Vygotsky, L. S. (1896–1934)

Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky grew up in a Jewish family in Gomel in Belorussia (now known as Belarus). After a traditional Jewish education, he was admitted to the law school at Moscow University, but he also took courses in history and philosophy. In 1916 he wrote a master's thesis analyzing Shakespeare's Hamlet. In 1917 he returned to Gomel as a teacher and also practiced clinical psychology. Here he wrote Educational Psychology and his dissertation, The Psychology of Art.

In 1924, at a congress in Leningrad, Vygotsky presented a talk on consciousness. Due to the success of the talk, he gained access to the Kornilov Institute of Experimental Psychology in Moscow. Here, together with Alexander Luria and Alexei Leontiev, he developed the cultural-historical theory as an answer to the crisis in psychology. In The Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology, written between 1925 and 1927, Vygotsky argued that there was no unity or consistency in contemporary psychological research. He claimed that it was difficult to see how the psychoanalytic view of human nature and Pavlov's theory on human behavior could be bridged and that Marxist psychology only pieced together quotations from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

In his 1931 work, The History of the Development of Higher Psychological Functions, Vygotsky outlined the idea that psychological development can be seen as the transition from natural forms of behavior to higher mental functions that have a mediated structure. Signs, symbols, and languages function as mediators and create this psychological structure. With this cultural-historical approach, changes in psychological processes can be related to changes in the social-cultural type of mediation. Simultaneously, higher mental processes have to be seen as functions of meaningful social activity created through the individual's own activity. He also formulated the concept of the zone of proximal development–that is, the difference between actual achievement (tasks a child can perform on his or her own) and potential achievement (tasks a child can perform with help from another)–which has inspired pedagogues to reflect on the relation between learning and development and between PLAY and teaching.

Vygotsky investigated the development of and the relation between thinking and language, and he described language as a mental tool for thinking. He dictated his manuscript on this topic from his sickbed and it was published in 1934 as Thought and Language, which became his most popular book.

He left behind an extensive and still highly regarded body of scientific work. Most of it was not published in his lifetime, and two years after his death in 1936 his few available publications were blacklisted in the Soviet Union. In 1956 Vygotsky was rehabilitated, but almost twenty years passed before his genius was known and his work adopted in the rest of the world. Vygotsky has had an enormous influence on psychological and educational thinking and practice around the world. Thus the American Vygotsky expert Stephen Toulmin praised Vygotsky for his talents, genius, and sumptuous production and called him the Mozart of psychology.

See also: Child Development, History of the Concept of; Child Psychology.


Toulmin, Stephen. 1978. "The Mozart of Psychology." New York Review of Books 28: 51–57.

Van der Veer, René, and Jaan Valsiner. 1991. Understanding Vygotsky: A Quest for Synthesis. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Vygotsky, Lev S. 1971. The Psychology of Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Vygotsky, Lev S. 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, Lev S. 1986. Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Vygotsky, Lev S. 1997. "The Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology: A Methodological Investigation." In Problems of the Theory and History of Psychology: Vol. 3. The Collected Works of L.S. Vygotsky. New York: Plenum Press.

Vygotsky, Lev S. 1997. Educational Psychology. Boca Raton, FL: St. Lucie Press.