Prologue to Vygotsky's
Collected Works Volume 5

By Carl Ratner

This volume of Vygotsky's Collected Works contains important writings on the development of human psychology from early childhood to adolescence. The volume is divided into two sections. The first contains about one-half of the chapters of Vygotsky's book, Pedology of the Adolescent. This book was published during Vygotsky's lifetime in a limited number of copies. The second section consists of separate articles which were published after Vygotsky died.

The works in this volume reveal some important extensions of Vygotsky's fundamental concepts. In particular, one finds extensive discussions about the transition from elementary psychobiological processes to conscious psychological phenomena. Vygotsky delineates the social and cognitive determinants of this qualitative change. Other concepts which are developed in this volume include the integration of psychological phenomena in consciousness, the relation between structure (or form) and content of psychological phenomena, and the relation between biological processes and psychological functions. Finally, Vygotsky makes a number of methodological points concerning the nature of psychological inquiry. The following prologue will introduce the reader to these concepts. 

Higher and Lower Processes 

The fundamental principle which drives Vygotsky's developmental psychology is the transition from "lower" psychobiological processes to "higher" conscious psychological functions. The former include reflexes, temperamental traits, and spontaneous, rudimentary conscious processes. The latter include developed, voluntary, mental functions and associated personality characteristics. In Vygotsky's words, psychological development consists in "the transition from direct, innate, natural forms and methods of behavior to mediated, artificial mental functions that develop in the process of cultural development" (p. 168, this volume).

Vygotsky argued that higher and lower functions are fundamentally different from each other in terms of origins, biological mechanisms, and mental features (cf. Ratner, 1991, chap. 4; Ratner, forthcoming for a discussion of these differences). Consequently, mature psychological functions comprise a novel system which is not derived from lower processes. Elementary psychobiological functions are not the basis of mature, complex, mental psychological phenomena. Nor do the lower processes remain intact and interact with higher processes. Instead, Vygotsky proposed a radical dichotomy between the two which grants real autonomy to higher psychological functions. They develop according to different pathways from lower functions and have their own characteristics. Rather than lower and higher processes forming a continuous gradation in which early processes engender later ones, comprise their components, and affect their character, psychological development requires the introduction of new mechanisms which generate novel, autonomous higher functions.

Vygotsky states this position quite clearly in the present volume. He says, "The circumstance that higher mental functions are not simply a continuation of elementary functions and are not their mechanical combination, but a qualitatively new mental formation that develops according to completely special laws and is subject to completely different patterns, has still not been assimilated by child psychology" (p. 34).

Lower and higher functions rest upon different biological, cognitive, and social foundations. Lower functions are determined by biological mechanisms and they are minimally cognitive. For instance, infantile attention is a simple, involuntary "orientation reflex" that is biologically programmed. Temperamental traits of infants are similarly biologically programmed, involuntary, spontaneous, simple reactions to events. Vygotsky maintains that early, or natural, memory is likewise a spontaneous recollection that is prompted by a direct similarity between a current and prior sensation (p. 98, this volume).

In contrast, higher, mature, complex psychological phenomena are stimulated and organized by social experience and they are mediated by, or depend upon, conceptual thinking. Vygotsky explains this difference in a succinct statement about lower and higher forms of attention:

Qualitative Change 

Vygotsky reiterates the notion of qualitative change throughout this volume. He says that mature psychological functions which are culturally stimulated and organized, and rest upon conceptual thinking are qualitatively different from biologically based, non-cognitive elementary functions. Another use of the notion of qualitative change is his discussion of the unique character of cognitive concepts. He said that "A concept is not just an enriched and internally interconnected associative group. It is a qualitatively new formation that cannot be reduced to more elementary processes that characterize the development of the intellect at earlier stages" (p. 40).

Vygotsky frequently criticized psychologists who recognize only quantitative changes in psychological functioning. One statement expresses this clearly: "if one holds the point of view [that] the process of intellectual changes that occur at adolescence can be reduced to a simple quantitative accumulation of characteristics already laid down in the thinking of a three-year old...the word development does not apply" (p. 29). Vygotsky was especially critical of Thorndike for whom "higher forms of thinking differ from elementary functions only quantitatively according to the number of associative connections that enter into their composition" (p. 40). 

