Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (Russian: Лев Семёнович Вы́готский or Выго́тский Lev Semyonovich Vygotskiy, born Лев Симхович Выгодский Lev Simkhovich Vygodskiy, November 17 [O.S. November 5] 1896 – June 11, 1934) was a Soviet psychologist, the founder of a theory of human cultural and bio-social development commonly referred to as cultural-historical psychology, and leader of the Vygotsky Circle.
Vygotsky’s main work was in developmental psychology, and he proposed a theory of the development of higher cognitive functions in children that saw reasoning as emerging through practical activity in a social environment.
During the earlier period of his career he argued that the development of reasoning was mediated by signs and symbols, and therefore contingent on cultural practices and language as well as on universal cognitive processes.
Vygotsky also posited a concept of the zone of proximal development, often understood to refer to the way in which the acquisition of new knowledge is dependent on previous learning, as well as the availability of instruction.
During his lifetime Vygotsky’s theories were controversial within the Soviet Union. In the 1930s Vygotsky’s ideas were introduced in the West where they remained virtually unknown until the 1970s when they became a central component of the development of new paradigms in developmental and educational psychology.
While initially Vygotsky’s theories were ignored in the West, they are today widely known, although scholars do not always agree with them, or agree about what he meant. The early 21st century has seen scholarly reevaluations of many of Vygotsky’s central concepts and theories.
A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Vygotsky as the 83rd most cited psychologist of the 20th century.
Lev Vygotsky was born in the town of Orsha, in the Russian Empire (present-day Belarus) into a non-religious middle class Russian Jewish family. His father was a banker.
He was raised in the city of Gomel, Belarus, where he obtained both public and private education. In 1913 Vygotsky was admitted to the Moscow State University through a “Jewish Lottery” to meet a three percent Jewish student quota for entry in Moscow and Saint Petersburg universities. There he studied law and, in parallel, he attended lectures at fully official, but privately funded and non degree granting Shaniavskii Moscow City People’s University”.
His early interests were in the arts and he might have aspired to be a literary critic, fascinated with the formalism of his time.
Upon graduation in 1917, Vygotsky returned to Gomel, where he lived after the October Socialist Revolution of 1917 happened. There is virtually no information about his life during the years of the German occupation and the Civil War until the Bolsheviks captured the town in 1919.
Subsequently Vygotsky was an active participant of major social transformation under the Bolshevik rule and a fairly prominent representative of the Bolshevik government in Gomel from 1919 to 1923. For unclear reasons, around the early 1920s, he changed his birth name from Vygodskii (with “d”) into Vygotskii (with middle “t”) and his patronymic from original Jewish “Simkhovich” to Slavic “Semenovich”.
In January 1924, Vygotsky took part in the Second All-Russian Psychoneurological Congress in Leningrad. Soon thereafter, Vygotsky received an invitation to become a research fellow at the Psychological Institute in Moscow. Vygotsky moved to Moscow with new wife Roza Smekhova. He began his career at the Psychological Institute as a “staff scientist, second class”.
By the end of 1925, Vygotsky completed his dissertation in 1925 on “The Psychology of Art” (not published until the 1960s) and a book “Pedagogical Psychology” that was apparently created on the basis of lecture notes that he prepared back in Gomel as a psychology instructor at local educational establishments. In summer 1925 he made his first and only trip abroad to a London congress on the education of the deaf.
Upon return to the Soviet Union, he was hospitalized due to relapse of tuberculosis and, having miraculously survived, remained an invalid and out of job until the end of 1926. His dissertation was accepted as the prerequisite of scholarly degree, which was awarded to Vygotsky in fall 1925 in absentia.
After his release from hospital Vygotsky did theoretical and methodological work on the crisis in psychology, but never finished the draft of the manuscript and interrupted his work on it around mid-1927. The manuscript was later published with notable editorial interventions and distortions in 1982 and presented by the editors as one of the most important Vygotsky’s works.
In this early manuscript, Vygotsky argued for the formation of a general psychology that could unite the naturalist objectivist strands of psychological science with the more philosophical approaches of Marxist orientation. However, he also harshly criticized those of his colleagues who attempted to build a “Marxist Psychology” as an alternative to the naturalist and philosophical schools.
He argued that if one wanted to build a truly Marxist Psychology, there were no shortcuts to be found by merely looking for applicable quotes in Marx’ writings. Rather one should look for a methodology that was in accordance with the Marxian spirit.
In 1926-30 Vygotsky worked on a research programme investigating the development of higher cognitive functions of logical memory, selective attention, decision making and language comprehension, from early forms of primal psychological functions. During this period he gathered a group of collaborators including Alexander Luria, Leonid Sakharov, Boris Varshava, Alexei Leontiev, Leonid Zankov and several others.
Vygotsky guided his students in researching this phenomenon from three different angles: The instrumental angle, which tried to understand the ways in which humans use objects as aides of mediation in memory and reasoning. A developmental approach, focusing on how children acquire the higher cognitive functions during development. And a culture-historical approach, studying the ways in which forms of mediation and developmental trajectories are shaped by different social and cultural patterns of interaction.
In early 1930s Vygotsky experienced deep crisis, personal and theoretical, and after a period of massive self-criticism made an attempt at a radical revision of his theory.
The work of the representatives of the Gestalt psychology and other holistic scholars was instrumental in this theoretical shift. In 1932-1934 Vygotsky was aiming at establishing a psychological theory of consciousness, but this theory because of his death remained only in a very sketchy and unfinished form.