To the as-yet-unborn, to all innocent wisps of undifferentiated nothingness: Watch out for life.
The claim in the last lecture was that infants move into talking by getting hold of symbols that give an explicit form to what was previously only implicit in their communicating. They shift from a gesture, such as raising their arms, to cutting up the message into the symbols their culture exposes them to, and saying, in English: 'up', and later maybe 'Mommy up', and even later perhaps 'Pick me up'. Other languages provide different sounds for them to learn, and may well even cut up the world into different 'chunks' so as to make what they are saying a very different explicit 'cutting up' of the world they are finding ways to make sense of in agreement with their parents. Think back to the example of an animal market space I gave you earlier: that the floor of the market (the world] can be cut up differently by how you arrange the pens.
There are two questions I want to pursue here. The first is: 'How do they humans pick up these cultural skills'? The answer I'm picking is: 'With a little help from their friends'. That is why I'm introducing you to Vygotsky in this lecture. Vygotsky was one of the first psychologists to really grapple with the question as to whether the basic unit in psychological explanations should be the individual, or not. I'll get onto what this 'basic unit' stuff is about in a few paragraphs, but let me state the second question here, even though this second question only really comes into focus once you have got your head around Vygotsky's position. This second question needs a bit of context so as you can see that it is a sensible one.
I doubt any of you reading this lecture have ever seen the English writer Tom Stoppard's play 'Rosenkrantz and Guilderstern are Dead'. It's a rather weird play. R and G are minor characters in Shakespear's tragedy 'Hamlet'. As minor characters, they are not on stage much when Hamlet is being performed, and then only for a short time. Stoppard's plot happens 'backstage' of Hamlet. So every now and then, R and G have to leave the stage of his play to walk on to the set of Hamlet to play their part there, but we never see them doing Hamlet. And having been part of the action there, they then 'exit, stage left', and walk back into their parts in Stoppard's play about them. And it all gets very clever, because Stoppard links what they do in his play as they come and go to what they were doing when they were offstage in Hamlet's plot. Too clever by half for most people, because you have to know Hamlet that well to realise what they are involved in everytime they get called away, and so get a handle on why they are like what they are like when they 'come back'.
But it makes for an interesting analogy for understanding child development. Infants 'pop into' a culture that's going on around them when they are born. Everybody but them seems to know what's going on, what the plot is, and their task is to start playing along with everybody else. This is where the first question here is situated: how do they cotton on to what's already going on, and find a way of playing too? I'm aiming to convince you that Vygotsky has a lot to offer in helping us answer this question. And this is where the second question comes in: if Vygotsky can help us understand how we get to take part, to participate, in the play that we are born into, then where did that play come from? Finding an answer to this second question takes up the next few lectures. This lecture is mainly about the first question: how do we do it?
The 'unit problem'So: your peephole opens, you have an Umwelt in front of you, courtesy of all the hard work that has happened in the course of evolution to provide you with the equipment located inside your head, behind your eyes, ears, taste buds and bodily sensations. A lot of what you are interested in is built into you: faces hold your attention from the word go much more than other things, for example. You don't have to learn how to recognise faces, that's been done for you. Then what? How do you start to make sense of what's going on?
The standard way of answering this is embedded in a whole tradition of western thinking that goes back to Rene Descartes' line of Cogito ergo sum: 'I think, therefore I am'. Amongst western developmental psychologists, this line of thinking reaches its pinnacle with Jean Piaget. Piaget portrays infants as 'mini-scientists': they actively explore the world, and draw conclusions from the results of their actions, and thus, cumulatively, revise and reconstruct what he terms 'schemas' that accommodate their emerging knowledge to the requirements of reality. They develop representational theories about 'what's going on', and have the biologically-given abilities to progress through a number of reorganisations of their knowledge in sequential stages: sensorimotor intelligence; operational intelligence; formal intelligence. They do this because, as they mature, they are able to draw on the resources provided by 'the play' going on in front of them, and formulate hypotheses as to what is going on, test them out, and discard the ones that don't work. All infants are individual geniuses. Consequently, the task of developmental psychology is to figure out how this individually-located genius works it out. How do their brains do it (which is a very crude rendition of Piaget, because he starts out theorizing a 'sensori-motor' form for intelligence, such that it is the brain-and-body that's doing it at the beginning of our lives)? And here, then, a whole way of asking and answering allied questions is set up: for example, the reason humans have such big brains is to provide them with the computing power to work out, assimilate and accommodate to, what is going on.
