Trish Nicholl

'the central fact about our psychology is the fact of mediation'

Higher and lower mental functions
Intramental vs intermental abilities
The zone of proximal development
Psychological tools
Semiotic potential and the decontextualisation of mediational means


Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, was interested in applying Marxist social theory to individual psychology. The approach he takes to cognitive development is sociocultural, working on the assumption that 'action is mediated and cannot be separated from the milieu in which it is carried out' (Wertsch, 1991:18)

Higher and lower mental functions

Vygotsky differentiated between our higher and lower mental functions conceiving our lower or elementary mental functions to be those functions that are genetically inherited, our natural mental abilities. In contrast, he saw our higher mental functions as developing through social interaction, being socially or culturally mediated (ibid).

Behavioural options are limited when functioning occurs at an elementary level. Without the learning that occurs as a result of social interaction, without self awareness or the use of signs and symbols that allow us to think in more complex ways, we would remain slaves to the situation, responding directly to the environment (ibid). An example of this direct response to the environment is an ape separated from a banana by a fence though there is an entrance just a few metres away. The ape is unable to distance itself from the situation so that it may look at the options open to it. Instead, it remains salivating, totally focused on the object of its desire.

In contrast, higher mental functions allow us to move from impulsive behaviour to instrumental action. Cultural humans differ from primitive humans and other primates in that we do not react directly to the environment (ibid). Our psychology is mediated by cultural means. From infancy we learn through interaction with others. We are because of others.

[the human infant] cannot, even theoretically, live an isolated existence, . . . he is not an independent individual. He lives a common life as one term in a personal relationship. Only in the process of development does he learn to achieve a relative independence, and that only by appropriating the techniques of a rational social tradition.(McMurray 1961:57 in Lock, 1989)

Intramental vs intermental psychological abilities

Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological), and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formulation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relations between human individuals (Vygotsky, 1978:57 in Lock, 1989)

Intramental ability exists within the child while intermental ability occurs in the relationship between people. Initially, an infants cries are not intended by the infant to be a form of communication, their existence is simply an undirected expression. When they cry we act on their behalf giving meaning to their communication. She or he can communicate only through their relationship with us. This is an example of intermental ability. At a certain point in the infant's development this changes with the infant's behaviour becoming intentional. When an infant is able to use crying instrumentally, that is as an intentional act of communciation the ability demonstrated is intramental (Lock, Lecture 18). When a parent gives meaning to the communication of their child when that child is unable to do so for itself the parent is working in the child's zone of proximal development.

The zone of proximal development

The zone of proximal development is the range of potential each person has for learning, with that learning being shaped by the social environment in which it takes place. This potential ability is greater than the actual ability of the individual when the learning is facilitated by someone with greater expertise (Wertsch, 1991). This concept is related to that of intermental and intramental abilities. Initially the infant's cries exist only for the infant. The response to the infant's cries result in the infant using crying intentionally. Thus, the infant has learned with the help of another that crying can bring about specific changes. It is in the zone of proximal development, through social interaction that we learn how to use the psychological tools available to us.

Psychological tools

It is psychological tools that enable us to bridge the gap between lower and higher mental functions. These psychological tools include:

various systems for counting; mnemonic techniques; algebraic symbol systems; works of art; writing; schemes, diagrams, maps, and technical drawings; all sorts of conventional signs, and so on. (Vygotsky, 1982:137, cited in Cole & Wertsch)

Of the psychological tools that mediate our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, language is the most important.

Language is initially used in interaction between adult and child as a means of communication. Gradually it is internalised into a means of the child's own thinking and control of his or her own activity (Lock, Lecture 18). Language is one of the tools that enable the emergence of self awareness and the voluntary control of our actions. With young children parents act to control their behaviour, as the child develops greater awareness of what is acceptable and what is not she or he takes over some of this control. Where initially it is the adult who says yes or no to the child, eventually the child will say yes or no to her or himself. For the child to become responsible for his or her actions self awareness is necessary. Language provides us with the tools to gain self awarenes and consequently voluntary control of our actions.

In growing up within linguistically structured and sustained relationships 'the child begins to perceive the world not only through its eyes but also through its speech. And later it is not just seeing but acting that becomes informed by words'. (Vygotsky1978:32 in Shotter)

Culture provides the basic orientations that stucture the behavioural environment of the self. Differentiation of the self from others and objects, and the ability to reflect on oneself from the perspective of the other are necessary for the maintenance of social order. Self and object orientation allow us to make sense of the environment in which we live and orient ourselves accordingly. Motivation is the reason we act and it covers the spectrum of our needs, interests, desires and attitudes particular to a culture and essential to its survival. What we perceive as desirable for or threatening to the self will depend upon the social environment we inhabit. If we are to act in relation to our environment it is necessary that we know where we are, it is also necessary that we have some concept of time so that we can see where we have been and relate it to where we plan to be at some point in the future. In terms of responsibility for the self this is crucial. The ability to appraise our performance in terms of meeting socially approved standards is essential for voluntary control of one's actions. It is norms that determine the standards expected of us (Hallowell, 1955).

