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True Concept

A true concept is a concept which has been acquired with conscious effort and awareness by means of formal instruction in an institution of some kind.


Vygotsky called this type of concept ‘true’ simply because they are true to what ‘concept’ means, that is, they are completely independent of the concrete, sensuous perception of the objects, events and situations indicated by the concept and are essentially objective, a product of cultural and historical development rather than individual experience. True concepts are acquired through instruction in some kind of institution which has made provision for transmitting its concepts to neophytes. In that sense, such a concept must be a true representation of the norms of the relevant social formation. Not all social formations have such formal practices for transmitting concepts to future generations, relying to a greater or lesser extent on informal, effortless learning. In such circumstances, the concepts acquired by newcomers would derive only partly from instruction in the esoteric knowledge of the institution and partly through observation and participation. For Vygotsky, a ‘true’ concept is one acquired solely through instruction or ‘book learning’, where emphasis is on the ‘sense’ of the concept and its relation to other concepts in a system of knowledge.

He took as his paradigm for a true concept, the scientific concept.

True concepts are transmitted in religious organisations, military, political and other professions which induct people into their practices, schools of art, interest groups and sects of all kinds, but (especially in the Soviet Union of Vygotsky’s times) it is science which relies for the acquisition of its concepts entirely on instruction (whether didactic or laboratory-based) and least of all on spontaneous, sensuous acquisition of knowledge.

Furthermore, all children have spontaneous concepts of the operations of basic physics (witness Piaget’s experiments), and the new scientific concepts children acquire in the basic physics classes (conservation of mass, conservation of volume, acceleration under gravity, etc.) intersect with the concepts they have acquired spontaneously through handling objects in everyday life. Thus concepts of this type are never entirely ‘true’ concepts since from the beginning they are complex formations reflecting at least two paths of development. On the other hand, the concepts of Marxist social science owe absolutely nothing to everyday experience; a child who does not understand the meaning of ‘feudalism’ before they are taught the concept in social science classes at school, acquires the concept as pure ‘book learning’, and thus as a ‘true concept’.

It is an essential characteristic of ‘true concepts’ that they are completely independent of sensuous perception and practical experience. Vygotsky found that children are unable to acquire true concepts until adolescence. But even then the true concepts acquired by school children, marked by formalism and situated within the self-enclosed activity of the classroom remain only embryonic until the young adult enters a profession and social life in general where they encounter concepts in the social situations from which they have developed in the first place. What marks the ‘true’ concept is its path of development rather than its form at any given moment in a trajectory which begins with instruction.

It is self-evident that such a ‘true concept’ is at first hardly likely to be ‘true’ to concrete experience in the real world. For that it needs the nuances and complexities spontaneously acquired through life experience. Most actual concepts worthy of the name have their origins in both instruction (whether formal or informal) and experience.

It is worth emphasising that ‘true concept’ refers to an ideal-typical path of concept development, not a category of concept. After all, all Vygotsky’s concepts represent paths of development rather products of development. Further, scientific concepts (and the concepts of Marxist social science in particular) are but one example of concepts which have such a path of development. At early stages in its development, a true concept is marked by abstractness and formalism, and only later acquires the status of a truly concrete concept. But a spontaneous concept can never acquire the same level of development which is ultimately acquired by the true concept. None of the artificial concepts dealt with in Vygotsky and Sakharov’s experiments are true concepts, since in every case they are formed on the basis of concrete perception of the experimental objects.

See chapters 5, 6 and 7 of Thinking and Speech.


Vygotsky, L. S. (1934). Thinking and Speech, in LSVCW, v. 1, pp. 39–285

-- AndyBlunden - 13 Nov 2013


Topic revision: r12 - 20 Nov 2013, AndyBlunden

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