Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) studied the development of intelligence in children. His career was unparalleled in its length, integrity and achievement. His contributions are landmarks in many areas, including education, parenting and the ascendency of cognitive psychology.1

[This page was written in 1998 as part of a larger development project that is continuing to progress in 2011. The project incorporates Piaget's principles in new technologies that I suggest more closely model activities of biological brains than current systems based on computer technologies. Please see ( ... ) details below. Other than the two additions, the page is maintained as originally written.]

Piaget was also a philosopher and once taught philosophy at the University of Neuchâtel without a degree: "it was no longer possible to submit a thesis in philosophy, since I held the chair." 2

Piaget's natural focus in philosophy was epistemology (philosophy of knowledge) and his work was highly innovative. He was obviously referring also to himself when he wrote that "the most important philosophical systems of the past have as their starting point their authors' reflections on science or on projects that made new sciences possible." 3   His "genetic epistemology" was integrated with his psychological researches, each part supporting and growing with the other.

Piaget teaches that intelligence develops continuously from the sucking reflex of the newborn, in a series of stages, universally applicable to all children. 4   The "mechanisms" of development are "assimilation" and "accommodation." For example, the hand learns to hold a spoon (accommodation) and the tool becomes an extension of the hand (assimilation). When learning the latest software application, we assimilate it to one previously learned and accommodate by changing keystrokes where necessary or appropriate. Eventually a structure built piecewise by assimilation and accommodation can no longer handle the increasing demands put upon it and re-organization is required in which new techniques are incorporated.5  

Accordingly, intelligence changes as the child matures. Early ideas include beliefs that the moon follows the child around and that when water is poured from a wide container into a narrow one, the amount increases because the top of the fluid is higher. Such concepts are discarded as the child grows older, like a snake shedding its skin.

"Piaget has sometimes labeled his position constructivism, to capture the sense in which the child must make and remake the basic concepts and logical thought-forms that constitute his intelligence. Piaget prefers to say that the child is inventing rather than discovering his ideas. This distinction separates him both from empiricism and from apriorism. The ideas in question do not preexist out there in the world, only awaiting their discovery by the child; each child must invent them for himself. By the same token, since the ideas have no a priori external existence, they cannot be discovered by simple exposure; rather, they must be constructed or invented by the child. Thus, Piaget's book dealing with growth of concepts of object, space, time and causality in the first year of life is not called The Discovery of Reality, but The Construction of Reality in the Child." 6

In The Construction of Reality in the Child,7 Piaget commences with an intelligence entirely "egocentric," where no boundary has been established between the self and the world. The child is "self-centered ... [with] the absence of both self-perception and objectivity." 8

"Through an apparently paradoxical mechanism ... it is precisely when the subject is most self-centered that he knows himself the least, and it is to the extent that he discovers himself that he places himself in the universe and constructs it by virtue of that fact. ... This organization of reality occurs, as we shall see, to the extent that the self is freed from itself by finding itself and so assigns itself a place as a thing among things, an event among events." 9

"[T]he first knowledge of the universe or of himself that the subject can acquire is knowledge relating to the most immediate appearance of things or to the most external and material aspect of his being. From the point of view of consciousness, this primitive relation between subject and object is a relation of undifferentiation ... when no distinction is made between the self and the non-self. ... But from this point of view of junction and undifferentiation, knowledge proceeds along two complementary roads. By virtue of the very fact that all knowledge is simultaneously accommodation to the object and assimilation to the subject, the progress of intelligence works in the dual direction of externalization and internalization... In the last analysis, it is this process of forming relationships between a universe constantly becoming more external to the self and an intellectual activity progressing internally which explains the evolution of the real categories, that is, of the concepts of object, space, causality and time." 10

In Biology and Knowledge, Piaget wrote: "There are no innate ideas, in the Cartesian sense. One can, of course, consider a priori categories, such as Kant talks about... In psychology, the Kantian interpretation has been sustained by certain Gestalt psychologists such as ... Konrad Lorenz, who judges notions of cause, space, etc. to be previous to any experience... From the psychogenetic point of view, such interpretations will not stand up to examination.11

Piaget meant by "examination" his own researches into the development of children's "notions of cause, space, etc." For example,The Child's Conception of Space12 begins with sensori-motor activity (e.g., eye-hand co-ordination in grasping a rattle) and then follows the addition of shape-recognition, pictorial space, linear and circular order, "surroundings," continuity, projective lines and perspectives, sectioning and rotation, conservation through displacements and, ultimately, a culminating integration in the concept of Euclidean space. Continuous revision of cognitive forms that begins with rudimentary reflexes is totally incompatible with a priori conceptualization.

Athough Piaget rejected the a priori as a basis for a child's knowledge, he adhered to a priori concepts in his own work. He referred thoughout to "mechanisms" of development and sought, in assimilation and accommodation, an a priori minimalist set of psychological processes. He assumed that cognitive structures converge to reality and that the final structures are exactly representational, an assumption known to be false. 13   "The model is entirely rationalistic and typical of Enlightenment philosophy."14

Piaget's model was effective in the cognitive domains he studied, especially representations of commonsense physical reality and logico-mathematical operations. He avoided areas where it was not effective, such as myth, family, social and sexual matters and the work and emotional life of an adult. Significantly, these are areas of principal focus for other important psychologists, e.g. Freud and Jung.

