Thinking and Speaking

by Lev Vygotsky (1934)

Chapter 1 - The Problem and the Approach

THE STUDY of thought and language is one of the areas of psychology in which a clear understanding of interfunctional relations is particularly important. As long as we do not understand the interrelation of thought and word, we cannot answer, or even correctly pose, any of the more specific questions in this area, strange as it may seem, psychology has never investigated the relationship systematically and in detail. Interfunctional relations in general have not as yet received the attention they merit. The atomistic and functional modes of analysis prevalent during the past decade treated psychic processes in isolation. Methods of research were developed and perfected with a view to studying separate functions, while their interdependence and their organisation in the structure of consciousness as a whole remained outside the field of investigation.

The unity of consciousness and the interrelation of all psychological functions were, it is true, accepted by all; the single functions were assumed to operate inseparably, in an uninterrupted connection with one another. But in the old psychology the unchallengeable premise of unity was combined with a set of tacit assumptions that nullified it for all practical purposes. It was taken for granted that the relation between two given functions never varied; that perception, for example, was always connected in an identical way with attention, memory with perception, thought with memory. As constants, these ; relationships could be, and were, factored out and ignored in the study of the separate functions. Because the relationships remained in fact inconsequential, the development of consciousness was seen as determined by the autonomous development of the single functions. Yet all that is known about psychic development indicates that its very essence lies in the change of the interfunctional structure of consciousness. Psychology must make these relations and their developmental changes the main problem, the focus of study, instead of merely postulating the general interrelation of all functions. This shift in approach is imperative for the productive study of language and thought.

A look at the results of former investigations of thought and language will show that all the theories offered from antiquity to our time range between identification, or fusion, of thought and speech on the one hand, and their equally absolute, almost metaphysical disjunction and segregation on the other. Whether expressing one of these extremes in pure form or combining them, that is, taking an intermediate position but always somewhere along the axis between the two poles, all the various theories on thought and language stay within the confining circle.

We can trace the idea of identity of thought and speech from the speculation of psychological linguistics that thought is "speech minus sound" to the theories of modern American psychologists and reflexologists who consider thought a reflex inhibited in its motor part. In all these theories the question o£ the relationship between thought and speech loses meaning. If they are one and the same thing, no relationship between them can arise. Those who identify thought with speech simply close the door on the problem. At first glance, the adherents of the opposite view seem to be in a better position. In regarding speech as the outward manifestation, the mere vestment, of thought, and in trying (as does the Wuerzburg school) to free thought from all sensory components including words, they not only pose but in their own way attempt to solve the problem of the relationship between the two functions.

Actually, however, they are unable to pose it in a manner that would permit a real solution. Having made thought and speech independent and "pure," and having studied each apart from the other, they are forced to see the relationship between them merely as a mechanical, external connection between two distinct processes. The analysis of verbal thinking into two separate, basically different elements precludes any study of the intrinsic relations between language and thought.

The fault thus lies in the methods of analysis adopted by previous investigators. To cope successfully with the problem of the relationship between thought and language, we must ask ourselves first of all what method of analysis is most likely to ensure its solution.

Two essentially different modes of analysis are possible in the study of psychological structures. It seems to us that one of them is responsible for all the failures that have beset former investigators of the old problem, which we are about to tackle in our turn, and that the other is the only correct way to approach it.

The first method analyses complex psychological wholes into elements. It may be compared to the chemical analysis of water into hydrogen and oxygen, neither of which possesses the properties of the whole and each of which possesses properties not present in the whole. The student applying this method in looking for the explanation of some property of water why it extinguishes fire, for example will find to his surprise that hydrogen burns and oxygen sustains fire. These discoveries will not help him much in solving the problem. Psychology winds up in the same kind of dead end when it analyses verbal thought into its components, thought and word, and studies them in isolation from each other. In the course of analysis, the original properties of verbal thought have disappeared, Nothing is left to the investigator but to search out the mechanical interaction of the two elements in the hope of reconstructing, in a purely speculative way, the vanished properties of the whole.

