November 17, 1896|
Orsha, Russian Empire, now in Belarus
|Died||June 11, 1934
Moscow, Soviet Union
|Alma mater||Moscow University
Shaniavskii Moscow City People's University
|Known for||Cultural-historical psychology, Zone of proximal development|
|Roza Noevna Vygodskaia (née Smekhova)|
|Notable students||Alexander Luria|
|Influences||Wilhelm von Humboldt, Alexander Potebnia, Alfred Adler, Kurt Koffka, Kurt Lewin, Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, Kurt Goldstein, Karl Marx, Jean Piaget|
|Influenced||Vygotsky Circle, Evald Ilyenkov, Urie Bronfenbrenner|
Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (Russian: ?, IPA: [v?'?otskj]; November 17 [O.S. November 5] 1896 - June 11, 1934) was a Soviet psychologist, the founder of an unfinished theory of human cultural and bio-social development commonly referred to as cultural-historical psychology, a prominent advocate for a new theory of consciousness, the "psychology of superman", and leader of the Vygotsky Circle (also referred to as "Vygotsky-Luria Circle").
Vygotsky's main work was in developmental psychology, and he proposed a theory of the development of "higher psychological functions" that saw human psychological development as emerging through interpersonal connections and actions with the social environment. During the earlier mechanistic and reductionist "instrumental psychology" period of his career (1920s), he argued that human psychological development was mediated by signs that he viewed as psychological equivalent of instrument use in human labor and industry. Later, in the "holistic" period of his career (first half of 1930s), Vygotsky was increasingly influenced by the systemic thinking of the scholars associated with German-American Gestalt psychology movement. It was during this period that he--under the influence of Kurt Lewin's "Topological (and vector) psychology"--introduced the vague notion of the "zone of proximal development" and identified play of young children as their "leading activity", that he understood as the main source of the preschoolers' development in terms of emotional, volitional and cognitive development.
During his lifetime, Vygotsky's ideas were controversial within the Soviet Union. As early as in mid-1920s, Vygotsky was introduced in the West where he remained virtually unknown until the early 1980s when the popularity of the developmental psychology of Jean Piaget (1896-1980) among educators started to decline and, in contrast, Vygotsky's notion of the "zone of proximal development" became a central component of the development of new paradigms in developmental and educational psychology. A Review of General Psychology study, published in 2002, ranked Vygotsky as the 83rd top psychologist of the 20th century and the third (and the last) Russian on the top-100 list after Ivan Pavlov and Vygotsky's longtime collaborator Alexander Luria.
The early 21st century has seen scholarly reevaluations of the popular version of Vygotsky's legacy (sometimes termed "Vygotsky cult", "the cult of Vygotsky" or even "the cult of personality around Vygotsky"), which is referred to as the "revisionist revolution in Vygotsky Studies".
Lev Vygotsky was born in the town of Orsha, Belarus (then occupied by Russian Empire) into a non-religious middle class Russian Jewish family. His father Simcha Vygodsky was a banker. He was raised in the city of Gomel, where he obtained public and later private education in the Ratner Jewish Gimnasium. In 1913 Vygotsky was admitted to the Moscow University through a "Jewish Lottery" to meet a three percent Jewish student quota for entry in Moscow and Saint Petersburg universities. He had interest in humanities and social sciences, but at the insistence of his parents he applied to the Medical School in Moscow University. During the first semester of study he transferred to the Law school. There he studied law and, in parallel, he attended lectures at fully official, but privately funded and non degree granting Shaniavskii Moscow City People's University". His early interests were in the arts and he might have aspired to be a literary critic, fascinated with the formalism of his time.
Upon graduation in 1917, Vygotsky returned to Gomel, where he lived after the October Socialist Revolution of 1917 happened. There is virtually no information about his life during the years of the German occupation and the Civil War until the Bolsheviks captured the town in 1919. Subsequently Vygotsky was an active participant of major social transformation under the Bolshevik rule and a fairly prominent representative of the Bolshevik government in Gomel from 1919 to 1923. By the early 1920s he changed his Jewish-sounding birth name, Lev Símkhovich Výgodskiy (Russian: ?), with the surname becoming Vygótskiy and the patronymic Símkhovich becoming the more Slavic Semyónovich.
