Cultural-historical theory: the issues that L.S. Vygotsky brought up

1. The fundamentals of the cultural-historical theory.

I will discuss these fundamentals referring to a large extent to the point of view of my teacher, V.V. Davydov . In his opinion the foundations of the cultural-historical concept were laid down by L.S. Vygotsky himself around 1927–28. Later he contributed largely to the development of these fundamentals. But both during Vygotsky’s life and after his demise, a signifi cant part in disclosing the very essence of this concept, its elaboration and specifi cation played his direct students, and later – his followers. To Vygotsky’s direct students belong preeminently A.N. Leontiev, A.R. Luriya, L.I. Bozhovich, A.V. Zaporozhets, D.B. Elkonin, P.Ya. Galperin. According to V.V. Davydov, it is impossible to grasp the essence of the cultural-historical concept without taking into account that it was to a large extent elaborated, clarifi ed, extended, modifi ed and refi ned by Vygotsky’s students and followers – that is, by his scientifi c school. Interestingly enough, already in the 1930-s during Vygotsky’s lifetime quite an original theory for that time emerged – the general psychological activity theory, created preeminently by the efforts of A.N. Leontiev and his followers. In the opinion of V.V. Davydov, activity theory represents the direct successor to those principal ideas, which were put as a basis of the cultural-historical concept by Vygotsky himself.

In this regard Davydov criticizes those psychologists who argue that Vygotsky did not apply the notion of activity. In Davydov’s judgment, Vygotsky, being a connoisseur of German classical philosophy and a true Marxist, could not pass by Marx’s distinguished works dedicated to the problems of activity. Already from the beginning of 1925 Vygotsky began to thoroughly examine the social-historical notion of activity and its application in psychology. Therefore we should believe Leontiev when he claims that in 1925 Vygotsky began to elaborate the social-historical notion of activity in the context of psychology, and he made a few steps in that direction. The fact that Vygotsky had a truly substantial social-historical and partly psychological concept of activity is evidenced by several remarkable pages in one of his articles (which unfortunately had not been published until 1984), where he openly and directly used the term “activity” as a concept and demonstrated that human life, in comparison to the one of animals, is aimed at the future and becomes free by virtue of tools and words. Some of Vygotsky’s ideas, particularly those referring to the social conditions of human development, were deepened by A.N. Leontiev already on the basis of his quite elaborated psychological understanding of activity. Without distorting anything in the essence of Vygotsky’s approach to conditions of human development, Leontiev replaced the term “social situation” with the notion of “development of activity”.

The fundamentals of the cultural-historical theory of Vygotsky, Leontiev and the whole Vygotskian scientifi c school were consistently articulated by V.V. Davydov. In his interpretation they are presented in the following way: First: the basis for the development of a human being is represented by a qualitative change in social situation, or, in terms of Leontiev, a change in person’s activity.

Second: universal points of human’s mental development are represented by learning and upbringing.

Third: the initial form of activity is its full-form execution by the person on the outer – social or collective – plane.

Fourth: psychological neoformations, which emerge in a human being, are derivative from the interiorization of the initial form of human activity.

Fifth: signifi cant role in the process of interiorization belongs to different sign and symbol systems.

And fi nally, sixth: an important part in the activity of human consciousness belongs to the internal unity of intelligence and emotions.

Without going into detail on these principles of cultural-historical psychology, V.V. Davydov still remarks that the issue of unity of intelligence and emotions had not been elaborated enough. And this is an important challenge in the organization and analysis of the research results by contemporary researchers.

The point is, that on the one hand L.S. Vygotsky considers meaning as a unit of the development of the psyche. As we know, according to Vygotsky, giving meaning to a meaningless word represents the main way of the formation of scientifi c concepts (in contrast with spontaneous concepts). On the other hand, Vygotsky considers pereghivanie as a unit of the development of the psyche, the nature of which is connected with commonality, communication and certainly with the emerging emotion. What is the relationship between “meaning” and “pereghivanie”? We will listen to serious papers devoted to this issue. However the problem of the relationship between intelligence and emotions remains one of the most controversial among the issues that Vygotsky brought up.

