Andy Blunden August 2011

Vygotsky on ‘True Concepts’

While Chapter 5 of “Thinking and Speech,” Vygotsky’s most famous work, focuses on research into the genesis of concepts in children prior to the formation of true concepts, Chapter 6 centres on the research of one of his students, Josephina Shif, into the formation of true concepts in school-age children. This chapter is a rich and complex study of concepts which covers almost the entire range of problems of concepts and their acquisition.

In line with his approach to other problems, Vygotsky did not set out to study all kinds of concept, with all the interminable problems which would arise in differentiating types of concept across such a vast and diverse domain. Rather, Vygotsky focussed on one type of concept, confident that clear results from the study of just one, well-chosen category of concept would resolve the main problems affecting the study of concepts in general.

Scientific Concepts

Cognitive Psychology took the concept of the “common object” (Murphy 2004) as its prototypical concept, but isn’t it obvious that the concept of “cat” or “pencil” fails to manifest the whole range of problems of concept formation as indicated for example in the Introduction: concepts such as “mammal,” “atom,” “the Virgin Mary,” “ambush,” “differential” and so on.

By taking concepts of common objects as their prototype, cognitive psychology inevitably arrived at the pseudoconcept (described in the previous chapter) as the typical concept, and was incapable of even formulating the problem of the formation of a true concept.

Vygotsky took as his prototype of the true concept the scientific concept, such as acquired by an adolescent at school – the “purest type of nonspontaneous concept” (LSVCW v.1: 177). The scientific concept is a pure example of a true concept because, in the first place, it cannot be formed by the subject through immediate personal experience of the object. Vygotsky frequently quotes the passage from Marx’s Capital: “If the form in which a thing is manifested and its essence were in direct correspondence, science would be unnecessary” (MECW, v.37: 804). Scientific concepts can only be acquired by instruction in science, or in the case of those already aficionados of science, from acquaintance with the scientific literature (postponing for the moment, consideration of those rare moments when a new scientific concept is created).

But this is true also of the concepts of the Christian Church or professional magicians, or other institutions. Why are scientific concepts regarded by Vygotsky as the purest type of nonspontaneous concept? The scientific concept has developed over history so as to distance itself more and more from all traces of appearance and immediate perception, and integrated all its concepts more and more into a single system. Science has increasingly purged itself of cultural prejudice and sectional interests, imperfectly perhaps, but in its essence, in its tendency, science is universal. A certain style of science may be characteristic of a certain culture, but in essence science is universal. A scientific concept is the pure product of an institution, namely the scientific establishment. But science is unlike any other institution. Science is based on no faith, admits of no axioms, no revelations, no “clear ideas” or given datum, other than the ontological principle of the independent existence of a material world and the epistemological principle of the knowability of that material world.

This is not to say that scientific concepts are in some universal sense objectively true. Of course not. Rather, they are the product of a real institution at some particular historical juncture and are always subject to revision. But even though science remains subject to cultural prejudice and conditions, science is not conditional upon adherence to any particular faith or disposition. The point is that more than any other type of concept they are not only products of an institution and independent of immediate personal experience of a relevant object, but exist only within an entire system of interconnected concepts, outside of which they are meaningless, and presuppose no appeal to moral values or any other kind of intuition or authority. So the scientific concept, more than any other, is a “nonspontaneous” concept. For the novice it is simply book learning. For these reasons, Vygotsky regarded the scientific concept as the paradigm of the true or nonspontaneous concept.

The Concepts of Social Science

Further to this, Vygotsky selected social science concepts alone for research, rather than natural scientific concepts, which, if you were looking for “pure” scientific concepts, would have appeared to be the obvious choice. Vygotsky chose social science concepts because these were most easily made the subject of psychological investigation and facilitated comparison and interaction with spontaneous (or everyday) concepts. But these are not the only reasons.

Piaget had chosen the concepts of elementary physics and the spontaneous or “naïve” concepts which are supplanted by a knowledge of scientific physics. But there is no hard line between naïve physics and scientific physics, as was discussed earlier when we considered the work of conceptual change research. Simple concepts of momentum, conservation of matter and so on, can be confirmed in immediate experience, without reliance on book learning. But it is “book learning” which is essential to the scientific concept and which is most distinct from everyday knowledge. Likewise with mathematics. The elementary concepts of counting and measurement can be acquired by instruction in practical tasks, through the development of the child’s spontaneous preconcepts.

The social sciences are not like this. They are connected with everyday experience only with the greatest difficulty and after considerable learning, as part of a whole system of concepts, which is exactly what characterises scientific concepts. In the Soviet Union of the 1920s/1930s, the concepts of social science were “class struggle, exploitation, the Paris Commune, bourgeois, capitalist, landowner, or kulak” (LSVCW v.1: 215 & 228). Living today, in times when the concepts of orthodox Marxism are no longer self-evidently concepts of social science, it is abundantly clear that such concepts can only be acquired by means of instruction, that they presuppose a certain level of psychological development and that they are meaningful only within an entire system of concepts. No suspicion can linger that absolute objective truth is being claimed for scientific concepts. In addition to this, children have everyday concepts of all the topics covered in the social sciences, even though the basis for a ‘true’ concept is outside the range of their personal experience, and a child’s naïve understanding of “capitalist” may be observed even while they have learnt the scientific definition of “capitalist” perfectly well at school. So, such concepts lend themselves particularly well to psychological research.

By scientific concept I mean a concept which can only be acquired by instruction, beginning with a verbal definition, and that such concepts are essentially not given in individual experience. So it must be clear that such concepts cannot be acquired along the path blazed by the child’s complexes, pseudoconcepts and potential concepts, all of which are concrete concepts which arise from the child’s everyday personal experience without any conscious effort or awareness.

The Method for Investigating Concepts

The method used by Shif for the study of the development of both scientific concepts and everyday concepts in school-age children was to present the child with sentences to complete using causal (... because ...) and adversative (... although ... ) clauses. In each case, the sentences were chosen from the child’s own speech in everyday life or from classroom lessons. In this way, researchers could be sure that the child was both familiar with the concepts and with the relevant causal or adversative relations. Even at a time when a child is perfectly well able to use causal and adversative clauses in their own spontaneous speech and understand such sentences when used by others, they may be stumped when asked to complete a sentence like: “Kolya fell off his bicycle because ... .” They cannot consciously identify the need to find a prior cause of the event in question. Instead the child will tend to continue the narrative flow of speech with “... he hurt himself” or “... he was taken to hospital.” According to Vygotsky, it is about two years after a child learns to freely use causal clauses in action that fluency with spontaneous use of adversative clauses is achieved. But completing a sentence like “Katya ate her dinner although ...” will still prove impossible for another couple of years.

