.

Nonetheless, it is worth pointing out that machines, as well as very young children who lack any life experience outside the family home, are capable of logical operations by means of preconcepts. It may be very tough, when you are playing chess with a child master, for example, a precocious 10-year-old, to say that the child has not yet mastered true conceptual thought. Or watching youngsters solving Sudoku puzzles, evidently using advanced reasoning skills, or stepping in to solve their parents’ computer problems. The fact is that preconceptual thought may reach a very high level of logical sophistication without ever forming a true concept.

Logical thinking necessarily takes place within a framework of judgments which are constituted by a concept, but a preconcept is ideally suited for the display of logical thinking. By ‘logical thinking’ I do not mean dialectical thought, but the kind of formal logical reasoning normally intended by this term. This kind of reasoning only works within a finite world of yes/no relations, the kind of universe taken for granted by cognitive psychology and analytical philosophy, and ridiculed by Stephen Toulmin in his “Philosophy of Science” (1953). Once the domain of reasoning is the infinite domain of human culture and history, this kind of finite, formal logical reasoning is inadequate. For that one needs true concepts. And contrary to the pretensions of Alain Badiou, transcribing our thinking into the shallow language of Set Theory and symbolic logic, we cannot “on that basis assign to it the conceptual rigour inherent in the mathematics of sets” (Badiou 2007: 30).


What we have seen is that Vygotsky traces the development of a number of distinct psychological functions which are presupposed in achieving the ability to use true concepts.

(1) Manifested in the child’s syncretic actions, is the simple ability to isolate objects from their background, name them and use this name in future interactions with their environment.

(2) The ability to isolate (or abstract) from a concrete object or situation one perceptual feature which can be used to recognise the object or situation and/or relate it to others.

(3) The ability to synthesise diverse objects and situations into collections or diffuse groupings sharing something in common, and operate with such concrete groupings by recognising members and adding new members in subsequent experience.

(4) The ability represent functional sets of objects, and isolate individual objects according to their functional significance, rather than their appearance, in some system of practical activity within the child’s experience. This was reflected in the ‘double stimulation’ set-up by the formation of ‘complete sets’ of objects.

(5) The ability to use words used by adults to guide the isolation of objects or situations and their composition into pseudoconcepts – collectivities with the same reference as adult concepts.

(6) The ability to develop an habitual response to objects or situations connected to their practical significance for the child, which, should the child become consciously aware of this potential concept, may develop into a true concept.

(7) The ability to carry out reasoning operations within a finite system of relations, in which preconcepts, implicit in operations such as counting and calculating, are formed. However, the preconcept is an abstract thought-form and differs from all the earlier acts of thinking which are concrete.

As each of these psychological functions mature, we are able to engage in the various types of action to which Vygotsky has given names, as types, stages and phases in the genesis of concept formation, and reproduced in the laboratory using the functional method of double stimulation. Each ability evidently entails distinct neural substrates and modes of activity, and all are presupposed in the formation of concepts. Probably the first six of these abilities are accessible to animals other than humans. Many research projects are suggested by these observations of the genesis of concepts in children by Vygotsky.

But up to this point, I have not been able to explain what a true concept is, so the reader might justifiably feel that a degree of unclarity remains with what I have said about complexes, pseudo-, potential and pre-concepts. All that can be said at this point is that Vygotsky was quite insistent that true concepts are inaccessible to the child prior to adolescence. I must now turn to the question of true concepts.