Vygotsky is important in psychology because he was amongst the first to question this way of setting the problem up. Consider it this way for starters. Answer the following question:
Now you've worked out where the 25 differences are located, you can make it easier for another person to find them.
I've just done it by putting circles on the picture. But how would you do this for someone in real time? I think you would probably use your index finger, and point to one point on the original picture, and then whip across to the changed one and point out where the difference was. Once you have the answer, you can make it much easier for someone else to find it. This, remember, is what Tomasello called 'the ratchet effect'. When someone knows the answer, they can short-cut the effort somebody else needs to put in to getting there. This is what Vygotsky looked at, and he developed a vocabulary for dealing with the process. He looked at learning not as something that had to be explained on the basis of an individual unit of analysis, but asked 'how are the short-cuts passed on'? Lets look at development as involving more than individually-given abilities, with at least two people, in interaction, as our 'unit'.
You went to school, didn't you? You weren't left to your own devices to figure out how to build an alphabetic system of writing and reading. You got some help. Vygotsky's aim is to explain how 'help' is done.
Vygotsky was born in the same year, 1896, as Piaget, but died prematurely at the age of 37 from tuberculosis. His active career as a psychologist was only around 10 years long. During that time, his goals in the post-revolutionary climate of the emerging Soviet Union were to reconstruct psychology along Marxist lines, and to apply psychology to the massive problems confronting the emerging state, particularly in the field of educational psychology. He travelled extensively during this period, both conducting research and assisting in teacher training, by teaching and helping in the establishment of new teacher-training institutions. He had no apartment of his own for several years, but lived, when in Moscow, in the basement of the Institute of Psychology. It is a testimony to his energy that he produced any writings at all under these circumstances. In 1936 his work was effectively banned in the Soviet Union by a decree of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. This only changed after Stalin's death in 1953.
His work became available in the West in 1962 with the publication of an abridged version of his 1934 book Myshlenie i rech' (Thinking and Speech) under the title Thought and Language, with a foreword by Jerome Bruner. Since then more translations and more titles have become available. Vygotsky is reported to have had a photographic memory, and his work is clearly influenced by his wide reading of contemporary developmentalists such as Wolfgang Kohler, Jean Piaget, Karl Buhler and William Stern. His early death means that he has not left us with any clearly-articulated and formally elaborated theory, but a body of ideas to be mined for their riches. One of the leading lights in making Vygotsky's work available in the West is James Wertsch. The opening two paragraphs of his foreword to a translation of Vygotsky and Luria's joint monograph Studies on the History of Behavior: Ape, Primitive, and Child (1993: ix) set the scene here:
These words are appropriate. In laying out separate notions here, I am doing so in order to introduce them. But it is not the case that the order in which they are discussed indicates either their order of importance or the order in which Vygotsky introduced them. The list could be in a different order, and in all reality, you won't really grasp the first in whatever order they are put until you have reached the last one. What I mean here is that in introducing something, I've simplified it, so than when you come back to it, you'll realise that what I've said doesn't hold up anymore. But when you can do that, you'll know you're starting to understand Vygotsky's approach. And remember, that's the goal. I don't think it's possible to reconstruct the 'definitive' Vygotsky, but it's worth getting a grip on his work as a 'tool for thought'.
