The notes below are taken from the psychologist Vygotskii's work called Thought and Language. He did a series of experiments and meditations with children and adolescents in search for insights into conceptualization and language.
I do not agree with some of his use of language, e.g. I would not describe concept as a formation. This is a misnomer and misleading use of language. Concept has no form and does not form. He also failed to understand that the word either refers to an object or to a concept even though he was sitting right on top of this insight (no doubt his failure is due to poor language usage, for Form is wed to Object). Still these are some valuable notes taken from his book. They add insight into the Object--Concept dichotomy which is so crucial in the work of philosophy and physics.
This book is considered the landmark of cognitive science.
Thought and Language by Vygotskii
From Chapter: Concept Formation in Children
Concept formation [misnomer] is the result of a complex activity in which all basic intellectual functions take part. The process cannot, however, be reduced to association, attention, imagery, inference, or determining tendencies. They are all indispensable, but they are insufficient without the use of the sign, or word, as the means by which we direct our mental operations, control their discourse, and channel them toward the solution of the problem confronting us.
The young child takes the first step toward concept formation when he puts together a number of objects in an unorganized congeries, or “heap”, in order to solve a problem that we adults would normally solve by forming a new concept.
The second major phase on the way to concept formation comprises many variations of a type of thinking that we shall call thinking in complexes. In a complex, individual objects are united in the child’s mind not only by his subjective impressions but also by bonds actually existing between objects.
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Remains of complex thinking persist in the language of adults. Family names are perhaps the best example of this. Any family name, “Petrov,” let us say, subsumes individuals in a manner closely resembling that of the child’s complexes. The child at that stage of development thinks in family names, as it were; the universe of individual objects becomes organized for him by being grouped into separate, mutually related “families.”
Complex thinking of the second type consists in combing objects or the concrete impressions they make on the child into groups that closely resemble collections. Objects are placed together on the basis of some one trait in which they differ and consequently complement one another.
After the collection stage of thinking in complexes, we must place the chain complex—a dynamic, consecutive joining of individual links into a single chain, with meaning carried over from one link to the next. . . . An object included (in a chain complex) because of one of its attributes enters the complex not just as the carrier of that one trait but as an individual, with all its attributes. . . In complexes, the hierarchical organization is absent: All attributes are functionally equal.
Because the chain complex is factually inseparable from the group of concrete objects that form it, it often acquires a vague and floating quality.
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The diffuse complex is marked by the fluidity of the very attribute that unites its single elements.
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To go with a yellow triangle, for example, a child would in our experiments pick out trapezoids as well as triangles, because they made him think of triangles with their tops cut off.
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Complexes resulting from this kind of thinking are so indefinite as to be in fact limitless.
To complete the picture of complex thinking, we must describe on more type of complex—the bridge, as it were, between complexes and the final, highest stage in the development of concept formation.
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We call this type of complex the pseudo-concept because the generalization formed in the child’s mind, although phenotypically resembling the adult concept, is psychologically very different from the concept proper; in its essence, it is still a complex.
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In the experimental setting, the child produces a pseudo-concept every time he surrounds a sample with objects that could just as well have been assembled on the basis of an abstract concept.
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Pseudo concepts predominate over all other complexes in the preschool child’s thinking for the simple reason that in real life complexes corresponding to word meanings are not spontaneously developed by the child: The lines along which a complex develops are predetermined by the meaning a given word already has in the language of adults.
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The language of the environment, with its stable, permanent meanings, points the way that the child’s generalizations will take. But, constrained as it is, the child’s thinking proceeds along this preordained path in the manner peculiar to his level of intellectual development. The adult cannot pass on to the child his mode of thinking. He merely supplies the ready-made meaning of a word, around which the child forms a complex—with all the structural, functional, and genetic peculiarities of thinking in complexes, even if the product of his thinking is in fact identical in its content with a generalization that could have been formed by conceptual thinking. The outward similarity between the pseudo-concept and the real concept, which makes it very difficult to “unmask” this kind of complex, is a major obstacle in the genetic analysis of thought.
