Lev Semenovich Vygotsky was one of the former Soviet Union’s most important and influential psychologists. Although he died before he was 40, and his writings fell into disfavor by Stalin and were banned until 1956, he has left a lasting mark on both American and Continental scholars in numerous fields, from anthropology to cognitive science. His most famous books in English are Thought and Language (1986 ), Mind in Society (1978), and The Psychology of Art (1971).
Vygotsky was born in 1896 in Orsha, near Minsk in today’s Belarus. Although he was a bright student and graduated with a law degree from Moscow University in 1917, being a Jew in Tsarist Russia was an obvious liability, so he had to return home to teach literature in high school. While in Moscow, however, he also attended a free university taught by professors who were expelled from their teaching posts because of their politics. It was here that Vygotsky studied psychology, philosophy, and literature, all subjects he would put to use after a turning point in his life in 1924. That year he presented a paper at the All-Russian Psychoneurological Conference in Leningrad on the relationship of Pavlov’s conditioned reflexes to human consciousness. He was then immediately invited to attend Moscow’s Psychological Institute, where he submitted a dissertation on the psychology of the arts in 1925.
From 1925 until his death in 1934, Vygotsky worked incessantly, creating the bulk of his canon. He attacked not only practical problems facing the new Soviet state—such as educational reforms, illiteracy, and disability concerns—but also theoretical issues in the study of society, language, and cognition. He sought to find a way for the physiological or experimental psychologists—who were largely focusing on overt behavior—to meet with the phenomenologically or philosophically oriented psychologists—who were focusing on mental states.
Vygotsky concluded that all mental life is actually a product of social development. That is, instead of postulating, say, that children become enculturated by learning—or deciding or thinking—to conform to the social rules they see around them, Vygotsky saw society as preceding the individual by providing the conditions that allow individual thinking to even emerge in the first place. Individual consciousness, then, develops through contact with society, and is not a property an individual has in isolation. As Vygotsky wrote, “The mechanism for social behavior and the mechanism of consciousness are the same…. We are aware of ourselves, for we are aware of others. .. .” But these mental functions must be mediated, and Vygotsky saw tool use and the use of signs as the most essential ingredients of higher thought processes. Language, of course, is the most general of all semiotic systems, and was of special interest to Vygotsky.
But not only linguists and psychologists find refreshing approaches to old problems in Vygotsky’s work. “Vygotsky managed …a unique approach that does not separate individuals from the socio-cultural setting in which they function. This integrative approach to social, semiotic, and psychological phenomena has substantial relevance today, a half century after his death.”
- Daniels, H. (1996). An introduction to Vygotsky. London: Routledge.
- Frawley, W. (1997). Vygotsky and cognitive science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Rieberm, R., & Robinson, D. (2004). The essential Vygotsky. New York: Plenum.