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Reading :: The History of the Development of Higher Mental Functions

Posted by: on Aug 4, 2017 | No Comments
The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky: The History of the Development of Higher Mental Functions (Cognition and Language: A Series in Psycholinguistics) (Volume 4)
By L.S. Vygotsky


A little background. Although some of Vygotsky's works had been translated into English, including an over-edited 1963 version of Thought and Language, the publication that set off the boom in US-based Vygotsky studies was 1978's Mind in Society. I read this book in graduate school and loved it. Only later did I understand the import of the editors' introduction: The book was a collection of Vygotsky's works, curated by Michael Cole's mentor A.R. Luria and supplemented by illustrative studies by Luria, Leontiev, and other Vygotsky associates. Those works included the unpublished "Tool and Symbol"; section 3 of The History of the Development of Higher Psychological Functions; and two essays from the 1934 collection Mental Development of Children and the Process of Learning. Some of the illustrative material came from other sections of The History of the Development of Higher Psychological Functions.

Since The History of the Development of Higher Psychological Functions was such a big part of this intriguing book, and since it was referenced repeatedly elsewhere by Luria, I was very interested in reading the actual text. But that was easier said than done, since the book had not been published as a standalone text. I could get parts of it. For instance, a condensed version of Ch.1, 2, 4, and 4 takes up about 35pp of Leontyev, Luriya, and Smirnov's (1966) Psychological Research in the USSR under the title "Development of the Higher Psychological Functions." The chapter "The Genesis of Higher Mental Functions" is in Wertsch's 1981 collection The Concept of Activity in Soviet Psychology. But if you want to read the entire book (and then some), you have to go to the 1997 Collected Works, which is translated from the Russian Collected Works. (For a while, I didn't think the UT library had the CW, but apparently I wasn't using the right search terms.)

The Collected Works version includes the originally published chapters (Ch.1-5), published in 1931. But it also includes Ch.6-15, "which are being published for the first time," according to the footnotes from the Russian edition (p.279). Of course, this footnote does not provide much context, so I'm unclear whether Vygotsky actually saw these as part of the same work or wrote them at the same time.

In this review, I'll only cover the original book. I may take up the rest in a future review.

Ch.1. The problem of the development of higher mental functions
Here, Vygotsky begins by urging a new point of view on the development of higher mental functions. Previously, the questions had been formulated in a one-sided, erroneous fashion, primarily because investigators had seen higher mental functions "as natural processes and formations," failing to distinguish the natural from the cultural (p.2). "Higher mental functions and complex cultural forms of behavior with all their specific features of functioning and structure, with all the uniqueness of their genetic path from inception to full maturity and death, with all the special laws to which they are subject usually remained outside the field of vision of the researcher" and thus "complex formations and processes were partitioned into component elements and no longer existed as wholes, as structures" (p.2). That is, traditionally, analysis chopped up the system of a higher mental function (HMF) and consequently could only study its components, lower mental functions (LMF).

Consequently, psychology tells us when children learn abstract concepts, but not why or how. Psychology had not yet distinguished between two lines of development, the natural and the cultural, and the two different sets of laws that each follow (p.3). Vygotsky's solution is to introduce the dialectical method into psychology (p.3). Here, he notes that American behaviorism and Russian reflexology are both reductive, decomposing forms without regard to quality—a nondialectical approach that, he says, results in "an enormous mosaic of mental life" rather than a unified whole (p.4). In contrast, Vygotsky's dialectical approach viewed mental functions as interoperating in a system that is qualitatively different from its parts (p.4). He adds:
The history of the development of higher mental functions is impossible without a study of the prehistory of these functions, their biological roots, their organic properties. The genetic roots of two basic cultural forms of behavior are established in the infantile age: using tools and human speech; this circumstance in itself places the infantile age at the center of the prehistory of cultural development. (p.6)
Vygotsky notes a rupture between general psychology and child psychology, which he credits to a rift between the study of lower and higher mental functions (p.7). He lists three basic concepts of his research in the present volume:

  • higher mental functions
  • the cultural development of behavior
  • the mastery of one's own behavior through internal processes (p.7)
He argues that there are two branches in the development of HMF:
  • "the processes of mastering external materials of cultural development and thinking" such as language and arithmetic;
  • the processes of development of special HMFs such as attention and logical memory (p.14)
Vygotsky argues that cultural development in man is preceded by, but separate from, his biological development. "In a wholly different type of adaptation in man, the development of his artificial organs, tools, and not a change in the organs and structure of his body, is of primary importance" (p.16). Indeed, primitive and cultured man are biologically equal (p.17; recall that this claim is at the root of the Uzbek expedition that went on in 1931-1932). (Vygotsky does not say it here, but his concept of the New Man relied on cultural development; as he implied in his 1930 essay on the subject, the Soviet alteration of man was cultural, not genetic, and anyone from any genetic background could acquire the cultural tools to reach new heights.)

