Nikolai Veresov on “are the laws of thought objective?”

Nikolai Veresov discusses Vygotsky’s “greatest contribution” , the “discovery of the objectively existing laws of the development of all higher psychological functions” (Excerpted from “Vygotsky’s Role in the History of Psychology – Part 2” ).

Side questions include: Have these laws been challenged? Is Vygotsky’s theory a left-wing theory? Should conservatives be wary of this theory?

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25 thoughts on “Nikolai Veresov on “are the laws of thought objective?”

  1. Nikolai is right. Thinking is by definition, subjective, but the laws os development of psychological functions are objective and can be discovered by science. Contemporary postmodern consciousness rails against this though.

    1. @Andy What does this sentence mean: “Contemporary postmodern consciousness rails against this though.”? Thanks.

  2. Yes, Vygotsky’s theory is inherently left wing. Of course (as Vygotsky shows us!) theories are tools we can apply to different contexts, so there are Liberals using Heidegger, but to apply Vygotsky’s thought concretely is not a politically relative act. It is the enemy not of what has through most of history been considered conservative (his theory compliments conservative thinkers like Macintyre, Polanyi or Oakenshott), but of the libertarian conservatism of people like Boris Johnson.

    I agree with Andy that the current climate is such that pm liberals bristle at the idea of naturalism being applied to thought, but I certainly think that while a welcome counterpoint, Vygotsky went too far here. Even Biology doesn’t really talk about laws now. While development is material and structured by certain forces, I think Vygotsky’s “objective” stance on listing laws leads to generalisations that weaken the modal responsiveness of the rest of his theory.

    1. I am sorry, I disagree. Biology does talk about laws – laws of evolution, for example. Physics does always – Newton’s laws of mechanics. We just need to distinguish between legal laws, established by people, and laws existing in nature itself, which are discovered by people.

  3. I am puzzled by these exchanges.

    (1) Is it meaningful to ask whether there are laws of pychology without saying what the word “law” is taken to mean? There are many possibilities.

    (2) What is claimed when it is asserted that “thinking is by definition subjective”? No doubt that thought is an activity of a subject but is it not essential to say that thought is always directed beyond the subject, even when it is turned towards the subject. The thought “I am hungry” has an objective content. The dialectic of the subjective and the objective is surely unavoidable if we are to have a clear concept of thought.

    (3) What is meant by the claim that “Biology doesn’t really talk about laws now”. First, some biologist DO talk about laws. But even if they didn’t the problem would not go away. Does Biology not seek to find relationships/processes behind the observable which enable us the explain what we observe and then finds ways to test that explanation. If it does then is that not what require of a law? Did Darwin not make clear the underlying relationships/processes that enable us the explain evolution?

    (4) What is the basis for the claim that “Vygotsky’s “objective” stance on listing laws leads to generalisations that weaken the modal responsiveness of the rest of his theory.”? In what way does his law that “the mastery of behaviour is a mediated process that is always realised by the intermediary of auxiliary stimuli” lead to generalisation that weaken his theory.

    (5) It may be that some “liberals bristle at the idea of naturalism being applied to thought” but what this suggesting about Vygotsky? In his his history of the HMF he strongly rejected naturalistic explanations.

  4. Anthony, beginning around the 1960s progressive people started to call into question widely accepted truths, such as the ideas of Science and Progress, generally by appealing to relativism, that is, that what was true depended on your point of view. This was a weapon against the entrenched power of conservatives. Later, around the 1980s, “conservatives” began to use this stance to defend positions which, once unchallenged, were becoming minority views. The Zeitgesit of the whole period from the rise of capitalism up to the 1960s is called “modernism,” and this new-found scepticism is called “post-modernism.” From this point of view, Nikolai’s claim seems outrageous.
    David, laws are of course appearances, but nonetheless, they reveal something objective. They same point you make about “thought.” But “thought” is commonly understood as the function of an individual psyche, so despite the inseparability of subject and object, there is a strong sense in which we impute the thought of something to the subject.
    Kyrill, you may be surprised to hear that not only “liberals” but also “conservatives” are repelled by the idea that the development of psychological functions is subject to natural laws in the same way as biology. Otherwise, how the hell would we design an education system?