By observing whether a child was able to correctly use a concept in a causal or adversative statement, provided that the child was already using the relevant relation in conversation, Shif was able to determine whether a child had mastered the concept and was able to use it voluntarily, with conscious awareness, in their speech. Such a determination is meaningful only to the extent that the child was already able to understand and use causal or adversative relation in spontaneous conversation.

I will return to this research presently, but for the moment it is worth noting how this contrasts with the methods used by Cognitive Psychology which invariably focused on instant responses. The sentence completion tasks oblige the child to reflect on the concept and bring out the extent to which they are consciously aware of and understand the meaning of the concept in question, rather than seeking a superficial response. Further, this research begins where categorisation tasks leave off, by investigating concepts as loci of material inference.

True Concepts and Spontaneous Concepts

In their fullest development, there is no significant difference between the concepts of everyday life and true concepts. The distinction lies only in the origin and course of development of a concept. The kinds of concept we are dealing with here are concepts at one or another point in their development towards the mature concepts of an educated and worldly adult. The complex character of mature concepts is best revealed by understanding the various forms of concept which arise in the course of their development. At the same time, it should be emphasised that any of these forms of concept will figure in the activity of an adult citizen; our thinking is never completely purged of potential concepts, preconcepts and pseudoconcepts.

As mentioned above, the scientific concept offers the purest example of a true concept. But all other concepts which are consciously acquired through deliberate instruction in some institution where the concept is part of a whole system of concepts, reflecting the social practices of the institution in question, must be regarded as true concepts. Nonetheless, I will continue Vygotsky’s practice of taking the concepts of Marxist social science as the paradigm of a true concept, and refer to them as ‘scientific concepts’. This has the added advantage of relieving us of having to deal with logical positivist or analytical definitions of concepts which are to be found in natural science. Vygotsky was a Marxist, and he brought the same understanding of the concepts of social science as he brought to psychology. In a strong sense, the pseudoconcept belongs to formal logic, analytical philosophy and Set Theory, whilst the true concept and its development belongs to dialectical logic.

Vygotsky made very clear his commitment to dialectical logic both by his frequent citing of philosophical works by Engels and Lenin, in particular Lenin’s Annotations on Hegel’s Logic, and explicitly, for example when he says:

When applied in the domain of life experience, even the concepts of the adult and adolescent frequently fail to rise higher than the level of the pseudoconcept. They may possess all the features of the concept from the perspective of formal logic, but from the perspective of dialectical logic they are nothing more than general representations, nothing more than complexes (LSVCW, v. 1: 160).

Part II of this book, dealing with Hegel, may function as an introduction to dialectical logic. Dialectical logic is in fact nothing more than the art of dealing with concepts, that is, true concepts, rather than simplified, impoverished pseudoconcepts. This author conducted a 3-day workshop in May 2011 with research staff, in which Socratic dialogue was used to explore concepts such as Poverty, Justice, Absolute and Relative, Cause and Effect, Dependence and Independence and so on. With an educated, philosophically sophisticated group like this it was possible to bring out the complex structure of mature concepts without any appeal to “laws of dialectics” or references to Hegel, but simply by immanent critique of the concepts taken one at a time. From the study of concrete concepts like these, one could abstract the principles known as dialectical logic. By contrast, as a school teacher, I have had occasion to teach elementary Set Theory, a surrogate for formal logic. This is an altogether different matter, with concepts such as round-black or large-square, like those used in the ‘double stimulation’ experiment described in the previous chapter, functioning as subject matter. Dialectical logic is the art of handling real concepts, as opposed to formal logic, which is the rules governing the categorisation of common objects according to yes/no attributes. Because dialectical logic was a well-known idea in the Soviet Union of 1920s and 30s, Vygotsky was able to illustrate the contrast between pseudoconcepts and true concepts.

The Concept and its Definition

One of the most difficult questions in the study of concepts is that of the relation of a concept to its definition, and it is this relation which marks perhaps the clearest distinction between spontaneous concepts and scientific concepts. In the case of everyday concepts, the definition lies only at the end of a protracted process of development. In the case of scientific concepts, development begins with learning the verbal definition. For example,

The child formulates Archimedes’ law better than he formulates his definition of what a brother is. This obviously reflects the different developmental paths that have led to the formation of these concepts. The child has learned the concept of ‘Archimedes law’ differently than he has learned the concept of ‘brother’. The child knew what a brother was, and passed through many stages in the development of this knowledge, before he learned to define the word ‘brother’ (if he ever had the occasion to learn this). The development of the concept, ‘brother’, did not begin with a teacher’s explanation or with a scientific formulation. This concept is saturated with the child’s own rich personal experience. It had already passed through a significant part of its developmental course and had exhausted much of the purely empirical content it contains before the child encountered it in definition. Of course, this was not the case with the concept that underlies Archimedes’ law (LSVCW, v. 1: 178).

It is a well-established fact that people are generally unable to define words which they use with ease in everyday conversation. This is characteristic of spontaneous concepts. On the one hand, to produce a verbal definition of a concept that a child is quite fluent in using requires a capacity for intellectual introspection not normally attained until adolescence. On the other hand, a child’s first acquaintance with a scientific concept will be learning a verbal definition of the concept in school. After learning the definition and successfully committing it to memory, and being able to reproduce it on demand, the child will generally still be quite unable to apply the concept in any concrete situation. Vygotsky illustrates the naïve nature of the child’s understanding of scientific concepts in the following observation:

Student: “Serfs were peasants who were the property of the landowners.”

Adult: “What was the life of the landowners like under serfdom?”

Student: “Very good. They were all rich. They had ten story houses, many rooms, and were all well-dressed. They had electricity” (LSVCW v. 1: 218).

It will take a long time for the student to develop a realistic and concrete understanding of the relation between the classes in pre-Revolutionary Russia, if they ever do so, but they learn the definition of serfdom in a single afternoon at school. And indeed, an understanding of life in pre-Revolutionary Russia would be impossible without such concepts, and given that personal experience of that world is ruled out, it is only through concepts that such an understanding may be attained.

From this it should be clear that a concept differs from its definition, the definition constituting just one possible realisation of the concept. In the case of the scientific concept, the definition lies at the beginning of development; in the case of the spontaneous concept, the definition arises only towards the end. In both cases, the concept does not stay as it was when it is first learnt, but develops.

Concepts and word meaning

It is not possible to know a concept without the use of words, so it is important to clarify the relation between concepts and that most famous of Vygotsky’s ideas, word meaning – the unit of analysis for the study of verbal thinking. A word is a sign for a concept (LSVCW v.1: 26, v.4: 172, v. 5: 48, 132). (In saying this, Vygotsky also makes it clear enough precisely what he meant by ‘word’). Meaning is an act of both speech and thinking. Word meaning is an act of indicating a concept to another person or oneself. The sense in which a concept is evoked is accomplished through all the expressive capabilities of language, gesture and context.

