Vygotsky and the Dialectical Method

by Andy Blunden


"Thought and Language", L S Vygotsky, first published in Russian, 1936 after Vygotsky's death in 1934, published in English in 1962 by MIT Press and reprinted in 1980. The following are some comments on Vygotsky's work as part of a discussion of the application of the dialectical method.

In addressing the genesis of thought and language in human individuals, it would have been very tempting for an admirer of dialectics to seek a solution in some kind of reworking of Hegel's genesis of the Notion in his Logic. But heeding Engels' advice, Vygotsky utilised the dialectical method, and did so consistently materialistically. Whereas Hegel provided many insights in his analysis of the history of philosophy on the basis of the system of Logic, and his system continues to provide a valuable approach to the critique of philosophical method, the result of Vygotsky's application of the dialectical method to the genesis of thought and language in the development of the individual human being is a series of concepts quite incommensurate with the stages of the Logical Idea which populate the pages of the Logic.

And so it should be! Hegel advises that: "... this progress in knowing is not something provisional, or problematical and hypothetical; it must be determined by the nature of the subject matter itself and its content". And as Hegel says:

... if absolute truth is the subject matter of logic, and truth as such is essentially in cognition, then cognition at least would have to be discussed. ... the anthropological and psychological side of cognition is concerned with its manifested aspect, in which the Notion on its own account has not yet come to have an objectivity the same as itself, that is, to have itself for object. ... to logic belong only the presuppositions of the pure Notion in so far as they have the form of pure thoughts, of abstract essentialities, that is, the determinations of being and essence. [The Science of Logic, Life]

Our Notion of how the human child, abstracted from the social-historical body of which he/she is part, approaches conceptual thought "must be determined by the nature of the subject matter itself and its content".

Vygotsky's approach

(1) The Notion of Word-meaning

Vygotsky observes that previous study of the thought-language relationship considered the genesis of each side of the relation in isolation and assumed that the relation between the two was invariable; or alternatively, mechanically identified the two. On the contrary, Vygotsky proposed the necessity of conceiving of the object of investigation as a unity of opposites and that the inherent genesis of the relation was at its very essence.

In our opinion the right course to follow is to use the other type of analysis, which may be called analysis into units. By unit we mean a product of analysis which, unlike elements, retains all the basic properties of the whole and which cannot be further divided without losing them. ... [the living cell] What is the basic unit of verbal thought ?... word meaning. ... The conception of word meaning as a unit of both generalising thought and social interchange is of incalculable value for the study of language and thought. [Thought and Language, Chapter 1]

Thus, quite explicitly, Vygotsky Notion's of verbal thought, the "germ" or "cell" of verbal thought, is a unity of opposites, in very many ways reminiscent of Marx's conception of the commodity as the cell of capitalism. Like Marx, Vygotsky presents this Notion at the very outset of his presentation (although Thought and Language is a posthumous anthology).

Vygotsky explains that

  1. "In their ontogenetic development, thought and speech have different roots.
  2. In the speech development of the child, we can with certainty establish a preintellectual stage, and in his thought development, a prelinguistic stage.
  3. Up to a certain point in time, the two follow different lines, independently of each other.
  4. At a certain point these lines meet, whereupon thought becomes verbal and speech rational." [Thought and Language, Chapter 4]

Thought and language pass through a series of "plateaux" of development; then speech divides from itself, social communicative speech from egocentric speech; egocentric speech becomes inner speech which becomes more and more abbreviated and esoteric until non-verbal conceptual thought takes root alongside unconscious socialised speech.

(2) Vygotsky's critique of Piaget - the individual and the social.

According to Vygotsky, Piaget fails to see the transition from "egocentric speech" (when a child talks aloud to him/herself while alone) to "inner speech". Piaget believes that egocentric speech simply "fades away" as the child becomes less egocentric and more socialised. Vygotsky on the other hand, hypothesises that egocentric speech turns into inner speech; that it does not fade away but "goes underground". The analogy with learning to count and add up is very convincing.