    1. Hmm, I’d say that conservatives would be more repelled by the top-down control or the idea of the state intervening in things. There is a dominant postmodern conservative style now exemplified by Trump but I think his followers are fairly easy about the idea of laws determining how the world works, even if there is a conspiratorial style to how these are understood and a rejection of science in specific areas.

    2. Andy, you say ‘laws are appearances”. Do you mean that? What about laws which seek to express an essential relationship which can be far from revealing themselves directly? “If the aopearance and the essence of things were always the same …”.

      Yes, “‘thought’ is commonly understood as the function of an individual psyche …” but that’s not a reason for agreeing with that view. Isn’t it one of the great achievement of Vygotsky to show that thought is a social and historical process and therefore cannot be reduced to a function of the individual psyche?

  5. Vygotsky was of course only following different ideas of what was understood by science of his time. It is only natural that a scientist at the start of the 20th Century would be disproven by later discoveries. The complexity here is that while Vygotsky’s specific empirical claims (he made comments about all areas of development he saw as relevant, including the endocrine system) may now be challenged, his general approach and system are still useful.

    I think we are not talking about laws in general here but about Vygotsky’s laws of the development of higher psychological functions. These are “special laws at each age level”. Vygotsky appreciated better than others what a complex system of forces development involved but he was still influenced by a 19th Century empiricism of distinct stages and levels. It is true as a general description that children reach a stage at which they begin to ask questions and broaden their vocabulary, but claiming to have found the “uniqueness of each age level in the development of behavior and the unique type of child development.” weakens the dialectical systemic thesis Vygotsky promotes overall. These are not the kind of laws we see anywhere in nature

    1. Kyrill, I don’t have a problem with scientific developments calling earlier ideas into question.
      Even so science is a cumulative process in which some things become well established (e.g. Archimedes’ principle). It would surely be very strange if an innovative methodology was developed without any valid contributions to its credit.
      Why do think that the idea of distinct stages of development is undialectical?
      I think Meshcheryakov’s discussion of Vygotsky’s laws in the Cambridge Companion was helpful on this.
      I followed the link you provided. Seder el-Showk doesn’t argue that biology doesn’t have laws. He says he is not sure. Having suggested a hazy idea of laws at the start of the piece he says at the end that the discussion requires more clarity on the concept of a law. That was also my first point in these exchanges.

  6. I appreciate Nikolai’s knack for rephrasing Vygotsky’s ideas for non-expert audiences, without losing or spoiling the original recipe.  It’s not easy to do; if it was, we’d likely see more of it happening.

    For instance, the video under discussion draws a clean and accessible distinction between our subjective minds as individuals who are obviously different from each other, and the objective processes that govern HPF development. Each of us has a unique constellation of differently developed, or differently flavored, HPFs, but what we share, as members of the same species, is participation in the same human ‘laws’ of psychological development. In a simplified, even corny way, it’s like: don’t dare say we’re all the same; but don’t dare say we’re not the same either.  But is this true?

    I’m curious but will leave the better-informed and better-trained to adjudicate the accuracy of this distinction, especially along philosophical lines.  To my eyes, it seems to make sense and also jibes with what I think Vygotsky is saying. 

    I love studying Vygotsky, but it’s always been hard for me. These little distinctions — probably common knowledge to many, but fresh and helpful to me — function as torch-lamps in the dark.  Here’s another good example, on the very same topic: – even better, this one leads right into classroom applications (not unrelated to Natalia’s advice from last week).

    1. Yes definitely, Nikolai pulls out aspects of Vygotsky’s theory really well and in a practical form. I think if Vygotsky was alive longer he would have done more to describe some of the more subtle conditions affecting our biological development.

