Vygotsky’s view of the role of the objective world in the process of children’s psychological development

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Vygotsky’s view of the role of the objective world in the process of children’s psychological development: discussions based on the 2nd chapter of «Thinking and Speech» // Мышление и речь: подходы, проблемы, решения: Материалы XV Международных чтений памяти Л.С. Выготского. - 2014. - Т2.

Vygotsky’s view of the role of the objective world in the process of children’s psychological development: discussions based on the 2nd chapter of «Thinking and Speech»

Y. Yoshikuni Denenchofu University Japan, Kanagawa

Aim of presentation

The aim of this paper is to clarify Vygotsky’s view of the role of the objective world in the process of children’s psychological development.

Since the publication of the English translations of Vygotsky’s work Mind in Society, edited by Cole, Steiner and Scribner, Vygotsky has become one of the authorities in the realm of social science, including pedagogy and psychology. A major school of these Vygotskian researchers comprise those who emphasize the sociocultural situatedness of human mind and knowledge, whom Rowlands’s (2000) refers to as socioculturalists. The characteristic of these researchers is that they see social interaction (especially, verbal communication) as the primary source of human mental development. By taking this approach they attempt to overcome the individual–society antinomy which is now a major issue in modern psychology (Wertsch 1995).

It should be noted that this approach of the socioculturalists, as such, is an appropriate way to draw upon Vygotsky’s legacy. In his major work The History of the Development of Higher Mental Functions, Vygotsky (1997) proposed that the mental nature of man represents the totality of social relations internalized, drawing his inspiration from Marx’s 6th thesis on Feuerbach. In Vygotsky’s view, the genetic roots of consciousness and self–consciousness are in the process of social interaction. Clarifying this genetic link between the individual and the social posed by Vygotsky through concrete research is an important issue for modern psychologists.

However, in the socioculturalist’s intensive discussions concerning social interaction, an equally important issue from the standpoint of Vygotsky’s psychology has been pushed into the background. That is, the role of the objective world.

There is a reason for socioculturalist’s ambiguity against the role of the objective world. As Rowlands (2000) points out, the socioculturalist’s interest on Vygotky’s psychology has its own social, cultural, historical context which are different from that of Vygotsky’s. As a result, their interpretation of Vygotsy was inevitablly a re–interpretation of his theory. The post modernist time in which we live, is one in which there is skepticism of the Enlighement idea of universal human progress, stressing cultural variability rather than universality. Accordingly, there has been a decline of the authority of science as well as the epistemological objectivism which assumes the ocjective reality independent of human subjectivity. Owing to such social, cultural, historical background, the socioculturalists considered Vygotsky’s psychology from a social constructivist perspective.

Assuming knowledge to be socially constructed, they are prone to be skeptical of the existence of objective reality and in an extreme case, as in Gergen’s social construtionist theory, goes so far as to conclude that knowledge is not a reflection of the world, but a linguistic construction, gaining its legitimacy through the process of social intercourse (Gergen 1995).

I do not intend to discuss the validity of the socioculturalist’s epistemological position. Although we cannot be bound by a simple objectivist epistemology in our postmodrenist time, shifting towards a social constructivist perspective does not resolve the aporia of epistemology (how can we legitimate our knowledge?), as Bickhard (1995) points out. For example, Bickhard insists that the shift in the position of contemporary philosophers (e.g. Dilthey, Heidegger, Gadamer, Derrida) from one that maintains that mind provides the resouces for understanding the world to that which states that those basic frameworks and concepts are provided by language, is just another form of idealism, namely, social idealism. Claiming the linguistic nature of understanding does not avoid the classical epistemic questions. At best, it simply shifts their locus, and the following questions arise. How does society know enythig about the world? What are the grounds for its knowledge claims? And so on.

