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Lev Semenovich Vygotsky: Thought, Language, and Children at Play
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-04-21 09:17:27
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In 1958 an Italian translation of a novel written in the Soviet Union and suppressed there appeared in the West winning its author instant fame and recognition and the Nobel Prize for literature besides. The novel’s title is Dr. Zhivago and its author Boris Pasternak. This is well know to most people, even those who might have not read the novel but have at least seen the movie. What is less know is that around the same time there appeared in the West the work of a philosopher-linguist-psychologist whose work had also been suppressed in the former Soviet Union some twenty years before but was destined to have a strong influence in the philosophy of mind and language in the West.

The summation of that work appeared in 1934 as a book titled Thought and Language, published only after the author’s death and first translated into English in 1962. It examines in depth the nexus between thought and language. That author was Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896-1934) who arrived independently at the same seminal Vichian insight in The New Science that while it is true that man makes language, it is equally true that language makes man, that the poetic and imaginative precedes rational thought in human development, and that in fact thought is not merely expressed in words; it comes into existence through them. Like Vico before him, Vygotsky arrived at these insights by simply observing children at play and how they develop linguistically. What attracted attention to his work, however, was not so much its Vichian roots, with which Vygotsky might or might not have been familiar, but its affinities with the later work of the language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Vygotsky believed that since the times of Augustine there had never been a systematic study of the nexus between thought and language. Most linguists had uncritically accepted Augustine’s traditional understanding that speech is the outer expression of an inner process we call thought. This view holds that while language and thought are logically distinct, they remain contingently related; which is to say that we use vocalization as a convenient means for expressing the ideas that occur in our minds. Like Vico and Wittegenstein before him, Vygotsky found this explanation conceptually flawed. He argued that thought is originally non-verbal and language is non-intellectual. The separate curves of thought and language development only meet at the age of around two when thought becomes verbal and speech becomes rational. Then Vygotsky goes on to argue that cognitive skills and patterns of thinking are the products of the particular culture within which the individual grows up. Language plays a crucial role in determining how the child will think. This is so because modes of thought are transmitted to the child by means of words.

Let’s explore this further. As Vygotsky states, “the structure of speech is not simply the mirror image of the structure of thought. It cannot therefore be placed on thought like clothes off a rack. Speech does not merely serve as the expression of developed thought. Thought is restructured as it is transformed into speech. It is not expressed but completed in the word. Therefore, precisely because of the contrasting directions of the movement, the development of the internal and external aspects of speech form a true unity.” The picture that Vygotsky is painting here is that of language combining with conscious activity to form a unity. There is no casual relation to be explained between the thought had and the word formed; rather, meaningful expressions are a result of conscious processes operating upon a linguistic medium. The two are conceptually dependent, and idea that is vigorously argued for in Wittegnstein’s famous “private language argument” and given similar expression by Vygotsky’s account of language acquisition in childhood.

As a dependent individual, a child cannot live and isolated existence. He lives a common life characterized by interpersonal relationships. He learns by exposure to social stimuli which are later internalized. As Vygotsky puts it: “Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later on the individual level; first, between people (inter-psychological), and then inside the child (intra-psychological). The philosophical hypothesis here is that of linguistic determination, which is to say that the conceptual scheme one possesses directly affects the way one thinks about and perceives the world. Whereas in English there is only one word for snow, the Inuit language has several words for it. Which means that since the Inuit make many finer distinctions about snow than English speakers, they literally see snow differently. They are able to see subtle differences in snow that others do not. Vygotsky thus concludes that in growing up within a particular linguistically structured relationship, the child begins to perceive the world not only through its eyes but also through it speech. He further asserts that it is not just seeing but acting itself that becomes informed by words.

Some final musings: paradoxically, and contrary to what Aristotle and Augustine thought, imagination and language seem to be primary and necessary for thought. Indeed, John’s revealed insight that “in the beginning was the Word,” and everything created was created via that Word may eventually be recognized by science too. But let’s give time to time.

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Thanos2008-04-21 15:27:24
Nice article, this is the second time I'm coming cross Vygotsky's work, I think back in early 80s there was a study in Sorbonne university.

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