The Function of Signs in the Development of Higher Mental Processes

  • Robert W. Rieber
  • David K. Robinson


We have considered some of the complex behavior of the child and have concluded that in a situation connected with the use of tools, the behavior of a small child differs substantially and in a major way from the behavior of the human-like ape. We could say that in many ways, it is characterized by an opposite structure and that instead of a complete dependence of the operation with tools on the structure of the visual field (as in the ape), in the child we observe a significant emancipation from it. Due to the participation of speech in the operation, the child acquires an incomparably greater freedom than is observed in the instrumental behavior of the ape; the child has the possibility of resolving the practical situation by using tools that are not in the direct field of his perception; he controls the external situation with the help of preliminarily mastering himself and preliminarily organizing his own behavior. In all of these operations, the very structure of the mental process changes substantially; direct actions on the environment are replaced by complex mediated acts. Speech included in the operation was the system of psychological signs that acquired a very special functional significance and resulted in a complete reorganization of behavior.


Visual Field Symbolic Function High Mental Process Sensory Field High Mental Function 
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  1. For the experiments, we used Stem’s original pictures; the dynamics of these pictures made it possible for the child to disclose his perception of the pictures quite adequately by pantomiming the scene.Google Scholar
  2. Editor’s note: For more details, see Chapter 16.Google Scholar
  3. With the transition to artificially established needs, the emotional center of the situation is transferred from the goal to the solving of the problem. Essentially, the “situation of the problem” in the experiment with the ape exists only in the eyes of the experimenter; only the goal and the obstacle that interferes with achieving it exist for the animal. The child, however, tries most of all to solve the problem that has been presented to him, in this way including in his world completely new relations to the goal. Because of the possibility of forming quasi-needs, the child is in a position to segment the operation, converting each of its separate parts into an independent problem which he formulates for himself with the help of speech.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert W. Rieber
    • 1
  • David K. Robinson
    • 2
  1. 1.City University of New YorkNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Truman State UniversityKirksvilleUSA

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