Syncretic concept or ‘Heap’

A syncretic concept is a collection of objects brought together with no objective sense at all, simply based on what has taken the subject’s attention.


When the child begins to vocalise and tries to make words, they are not at first able to form the words of the adult language and instead utter words like poo-poo and ba-ba and so on. Although adults cannot make sense of what the child is trying to say, this marks the beginning of ‘autonomous speech’ (LSVCW v. 5, p. 249). When a very young child attempts to respond to the researcher’s urging to find all the gur, the result is that the child simply collects blocks at random, just whatever next strikes the child’s eye. The following excerpt appears in the context of a presentation of the ‘double stimulation’ experiment with very young children.

The first stage in the formation of concepts is most frequently manifested in the behavior of young children. Faced with a task that an adult would generally solve through the formation of a new concept, the child forms an unordered and unformed collection. He isolates an unordered heap of objects. The child’s isolation of these objects, objects that are unified without sufficient internal foundation and without sufficient internal kinship or relationships, presupposes a diffuse, undirected extension of word meaning (or of the sign that substitutes for the meaning of the word) to a series of elements that are externally connected in the impression they have had on the child but not unified internally among themselves.
At this stage of development, word meaning is an incompletely defined, unformed, syncretic coupling of separate objects, objects that are in one way or another combined in a single fused image in the child’s representation and perception. A decisive role is played in the formation of this image by the syncretism of the child’s perception and action. This image is, therefore, extremely unstable (LSVCW v 1, p. 134).

In the second phase of development of syncretic concepts, the spatial relationship between the blocks gathered into a heap comes forward as the determining feature.

Once again, the purely syncretic laws that govern the perception of the visual field and the organization of the child’s perception are critical. The syncretic image or heap of objects may be formed on the basis of the spatial or temporal encounter of isolated elements, the direct contact among these elements, or some more complex relationship arising among them in the direct process of perception. The factor that continues to be basic to this period is the fact that the child is guided not by the objective connections present in the things themselves, but by the subjective connections that are given in his own perception. Objects are brought together in a single series and subordinated to a common meaning not on the basis of general features that are inherent to them and that have been isolated by the child but on the basis of a kind of kinship that has been established between them by the child’s impressions (LSVCW v 1, p. 135).

In the third phase of this earliest stage of concept formation, the child’s entirely unstable and unconscious behaviour is unified and given some stability by the child bringing all the blocks together in a heap and giving them their name. The category of “these ones here” is at least a step towards some kind of stability, albeit entirely subjective. In Vygotsky’s classification scheme, these syncretic concepts are the first major stage of concept formation.


Vygotsky, L. S. (1934a). An Experimental Study of Concept Development, Chapter 5 of Thinking and Speech, in LSVCW, v. 1, pp. 121–166

-- AndyBlunden - 14 Nov 2013


Topic revision: r3 - 14 Nov 2013, AndyBlunden

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