Vygotsky said that the concept is represented psychologically as word meaning (LSVCW v. 1: 169-170). But the important thing is that just as word meanings develop, concepts develop, both ontogenetically in the development of a child and historically in the etymology of a word. Note that Vygotsky is not saying that a child’s understanding of the meaning of a word develops, or that the word has a meaning which the child gradually comes to know. Rather, he is saying that word meaning is a “complex and true act of thinking” (LSVCW, v.1: 169) which develops, and the psychological form of the concept which is indicated by the word meaning is itself also developing. A word does not itself have any meaning. People make meaning and use the word for the action of meaning-making. So that is why Vygotsky says that the concept is represented psychologically by word meaning. The concept is in the first place something that exists objectively, albeit implicitly. It exists in the activities of human beings and the social properties of the artefacts they use. These artefacts include of course words, and words are more or less suitable for expressing one or another meaning, according to the practice of a given language community. But word meaning is not simply objective, but as an action, word meaning is both subjective and objective. It is through word meaning that concepts are manifested for the person psychologically. A child’s concepts, which differ from the concepts of the adult community, are more idiosyncratic and still imperfectly socialised. The concepts of the adult community, which are true concepts, are truly functions of the entire language community. The child’s concepts on the other hand are more personal and underdeveloped. The child’s concepts appear coincidentally with the child’s first use of words, as described in the previous chapter. Adult concepts begin to emerge to the degree that the adolescent begins to participate in the affairs of the world at large.

This is how Vygotsky resolved the problem of whether concepts should be regarded as mental images, or some other kind of internal representation, on the one hand, or on the other hand, should be regarded as something “out there” in the world, something objective. A concept is evoked by an individual action, which is a more or less developed form of generalisation, manifested in word meaning, which more or less corresponds to the word meanings of adult speech, which through the actions of many individuals, sustain all the various institutions of the community.

Concepts and Problem-Situations

Concepts arise within some specific social practice in the form of a problem, and a solution (Vygotsky CW, v.1 123, 127; 1994: 257-8). In some social situations it would be more true to say that the discovery of a solution gives rise to the identification of the problem. But a concept always, in one way or another, names a problem-solution relation, a situation, and only arises in the course of an effort to solve a problem. Such problems can only arise within some definite system of social practices. In the case of true concepts, a new word (or new usage of an old word) enters into the discourse of the relevant social practice or institution and may subsequently make its way into the language and participate in restructuring the social practices of the larger community and everyday life.

A child’s concepts also arise only in the context of the child’s efforts to solve some problem, and it was this understanding which was behind the design of the ‘double stimulation’ experiment. Ach had also designed his version of the experiment on the understanding that the formation of a concept depends on the child’s effort to solve some problem, rather than by passive association. Sakharov and Vygotsky modified the experiment so that the child could express their efforts at solving the problem practically, in the selection and arrangement of blocks and could use the word as part of the problem-solving exercise.

There is no experimental support here for the old idea that the concept arises through associative processes, through the reinforcement of the associative connections that correspond to the features common to several objects and through the weakening of the connections that correspond to the features with respect to which these objects differ.

Ach’s experiments show that concept formation always has a productive rather than reproductive character. They show that the concept arises and is formed in a complex operation that is directed toward the resolution of some task (LSVCW v. 1:123-124).

In the case of the child’s concept, the problem is always one arising within the social situation in which the child’s needs are being met in immediate collaboration with their parents or carers, that is, more or less within the self-enclosed circle of the child’s system of protection and support. If such a system of care is lacking then this is a pathological situation and concept formation will be distorted.

The true concept, however, has arisen in some situation quite remote from the individual in time and space and is brought into the present situation by cultural means, through the social fabric of the larger society. Only to the extent that the individual is engaged in the problems of the community and the various projects making up that community, does the opportunity to acquire a true concept arise. This includes practices functionally created for the induction of people into an institution or institutionalised social practice, such as formal schooling or apprenticeship in some profession.

The tasks that are posed for the maturing adolescent by the social environment – tasks that are associated with his entry into the cultural, professional, and social life of the adult world – are an essential functional factor in the formation of concepts. Repeatedly, this factor points to the mutually conditioned nature, the organic integration, and the internal unity of content and form in the development of thinking (LSVCW v. 1: 132).

The difference is that the solution to the problem which has been posed for the adolescent is not to be discovered by the adolescent himself, but has to be transmitted to him from those who have confronted the situation previously and created the concept which encapsulates the problem and its solution. I will deal with the question of the cultural creation of true concepts in the next chapter, but a fine illustration of the origin of concepts in problems confronted earlier within a definite social practice was given in Chapter 3 when I reviewed the various distinctions in the understanding of word meaning known to linguistics. Each of the seven distinctions listed originated in a dispute within the linguistics community. In each case the dispute was settled at the conclusion of a protracted academic debate amongst linguists by the formation of two opposite, mutually constituting concepts. The conditions for the creation of these concepts simply do not exist for the person who comes across the relevant problem at some point in their professional life. They have to be introduced to the concepts by means of instruction of some kind in which the word acts as an indispensable carrier of the wisdom of the past, around which an understanding of the concept can be organised, connecting up the concept with the whole array of concepts entailed in the relevant discipline or activity.

A child forms a pseudoconcept in order to solve some problem, solved by identifying a category of objects being referred to by adults. An adolescent who is being inducted into some profession, learns to identify a certain class of problem and the appropriate approach to resolving the problem. In both cases, it is the stimulus to solve the problem which opens the way to the formation of the concept. It should be noted however that while the problem situation constitutes a pre-condition for concept formation, it should not be seen as the basic mechanism of concept formation (LSVCW v. 1: 132) which is to be found in instruction. True concepts cannot arise spontaneously in response to some class of problem-situation. At the same time, direct instruction in a concept is impossible, and can only lead to the memorisation of a form of words.

The teacher who attempts to use [direct instruction] achieves nothing but a mindless learning of words, an empty verbalism that simulates or imitates the presence of concepts in the child. Under these conditions, the child learns not the concept but the word, and this word is taken over by the child through memory rather than thought (LSVCW v. 1: 170).

Scientific concepts have a different relation to their object than do complexes.

the birth of the scientific concept begins not with an immediate encounter with things but with a mediated relationship to the object. With the spontaneous concept, the child moves from the thing to the concept. With the scientific concept, he is forced to follow the opposite path – from the concept to the thing (LSVCW v. 1: 219).

The person who knows a scientific concept must make an effort to discover the object represented by the concept, which is not given immediately. Despite being familiar with the definition of the concept and its relation to other concepts, we may still be quite at sea in understanding the object being referred to, like a young medical graduate entering their first internship at a hospital. The child’s complex, on the other hand, is abstracted immediately from their perception of the object, with the aid of the word.

