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June 11: The Social Roots of Thinking

June 11, 2013
portraitSoviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who embedded human psychology in social reality only to have his thought repressed in the USSR, died of tuberculosis in Moscow at age 37 on this date in 1934. Vygotsky proposed that reasoning and higher cognitive functions emerge in children not only because of brain development and other universal processes, but also through the “internalization” of a social environment. His book, Thinking and Speaking (1934), posited a fundamental connection between speech (both silent inner speech and spoken language) and the development of thought: Inner speech, he believed, actually develops from external speech through a gradual process of internalization, so that thought itself develops socially. In the 1970s, these and others of Vygotsky’s ideas became important components of new, holistic theories in developmental and educational psychology in the West. Among educators, Vygotsky’s social theories offered an alternative to Piaget’s more individualistic perception of children and learning. His research and insights were preserved (and variously interpreted) by a group of his students, associates, and devotees known as the Vygotsky Circle, whose activities today are best represented in PsyAnima, Dubna Psychological Journal, founded in 2008. He was a prolific essayist, and members of the Vigotsky Circle published his complete works in 1987. “The relation of thought to word is not a thing but a process, a continual movement back and forth from thought to word and from word to thought. In that process, the relation of thought to word undergoes changes that themselves may be regarded as developmental . . . Thought is not merely expressed in words; it comes into existence through them.” —Lev Vygotsky