In contradiction to Piaget's conception of development as socialisation, Vygotsky says:

The earliest speech of the child is ... essentially social. ... At a certain age the social speech of the child is quite sharply divided into egocentric and communicative speech ... Egocentric speech emerges when the child transfers social, collaborative forms of behaviour to the sphere of inner-personal psychic functions ... Egocentric speech, splintered off from general social speech, in time leads to inner speech, which serves both autistic and logical thinking. ... the true direction of the development of thinking is not from the individual to the socialised, but from the social to the individual. [Thought and Language, Chapter 2]

Human thought develops NOT from the individual to the social, but from the social to the individual! What a stunningly correct and dialectical conception! So much for the subjective idealist prejudice that all human beings begin as individuals, their development consisting of the cancellation of their essential, inner individuality! In this approach, Hegel agrees with Vygotsky:

"The Notion as Notion contains the three following 'moments' or functional parts. (1) The first is Universality - meaning that it is in free equality with itself in its specific character. (2) The second is Particularity - that is, the specific character, in which the universal continues serenely equal to itself. (3) The third is Individuality - meaning the reflection-into-self of the specific characters of universality and particularity; ...

"Universality, particularity, and individuality are, taken in the abstract, the same as identity, difference, and ground. But the universal is the self-identical, with the express qualification, that it simultaneously contains the particular and the individual. Again, the particular is the different or the specific character, but with the qualification that it is in itself universal and is as an individual. Similarly the individual must be understood to be a subject or substratum, which involves the genus and species in itself and possesses a substantial existence. ..." [Shorter Logic, s. 163]

(3) Vygotsky's critique of Piaget - the subjective and the objective.

Piaget bases his theory on what are supposed in psychoanalytical theory as two opposite forms of thought determination - the "pleasurre principle" and the "reality principle". Vygotsky deals with this irrefutably and in true Hegelian style:

"the drive for satisfaction of needs and the drive for adaptation to reality cannot be considered separate from and opposed to one another. A need can be truly satisfied only through a certain adaptation to reality. Moreover, there is no such thing as adaptation for the sake of adaptation; it is always directed by needs". [Thought and Language, Chapter 2]

This thought returns frequently in Hegel - on Freedom and Necessity, subject and object, the Idea of the True and the Idea of the Good, etc, etc.

(4) Vygotsky's critique of Piaget - senselessness and intelligence.

"Syncretism" means the mental activity characteristic of early childhood, in which objects are joined quite arbitrarily or senselessly. According to Piaget, this syncretism dies out under the impact of learned thought patterns. But Vygotsky demonstrates that syncretism constitutes a kind of hypotheses for experiment in which the child learns through experience the nature of the objective world. Again Vygotsky conceives of the opposites not as fixed mutually exclusive antitheses but as a unity in which, for example, intelligence arises out of senselessness and senselessness forms the pre-condition and ground of intelligence - "there's a method in the madness" as the saying goes.

Egocentric speech, too, performs an essential role in the development of intelligence and the solution of objective problems, bringing to bear what has been taken from social interaction on individual activity.

(5) Vygotsky's criticism of Stern - the tautology of explanation by forces

Stern explains the genesis of thought by postulating three driving forces innate in humans - expression, communication and intention, the first two shared in common with the animals, the last, equivalent to meaning, uniquely human. As Vygotsky points out, such an approach is merely a tautology. As Hegel said in relation to some 18-19th century natural science:

The sciences, especially the physical sciences, are full of tautologies ... For example, the ground of the movement of the planets around the Sun is said to be the attractive force of the Earth and the Sun on one another. As regards content, this expresses nothing other than what is contained in the phenomenon, namely the relation of these bodies to one another. [The Science of Logic, Formal Method of Explanation From Tautological Grounds]

Stern is credited with the discovery of the critical stage in development associated with the sudden obsession with enquiring after the names of objects and the simultaneous rapid growth in the child's vocabulary. Stern viewed the genesis of meaning in a child as a "sudden discovery" that symbols have meaning. Vygotsky says: the child "grasps only much later the relation of sign and meaning ... the relation of sign and meaning and the transition to operating with signs never result from an instantaneous discovery or invention ... this is an extremely complex process which has its 'natural history' (i.e. its early beginnings and transitional forms on the more developmental levels) and also its 'cultural history'. ... for a long time the word appears to the child as an attribute or property of the object rather than a mere sign."

What an astounding assertion, that "the word appears as an attribute of the object"! The slang term for a name - "handle" - appears to me to convey the idea contained here. The child at the age when he/she is acquiring their vocabulary cannot be conscious of language. Learning to grasp the speech-handles of objects is an extension of learning to grasp things with their out-stretched hands. Only much later can a child reflect on the act of handling something, separate their own activity and make it an object of their attention.