From the standpoint of this paper, it is worth noting that contrary to the socioculturalist’s re–interepretation, Vygotsky himself did not take such a social constructivist view. As Rowlands (2000) points out, Vygotsky’s psychology is rooted in Marxist epistemology and thus, it is objectivist in nature, although with the caveat that the objective world can only be really understood by our practical transformation of it. So, in Vygotsky’s view, despite the importance of social intercourse in the process of gaining knowledge, it is the reflection of the objective world. In order to understand the potential of Vygotsky’s psychology, we should understand it in light of its own internal logic, fairly weighing its advantages and shortcomings.

The issue I want to raise in this paper concerns the role Vygotsky attributed to the objective world in the course of ontogenesis. Even if Vygotsky assumed the evolution of knowledge in the history of mankind to be the reflection of the objective world, the possibility remains that in the process of individual development, social interaction is the major drive which causes children to gain that knowledge. This is an important issue that should be examined, because while educational researchers who support the sociocultural theory tend to stress the role of social interaction in children’s development, the role of the objective world has been unclear in their arguments. (e.g., Forman et al., 1993)

Children’s relation to the objective world discussed in the 2nd chapter of Thinking and Speech

Is it Vygotsky’s view that social interaction alone is the cause of development in children? Does he not assume a legitimate role played by children’s contact with the objective world in studying their development? To find a clue to these questions, I will now turn to the examination of the 2nd chapter of Thinking and Speech.

The main theme of Thinking and speech, as is well known, is the way development of communication gives rise to children’s development of verbal thinking. The 2nd chapter, not necessarily a well referenced chapter in this work, consists of Vygotsky’s critical examination on Piaget’s psychological research. This chapter is usually understood to posit the social nature of children’s psychological development as opposed to Piaget’s notion of children’s egocentrism. Thus, it seems that in accordance with the main theme of Thinking and Speech, Vygotsky stresses the significance of social interaction in this chapter.

Nevertheless, by carefully examining this chapter, we can see that Vygotsky discusses not only the significance of social interaction in the development of verbal thinking, but together with it, the significance of children’s relation to the objective world. Without taking into account both of these factors, we cannot obtain a comprehensive understanding of Vygotsky’s psychological research.

In this chapter, Vygotsky (1987) examines Piaget’s research under the assumption that the egocentric character of children’s thinking is the central concept in his research project. Vygotsky attempts to examine the validity of this concept from a genetic standpoint, that is, the origin of children’s egocentric nature and its developmental destiny. Vygotsky examines critically Piaget’s explanation of the genetic relationships among the three forms of thought he assumes to exist in the course of children’s psychological development, that is, autistic thinking, egocentric thinking and rational tininking. Piaget sees egocentiric thinking as the intermediate and unifying link between the other two extreme stages in the development of thinking.

According to Vygotsky, Piaget sees the essence of egocetrism in two factors, that is, children’s asociality and the unrealistic character of children’s practical activity. It is well known that Vygotsky’s critical reinterpretation of the former factor, by means of an experimental verification of the genetic nature of children’s egocentric speech, led him to the concept of the social nature of children’s development. But what is noteworthy here is the fact that Vygotsky’s critical examination is not only directed towards the former factor, but the latter as well. In Vygotsky’s view, both of these two factors make up Piaget’s perspective. Thus, to understand the perspective of Vygotsky himself, we have to take in to account not only his critical reinterpretation of the notion of children’s asociality, but, together with it, the unrealistic character of children’s activity. The latter concerns the relationship between children and the objective world (objective reality, in Vygotsky’s terms).

Vygotsky observes that the two factors which Piaget points out stems from his dependance on Freud’s concept that the pleasure principle precedes the reality principle. Drawing up on this concept, Piaget assumes that children’s thinking is by nature unrealistic, serving only to satisfy children’s personal needs and desire, without any adaptation to the objective reality. Because children’s thinking is by nature unrealistic, realistic thinking comes from the outside, namely from the social environment. This is where Piaget’s assumption of the asocial and unrealistic character of children come together. Just as the individual (in Piaget’s case, which is tied to the biological) is opposed to the social, children’s personal needs and desire are opposed to the adaptation to objective reality.

