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Thought and LanguageReview - Thought and Language
Revised and Expanded Edition
by Lev S. Vygotsky
MIT Press, 2012
Review by R.A. Goodrich, Ph.D.
Jun 25th 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 26)

As an editor and translator of Lev Vygotsky, Alex Kozulin is particularly well placed.  Having gained his doctorate in medical psychology at the Moscow Institute of Psychology and emigrating to the 'States in 1979, he was instrumental, whilst at Boston University during the 'eighties, in not only promoting the history of twentieth-century Russian psychology from Bekhterev, Chelpanov, and Pavlov onwards, but also reviewing in detail previously unheralded works by Vygotsky as they were being assembled in the multi-volume Sobranie Sochinenii in Moscow.  Nowadays, he is better known for his association with the Feuerstein Institute in Jerusalem and its focus upon applications and extensions of the theory of mediated learning mainly derived from the works of Reuven Feuerstein and Vygotsky, a focus discernible in the book under review.

Hence, it might seem unexpected for the reception of this "revised and expanded" edition of Thought and Language to begin with a blunt if not harsh question: Should it be lauded or lambasted?  Surely, the appearance of a relatively inexpensive edition of Vygotsky's investigation of "the problem of thought and speech as the focal issue of human psychology" in his pursuit of "a new theory of consciousness" (lxxvii) would be welcomed by "the present generation of...researchers and practitioners" (ix). Nonetheless, without resorting to invective, we ought to investigate how such doubt about this edition of Vygotsky's posthumous magnum opus might emerge, especially in view of the likelihood that the version to hand has all the hallmarks of becoming the standard reference for a generation of readers.

When Alex Kozulin's "newly revised" version of the 1962 translation by Eugenia Hanfmann and Gertrude Vakar first appeared in 1986, it was rightly acclaimed at the time.  Not only had Kozulin extended their previous translation of barely two-fifths of the 1934 text, but he also added invaluable endnotes to identify Vygotsky's references and hence his intellectual context.  Moreover, and appropriately for an Anglophone readership of the mid-'eighties, Kozulin supplied an incisive prefatory essay, "Vygotsky in Context," of almost fifty pages (xxv-lxxii), a precursor to his 1990 intellectual biography, Vygotsky's Psychology: A Biography of Ideas. He also included five excerpts from Piaget's 1962 response to Vygotsky within the endnotes (278-279, 287-290 & 292-293).  These laudable features remain firmly in place in his 2012 version.  What else has Kozulin added twenty-six years later?  What else could he have added?  These two questions will form the basis of what follows before concluding with the malaise affecting current uses of Vygotsky. 

I

To account for his continuing popularity, Kozulin believes that Vygotsky's "tentative answers" are aligned to three questions being asked nowadays by psychological and educational researchers.  The first concerns "the presence of culture in human thinking" (x). This was previously neglected by mainly North American adherence to behaviourist and information-processing perspectives that presumed socio-cultural issues were external to, or independent of, individual learning.  The second question concerns "the nature of the learning process" (x) where, according to Kozulin, Vygotsky's dual appeal to the formation of spontaneous ("everyday") and non-spontaneous ("academic") concepts and their "meeting place" in the zone of proximal development predominated with the shift to "learning-as-construction" (xi & x; see also xviii-xxii).  This had also been ignored because learning was construed in bifurcated terms either as "an individual accumulation of everyday experience" (x) or as the transmission of knowledge from teacher to student, from one generation to the next.  The third question concerns "the relationship between development and instruction" (xi).  Again, this had previously been divided into an examination of children's natural maturation by psychologists conducted separately from an investigation by educational theorists of higher psychological functions resulting from explicit instruction.

After nominating the threefold alignment underpinning Vygotsky's present popularity, Kozulin then argues that "the main themes" of Thought and Language can nowadays be read in light of five specific lines of research, all brimming with educational implications, that converge upon Vygotsky's "theoretical legacy" (xii).  Amongst the "new contexts" for reading Vygotsky, suggests Kozulin, is, for instance, the work of Michael Tomasello and colleagues which indicates how communicative capacities and cognitive skills in solving problems "remain dissociated" in the case of simians when contrasted with humans (xii).  Another example is found in how a "reorientation of Piagetian theory" regarding the "socialization" of the "egocentric" child has become "closer" to the issue pre-occupying Vygotsky, namely, "the process of transformation of interpersonal thinking into intrapersonal" (xiv), a re-orientation Kozulin also detects in the case of formerly differing conceptions of "private speech" (xv-xvii).  Some readers will immediately notice that Kozulin's account of convergent paths of research has close affinities with the direction and nature of enquiries emanating over a thirty-year period from the 1979 work of Feuerstein and colleagues. However, other readers may wonder why, for instance, research into how the processes ranging between differentiation and integration that Heinz Werner postulated as characteristic of individual and collective human development and since pursued by Jaan Valsiner and colleagues is not acknowledged as another significant and convergent pathway.

Beyond re-contextualizing Vygotsky within one set of contemporary psychological and educational trends as summarised above, Kozulin gives us next to no indication how "practitioners and researchers" (xxii) ought to connect his "Foreword (2012)" to his "Vygotsky in Context (1986)."  Would readers unfamiliar with Vygotsky actually be better oriented by reading Kozulin's prefatory essays in chronological rather than published order?  Nor are we given any guidance about how readers ought to regard Kozulin's reproduced 1986 translation in contrast to that by Norris Minick in 1987 which inaugurated what Kozulin himself calls the "milestone...publication of...Vygotsky's Collected Works by Plenum Press" (ix).  Is there an argument for denying that the reprinted translation, which (unlike Minick's) only includes about seven-tenths of the 1934 posthumous edition edited by Vladimir Kolbanovkii, distorts Vygotsky?