Imagine you had grown up in total social isolation. Vygotsky's notion of 'elementary psychological functions' would then describe what your psychological abilities would be like in that situation. You have no language, you can't read or write, but you have an intact nervous system that can do many things as well as, and many things beyond, what a primate can do.
Imagine there were time machines. If the conclusions we noted in looking at human evolution are right, then set the dial for 100,000 years ago, and go and make field notes on the humans you find when you step out the door. These people would not have a fully-fledged language or any of the other things we have to support our mental life. They would be relying on what God or mother-nature endowed them with: what Vygotsky conceives as our elementary mental functions
Have you ever played 'Kim's Game'? Children under about 7 years of age seem to approach this task differently from adults in our culture. They appear to use eidetic imagery to keep track of things. They take a kind of 'mental snapshot' of the collection of items. When you ask them to recall the objects they've looked at, they will often close their eyes, and you will see their eyes moving behind their eye-lids, as though they are looking at the image they have retained to see what objects are in which position. (Literate) adults use a different strategy: we try and create a verbal list of the objects, and rehearse this to remember what was there. The children are using 'elementary mental functions', the adults are not. Vygotsky used eidetic imagery as an example himself to distinguish these two levels of functioning (perhaps it was a salient distinction for him, if he did have a photographic memory):
Bottomline: Vygotsky conceives unaided natural abilities - the elementary psychological functions - as distinct from those that use the resources of cultural items to augment them. He considers the 'augmented abilities' as not just what are naturally given to us plus a bit extra, but as abilities being transformed into something quite different altogether. Natural abilities allow us to do new things - like read - but in the same way as there are major differences between the ways novice readers and proficient readers 'read', so too do the kinds of abilities that arise through 'augmentation' - the higher psychological functions – differ from natural abilities. Think of paper money: with your natural abilities you see it as a patterned surface; with your augmented ones you see it as 'money'.
Wertsch (1985: 25) comments that in the above quotation Vygotsky has indicated the four major criteria that distinguish between the elementary and the higher mental functions:
If these terms seem strange, think of 'intermental' as meaning 'between people', and 'intramental' as 'within people'.
Young infants give very little indication that they are trying to communicate when they yell. It seems likely they are just distressed. But we adults-as-parents worry about what it is they are crying about, and do something in an effort to help them. We treat their yells as a cry for help; we treat them as if they were communicating with us, which they are, but by default. This is an example of what Vygotsky means by an intermental ability: the ability the infant has to communicate his or her state cannot be located within the infant, but only in the relationship between the infant and the other person who acts so as to constitute yelling as a means of communication. When the infant has figured out that this is the functional status of yelling, and can use it in order to get someone to do something, then we are talking about an intramental ability.
When the infant is somewhat older, a similar shift of an ability from between people to within the infant can be seen to occur, and this one is a very important one. Vygotsky's colleague Luria puts it like this:
Derek Edwards has provided some concrete examples of this in his observations of an infant called Alice (1978: 462-3), aged around 19 months, who is learning how to stop herself from doing things by taking over elements of her mother's speech as her own. For example, when she is talking with her caretaker, she looks at her mother's watch which is out of reach and says 'Don't... mommy’s watch', to which her caretaker replies 'Mummy's. No touch', and Alice says 'don't touch'. Alice is saying exactly what her mother would have previously said to her repeatedly in the past few months. She is using her emerging language ability to take over her mother's controlling function of her behaviour, and, via the mediation of these words, is coming to control her own actions. In Luria's way of putting it, her behaviour is still subordinated to the word, but it's now her word, not her mother's. The control of her actions has shifted from the intermental to the intramental.
So, development, in Vygotsky's sense, is not learning to do something new, but taking over the control of something you can already do in concert with somebody else. This same point is made independently by the Scottish philosopher and theologian John Macmurray (1961: 50):
The 'Zone of Proximal Development' is often shortened to the acronym 'Zoped' for obvious reasons. The zone of proximal development is
The zoped occurs when someone is able to put himself or herself in someone else's position, and either complete an action for that person where they couldn't quite do it on their own, or, paradoxically, prevent the other from doing something that they can't yet stop themselves from doing. Even further, it can be seen as the context in which interpsychological abilities exist.
