The Russian State Social University
Report on Psychology.
"Vygotsky's psychological views"
Made by the second-year
student of faculty of
Checked by Khajrullin
A Biographical Sketch 5
Vygotsky's Theoretical Approach 8
Bibliographic List 12
Like the humanities and other social sciences, psychology is supposed to tell us something about what it means to be human.
However, many critics, including such eminent members of the discipline as J.S. Bruner (1976), have questioned whether academic psychology has succeeded in this endeavor. One of the major stumbling, blocks that has diverted psychology from this goal is that psychologists have too often isolated and studied phenomena in such a way that they cannot communicate with one another, let alone with members of other disciplines. They have tended to lose sign of the fact that their untimate goal is to contribute to some integrated, holistic picture of human nature.
This intellectual isolation is nowhere more evident than in the division that separates studies of individual psychology from studies of the sociocultural environment in which individuals live. In psychology we tend to view culture of society as a variable to be incorporated into models of individual functioning. This represents a kind of reductionism which assumes that sociocultural phenomena can ultimately be explained on the basis of psychological processes. Conversely, sociologists and social problems because the derive straightforwardly from social phenomena. This view may not involve the kind of reductionism found in the work of psychologists, but it is no less nave. Many aspects of psychological functioning cannot be explained by assuming that they derive solely and simply from the sociocultural milieu.
This disciplinary isolation is not attributable simply to a lack of cooperation among various scholars. Rather, those interested in social phenomena and those interested in psychological phenomena have defined their objects of inquiry in such different ways that they have almost guaranteed the impossibility of mutual understanding. For decades this problem has been of concern to those seeking to construct a unified social science. Critical theorists such as T. Adorno and J. Habermas (1979) have struggled with it since the 19405. According to Adorno, "the separation of sociology and psychology is both correct and false" (1967, p. 78). It is correct because it recognizes different levels of phenomena that exist in reality; that is, it helps us avoid the pitfalls of reductionism. It is false, however, because it too readily "encourages the specialists to relinquish the attempt to know the totality".
Keeping sight of this totality while examining particular levels of phenomena in social science is as elusive a goal today as earlier in the twentieth century. Indeed the more progress we make in studying particular phenomena, the more distant this goal seems to become. My purpose here is to explicate and extend a theoretical approach that tried to avoid this pitfall—the approach of the Soviet psychologist and semiotician Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896-1934).
Vygotsky, of course, did not make his proposals in order to deal with today's disciplinary fragmentation, but many of his ideas are relevant to the quandaries we face. To harness these ideas, they must first be interpreted in light of the milieu in which they were developed. Hence I shall explicate the cultural and historical setting in which Vygotsky worked and then extend his ideas in light of theoretical — advances made during the half-century since his death.
Vygotsky is usually considered to be a developmental or educational psychologist. Much of what I shall have to say, however, is based on the assumption that it is incorrect to categorize him too readily as a psychologist, at least in today's restricted sense. It is precisely because he was not only a psychologist that he was able to approach this discipline with a fresh eye and make it part of a more unified social science. In fact the Soviet philosopher and psychologist G. P. Shchedrovitskii has argued that one of the main reasons for Vygotsky's success in reformulating psychology in the USSR is that he was not trained as a professional psychologist.
Under normal circumstances an outsider is not given the opportunity to reformulate a discipline such as psychology in a major country. Vygotsky, however, did not live in normal circumstances: he entered adulthood just as his country was experiencing one of the greatest social upheavals of the twentieth century—the Russian Revolution of 1917. This event provided two decades or so of what is perhaps the most exciting intellectual and cultural setting of our time. It was largely because of this setting that Vygotsky was able to develop his ingenious ideas and that these ideas could have a significant impact.
A Biographical Sketch
Vygotsky's biography can be divided into two basic periods: the first, from his birth in 1896 until 1924, the year in which he made his initial appearance as a major intellectual figure in the USSR; the second, from 1924 until his death from tuberculosis in 1934.
Vygotsky was born on November 17, 1896, in Orsha, a town not far from Minsk in Belorussia. Vygotsky changed his name from Vygodsky in the early 1920s because he believed that it derived from the name Vygotovo, where his family had its origins. Other members of his family, such as his daughters retained the "d" in the spelling of their name.