II

Turning to the second of our questions, what of substance has been omitted from this 2012 "revised and expanded" edition of Thought and Language?  First of all, whilst Kozulin had been willing to indicate the kind of omissions located in the truncated 1962 translation (lxx-lxxi), the actual extent and nature of omissions in his enlarged yet incomplete version of it are not identified.  Nor, for that matter, are the 1986 notes updated and typographical errors corrected.  On the one hand, for example, we encounter Vygotsky's statement that the phenomenon of syncretic thinking has been "described...elsewhere" (118) without any accompanying editorial reference or comment.  This is in stark contrast to Kozulin's more usual practice, glossing, for instance, theories of Charles Blondel, Sigmund Freud, and Lucien Levy-Bruhl regarded by Vygotsky as "the offsprings of the crisis in psychology" (14) with a note on two of the three men (278, n. 3). On the other hand, the publisher has allowed numerous uncorrected typographical mistakes ranging from "Curia" for Luria (xxxi) to "Hulings Jackson" for Hughlings Jackson (288, n. 6).  In an immediate sense, such features undeservedly threaten the quality of scholarship underpinning this volume.  In a more ultimate sense, it would be infelicitous if the reliability that Kozulin's intended readers can safely assign to this version of Vygotsky's text were impinged.

That said, we are not suggesting that there exists a single authentic text that unproblematically reflects, in the recent words of Ronald Miller, the "recursive acts of reading demanded by Vygotsky's text" and its "rich layers of meaning...concealed beneath a literary style...designed to allow the reader to hear the writer thinking and grappling with ideas" (2011, p. 1).  Rather, the difference between Kozulin's 2012 and 1986 prefatory essays reveals a noticeable difference.  The later preface emphasizes a conception of a past text to be used for contemporary or emergent purposes. By contrast, the earlier preface highlights a conception of a past text targeting its author's audience of the day by way of his argumentative engagement with the texts of that time and his intellectual forebears.  Without subscribing to the notion that there can simply be a neutral reading of Thought and Language, we nonetheless uphold the belief that, when faced with a seminal text—especially where there is no definitive edition as in the case of a de Saussure or a Wittgenstein or a Vygotsky—readers need to read from multiple points of view. 

Consider the second section of Vygotsky's sixth essay ("chapter") investigating "conscious awareness" (172ff.) and how it might be read.  Readers, whether novice or experienced, can read the twenty-seven paragraphs of Kozulin's translated excerpt—barely two-fifths of the 1987 Minick translation in length—by in effect constructing an implicit flow-chart of its content.  In this, they are reading the translated text as a piece of organized writing.  Readers can also read the second section by paying particular attention to its unfolding argument in relation to "spontaneous" concepts derived ad hoc from experience and "scientific" concepts of the abstract, systemic, hierarchical kind.  In other words, they can read the text as an argument open to appraisal.  Again, readers can read this section in light of its engagement with specific claims made by Édouard Claparède, Sigmund Freud, and Jean Piaget or in light of, say, how Vygotsky in the tenth chapter of his 1931 correspondence course on adolescent paedology dealt with the formation of concepts.  That is to say, readers can read the text not merely historically but inter-textually.  Certainly, it is not a large step to read the text in order to grapple with texts of more immediate moment as Kozulin recommends in his "Foreword (2012)" (xviii-xx).  Here, "the present generation of...researchers and practitioners" (ix) are urged to read inter-textually, but with current pre-occupations, current frames of reference, and current texts uppermost in mind.

III

          If this brief critique has occasionally sounded a note of frustration, it is partly because Kozulin (or his publisher) avoids confronting the rationale for reproducing his incomplete 1986 translation of Thought and Language.  To this we may add an avoidance of another pervasive kind, one, though not only peculiar to Kozulin, that is intimately tied to the state and directions of psychological enquiry nowadays.  It has to do with what an earlier generation in the mid-'twenties, including Karl Bühler and Vygotsky himself, dubbed the "crisis in psychology," a crisis succinctly summarized in Kozulin's 1986 prefatory essay (xxxii-xxxvii). Perhaps contemporary psychology's "recurrent crisis" is best articulated by Jaan Valsiner's introduction to his anthology, Heinz Werner and Developmental Science, as one which has "become empirically hyperproductive and theoretically mute" (2005, p. 7).  In our era, continues Valsiner, we are witnesses to a change in "the relations between theory, data, and phenomena" where we have shifted "from the ideal of [an] integrated whole...to that of dominance of method over phenomena" (2005, p. 7).  Yet, as Kozulin's "Foreword (2012)" reveals, all the while we still purport to belong to "Piagetian and Vygotskian approaches" (xiv).  To cite Valsiner again, can we equate our prolific analyses of more and more data "with the efforts of Vygotsky, Piaget, or Werner to use abstract theoretical concepts to make sense of development in its generic form" (2005, p. 8)? 

 

 

© 2013 R.A. Goodrich

 

R.A. Goodrich teaches in the School of Communication & Creative Arts, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia, co-edits the online refereed arts-practice journal, Double Dialogues, and co-ordinates with Maryrose Hall a longitudinal project investigating behavioural, cognitive, and linguistic aspects of higher-functioning children within the autistic spectrum of disorders.


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