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Vygotsky’s legacy in prospect: to build on or to build around?

1.5 Other topics related to Theme 1
Paper in a Symposium (Symp)
9:57 AM, Friday 1 Sep 2017 (27 minutes)
The paper argues that the main principles of Vygotsky’s psychological theory (in its different phases) appear indefensible today since they are constructed on assumptions and claims about language and communication that we would no longer entertain. More specifically, the semiological infrastructure of Vygotsky’s psychology was developed from the mechanistic tenets of the then in vogue reflexology and Soviet Marxist ‘materialism’ resulting in an attempt to combine the explanatory properties of a ‘causal-mechanical’ sign, on the one hand, with an ‘abstract-scholastic’ sign on the other. The paper argues that if we were to start again the project of developing an approach to the human mind, and to thinking and action, which does justice to our view of human potential and, consequently, to an agenda of progressive social transformation, we wouldn’t start where Vygotsky started (or where he finished). In this paper, I aim to set out the reasons why we might want to start building in a different place, while recognising and capitalising on Vygotsky’s brilliant insights as well as the importance of the questions he asked and the way he tried to answer them. So where to start? A social theory of human mind and potential must be about social relationships. Such a theory might take its cue from Marx’s own definition of the ‘social’ as ‘the cooperation of several individuals, no matter under what conditions, in what manner and to what end’. Thus, an understanding of cooperation, the paper argues, must be at the centre of both our critical re-appraisal of Vygotsky’s legacy and our attempts to contribute intellectually and practically to the transformation of ways of social living that present political and economic circumstances demand. In particular, the paper shows that the communicative and cognitive capacities involved in cooperative activity and in the dynamic of potentially unlimited development of cooperative practice, cannot be explained by any particular psychological or semiological ‘units’ or functions’: cooperation is not an outcome of the play of causal mechanisms but a socio-ethical achievement of particular individuals relating to one another in particular ways, putting trustful interdependence at the foundation of human sociality. And while cooperation depends on communication, communication itself is a cooperative practice and a cooperatively achieved outcome of interpersonal engagement. Foregrounding cooperation in this way, the paper argues, allows us to bypass the mechanical and scholastic dimensions of Vygotsky’s cultural-historical psychology and to restore the intelligence, communicative creativity, ethical value and unlimited practical transformability of cooperative activity to its rightful place in our thinking and planning.
Sheffield Hallam University
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