Biography on Lev Vygotsky
Biography on Lev Vygotsky
The 20th century is pivotal to the advancement of psychology as independent discipline and not a mere branch of philosophy, and Lev Vygotsky is a notable contributor to this evolution. The link between physiology and psychology was beginning to be understood and psychoanalysis was emerging as the pragmatic utility of modern psychology. Moreover, scientific evidence that linked behavior with mental processes gained prominence, which helped advance psychology as a science rather than a philosophy. Various models of developmental psychology were emerging to explain the link between childhood experiences and adult behavior. Lev Vygotsky occupies a special place in the history of modern psychology by introducing the social, historical and cultural factors in the development of complex thought processes. By positing that the brain, mind and culture were inseparable, Vygotsky advanced the cultural-historical perspectives of psychology as part of the bio-social development journey of the human specie (Yasnitsky, van der Veer & Ferrari, 2014). In other words, despite having undergone biological evolution that made humans unique from other animal species, human being also experienced a historical development in human behavior under separate and unique laws.
However, the turmoil in Russia at the time and the Marxist foundations characterized the zeitgeist surrounding Vygotsky and informed the limitations of his assertions, incompleteness of his theories and their recognition in the West only after the 1970s, despite having been formulated in 1920s (Elhammoumi, 2010). As such, Lev Vygotsky’s contribution to psychology is espoused in his assertions that the development of advanced mental processes was greatly influenced by the quality and kind of social interactions experienced by an individual as a child. Intended to inform a new theory of consciousness and holistic psychology that would facilitate the molding of a super human being in the communist society with superior psychological functions, Vygotsky’s ideas were incomplete and often misconstrued. While his earlier works were influenced by Russian psychologists, the influence of the German-American Gestalt movement in psychology, which indicated the influences of global travel and interactions, informed his holistic approaches in his second phase. However, over time, his arguments have been put together as concepts such as internalization and the zone of proximal development, commonly applied in modern developmental psychology. The ensuing bibliography highlights the unique circumstances in the Soviet Union and state of developmental psychology that influenced the cultural-historical perspectives of Lev Vygotsky and why these concepts continue to be controversial to date, despite advancing the understanding of the learning process.
The soviet context
Lev Vygotsky was born in 1896, at a time when Marxism was entrenched in the Soviet society and the revolution wind was blowing across the Soviet Union. In the early 1900s, the political class and society embraced Marxism and as such, opponents often shied from exposing their contradictory thoughts openly or emigrated to locations where they could do so without restrictions. Moreover, the west and the Soviet Union were politically disconnected and the intermingling of people from the two worlds was limited. As such, although developmental psychology and psychoanalysis were experiencing rapid development, the research activities and paradigms in the west and Russia were disconnected. Notably, Vygotsky had minimal interaction with psychologists and psychology theories from the west, considering that he visited London only once in his lifetime. His work was influenced most by Marxism and other soviet psychologists such as Pavlov, although he opposed Marxist dogmatism (Elhammoumi, 2010). Moreover, in the 1920, soviet psychology was a hybrid of competing Russian and western schools of thought characterized by materialism. Nonetheless, his interests in culture, history and society on the cognitive development of children were shared across the psychology world as a complement of behaviorism and constructivism.
Vygotsky lived through the Bolshevik uprising and revolution of 1917, the First World War and the oppressive Stalin’s regime, which not only left deeply-imprinted perspectives of the influence of culture on the cognitive development but also brought about disenchantment with Marxism, despite its well-meaning principles. In his attempt to come up with a pragmatic application of Marxism that would be beneficial to the higher ideals of a superior Soviet Union, Vygotsky unknowingly contradicted well-established psychology concepts at the time such as the Freudian behaviorist theories. According to him, behaviorist theories formulated under Freud were surface psychologies dealt with everyday ordinary environments, while he focused on peak psychology whose focus was the advanced mental performance of people. However, Vygotsky is seen have initiated and advanced the theory of human bio-social and cultural development, which had Marxist underpinnings linking the society, work and norms (Kitayama & Cohen, 2010). Moreover, Vygotsky was a Russian Jew who not only witnessed the social marginalization of his people but also building animosity from people of the Germanic descent leading to the second world war, which occurred not much later after his demise in 1934.