The spot marked 'X' in this sequence
of events is a piece of fluff, which this mother knows her 6 month old
infant will grasp and stick in her mouth if she sees it. Mother can
tell from the baby's posture and general movements at about point 5
that she has seen it, and she gets in first, picking it up (7-9) before
baby's hand gets there. The desire that baby doesn't pick such things
up and suck them exists socially, beyond baby. The ability not to act
spontaneously has yet to reside with baby. This is 'negation in the
zoped', and until the child can take over the mental abilities of her
mother into her own conduct, her mother will continue to act for her.
Here's another way of formulating this. When an activity has come under intramental control, we mean that we have an idea of the implications of the actions we are engaged in, and we perceive the action-implications as to 'what comes next' in our interactions with another (you could translate 'implications' or 'action-implications' as 'meaning' here, if that helps). In this particular case, only one participant in the interaction can 'see' the action-implications of the other’s activity, and in acting on this perception, the mother is acting to create a zoped, so that the child can come to appreciate the 'meaning' that is constituted by her own contribution to the interaction.
Here are some other ways of putting it. I'll try and create a zoped for you by juxtaposing some views from a number of writers:
So, at first, our abilities lie 'outside' our control, in the perceptions of others (and thus they are intermental), and become apparent to us if that other can make them available to us. And the best way to make them available is to adjust your actions back to the other so that they are 'just' apparent to them - make them 'appropriate' to the other’s abilities by working in the zoped created by their current abilities.
Vygotsky distinguishes between technical tools and psychological tools, but sees both of them as mediators of human actions. Both transform human actions from impulsive behaviour aimed directly at a desired object into an 'instrumental' activity mediated by the tool. Tools serve to shift our abilities from a reliance on the elementary functions to the higher psychological functions, from a direct to an indirect, or mediated relationship to the environment:
And, at the same time, we come to perceive the functional meanings of these creations as primary: we see 'money', not 'funny paper'. These 'psychological tools' come to mediate our lives and ways of thinking.
But in addition, the meaning of the time we read from a clock, our experience of its passing, is deeply reflective of the social relations between us. Marcel Bloch notes (1960: 74) a dispute in medieval times as to whether the time for a contestant to appear for a duel has been reached. The court has to deliberate, and appeals to the clerics present, who are used to ringing bells to structure their daily prayers, and who thus have a better feel for the rhythms of time passing. Eventually, after much discussion, the court is able to decide that 'time is up'. In the same period he notes (ibid: 84-5) that there was a great deal of argument as to when the millennium and the anticipated coming of the Antichrist would occur: Indeed, for the majority of Western men this expression, 'the year 1000', which we have been led to believe was charged with anguish, could not be identified with any precise moment in the sequence of days'.
It is unlikely that the modern quantitative measures of time that we are so familiar with had any common existence before the last decades of the sixteenth century (Nef, 1958). And it is significant that then it was changes in the structure of social relations between people, in terms of the economic relations that came to structure 'work', that brought about this change, fitting in with Vygotsky’s view that our higher, mediated psychological abilities have their origins in the social relations between people.
These notions hark back to Piaget's distinction between concrete thinking and formal thinking, on the one hand, and the 'implicational' properties of the symbols and semiotic systems that constitute our higher psychological abilities. I will discuss these ideas more fully in later lectures. But note here another tangent on the point, provided by Sir Karl Popper. Popper asked how an animal path might arise through a jungle:
As an example of this autonomy Popper discusses the properties of mathematics (and, again, this is a topic discussed in more detail in a later lecture). His discussion provides a view on the meaning of 'semiotic potential'. He maintains that the sequence of natural numbers is a human construction, but
Thus, the numbers have a potential for further knowledge to be worked out, things that follow from them by implication, that we can come to discover. And, in this context, different number systems have different potentials with respect to the structuring and practice of cultural abilities. It is easier to do maths with the Arabic system than with the Roman system, for example, even with a lot of practice. Thus, we can decontextualise mathematics from the act of counting, yet use the same set of symbols for each activity, while noting that some symbol systems have a greater facilitative (semiotic) potential to enable this than others (as though something gave symbols a more-or-less compatible zoped of their own with respect to our solving the autonomous problems they set us).