Here, Vygotsky lists some of the HMFs: verbal thinking, logical memory, concept formation, voluntary attention, will; these are all thoroughly changed in cultured man (p.17). "In the process of historical development, social man changes the methods and devices of his behavior, transforms natural instincts and functions, and develops and creates new forms of behavior—specifically cultural" (p.18). And in a cultural environment, organic development yields "a historically conditioned biological process" in which cultural development is merged with organic maturation. One example: "the development of speech in the child" (p.20). 

Citing Jennings, Vygotsky notes that, like animals, "Man also has his system of activity that keeps his methods of behavior within limits. In his system, for example, flying is impossible. But man surpasses all animals because he can extend the radius of his activity limitlessly by using tools. His brain and hand made his system of activity, that is, the sphere of available and possible forms of behavior, infinitely broad." Thus the decisive moment in a child's development is when s/he independently finds and uses tools (p.20).  Here, the child transitions from animal to human activity; but this transition does not mean leaving one for the other. Rather, the two systems (animal/organic and human/cultural) develop together (p.21). (Compare Engestrom's account of the evolution of mediators in the transition from animal to man in Learning by Expanding.)

Animals, Vygotsky argues, do not have the biological platform that we do, "a certain degree of biological maturity" that is required for underpinning HMFs (p.23). Vygotsky proposes understanding the seams between biological and cultural systems of activity by examining "deviations from the normal type," including "the so-called defective," in which natural-cultural merging does not occur normally (p.23). (Vygotsky later became interested in other, higher-achieving edge cases such as that of a mnemonist, and planned to write a book about them; Luria eventually wrote a book about the mnemonist, which was very much in the same vein as the current book, but less broad in its implications.) Specifically discussing "child primitiveness," Vygotsky warns us against understanding "primitivism of the child's mentality" as "feebleness": "The child-primitive is a child who has not gone through cultural development or, more precisely, who is at the lowest step of cultural development" (cf. Luria's 1930s twin research). 

Ch.2. Research method
In this chapter, Vygotsky lays down his methodological principles. Although it's been a while since I read his Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology, the chapter seems in line with it. "Our main idea" is that in making the transition from animal to human, we made 
a dialectical leap that leads to a qualitative change in the relationship itself between the stimulus and the response. We might formulate our basic conclusion thus: human behavior differs by the same kind of qualitative uniqueness in comparison with the behavior of animals as the whole type of adaptation and historical development of man differs from the adaptation and development of animals because the process of mental development in man is part of the total process of the historical development of humanity. (p.39)
Man acts upon nature—including himself—and creates new conditions for self, conditions that allow him to shape himself (p.38).

Vygotsky and colleagues
began our research with a psychological analysis of several forms of behavior that are found, not frequently it is true, in everyday, common life and are thus known to everyone, but are also to a high degree complex, historical formations of the earliest epochs in the mental development of man. These techniques of methods of behavior, arising stereotypically in given situations, represent virtual solidified, petrified, crystallized psychological forms that arose in remote times at the most primitive stages of cultural development of man and in a remarkable way were preserved in the form of historical survivors in a petrified and in a living state in the behavior of modern man. (p.39) 
 One is the dilemma of Buridan's ass, which humans solve via artificially introduced auxiliary stimuli (ex: you can make a decision by flipping a coin; p.46). In fact, humans frequently determine their own behavior "with the help of artificially created stimuli-devices" such as tying a knot to remember or throwing dice (p.50). He adds, without evidence: "Tying a knot for remembering was one of the very first forms of the written word. This form played an enormous role in the history of culture, in the history of the development of writing" (p.50; but evidence suggests that Vygotsky was wrong in this example.)