As such, Soviet Union provided the zeitgeist for underpinning Vygotsky’s work considering the Marxist influences on social interactions and function between community, work and prosperity during the formative years of soviet socialism. Interestingly, Vygotsky landed in the field of psychology accidentally, after experimenting with various other disciplines such as medicine and law. Being a Jewish Russian who has limited higher education opportunities, Vygotsky gained admission to Moscow University from a lottery although he did not finish any of his studies or graduate. Consequently, as another zeitgeist surrounding developmental psychology at the time, Vygotsky found two or more existing schools of thought in developmental psychology, which he believed constituted a crisis in psychology (Bodrova & Leong, 2015). From a philosophical perspective, Vygotsky formulated his concepts in the backdrop of the belief in the rigidity of the human mental nature premised on the unilinear evolution advanced by Darwin. As such, while associationism, behaviorism, mentalism, psychoanalysis and reflexology were schools of thought adhering to the Darwinian evolution paradigm, vygotsky’s assertions were grounded on the relativity and diversity of human experiences beyond the physical realm (Elhammoumi, 2010).
From a methodological perspective, Vygotsky argued that psychology was conflicted by the application of objective methodologies and introspection for studying lower and higher mental functions, respectively. Instead, he discarded both approaches and proposed a new approach in which both empirical investigations and direct observations could be combined in ontogeny and phylogeny to study the origin and development of higher mental functions in humans. However, despite the seemingly divergent views, Vygotsky and his colleagues facilitated the convergence of the different school of through drawn from the Soviet Union and the west, to create a cultural-historical theoretical paradigm to explain human development (Yasnitsky, 2012).
Development of concepts
Vygostky dedicated significant time to studying children, which led to the large applicability of his concepts in learning and development. Vygotsky also came up with numerous fragmented concepts, which did not coalesce as theories until much after his demise. Evidence from his numerous publications indicates that Vygotsky regularly revised his ideas and different translations focused on different segments of the social-cultural construct of learning and development (Van Oers et al, 2008). For instance, Vygotsky’s focus on language, which reflected the prominence of linguistics in the soviet culture at the time, has been extended to include signs and symbols, all of which are cultural artifacts. From this simple concept, Vygotsky demonstrated that a mother modeled the meanings of words, gestures, and symbols to her young children to promote acceptable use and discourage misuse, based in cultural foundations and principles (Van Oers et al, 2008). Moreover, children underwent a series of complex thinking processes that not only reflected the extant culture but also the plasticity of the human brain and high reflective levels in the children when exposed to different cultural contexts (Glebkin, 2014). The importance of culture in modeling behavior and the mother as an adult who can moderate the behavioral influences of cultural artifacts are the founding conceptualizations that underpin Vygotsky’s ideas.
Self is a mental construct that is influenced by the social interactions of the individual and the cultural messages that are transmitted across generations. Vygotsky is a constructivist who believed in active participation of the learner in learning and development. However, Vygotsky left this concept mired with numerous contradictions, significant gaps and unresolved tensions that may explain their slow uptake by the psychology community after his demise. The controversies afflicting this concept can be traced back to the conceptualization of internalization and the zone of proximal development. Vygotsky developed his concepts of internalization and the zone of proximal development under the political and social influence of the Soviet Union and its multitude of changes. Internalization, according to Vygotsky, is an advanced use of language that is acquired by individuals who have mastered and created their own meanings of the words, symbols and other cultural expressions. This concept is premised on the unique human ability of signification, which is the ability to create meaning from signs, including words and gestures (Yasnitsky, van der Veer & Ferrari, 2014). In this regard, play in the sociodramatic form allowed children to transform from being subjects of their environment to masters of their behavior while overcoming impulsive behavior in intentionality (Bodrova & Leong, 2015). According to Vygotsky, play demonstrated the children’s’ unique capability to express their meaning of the internalized symbols and unverbalised language, which indicated the presence of executive and high level mental processes even before language proficiency was acquired (Yasnitsky, van der Veer & Ferrari, 2014).
The zone of proximal development concept stipulates that although the learning capability of children can be limited by their social experience, facilitation from significant individuals who possess superior knowledge can guide further learning by the children, provided the interest and capability of the learner is considered. This concept demonstrated the importance and effect of mediation on learning, where the mediator, often a parent or a teacher, introduced the meanings of words and other cultural artifacts (Kendal, 2011). As such, children first interacted with the society to create social and cultural meanings before invoking internal mental processes to guide higher cognitive processes built upon experienced conceptualizations. This explains why similar words, gestures and objects represent different meanings and evoke different emotions among people in different and even the same cultural setting. From this assertions, at situated learning approaches were developed to take advantage of the social connection between the educator and the learner and the utility of activity in the learning process. As such, activity grew to the central concept in the cultural-historical activity theory, which is credited to Vygostsky. According to Vygostsky, social situation was an equivalent of the developmental activity, which produced learning outcomes in children (Rubtsov, 2016).
