The Symbolic Forms of Perception in Lev Vygotsky’s Approach

The paper picks up where Ernst Cassirer (1944) ambitiously tried to explain the appearance of what he called the symbolic forms in human thinking in terms of Jakob von Uexküll’s (1982/1940) concept of the functional cycle. After discussing the central challenges of this task at which Cassirer got stuck, however, a somewhat similar attempt is found in the writings by Vygotsky and Luria (1994/1930), albeit without apparent knowledge of Uexküll’s work.

Vygotsky’s approach relates the use of cultural sign systems, developed in historical time – e.g. language, writing, gestures, drawing etc. – to different psychological functions such as perception, attention, memory, practical problem solving and tool use, among others, which develop in the individual. Vygotsky thus offers an integrative cognitive theory of signs. It is a developmental account of the acquisition and use of these signs systems, and at the same time, an account of the concomitant changes that take place in the psychological functions. The acquisition of symbol use brings qualitative changes to cognitive processes, but it is not so much individual psychological functions separately that change, but their organization in relation to each other.

Vygotsky and Luria (1994/1930) show how perception, memory, attention and movement are internally connected and reorganized during the development of sign use activity of the child. The present paper focuses on the changes in the functioning of perception, as outlined by Vygotsky and Luria, which accompany the acquisition of symbol use, but analyses these changes in their interrelation with other psychological functions. 

While modelling sign operations of the small child, Vygotsky and Luria also try to explain the child’s symbolic activity in terms of stimulus-response cycles. As the result of the formation of symbolic activity, which is in fact a process of learning, elementary stimulus-response cycles are disintegrated and taken under recombination and control, to a certain degree.

These efforts appear somewhat similar to the way in which Cassirer tried to adapt von Uexküll’s functional cycle to symbolic forms, but without some of the downsides of Cassirer’s approach, which could not relate the symbolic forms and other forms of cognition. In Vygotsky’s and Luria’s approach, symbolic forms can be explained by, but not reduced to, the functioning of elementary perception and the senses. As a result, the paper sketches a broad comparison of Uexküll’s concept of the functional cycle and Vygotsky’s and Luria’s model of sign operation.

Cassirer, Ernst, An Essay on Man: An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture, New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1944.
Uexküll, Jakob von, ‘The Theory of Meaning’ [1940], Semiotica, vol. 42-1, 1982, pp. 25–82.
Vygotsky, Lev and Luria, Alexander, ‘Tool and symbol in child development’, trans. Prout, Theresa, The Vygotsky Reader, eds. Van der Veer, René and Valsiner, Jaan, Oxford: Blackwell, 1994, pp. 99–174.

Lauri Linask

Tallinn University, Estonia

Lauri Linask is lecturer in cultural theory at Tallinn University and doctoral student of semiotics at the University of Tartu. He is also secretary of the Nordic Association for Semiotic Studies. His interests include theory of semiotics and the formation of interrelations between culture and cognition in children from a semiotic point of view.

symbolic activity
symbolic perception