Piaget's model represents, therefore, a paradoxical approach to a priori conceptualization. Although he continually re-shaped his theories, he never made his own a priori concepts the subject of self-critical analysis.

The paradox is especially acute because Piaget sought to explain by his theories not only the development of intelligence in children, but also the development of scientific theories. "Genetic epistemology attempts to explain knowledge, and in particular scientific knowledge, on the basis of its history, its sociogenesis, and especially the psychological origins of the notions and operations upon which it is based." 15

I believe that this paradox lies at the root of Piaget's failure to provide a satisfactory account of growth of knowledge. He wrote: "I consider the main problem of genetic epistemology to be the explanation of novelties in the development of knowledge. ... The central problem of genetic epistemology concerns the mechanism of this construction of novelties which creates the need for explanatory factors... However, these factors have furnished only global explanations. A great deal of work remains to be done..." 16

The paradox can be resolved, in an epistemological sense, by the hypothesis that a priori concepts are both erroneous and indispensable. Every accomplishment requires some notions that appear solid independent of any experience. However, the validity of such notions is always illusory. What is needed is a set of such notions on which a beginning is made and which are revised as development proceeds and errors are discovered. Errors are minimized by restricting the domain in which the a priori concepts are applied and revisions are specific to the restricted domain. The hypothesis therefore accounts for the fragmentation of knowledge into specialties.

This is, perhaps, a resolution that Jean Piaget might have approved.

All materials copyright 1998 by Robert Kovsky

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Note 1.  There are many useful summaries of Piaget's work, including Ginsburg and Opper, Piaget's Theory of Intellectual Development (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: 1969), with a laudatory introduction by Bärbel Inhelder, Piaget's most important collaborator. Piaget's "philosophical" approach makes a popularized summary useful. See also Piaget & Inhelder, The Psychology of the Child described in n. 4 and The Essential Piaget described in n. 6. As to modern developments in psychology, see Baars, The Cognitive Revolution in Psychology (New York: The Guilford Press 1986), e.g. at 214 and 259.

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Note 2.  Piaget, Insights and Illusions of Philosophy (New York: World Publishing 1971) at 10.

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Note 3.  Id., Introduction at xvi.

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Note 4.  Piaget & Inhelder, The Psychology of the Child (New York: Basic Books 1969) is the authors' "synthesis, or summing up, of our work in child psychology" and perhaps the most approachable of Piaget's many works.

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Note 5.  For the foregoing, see The Psychology of the Child (supra, n.4) at 4-6 and 92-96.

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Note 6.  Gruber and Vonèche, eds. The Essential Piaget (Northvale, N. J.: Jason Aronson, Inc. 1995 softcover ed.) at xxxviii-xxxix (commentary by the editors). In a Foreword, Piaget wrote that this nearly-1000 volume was "The best and most complete of all the anthologies of my work ... In reading the explanatory texts, I came to understand better what I had wanted to do."

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Note 7.  The Construction of Reality in the Child (New York: Basic Books, 1954, Margaret Cook trans.) (originally published in French in 1937).

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Note 8.  The Construction of Reality in the Child, supra n.6, at xii. See also Gruber and Vonèche, supra n. 6, at 488-489 (editor's commentary)

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Note 9.  Construction of Reality, supra, at xii-xiii.

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Note 10.  Id., at 355-356.

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Note 11.  Piaget, Biology and Knowledge, (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971) at 269.

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Note 12.  Piaget and Inhelder, The Child's Conception of Space, original French publication 1948 (English transl., New York: Norton 1956). See also extracts in Gruber & Vonèche, supra n. 6.

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Note 13.  Einstein's theory of relativity constitutes a stunning counter-example. It is beautifully solid and appears factually exact over enormous ranges of size, distance and circumstance. "But many of its results appear contrary to our customary forms of thought...they are often felt to be paradoxical, even unbearable." Born, Einstein's Theory of Relativity, (New York: Dover 1962) at 255 (speaking of special relativity). The general theory is "non-Euclidean." Id., at 317 et. seq.

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Note 14.  Gruber and Vonèche, supra n. 6, at 866.

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Note 15.  Genetic Epistemology, (New York: Norton, 1970), opening sentence.

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Note 16.   Id., at 77-78.

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Since this page was written in 1998, Piaget's principles have become incorporated into new technologies that I am developing. The ( ... ) Quad Net Site Map has a complete listing of pages.

Piaget's principles are expressly quoted and applied in:

... ) Remarks on the principle of "reversibility" in An Eye for Sharp Contrast, part of the project "Brain Models Built From Timing Devices" (2011). Other psychological principles involve focusing, following, resemblances and contesting. An overall principle of "action" identifies differences between my new models and conventional models that are based on the principle of "states."

... ) A Procrustean Group of Harmonies (2010). The page opens with a discussion based on Piaget's writings and then shows a series of technical designs that embody principles with resemblances to group theory in mathematics.

... ) return to top of page.

Materials copyright 1998 by Robert Kovsky, with 2011 additions