"Tool and Sign" Vygotskian Research Network
in the Psychology Research Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences


Name and Position of Primary Investigator:

Prof. Laszlo Garai, Academic Doctor, research adviser

Names of research team members:

Margit Kocski PhD, senior research fellow

Ibolya Vari-Szilagyi, Academic Doctor, senior research fellow



Full address:

Psychology Research Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Mail: Budapest, Budafoki-ut 10/a. HUNGARY - 1111

Phone: (361) 209-77-03. Fax: (36-62) 54-44-99

E-mail: garai@mtapi.hu

Internet: http://www.staff.u-szeged.hu/~garai/garai_e.htm

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?'

The team 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)

The research 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:

The former research team transformed themselves into a network with spontaneously paralleled research activities in

social psychology:

social 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.

attitude 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)

semiotic 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.

theory and meta-theory:

sign-type mediating factors as tools and tool-type mediating factors as signs (cf. Garai L. and Kocski M.: Another crisis in the psychology.

Vygotsky and Mead (Vari-Szilagyi I.: G. H. Mead and L. S. Vygotsky on action. Studies in Soviet Thought. 42. [1991])

case studies

applying the theory to both individual psychologic (Garai L.:A reply to Gustav Jahoda.) and social economic topics (Garai L.: Soviet-Type societies and Bolshevik-Type Parties).


All 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 work:

English, 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 political system.

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 mental life:

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 different cultures.

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 very child).

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 States.

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





Eros, F., 1974: Personality Dynamics and Social Existence, by L. Garai. European Journal of Social Psychology. 4/3. 369-379.

G[arai], L., 1983: Marxian Personality Psychology. In: Harré-Lamb (eds.), The Encyclopedic Dictionary of Psychology. Basil Blackwell Publisher. 364-366.

Garai, L., 1993: A psychosocial essay on identity [in Hungarian]. T-Twins Editor. Budapest.

Garai, L., 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.

Garai, L. 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.

Leontiev, A., 1969: Problems of mental development. Joint Publications Research Service, Washington.

Shotter, J., 1989: Vygotsky's psychology: Joint activity in a developmental zone. New Ideas in Psychology. Vol.7, No.2.