Every stage in the development of concepts corresponds to different kinds of generalisation. We have seen this in the development of the child’s concepts in the previous chapter. The true concept introduces entirely different kinds of generalisation which in general do not depend on the perceptual or other attributes of objects or events whatsoever. Concepts indicate objects according to their significance in various human projects, which may not be connected with any attribute of objects indicated by the concept. Lakoff’s discussion of the meaning of the word “fake” discussed in the first chapter is a good illustration of this fact. True concepts are first and foremost units of social life manifested in the actions of individuals. They reflect objects only in a mediated way, through how the object figures in social life. Understanding of the object in accordance with a true concept is mediated by the person’s participation in society.

The Development of Concepts

A concept begins with a word, but “when a child first learns a new word, the development of its meaning is not completed but has only begun” (LSVCW v. 1: 170). This applies both to the spontaneous concepts of the child and to the scientific concept of the adolescent. But the development of the spontaneous concept and the development of the scientific concept take place in opposite directions:

The development of scientific concepts begins with the verbal definition. As part of an organized system, this verbal definition descends to the concrete; it descends to the phenomena which the concept represents. In contrast, the everyday concept tends to develop outside any definite system; it tends to move upwards toward abstraction and generalization (LSVCW, v.1: 168).

The experiments of Josephina Shif demonstrated that even though a child may be perfectly familiar with the concept of ‘brother’, they are unable to provide a satisfactory verbal definition of the word, complete causal or adversative sentences, solve problems like the ‘brother’s brother’, and, in general, are unable to use the concept in an abstract context, for a long time. By the time a child is able to solve the ‘brother’s brother’ the concept they have of brother is no longer a spontaneous concept, but has been modified under the influence of structural changes in their thinking, such as schooling.

Conversely, an adolescent who has learnt perfectly well the concept of dative case in German may be quite unable to apply the concept in German conversation, just as the medical student makes elementary mistakes in diagnosis despite their familiarity with the diagnostic manual, which they manifested in their examinations. The scientific concept is acquired in the form of a verbal definition, that is to say, as an abstract definition. But a person needs to work correctly with the concept in concrete situations, recognise when it is appropriate and when it is out of place, and know how far to take a relation when confronted with a real situation – this takes time. A scientific concept may be altogether out of place in an everyday situation, as when a psychology student diagnoses their friends and family with all sorts of psychiatric disorders or a chemistry student tries to utilise their scientific knowledge in the kitchen.

This is the most striking difference between the scientific concept and the spontaneous concept: one begins with an abstract verbalism and only over time becomes realistic and concrete; the other begins in real interaction with its object and only later can the concept be applied correctly in other contexts or in the solution of abstract problems.

Shif’s experiment showed that the scientific concept develops faster than the spontaneous concept in that a school-age child who freely uses a concept like ‘brother’ or ‘bourgeois’ but could not complete a sentence with a causal or adversative clause, acquired this ability more quickly and easily in the case of the scientific concept. This may seem surprising, as the child is far more at ease with the spontaneous concept which they have used in concrete situations from a young age, whilst the scientific concept they learnt only last week. But the point is that the child is consciously aware of the scientific concept (such as ‘ideal type’ or ‘surplus value’), as a thought form distinct from the object it represents and which they have acquired with great effort. On the other hand, in the case of the spontaneous concept, the child is not really aware of the difference between the thought form and the object, having acquired the concept without any conscious effort, and the intellectual introspection required to operate consciously with the concept (for example completing a causal sentence) is still beyond his or her reach. This ability will appear only over time, if at all, and does not arise spontaneously but has to be acquired through some kind of instruction.

A spontaneous concept can develop towards greater degrees of generalisation, more precise abstraction of attributes and grouping of objects in accordance with more objective attributes matching with ever greater precision the categories of objects indicated in adult speech. The child learns eventually to apply concepts in situations more and more remote from the situation in which the concept originated, gradually freeing themself from the concrete context. The final stage in Towsey and Macdonald’s replication of Sakharov’s experiment was the subject’s ability to use a word learnt in the experiment with blocks to categorise candles. This freedom from concrete context, is as far as the child can go with the development of concepts.

The child’s concept can match but cannot spontaneously transcend the kind of categorisation procedure represented mathematically by Set Theory. Nor can spontaneous concepts form themselves into a system. For the child, concepts of different levels of generality exist side by side, with the concept of ‘flower’ standing side by side with the concept of ‘rose’. The child can correctly use the concept of flower, inclusive of rose as well as other types of flower, but cannot solve logical problems depending on the fact that a rose is a flower.

In fact, spontaneous concepts develop beyond the bounds of pseudoconcepts only by structural interaction with the development of true concepts acquired through instruction of some kind.

From what has been said, it might appear that spontaneous and true concepts are two entirely different kinds of formation, but this is not the case.

These two types of concepts are not encapsulated or isolated in the child’s consciousness. They are not separated from one another by an impenetrable wall nor do they flow in two isolated channels. They interact continually. This will inevitably lead to a situation where generalizations with a comparatively complex structure – such as scientific concepts – elicit changes in the structure of spontaneous concepts. Whether we refer to the development of spontaneous concepts or scientific ones, we are dealing with the development of a unified process of concept formation (LSVCW v. 1: 177).

Although spontaneous and nonspontaneous concepts are different in their relation to the object, and constitute two different kinds of concept, both function within a unified formation of consciousness (i.e., mind). There is mutual interdependence between spontaneous and nonspontaneous concepts, in the determination of a person’s actions.

Both types of concept develop within a unified structure, and consequently, gains made in the acquisition of one type of concept cannot but influence the development of all other concepts. Qualitative developments in the use of concepts are transferred from one kind of concept to another through structural changes in consciousness.

It is self-evident that scientific concepts cannot be acquired without the support of a child’s spontaneous concepts. Everyday concepts and word meanings provide the only foundation upon which the verbal explanation of a scientific concept can be grasped. But in any case, scientific concepts cannot be grasped until spontaneous concepts have developed within the child’s sphere of activity to the point where pseudoconcepts are fully developed and the child has developed preconcepts and potential concepts across a range of relevant subject matter. Scientific concepts are built on this foundation. Otherwise, nonspontaneous concepts will be nothing more than a kind of naïve dogma and verbalism.

But the interaction between spontaneous and nonspontaneous concepts also takes place in the other direction, with book learning accelerating growth in understanding of everyday concepts. This was graphically demonstrated by Shif’s experiments. When young school-age children were given the test with “because” sentences, they were able to correctly complete sentences based on lesson material with scientific concepts earlier than they were able to do so with concepts taken from everyday life, but two years later, their ability with spontaneous concepts had caught up to their ability with scientific concepts. At the same age-levels, their ability with “although” sentences with scientific concepts lagged behind their ability with “because” statements. At the older age-level, however, ability with “although’ lagged only slightly behind their ability with causal relations in the case of scientific concepts, whilst in the case of spontaneous concepts, it was greatly improved, but still lagged substantially behind that with causal relations.

