On Development of Mental Actions and Concepts



The 4-page contribution includes a manuscript found in the personal archive of G.J.Galperin and labeled “for the report”, as well as typewritten text of theses of the report “On development of intellectual actions and concepts”. It describes the main concepts and principles of the main lifework of Galperin – the theory of gradual development of intellectual actions. The contribution was prepared by M.A.Stepanova on the basis of materials from scientific archive of P.J.Galperin, upon authorization of his grand-son, Y.I.Abramson.

General Information

Keywords: consciousness, a reflection of reality, society, perception, communication, thinking

Journal rubric: History of Science

Article type: scientific article

For citation: Galperin P.Y. On Development of Mental Actions and Concepts. Kul'turno-istoricheskaya psikhologiya = Cultural-Historical Psychology, 2010. Vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 111–114. (In Russ., аbstr. in Engl.)

Full text

What is an intellectual action? Any action is characterized by the change it effects on its object. Intellectual action is characterized in the same way: it is a specific purposeful change of its object, only the object in this case is “mental”[1], and its changes are also “mental”. Intellectual action is the skill of making “mental” transformation of the object.

Of course, such skill must be learned, and the question is how this skill is obtained in the process of learning. We are only at the beginning of studying intellectual actions, but that which we know by virtue of researches of V.V.Davydov, N.I.Nepomnyashaya, I.E.Golomshtok. N.S.Pantina, A.G.Hrustaleva, V.Y.Nos[2] and others, allows us to understand much of what was before obscure, as well as many facts from works of previous authors, and most importantly - to trace the end of Ariadne’s thread in the labyrinth of psychic life.

In general the method of applied psychological research of the development consists in bringing together, crossing the results of analysis in two fields: firstly, the analysis of mistakes in the actions of testees who with poor progress in the subject, and, secondly, the analysis of conditions which lead to the development of full-scale action, to elimination of such flaws. Basing on the research of basic arithmetical actions and basic reading, basic algebraic, geometric, grammatical concepts, motor skills, verbal memory, etc. the following result was achieved: the development of an intellectual action undergoes the following main stages:

  • composition of the orientation basis of the action;
  • formation of the material form of the action;
  • formation of the verbal form of the action;
  • formation of the action as an intellectual act.

This line of changes of action is its main, but not only parameter. In order to obtain the general idea of these changes, one must remember that there are three more parameters of changes of the action in the process of its development and that these parameters, as we know today (can trace them), to a great degree are independent from each other. As a result of combination of different changes in all three parameters there are most diverse forms of the same action. That is why the picture described below is a “clean line” which can coincide with the process of development but which in fact differs from it.

Thus, on the first stage the orientation basis of the action is formed. It consists of three parts: the idea of action which is to be learned and which is the content of the task, the idea of environment to which this task belongs and the idea of relationship between them. For example, if I have to learn a new physical action, such as the skill of writing letters, I have to know, firstly, the picture of this letter as a whole and its parts in the process of writing them; secondly, I have to know how to define objectively every point of the sheet on which the letter is written; thirdly, I have to know how to relate this letter with its objective coordinates - such relation for the first time allows to identify the “reference points” which are parts of the letter, to identify their position of the sheet of paper and to reconstruct the picture of the letter using them.

If I have to learn to read, I have to know, firstly, that the object of my action is the sound of speech, and letters are only a means of denoting these sounds, secondly, I have to know how to differentiate and relate separate parts in the continuous flow of sounding speech, thirdly, I have to know the relation between the order of letters of a written word and sounds of its pronunciation.

If I have to learn to count, I have to know, firstly, the successive names of subsequently composed groups, I have to, secondly, identify that side of things which is considered in counting and what is taken as its unit, and, finally, I have to understand how the counting unit is used in formation of successive groups.

That which is put on the second place in these examples is the most important and the most difficult, the most inconstant in explanation of a new task. Its share in such explanation can vary greatly, but both conscious attention to it and spontaneous disregard invariably, but in opposite ways, influence the content of a new task.