And that said, we must not overlook the social ecology within which symbols are used, and the social practices they are used for. Both these can give us a 'set' that allows the exploitation of semiotic potentials, and a subsequent decontextualisation and generalisation of the ways we use these symbols. For example, consider the formulation of what we now term 'Archimedes' Principle'. It may be mythical, but Archimedes is reputed to have 'discovered' this in his bath, shouted 'Eureka', and then run naked through the streets in his excitement. A certain amount of social organisation underwrote the possibility of a naked primate being able to think about such arcane issues while wallowing in water, rather than keeping an eye out for the wild animals likely to eat him. And a hydraulic technology was needed in order to get the water to him, rather than his having to go to it. Another technology was needed to heat as large a quantity of water as one needs to wallow in and reflect on how the water level changes. And more hydraulics were needed to get rid of the dirty water afterwards, if only to prevent increasing the possibilities of diseases that would adversely affect the very urban environment that enabled all this thinking to be done where it was in the first place. It is such things which 'mediate' our psychological abilities, in Vygotsky's scheme of things. (Bruner would say something about how cognition is distributed or scaffolded, one suspects.)
Vygotsky and Luria, in their book Studies on the History of Behavior: Ape, Primitive , and Child, and Luria, in his own work Cognitive development: Its cultural and social foundations laid the foundations of a 'Cultural-Historical' psychology that drew heavily on cross-cultural and cross-species work, both their own and that done by others. A great deal of this work is inherently fascinating yet unsettling from the perspective of today. This is because, as I noted in an earlier lecture, during this period there was an unarticulated premise of 'progress' having been made, and a clear acceptance that the abilities fostered in, and the products of, Western civilisations were the high point of an evolutionary progression (well, the male members of those cultures were, anyway). Vygotsky did not escape from this tendency, but his views differed from the majority of contemporary researchers on whose writings he drew.
On the one hand, there was a group who conceived of racial differences between cultures as genetically based. On the other were mostly cultural anthropologists who saw human cultures as inherently similar in the complexity of their elements and patterns. Vygotsky saw things differently. Using Bruner's terminology, he saw cultures as providing tools and symbol kits that 'amplified' people's abilities, and some sets of tools and symbols 'turned the volume up louder', so to speak:
Thus, all people possess the same 'lower', or 'natural', or 'elementary' psychological processes. But, depending on the degree of elaboration of the various symbol systems used in different cultures, people could vary widely in their mental functioning, in their 'higher', or 'instrumental', or 'cultural' psychological processes.
The second questionVygotsky's way of conceiving how development works is becoming more and more mainstream. His notion of the zoped has an intuitive appeal that crystallizes how culture can be passed on by inducting new peepholes into it. I will follow this up a bit further in the next lecture. And I will also be using the material in the next lecture to provide a handle into the second question posed at the start of this lecture, and which Vygotsky doesn't answer, though he provides the hints that point to how an answer. Vygotsky provides a framework that largely answers the first question: how do people pick up and master the cultural resources that are there when their peepholes open. But the second question - how did those cultural resources get to be there? - seems to be more complicated after the explanatory satisfaction of Vygotsky's developmental account.
What I mean here is this: the notion of the zoped relies on there being someone who has mastered a cultural system acting so as to induct a novice peephole into it. So how could a culture ever produce new innovations? While Vygotsky's account is useful for explaining how cultures can be transmitted from one generation to another, how does it help explain how the stuff that is being transmitted got there in the first place to be transmitted? As his account stands, it doesn't, as far as I can see. But I also think, that with a bit of a twist, it can be refigured so as to do it. It will be this 'refiguring' that I am going to pursue in the next few lectures.
