Scientific Concept

A scientific concept is a concept developed and transmitted by the institutions of science and thence through formal instruction in the education system.


In Thinking and Speech, Vygotsky devotes one chapter to the artificial development of concepts in children and one chapter to the development of scientific concepts, and no other ‘types’ of concept are given explicit treatment. This has contributed the idea that Vygotsky saw principally two kinds of concept: the spontaneous (or everyday) concept and the scientific concept.

This is mistaken in three ways.

Firstly, the only ‘categorisation’ Vygotsky did in this field was the determination of two ideal-typical paths of development for any concept: the spontaneous path of development, arising effortlessly from everyday practical experience, and the path of development of true concepts, which originate from formal instruction. Spontaneous and true concepts are not categories of concepts but ideal-typical paths of development found in actual concepts from whatever domain of social practice.

Secondly, such ‘true concepts’ include not only scientific concepts, but artistic, religious, professional or whatever concept that are developed and propagated by instruction, and represent forms of activity in some kind of institution or practice.

Thirdly, the concepts dealt with in the chapter on artificial concepts shed light on the spontaneous formation of concepts in childhood, but are not themselves spontaneous concepts, since a kind of instruction is used in the experiment. But the artificial concept and the scientific concept between them allowed Vygotsky to focus his investigations on the two principle roots of concept development.

Vygotsky took scientific concepts, and in particular, the concepts of Marxist social science, as paradigms of the true concept, because these concepts are maximally removed from sensuous contact with objects and the possibility of forming spontaneous concepts of the subject matter. In line with his own methodological principles, he focused his research on well-defined paradigmatic processes rather than vague and broadly-defined phenomena, and thereby produced results which had clear and far-reaching implications.

Vygotsky may well have had a special place in his heart for science, but there is nothing in his theory of concepts which suggests a special status for the concepts of science. It is not the place here to consider the unique character of the scientific enterprise which gives the scientific concept its special status in the Vygotsky’s Soviet Union and modern society generally.


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 - 13 Nov 2013


Topic revision: r8 - 20 Nov 2013, AndyBlunden

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