Studies in the Mentality of Literates: Searching for the Cultural Great Divide at the Individual Level of Analysis

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Today it is usually agreed that cultures are different but no culture is more developed than some other. It follows that culture did not develop hierarchically. Otherwise some cultures must be more developed than the others. This position, however, contradicts ample evidence that individual mental development is hierarchical. As culture can develop only on the basis of individual development, cultural development has to be hierarchical too. In this paper a research program to study cultural and individual development in one framework is outlined. Particularly it is discussed whether it is possible to define a Great Divide, a characteristic that would distinguish more developed cultures from less developed cultures today. Both literacy and formal education are rejected as candidates for a Great Divide. Then, following and extending Vygotsky’s theory, it is demonstrated that a Great Divide can be defined in terms of the development of word meaning structure (WMS). A novel theory of the development of WMS over five hierarchical stages is shortly described and it is suggested that both individuals and cultures develop over the same stages in invariant order. Particularly differences between everyday and logical (or “scientific” in Vygotsky’s terms) concepts are discussed. It is theoretically explained how study of adult individuals can be used to support the presented theory of developmental similarities between cultures and individuals. Specific hypotheses for the study are put forward.

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  1. 1.

    Culture is defined in too many ways (e.g., Kroeber and Kluckhohn 1952) and it would require a separate paper to discuss which of the definitions should be used and why. In this paper culture is understood as defined by Leslie Alvin White: “Culture, then, is a class of things and events, dependent upon symboling, considered in an extrasomatic context” (White 1959, p. 234). Why this definition (or a similar one I have proposed following Vygotsky’s theory) should be preferable in psychology has been discussed in details elsewhere (Toomela 2016a, see also Toomela 1996a, 1996b). Here it is important that culture thus defined refers to specifically organized (human) environment and, at the same time, connects cultural environment to individual psychic processes. This is because linguistic signs or symbols can be only intrapsychic: “we should not fail to note that the word-image stands apart from the sound itself and that it is just as psychological as the concept which is associated with it” (Saussure 1959, p. 12, see for the same idea p. 66).

  2. 2.

    It is important that there are different forms of activity in which environments can be experienced. One is direct participation in the corresponding environment. The other is mediated by language. But the latter is not out of the world or “decontextualized” but rather experiencing in the environment of language. It would be also wrong to think that language environment is one and the same. On the contrary, language environments must also be different, different stories are told about different linguistic and extralinguistic environments.

  3. 3.

    This is also a separate issue, how psychic development is constrained by biological age. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that new stages of development become possible at certain ages because, first, brain maturation proceeds over waves of relatively fast maturation (when a new stage becomes possible) and subsequent slow maturation and second, each next period of fast maturation concerns different regions of the brain. There are regions that are relatively mature already at birth (these support early development) and other regions (which are necessary for the emergence of more complex psychic operations), such as prefrontal areas, which become fully mature in the third decade of life (see for details, Toomela 2017, Ch. 5).

  4. 4.

    Usually those scholars did not suggest that literacy is the sole causal agent in such changes but rather that emergence of writing was a significant change.

  5. 5.

    I am going to rely on several Vygotsky’s ideas in this paper. Recently evidence has been found to suggest that several publications attributed to Vygotsky have been edited and in some places substantially changed by later scholars (e.g., Van der Veer and Zavershneva 2018; Yasnitsky 2017; Yasnitsky and Van der Veer 2016). In the context of the present article, it is not important, who was the author of the ideas discussed. Only the content of the ideas and coherence of the overall theory is, what matters. Furthermore, I have also relied, among others, on 5 out of 10 publications that, according to Yasnitsky and Van der Veer (2016, pp. 92-93) are more important Vygotsky’s works that also are less likely to have been substantially edited (Pedagogical Psychology,1926; Studies on the history of behavior, 1930, together with Luria; Pedology of the adolescent, 1929–1930; Thinking and speech, 1934; Mental development of children in the process of learning and instruction, 1935). Furthermore, the ideas I am attributing to Vygotsky are, as a rule, those, which appear in different contexts in several of his works, including the nonedited versions.

  6. 6.

    Every time I compare the substantially shortened first English translation of Vygotsky’s Thinking and Speech with the original, I have a stronger and stronger feeling that in the process of editing, first the most interesting and important parts of the book were selected. And then the rest was translated into English.

  7. 7.

    There are two different words in Russian, opyt and perezhivaniye, which both are often translated as “experience”. However, these two terms in Russian have a very different meaning. The first (opyt), refers to rational aspect of experiences, to knowledge and skills that have emerged in the process of activities, whereas the second (perezhivaniye) refers to the experiences that result in the involvement of all psyche, feelings or emotional states in the first place.

  8. 8.

    The term “true concept” was occasionally also used by Vygotsky as a synonym for the “scientific concept.”

  9. 9.

    There are different ways to define (scientific) understanding. I have discussed three main epistemologies in psychology elsewhere (Toomela 2007, 2009, 2010a, 2012, 2014, 2015a, b, 2016b). Continental European psychology before the Second World War, including Vygotsky’s cultural-historical psychology, relied on what I call structural-systemic theory of causality. Explanation and understanding of what is studied is in this approach achieved when three questions have been answered: What are the elements of the studied thing or phenomenon?; In which specific relationships these elements are?; and What novel qualities, different from the parts, characterize the whole that emerged in the synthesis of the parts? Description of appearances (as it is done in modern qualitative research) and discovery of cause ➔ effect relationships between events (which is the aim of mainstream quantitative psychology today) heve less explanatory power.

  10. 10.

    I define a sign as follows: a sign is a wholistic unit containing an image composed of sensory attributes as one of its parts, and an aspect of the external world as another part, or another image that is associated with that first image (Toomela 2016a, pp. 182–183).

  11. 11.

    In fact I cannot be certain that there is no cultural group today which has not developed everyday conceptual thought yet. Too little seems to be known about Sentinelese culture, for example, to be absolutely certain in that. Yet I am quite certain that this group, and very likely many others in the world have not achieved logical conceptual stage.


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This work was supported by the Tallinn University School of Natural Sciences and Health Grant Study of novel aspects of the state and development of speech function.

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Toomela, A. Studies in the Mentality of Literates: Searching for the Cultural Great Divide at the Individual Level of Analysis. Integr. psych. behav. 54, 1–29 (2020).

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  • Great divide
  • Literacy
  • Formal education
  • Recapitulation
  • Developmental hierarchy
  • Word meaning structure