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A concept is a form of action organised around a word acting as a sign for it, which is the basic unit of a culture or project and a unit of the consciousness.


Vygotsky never clearly says what he means by ‘concept’. It has to be inferred from what he means by a ‘true concept’ as opposed to a ‘pseudoconcept’ on one hand and an actual concept on the other, how he defines other concepts, and by his declarations in favour of dialectical logic. This is not surprising, as it is extremely difficult to give an adequate and clear definition of ‘concept’ which avoids dualism, makes the distinction between ‘true’ concepts and other forms of activity, such as pseudoconcepts and in some way connects up with intuitive understandings of the word ‘concept’.

Firstly, Vygotsky presents us with an apparent conundrum: he defines a true concept, which he distinguishes from other forms which are evidently not true concepts, such as pseudoconcepts. These forms are evidently also concepts, but not true concepts. Vygotsky never gives us a feature by which ‘true concepts’ may be distinguished from concepts which are not ‘true concepts’, but rather points to the path of development of a concept which marks it as a true concept, viz., that via some formal practice of instruction, it is consciously and effortfully appropriated as part of a system of concepts. But such a ‘true’ concept is still not fully developed. An actual concept, must also mature through practical life experience. This idea of ‘concept’, as a line of development which includes both mature forms and abstract, immature and undeveloped forms, is consistent with dialectical logic and with his own genetic method.

Secondly, Vygotsky investigates concepts by observing the activity of children with symbolic artefacts from which the child’s consciousness can be inferred. That is, the inner aspect of actions, inaccessible to observation, is inferred from the observation of behaviour. Both internal and external aspects of the activity are essential to his idea of concept. The child or young person’s actions can be understood in terms of a concept acquired by the subject which makes sense of a whole system of their actions, that is, that various artefacts are taken to be signs for a certain entity, the relevant concept. The inner and outer aspects of the activity are inseparable, and neither would be what they are without its connection with the other. This is consistent with saying that a concept is a form of activity. Although Activity Theory, with its precise definition of ‘activity’ was only founded by A. N. Leontyev only after Vygotsky’s death, Vygotsky’s concept of concept played the same role in his psychology:— that which provides the motivation for actions and allows the observer to make sense of a subject’s actions.

Finally, what makes a ‘true’ concept true are that the concept is a cultural-historical product of the wider community, transmitted to the subject by instruction.

“The tasks that are posed for the maturing adolescent by the social environment - tasks that are associated with his entry into the cultural, professional, and social life of the adult world - are an essential functional factor in the formation of concepts. Repeatedly, this factor points to the mutually conditioned nature, the organic integration, and the internal unity of content and form in the development of thinking.” (1934, p. 132)

Vygotsky further supports this proposal by means of occasional observations about the cultural and historical development of concepts. That is, concepts are in the first place units of a culture, from which they may be acquired by an individual. This explains the distinction he makes between artificial concepts, manufactured in the laboratory, and actual concepts.

Vygotsky’s taxonomy of concepts depends on the various paths of development by means of which actual concepts develop, represented by a number of ideal types.

There are spontaneous concepts, acquired from participation in activities, without formal instruction, and those which arise from formal instruction, non-spontaneous, or true concepts.

There are artificial concepts, produced in the laboratory, and actual concepts (both spontaneous and true concepts). Vygotsky takes as his paradigm of true concept the scientific concept.

Concepts which are not true concepts, but which arise in the course of the development of a concept (whether artificial or actual) are syncretic concepts, associative complexes, chain complexes, diffuse complexes, collection complexes and finally pseudoconcepts which are the crowning achievement of that line of development Vygotsky calls complexes.

Two other line of concept development are noted by Vygotsky, potential concepts which are pre-intellectual forms of activity arising from non-verbal activity, and pre-concepts which are embryonic true concepts associated with symbolic activities.


Vygotsky, L. S. (1934). The Problem and the Method of Investigation, Thinking and Speech, Chapter 1, LSVCW, v. 1, pp. 43–51.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1934). An Experimental Study of Concept Development, Chapter 5 of Thinking and Speech, in LSVCW, v. 1, pp. 121–166

Vygotsky, L. S. (1934). The Development of Scientific Concepts in Childhood, Chapter 6 of Thinking and Speech, in LSVCW, v. 1, pp. 167–241

-- AndyBlunden - 18 Nov 2013


Topic revision: r3 - 19 Nov 2014, AndyBlunden

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