One is reminded here of the Hegelian concepts of "being-in-itself"and "for-itself"

the man, in himself, is the child. And what the child has to do is to rise out of this abstract and undeveloped 'in-himself' and become 'for himself' what he is at first only 'in-himself' - a free and reasonable being. [Shorter Logic, s. 124 n]

Acquiring theory

Vygotsky explains how abstract concepts taught in school "descend" over time to level of experience and become concrete, and spontaneous activity becomes the object of self-consciousness and becomes conceptualised, each "meeting in the middle".

From the very beginning the child's scientific and his spontaneous concepts for instance "exploitation" and "brother" develop in reverse directions: starting far apart, they move to meet each other. ... The child becomes conscious of his spontaneous concepts relatively late; the ability to define them in words, to operate with them at will, appears long after he has acquired the concepts. He has the concept (i.e. knows the object to which the concept refers), but is not conscious of his own act of thought. The development of a scientific concept, on the other hand, usually begins with its verbal definition and its use in non-spontaneous operations with working on the concept itself. It starts its life in the child's mind at the level that his spontaneous concepts reach only later. [Thought and Language, Chapter 6]

Vygotsky & Dialectical Method

In the above, I have picked out a number of instances where Vygotsky has demonstrated in particularly striking fashion the application of the dialectical handling of concepts. I have not given particular mention to a number of places where Vygotsky mentions the labour theory of the anthropological origin of language and other specifically Marxist allusions. It is clear from the above that Vygotsky not accidentally but consciously applies the dialectical method to the analysis and synthesis of concepts, and does so in materialist way.

It is fair to say that Vygotsky has provided us not only with an original and scientific approach to the understanding of thought and language, but has provided a rich demonstration of the application of the dialectical method.

One of the most significant outcomes of his work is the discovery of a series of planes of development spanning from the first utterances and gestures of the pre-speech child up to the high-school youth. Like Hegel and Marx, in forming an idea of the given subject (thought & language, logic, capitalism), Vygotsky begins not from a metaphysical definition, but from an internally contradictory "cell" (word-meaning, Notion, commodity) and elucidates the dynamics of the object through its own genesis. Each stage is seen as "complete within itself", but goes through a development driven by its own internal contradictions, laying the foundations for and giving birth to a higher stage.

Like Marx, Vygotsky is a materialist. Whereas in Hegel's Lectures on the History of Philosophy, the History is marred by an idealistic attempt to force the real history into the mould of the Logic, Vygotsky truly allows the subject matter to determine its own course. The result is a series of stages set out below.

Vygotsky's Stages in the Development of Language & Thought

The Thought-Language relationship in Early Childhood

Vygotsky describes the following broad stages in the development of the thought-language relationship:

  1. The primitive or natural stage: preintellectual speech and preverbal thought, at the level of "behaviour".
  2. "Naive psychology": the child's experience with his/her own body and of objects and the use of tools; increasingly correct use of language structures without the understanding of their logical meaning;
  3. egocentric speech: the use of external signs as aids in the solution of internal problems, counting on the fingers; egocentric speech becomes more and more curtailed and "esoteric".
  4. the "in-growth stage" when external operations turn inward, counting in the head, logical memory, soundless speech. Inner speech in turn becomes more and more abbreviated (e.g. predication, in which the sentences lack a subject, since the subject "is known to the speaker");

Subsequently, there is thought which is not reducible in any way to word-images. Ideas may then take the reverse passage, being transformed into inner speech and then vocalised. Such speech expressing thoughts is of an entirely different character from the spontaneous speech which preceded thought but continues side-by-side with verbal thought. Written language, which requires the translation of thoughts into words when all the conditions of spontaneous speech (situation, interlocutor, the presence of the object, verbalisation) are lacking, can only appear on the basis of the mastery of inner speech.

Vygotsky's Genesis of Concepts in Childhood

Vygotsky used an ingenious experimental technique in which children are asked to solve a puzzle by grouping into sets blocks of different size, shape, colour and height, and are observed as they try out what they conceive to be collectives. From this study he identifies the following genesis of a concept (manifested as "heaps"):

First phase - syncretism; objects are united only by subjective bonds and not by anything pertaining to the objects themselves.

Second Phase - complexes; objects are united not only by subjective bonds but also by facts. Any factually present connection may lead to the inclusion of a given element into a complex, but not one consistent attribute.