An inner process stands in need of outward criteria, and expectation is embedded in a situation from which it arises. (Wittgenstein 1953:580-81 in Shotter)
It is through language that we construct reality. With words we define, shape, and experience. Without the words to think, communicate, experience, or understand our lives would be very different from what they are. Words expand our consciousness but also limit us as we can only fully experience those things that we have the words for. Language provides the framework through which we perceive, experience, and act. As language constructs reality, so symbolisation constitutes objects.
Symbolisation constitutes objects not conceptualised before, objects which would not exist except for the context of social relationships wherein symbolisation occurs. Language does not simply symbolise a situation or object which is already there in advance; it makes possible the existence or the appearance of the situation or object, for it is a part of the mechanism whereby that situation or object is created. (Mead, 1934:78)
While symbolisation constitutes objects, some signs and symbols lend themselves more easily than others to specific purposes.

Semiotic potential and the decontextualisation of mediational means

In terms of concept development, Vygotsky was interested in the semiotic potential that is realised in the decontextualisation of mediational means. Decontextualisation results in mastery of abstract forms of reasoning associated with the types of tasks found in formal education where words or terms are abstracted from the discourse or text that they were embedded in and become objects of reflection (Wertsch, 1991).

Differences in perception and conceptual styles have been found and these differences are reflected in a person's ability to think in abstract rather than concrete terms. Field dependent or relational styles reflect the tendency to perceive and adhere to an existing, externally imposed framework. In contrast, field independent or analytical styles are reflected in the individual's ability to develop their own internal references and restructure knowledge. Linguistic styles have been identified as either formal or public, public language being associated with field dependence and formal language being associated with field independence. Public language is more context bound with the transmission of cultural knowledge being implicit. Formal language allows the transmission of cultural knowledge with relative ease when meanings are explicit (Lock, Lecture 19).

Where meanings [are explicit], then individuals have access to the grounds of their experience and can change the grounds. Where orders of meanings are particularistic, where principles are linguistically implicit, then such meanings are less context independent and more context-bound, that is, tied to a local relationship and to a local social structure (Bernstein 1971:175-6 in Lock, Lecture 19).
Formal language facilitates a shift from subjective to objective styles of thought. When we decontextualise linguistic units the semiotic potential is altered. Initially when I started this project I found myself trapped by the context Vygotskian concepts were embedded in, unable to think about them clearly outside of the texts. In an effort to abstract the meaning from the text I drew a mind map. This map provided a way of organising my thoughts, a means I might add that lends itself particularly well to paragraphs and sections because of its structure. I then drew up a table with the concepts written across the top of the page and again down the side of the page. Having done this I found myself thinking in different ways about the concepts, relating them to each other in ways that I had not done previously. The semiotic potential of tabling these concepts was realised. Decontextualising the mediational means allows us to approach and think about ideas in new ways. In doing so we frequently create something new.

At birth our higher mental functions have yet to be developed. From birth we learn through interaction with others and in doing so we create something qualitatively different from what we started with. What we learn will depend on the psychological tools available to us and which tools are available will depend upon the culture we live in. Our thoughts, our actions, and our experiences are culturally mediated.

'The central fact about our psychology is the fact of mediation' (Vygotsky 1982:166).


Cole, M. & Wertsch, J. V. (1996) Beyond the Individual - Social Antimony in Discussions of Piaget and Vygotsky.

Hallowell, A. I. (1955) The self and its behavioral environment. Chapter 4, Pp 75-110 In A. I. Hallowell, Culture and Experience

Lock, A., Service, V., Brito, A. & Chandler, P (1989) The social structuring of infant cognition. In A. Slater and G. Bremner (Eds)Infant Development Chapter 10. Pp 243-72.

Lock. A. (1998) Lecture 18: Vygotsky

Lock. A. (1998) Lecture 19: Cognitive Styles

Mead, G. H. (1934) Mind, Self and Society. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Shotter, J. (1997) Talk of saying, showing, gesturing and feeling in Wittgenstein and Vygotsky.

Wertsch, J. V. (1991) Voices of the mind: A sociocultural approach to mediated action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Comments to p.m.nicholl@massey.ac.nz

Department of Psychology, Massey University , New Zealand
Last changed Wednesday 6 May, 1998