Spontaneous concept

A spontaneous concept is a concept acquired without effort through participation in social practices.


In his study of concepts Vygotsky identifies two distinct paths of development through which concepts are acquired: ‘true’ concepts are acquired through formal instruction and spontaneous concepts arise through participation in social practices. Note that these are not two types or categories of concept, but rather two paths of development which are manifested in the development of actual concepts. ‘True’ concepts are a “top down” type of development, whilst spontaneous concepts are a “bottom up” type of development.

Spontaneous concepts are grounded in sense perception and practical experience and are acquired effortlessly and without the subject being consciously aware of them. In contrast, ‘true’ concepts are acquired with conscious effort in the course of formal instruction in some institution.

At first spontaneous concepts are concrete in the sense of being tied to the perception of objects and situations, and become in time more and more flexible, less and less tied to the word with which they were originally associated, more and more closely matching the extension defined by the true concept. By contrast, true concepts begin as abstract and formal definitions tied to the classroom situation and the theoretical framework in which they are defined, and become over time more and more concrete and nuanced as they mature in the course of life experience.

Spontaneous concepts are not ‘true’ concepts in another sense: insofar as the subject consciously and more or less correctly uses a word as a sign for the concept, spontaneous concepts are at best merely complexes. A complex is a combination of contingent attributes which conforms to formal (propositional) logic. A true concept, by contrast is independent of the sensuous characteristics by which relevant objects are recognised, and conforms to dialectical (conceptual) logic.

The contrast between spontaneous concepts and scientific concepts (as the paradigm of the true concept) is a major theme in Vygotsky’s study of concepts, which turned on the relation between instruction and development.


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

Vygotsky, L. S. (1934a). The Development of Scientific Concepts in Childhood, Chapter 6 of Thinking and Speech, in LSVCW, v. 1, pp. 167–241 http://www.marxists.org/archive/vygotsky/works/words/ch06.htm

-- AndyBlunden - 14 Nov 2013


Topic revision: r9 - 19 Nov 2014, AndyBlunden

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