Potential Concept

A potential concept is a pre-intellectual form of activity which develops around the shared use of an artefact.


A potential concept is a pre-intellectual form of activity which people share in common with some animals, either through training or in cooperative activity in the wild. Like a complex, the potential concept is a response to the perceptual field, but unlike a complex sensuous features of the relevant stimulus are not isolated from the whole field. The potential concept fixes the functional significance of the object, situation or event for practical action, as a sign or signal for some action which becomes a habitual response to the whole given situation.

Vygotsky stresses that “the potential concept and the pseudoconcept are fundamentally different” (Vygotsky, 1934, p. 157) and quotes approvingly the German child psychologist, Karl Groos:

“The potential concept can be nothing other than a habitual action. In its most elementary form, it consists in that we expect that a similar ground will elicit a similar common impression. More precisely, we have an established set that this will be the case. If the potential concept is actually as we have just described it, a set on a habit, then it emerges very early in the child .... In my view, it is a condition that necessarily precedes the appearance of intellectual characteristics. In itself, however, it has nothing intellectual in it” (Groos, 1916, p. 196).

Vygotsky comments: “Thus, this potential concept is a pre-intellectual formation arising very early in the development of thinking. Most contemporary psychologists agree that the potential concept, in the form we have just described it, is found in animals.” (p. 158) These pre-intellectual formations provide the basis for a child to break up the unity of the field of perception and so as to isolate objects and begin the process of concept formation.

“If we consider the child’s first words, it becomes apparent that they are similar in meaning to these potential concepts. They are potential, first, because of their practical relatedness to a certain circle of objects, and, second, because of the isolating abstractions that underlie them. ...
“Potential concepts often remain at this stage of development, not making the transition to true concepts. Nonetheless, they play an extremely important role in the development of a child’s concepts. It is in the potential concept, in the associated abstraction of distinct features, that the child first destroys the concrete situation and the concrete connections among the object’s features. In this process, he creates the prerequisites for the unification of these features on a new foundation.” (1934, p. 158-9).


Vygotsky, L. S. (1934). An Experimental Study of Concept Development, Chapter 5 of Thinking and Speech, in LSVCW, v. 1, pp. 121–166 http://www.marxists.org/archive/vygotsky/works/words/ch05.htm

-- AndyBlunden - 14 Nov 2013


Topic revision: r4 - 20 Nov 2013, AndyBlunden

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