This type Of analysis shifts the issue to a level of greater generality; it provides no adequate basis for the study of the multiform concrete relations between thought and language that arise in the course of the development and functioning of verbal thought in its various aspects. Instead of enabling us to examine and explain specific instances and phases, and to determine concrete regularities in the course of events, this method produces generalities pertaining to all speech and all thought. It leads us, moreover, into serious errors by ignoring the unitary nature of the process under study. The living union of sound and meaning that we call word is broken up into two parts, which are assumed to be held together merely by mechanical associative connections.

The view that sound and meaning in words are separate elements leading separate lives has done much harm to the study of both the phonetic and the semantic aspects of language. The most thorough study of speech sounds merely as sounds, apart from their connection with thought, has little bearing on their function as human speech since it does not bring out the physical and psychological properties peculiar to speech but only the properties common to all sounds existing in nature. In the same way, meaning divorced from speech sounds can only be studied as a pure act of thought, changing and developing independently of its material vehicle. This separation of sound and meaning is largely responsible for the barrenness of classical phonetics and semantics. In child psychology, likewise, the phonetic and the semantic aspects of speech development have been studied separately. The phonetic development has been studied in great detail, yet all the accumulated data contribute little to our understanding of linguistic development as such and remain essentially unrelated to the findings concerning the development of thinking.

In our opinion the right course to follow is to use the other type of analysis, which may be called analysts into units.

By unit we mean a product of analysis which, unlike elements, retains all the basic properties of the whole and which cannot be further divided without losing them. Not the chemical composition of water but its molecular and their behaviour the key to the understanding of the properties of water. The true unit of biological analysis is the living cell, possessing the basic properties of the living organism.

What is the unit of verbal thought that meets these requirements? We believe that it can be found in the internal aspect of the word, in word meaning. Few investigations of this internal aspect of speech have been undertaken so far, and psychology can tell us little about word meaning that would not apply in equal measure to all other images and acts of thought.

The nature of meaning as such is not clear. Yet it is in word meaning that thought and speech unite into verbal thought. In meaning, then, the answers to our questions about the relationship between thought and speech can be found.

Our experimental investigation, as well as theoretical analysis, suggest that both Gestalt and association psychology have been looking for the intrinsic nature of word meaning in the wrong directions. A word does not refer to a single object but to a group or to a class of objects. Each word is therefore already a generalisation. Generalisation is a verbal act of thought and reflects reality in quite another way than sensation and perception reflect it. Such a qualitative difference is implied in the proposition that there is a dialectic leap not only between total absence of consciousness (in inanimate matter) and sensation but also between sensation and thought. There is every reason to suppose that the qualitative distinction between sensation and thought is the presence in the latter of a generalised reflection of reality, which is also the essence of word meaning: and consequently that meaning is an act of thought in the full sense of the term. But at the same time, meaning is an inalienable part of word as such, and thus it belongs in the realm of language as much as in the realm of thought. A word without meaning is an empty sound, no longer a part-human speech. Since word meaning is both thought and speech, we find in it the unit of verbal thought we are looking for. Clearly, then, the method to follow in our exploration of the nature of verbal thought is semantic analysis the study of the development, the functioning, and the structure of this unit, which contains thought and speech interrelated.

This method combines the advantages of analysis and synthesis, and it permits adequate study of complex wholes. As an illustration, let us take yet another aspect of our subject, also largely neglected in the past. The primary function of speech is communication, social intercourse. When language was studied through analysis into elements, this function, too, was dissociated from the intellectual function of speech. The two were treated as though they were separate, if parallel, functions, without attention to their structural and developmental interrelation. Yet word meaning is a unit of both these functions of speech. That understanding between minds is impossible without some mediating expression is an axiom- for scientific psychology. In the absence of a system of signs, linguistic or other, only the most primitive and limited type of communication is possible. Communication by means of expressive movements, observed mainly among animals, is not so much communication as a spread of affect. A frightened goose suddenly aware of danger and rousing the whole Rock with its cries does not tell the others what it has seen but rather contaminates them with its fear.