Although Vygotsky’s works transitioned between two distinct phases with the latter one focusing of revising his earlier works, he maintained the centrality and distinctiveness of consciousness in the human phenomenon throughout his life (Ferrari, Robinson & Yasnitsky, 2010). The objective study of consciousness has underpinned Vygotskian psychological tradition to date, distinguishing it from other psychology paradigms. The initial phase in the 1920s, was marked by mechanistic and reductionist approaches to research methodologies in psychology, while the later stage in the 1930 was characterized by his holistic perceptions as revisions of his previously-held reductionist views (Newman & Holzman, 2013). His changing perceptions are informed by his changing understanding of the learning process and other mental processes, as revealed by the changing evidence, which discounted earlier findings. As such, earlier agreements with psychologists such as Pavlov turned into disagreements as he changed his insights about memory, maturity and learning.
Acceptance into modern psychology
Lev Vygostsky is renowned for having contributed to the attempts to develop a comprehensive human development theory that links evolutionary, cultural and personal development paradigms (Ferrari, Robinson & Yasnitsky, 2010). The overemphasis on biological determinism overshadowed the cultural-historical considerations of consciousness even after Vygotsky’s demise. Indeed, Ardent students of the Vygotsky Circle developed Vygotsky’s concepts into psychology theories posthumously, although they also distorted his scientific legacy. Although Vygotsky’s concepts form the basis of cultural-historical psychology, their fragmentation undermines and even distorts their utility in modern developmental psychology. This may explain the belated acceptance of these concepts in the 1980 in the western world, despite having been introduced in the 1930 through various publications. Erratic and inconsistent translations into various languages, segmented compilations of his works and selective interpretation of his concepts have influenced the acceptance of Vygotsky’s work in different parts of the world. Among the controversies prevailing to date, include the application of Vygotsky’s concepts beyond developmental psychology to include areas such as anthropology, linguistics and pedagogy (Dafermos, 2015). Indeed, Vygotsky’s concepts and theories can lead to different and sometimes contradictory epistemologies and pedagogies when used in isolation without reference to his contexts.
Lev Vygotsky’s legacy has been tainted by the various distortions of both theoretical adherents and opponents. The controversy surrounding his cultural-historical perspectives of psychology prevails because they question the cultural and historical lenses used, especially when clouded by fragmented perspectives and debates. Indeed, Vygotsky’s theories about the social influences of learning and higher mental functioning attract controversy until the present day, considering that he did not use the terms popular in cultural-historical psychology today. However, his contribution to developmental psychology is notable because it bridges advanced mental processes with socialization processes. As such, Vygotsky’s challenged the individualism and autonomy of the human being often glorified in the cognitive theories and many behaviorism theories by highlighting the importance of social and historical factors in learning and development. Despite having worked for a short time, his comprehensive insights have powered robust debate in psychology and influenced practice in various fields such as education, anthropology and cultural studies among many others.
Bodrova, E., & Leong, D. J. (2015). Vygotskian and Post-Vygotskian Views on Children’s Play. American Journal of Play, 7(3), 371-388.
Dafermos, M. (2015). Critical reflection on the reception of Vygotsky’s theory in the international academic communities. Cultural-Historical Psychology, 12(3), 27-46.
Elhammoumi, M. (2010). Is back to Vygotsky enough? the legacy of socio-historicocultural psychology. Psicologia em Estudo, 15(4), 661-673.
Ferrari, M., Robinson, D. K., & Yasnitsky, A. (2010). Wundt, Vygotsky and Bandura: A cultural-historical science of consciousness in three acts. History of the human sciences,23(3), 95-118.
Fleer, M., & Hedegaard, M. (2010). Early learning and development: Cultural-historical concepts in play. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Glebkin, V. (2014). Cultural-historical psychology and the cognitive view of metonymy and metaphor. Review of Cognitive Linguistics. Published under the auspices of the Spanish Cognitive Linguistics Association, 12(2), 288-303.
Kendal, J. R. (2011). Cultural niche construction and human learning environments: Investigating sociocultural perspectives.Biological Theory, 6(3), 241-250.
Kitayama, S., & Cohen, D. (Eds.). (2010). Handbook of cultural psychology. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Newman, F., & Holzman, L. (2013). Lev Vygotsky (classic edition): Revolutionary scientist. London, UK: Psychology Press.
Rubtsov, V. V. (2016). Cultural-historical scientific school: The issues that LS Vygotsky brought up. Cultural-Historical Psychology, 12(3), 4-14.
Van Oers, B., Wardekker, W., Elbers, E., & Van der Veer, R. (Eds.). (2008). The transformation of learning: Advances in cultural-historical activity theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Yasnitsky, A. (2012). A history of cultural-historical Gestalt psychology: Vygotsky, Luria, Koffka, Lewin, and others.PsyAnima, Dubna Psychological Journal, 5(1), 98-101.
Yasnitsky, A., van der Veer, R., & Ferrari, M. (Eds.). (2014).The Cambridge handbook of cultural-historical psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.