In January 1924, Vygotsky took part in the Second All-Russian Psychoneurological Congress in Leningrad. Soon thereafter, Vygotsky received an invitation to become a research fellow at the Psychological Institute in Moscow. Vygotsky moved to Moscow with new wife Roza Smekhova. He began his career at the Psychological Institute as a "staff scientist, second class". By the end of 1925, Vygotsky completed his dissertation in 1925 on "The Psychology of Art" (not published until the 1960s) and a book "Pedagogical Psychology" that was apparently created on the basis of lecture notes that he prepared back in Gomel as a psychology instructor at local educational establishments. In summer 1925 he made his first and only trip abroad to a London congress on the education of the deaf. Upon return to the Soviet Union, he was hospitalized due to relapse of tuberculosis and, having miraculously survived, remained an invalid and out of job until the end of 1926. His dissertation was accepted as the prerequisite of scholarly degree, which was awarded to Vygotsky in fall 1925 in absentia.
After his release from hospital Vygotsky did theoretical and methodological work on the crisis in psychology, but never finished the draft of the manuscript and interrupted his work on it around mid-1927. The manuscript was later published with notable editorial interventions and distortions in 1982 and presented by the editors as one of the most important Vygotsky's works. In this early manuscript, Vygotsky argued for the formation of a general psychology that could unite the naturalist objectivist strands of psychological science with the more philosophical approaches of Marxist orientation. However, he also harshly criticized those of his colleagues who attempted to build a "Marxist Psychology" as an alternative to the naturalist and philosophical schools. He argued that if one wanted to build a truly Marxist Psychology, there were no shortcuts to be found by merely looking for applicable quotes in Marx' writings. Rather one should look for a methodology that was in accordance with the Marxian spirit.
In 1926-30 Vygotsky worked on a research programme investigating the development of higher cognitive functions of logical memory, selective attention, decision making and language comprehension, from early forms of primal psychological functions. During this period he gathered a group of collaborators including Alexander Luria, Boris Varshava, Alexei Leontiev, Leonid Zankov and several others. Vygotsky guided his students in researching this phenomenon from three different angles:
In early 1930s Vygotsky experienced deep crisis, personal and theoretical, and after a period of massive self-criticism made an attempt at a radical revision of his theory. The work of the representatives of the Gestalt psychology and other holistic scholars was instrumental in this theoretical shift. In 1932-1934 Vygotsky was aiming at establishing a psychological theory of consciousness, but this theory because of his death remained only in a very sketchy and unfinished form.
Vygotsky was a pioneering psychologist and his major works span six separate volumes, written over roughly 10 years, from Psychology of Art (1925) to Thought and Language [or Thinking and Speech] (1934). Vygotsky's interests in the fields of developmental psychology, child development, and education were extremely diverse. His philosophical framework includes interpretations of the cognitive role of mediation tools, as well as the re-interpretation of well-known concepts in psychology such as internalization of knowledge. Vygotsky introduced the notion of zone of proximal development, a metaphor capable of describing the potential of human cognitive development. His work covered topics such as the origin and the psychology of art, development of higher mental functions, philosophy of science and methodology of psychological research, the relation between learning and human development, concept formation, interrelation between language and thought development, play as a psychological phenomenon, learning disabilities, and abnormal human development (aka defectology). His scientific thinking underwent several major transformations throughout his career, but generally Vygotsky's legacy can be divided into two fairly distinct periods and the transitional phase between the two during which Vygotsky experienced the crisis in his theory and personal life. These are the mechanistic "instrumental" period of the 1920s, integrative "holistic" period of the 1930s, and the transitional years of, roughly, 1929-1931. Each of these periods is characterized by its distinct themes and theoretical innovations.
Vygotsky studied child development and the significant roles of cultural mediation and interpersonal communication. He observed how higher mental functions developed through these interactions, and also represented the shared knowledge of a culture. This process is known as internalization. Internalization can be understood in one respect as "knowing how". For example, the practices of riding a bicycle or pouring a cup of milk are initially outside and beyond the child. The mastery of the skills needed for performing these practices occurs through the activity of the child within society. A further aspect of internalization is appropriation, in which the child takes a tool and makes it his own, perhaps using it in a way unique to himself. Internalizing the use of a pencil allows the child to use it very much for his own ends rather than drawing exactly what others in society have drawn previously.