Rational, intentional conveying of experience and thought to others requires a mediating system, the prototype of which is human speech born of the need of intercourse during work! In accordance with the dominant trend, psychology has until recently depicted the matter in an oversimplified way. It was assumed that the means Of communication was the sign (the word or sound); that through simultaneous occurrence a sound could become associated with the content of any experience and then serve to convey the same content to other human beings.

Closer study of the development of understanding and communication in childhood, however, has led to the conclusion that real communication requires meaning i.e., generalization as much as signs. According to Edward Sapir's penetrating description, the world of experience must be greatly simplified and generalised before it can be translated into symbols. Only in this way does communication become possible, for the individual's experience resides only in his own consciousness and is, strictly speaking, not communicable. To become communicable it must be included in a certain category which, by tacit convention, human society regards as a unit.

Thus, true human communication presupposes a generalising attitude, which is an advanced stage in the development of word meanings. The higher forms of human intercourse are possible only because man's thought reflects conceptualised actuality. That is why certain thoughts cannot be communicated to children even if they are familiar with the necessary words. The adequately generalised concept that alone ensures full understanding may still be lacking. Tolstoy, in his educational writings, says that children often have difficulty in learning a new word not because of its sound but because of the concept to which the word refers.-There is a word available nearly always when the concept has matured.

The conception of word meaning as a unit of both generalising thought and social interchange is of incalculable value for the study of thought and language. It permits true causal-genetic analysis, systematic study of the relations between the growth of the child's thinking ability and his social development. The interrelation of generalisation and communication may be considered a secondary focus of our study.

It may be well to mention here some of the problems in the area of language that were not specifically explored in our studies. Foremost among them is the relation of the phonetic aspect of speech to meaning. We believe that the recent important advances in linguistics are largely due to the changes in the method of analysis employed in the study of speech. Traditional linguistics, with its conception of sound as an independent element of speech, used the single sound as the unit of analysis. As a result, it concentrated on the physiology and the acoustics rather than the psychology of speech. Modern linguistics uses the phoneme, the smallest indivisible phonetic unit affecting meaning and thus characteristic of human speech as distinguished from other sounds. Its introduction as the unit of analysis has benefited psychology as well as linguistics. The concrete gains achieved by the application of this method conclusively prove its value. Essentially, it is identical with the method of analysis into units, as distinguished from elements, used in our own investigation.

The fruitfulness of our method may be demonstrated also in other questions concerning relations between functions or between consciousness as a whole and its parts. A brief reference to at least one of these questions will indicate a direction our future studies may take, and point up the import of the present study. We have in rmind the relation between intellect and affect. Their separation as subjects of study is a major weakness of traditional psychology since it makes the thought process appear as an autonormous flow of "thoughts thinking themselves", segregated from the fullness of life, from the personal needs and interests, the inclinations and impulses, of the thinker. Such segregated thought must be viewed either as a meaningless epiphenomenon incapable of changing anything in life or conduct of a person or else as some kind of primeval force exerting an influence on personal life in an inexplicable, mysterious way. The door is closed on the issue of the causation and origin of our thoughts, since deterministic analysis would clarification of the motive forces that direct thought into this or that channel. By the same token, the old approach precludes any fruitful study of the reverse process, the influence of thought on affect and volition.

Unit analysis points the way to the solution of these vitally important problems. It demonstrates the existence of a dynamic system of meaning in which the affective and the intellectual unite. It shows that every idea contains a transmuted affective attitude toward the bit of reality to which it refers. It further permits us to trace the path frorm a person's needs and impulses to the specific direction taken by his thoughts, and the reverse path from his thoughts to his behaviour and activity. This example should suffice to show that the method used in this study of thought and language is also a promising tool for investigating the relation of verbal thought to consciousness as a whole its other essential functions.

[7. Thought and Word] - [Crisis in Psychology] - [Vygotsky and the Dialectical Method] - [Lev Vygotsky - Revolutionary Scientist ]