The initial and the basic idea underlying this entire conception of the development of thinking - and the source of Piaget’s genetic definition of the child’s egocentrism-is the concept that autistic thinking is the first form of thinking(i.e., that wich determines the child’s psychological natrure). Piaget borrowed this idea from psychoanalytic theory. Realistic thinking is seen as a later development, one imposed on the child from the outside through a long and systematic process of coericion by the surrounding social environment. (Vygotsky, L.S., 1987, p.59) Vygotsky, bulding on Bleuler’s research, refutes Piaget’s assmuption of the unrealistic character of children’s practical activity. For children, the adaptation to reality is not something opposed to satisfaction of their inner needs. All adaptation is directed by needs.

Our first and basic position - the central idea of our entire critique - is that Piaget and the psychoanalysists have framed the problem incorrectly. We cannot place the satisfaction of needs and the process of adaptation to external reality in opposition to one another. ... Considered from the perspective of developmental theory, the very concept of needs includes the idea that these needs must be satisfied through some adaptation to reality. (Ibid., p.77)

At the same time, Vygotsky refutes Piaget’s assumption of children’s asociality, with his well–known experiment on egocentric speech. Contrary to Piaget, who sees egocentric speech as an expression of children’s asociality which is gradually supplanted by socialized thought, Vygotsky sees it as the transitional form in the movement from external to inner speech or social to individual speech. For Vygotsky, egocentric speech is functionally equivalent to inner speech, which develops through the movement of social forms of collaboration into the sphere of individual mental function. In this way, Vygotsky refutes two dualities involved in Piaget’s psychology, namely, the duality of the individual (the biological) and the social, and that of satisfaction of personal needs and adaptation to reality. And subsequently, Vygotsky criticizes the idealistic consequence of Piaget’s perspective, severing the continuity between these two poles.

To say this is to suggest that things (i.e., objective external reality) play no decisive role in the development of the child’s thinking. ... One could not more clearly express the concept that the need for logical thought, or the need for the truth itself, emerges in the interaction between the consciousness of the child and the consciousness of others. Philosophically, this argument is reminiscent of the perspective of Durkheim and other sociologists who derive space, time, and objective reality as a whole from the social life of man! It is similar to A.A.Bogdanov’s argument that objective physical reality is shared–meaning, the argument that the objective nature of the physical entity that we encounter in our experience is, ultimately, established by mutual agreement or assessment in people’s utterances. (Ibid., p.85)

This epistemological view, more or less similar to that of the socioculturalist’s, Vygotsky attributes to Piaget, exactly an opponent of himself. For Vygotsky, to assume that the children’s development of thinking occurs solely from social interaction, without his relation to the objective world, means to commit to idealism.

Then, how does Vygotsky integrate development through social interaction and development through adaptation to the objective reality? We can infer from the following conclusion he derives from his discussions in this 2nd chapter of Thinking and Speech, that the concept of practice serves this purpose.

What is missing, then, in Piaget’s perspective is reality and children’s relationship to reality. What is missing is the children’s practical activity. This is fundamental. Even the socialization of the child’s thinking is analyzed by Piaget outside the context of practice. ... This attempt to derive the child’s logical thinking and his development from a pure interaction of consciousness - an interaction that occurs in complete isolation from reality or any consideration of the child’s social practice directed towards the mastery of reality - is the central element of Piaget’s entire construction. (Ibid., pp.87–88)

In practice, children are both in relation with reality and other people (that is why Vygotsky rephrases it as social practice), and this was what Piaget overlooked. In Vygotsky’s view, practice was the field in which the two causes of development, social interaction and the objective world meet.

Concluding remarks

In this paper, I pointed out the significance Vygotsky attached to the objective world in the course of children’s psychological development, by examining the 2nd chapter of Thinking and Speech. By critically examining Piaget’s psychology, Vygotsky discerned two major causes giving rise to children’s psychological development, namely their relation with other people, and their relation with the objective world. These two causes were integrated in practice.

Although throughout most of his works, what Vygotsky explicitly emphasized was the social origin of children’s development, owing to the discussions in this paper, I suggest the necessity to reinterpret his psychology under the assumption that children’s development through social relation is always accompanied by his relation to the objective world.


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