The implication of this is that instruction in scientific concepts, which the child meets in the form of abstract, verbal definitions, as part of a system of related concepts, makes the solution of abstract problems such as the sentence-completion relatively easy. Little more than regurgitation of classroom speech is required. But this ability to move from concept to concept according to an understanding of causal and adversative relationships, acquired with relative ease in the context of book learning, is then transferred to spontaneous concepts. A couple of years after answering that prices rose ... because of a shortage in supply, they are able to answer that Kolya fell off his bicycle ... because he was careless.

As was mentioned earlier, the development of scientific concepts depends on the adolescent’s concept moving from the pages of a book or a verbal definition, to the activity of the adolescent in a concrete situation. This means that the highest development of a scientific concept is dependent on the level of development of everyday concepts. How often do we hear that X is a very learned fellow, but lacks practical common sense, but while Y did not do well at school she has good common sense. The lack of ‘common sense’ is generally a symptom of insufficiently concrete thinking. A person who already has a good, practical capacity to handle complex situations intelligently, if they are able to integrate scientific knowledge into their activity, will attain the highest level of application of scientific concepts. This kind of concrete thinking cannot be attained via book learning alone.

Vygotsky calls ‘actual concepts’ the concepts which arise in the course of the person’s real life development in contrast to the concepts identified in experimental work such as Sakharov’s. The concepts of the mature adult are ‘actual’, in contrast to the abstract idealised of newly learnt scientific concepts, which have not left the classroom and are untouched by experience, and in contrast to the child’s spontaneous concepts, which have not left the home and are unaffected by contact with the wider world. The knowledge of the worldly and educated adult is reflective of actual concepts in another sense. In general, all our concepts owe their origin both to education and everyday life, and in reference to the real activity of mature adults (not their opinions about matters which are in fact outside of their experience), all concepts are of this nature and we cannot talk of two kinds of concept. That is, all our actual concepts owe their origin to both instruction and life experience, and in their structure demonstrate traces of both origins. ‘Actual’ means concepts which reflect a concrete understanding.

Conscious Awareness

The most marked difference between the true concept, including the social science concepts acquired via book-learning at school, and spontaneous concepts – pseudoconcepts and potential concepts – acquired effortlessly by the child in the course of everyday life, is that the true concept is marked by conscious awareness [Russian: osoznanie]. Vygotsky offers the following simple explanation of the meaning of ‘conscious awareness’:

I tie a knot. I do it consciously. I cannot, however, say precisely how I have done it. My action, which is conscious, turns out to be lacking in conscious awareness because my attention is directed toward the act of tying, not on how I carry out that act. Consciousness always represents some piece of reality. The object of my consciousness in this example is the tying of the knot, that is, the knot and what I do with it. However, the actions that I carry out in tying the knot – what I am doing – is not the object of my consciousness. However, it can become the object of consciousness when there is conscious awareness. Conscious awareness is an act of consciousness whose object is the activity of consciousness itself (LSVCW, v.1: 190).

Conscious awareness is a feature not just of concepts, but of all psychological functions. In general, conscious awareness of a psychological function is attained only with a high level of development of the function. It stands to reason, that you must first be able to ride a bicycle before you can be aware of your pedalling, and the same is true of attention, memory and perception. Conscious awareness of a function is a precondition to voluntary control and thus mastery of the function.

On the other hand, true concepts are only acquired with conscious effort, so they are characterised by conscious awareness from the beginning. In this aspect true concepts differ sharply from spontaneous concepts, including the pre-concepts which are acquired in pre-school or early school years. Spontaneous concepts are acquired without conscious effort, and therefore without conscious awareness or the possibility of voluntary control.

It should be noted that lack of conscious awareness is quite different from Freud’s concept of the Unconscious. In the example cited above, I am perfectly aware that I am tying a knot, but my attention is on the tying of the knot, not the separate operations which make up this action. Likewise with memory, at first the child is not aware of the act of memory required to recall something, they just know it or don’t know it. But at a certain point, the child learns to remember things by applying conscious effort to recalling where he was yesterday or remembering where he might have left his socks, or committing a telephone message to memory.

In this context, we should observe that what someone thinks they are doing with a concept or how they might define it, is not at all the same thing as how they actually use the concept. Complete mastery of a concept, and conscious awareness of its application in this or that context or mode of activity, is something which is attained only after considerable time and effort. In general, an educated adult will have only a vague notion of how they use a concept that is not within their area of professional expertise. But this is not to say that they use a concept ‘unconsciously’. The verbal introspection which is required to make an object of their own intellectual activity is an acquired skill, which is built on conscious awareness, but is not exhausted by conscious awareness.

Conscious awareness is therefore not a factor characterising a child’s entire psychological functioning, but is an advanced step towards volitional use and mastery of a given psychological function. According to Vygotsky, “when the child reaches school age, they have comparatively mature forms of attention and memory at their disposal. He has what he must now gain conscious awareness of and master” (LSVCW v.1: 189). Conscious awareness of concepts may follow on after a child has gained mastery of attention and memory.

Of course a child can remember and knows whether they remember or not, but knowing how to memorise is a skill which arises only later, with effort and the use of technique. A child can attend to something ... until they are distracted, but attending to something beyond the time in which it holds their interest is an achievement of the school-age child, and the discipline of formal schooling. Conscious awareness in respect to concepts means a capacity for verbal introspection, or meaningful perception of one’s own thinking. Vygotsky explained it this way:

It is well known that the most important change in external perception during [the transition from infancy to early childhood] is that the child makes the transition from nonverbal and therefore nonmeaningful perception to meaningful and verbal object perception. The same can be said of introspection at the beginning of the school age. The child makes the transition from nonverbal to verbal introspection. He develops internal meaningful perception of his own mental processes (LSVCW v.1: 190).

This much is surely clear: that the school child who learns a scientific concept in class and then does exercises with it, has conscious awareness of the concept, and the young child who as yet does not clearly distinguish between an object and its name cannot have conscious awareness of their concepts. Since an 8-year-old does know that carelessness could cause Kolya to fall off his bicycle, why is he quite unable to complete the sentence: “Kolya fell off his bicycle because ...” and suggests instead “... he broke his arm"? He is not consciously aware of using the concept of causality or the material inferences entailed in the concept of carelessness, when he says in spontaneous conversation that “Kolya fell off his bicycle because he was careless,” even though he knows this as a fact. If asked about it, he cannot analyse his comments down to the component concepts, just as he could not describe the actions by means of which he ties his shoelaces without turning his attention to these operations.

