Words about Consciousness


Lev Vygotsky states that “facts are always examined in the light of some theory and therefore cannot be disentangled from philosophy. Who would find the key to the richness of the new facts must uncover the philosophy of the fact—how it was found and how interpreted” (Thought and Language 15). Using Vygotsky’s own approach, before we can understand his ideas, we must understand the philosophy that he subscribed to. We must understand the origin of the words he used to form his interpretation of discovered facts. This document explores the philosophical and social influences that led Vygotsky to assert that language creates consciousness and my personal reactions to this assertion. This document is not meant to be definitive but rather to indicate the developmental state of my ideas on the issues being explored.

The last known words of Vygotsky are “A word relates to consciousness as a living cell relates to a whole organism, as an atom relates to the universe. A word is a microcosm of human consciousness” (Thought and Language 256). Words then reflect human consciousness and hence human perceptions of reality. Vygotsky believed that consciousness was socially constructed and that it only had existence within the realm of language. To him, thought could only be realized in words and consciousness was created through meanings arbitrarily assigned sociohistorically to words. This automatically leads to the idea that all we can know of reality is that which is constructed symbolically by the language we habitually use. It also follows that the world of objectivity can only exist in a world upheld by a scaffolding of words. And words are the product of the sociohistorical milieu in which we move and live out our conscious existence. Joseph Conrad, when describing the idea that culture shapes us and that we can never escape from such shaping, wrote in Lord Jim that “A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavor to do, he drowns.”