Saturday, May 22, 2010

"Internalization" or "embodiment"?

The article below was inspired by Dr. Karen Johnson's seminar in Hyogo University of Teacher Education on May 19 and 20, 2010. All errors and misunderstanding here, however, are entirely mine. I thank my friend, Tatsuhiro Yoshida at HUTE for his excellent coordination of the seminar.

Vygotsky's concept of "internalization" is not necessarily easy to understand correctly. DeVries (2000) says:

Vygotsky emphasized internalization in development, but it is not easy from reading Vygotsky’s works available in English to determine exactly what he meant by his famous statement:
We could formulate the general genetic law of cultural development as follows: Any function in the child’s cultural development appears twice, or on two planes. First it appears on the social plane, and then on the psychological plane. First it appears between people as an interpsychological category, and then within the child as an intrapsychological category. (Vygotsky, 1930a/1981, p. 163)
(p. 7 in the PDF version)

DeVries (2000) emphasizes that "internalization is not a process of copying material from the environment but is a transformative process" (p. 7 in the PDF version)

To endorse his argument, DeVries quotes Vygotsky:
Perhaps Vygotsky is misunderstood to mean that what is experienced interpsychologically is simply internalized in unchanged form to become intrapsychological. The following statement may be interpreted to contradict this idea:
“what was an outward sign operation. . . is now transformed into a new intrapsychological layer (emphasis in original) and gives birth to a new psychological system, incomparably superior in content, and culturalpsychological in genesis” (Vygotsky and Luria, 1930, pp. 109-110; quoted in Lawrence and Valsiner, 1993, p. 163).
(p. 8 in the PDF version)

In any case, I also had a difficulty when I tried to understand Vygotskyean concept of "internalization" as I was hearing the word "internalization"and it kept echoing in my mind. For me, the word is somehow associated with the simple notion of what-was-outside-gets-into-the-inside-and-the-inside-increases-its-amount-of-knowledge.

Personally, I may prefer "embodiment" to "internalization" to mean what I assume Vygotsky wanted to say. (I have no knowledge of Russian and cannot have a look at the original word Vygotsky used.)

Taking a pointing gesture of a baby as an example, Stahl (2000) explains Vygotskyean notion of symbols, artifacts, or cognitive skills being "internalized".

This deictic gesture already embodies a reference to the intended object - in fact, in this example that is the artifact’s very meaning. So we have the first step toward a symbolic artifact representing an intended object. And in the origin of the gesture we already see the basis for intersubjective shared understanding of the meaning, because the pointing gesture is premised upon the mutual recognition of the underlying intention.

The beauty of the word "embodiment", as I understand it, is that the 'body' is in and out at the same time . The body is free from the dichotomous and mutually exclusive contrast of "In vs. Out". The body is both in and out (or either in or out, or neither in nor out, if you like). When I "embody" something, that something is both inside me (in that I've internalized it) and outside me (in that what's been internalized can be expressed or performed outwardly).

Thank you for reading my playing with words.


DeVries, R. (2000) Vygotsky, Piaget, and Education: a reciprocal assimilation of theories and educational practices. New Ideas in Psychology, Volume 18, Issues 2-3, August 2000, Pages 187-213.
(Available from the author in an PDF format at

Lawrence, J., & Valsiner, J. (1993). Conceptual roots of internalization: From transmission to transformation. Human Development, 36, 150-167.

Vygotsky, L. (1930a/1981). The genesis of higher mental functions. In J. Wertsch (Ed.), The concept of activity in Soviet psychology (pp. 147-188), New York: Sharpe, Inc.

Stahl, G. (2000) Artifact-mediated Cognition: Vygotsky’s theory of Mind as the Result of Activity with Artifacts - Notes on Vygotsky and Engestrom. (obtained at on May 22, 2010)

In the process of writing this short article, I also found a review by Rosemary Luckin of University of Sussex interesting.

Review of "Vygotsky and cognitive science: language and the unification of the social and computational mind" by William Frawley. Harvard University Press 1997.

PDF is freely available at


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