Conceptual Underpinnings of Psychological Phenomena 

Mature, complex psychological functions rest upon conceptual thinking. They are "historically based forms of intellectual activity" (this volume, p. 35). Vygotsky expresses this rationalist philosophy forcefully and unmistakably on page 81: 

Vygotsky describes how memory changes from a lower to a higher function through the intercession of cognition: "in the child, intellect is a function of memory; in the adolescent, memory is a function of intellect" (p. 96). "We have seen that the child's thinking depends specifically on concrete images, on visual representations. When the adolescent makes the transition to thinking in concepts, his remembering what he perceived and logically comprehended must disclose completely different laws than those that characterized remembering during primary school age" (p. 97).

Perception is another function which is transformed by conceptual thinking:

If we turn to the perception of an adult, we will see that it represents not only a complex synthesis of present impressions and images in memory, but its basis is a complex synthesis of processes of thinking and processes of perception. That which we perceive and that which we know, that which we perceive and that which we think merges into one...
Ordered and comprehended perception, connected with thinking in words, is the complex product of a new synthesis in which visual impressions and processes of thinking are merged in a single alloy that can justifiably be called visual thinking. In contrast to the developed thinking of an adult, a child's thinking unites, orders, and comprehends what is perceived entirely differently. For this reason, the hypothesis of E. Claparede, who says that the child sees differently than the adult, and the statement of K. Koffka that the child lives in another world than we adults do are true in a certain respect. The developed perception of an adult places a net of ordering, logical categories over reality. His is always a comprehended perception" (p. 88, this volume; cf. Ratner, 1991, pp. 38-41, 70-76).

Vygotsky says that imagination and fantasy are also intellectualized during adolescence and consequently fulfill a completely new function in the new structure of the adolescent's personality:

Contrary to popular opinion, the intellectualizing of fantasy and imagination enrich them in comparison with their impoverished existence in early childhood. Fantasy and imagination in childhood are bound to real objects and therefore have limited freedom. "The imagination of the adolescent is different from the play of the child in that it breaks the connection with real objects" (p. 161). Utilizing abstract concepts, the adolescent's imagination is more varied than the child's (p. 161; cf. Ratner, 1991, pp. 180-182).

The Integration of Psychological Phenomena

We have just seen how each psychological phenomenon is integrated with conceptual thinking. Their common integration into conceptual thinking also unifies the various phenomena together. Vygotsky expressed this as follows:


The fact that psychological phenomena are internally related to each other enables them to modulate and modify one another. Vygotsky emphasized how phenomena change as they become interrelated with new factors. For example, the playing with dolls or tools by a two year old and a four year old seem externally to be very similar, however they may have completely foundations and meanings due to the different configuration of factors which permeate them (p. 8).

Vygotsky pointed out that qualitative change in psychological characteristics is only recognizable if they are acknowledged to be imbued with new qualities from their internal relationships with other phenomena. Regarding phenomena as discrete atoms (rather than dialectically interrelated) promotes the view that they are autonomous and therefore immune to qualitative change from related phenomena (cf. Ratner, 1997a, pp. 15-26 for discussion of this point). Vygotsky repudiated static, atomistic thinking which only notices superficial, overt appearance. He endorsed dialectical thinking which discerns the modulations and transformations of phenomena that result from their interdependence and interpenetration (p. 196): "the transition from research based on external manifestations, on phenotypic similarity, to a deeper study of the genetic [i.e., changing], functional, and structural nature of thinking at different ages leads us inevitably to rejecting the established traditional view that is inclined to identify the thinking of the adolescent with the thinking of the three-year old" (p. 36; cf. Ratner, 1997a, chaps. 2, 4, 5 for application of this concept to psychological research).

A given psychological phenomenon changes its nature as it is related to different phenomena across the lifespan. It does not retain a constant quality, significance, or function. Therefore no single trait, like sexuality, emotionality, aggressiveness, or security can be used to assess (compare) the psychological development of an individual at all ages. The reason is that the trait which is the standardized measure changes. As Vygotsky said, "The importance and significance of any trait change continuously with the transition from age level to age level. This excludes the possibility of dividing childhood into separate periods according to a single criterion for all ages" (p. 188).

