The problem of personality in the context of cultural-historical psychology

General Information

Keywords: non-classical psychology, cultural-historical theory, personality, psychological development, will, social situation of development, new psychological

Journal rubric: Developmental Psychology

For citation: Kravtsov G.G. The problem of personality in the context of cultural-historical psychology. Kul'turno-istoricheskaya psikhologiya = Cultural-Historical Psychology, 2006. Vol. 2, no. 5 (In Russ., аbstr. in Engl.)

A Part of Article

The Vygotskian cultural-historical concept is usually not regarded as a personality concept. Yet, this is not quite correct. Even though Vygotsky didn’t write a special monograph on this topic his whole scientific inheritance can be regarded as a psychology of personality.

Vygotsky formulates the essence of a new investigation strategy that can be treated as a scientific psychology of personality. He establishes a link between a notion of personality and a category of development, he emphasizes that development should be understood from the point of view of a history of the child’s cultural development. He states that it is only the cultural-historical approach that possesses this method of scientific investigation of a human being as a personality. According to Vygotsky the old psychology is unfit for scientific study of a personality as it belongs to a classical type of psychology. The method of old psychology doesn’t allow the investigation of the developmental processes which are closely connected with a notion of personality.

Humanistic psychology deals with the study of a man as a personality. Yet the theories of this type are not exactly scientific. They belong to phenomenological, descriptive or understanding psychology that utilizes an ideographic method of study. This approach doesn’t distinguish between a phenomenon and its essence.

Even nowadays psychology of personality is still moving “from the phenomenological study of psychological phenomena to the discovery of their very nature”. This fact has its own explanation. The study of development as a way of existence of personality according to Vygotsky requires researchers to “overpass the methodological limitations of traditional child psychology”. But the level of his requirements to methodological principles was so high that not all of his followers could follow them. Thus, it is understandable, that a number of scholars belonging to Vygotsky’s school of thought later returned to the principles of traditional psychology. It is clear thought that Vygotsky’s work was a breakthrough to a psychological science of a new type.

The last monograph by Vygotsky was devoted to the problem of emotions and was directly connected with the study of B. Spinoza. Obviously, the idea of “causa sui” was familiar to him and he understood its meaning very well. He repeatedly emphasized that development is always a process of self-development.

Not all the psychologists understand that to observe the thesis “development is self-development” means to overstep the limits of former thinking and to change the formal logic into a logic of self-development. V.Davydov was a psychologist who clearly understood the significance of the idea of self development. He stated that not all the things possess the status of development and not all things are capable of this highest form of development.

D. El’konin was one of the pupils of Vygotsky who mastered his teacher’s method in full. He warned against the preposition “and” to be used between the notions “a child” and “a society” because, due to its function in the sentence, this preposition can connect as well as disconnect the notions. It can result in understanding of a child as isolated from the society and a society as isolated from the child. This approach directly leads to the reductionisms of a naturalistic way of thinking and such a pseudo dichotomy as ‘biological and social” in human psyche and such a limited notion as “socialization”. According to D. El’konin, the correct expression is “a child in the society” not “a child and the society”.

The principle of wholeness of a child’s personality is presented by Vygotsky as integrity of his/her affect and intellect. D. El’konin makes an attempt to realize this principle by introducing the idea of dialectical interrelation of a child’s orientation toward “the world of people” and “the world of objects” with predominant significance of either object or social orientation at different stages of ontogenesis. The world of people and the world of objects taken together exhaust the fullness and wholeness of child’s consciousness and personality. Yet the mechanisms and driving forces of transition from one dominant activity to another remain vague. What exactly does make a child change the focus of his/her attention from the physical domain of the surrounding world to the world of social relationship, and vise-versa?

In the Vygotskian theory of “stage development” basic meaning is attached to the main psychological accomplishments of each stage and the social situation of development rather than the leading activity. These two notions are internally linked. The emergence of a new psychological quality (new developmental accomplishments) lead to changes in the social situation of development, and the further realization of this social situation’s potential results in the appearance of further accomplishments. These concepts are highly important for understanding the logic of self-development.

The integrity of affect and intellect is difficult to describe if the third component of psyche, — a sphere of volition is not taken into account. Vygotsky distinguishes two characteristics of an act of volition: its complex and initially mediated character and the experience of freedom that follows the volitional act. From this point of view speech as a central psychological accomplishment of infancy is a function of volition. Furthermore, it is our assumption (Vygotsky didn’t articulate it in an explicit way, but it seems to be embedded implicitly in the context and content of socio-cultural approach) that all the developmental accomplishments of each of the stages of development belong to the volitional sphere of psyche. In infancy such a developmental accomplishment is speech; during the preschool age it is imagination; in junior school age it is voluntary attention; in adolescence it is self-reflection. The view of imagination as a central developmental accomplishment of preschool age is supported by a study of E. Kravtsova (1996) and the volitional nature of attention as a new psychological accomplishment of junior preschool age was discussed by E. Gorlova (2002).

According to Vygotsky there are two main types of psyche: a higher order and a natural psyche. However, the higher mental functions are not homogeneous as well and are, in turn, subdivided into two types: those which were initially higher (and never were natural) and those which were transformed in the process of development from their basic, natural form into socially and culturally mediated psychological functions. Volition is an initially higher mental function that represents itself in speech, imagination, voluntary attention and self-reflection, that is in all the psychological accomplishments of each developmental stage. That is why we can suppose that the general direction of development in ontogenesis occurs in the sphere of volition. The integrity of affect and intellect as inseparable parts of personality is impossible without volition which is also necessary for understanding the mechanisms of transformation of the elementary psyche into its higher levels.

Vygotsky proposed the idea of consciousness being structured in a systematic and meaning-based way. The specifics of developmental characteristics of an age is in the special structure of consciousness which is characterized by a specific combination of natural psychological functions and a function that takes central place in the development at that stage and is under direct influence of its developmental accomplishments. At the same time the other functions which have already been in the central position before, can now move back to a peripheral area but with a new quality attained, that is, they transform into higher, cultural mental functions, and therefore, become mediated, self-regulated and voluntary. Volition as a central developmental accomplishment transforms the basic, natural mental functions into their higher, voluntary form. Thus the development of personality can be explained as a mastery of one’s own psychological functions, as an expansion of the psychological realm of one’s own conscious control.

The Vygotskian idea of meaning-based structure of consciousness helps to analyze the “inside” picture of consciousness, which, according to Vygotsky, is characterized by the level and the quality of generalization. Consciousness as a human relation to the surroundings is a relation mediated by certain meanings that are generalized. The generalization is closely connected to social interactions and communication.

The system of scientific concepts, discussed in this article, and initially introduced to psychology by L. Vygotsky, enables a new vision of the developmental process as a self-movement and self-determination which is consistent with the logic of “causa sui”. Cultural-historical psychology is the only theory which allows for the establishment of this new paradigm in approaching a psychological study of personality.

Information About the Authors

Gennady G. Kravtsov, Doctor of Psychology, Professor, Federal Research and Clinical Center for Critical Care and Rehabilitation, Moscow, Russia, ORCID:, e-mail:



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