The picture that emerges from information about Vygotsky's early years is one of a happy, intellectually stimulating life — in spite of the fact that, like other members of his family, he was excluded from several avenues of opportunity because he was Jewish.
Instead of attending public schools, Vygotsky studied with a private tutor for several years and then finished his secondary education in a Jewish gymnasium. He profited enormously from his early years of study with his tutor, Solomon Ashpiz. Ashpiz's pedagogical technique was apparently grounded in a form of ingenious Socratic dialogue, which left his students, especially one as gifted as Lev Semenovich, with well-developed, inquisitive minds.
By the age of fifteen Vygotsky had become known as the "little professor", because he often led student discussions on intellectual matters. For example, he examined the historical context of thought by arranging debates and mock trials in which his peers played the role of figures such as Aristotle and Napoleon. These debates were a manifestation of one of Vygotsky's main interests during that period of his life — philosophy.
While still a child in Gomel, Lev Semenovich also began to show fervent interest in the theater and in literature.
Vygotsky graduated from his gymnasium in 1913 with a gold medal. Though widely recognized as an outstanding student, he had great difficulty entering the university of his choice — largely because he was Jewish.
During this period there was a quota on the number of Jews who could enter Moscow and Saint Petersburg universities: no more than 3 percent of the student bodies could be Jewish. As Levitin points out, this meant that all the Jewish gold medalists and about half the silver medalists would be admitted. Since Lev Semenovich had every reason to expect a gold medal, his matriculation to the university of his choice seemed assured.
Midway through Vygotsky's deputy examinations, however, the tsarist minister of education decreed a change in procedures by which Jews would be chosen for Moscow and Saint Petersburg universities. The 3 percent quota was maintained, but Jewish applicants were now to be selected by casting lots, a change apparently designed to dilute the quality of Jewish students at the best universities. But then the incredible happened: late in August, the Vygodskys received a cable from their friends in Moscow telling them that Lev had been enrolled at the University by the draw.
In 1914, while in Moscow as a student, Vygotsky also began attending the Shanyavskii People's University, an unofficial school that sprang up in 1911 after a minister of education had expelled most of the students and more than a hundred of the faculty from Moscow University in a crackdown on an antitsarist movement.
Vygotsky graduated from Moscow University in 1917 with a degree in law. Although he received no official degree from Shanyavskii University, he profited greatly from his studies in psychology, philosophy, and literature. He returned to Gomel after his graduation to teach literature and psychology.
Very little information is available about the impact of the 1917 Revolution on Lev Semenovich. Lev Semenovich continued living in Gomel's relatively peaceful setting for seven years after his return in 1917. With his cousin David Vygodsky he taught literature at a school in Gomel. He also conducted classes on aesthetics and the history of art in a conservatory and gave many lectures on literature and science. Furthermore, he organized a psychology laboratory at the Gomel Teacher's College, where he delivered a series of lectures that provided the groundwork for his 1926 volume, Pedagogical Psychology.
In 1920 Vygotsky was in poor health. The disease that was eventually to kill him, tuberculosis, had begun to take its toll. It was already a serious enough threat to Vygotsky's life in 1920 that he spent a brief period in a sanatorium and asked one of his former professors from Shanyavskii University to publish his collected manuscripts in the event of his death. He recovered from this bout of tuberculosis, however, and continued his projects in Gomel. In 1924 he married Roza Smekhova. They had two daughters.
In retrospect all this work seems to have been preparation for an event in 1924 that was to change Vygotsky's life irrevocably. This turning point, which separates the two major periods of Vygotsky's biography, was his appearance on January 6, 1924, at the Second All-Russian Psychoneurological Congress in Leningrad. There he made a presentation, "Methods of Reflexological and Psychological Investigations."
Vygotsky's brilliant, performance so impressed the director of the Psychological Institute in Moscow, K. N. Kornilov, that he immediately invited this "Mozart of psychology" to join himself and others in restructuring the institution. Lev Semenovich accepted and later that year left Gomel to begin his new career.