V.V. Davydov also argues, that till now the notion of collective activity (brought into psychological science by Vygotsky himself) has still not been elaborated. Moreover, since collective activity exists, then consequently its bearer is a collective entity, a collective subject. The concept of collective activity and collective subject is also a new problem (though it has been raised long ago), which needs to be explored and elaborated on the contemporary level. However, if we are not able to say anything plainly about collective and social forms of human activity, then what can we say about the so-called interiorization, which Vygotsky and his followers perceive as a process of transformation of collective activity into individual activity, and of collective subject into individual subject?

V.V. Davydov also clarifi es some aspects of Vygotsky’s approach to human development. For instance, Vygotsky’s ideas had been evolving from his fi rst publication in 1915 to the end of his life. He had never had clear and defi nite terminology, because the theory that he was working on could not be elaborated as fast as he aspired. At the same time, considering his general point of view, a child is born into a social situation, into a communal situation as a human being with all the inherent potential, and develops further as a social and communal being. This also provides much food for thought.

Surely those six principles of the cultural-historical concept formulated by Vygotsky require serious and detailed experimental and theoretical working- through. However I would like to point out again that according to Vygotsky the beginning of human development is a collective (communal, joint) or social activity carried out by or with the assistance of a collective subject in a cultural environment. The mediums of the culture are signs and symbols; it is thanks to signs and symbols that in the process of learning and upbringing the individual activity of a person becomes important, and the individual subject becomes clear, and then said subject gains individual consciousness. So, in the very general outline, the pattern of origin of the individual consciousness is this: collective-social activity, culture, signs and symbols, individual activity, individual consciousness.

While attempting to highlight the singularity of the cultural-historical theory, it is crucial to keep the original point of view of L.S. Vygotsky himself – to distinguish between the theory and its interpretation in the framework of the activity approach, elaborated by A.N. Leont’ev. It is crucial to avoid reducing cultural-historical theory to cultural-historical activity theory. Doing so, means not taking into account L.S. Vygotsky’s idea, that the notion “change of social situation” corresponds to the notion “development of activity” in the framework of the activity approach. These notions correlate, however they are defi ned in different systems of coordinates – in the framework of the cultural-historical theory on the one hand and in the framework of the activity approach on the other hand. As I have already mentioned this highlights the singularity of each of the theories and illustrates the history of the development of L.S. Vygotsky’s scientifi c school.

Below I will briefl y discuss the meaning of the main concepts of the cultural-historical theory and those issues that are challenging for contemporary research, conducted in the framework of L.S. Vygotsky’s scientifi c school.

2. Social situation of development. “Zone of proximal development”

As I have already mentioned, in L.S. Vygotsky’s cultural-historical theory the social situation is percieved as the source of development. According to Vygotsky, “any function in the cultural development of a child appears twice, in two aspects, fi rst in a social plane and then in a psychological plane, fi rst between two people as an inter-psychic category, and then inside of a child as an intra-psychic category”. (Л.С. Выготский, 1983, т. 3, с. 145) . Social interactions appear to be genetically social, moreover in its primary form any function is shared among the participants of interaction. “All superior psychic functions and their inter-relations have at their back those genetically social relations, real relationships, homo duplex (the man doubled, lat.). Hence the principal and the method of personifi cation in cultural development research, i.e. dividing functions between people, personifi cation of functions. Take voluntary attention, for instance: one acquires, the other masters. It’s separating again of that which has been merged into one (compare to modern labor) ”. (L.S. Vygosky, 1986, p. 54 – in the publication of A.A. Puzirei).

Social interactions defi ne the mechanism of distribution of functions on the one hand and the means or method of mastering those functions on the other hand. Thus, for example, guided social interactions, which initially serve as instruments for social realization of the processes of cognition and communication later begin to play the role of the cognitive function of self-regulation and mental representation of various kinds of information. These social interactions activate the not yet developed cognitive functions, which allows the student to act on a higher cognitive level. The gap between that which a learner is able to do on his/her own (the actual level of development) and that which he/she is capable of with proper guidance is called “zone of proximal development”. Therewith, according to Vygotsky, learning is successful only when it goes ahead of development, when it awakens and brings to life those functions, which are yet in the process of maturing or are in the zone of proximal development. This, in his view, is the way how education plays a crucial role in development.