Vygotsky believed that all aspects of psychological functioning change through new interrelationships over the life span. Not only do particular phenomena such as thinking, feeling, attention, memory, personality, etc. acquire new characteristics, but even "the driving forces of our behavior change at each age level" (p. 3). Therefore, no one mechanism consistently explains psychological functioning at all age levels. We have seen that intellectual/cognitive processes organize the psychological processes of adolescents and adults, but not infantile or childhood processes. Which mechanisms are central depends upon biological, mental, and social factors. Different constellations (Gestalts) of these factors alter the driving forces of behavior (cf. Asch, 1946, 1952 for brilliant demonstrations of this dialectical standpoint). In Vygotsky's words, "The age levels represent the integral, dynamic formation, the structure, which determines the role and relative significance of each partial line of development (p. 196). "Processes that are central lines of development at one age become peripheral lines of development at the following age and conversely, peripheral lines of development of one age are brought to the forefront and become central lines since their meaning and relative significance in the total structure of development changes..." (p. 197).

Form and Content 

According to Vygotsky, it is not only the content of psychological processes which changes over the course of ontogenetic development. The form of psychological operations Ñ or the manner in which information is processed Ñ also changes. This is a break with traditional psychological thinking which postulates certain fixed ways in which thinking, feeling, perceiving, and remembering process information while allowing for new contents to be poured into these unchanging operations. Vygotsky maintained that the very ways of thinking, feeling, perceiving, and remembering change as they confront new contents. The content of thinking is not simply the external data that comprise the subject of thinking; the content that one confronts "moves inward" and becomes an organic component part of psychological operations. The task of mastering new content nudges the youngster along the path of developing psychological operations as well (pp. 32-5, 42 this volume; Ratner, 1991, chap. 3, esp. pp. 131-138 for extended discussion of this point).

Traditional psychology assumes that content is socially organized and variable while operations are biologically determined fixed structures.

However, the truth of the matter is that operations, structures, and processes are sociocultural phenomena just as much as content is. This is why they change as much as content does. In a powerful statement, Vygotsky explains that only a sociocultural view of human psychology can appreciate the integration of form and content. He says,

Higher Processes Control Lower Processes 

After establishing that higher psychological functions are fundamentally different from lower ones, and that qualitative change is a fundamental law of human psychological development, Vygotsky explains what happens to the lower processes which have been superceded. They do not continue to function in the original state while being supplemented by higher processes. Thus, they do not interact with higher processes. Instead, the lower processes are restructured on a new base: "lower or elementary functions, being processes that are more primitive, earlier, simpler, and independent of concepts in genetic,functional, and structural relations, are reconstructed on a new basis when influenced by thinking in concepts..." (p. 81).

This dialectical sublating, surpassing, or aufhebung of one level into another requires some explanation. Vygotsky explains how it occurs in psychological and biological phenomena:

In other words, lower centers and formations are controlled by the higher centers and formations and work as subordinate units. They do not maintain an independent existence and original powers. However, if the higher centers and formations should be struck by some disorder, the subordinate unit may resume elements of its old type of functioning and act as a safety value to provide rudimentary survival activities (pp. 83, 218-220).  

The Relative Autonomy of Psychology From Biology

If higher psychological functions are not derived from or continuous with lower psychobiological processes, and if biologically determined lower processes are sublated into, reorganized and subordinated by socially organized higher processes, then the latter cannot be biologically determined. Of course, higher processes require a biological substratum; however this substratum is non-determining, in contrast to the biological determination of lower processes. The biological substratum of higher psychological functions Ñ which is primarily the neocortex of the brain Ñ is extremely pliable in response to experience. Thus, the human brain enables, rather than directs or controls, socially organized psychological phenomena (cf. Ratner, 1991, chaps. 4, 5; Ratner 1989a, b for documentation of these points).