In 1930s Vygotsky was engaged in massive reconstruction of his theory of his "instrumental" period of the 1920s. Around 1929-1930 he realized numerous deficiencies and imperfections of the earlier work of the Vygotsky Circle and criticized it on a number of occasions: in 1929, 1930, in 1931, and in 1932. Specifically, Vygotsky criticized his earlier idea of radical separation between the "lower" and "higher" psychological functions and, around 1932, appears to abandon it.
This Vygotsky's self-criticism was complemented by external criticism for a number of issues, including the separation between the "higher" and the "lower" psychological functions, impracticality and inapplicability of his theory in social practices (such as industry or education) during the time of rapid social change, and vulgar Marxist interpretation of human psychological processes. Critics also pointed to his overemphasis on the role of language and, on the other hand, the ignorance of the emotional factors in human development. Major figures in Soviet psychology such as Sergei Rubinstein criticized Vygotsky's notion of mediation and its development in the works of students. Following criticism and in response to generous offer from the highest officials in Soviet Ukraine, a major group of Vygotsky's associates, the members of the Vygotsky Circle, including Luria, Mark Lebedinsky, and Leontiev, moved from Moscow to Ukraine to establish the Kharkov school of psychology. In the second half of the 1930s, Vygotsky would be yet again criticized for his involvement in the cross-disciplinary study of the child known as paedology and uncritical borrowings from contemporary "bourgeois" science. Considerable critique came from the alleged Vygotsky's followers, such as Leontiev and members of his research group in Kharkov. Much of this early criticism was later discarded by these Vygotskian scholars themselves.
The period of major revision of Vygotsky's theory and its transition from mechanist orientation of his 1920s to integrative holistic science of the 1930s. During this period Vygotsky was under particularly strong influence of holistic theories of German-American group of proponents of Gestalt psychology, most notably, the peripheral participants of the Gestalt movement Kurt Goldstein and Kurt Lewin. However, Vygotsky's work of this period remained largely fragmentary and unfinished and, therefore, unpublished.
"Zone of proximal development" (ZPD) is Vygotsky's term for the range of tasks that a child is in the process of learning to complete. In the original Vygotsky's writings this phrase is used in three different meanings. Vygotsky viewed the ZPD as a way to better explain the relation between children's learning and cognitive development. Prior to the ZPD, the relation between learning and development could be boiled down to the following three major positions: 1) Development always precedes learning (e.g., constructivism): children first need to meet a particular maturation level before learning can occur; 2) Learning and development cannot be separated but instead occur simultaneously (e.g., behaviorism): essentially, learning is development; and 3) learning and development are separate but interactive processes (e.g., gestaltism): one process always prepares the other process, and vice versa. Vygotsky rejected these three major theories because he believed that learning should always precede development in the ZPD. According to Vygotsky, through the assistance of a more capable person, a child is able to learn skills or aspects of a skill that go beyond the child's actual developmental or maturational level.The lower limit of ZPD is the level of skill reached by the child working independently (also referred to as the child's actual developmental level). The upper limit is the level of potential skill that the child is able to reach with the assistance of a more capable instructor. In this sense, the ZPD provides a prospective view of cognitive development, as opposed to a retrospective view that characterizes development in terms of a child's independent capabilities.
Perhaps Vygotsky's most important contribution concerns the inter-relationship of language development and thought. This problem was explored in Vygotsky's book Thinking and speech, titled, in Russian, Myshlenie i rech published in 1934. In fact, this book was a mere collection of essays and scholarly papers that Vygotsky wrote during different periods of his thought development and included writings of his "instrumental" and "holistic" periods. Vygotsky never saw the book published: it was published posthumously, edited by his closest associates (Kolbanovskii, Zankov, and Shif) not sooner than December, 1934, i.e., half a year after his death. First English translation was published in 1962 (with several later re-editions) heavily abbreviated and under an alternative and incorrect translation of the title Thought and Language for the Russian title Mysl' i iazyk. The book establishes the explicit and profound connection between speech (both silent inner speech and oral language), and the development of mental concepts and cognitive awareness. Vygotsky described inner speech as being qualitatively different from verbal external speech. Although Vygotsky believed inner speech developed from external speech via a gradual process of "internalization" (i.e., transition from the external to the internal), with younger children only really able to "think out loud," he claimed that in its mature form inner speech would not resemble spoken language as we know it (in particular, being greatly compressed). Hence, thought itself develops socially.