3. Social interactions and education

We can say that two ideas, formulated by Vygotsky, became cornerstones of the new approach to the issue of learning activity. First is that scientifi c community clearly realized that social interactions and cognitive development are neither mixed nor independent processes, they are also not reversible (in the sense of “isomorphic”) processes, they are not even equivalent processes. They rather are interdependent processes, since generation and development of the one internally depends on development of the other. Deriving benefi t and getting effect from specifi c social interactions, which means really fi nding oneself in the space of development and making a step up in one’s own achievement, is possible for a child, when there is a certain correspondence to the actual developmental level. But this actual level itself is also the result of previous and future social interactions.

Another important issue is that content of the notion “zone of proximal development” suggests a new paradigm of development, and accordingly a new approach to teaching-learning psychology. The notion of learning as a natural and individual process, dividing participants of the educational situation into teachers and learners, is being replaced by the view of learning as a process of co-action, co-operation and joint activity . Notably, the key mechanism of this process, which makes it culturally and socially determined, is the mediation of cognitive acts by means of interaction between the participants of activity. In this case a new problem comes to the fore: not only what to teach, but also how to teach, i.e. a problem of organizing effective joint forms of learning activity.

4. Organizing joint learning activity

The search for effective forms of co-simultaneity (co-operation as a form of interaction) in Vygotsky’s scientifi c school is related to many researchers’ works on the concept of “organization of joint activity” which is characterized by:

  • distribution and exchange of actions;
  • mutual understanding;
  • communication;
  • refl ection as a special kind of operation with modes of cooperative work.

The concept of joint-distributed action (co-action) is a way to refi ne Vygotsky’s idea of distribution of a psychological function as a condition of mastering it in a social situation. Method of research on properties of organization of joint activity in relation to the genesis of cognitive actions in a child has a paramount importance in this regard. Distinctiveness of this method is due to modeling of interaction situations with the help of sign means-schemes and activity models. And its prototype is represented by the method of double stimulation of L.S. Vygotsky – L.S. Sacharov. In such models researchers generally record structure of individual actions, manner of their distribution between participants and sequence of their implementation. Working with such scheme gives a group of children a possibility to organize their communication and cooperation by recording in it the changes of the interaction modes, which correspond to different strategies of problem solving. This method of researching interactions in relation to genesis of learning-cognitive actions is in part an important result of social-genetic psychology of learning activity, which we have developed.

Cultural-historical theory, especially its interpretation in the framework of the activity approach, is a grand contribution to modern science. At the same time, as V.V. Davydov noted: “Vygotsky’s cultural-historical concept even in its interpretation in the framework of the activity approach is still not truly a theory, but rather a hypothesis. But, as you know, true science fi nds the source of its development in formulating theories and proving their legitimacy for different areas of social practice. It is the challenge to young scholars – philosophers, logicians, psychologists, educators, culture studies experts – who are able in the nearest future (hard to say how many years from now) to turn this cultural-historical hypothesis into a full-scale truly fundamental modern theory”.

In the conclusion to my report I would like to highlight two important issues that testify of the real development of L.S. Vygotsky’s scientifi c school.

The first one is connected not only with the development of the theory itself, but with conducting in its framework of research connected with various aspects of social practice. There will be a particular presentation on this issue in our journals – particularly in the journal «Cultural-historical psychology». This journal focuses on the the results of research conducted on the basis of the fundamental ideas of Vygotsky-Leontiev-Luriya. Recently the journal has been included in the list of WOS journals, which testifi es of the international recognition of the presented work.

The second issue is connected with the training of researchers of social practice, who will be able to work in the framework of the cultural-historical scientifi c school – particularly in the sphere of education. Professors of the UNESCO Chair of our University have elaborated and are successfully fulfi lling a Master’s program “Cultural-historical psychology and activity approach in education”.

This program adresses the issue, which competences and skills a researcher must have in order to study learning and developmental processes on various stages of childhood, in order to work with children’s diffi culties and peculiarities and have a positive infl uence on these processes. Per se these are the skills of a contemporary researcher of social practice.

Tomorrow our traditional International summer university will start, in the framework of which young scholars from different countries will discuss the methods and results of their research, conducted in the framework of Vygotsky’s scientifi c school. International dialogue on these issued between young scholars is extremely important. Once again thank you very much for your attention.


Publication Date: 


Higher education institution: 


    Для цитирования: 

    Rubtsov V.V. Rector of MSUPE, Professor, head of the international UNESCO Chair “Cultural-historical psychology of childhood” (Russia)