Lev Vygotsky: Mind in Society

[Readings] (09.21.08, 11:12 pm)


Lev Vygotsky is one of the most unusually influential figures in modern cognitive science. He is unusual in that he was, in his day, a controversial figure within his native Soviet Russia, and because of this fact, his ideas did not become popular in the west until about thirty years after his death. When his writing did become circulated in the west, it shone on many subjects from cognitive science to developmental psychology. Vygotsky is also remarkably ahead of his time in critiquing both rationalism and behaviorism, arguing instead for a remarkably nuanced take on development and cognition, wherein cultural, social, and embodied contexts are necessary for proper study of learning.

Mind in Society criticizes existing psychological methods, and presents an argument for looking at psychology from a cultural and social perspective. At the heart of his examination is the idea of the formation of symbols, which occurs as a social function. The process of learning symbols is called internalization, and it involves the internalization of signs, but this is matched with an externalization of meaning. Essentially, the emergence of symbols occurs simultaneously with the extension of cognition into the environment. Vygotsky’s analysis gives light on how to treat the symbol-embodiment problem with artificial agents.


Western psychology was heavily derived from Descartes until Darwin. Darwin’s influence likened humans to animals (which were always cast as below human in Cartesian reasoning), and triggered the behaviorist movement. Gestalt psychology came out of or alongside that. Vygotsky was a scholar of the Wundt school, which also came from the behaviorists, but argued for an introspective method (as opposed to the behaviorists who were much more external). Both behaviorism and the Wundt school argued for a stimulus-response methodology, which has remained influential in modern psychology.

Vygotsky aims to develop a comprehensive theory of psychology, that can reason about higher level mental functions, as opposed to the behaviorism, which is specifically oriented towards lower level functions. He notes that culture is important to psychology, and looks toward development as a methodology. Development, though, is more than just the process of maturation, but a complex suite of events that includes maturation and learning.

Tool and Symbol in Child Development:

Vygotsky seems to be arguing that the behavioral model is insufficient to explain ongoing developmental processes. Specifically, early development makes use of “pracitcal intelligence,” which makes use of the environment, tools, and by extension, language to serve as aids. These things are all instrumental and work to augment practical intelligence.

Childrens’ speech is used as a constant narration that operates in parallel with activity. This is (I think) the sort of egocentric/autistic speec described in early development. Speech is instrumental in reasoning and modeling the world and behavior. What is notable here is that this speech is used instrumentally to forma sort of narrative underpinning of the world, and cements the strength of the linguistic model of consciousness.

Planning, as a component of thought, originates in inner/social speech preceeding an action. Speech is also social, and interaction with others is necessary for the interaction with objects. Development of planning is socially dependent. This is a great ground to critique the models of planning found in symbolic AI.

The Development of Perception and Attention

Visual perception is limited in animals (even in apes). The key element to human perception is the ability to transform visual perception into language. The idea is that visual information is transformed into signs, via language. Thus, language is necessary for the process of siginification. Attention is a mechanism for controlling and directing perception and awareness.

Mastery of Memory and Thinking

Sign usage is a mediated form of thought. Mediation is also a very gradual process to incorporate into thinking. “We have found that sign operations appear as a result of a complex and prolonged process subject to all the basic laws of psychological evolution. This means that sign-using activity in children is neither simply invented nor passed down by adults; rather it arises from something that is originally not a sign operation and becomes one only after a series of qualitative transformations.” (p. 46)

There is a complex relationship between memory and thought. In early childhood, thinking means remembering. This references the heavy associative nature of thinking, but later, individuals are more “logicalized”, that is, information is associated through systems of signs, so remembering is more mediated/augmented. The function of memory extends out into the environment. Individuals use environmental cues to trigger associative memories and contextualize thought.

Internalization of Higher Psychological Functions

Tools and signs are both mediating. They provide a level of indirection in everyday interactions. However, tools are externally oriented and symbols are internally oriented. Develpment seeks to internalize interpersonal processes into intrapersonal ones. The child’s interaction with others becomes a way to think about the world internally. This is internalization of signs, but it comes paired with an externalization and extension of cognition into the environment.

Problems of Method

Vygotsky is rejecting the stimulus-response method, originally developed by behaviorism, from higher psychology. He claims that is simply inadequate for addressing higher functions. He notes that it is unidirectional and reactive (after Engels). This suggests that there can be complex interactions with the environment in cognition. Vygotsky’s goal is to instead look at processes and not objects, and instead wants the method to focus on development as a general tool for understanding.

Interaction Between Learning and Development

There is a complex relationship between learning and development. There are several competing theories on how the two relate: One is that the two are totally independent (Piaget), the second is that the two are equivalent (James), and the last is a combination of the first two, that the two processes influence each other (Koffka). Development here is the natural process of maturation, while learning is socially based gaining of knowledge. Vygotsky’s conclusion to this is that contrary to intuition, development follows learning.

The argument is made that learning is partly a social process, and that it is socially supported. Do not look at the child alone, but rather look at the child in the social setting, with others and the environment as support. “Over a decade even the profoundest thinkers never questioned the assumption; they never entertained the notion that what children can do with the assistance of others might be in some sense even more indicative of their mental development than what they can do alone.” This is the Zone of Proximal Development. This idea challenges the notion of solitary performance that is still used in evaluation and test-taking to this day.

Imitation relates to the internalization of cultural/social practices and values. For example, playing house, cowboy and indian, other sorts of games. Imitation also serves as a basis for metaphor and supports the neural basis for the establishment of meaning.

The Role of Play in Development

Play creates an imaginary situation, and seems to emerge when the child experiences unrealizable tendencies. Play satisfies some unrealizable desires. It requires rules to constrain its imaginary world. “Just as we were able to sho at the beginning that every imaginary situation contains rules in a concealed form, we have also demonstrated the reverse–that every game with rules contains an imaginary situation in concealed form. The development from games with an overt imaginary situation and covert rules to games with overt rules and a covert imaginary situation outlines the evolution of childrens’ play.” (p. 95-96)

Play and symobls depend on symbolic abstraction. An early child cannot differentiate visual truth from meaning. Later, meaning can be separated, lies told, and objects imagined. When a child forms the capacity to internalize symbols from the environment, he also gains the ability to project those symbols onto objects. Thus, the wooden stick can become a horse. This is the same process that is used to imbue meaning metaphorically, and can be extended beyond the realm of play and games, but it is interesting as a point of origin.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorVygotsky, Lev
TitleMind in Society
Tagspsychology, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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