Vygotsky died of tuberculosis on June 11, 1934, at the age of 37, in Moscow, Soviet Union. One of Vygotsky's last private notebook entries gives a proverbial, yet very pessimistic self-assessment of his contribution to psychological theory:
This is the final thing I have done in psychology - and I will like Moses die at the summit, having glimpsed the promised land but without setting foot on it. Farewell, dear creations. The rest is silence.
Immediately after his death, Vygotsky was proclaimed one of the leading psychologists in the Soviet Union, although his stellar reputation was somewhat undermined by the decree of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of 1936 that denounced the mass movement, discipline and related social practice of the so-called pedology. Yet, even despite some criticisms and censorship of his works--most notably, in the post-Stalin era in the Soviet Union of 1960s-1980s by his Russian alleged and self-proclaimed best students and followers--Vygotsky always remained among the most quoted scholars in the field and has become a cult figure for a number of contemporary intellectuals and practitioners in Russia and the international psychological and educational community alike.
In the Soviet Union, the work of the group of Vygotsky's students known as the Vygotsky Circle was vital for preserving and, in many respects, distorting the scientific legacy of Lev Vygotsky. The members of the group subsequently laid a foundation for Vygotskian psychology's systematic development in such diverse fields as the psychology of memory (P. Zinchenko), perception, sensation and movement (Zaporozhets, Asnin, A. N. Leont'ev), personality (Lidiya Bozhovich, Asnin, A. N. Leont'ev), will and volition (Zaporozhets, A. N. Leont'ev, P. Zinchenko, L. Bozhovich, Asnin), psychology of play (G. D. Lukov, Daniil El'konin) and psychology of learning (P. Zinchenko, L. Bozhovich, D. El'konin), as well as the theory of step-by-step formation of mental actions (Pyotr Gal'perin), general psychological activity theory (A. N. Leont'ev) and psychology of action (Zaporozhets). Andrey Puzyrey elaborated the ideas of Vygotsky in respect of psychotherapy and even in the broader context of deliberate psychological intervention (psychotechnique), in general. In Laszlo Garai founded a Vygotskian research group.
In North America, Vygotsky's work was known from the end of the 1920s through a series of publications in English, but it did not have a major impact on research in general. In 1962 a translation of his posthumous 1934 book Thinking and Speech, published with the title,Thought and Language, did not seem to change the situation considerably. It was only after an eclectic compilation of partly rephrased and partly translated works of Vygotsky and his collaborators, published in 1978 under Vygotsky's name as Mind in Society, that the Vygotsky boom started in the West: originally, in North America, and later, following the North American example, spread to other regions of the world. This version of Vygotskian science is typically associated with the names of its chief proponents Michael Cole, James Wertsch, their associates and followers, and is relatively well-known under the names of "cultural-historical activity theory" (aka CHAT) or--yet more distant from Vygotsky's legacy--"activity theory".Scaffolding, a concept introduced by Wood, Bruner and Ross in 1976, is somewhat related to the idea of ZPD, although Vygotsky never actually used the term.