The general and main point is that on this first stage one gets acquainted with the action as an objective process [with the objective content of the action]. The question is how specific and differential is the way we can show it and the student can see it.

But this “view” is only the orientation basis of action, and its performance and learning start at the next stage. If there is such orientation basis we are allowed to perform the new action even without knowing at all how to produce it, using only previous skills. As neither orientation basis of the action nor the action itself at this time are learned, the orientation basis of the action bust be given externally and the action itself can be performed in external manner. What will this external form be - will it be an action on objects or on a drawing or as a record on paper - depends on the character of the object of the action and the action itself, and, therefore, on the level of the new action in relation to previous knowledge and skills. But no matter what they were, the new action will at first have either direct material or “materialized” nature, i.e. actualize its relations either materially or through material representations of the copies of such relations.

The objective logic of this action is such that none of its parts can be omitted without stopping the action as a whole. That is why at first the action can be shown or started only as a full complex of its operations. But later, when we know the continuous flow of the action, such performance is no longer needed and even hinders the action - it starts to shrink through omission of an increasing number of its operations. Thus, in counting the first omitted operations are [unclear word] of the new group of counted objects, then - moving of a subsequent object, then - touching it with the counting finger, and, at last marking of the object and counting are done “with eyes only”. In basic reading the break-down of a long word is also at first done through moving the syllables apart, then they are only marked with a finger, and, at last, they are “immediately” perceived by sight simultaneously with the reading of the word. In this case - and it is very good - only specific shortening of the action first makes it suitable for using in the known task.

 Shortening of the action may happen spontaneously but in this case the shortened action is performed without taking account of the reality to which relates its shortened part, blindly, formally and only in very limited conditions. That is why the shortening must be specially trained and the student must understand that shortening of an operation means its notional performance, and that the action always maintains its full content, although it is not successively performed. Preservation of the image of the shortened part of the action is the condition of its consciousness.

To the report of May, 11th[3]

To show

1)   how intellectual actions are formed - from material actions;

2)   how images, simultaneous phenomena, are formed, on the basis of action, a successive phenomenon:

a)    the characteristics of a phenomenon are successively identified;

b)   [4]a stereotype of characteristics-irritants of such phenomenon is formed;

c)    this stereotype constitutes the material basis of the image.

Remarks of L.I.[5]:

-   the action is separated from the object;

-   characteristics are present form the very beginning (!);

-   there is no sense of reality, process (= there is no image of this action)

Theses for a report[6]. On development of intellectual actions and concepts

Intellectual action is psychologically characterized as a skill to mentally perform certain transformations with an object. A combination of such skills is the active part of consciousness, on which depend, in one way or another, all other psychic phenomena. That is why research of intellectual concepts is a key part of research of the mind.

Generally psychic activity was distinguished from all object activity and set against it. That is why intellectual actions in their actual, object content were not considered an object of psychology and were not studied by it. We also set ourselves a task of studying intellectual actions as such specific, object skills.

The main way of research of intellectual actions is studying them in the process of their development, and the main way of development of intellectual actions of a modern man is the school education. That is why we studied the development of intellectual actions in the process of education and approached it from two sides: firstly, by analyzing the defects of intellectual actions which were already obtained and, secondly, by identifying the conditions of their full-scale development. According to the data received through our researches, the development of the intellectual action proceeds as follows.

At first the orientation basis of the action is formed. It consists of two parts: concept of the content of the action - its object, aim, means and operations, and, most importantly - objective indices of all these elements, a system of reference points for its performance.

The action itself is learned on this orientation basis. It starts with the action in its external, material (or materialized) form and in its full form, i.e. containing all its operations. Then on the same stage the action undergoes a number of successive generalizations and shortenings.

On the next stage it leaves its direct reliance on objects and is fully transferred to the verbal field, becomes a verbal form of this action.

