The Essential Piaget  

When he was asked how he had had time to write so much, Piaget replied that fortunately he had not needed to read the work of Piaget. He admits to a neurotic compulsion to write and describes how, overcome with unease and disquiet the moment he finishes a book, he has to start another. What is it that he keeps having to say? And is it always the same? Piaget encourages us to think that it is:

I fear that I have given the impression of a man who has touched many fields. But in fact, I have followed a single goal that has always remained the same: to try to understand and explain what a living development is in all its perpetual construction and novelty and its progressive adaption to reality.

For over fifty years now he has been pursuing this goal. His theory of child development has influenced the way millions of school children have been taught. His observations, experiments, and explanations have dominated the scientific study of thinking and perception. He is quoted in works on primitive thought and myth and hailed as the precursor of modern structuralism; he influences anthropologists and social theorists, is celebrated as the founding father of child psychology, and accepted as a guiding light by teachers and educationists.

He has written well over 20,000 pages on the way children apparently develop their notions of space, time, movement, number, and causality; on how their moral judgments, their use and notion of language, their conception of themselves as unitary and independent beings in a world of things, their ability to count, measure, draw maps of their surroundings, to perceive invariances of weight, volume and length, to comprehend reality from points of view other than their own – in short, their ability to “cognize” – must all pass through stages of increasing complexity and sophistication before children can become adults. In addition to his work on children, Piaget has written monographs on structuralism, the relation between biology and knowledge, mathematical epistemology, and the nature of scientific knowledge, all of which are intended as a contribution to a theory of knowledge he calls Genetic Epistemology. To these pages of his own one must add many joint studies plus some thirty volumes of Etudes d’épistémologie génétique written by Piaget and a host of international co-workers.

Clearly no one is going to read all this. One must select. The editors of The Essential Piaget, Howard E. Gruber and J. Jacques Vonèche, have done this for us. They offer forty-seven separate extracts from Piaget’s writings ranging over virtually all his concerns. The first dozen pieces, translated by the editors for this volume, reveal the very early Piaget. We start with his first published paper, An Albino Sparrow (1907), a single paragraph in which the eleven-year-old Piaget reports having seen what appeared to be such a bird in the local park. This is followed by several papers on the adaptive habits of certain species of Alpine snails, and a short piece on Mendelianism which rehearses Piaget’s later critique of neo-Darwinism. Then we are given his prose poem, La Mission de l’idée (1915), a mystic-scientific adolescent hymn to Jesus and a summary of his novel, Recherche (1918), in which the young naturalist hero Sebastian loses and then recovers his faith through the recognition that science and religion can, after all, be reconciled – in the all-embracing and healing harmony of the search for ideal equilibrium.

After these glimpses of youthful foreshadowing, crisis, and literary healing, Gruber and Vonèche’s selections begin to run on familiar ground, and the bulk of their book – the middle 600 pages – is devoted to Piaget the child psychologist. Here there are five major sections. “Egocentric Thought in the Child” which contains excerpts from Piaget’s first monographs on children’s capacity to reason, and the moral feelings and judgments whereby they “invent the social contract”; “The Mind of the Baby: From Action to Thought” which includes Piaget’s first paper (previously untranslated) on his observations of his own children, “La première année de l’enfant”. Then three sections on his cognitive investigations: “Logico-mathematical Operations”; “The Representation of Reality: Action, Space, and Geometry, Time, Movement, and Speed”; and “Figurative Aspects of Thought: Perception, Imagery, and Memory”.

After this we are given extracts concerned with Piaget’s views on education, and then from his writings on philosophy, theoretical biology, and the nature of equilibrium. Included here is a piece specially written for this volume, “Phenocopy in Biology and the Psychological Development of Knowledge”, in which Piaget extends his defense of a neo-Lamarckian theory of evolution argued for in his book Biology and Knowledge.

The Essential Piaget has been very carefully and lovingly put together. The editors provide a general introduction and short prefaces to each section and a meticulous index. They have been co-workers of Piaget in Geneva, and they clearly admire and respect his whole enterprise. Piaget approves the collection as “the best and most complete of all the anthologies of my work”.

Those already initiated into the Piagetian enterprise will find much of interest that is new to them – particularly the extracts from Piaget’s youthful work. For the uninitiated the benefits seem more doubtful. Piaget’s fame rest principally on his analysis of children’s thought and the many experiments he has devised to support it. It would seem, therefore, good policy for the beginner to aim for the concrete and palpable, and read Piaget the child psychologist first. Without a guide, however, the novice will soon get lost, and The Essential Piaget, despite its sub-title, provides no guidance beyond the neutral and ultimately not very helpful formula of a representative sample.