Here, Vygotsky discusses signs, defined as "artificial stimuli-devices introduced by man into a psychological situation where they fulfill the function of autostimulation" (p.54). Signification is the creation and use of signs, and it distinguishes human behavior (p.55). "In the process of social life, man created and developed more complex systems of psychological connections without which work activity and all social life would be impossible." Signs are "devices of psychological connection in their very nature and in their essential function" (p.56). (Here, we see signs take center stage, as precursors to work activity—a formulation that Leontiev would later turn on its head.) One example of the use of signs is in memory: the knot "remembers" the errand for the man who ties it, in the sense that the knot is an active form of adaptation or external process of remembering. That is, memory is converted to external activity, whether in knots or in monuments (p.59).

Vygotsky warns that although we can speak of signs as tools, it's an analogy that can't be carried through to the bitter end, and "we must not anticipate finding much similarity to working tools in these devices that we call signs" (see his very similar discussion from 1930). What he calls the "instrumental function of the sign" is "the function of stimulus-device fulfilled by the sign with respect to any psychological operation, that it is a tool of human activity" (p.60). We can't collapse the distinction between tool and sign: "tools as devices for work, devices for mastering the processes of nature, and language as a device for social contact and communication, dissolve in the general concept of artifacts of artificial devices" (p.61). Rather, Vygotsky argues that we should understand the difference in this way:

  • the use of signs is a "mediating activity" in which humans control behavior
  • the use of tools is a mediating activity in which humans subjugate nature (pp.61-62)
These are "diverging lines of mediating activity" (p.62). Again, Leontiev later turns this formulation on its head by considering labor activity as the origination point for human psychology, thus collapsing the distinction between tool/sign and external nature/self-regulatory behavior.

Ch.3. Analysis of higher mental functions
Vygotsky opens this chapter by briefly discussing Lewin's systemic approach to psychology. Characteristically, Vygotsky does not provide a cite, but the thinking is quite similar to the linked book. However, Vygotsky didn't buy Gestalt psychology, which (he argued) rejects analysis of the whole and remains descriptive (p.66, 67)—despite Lewin's own argument that the sciences must move from a descriptive to an explanatory approach (p.69). Vygotsky proposes the experimental-genetic method (p.68). Whereas classic psychological experiments are set up to analyze complex reactions in automatized form—a sort of "post mortem" (p.75)—Vygotsky aimed to convert an automatized process to a living reaction (p.76; compare Bodker's focus on breakdowns, which I continued in my own methodology). 

A little later in the chapter, Vygotsky presents his famous triangle diagram showing a stimulus, response, and mediational means (p.79; this diagram also shows up in "Tool and Sign," and was introduced to the US readership through Mind in Society). Vygotsky argues that this mediated structure is what all higher forms of behavior consist of (p.80). 

Ch.4. The structure of higher mental functions
Here, Vygotsky distinguishes between primitive structures (natural, mainly dependent on "biological features of the mind") and higher structures ("a genetically more complex and higher form of behavior") (p.83). Critically, traditional psychology did not investigate "this phenomenon which we call mastery of one's own behavior"—and even, in James' case, explained HMFs such as will in terms of miracles (p.86)! Vygotsky examines self-mastery, again using the distinction between tool (which is directed outward) and sign (which is directed inward, reconstructing one's mental operations) (p.89). Everything in higher behavior—that is, everything that is uniquely human—is connected with artificial means of thinking (p.90). Yet higher behavior is an aggregate of lower, elementary, natural processes; culture creates nothing (p.92). 

Ch.5. Genesis of higher mental functions

Here, Vygotsky first reviews the work of Kohler and Koffka (who he characterizes as Lamarckian) and Buhler (who tries to unite Lamarck and Darwin; p.100). Via Janet, he argues that everything that is internal in HMFs was formerly external; the relations between HMFs were once relations between people (p.103). This leads us to the general genetic law of cultural development: that every function appears twice, first interpsychologically, then intrapsychologically. This is the sociogenesis of higher forms of behavior. All HMFs are the essence of internalized relations of a social order (p.106). Development is seen as taking place, not in steady accumulations of small changes, but as qualitative leaps (p.110; note the quant->qual argument based on dialectics).

And that's the original book. This volume of the Collected Works has many more chapters, which apparently remained unpublished until the CW came out. I may review these in the future. But my main focus was this hard-to-find translation on HMFs. After reading it, I have a much clearer idea of what Vygotsky was trying to do in 1931 and how it influenced (and diverged from) his colleagues. If you're interested in Vygotsky, especially the Vygotsky you thought you first encountered in Mind in Society, I highly recommend it.