Tuesday, 4 November 2014


On L. S. Vygotskii and inner speech

In a book published in the United States in 1984, Alex Kozulin wrote three sentences on inner speech that are just too good not to share–
Inner speech is to a large extent pure thought, but still embodied in a kind of language. It is a dynamic, 'scintillating' entity moving to and fro between thought and language; these do not coincide but they cannot exist separately in their mature forms. Words deprived of thought remain a 'dead soul', but 'voiceless thought' is also a mere shadow...
(Kozulin, 1984, p. 119)

Alex Kozulin is now Academic Coordinator of the International Department at the Feuerstein Institute, Jerusalem.

Problems of meaning and speech

Kozulin's words quoted above are part of a passage on the distinction between meaning and sense. Just how one understands this above depends to some extent upon his own meaning and sense. In their turn these may depend upon his status as a fairly recent immigrant to the United States from the then Soviet Union, writing in a second language and receiving suggestions from Americans steeped in contemporary American conventions (ibid, p. vii).

First, the meaning of the Russian word conventionally rendered into English in such contexts as 'thought': myshlenie. The meaning of the Russian original is better conveyed by the word 'thinking' betokening a dynamic process rather than the abrupt, almost end-process notion of 'thought'. The resulting misemphasis is apparent in the English book title Thought and Language.

NB, the second half of this American book title is just as distorted and misleading.The original Russian word rech' means 'speech' and to render is as 'language' rather suggests an unspecified abstraction rather than a material process, whether the latter be external speech or interiorised as inner speech.

Reading the above passage by Alex Kozulin I cannot help but wonder what he was thinking in his native Russian when he sought to express himself here in his new language of English. I do think that the above passage means more in English, and perhaps makes better sense, if account is taken of my proposed transpositions.

Secondly, I wonder what sense Alex Kozulin was evoking by the phrase 'dead souls'. The phrase is hardly a familiar one to most English-speakers and many who have read the passage quoted above in this book over the years might be coming upon it for the first time. Even so, it provides a vivid metaphor and may give may first-time readers pause to think.

For Russian readers, however, this phrase comes already heavily loaded with associations, for Dead Souls is a nineteenth-century social-satirical novel by Nikolai Gogol', one of the giants of Russian literature, in which the 'dead souls' in question bear a particular sense quite outside the general awareness of most non-Russians.

The final sentence of the short passage quoted above is powerful and thought-provoking enough as it stands but reading and rereading it I cannot but ask myself what deeper levels of sense and association the then still recently Russian Alex Kozulin experienced when he wrote it and what sense would be experienced by his fellow Russians reading it...

And more...
Inner speech... works with semantics, not phonetics. Syntax and sound are reduced to a minimum, while the senses of words are more than ever to the forefront.... In inner speech the sense of a word overbalances its meaning...

...the number of literary examples and poetic images does grow rapidly when Vygotskii approaches the subject of inner speech. This is not accidental. Vygotskii suggested that inner speech not only represents an interiorisation of the social world in the form of personal consciousness, but also contains the seed of future cultural forms that are presently folded into the subjective senses of words.

On the last page of the Russian edition of Thought and Language, Vygotskii wrote that thought itself is not the last stop. 'Thought itself does not beget a thought but is engendered by emotion, by our desires and needs, our interests and and emotions. Behind each thought the affect and emotion are standing. Only they hold the answer to the last 'why' in the analysis of intelligence.
(ibid., pp. 119, 120)

Like so much else in the writings of L. S. Vygotskii, this offers great theoretical comfort to the pedagogue – and the society – seeking to transform human development.


Kozulin, A. (1984) Psychology in Utopia: towards a social history of Soviet psychology, Cambridge, Mass., Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press

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