It is commonly held that conscious awareness marks the beginner stage of a psychological function, not mastery of it. Consider the case of a child speaking their native language and a child who is learning the language at school. The native speaker uses perfect grammar and is immediately aware of the foreigner’s mistakes, but may be unable to distinguish (to use an example from English) between “we’re” and “where” or realise that “go” and “went” have the same meaning. The child learning the language at school passes through three stages in the learning of each function. For example, in using the verb “to go” they have to make a conscious effort to remember the different forms of the word used in each tense and consciously choose each word as they speak, but they will be unaware of any mistake or idiosyncrasy in their speech. Next, the child attains “epilinguistic awareness.” Now, the learner has become conscious, without being told, of having used a wrong word, and is able to correct their own mistakes, but still with conscious effort. Finally, typically about 18 months later in children learning a new language, the child reaches “metaconsciousness” of the function in question when the correct form of the verb is chosen with ease and without reflection. The sense in which Vygotsky is using “conscious awareness” applies to both “epilinguistic awareness” and “metaconsciousness,” since metaconsciousness can be transformed instantly into epilinguistic awareness if, for example, something makes the speaker aware of having made a mistake. The earlier stages, including the effortful stage from which conscious awareness arises is also conscious awareness, since it is a necessary part of the process of development of metaconsciousness, or conscious awareness and mastery. The native speaker, on the other hand, might never be aware of the norms they are using.

Vygotsky criticised the claim of the Swiss child psychologist Édouard Claparède (1873-1940), who developed the view that lack of conscious awareness was characteristic only of imperfect use of a given psychological function. Claparède claimed that the more we use a given relationship, the lower the level of our conscious awareness of it. We are consciously aware only to the extent that we are unable to accommodate or adapt, as when we trip over the kerb while walking along the footpath. The more extensively a relationship is used in our spontaneous behaviour, the more difficult it is for us to be consciously aware of it. Claparède further claimed that to become consciously aware of an operation, it must be transferred from the plane of action to the plane of language; it must be recreated in the imagination such that it can be expressed in words. The problem, according to Vygotsky, was how one could become consciously aware of a psychological function at all. Only if conscious awareness has been prepared earlier by the meaningful perception of the function in question, could conscious awareness and attention be triggered by some problem. Meaningful perception can only be built on functions already acquired.

Children respond to actions earlier than to differentiated objects, but they give meaning to or comprehend the object earlier than the action. The action develops in the child earlier than autonomous perception. However, meaningful perception leads the development of meaningful action by an entire age grade (LSVCW v.1: 184).

By meaningful perception Vygotsky refers to the child’s use of words to guide their perception of the perceptual field, and in the same way, children use words as commands to themselves, to guide their actions in solving problems and overcoming difficulties. But even the pre-linguistic infant perceives. The infant perceives holistically, and this is called autonomous perception, just as its bodily functions are called ‘autonomous’, in that they are regulated without conscious control. The child learns to use words to isolate various objects and analyse the situation, and in this way develops meaningful perception. This explains how it is that a small child can understand the situation depicted a painting, but cannot enumerate the objects depicted. What applies to perception of external images also applies to perception of their own mental activity.

Learning written speech is an important route to conscious awareness of concepts. Writing is an extremely abstract task, lacking an interlocutor and lacking the stimulus to speech which is provided by a dialogical situation, the writer must formulate the situation in their imagination, formulate the thought in words, also without speaking, and then identify the silent words one at a time and spell them out. By attending to words and word meanings in this way, a child learns to develop conscious awareness of concepts. Learning a foreign language, under conditions when the person already has a developed system of meanings in their native language, but is obliged to make these meanings conscious for the purpose of learning how to express them in another language, is also a route to the acquisition of conscious awareness of concepts. A child raised in a multilingual home where there is an opportunity to learn two or more languages spontaneously, without effort, does not automatically receive this benefit. They are in a particularly good position to study language and develop conscious awareness of their concepts, but this does not flow automatically from being raised as a polyglot.

Instruction in a foreign language, learning to write and the study of one’s own language all work together, interacting to foster conscious awareness (LSVCW v.1: 179). The development of conscious awareness of the concepts of everyday life in this way, interacts with instruction in true concepts, fostering the development of a more concrete understanding of scientific concepts.

Definitions

Vygotsky discussed the child’s ability to give definitions of words signifying concepts with which the child was already familiar. As mentioned at the beginning of the previous chapter, the method of investigating concepts by means of asking the subject to give a definition of a concept sheds a problematic light on the subject’s thinking. It tests the level of the subject’s verbal development and/or their formal education. Giving definitions is an abstract task in which the concept is torn from its natural connections, a task which hinges entirely on the use of words. Particularly for the child, however, the concept is linked with practical-sensuous material, and children generally take as the definition of something what it does or what can be done with it. Such functional meanings are the foundation of potential concepts.

For true concepts, on the other hand, the concept is essentially divorced from sensuous material. But an adolescent who uses a word as a true concept, when asked to define it, is apt (like cognitive psychologists) to define it as a complex (LSVCW v.1: 161). In general, when asked to define a concept which they use correctly, a person sinks to a more primitive level than they exhibit in the practical use of a concept in its natural setting. At any stage of development, a definition is always narrower in scope than the concept itself. Vygotsky saw the definition of a concept as a demonstration of what he called the ‘law of concept equivalence’. That is, that a concept (as opposed to a complex) can be expressed in an infinite number of ways in terms of other concepts connected with it (LSVCW v.1: 158). For example, the number 1 is also the difference between consecutive numbers or the ratio of a number with itself, as well as the first natural number, and so on (LSVCW v.1: 227). To give a definition is to give verbal expression to the connection of a concept with other concepts, as part of a whole system of concepts. Any single definition therefore simultaneously narrows the concept, whilst at the same time, expressing its connection with a larger system of concepts.

Only within a system can the concept acquire conscious awareness and a voluntary nature. Conscious awareness and the presence of a system are synonyms when we are speaking of concepts, just as spontaneity, lack of conscious awareness, and the absence of a system are three different words for designating the nature of the child’s concept (italics in original, LSVCW v.1: 191).

Concepts are Part of a System

Another important characteristic of true concepts of all kinds is that they are part of a system of concepts. The only systematicity found in spontaneous concepts, is that which is inherent in the child’s immediate system of support and practical actions. But this systematicity is merely implicit in the culturally and historically determined form of life, and is external to the concept.

The development of scientific concepts begins with the verbal definition. As part of an organized system, this verbal definition descends to the concrete; it descends to the phenomena which the concept represents. In contrast, the everyday concept tends to develop outside any definite system; it tends to move upwards toward abstraction and generalization (LSVCW, v.1: 168).