At the last stage the action is performed inwardly, “mentally”. As its conditions here significantly change, it undergoes a series of transformations. In this most generalized and shortened verbal form the action which is learned is subject to automatization and in general comes to the point when for self-observation it seems deprived of any sensuous content, an act of “pure thought”.

Thus, the process of learning the action consists of gradual formation of its various forms, from a full-scale external object action to the most shortened verbal “mental” action. In each of such forms the action is not only performed but also reflected in consciousness. That is why a system of various forms (of a single action) is matched by a system of their operations which objectively connects its final mental form with its initial material form. This connection is the actual content of the so-called “consciousness” of the action and is the principal condition of its completeness. But the complexity of the processes of development of mental action causes a broad range of possibilities for different defects of its organization.

Only the research of development of intellectual actions reveals their true content, elucidates the related illusions of self-observation, explains the different success rate of the same action among different people and shows the way to development of full-scale intellectual actions.

Researches on development of intellectual actions allow to approach the study of another important component of the psyche – images, sensuous and abstract. We studied their development in the process of education. In the present report we will analyze only the development of abstract images, i.e. concepts.

We[7] studied the development of concept in action, in the process of its application as a means of definition of existence or absence of the known phenomenon in the material. The necessity of any preliminary learning of concept was removed because its characteristics were given as a list on a sheet of paper. The demands which the future concept must meet and the material on which the concept’s characteristics which meet them were marked in advance. By virtue of methodical performance of the action in pre-determined form and order, with an orientation for specific characteristics of the concept and with their use on the systematically varied material, we achieved full control on the process of development of the concept and its reliable development in predetermined volume and quality.

At first only the characteristics of the concept took part in the action, and then in the process of action with objects the very concept corresponding such characteristics was formed. As then the development of the concept happened simultaneously with the development of the action (which applied it), it underwent the same stages which were described above: from the external material action to the externally-verbal action, and to the shortened “mental” action. At this point the shortened and automatized action disappeared from self-observation, leaving only its end result – the formed concept – in consciousness.

Thus, the concept as a phenomenon of individual consciousness is a product of action which uses it – at first its characteristics – for solution of specific tasks. The concept is formed on the basis of action, and automatized performance of the latter is the psychological mechanism of this concept.

[1] The author’s spelling and punctuation were left intact

[2] Under P.J.Galperin’s supervision V.V.Davydov, N.I.Nepomnyashaya, A.I.Golomshtok and N.S.Pantina carried out the following research works:

Davydov V.V. Development of the basic concept of quantity among children (To the question of psychological mechanisms of concepts originating in the process of development of intellectual concepts). M., 1958.

Nepomnyashaya N.I. Development of basic counting among mentally retarded children: to the question of ways of overcoming the defect in cases of mental retardation. M. 1957.

Golomshtok I.E. Forms of intellectual action and their relation to academic progress (On the material of learning of arithmetics among pupils of the first grade of primary school). M. 1958.

Pantina N.S. Dependence between the development of action and the type of orientation in the task (On the material of writing letters). M., 1958

[3] These notes are placed immediately after the text of the intended report on the right side of the sheet of paper, and, according to the date, the notes were made before the workshop session

[4] Between the points “b” and “c” there are notes in the margin:

 not a characteristic beyond the stereotype, but any stimulus composing it

[5] Archive notes from 1950s allow us to assume that the author of the remarks is Lidia Ilyinichna Bozhovich

[6] Published in shorthand form in “Theses of reports of philosophy department on the Anniversary session devoted to the bicentenary of the Moscow university” (M., 1955)

[7] Author’s remarks in the margin:

In traditional researches of learning of concepts the action of learning was not controlled. It developed spontaneously and the results of this spontaneous learning were considered the learning norm.


Information About the Authors

Piotr Y. Galperin, Doctor of Education, Moscow, USSR



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