Cole, M., & Wertsch, J. V. (1996). Beyond the Individual-Social Antinomy in Discussions of Piaget and Vygotsky. Human Development, 39(5), 250–256. doi:10.1159/000278475

Citekey: @Cole1996


This article affords a ‘fresh’ look at the contrast between Piaget and Vygotsky’s constructivist theories. The authors highlight that Piaget has not denied the role of social interactions in knowledge construction, so hasn’t Vygotsgy excluded the role of individual thinking. While conventional contrast focuses on the individual vs. social anitonomy of cognitive development, this article argues that a more proper contrast should focus on cultural mediation and the rule of cultural artefacts in construction. “In Vygotsky’s view, processes on both the inter-mental and the intra-mental planes are necessarily mediated by cultural artifacts.” In contrast, there does not seem to have any clear counterpart in Piaget’s theories.


Standard discussions of the difference between Vygotsky and Piaget place a crucial difference in the proximal locus of cognitive development. According to the canonical story, for Piaget, individual children construct knowledge through their actions on the world: to understand is to invent. By contrast, the Vygotskian claim is said to be that understanding is social in origin. (p. 1)

children construct knowledge through their actions on the world: to understand is to invent. By contrast, the Vygotskian claim is said to be that understanding is social in origin. (p. 2)

There are (at least) two difficulties with this story. First of all, in principle, Piaget did not deny the co-equal role of the social world in the construction of knowledge. (p. 2)

Second, Vygotsky, contrary to another stereotype, insisted on the centrality of the active construction of knowledge. (p. 2)

Vygotsky’s strong assumptions about the active individual are reflected in his focus on practices such as speaking and thinking and are the focus of an extended treatment in Zinchenko (1985). (p. 3)

However, what gets left out of such discussions, and the element we want to emphasize, is the essential presence of a third factor in the process of coconstruction: the accumulated products of prior generations, culture, the medium within which the two active parties to development interact. (p. 3)

The Primacy of Cultural Mediation (p. 3)

Cultural-historical psychology (p. 3)

The special quality of the human environment is that it is suffused with the achievements of prior generations in reified (and to this extent materialized) form. This notion can be traced back to at least Hegel and Marx (1845/1947) and is found in the writings of culturalhistorical psychologists from many national traditions (Dewey, 1938; Durkheim, 1912; Leontiev, 1932; Luria, 1928; Stern, 1916/1990); Vygotsky, 1929). (p. 3)

historical psychologists from many national traditions (Dewey, 1938; Durkheim, 1912; Leontiev, 1932; Luria, 1928; Stern, 1916/1990); Vygotsky, 1929). (p. 4)

In their early writing on this subject, the Russian cultural-historical psychologists coupled a focus on the cultural medium with the assumption that the special mental quality of human beings is their need and ability to mediate their actions through artifacts and to arrange for the rediscovery and appropriation of these forms of mediation by subsequent generations. This view was always present in Vygotsky’s writings, but it became increasingly important and well formulated in the last decade of his life (Minick, 1987). Indeed, in the year before his death he went so far as to write that the central fact about our psychology is the fact of mediation (1982, p. 166). (p. 4)

The link between special mental quality of human beings and their actions and the cultural medium is particularly interesting. How does promisingness, or a promisingness culture, mediate students’ epistemic beliefs (special quality), and then mediate their knowledge building actions? (p. 4)

Language was the form of mediation that preoccupied Vygotsky above all others, but when speaking of signs, or psychological tools, he had a more extensive set of mediational means in mind (p. 4)

In this view, then, the development of mind is the interweaving of biological development of the human body and the appropriation of the cultural/ideal/material heritage which exists in the present to coordinate people with each other and the physical world (See Cole, 1996; Wertsch, 1991; for further discussion). Higher mental functions are, by definition, culturally mediated; they involve not a ‘direct’ action on the world, but an indirect action, one that takes a bit of material matter used previously and incorporates it as an aspect of action. (p. 5)

When one adopts this position, several implications come along with it. First, artifacts are recognized as transforming mental functioning in fundamental ways. (p. 5)

In such a view artifacts clearly do not serve simply to facilitate mental processes that would otherwise exist. Instead, they fundamentally shape and transform them. (p. 6)

A second implication of this general position is that all psychological functions begin, and to a large extent remain, culturally, historically, and institutionally situated and context specific. (p. 6)

Conversely there is no tool that is adequate to all tasks, and there is no universally appropriate form of cultural mediation. (p. 6)

A third implication of making cultural mediation central to mind and mental development is that the meaning of an action and of a context are not specifiable independent of each other. (p. 6)

Fourth is the implication that mind is no longer to be located entirely inside the head; higher psychological functions are transactions that include the biological individual, the cultural mediational artifacts, (p. 6)

and the culturally structured social and natural environments of which persons are a part. (p. 7)

Social Origins (p. 8)

For Vygotsky, like Piaget, the relationship between the individual and the social is necessarily relational. However, by placing cultural mediation at the center of adult cognition and the process of cognitive development, social origins take on a special importance in Vygotsky’s theories that is less symmetrical than Piaget’s notion of social equilibration as ‘resulting from the interplay of the operations that enter into all cooperation’. For Vygotsky and cultural-historical theorists more generally, the social world does have primacy over the individual in a very special sense. Society is the bearer of the cultural heritage without which the development of mind is impossible. (p. 8)

In Vygotsky’s view, processes on both the inter-mental and the intra-mental planes are necessarily mediated by cultural artifacts. His comment that word meaning is ‘both [speech and thinking] at one and the same time; it is a unit of verbal thinking’ (1987, p.47) is quite telling in this connection. (p. 9)

In fact the very boundary between social and individual, a boundary that has defined much of our thinking in psychology, comes into question in Vygotsky’s writings. Just as the mind does not stop with the skin in his view, the relationship between individual and social environment is much more dynamic than the overly simple division we so often tacitly assume. (p. 9)

In this sense, social interaction is not a direct, transparent, or unmediated process. Instead, it takes place in an artifact-saturated medium, including language, and this is a point that Vygotsky took into account in a thoroughgoing manner. (p. 10)

Mind is distributed (p. 10)

a striking similarity to the recent movement in cognitive science associated with the notion of distributed cognition and situated learning (Bechtel, 1993; Clark, in press; Cole & Engestrom, 1993; Hutchins, 1995; Lave & Wenger, 1991; et passim). Central to this line of thought is the effort to create an external symbol system approach that ‘moves formal symbols … out of the head and locate them in the environment of the system’. Clark (in press) has argued for a position which recognizes the need to give ‘more attention, and credit, to the many ways in which networks can learn to exploit external environmental structures so as to simplify and transform the nature of internal processing’ (p.16). Related arguments have been put forth by Rumelhart, Smolensky, and Hinton (1986); Clark (1989); Dennett (1991) and Hutchins (1995). In short, Vygotsky’s position on the centrality of artifacts, including external artifacts, in human mental processes is one that has great resonance in contemporary cognitive science as well as the human sciences more broadly. (p. 11)

we believe that discussions of these two figures’ accounts of mind and its boundaries are not well served by overly rehearsed debates about the primacy of the individual or the social. Instead, we have argued that the more interesting contrast between them concerns the role of cultural artifacts in constituting the two poles of the individual-social antimony. (p. 11)

For Vygotsky, such artifacts play a central role in elaborating an account of what and where mind is. (p. 11)

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