Let me preface where I'll be aiming to take you. I like Vygotsky's notion of the zoped. I want to hang onto it. But to 'hang onto it' it will be necessary to reformulate the second question here as follows: how might a zone of proximal development be generated between two people who are at the same stage of development, between two people who have equal abilities?
Cole, M. (1985) The zone of proximal development: Where culture and cognition create each other. In J. V. Wertsch (Ed.) Culture, communication, and cognition: Vygotskyean perspectives. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Cole, M. (1990) Cultural psychology: A once and future discipline? In J. Berman (Ed.) Nebraska Symposium on Motivation: Cross-cultural perspectives. Vol 37, pp 279-335.
Edwards, D. (1978) Social relations and early language. In A. J. Lock (Ed.) Action, gesture and symbol: The emergence of language. London: Academic Press. Pp. 449-470.
Luria, A. R. and Yudovich, F. A. (1971) Speech and the development of mental processes in the child. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Rogoff, B. (1990) Apprenticeship in thinking: Cognitive development in social context. New York: Oxford University Press.
Rogoff, B. and Wertsch, J. V. (1984) Children's learning in the 'zone of proximal development'. Monograph No. 23. In New directions for child development. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass. Pp. 1-102.
van der Veer, R. and Valsiner, J (1991) Understanding Vygotsky: A quest for synthesis. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978) Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Vygotsky, L. S. and Luria, A.R. (1993) Studies on the History of Behavior: Ape, Primitive, and Child. Edited and translated by V. I. Golod and J. E. Knox. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Wertsch, J. V. (1985) Vygotsky and the social formation of mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wertsch, J. V. (1991) Voices of the mind: A sociocultural approach to mediated action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
I received the following note on these lectures. I will follow them up
I am Russian researcher working at the Department of Behavioural Sciences of the University of Oulu (Finland). I am specialized in a historical and epistemological problems of psychology and, in particular, Vygotsky's theory.
Thank you very much for the Lecture 19 on your page about Vygotsky and his approach. I find it very informative and well prepared in contrast to many others on different sites, especially in U.S.
On the other hand I have some mistakes and correections if you do not mind.
First, some historical misunderstandings.
1.Vygotsky died not at the age of 38 but at the age of 37 (as Pushkin if you like this analogy). It is very easy to calculate because he was born in November,1897 and died at June,1934.
2. It is not completely correct that "his active career as a psychologist was only around 10 years". I think that this statement is a result of non-critical use of American sources of Vygotsky's biography. The point is that before he started his Moscow academic career in 1924 he worked in Gomel (Belorussia) and worked as a teacher and as a head of the psychological laboratory in Teachers Training Institute. His book "pedagogical psychology" which was published in 1926 (and that was the only one he published during his life-time) was completely prepared at that period, before 1924. Moreover, in Gomel he collected all data for his "Psychology of Art" which was his Doctoral Thesis defined in 1925 without public examination. By the way, Vygotsky himself mentioned 1917 as a year he started to work in psychology.
3. On higher and elementary psychological functions. Traditionally (because of a strong influence of works of Wertsch, Cole and others) this problem is presented in Western literature in such a way that Vygotsky contrasted so-called higher psychical functions to so-called elementary ones. Actually, the problem is deeper and must be investigated (and presented in a lecture) from historical point.
Here at least two problems must be mentioned.
In different periods Vygotsky defined higher psychical functions differently.
This means that the problem "higher VERSUS elementary" problem has no relations with the original Vygotsky's ideas.
I have more comments (about literature, problem of adequate translations of Vygotsky's text and so on) and I will be happy to sent them. Let me know whether you need details.
Sincerely yours Nikolai Veresov