A critique of the North American interpretation of Vygotsky's ideas and, somewhat later, its global spread and dissemination appeared in the 1980s. The early 1980s criticism of Russian and Western "Vygotskian" scholars continued throughout the 1990s. Thus, different authors emphasized the biased and fragmented interpretations of Vygotsky by representatives of what was termed "neo-Vygotskian fashions in contemporary psychology" or "selective traditions" in Vygotskian scholarship. Characteristically, the most fashionable "Vygotskian" phraseology in wide circulation in Western scholarly and educational discourse--such as the so-called "zone of proximal development"--in the critical literature of this period were referred to as "one of the most used and least understood constructs to appear in contemporary educational literature", the construct that was "used as little more than a fashionable alternative to Piagetian terminology or the concept of IQ for describing individual differences in attainment or potential". Other authors also suggest clearly distinguishing between original Vygotsky's notion of "zona blizhaishego razvitiia" (ZBR) and its later Western superficial interpretations known under the umbrella term "zone of proximal development" (ZPD). The criticism continued and reached a peak in the 2000s. Most often these critiques address numerous distortions of Vygotsky's ideas, mere "declarations of faith", "versions of Vygotsky", the "concepts and inferences curiously attributed to Lev Vygotsky", "multiple readings of Vygotsky", some of which--for instance, "activity theory"--are referred to as "dead end" for cultural-historical psychology and, moreover, for methodological thinking in cultural psychology. Some publications question "if anyone actually reads Vygotsky's words", whether it is "too late to understand Vygotsky for the classroom", and suggest "turning Vygotsky on his head." Inconsistencies, contradictions, and at times fundamental flaws in "Vygotskian" literature were revealed in the ocean of critical publications on this subject and are typically associated with--but certainly not limited to--the North American legacy of Michael Cole and James Wertsch and their associates. These criticisms contributed significantly to the increasing awareness of numerous "challenges of claiming a Vygotskian perspective".
The revisionist movement in Vygotsky Studies was termed a "revisionist revolution" to describe a relatively recent trend that emerged in the 1990s. This trend is typically associated with growing dissatisfaction with the quality and scholarly integrity of available texts of Vygotsky and members of Vygotsky Circle, including their English translations made from largely mistaken, distorted, and even in a few instances falsified Soviet editions, which raises serious concerns about the reliability of Vygotsky's texts available in English. However, unlike critical literature that discusses Western interpretations of Vygotsky's legacy, the target of criticism and the primary object of research in the studies of the revisionist strand are Vygotsky's texts proper: the manuscripts, original lifetime publications, and Vygotsky's posthumous Soviet editions that most often were subsequently uncritically translated into other languages. The revisionist strand is solidly grounded in a series of studies in Vygotsky's archives that uncovered previously unknown and unpublished Vygotsky materials.
Thus, some studies of the revisionist strand show that certain phrases, terms, and expressions typically associated with Vygotskian legacy as its core notions and concepts--such as "cultural-historical psychology", "cultural-historical theory", "cultural-historical school", "higher psychical/mental functions", "internalization", "zone of proximal development", etc., -- in fact, either occupy not more than just a few dozen pages within the six-volume collection of Vygotsky's works or even never occur in Vygotsky's own writings. Another series of studies revealed the questionable quality of Vygotsky's published texts that, in fact, were never finished and intended for publication by their author, but were nevertheless posthumously published without giving proper editorial acknowledgement of their unfinished, transitory nature and with numerous editorial interventions and distortions of Vygotsky's text. Another series of publications reveals that another well-known Vygotsky's text that is often presented as the foundational work was back-translated into Russian from an English translation of a lost original and passed for the original Vygotsky's writing. This episode was referred to as "benign forgery".
Scholars associated with the revisionist movement in Vygotsky Studies propose returning to Vygotsky's original uncensored works, critically revising the available discourse, and republishing them in both Russian and translation with a rigorous scholarly commentary. Therefore, an essential part of this revisionist strand is the ongoing work on "PsyAnima Complete Vygotsky" project that for the first time ever exposes full collections of Vygotsky's texts, uncensored and cleared from numerous mistakes, omissions, insertions, and blatant distortions and falsifications of the author's text made in Soviet editions and uncritically transferred in virtually all foreign translated editions of Vygotsky's works. This project is carried out by an international team of volunteers--researchers, archival workers, and library staff--from Belarus, Brazil, Canada, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia, and Switzerland, who joined their efforts and put together a collection of L.S. Vygotsky's texts. This publication work is supported by a stream of critical scholarly studies and publications on textology, history, theory and methodology of Vygotskian research that cumulatively contributes to the first ever edition of The Complete Works of L.S. Vygotsky.