The primary means of connection of a concept into a system of concepts is relations of generality. For example, the true concept of ‘rose’ is connected to the true concept of ‘flower’ by the fact that a rose is a flower, and to ‘camellia’ by the fact that a camellia is also a flower. This relation is made possible by the fact that ‘flower’ is a generalisation of the various kinds of flower, and the concept of ‘rose’ includes within it this relation to its genera. To be clear, there is no suggestion here that a category such as ‘flower’ denotes the presence of any kind of common attribute of the members of the category. Carburettor and fan belt are both automotive components, but have no particular attribute in common. Bicycle and toboggan are both vehicles, but also have little in common. Moriarty and the butler are both suspects, but have nothing in common.

This systematicity of true concepts follows from the fact that true concepts arise from problem/solution relations, which can only arise within some definite system of social practice and can only arise in the course of deliberate problem-solving activity. There can be no contradictions without a system and no problem other than within some system of practice or institution. Therefore, since true concepts arise and are sustained within some given project, institution or system of social practice, they constitute a system with some kind of logic.

Consequently, thinking in true concepts implies sensitivity to contradiction. Although it is not the case that logical thinking is only possible with true concepts, complexive thinking is tolerant of contradiction. Certain limited kinds of logical thinking are perfectly possible with pseudoconcepts, and pre-concepts are certainly amenable to rational problem-solving. But in general, pseudo-conceptual thought does not recognise contradiction, because every concept is a concrete thought form which is related to its object, not to other concepts. Conversely, true concepts are in the first place related to other concepts, and only mediately to the concrete object, event or situation which is their object.

For thinking in complexes, ‘rose’ sits side by side with ‘flower’, and the statement that “A rose is a flower” is like “x = 7” for someone who does not know algebra. Each is a pseudoconcept and is determined by a concrete image of the objects it designates in adult speech. There is no relation between ‘rose’ and ‘flower’ other than the logic of practical intelligence. Once concepts take on the significance of points or orders in a constellation of organisms either in a Linnaean or a Darwinian taxonomy, then the relation of the person to the concept and the object is changed. Now the person confronts a whole system of concepts of natural objects, and he or she must learn how to place an organism’s concept within this constellation. The concept-system has intervened between the subject and object, and with it, it has brought meaning, system and the potential for reasoning and therefore contradiction.

A scientific system of nature arises for the child only thanks to instruction, be that at home or at school. More limited systemic concepts can arise where the child’s own field of activity presents an element of systematicity. For example, if a child is raised in a home where he has the opportunity to disassemble and reassemble automobiles, or build model aeroplanes, it follows that potential concepts can be formed which contain already the rudiments of system. Even a spoon contains implicitly the entire culture of eating at an appointed time, at a table with cutlery. One good reason that Vygotsky chose scientific concepts as the paradigm of the true concept, is that scientific concepts, especially the concepts of social science, cannot arise spontaneously from the normal conditions of a child’s life, and are thus truly nonspontaneous.

Conscious awareness presupposes being able to define a concept in terms of other concepts, and therefore the existence of a system of concepts. The ability to reason logically with concepts arises from the fact that all systems of concepts have arisen from traditions of practice concerned with the solution of some class of real problem. The relation between a carburettor and a fan belt is, in the first place, the logic of the interaction between the various components in an automobile. Behind that ‘embodied logic’, the relation between the various concepts representing automotive parts, is the problem-solving work of automotive engineers down the decades, how overheating was solved, how air was blended with fuel, and so on. In learning, not only to identify these objects by their sensuous attributes, but in learning about them, as parts of a system, the child enters into the whole world of automotive engineering. Mutatis mutandi, the same would go for a child raised within a hunter-gatherer community. Likewise, it is one thing to identify organisms by their sensuously given features, but science is quite another thing. A scientific classification presupposes entering into the problems which have confronted naturalists down the years, and how this or that feature came to be used to differentiate a species or order of organism in order to overcome some definite problem. So again, by acquiring true concepts, an adolescent does not enter into Set Theory but rather learns the logic of practice, at least insofar as it is reflected in the profession or school subjects that he or she is instructed in.

the motive force that determines the beginning of this process and sets in action the maturational mechanism of behavior impelling it forward along the path of further development is located not inside but outside the adolescent. The tasks that are posed for the maturing adolescent by the social environment – tasks that are associated with his entry into the cultural, professional, and social life of the adult world – are an essential functional factor in the formation of concepts. Repeatedly, this factor points to the mutually conditioned nature, the organic integration, and the internal unity of content and form in the development of thinking (LSVCW v.1: 132).

Generalisation

At any stage of its development, the concept is an act of generalization. The most important finding of all research in this field is that the concept – represented psychologically as word meaning – develops. The essence of the development of the concept lies in the transition from one structure of generalization to another. Any word meaning, at any age, is a generalization. However, word meaning develops. When the child first learns a new word, the development of its meaning is not completed but has only begun. From the outset, the word is a generalization of the most elementary type. In accordance with the degree of his development, the child moves from elementary generalizations to higher forms of generalization. This process is completed with the formation of true concepts (LSVCW v.1: 169-70).

This paragraph sums up much of what Vygotsky has to tell us about concepts: concepts are activities, not the passive result of exposure to sensuous stimuli. Words are indispensable tools of generalisation and the psychological form of generalisation is word meaning, which is itself an action, not simply a property of the word. Concepts, and therefore word meaning, are always developing, moving through various forms of generalisation.

In childhood, development primarily takes the form of mastering more and more developed forms of generalisation, as outlined in the previous chapter. However, the conventional generality of a concept does not necessarily correspond to the level of generality at which it is being used. This is exhibited in the way a child uses ‘rose’ and ‘flower’ at the same level of generality, even though the properties of the individual objects named would demonstrate that ‘rose’ is a subset of ‘flower’, this is not reflected in an appropriate relation between the concepts.

During childhood, a number of factors guide the direction of acts of generalisation. First and foremost among these is the use of words by adults in collaboration with the child, so that the child uses words to pick out objects so as to match the adults’ word-use. But, nonetheless, the child only develops their word meaning in the course of solving problems which arise within their social situation, not by simply memorising what they are told. This line of development culminates in pseudoconcepts, which resemble in structure the abstract general concepts known to cognitive psychology, in that they indicate a collection of concrete objects. Complexes, as they first appear in the child’s actions, do not necessarily represent the abstraction of attributes common to the objects indicated, since the ability to isolate attributes and generalise according to these attributes, develops only gradually. By the time a child has perfected their ability to abstract and isolate the attributes of objects, they are ready to form pre-concepts, by transforming these abstractions into simple concepts. But this comes after, not before, the formation of pseudoconcepts.