The difficulty of reading Piaget is not, of course, of Gruber and Vonèche’s making, and they cannot be expected to solve it. The large number of books of the Piaget-At-Last-Explained variety point to the existence in his writings of a good deal of cognitive fog. Behind the ingeniously chosen experiments and their frequently baffling explanations there seems to be – if one could but grasp it – a single organizing notion: the mind is a biological machine, a self-regulating organic mechanism that continues to “evolve” for many years after birth. If one is to understand this notion of Piaget’s, one must go beyond admiration, respect, and celebration, be critical, and dig out his picture of this machine.

For Piaget there is no doubt that the key to the mind’s capacity for thought lies in the concept of self-regulation. The Development of Thought is his most recent attempt to elaborate and bolster this claim. In spite of its new crop of experiments and explanations, and its novel scheme for classifying degrees of increasingly stable states of equilibrium, this latest offering is very much in the standard Piaget mould. Its underlying philosophy is a repetition of that behind Piaget’s many earlier assertions, such as that “Life is auto-regulation” and “durable disequilibria constitute pathological organic and mental states”.

Piaget’s model of the thinking mind – and this new book makes it easy to see this – can be placed in a clearly identifiable tradition. A tradition that starts from Claude Bernard’s discovery of self-regulating cycles governing bodily activity, passes through Cannon’s formulation of homeostasis, then the cybernetic models of intelligence produced in the early 1940s, and rests now in the computer-dominated discipline of Artificial Intelligence.

Placing Piaget’s notion of a self-regulating mechanism within this tradition points to only one half of the formula “biological machine”. For Piaget the question of evolutionary genesis is paramount: the machine and its biological history are inseparable. To substantiate his claim that the thinking mind continues to “evolve” from birth to adolescence (and beyond, within the growth of scientific and mathematical thought) he needs a theory of evolution of a very particular kind. One that will display mental or cognitive “growth” as fundamentally the same process as that governing the evolution of species. In other words, Nature not only produces species whose individuals (necessarily) display an ever-increasing degree of equilibrium between themselves and their physical environment, but it also goes on to produce Mind in precisely the same way.

We think with our bodies, and so the forms of our thought patterns will echo our organic processes, which in turn echo their evolutionary history. And the necessary progress of our thought forms – our cognitive development – will be in accordance with the laws of evolution: a constant re-equilibration as cognitive forms encounter obstacles, become unstable, and require re-stabilization. Within this perspective mathematics becomes for Piaget the most perfectly equilibrated form of cognition, and he sees it as the culmination of an unbroken chain of circuits stretching from the self-regulatory movements of the amoeba to present-day thought.

There is much that is novel, strange, and difficult to believe in such a picture. In the first place, it relies on Piaget’s critique of neo-Darwinism, and his claim – highly contentious – that certain trends in current evolutionary thinking (such as the work of C. H. Waddington) support him. It is not clear who, among contemporary biologists, would uphold this.

Second, many psychologists have criticized the view of language embodied in Piaget’s theory, and have argued against its relegation to the mere filling out of cognitive form. Children are immersed in language: they talk and are spoken to in very complex, subtle, and often little understood ways. Their minds – their notions of themselves and what it means for them to think – seem inextricable from a network of familial and social relations. Piaget’s theory rests on its ability to nullify the objection that these relations influence the way children come to think.

Third, we are left with the notion of the mind as a self-regulating machine. Machines, as they are at present conceived, are isolated self-contained objects which can neither talk to, nor have cognizance of, other machines. As models for the growing mind of a child they do not make contact with what is specifically human about the imagination – ours or the child’s.

Piaget’s entire work contains a hymn to equilibrium. The movement to ever more complex and stable forms of self-regulation becomes, for him, the Life Force. The hymn is ardently in evidence in the adolescent naturalist, submerged in theory in the child psychologist, and sung insistently in the genetic epistemologist. And the insistence, the imperative to keep writing? “A philosophical mind is generally dominated by a single personal idea which he strived to express in many ways in the course of his life, without ever succeeding fully.” If Piaget’s opinion in this instance applies to himself, then the explicit expression of that single idea would itself dis-equilibrate him. Otherwise – on his own theory of the subordination of language to cognitive form – he would have been able to express it once and for all.


TLS April 7 1978

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