"Although the results are identical, the process by which they are reached is not at all the same as in conceptual thinking. The lines along which a complex develops are predetermined by the meaning a given word already has in the language of adults. The language of the environment, with its stable, permanent meanings, points the way that the child's generalisations will take"

"The principal function of complexes is to establish bonds and relationships. ... creates the basis for later generalisations".

Third Phase - concepts: a single attribute is abstracted to form the basis of a collective, "the child has begun to operate with concepts, to practice conceptual thinking, before being aware of the nature of these operations. This peculiar genetic situation is not limited to the attainment of concepts; it is the rule rather than an exception in the intellectual development of the child".

"The concept is not limited to generalisation. To form a concept it is necessary to abstract, to single out". "Synthesis must be combined with analysis". [Thought and Language, Chapter 5]

Vygotsky goes on to describe the formation of higher and higher concepts based on the capacity to become conscious of processes mastered unconsciously.

Vygotsky then considers the role of formal instruction in which the child learns socially acquired concepts which are remote from experience, and learns to operate with them "formally", i.e. to manipulate abstractions. As education continues, such concepts become more concrete. At the same time, the conceptual skills learned on the basis of concepts acquired by instruction are applied to spontaneous concepts applied unconsciously but rooted in day-to-day experience. The spontaneous concepts are drawn up to the level of conscious application of abstract thinking; abstract concepts bearing the experience of society come down and make a connection with experience and begin to become "natural".

All of these phases co-exist with each other in the course of development, predominating in different areas of activity and at different times and in different situations. At the same time, each stage builds upon the gains of the earlier.

The Divisions of Hegel's Logic & Vygotsky's "planes" of Verbal Thought

No doubt there is room for comparison, but one cannot help but admit that the stages of verbal thought just enumerated are quite different from the Divisions of Hegel's Logic - Being (Quality, Quantity, Measure), Essence (Existence, Appearance, Actuality), Notion (Subjective Notion, Object, Idea).

Hegel quite convincingly demonstrates that his divisions of the Logic have considerable correspondence with (1) the formation of a new concept in scientific research (2) the history of philosophy, (3) all natural processes of genesis which are not thoroughly abstract, (4) the historical development of scientific concepts, etc., etc.

And yet, though both writers are crystal clear on the necessary disjunction between the two subjects, the subject matter of Vygotsky's work is so close to that of the Logic. The paths of Notion and word-meaning are as distinct as are use-value and exchange value or thought and word-referent. What is implied here is precisely that the subject-object relation manifested in the apprehension of objectivity by means of subjective thinking is a unity of opposites whose laws spring from separate roots and are able to intersect and identify only because of the opposition of their laws of development.

Somewhat as a qualification to this, Vygotsky indicates that there is some correspondence between the planes of verbal thought discovered by him in childhood on the one hand and the anthropological pre-history of conceptual thought and language on the other. Thus, it is possible that to some extent the individual "recapitulates" to attainment of verbal thought in the history of humankind. However, once the concept (or Notion) appears in human history we are into different territory. Vygotsky's observations on the development of theoretical thought in secondary school-age adolescents are as stunning as are his discoveries in relation to the genesis of verbal thought in pre-school children, but it is fair to say that quite different processes are at work


Vygotsky's study of the relationship of thought and language is a model of the materialist application of the dialectical method of the first order of importance, both by reason of its results and of its methods. Hegel and Marx have given us the foundation for understanding what is objective in the subject-object relation; Vygotsky has given us an approach to understanding the subjective side of this relation.

A study of his results and methods will help us greatly in understanding the true significance of Hegel's method and his system. Nature is infinitely complex, as is the reflection of external nature in the life-processes of humanity. Nature and human existence manifest themselves in a multiplicity of co-existent "levels" constituting the subject matter of the various sciences both natural and human. Each specific science reveals its own laws which may be elucidated with the aid of the dialectical method of which Vygotsky's work is an example. The relation between each science again constitutes the basis for a unique study.

Vygotsky's comments on the development of psychology are generally applicable:

For all its greatness, however, Piaget's work suffers from the duality common to all pathfinding contemporary works in psychology. This cleavage is a concomitant of the crisis that psychology is undergoing as it develops into a science in the true sense of the work. That crisis stems from the sharp contradiction between the factual material of science and it methodological and theoretical premises, which have long been a subject of dispute between materialistic and idealistic world conceptions. [Thought and Language, Chapter 2]

But science has come a long way since 1934, both in respect of its factual material and its methodology, and the scope for conscious application of the dialectical method to all the sciences is wide open.