"Tool and Sign" Vygotskian Research Network
in the Psychology Research Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences
Name and Position of Primary
Prof. Laszlo Garai, Academic Doctor, research adviser
Names of research team members:
Kocski PhD, senior research fellow
Vari-Szilagyi, Academic Doctor, senior research fellow
Research Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
Budapest, Budafoki-ut 10/a. HUNGARY - 1111
209-77-03. Fax: (36-62) 54-44-99
Abstract of history:
In the early
1970s there has been organized in the Institute for Psychology of the Hungarian
Academy of Sciences a team-work with the scientific project of elaborating a
social psychology within the frame of the Vygotsky's cultural-historical theory.
It was meant such a type of social psychology that would relate the given
individual not to a face to face frame of reference but to a large
scale frame of his social (economic, political, ideological, cultural etc.)
identity. Such a theory of subject's social identity was meant to
complement Leontiev's theory of objectal activity within the Vygotskian
frame: while for this latter one the subject is pre-defined and the theoretical
question holds on the predicate: "What does he?' the Hungarian team
evolved a theory that would take a predicate as pre-defined and investigate on
the question that holds on the subject: "Who does it?'
meant a logical restoration of the Vygotsky's theoretical work as an
alternative to the dualism of an explanatory and a descriptive (positivistic vs
hermeneutic) psychology (Garai L. and Kocski M.: Activity and social categorisation)
group has published about themselves and their research a report in the
periodical of the International Social Sciences Council: Garai, L., Eros, F.,
Jaro, K. Kocski, M. and Veres, S.: Towards a Social Psychology of Personality.
Main topics of research:
research team transformed themselves into a network with spontaneously
paralleled research activities in
identity; social categorization as its mental elaboration; individual
performances turning into markers of social categorization; this latter's
paradoxical structure and brain mechanism (Garai L.: A psychosocial essay on
identity; Garai L.: The brain
and the mechanism of psychosocial phenomena.
and value research; future and value orientation; time perspective; social
representation of success (cf. Vari-Szilagyi I.: Man, World and World of
Values [A monograph in Hungarian]. Bp.: Gondolat. 1987)
elaboration of the child's social positions; identity formation in family
setting and reciprocal socialization of siblings by themselves; socialization
and social comparison; (Kocski M. and Garai L.: Les débuts
de la catégorisation sociale et les manifestations verbales.
mediating factors as tools and tool-type mediating factors as signs (cf. Garai
L. and Kocski M.: Another
crisis in the psychology.
and Mead (Vari-Szilagyi I.: G. H. Mead and L. S. Vygotsky on action. Studies
in Soviet Thought. 42. )
colleagues and PhD students interested in any of the above topics (including
that of the team's history) would be welcome in the Institute for Psychology of
the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
Languages regularly used in our
French, Russian and Hungarian
An alternative to the schizophrenia of the psychology?
In the early 1970s there has been organized
in the Institute for Psychology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences a
team-work with the scientific project of elaborating a psychological
meta-theory that would be equally close to natural and to historical sciences.
This research work started in the
course of events that was referred at at that time as the renaissance of
Marxism; it was meant by it a rediscovery of the scientific body of Marx'
texts and its emancipation from the ideological references of a Soviet-type
The team considered that the
philosophical methodology included in those classic texts provided a
theoretical-methodological groundwork to transcend the antagonism of approaches
of Naturwissenschaft and Geisteswissenschaft since instead of either nature
or spirit that just emerges in history Marx premises production,
this latter being just as much determined by spatio-temporal dimensions as
nature, and just as creative as spirit in history. Production had been assumed
to serve as an integrative principle for transcending the split between positivistic
and hermeneutic human sciences in general, and psychology in particular
(cf. Garai L. and Kocski M., 1991).
To achieve integration, however, it
will not suffice merely to add Marxian theses, on the one hand, and psychological
facts and interpretations, on the other. In order to obtain a real degree of
integration, the non-psychological conceptual framework must be translated into
terms appropriate for use in psychology (cf. Garai, L., 1983; Eros, F., 1974).
These new conceptual tools can then be used to interpret the available data and
facts as well as to orientate further research.
Such was precisely the research
strategy of the Vygotsky's cultural-historical theory which became the
main reference for the Hungarian research team at issue.
Vygotsky's theory has studied the
factors of mental life as signs and tools at the same time, though the
two of them are by force of their logic quite a different mediating factors of
The tool fits into the natural
determination series of psychosomatic interaction between organism and
environment. Instead of becoming the object of a direct activity, such a tool
gets integrated like a prosthesis in the acting system which directly perceives
and manipulates its environment through this tool as if through a transparent
medium. The activity directed at the object is unambiguously determined by the
nature of the system integrating the prosthesis into itself and that of its
environment, all independently of the tool.