  7. The distinction between subjective and objective thought reminds me of Hegel’s comment in Phenomenology of Spirit where he states that “thought is thinghood… thinghood is thought.” I took this to mean that all thought is a constant to and fro, a dialogical, dialectical flux of movement between the subjective and the objective. I was of the thought [no pun intended] that ‘laws’ are our way of trying to identify relationships between objects that appear universal and constant, or that have continued to appear universal and constant for a long period of time. Nikolai quotes Vygotsky towards the end of the video when he says that “development of higher psychological functions IS the same as cultural development” so by definition, I would assume, this interplay is by necessity a constant movement, a constant ever developing dialogical exchange between the subjective and objective.

    1. In reflecting further upon the original question that was posed: “Are the laws of thought objective?”, in light of my own thoughts up above, I would suggest that perhaps an alternative question we could ask is: “Would we agree that the laws of thought, as described by Vygotsky, are universals?” given that there is no question that they are both objective and subjective by Hegelian standards.

  8. These laws are universal, so long as we interpret “universal” in the sense Hegel used it, i.e., as normative but not general. For example, in his theory of child development, not every child goes through the expected transformation at the age which is normal for a given culture, but we use his concept of social situation of development, etc., to understand the paths of development which are normal in a given culture.
    On the other hand, I think it is not enough to say that the laws of psychological development are both subjective and objective. That is kind of dodging the question, because almost everything is both subjective and objective. Niklolai’s claim is that the *laws* are objective. The actual develeopment which takes place depends both on the universal culture in which a child is raised, their particular circumstances and social position within that culture, and the child’s individual personal characteristics …. but the development of all children manifest the same general laws of development.
    I said that all “laws” are appearances (a technical term in philosophy) because they are forms of cognition of natural processes, not the processes themselves and are products of science, not nature. Laws will be formulated differenly as our knowledge advances. Nonetheless, they reflect what is true in the natural and social process.

    1. Thank you, Andy for that clarification. So is it more a question of Hegel’s concept of ‘Utility’ then? That is: “…in Utility in so far as pure insight there acquires positive objectivity; pure insight is thereby an actual consciousness satisfied within itself”? By asking if these laws are objective, are we asking: have these laws moved us beyond “the vanity of self-consciousness” where we operate within our own personal “world of culture”? Have these general laws been found to be universally/widely ‘useful’ in understanding child development across multiple contexts?

  9. If you’re reading this, you can help! I am hoping – if it’s not too late in the week – to hear a range of responses (including from Nikolai) to a very basic question:

    First a quotation: “nevermind which function it is – logical memory, abstract thinking, creative imagination, voluntary attention – *they all develop according to the same laws* . . . (Vygotsky) built the whole theory on these laws.” 

    **And here is the question: So how does this insightful discovery from Vygotsky help us, or help you?   

    This is maybe an embarrassingly dumb question, but please type a quick answer while you’re here.  It will be great to hear various replies, experiences, and perspectives. (You know it will…)

    1. Hi Anthony, not sure that this will be helpful but hope it will. I think that primary school teachers here in Victoria, Australia use the Victorian Curriculum following these general laws/this theory. The curriculum is understood to map out how skills/understandings/capacities/knowledges develop, progressing from level Foundation to level 10. Teachers don’t use the curriculum are a Grade by Grade syllubus but as a developmental continuum. For example, you might have a child in Grade 5 who is working at level 3 for writing and level 4 for reading, while working at level 5 for Number etc. Our assessments, reporting and planning/teaching are informed by this understanding of the curriculum – i.e. that children develop along ‘known’ stages of development, but that each child will develop at their own pace.

      1. Maria, this is very interesting to me, and it seems like the pros outweigh the cons, including for teachers — unless the workload is unmanageable. If possible, would you point me toward any resources that might demonstrate such a continuum or showcase a teacher in action along these lines? Also, does this developmental approach continue into the middle school and secondary levels? Thank you again – Anthony.

