Piaget Before Piaget  

In the autumn of 1919, a year after he had submitted a very respectable but otherwise unremarkable PhD thesis on the freshwater molluscs of his native Valais region of Switzerland, Jean Piaget arrived in Paris for a two-year post-doctoral stay. He was twenty-three and bursting with 0consuming theoretical writings in the philosophy of science, he hankered after experimental work. A chance recommendation led to his being asked to standardize the psychologist Cyril Burt’s early IQ tests of Parisian children. He quickly saw that the children made systematic errors and that this fact, a more significant feature of their “intelligence” that their numerical score, suggested a hierarchy of understanding through which children progresses. He pursued this by analyzing their verbal responses and by setting them simple concrete tasks to test their comprehension of elementary cause and effect.

The investigation which followed was the beginning of the field of developmental psychology that Piaget was to make his own. Publication of the results led to a job as Director of Studies at the Maison des Petits in the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute in Geneva, and an elaboration of them into five books, starting with The Language and Thought of the Child in 1924 and ending with The Moral Judgement of the Child in 1932, brought him worldwide recognition. In 1936 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Harvard University, and in 1969, many doctorates later, he became the first European to be given the American Psychological Association’s award for distinguished scientific contribution – for his “seminal influence…on all scholars concerned with human knowing” and the “revolutionary perspective” of his writings on the biological nature of knowledge.

To attempt to characterize Piaget, the man or his work, is formidably difficult. The sheer volume of his published output, some 20,000 pages, ensures this, not to mention its breadth; his theorizing and experimental work extend from the nature and genesis of logic and mathematics, the function of play in animals and humans, and the development of sociality in the individual, across the entire field of developmental psychology through to structuralism. Bergsonian immanentism, and genetic epistemology, to a thorough-going and never abandoned neo-Lamarckian critique of the prevailing Darvinian evolutionary paradigm. The only hope of encompassing all this would seem to lie in the discovery of a key or a principle that revealed a unity behind the man’s work and passions – some conceptual, psychological or philosophical fount from which all these pages and their concerns spring.

Piaget himself seems to encourage such a prospect. In an autobiographical reflection, written in his fifties, he remarked that there was some truth “in the statement of Bergson’s that a philosophical mind is generally dominated by a single personal idea which he strives to express in many ways in the course of his life, without ever fully succeeding”. One could pursue this directive in two different but complementary kinds of project. One could either read his work in the light of and as exemplifying whatever single frustrated idea one perceives in Piaget’s projects. Or one could ignore the plethora of issues, theories, topics and the like, and instead go for the figure they answer to by writing a biography, a genesis of the youth that was to become Piaget. Some years ago, I published a book in which I took the first of these options. I identified the idea in question as Piaget’s belief in a certain kind of evolutionary immanentism, then mapped the concepts, ideas and discursive moves that such a notion activated within Piaget’s mature writings. Now, in Piaget Before Piaget, Fernando Vidal, quite marvelously and with enormous and painstaking commitment, has followed the second option; the result is a striking historical evocation of Piaget from his birth in Neuchâtel to his arrival as an unknown hopeful in Paris.

In his introduction, Vidal discusses the difficulties of writing biographies of scientific figures and sets out the principles that guide him. Following Howard Gruber (a well-known Piaget scholar), he embraces the idea of creativity in terms of a “network of enterprises” consisting of the individual’s projects, activities and tasks that change, interact and stabilize over his and her lifetime; he also emphasizes the importance of the individual’s “existential projects”, as well as the need to detail the “fine structure” of scientific creativity to enable the slow emergence of an idea along its own complex path. And overall he stresses microcontext, the variety of small-scale and particular socially or semiotically available norms, attitudes and possibilities which impinge on and determine individuals.

In Piaget Before Piaget, it is the existential project – in the form of a religiously charged mission – which ultimately becomes the spine of Vidal’s account. Thus, contrary to the impression given by Piaget himself of following a lifelong “epistemological enterprise”, Vidal is able to demonstrate how, throughout his formative years, it was a “moral enterprise” which drove Piaget. To arrive at this conclusion while respecting the principles of contextual biography, Vidal starts by examining turn-of-the-century Neuchâtel, its religious and intellectual history, its social organization, its mores, the educational possibilities it offered its citizens, and so on. He then homes in on the two themes – God and molluscs – institutionalized in the town’s Natural History Society and in Protestant Christianity; these critically influenced Piaget’s development. Vidal traces the network of amateur scientists and teachers who ran the Society which Piaget was to join and flourish in, and explicates the Kantian lineage and anti-dogmatic character of the Neuchâtel brand of liberal Protestantism that played such a dominant role in the young Piaget’s writings and reflections.

At times, Vidal’s account is heavy going, clogged by academic justification (it seems to have started life as a PhD thesis). But perhaps this is the price to be paid for its absolute thoroughness; one feels that nothing – not a single postcard, school report, chance remark, anecdote, or scrap of evidence pertaining to Piaget’s youth – has gone unexamined. What makes it compelling and more than just a catalogue of historical mentalities and microcontexts is Piaget’s extraordinary self-absorption, precocity and the habit of incessant writing that went with it. Piaget published his first scientific paper when he was eleven – a report on an albino sparrow – in the local natural history journal, and over the next few years he was to write dozens of respectably adult papers on the local mollusk population. More tellingly, when he was twenty he published Recherche, an autobiographical novel in which he records his hero Sebastian’s adolescent crisis, his consequent spiritual awakening brought about by reading Bergson, and his vast social, religious and philosophical ambitions.

The overwhelming “emotional shock” that was Bergson’s impact on Piaget is documented in autobiographical accounts: “I recall one evening of profound revelation. The identification of God with life itself was an idea that stirred me almost to ecstasy…” What is new here is that Vidal has embedded Piaget’s response to Bergson’s “Creative Evolution” within his carefully layered historical contextualization of Piaget’s youthful trajectory. This allows Vidal to demonstrate how Piaget’s “certainty that God is Life…under the form of élan vital” – far from being a passing form of adolescent spirituality to be superseded by his later scientific evolutionism and much vaunted “objectivity” – functioned as a deep and never relinquished aspect of Piaget’s psyche. Vidal reinforces this conviction by relating Piaget’s encounter in Paris with Léon Brunschvicg’s notion of God as universal reason. It is the substantiation of this claim which constitutes the backbone of Vidal’s depiction of Piaget’s life plan as an essentially “moral” rather than merely epistemological enterprise.

Piaget Before Piaget is an impressive testimony to how informative and convincing microcontextual biography can be. And if no one any longer takes seriously Piaget’s central idea that everything – animal life, morality, science, mathematics, children’s minds and society itself – evolves according to universal laws of equilibrium, one can none the less agree with Fernando Vidal’s conclusion that Piaget’s transformation of his personal “existential situation into an intellectual legacy for all” was a remarkable accomplishment.


TLS December 9, 1994

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