The other source of concepts is the child’s practical intelligence which predates the child’s first words but is developed through the use of words, which create the possibility of meaningful perception and meaningful actions. The child’s interaction with the material world around them allows them to form potential concepts, which are spontaneous concepts reflecting their own practical activity and interaction with the world around them. Potential concepts are a limited source of generalisation according to the richness of the experience open to the child.

The kind of generalisation which is afforded by true concepts is of a different order, in that it is not possible for the child to make this kind of generalisation from their own sensuous or practical interaction with objects. Instruction and collaboration with a teacher or other aficionado is essential. Here generalisation does not arise as a result of development of the concept, but is there from the beginning: generalisation precedes concrete perception. The true concept represents the distilled wisdom of the past and comes to the learner via the word, as a form of generalisation, which the child is able only later to connect to the concrete objects and situations it has as its object.

Instruction must take different forms according to the type of generalisation and word meaning the child needs to acquire. A child cannot be taught about a pharaoh or Avogadro’s Number by the same methods as they are taught to recognise a rose or a camellia. The kind of generalisation required has always to be kept in mind.

But the most important thing to remember about generalisation, a point which Vygotsky makes time and again, is that every generalisation makes a concept richer, not poorer.

In contrast to what is taught by formal logic, the essence of the concept or generalization lies not in the impoverishment but in the enrichment of the reality that it represents, in the enrichment of what is given in immediate sensual perception and contemplation. However, this enrichment of the immediate perception of reality by generalization can only occur if complex connections, dependencies, and relationships are established between the objects that are represented in concepts and the rest of reality. By its very nature, each concept presupposes the presence of a certain system of concepts. Outside such a system, it cannot exist (LSVCW v.1: 224).

Conclusion

Vygotsky has approached an understanding of concepts by tracing their development, mainly in ontogeny. What makes his finding complex, is that there are several intertwining lines of development and several ideal types of concept, and every real, mature concept realises traces of each of these lines of development and the ideal types corresponding to them. Through his observation of children and his experimental work, Vygotsky has given us the processes of development of each component of conceptual activity. What we have as a result is not just a range of different theories about the nature of concepts, or conflicting hypotheses, or an empirical mixture of various kinds of behaviour: we have an understanding of the complex structure of a concept, whose separate roots can be traced and understood.

Although the pseudoconcept is the characteristic product of childhood, more generally it is the kind of concept we have of something when we have neither practical experience with something nor any knowledge of it as part of a system of concepts. So pseudoconcepts are with us for life. Further, so long as we have only an abstract concept of an object, acquired through instruction, and defined in terms of its connection with other concepts, we remain in a position where we would not recognise the object if we bumped into it in the street. Only thanks to merging with our spontaneously developed, pseudoconceptual thinking can we learn to recognise the object and begin to merge our abstract ideological knowledge of an object with concrete experience of it.

Likewise, our first experience with system is through our practical interaction with the objects we meet in our everyday life, in which systematic relations are built into the objects themselves, and these objects are grasped with what Vygotsky calls potential concepts. They are ‘potential’ because like true concepts they are part of a system, but rather than the system of social life and institutions of the wider human society, it is the system of their own immediate practical activity. And potential concepts are spontaneous, and not used with conscious awareness.

Both pseudoconcepts and potential concepts are forms of activity which not only the higher animals but even machines can attain. Pseudoconcepts and potential concepts are acquired by habit, spontaneously and without conscious awareness, but true concepts can only be acquired with conscious effort and awareness. This is true because true concepts are part of a system of concepts, which stands between the subject and object, and in principle are independent of the sensuously given properties of the object which is given to the subject.

One of the greatest barriers to a scientific understanding of concepts in psychology is the fixed belief that a true concept is something like a Set and that formal logic specifies exhaustively the only rules for handling concepts. In Vygotsky’s words:

[T]raditional psychology acted like a slave in following the description of the process of concept formation assumed by formal logic, ... In the traditional view, the concept is the aggregate of these common features, features isolated from a series of similar objects.

It is difficult to imagine a more distorted representation of the actual course of concept development. Psychologists have long noted that the formation of the adolescent’s concepts never takes the logical path depicted by this traditional scheme and our experiments clearly support this position (LSVCW v.1: 162).

Dialectical logic is nothing more or less than the art of handling concepts, real concepts as opposed to impoverished, pseudo-concepts. This prejudice which also makes analytical science the slave to formal logic acts as a barrier to the development of all science, which is after all about nothing other than concepts. If the nature of concepts can be clarified by studying their nature directly, in the psychology of concepts, then maybe something can be done for the development of science as a whole?

One final step to understanding Vygotsky’s theory of concept remains. The whole process of development of concepts hinges around words and word meanings and the use of words in the general community, and true to his commitment to the genetic method, Vygotsky has traced this whole process of development through word meaning. But:

As the relationships of generality change with each new structure of generalization in the process of development, they elicit changes in all the operations of thinking accessible to the child. In particular, the long established independence of the word from the remembered thought increases with the development of relationships of generality and concept equivalence.

The young child is completely reliant on the literal expression of the meaning that he learns. To a great extent, the school child already reproduces complex meaningful content independently of the particular verbal expression where he learned it. As relationships of generality develop, there is an increase in the concept’s independence from the word. Meaning becomes increasingly independent of the form in which it is expressed. In general terms, there is an increasing freedom of the operations of meaning from their verbal expression (LSVCW v.1: 228).

In the next and final chapter of “Thinking and Speech” Vygotsky makes clear that verbal thinking is not the terminus of the intellect, but:

Thought is not only mediated externally by signs. It is mediated internally by meanings. The crux of the matter is that the immediate communication of consciousness is impossible not only physically but psychologically. The communication of consciousness can be accomplished only indirectly, through a mediated path. This path consists in the internal mediation of thought first by meanings and then by words. Therefore, thought is never the direct equivalent of word meanings. Meaning mediates thought in its path to verbal expression. The path from thought to word is indirect and internally mediated.

We must now take the final step in the analysis of the internal plane of verbal thinking. Thought is not the last of these planes. It is not born of other thoughts. Thought has its origins in the motivating sphere of consciousness, a sphere that includes our inclinations and needs, our interests and impulses, and our affect and emotion. The affective and volitional tendency stands behind thought (LSVCW v.1: 282).

Vygotsky traced external speech on its journey inwards through egocentric speech to inner speech to thought, to reveal the structure of verbal thinking. At the same time, he found the source of concepts outside the child, in its collaboration with adults and in the community at large. Actual thought then is on an even deeper plane, but his analysis also points to the source of concepts in the wider domain of social life, which also provides the person’s motivations.

In the next chapter I will very briefly present what we have learnt from Vygotsky about this question. In part the importance of this is the widely held view that Vygotsky never tackled this question at all, that this problem was addressed for the first time only by AN Leontyev and his Activity Theory.