        1. Hi Anthony, our curriculum is a dynamic online document that you can access here:
          This following site is also useful in that it showcases how the curriculum is used, in the way I described above:
          For example, I’ve taken the following quote from the site: “Differentiated teaching occurs when a teacher plans a lesson that adjusts either the content being discussed, the process used to learn or the product expected from students to ensure that learners at different starting points can receive the instruction they need to grow and succeed.” You’ll also note that there’s a reference to Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development on the site.
          That second link/site also has video links and other documents that showcase how this is achieved in Primary (Foundation-Year 6) and in Secondary (Years 7-10). The Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) is used as a standardised assessment in Years 11-12 (and also in Year 10 for students who are ready for the challenge), used to award a score, which is used to determine entrance to University courses, therefore (though I admit to not knowing very much about Years 11-12) I believe the curriculum is set in the senior years of Secondary school.

  10. Anthony, the important thing to keep in mind when assessing the universality of the laws of development of psychological functions, is that these laws, as VYGOTSKY formulates them (not Piaget or Skinner), are culturally determined. That is, the development of cognition in a middle class American home will differ from the development of cognition in a poor African American home or a wealthy Afghani home. Cultural Psychology, i.e. CHAT, includes cultural difference in its theorisation. Not better or worse, but different, due to cultural differences.
    Maria, you are quoting the Phenomenology to us. My Hegel is the mature Hegel of the Encyclopaedia, so what you say sounds right, but the later Hegel did not use terms like Utility and Intuition (in this sense). His ideas were still in gestation in 1807. Though this use of “utility” by Hegel is very enlightening.

    1. Andy, I really don’t see how we can say Vygotsky thinks the laws are culturally determined. Culture only determines when and in what ways we pass through each stage according to Vygotsky – the stages themselves are universal. What I find most strange is that not only does Vygotsky insist that the traits of stages are distinct to each “age” but that his whole theory applies to children’s development of the acquisition of concepts but not to adult’s acquisition of concepts. If we split the laws roughly as Nikolai has into simplified stages
      1) Innate direct and natural engagement with the world
      2) Mediated engagement with the world through auxiliary means
      3) Copying of the social
      4) Internalization of the social to the individual
      It just seems obvious to me that we are always going through all of these stages and there is never a return to “naturally” engaging with the world. To say 1 to 5 year olds go through stage one and two and then school-age kids go through stage 3 seems to heavily lean on Piaget and go against Vygotsky’s own commitment as, David mentioned, against naturalistic explanations.

  11. That was an error of expression by me, Kyrill. I apologise. As you say, the laws are universal, but culture is one of the “inputs” so the outcome of the laws varies culturally. Culpa mia.
    I don’t subscribe to those 4 stages. They are new to me. However, I think it is wrong to dismiss the term “internalisation,” as some do, either because of its association with Piaget or because someone thinks it excludes transformation. “Internalisation” is a very general term expressing Vygotsky’s “general genetic law of cultural development”.
    Child development, as conceived by Vygotsky, is framed by the “social situation of development” which are seen as a more or less regular series of culturally determined stages which take a person from infancy to young adulthood, with all the psychlogical functions characteristic of the human adult of any culture. Development during adulthood shares many of the same principles, but it’s form is different. The concept of perezhivanie is used, and there are no “stages” until the person reaches the stage of senile decline.

    1. I certainly have no problem with internalisation. What I have a problem with, which I’m guessing you’d agree with as a Hegelian, is a stage “before” internalisation.

  12. Dear Nikolai,

    When I try to apply the laws of the development of higher mental functions in a context like Brazil, I have the impression that we can’t avoid the Mattew’s Principle (Mattew 13:12).
    How can we assure that the process of development is the same under different circunstances (in the same society)?

    Thank you for your attention,


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