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The pseudo-concept serves as the connecting link between thinking in complexes and thinking in concepts. It is dual in nature: a complex already carrying the germinating seed of a concept. Verbal intercourse with adults thus becomes a powerful factor in the development of the child’s concepts. The transition from thinking in complexes to thinking in concepts passes unnoticed by the child because his pseudo-concepts already coincide in content with the adult’s concepts.
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Complex formation is also responsible for the peculiar phenomenon that one word may in different situations have different or even opposite meanings as long as there is some associative link between them. Thus, a child may say before for both before and after, or tomorrow for both tomorrow and yesterday. We have here a perfect analogy with some ancient languages—Hebrew, Chinese, Latin—in which one word also sometimes indicated opposites. The Romans, for instance, had one word for high and deep. Such a marriage of opposite meanings is possible only as a result of thinking in complexes.
The principle function of complexes is to establish bonds and relationships. Complex thinking begins the unification of scattered impressions; by organizing discrete elements of experience into groups, it creates a basis for later generalizations.
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But the advanced concept presupposes more than unification. To form such a concept it is also necessary to abstract, to single out elements, and to view abstracted elements apart from the totality of the concrete experience in which they are embedded. In genuine concept formation, it is equally important to unite and to separate: Synthesis must be combined with analysis. Complex thinking cannot do both. Its very essence is overabundance, overproduction of connections, and weakness in abstraction.
During the next stage in the development of abstraction, the grouping together of objects on the basis of maximum similarity is superseded by grouping on the basis of a single attribute, e.g. only round objects or only flat ones. . . we shall call such formations potential concepts.
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Only the mastery of abstraction, combined with advanced complex thinking, enables the child to progress to the formation of genuine concepts. A concept emerges only when the abstracted traits are synthesized anew and the resulting abstract synthesis becomes the main instrument of thought. The decisive role in this process, as our experiments have shown, is played by the word, deliberately used to direct all the part processes of advanced concept formation.
The transitional character of adolescent thinking becomes especially evident when we observe the actual functioning of the newly acquired concepts. Experiments specially devised to study the adolescent’s operations with concepts brings out, in the first place, a striking discrepancy between his ability to form concepts and his ability to define them.
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The adolescent will form and use a concept quite correctly in a concrete situation but will find it strangely difficult to express that concept in words, and the verbal definition will, in most cases, be much narrower than might have been expected from the way he used the concept. The same discrepancy occurs also in adult thinking, even at very advanced levels.
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Much more difficult than the transfer itself is the task of defining a concept when it is no longer rooted in the original situation and must be formulated on a purely abstract plane, without reference to any concrete situation.
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When the process of concept formation is seen in all its complexity, it appears as a movement of thought within the pyramid of concepts, constantly alternating between two directions, from the particular to the general, and from the general to the particular.
Our investigation has shown that a concept is formed, not through interplay of associations, but through an intellectual operation in which all the elementary mental functions participate in a specific combination. This operation is guided by the use of words as the means of actively centering attention, of abstracting certain traits, synthesizing them, and symbolizing them by a sign.
The processes leading to concept formation develop along two main lines. The first is complex formation: The child unites diverse objects in groups under a common “family name”; this process passes through various stages. The second line of development is the formation of “potential concepts,” based on singling out certain common attributes. In both, the use of the word is an integral part of developing processes, and the word maintains its guiding function in the formation of genuine concepts, to which these processes lead.
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Miscellaneous from other chapters of the book:
The meaning of a word represents such a close amalgam of thought and language that it is hard to tell whether it is a phenomenon of speech or a phenomenon of thought. A word without meaning is an empty sound; meaning, therefore is a criterion of “word,” its indispensable component. . . .
Word meanings are dynamic rather than static formations. They change as the child develops. . .
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The relation of thought to word and word to thought is not a thing but a process. . .
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Every thought tends to connect something with something else, to establish a relationship between things.