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Lev Vygotsky: A revolutionary way of understanding how we think

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John Parrington looks at what the work of Lev Vygotsky can tell us about the working of the human mind
Issue 2405
Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky (Pic: Wikimedia Commons)

What goes on inside a human mind? How does a mass of grey and white matter give rise to the genius of a Shakespeare, a Mozart, a Curie or an Einstein?

Or allow any one of us to negotiate the many obstacles and challenges that face us during a typical working day? 

Further there is the question of what happens during periods of great social upheaval.

How are ordinary people’s minds capable of the transformations that mean they come up with the most creative solutions to problems thrown up by the struggle? 

Such fundamental questions go to the heart of human existence. Yet despite the advances of modern neuroscience, they remain largely unanswered. 

A major reason for this is the inability of science under capitalism to transcend the limits of what is called reductionism. This says that a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts, and as such is best understood by identifying and describing those parts. 

While reductionism has driven modern science forward, its limits are shown by its inability to explain the human mind.

In contrast a very different approach to understanding the mind was pioneered after the Russian Revolution by psychologist Lev Vygotsky. 

Tragically Vygotsky’s approach was cut short by his early death from tuberculosis 80 years ago this month. Further, Stalinism stifled his revolutionary view of the mind. 

But his ideas remain as relevant today for any science of the brain that truly wants to understand this amazing organ in all its complexity.

Alexander Luria, who worked closely with Vygotsky, said that the Russian Revolution “decisively influenced my life and that of everyone I knew”. 

“From the outset it was apparent that I would have little opportunity to pursue the kind of well ordered, systematic education that serves as the cornerstone for most scientific careers. 

“In its place life offered me the fantastically stimulating atmosphere of an active, rapidly changing society.”


Similarly inspired, Vygotsky set himself the task of reformulating psychology along Marxist lines. 

Vygotsky built on Frederick Engels’ insight that early human evolution had been driven by use of tools to manipulate and transform the environment. 

Vygotsky argued that language could also be viewed as a mental tool that helped shape a truly human consciousness.

However, he was also keen to stress human activity and our interaction with the world around us. 

These are crucial to understanding that the role that language plays in our life is necessarily both dynamic and linked to our practical experience of the world. At his death Vygotsky was seeking to extend his theories about the human mind to the physical structures of the brain. 

As such he would have been delighted at the array of tools now available to study our mental organ. These include techniques to measure the electrical impulses in individual nerve cells or scans that reveal the activity of the human brain as it undergoes tests of learning and cognition. 

Yet for all this impressive array of techniques, we seem as far away from a scientific explanation of human consciousness as ever. For that, we need a social revolution. 

And with it a new generation of scientists prepared to throw off the shackles of the past, and boldly go where no human being has been before.


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