Pre-concepts are an embryonic form of true concept, manifested in the child carrying out logical or rule-governed operations within a restricted context.


Pre-concepts form typically with children who are already attending school and being confronted with school-like tasks, or engaged in social activities including processes such as measuring, buying and selling, calculating time, and so on. Such activities oblige the child to use culturally transmitted symbols of some kind (such as numbers, coins or measuring devices) to abstract features from a concrete situation and use these abstractions in a rule-governed way within the bounds of a finite circle of actions. In general, these symbols are appropriated effortfully and with conscious awareness, but at the stage of preconcepts, the child uses them, but is not yet consciously aware of them as symbols. In Vygotsy's words:

To become consciously aware of something and master it you must first have it at your disposal. However, concepts, or, more properly, preconcepts (we prefer this designation for these concepts of the school child, since they have not yet attained the higher degree of development), emerge for the first time in the school-age child. They mature only during this period. Prior to this stage, the child thinks in general representations or complexes (a term we have used elsewhere to refer to the structure of generalizations that dominates the preschool period). Since preconcepts emerge only during the school age, it would be odd if the school child attained conscious awareness or mastery of them. This would mean that consciousness is not only capable of becoming consciously aware of its functions (i.e., of mastering them) but of creating them from nothing before they develop.

It has been suggested that, in the ‘double stimulation’ experiment, the artificial concepts created in the laboratory setting may make the transition to pre-concepts when they are freed from the immediate context in which they are acquired. For example, the nonsense word for round-short may be applied to candles of that shape, or counting 4 dolls is transferred to counting 4 cats.

Note that by “pre-concepts” Vygotsky does not mean all those thought forms used prior to the formation of true concepts, but just a certain type of immediate precursor to true concepts.

Although pre-concepts are acquired through concrete activities, there is nothing of the shared attribute or functional relation in preconcepts like that of number. Children may arrive at the use of preconcepts via the use of pseudoconcepts and potential concepts, but a preconcept is already a leap from complexive thinking.

It is worth pointing out that machines, as well as very young children who lack any life experience outside the family home, are capable of a high level of logical operation by means of preconcepts. What is required for the transition to true concepts is conscious awareness.


Towsey, P & Macdonald, C. (2009). Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing and Other Vygotskian Constructs, _Mind, Culture, and Activity, 165_(3) Vygotsky, L. S. (1934a). An Experimental Study of Concept Development, Chapter 5 of Thinking and Speech, in LSVCW, v. 1, pp. 121–166

-- AndyBlunden - 15 Nov 2013


Topic revision: r9 - 20 Nov 2013, AndyBlunden

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