Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (1896--1934)

29 Jun 2023 11:43

Soviet psychologist and prominent "pre-cognitivist". His work focused on the development of cognitive skills, especially skills of self-control, and how these were supported ("mediated") by external tools, above all the culturally-provided tools of language and social interaction. He was particularly interested in the ways people "internalize" such tools, learning to do without such scaffolding, though it's necessary for the acquisition of the skill. (He went so far as to speculate that all cognitive abilities originated as internalizations of social interactions. Whether he meant this ontogenetically or phylogenetically, or in some sense both, I can't tell, and in any case it seems very unconvincing to me.) One way of thinking about what he was doing (grossly anarchonistic but useful) is that he was interested in how orgnaisms with limited computational ability can effectively expand their information-processing powers by interacting with structured environments --- think of how, in formal language theory, attaching a stack to a finite-state machine lets it generate context-free languages, not just regular languages. Another anachronistic framing is that he was interested in collective cognition. Some modern Vygotskyans believe their socio-cultural approach is an alternative to the more usual, computational approach to cognition. This has never made any sense to me, more or less for the reasons Frawley lays out in his book.

This was inteded as a self-consciously Marxist, but nonetheless objective and scientific, psychological theory, emphasizing the role of history and social relations, as well as the functional, adaptive character of thought. Comparisons to American pragmatism and to Piaget are common-place. Comparisons to positivism, in the mode of Ernst Mach or the Logical Positivists less common but equally apt. (I imagine that Vygotsky and Otto Neurath would've had a lot to say to each other, if Vygotsky could've gotten over Neurath's rather unorthodox approach to Marxism.) I should probably say something here about the Soviet academico-political decisions which led Vygotskyism to be officially suppressed in favor of Pavlovian reflex-psychology, forcing his best students into neuroscience, but I don't feel up to it today.