Higher psychological functions actually stimulate neuronal growth in particular directions. They create their own biological mediations. They do not depend upon specialized biological mechanisms which pre-determine them. If they did so, they would not be socially organized and they would not be higher functions. Vygotsky expressed this point as follows: "There is every reason to assume that the historical development of behavior from primitive forms to the most complex and highest did not occur as a result of the appearance of new parts of the brain or the growth of parts already existing" (p. 35-36, this volume; Donald, 1991, pp. 1-19).

Vygotsky's social explanation of psychological development led him to repudiate biological explanations. He rejected, for example, the notion that psychological development parallels biological maturation. "In comparing the data of onto- and phylogenesis, we did not for a moment take the point of view of biogenetic parallelism, intending to find in the history of the development of the child a repetition and recapitulation of those forms of thinking that prevailed at previous states of human history...We did not for a moment identify the process of concrete thinking of the child with the process of concrete thinking in the history of human development" (p. 41). The theory of recapitulation made no sense to Vygotsky because it confused mature, higher psychological processes of primitive adults with lower, elementary childish processes. Concrete thinking of primitive adults and modern children cannot be equivalent because the former is a higher process while the latter is a lower one. Vygotsky repudiated the temptation to compare psychological processes on the basis of superficial, external characteristics. Concrete thinking may appear to be superficially equivalent in primitives and children but a deeper understanding of their characteristics in terms of related biological,social, and cognitive factors reveals that they are really quite different. The sequence in which certain kinds of thinking may be similar in ontogenetic and phylogenetic development - in both arenas external signs develop before internal mnemonic devices do (p. 168), and pre-linguistic functions are restructured by language Ñ but the specific characteristics and functions of psychological phenomena are quite different in primitive adults and contemporary children.

Comprehending The Nature of Psychological Phenomena

Vygotsky believed that the way to understand the real (developing) character of psychological phenomena was to look beneath the surface of psychological characteristics: "Changes that occur in the thinking of the adolescent who has mastered concepts are to the utmost degree changes of an internal, intimate, structural nature often not apparent externally, not hitting the eye of the observer" (p. 38). Qualitative features are only recognizable to a dialectical standpoint which seeks out the features and sections of a given stage as varied, or modulated, by each other (pp. 40-41). "The nature of things is disclosed not in direct contemplation of one single object or another, but in connections and relations that are manifested in movement and in development of the object, and these connect it to all the rest of reality" (p. 54).

Vygotsky expressed optimism

Vygotsky says that the purely descriptive study of external features is fruitless with respect to explanation, prognosis, and practical applications. It can be compared to those medical diagnoses that doctors made at the time when symptomatic medicine prevailed. According to that approach,

Vygotsky would obviously be appalled by the fact that precisely this kind of symptomatic, external assessment is the rule in contemporary psychological science, especially as exemplified by the Diagnostic And Statistical Manual for diagnosing psychological disorders (cf. Ratner, 1987; Ratner, 1997, chap. 1 for additional examples).

Vygotsky argued that psychological phenomena are only truly understood if their internal relations and essential, underlying features are discerned. This, in turn, requires that phenomena be conceptualized in abstract concepts. Consistent with his rationalist philosophy, Vygotsky believed that conceptual thinking is an essential means for comprehending reality. He said, "those who consider abstract thinking as a removal from reality are wrong. On the contrary, abstract thinking primarily reflects the deepest and truest, the most complete and thorough disclosure of reality" (p. 47, this volume). "Recognizing concrete reality with the help of words, which are signs for concepts, man uncovers in the world he sees connections and patterns that are confined in it" (p. 48). "Without thinking in concepts there is no understanding of relations that underlie the phenomena. The whole world of deep connections that underlie external, outward appearances, the world of complex interdependencies and relations within every sphere of activity and among its separate spheres, can be disclosed only to one who approaches it with the key of the concept" (p. 42).  

The Socialization of Psychological Phenomena

Vygotsky believed that higher psychological phenomena are stimulated and constituted by social relations. The infant is born into an existing social world and only through participating in this world develops higher mental functions. We have seen that social interactions do not simply elicit pre-formed functions, they literally form the infant's psychology. Vygotsky provides three examples of this process (cf. Ratner, 1991, pp. 28-38 for additional examples).

