The pseudoconcept is a form of complexive thinking which resembles conceptual thinking because pseudoconcepts subsume the same objects and situations as the true concept indicated by the same word. However, like all complexes, the pseudoconcept unites objects by shared common features and is not a true concept.


The crowning achievement of the line of development which Vygotsky calls complexive thinking is the pseudoconcept, the distinguishing feature of which is that the abstraction and synthesis of objects or situations is directed by a word in the adult language. Here the abstraction of common features, whether from the field of practical action or from the field of sense perception, reaches a sufficient degree of precision and stability that the child is able to form groups of objects or situations which, within the bounds of their own experience, match those that adults indicate with the same word. That is, the pseudoconcept has the same extension as the true concept.
“The pseudoconcept is the most common form of complex in the preschooler’s real life thinking. It is a form of complexive thinking that prevails over all others. It is sometimes the exclusive form of complexive thinking. Its wide distribution has a profound functional basis and significance. This form of complexive thinking gains its prevalence and dominance from the fact that the child’s complexes (which correspond to word meanings) do not develop freely or spontaneously along lines demarcated by the child himself. Rather, they develop along lines that are preordained by the word meanings that have been established in adult speech.
“It is only in the experiment that we free the child from the directing influence of the words of the adult language with their developed and stable meanings” (LSVCW v. 1, p. 142-3).

The crucial point here is that because the child and an adult indicate the same things with the same word, not only is communication between adult and child now maximally effective, but the adult may be unaware that the child actually means something quite different:

“The child formed a complex with all the typical structural, functional, and genetic characteristics of complexive thinking. For all practical purposes, however, the product of this complexive thinking corresponded with the generalization that would have been constructed on the basis of thinking in concepts.
“This correspondence in the result or product of thinking makes it extremely difficult for the researcher to differentiate between cases where he is dealing with thinking in complexes and those where he is dealing with thinking in concepts” (LSVCW v.1, p. 143-4).

It is worth noting that what Vygotsky calls a pseudoconcept is the form of generalisation which is called ‘concept’ in the mainstream psychology of concepts. While Vygotsky explains the difference between the development of pseudoconcepts and true concepts, he never clearly defines what he means by ‘concept’. This has to be imputed from what he says about pseudoconcepts and true concepts. To use contemporary terminology, the pseudoconcept corresponds to the true concept in its extension but not in its sense.

The important point is that the pseudoconcept, like all forms of complex, is a concrete form of thinking, tied to the field of perception, and based on the spontaneous and effortless abstraction of the common features of objects guided by the adult use of words. True concepts on the other hand are acquired with conscious effort and awareness by means of formal instruction in an institution of some kind, and originate independently of sensuous contact with the objects concerned. Here the ‘sense’ of the concept and its relation to other concepts in a system of knowledge is emphasised.

Vygotsky’s repeated insistence that these issues can only be solved on the basis of dialectical logic and not formal logic, makes it clear that he conceives of concepts as Hegel taught, and not according to Gottlob Frege. As Vygotsky says:

"[Pseudoconcepts] may possess all the features of the concept from the perspective of formal logic, but from the perspective of dialectical logic they are nothing more than general representations, nothing more than complexes" (LSVCW v.1, p. 160).


Vygotsky, L. S. (1934). 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: r11 - 18 Nov 2013, AndyBlunden

This site is powered by FoswikiCopyright © by the contributing authors. All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
Ideas, requests, problems regarding Foswiki? Send feedback