Complexes are the simplest form of ‘concept’ in which a subject abstracts empirical features from objects or situations and connects them with features abstracted from other objects or situations.


Vygotsky developed the concept of complexes, or ‘complexive thinking’ by use of the method of dual stimulation applied in Leonid Sakharov’s experimental study of concept development, described in Chapter 5 of Thinking and Speech.

These forms of activity are not true concepts because they do not organise the subject’s actions according to socially transmitted objective criteria, but rather by means of concrete attributes in the field of perception according to subjective and unstable criteria. As complexive thinking develops, it becomes more and more stable, and more and more coordinated with the activity of the social world around the subject, guided by the use of the language of the adult world.

“The foundation of the complex lies in empirical connections that emerge in the individual’s immediate experience. A complex is first and foremost a concrete unification of a group of objects based on the empirical similarity of separate objects to one another” (LSVCW v. 1, p. 137).

The features unified may be sensuous attributes of objects, functional or other contingent associations discovered in immediate experience. As the subject develops their ability to:
  • abstract features from the perceptual field,
  • retain representations of these features so as to recognise them and synthesise them with other situations, and
  • use words appropriated from the speech of adults around them to guide the processes of abstraction and synthesis,

Vygotsky identified four types of complex which arise:

  • the Associative complex, in which one object forms the nucleus, to which diverse objects are associated by a different point of likeness in every case.
  • the Collection complex, in which the subject collects ‘complete sets’ of objects which complement one another, typically in connection with some activity.
  • the Chain complex, in which each object is connected with next according to some feature, but then the next object according to a different feature.
  • the Diffuse complex, where the subject unites objects according to empirical connections, but extended into domains in which the child has no practical experience.
  • the Pseudoconcept, where objects, events and situations are grouped in the same way that they are grouped by words in the adult language; that is, the pseudoconcept has the same extension as a true concept, but remains a concrete thought-form tied to the perceptual field.

With the pseudoconcept, an adult may be unaware that a child means something quite different by the same word, and may only become aware that the child has not in fact grasped the concept by some unexpected gaff on the part of the child.

All these complexes share in common that they organise activity according to features isolated from the field of perception. As such, they allow the child to coordinate their activity with the adult world and recognise objects and their social significance. But as forms of concrete thinking they are not true concepts. True concepts are culturally-historically created and transmitted forms of orientation to the world which are independent of the perceptual field, standing between the subject and the field of perception. A complex rests immediately on the field of perception.


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

-- AndyBlunden - 14 Nov 2013


Topic revision: r14 - 19 Nov 2013, AndyBlunden

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