One example is the manner in which logical thinking develops. Vygotsky citing the research of James Baldwin, Pierre Janet, and Jean Piaget, states that logical thinking in the child recapitulates the form of social discussion and argumentation between people:

A second example of the sociogenesis of higher psychological phenomena is the development of self-control and voluntary direction of one's own actions:

A third example of the sociogenesis of individual psychological phenomena is symbolic, or conceptual thinking:

These examples all demonstrate that psychological functions are derived from social relations which exist externally to the individual. Vygotsky summaries his position by saying that "the structures of higher mental functions represent a cast of collective social relations between people. These [mental] structures are nothing other than a transfer into the personality of an inward relation of a social order that constitutes the basis of the social structure of the human personality.(pp. 169-170). Vygotsky goes so far as to call this "a law of the development and structure of higher mental functions." This "law of transition of a function from outside inward" means that "all internal higher functions were of necessity external. However, in the process of development, every external function is internalized and becomes internal" (p. 170).

Of course, internalized, internal processes then mediate future encounters with the social environment. Encounters do not impinge upon a blank slate, but are refracted by accumulated experiences. As Vygotsky says, "My experience is affected by the extent to which all my properties and how they came about in the course of development participate here at a given moment" (p. 294). However, because psychological properties come about through socialization, as discussed above, we must say that the social environment shapes the experience which an individual has by shaping the psychological properties which comprise experience. In other words, the experience one has depends upon perceptions, emotions, ideals, and imagination which mediate an encounter with the physical or social world. Yet these mediations are all internalized from social relations. Social life is not experienced immediately - anew at each moment - but rather is mediated by psychological functions which have been socialized through previous social encounters. Social life works on us from the outside but also from the inside in the form of higher psychological phenomena. This is why Vygotsky concludes that the researcher must make "a penetrating internal analysis of the experiences of the child, that is, a study of the environment which is transferred to a significant degree to within the child himself and is not reduced to a study of the external circumstances of his life" (pp. 294-295; cf. Ratner, 1997a, Introduction & chap. 4).

The Logical Consistency of Vygotsky's Concepts

A great strength of Vygotsky's psychological system is its logical consistency. The distinction between higher and lower psychological functions, the relative autonomy of psychological functions from biological determinants, the subordination of lower processes to higher ones, the socialization of higher functions, their dependence on conceptual and semiotic symbols, the integration of psychological phenomena Ñ including the unification of form and content, the qualitative changeability of psychological phenomena, and the requirement that they be studied by conceptualizations which penetrate beneath superficial external appearances and disclose essential internal relationships, all support one another. Logical consistency is a hallmark of all great scientific systems (cf. Ratner, 1997a, chap. 5). On this ground, along with the empirical validity of its concepts, Vygotsky's system qualifies as great science.

Sept. 1997, Perm, Russia



1. Vygotsky's emphasis on conceptual thinking led him to minimize the importance of non-cognitive factors in determining psychological development. Thus, he criticized psychologists who regard development as due to emotional or sexual changes in adolescence (p. 30-31, 38, 153-154, this volume).

2. Donald (1991, p. 212) argues that speech produced distinctive psychological phenomena over the course of human phylogenetic development: "Simultaneously with the appearance of speech there appeared a whole constellation of thought skills that are associated with language...Semiotic cultures triggered completely new forms of information processing and storage: semantic memory, propositional memory, discourse comprehension, analytic thought, induction, and verification, among others."

3. Psychological phenomena not only originate in social relations, they are best expressed and understood in social situations: "the social environment is the source for the appearance of all specific human properties of the personality" (p. 203, this volume). Vygotsky recommended that psychological assessment of higher functions be conducted in a social interaction between the subject and tester. In such an occasion, the tester can prompt the subject, demonstrate examples of what he is to do, and ask questions about the reasons for his action. Such social interaction may enable a child to meet higher performance standards than is possible through independent, individual test-taking. And the resulting improvement indicates that this child's psychological competence is different from a child's whose performance is not socially enhanced (pp. 202-203).



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