The sign, by contrast, is the
direct object of an activity that is concerned with its interpretation. The
sign mediates between the parties only depending on how each of those parties
interprets it in an interaction referred to the background of their common or
Signs are unconsciously referred to the
background of their common or different cultures of various social categories
whether they are well established (as, e. g., nations or religions) or just
going to establish themselves by creating signs with new semantics and
syntaxes. Thus, signs are interrelated to particular categories of
people, while tools relate themselves to human in general or to the
given person individually.
For the Vygotsky theory, sign-type
mediating factors are tools at the same time, as well as tool-type mediating
factors are also signs. It is precisely why one can state about this theory
that "it is neither a wholly natural scientific, biological psychology
interested only in the emerging events and their causes, nor is it a wholly
cultural, hermeneutic venture concerned exclusively with the interpretation of
meanings and with motives of human deeds" (Shotter, 1989; p. 185).
Now, as to the concrete course of
synthesizing the logic of natural sciences and that of historical sciences,
much as the Vygotsky's theory implied it, the Vygotsky school could have not
avoided the fate of a psychology of that historical period: that of its
"hemispheres" that was liable to the logic of natural sciences got
elaborated with activity theory of Leontiev (1969). He considered the
signs as tools, i. e. as completely transparent when it operates as mediating
factor. No interpretation is needed, according to his theory, for decoding
sign's meaning since it is objectively given in the activity structure
as relation between its ends and means. Though Leontiev made a clear
distinction between meaning and personal sense, he did not consider any
necessity of interpretation for the latter either, the personal sense being
equally taken as objectively given in the structure of activity as a relation
between its ends and motives.
The Hungarian team started its
theoretical research within the framework of the Leontiev's activity theory
(cf. Garai et al., 1979). Soon it has been realized, however, that
activity has not just one but two aspects: that of the object toward which
and that of the subject by whom it is directed. As to its first aspect
it may but the second may not be interpreted within the logic of natural
sciences: the subject of the activity is formed by a social game whose rules
cannot be understood unless another logic, that of historical sciences is
adopted by the psychology. Finally, the team's first objective was to study
this second, non-Leontievian aspect of Vygotsky's theoretical universe.
If for Leontiev's activity theory signs
have been dealt with as tools, for the research carried out by the team at
issue tools have been treated as signs.
When interpreting tools as signs the
parties (unconsciously) define themselves and each other in terms of their
social identities. In an (unpublished) field experiment it has been studied in
a creche how children (from 1 to 3) master various objects (toys as well as
articles for use, e. g. spoons) of which they previously got hold according to
the technical norms of activity theory. It had appeared that the actual
mastering depended not just on this technical condition but on the social
condition of property relations as well: the child who has already been enabled
by a learning process to use a kind of objects (e. g., spoon) got
disabled by a distribution configuration to use a concrete specimen (the
spoon that belongs to a significant other or to anybody else and not to the
When beside studying signs as tools the
Hungarian research team carried out a program of studying tools as signs its
main objective was to actualize the potentials of Vygotsky's theory for a
possible integration of the psychology split into two hemi-sciences. Now, the
attraction of the same promise of promoting such an integration may be the main
motive for the actual tendency of Vygotsky becoming fashionable among the
academic scholars of psychology in Western Europe and especially in United
The international Vygotsky boom seems
to be motivated by psychology's "unconscious desire" to recover his
unity without being compelled to sacrifice for it either the insights developed
by psychology as a natural science, or those whose development was that long
obstructed by such a science.
László Garai and Margit Kocski
Institute for Psychology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest
1974: Personality Dynamics and Social Existence, by L. Garai. European
Journal of Social Psychology. 4/3. 369-379.
1983: Marxian Personality Psychology. In: Harré-Lamb (eds.), The
Encyclopedic Dictionary of Psychology. Basil Blackwell Publisher. 364-366.
1993: A psychosocial essay on identity [in Hungarian]. T-Twins
Eros, F., Járó, K. Köcski, M. and Veres, S., 1979: Towards a Social Psychology
of Personality: Development and Current Perspectives of a School of Social
Psychology in Hungary. Social Science Information. 1. pp.137-166.
Garai L. and
Kocski M., 1991: Positivist and hermeneutic principles in Psychology: Activity
and social categorisation. Studies in Soviet Thought. 42. 123-135.
and Kocski, M., 1990: On the mental status of activity and social relation: To
the question of continuity between the theories of Vygotsky and Leontiev [in
Russian]. Psikhologitchesky Zhurnal, 11:5. 17-26.
A., 1969: Problems of mental development. Joint Publications Research Service,
1989: Vygotsky's psychology: Joint activity in a developmental zone. New
Ideas in Psychology. Vol.7, No.2.