PIAGET, JEAN (1896-1980)
Together with Sigmund Freud and B. F. Skinner, Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was one of the three most influential psychologists of the twentieth century. Among developmental psychologists he has had no equal or close second as to the volume, scope, and impact of his work. Yet he thought of his psychological work primarily as a tool for the creation of a new science, genetic epistemology—a new synthesis of logic, philosophy, history of science, biology, and psychology.
Life and Oeuvre
Piaget was born on August 9, 1896, in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and died in Geneva, on September 17, 1980. His father, Arthur Piaget, was a historian. Jean's first publication, a paragraph about sighting an albino sparrow, appeared in 1907, when he was 11 years old. He was active until the end of his life, and posthumous monographs continued to appear until 1990. The total oeuvre comprises over sixty books and monographs plus nearly a thousand articles.
During his long life Piaget held professorships at the University of Paris and at the Swiss universities of Neuchâtel, Lausanne, and Geneva. The chairs he held were in psychology, sociology, and the history and philosophy of science. His longest association was with the University of Geneva. Among his many honors were over thirty honorary doctorates from major universities (the first from Harvard, 1936) in a dozen countries; numerous awards, including the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award of the American Psychological Association (1970); and the presidency of various scientific associations. For many years he was director of the International Bureau of Education. His wife, Valentine Chatenay Piaget, was among his collaborators in the research for his first few books, and especially in the study of their three babies.
As an adolescent Piaget pursued malacology, the study of mollusks, and reached a professional level, publishing thirty-two papers in this field by 1916, his twentieth year. He continued this line of work in natural history for the rest of his life.
In 1918 Piaget received his doctorate in natural science from the University of Neuchâtel for a dissertation on the mollusks of the Valais, a region of Switzerland. By that time he had begun to move toward the study of psychology, which he pursued in Zurich and in Paris. In 1921 he published his first article on child logic and thought, a subject that grew to dominate his thinking throughout his later life.
Piaget's first book in psychology, The Language and Thought of the Child, appeared in 1923. In it he introduced his conception of egocentrism, interpreting the world from one's own immediate perspective without adequately taking into account the existence of alternative perspectives. In three subsequent books during the 1920s Piaget showed how this egocentrism pervades the child's mentality from about the age of 5 to 10 in the domains of logic and reasoning, causal thinking, conceptions of the world, and (not published until 1932) moral judgment.
All of these works can be construed as studies of learning in a wide sense, since through its interaction with the world, the child's intelligence develops: Moving through several necessary stages, the child learns to think more and more like an adult. The same can be said of the trilogy Piaget wrote about his own three children in the first two years of life. These works, using the method of naturalistic observation, delineate the major stages in (a) the development of active, Page 527 | Top of Article intelligent, inventive exploration of the world; (b) the child's own activity in the construction of reality (the permanent object, space, time, and causality); and (c) the emergence of language and the symbolic or representational function through play, dreams, and imitation.
Assimilation and Accommodation
In the course of his work on infant development, Piaget introduced the twin concepts of assimilation and accommodation as tools for understanding cognitive growth. The infant is born with a few basic reflexes. Through its own activity novelties arise (for example, through the chance coincidence of events) that are assimilated into these initial schemes, giving rise to changing schemes of action. These schemes can assimilate external events or stimuli and, equally important, they can assimilate each other, giving rise to new adaptive organizations. Paired with the process of assimilation is that of accommodation, the way in which the set of schemes or cognitive organizations must change in response to the new inputs ("aliments," as Piaget sometimes called them, emphasizing the digestion metaphor).
Toward the end of the first year of life, as the child repeats its actions in order to make interesting events recur (e.g., the noise of a rattle), it notices variations in its own actions and their consequences. These variations and their consequences are, in their turn, assimilated into existing schemes, and thus these schemes grow. Piaget considered this analysis of infant cognitive growth to be germane to his analysis and descriptions of the growth of thought at other levels, including the history of science.
Stages of Development
In the 1930s and 1940s Piaget's main focus was on the stagewise progression of intelligence in infancy and childhood. He elaborated his idea of three great periods of intellectual growth: sensorimotor (0-2 years), preoperational (2-6 or 7 years), and concrete operational (7-11 or 12 years). In the 1950s, this model was expanded to include adolescent cognitive development in the period of formal operations.
In the late 1940s Piaget displayed increasing preoccupation with the further elaboration of ideas long held, the approach that has become known as genetic epistemology. Some of the most important components of this approach had been sketched in his religious prose poem La mission de l'idée (1915) and in his philosophical novel Recherche (1918).
This phase was most fully expressed in Piaget's three-volume work Introduction à l'epistémologie génétique (1950). In 1956 he organized the Centre International de l'Epistémologie Génétique, an interdisciplinary center for research and reflection on questions concerning the intersection of the natural sciences, psychology (especially developmental), and philosophy (especially epistemology). Rather than becoming a philosopher, Piaget hoped to transform one branch of philosophy, epistemology, into a new science. In 1957, the Centre turned its attention to the study of learning—both logical models of the learning process and the learning and development of logical reasoning by the child. Piaget and his collaborators published their theoretical and empirical findings in four monographs (1959).
In the 1960s and 1970s, without dropping any of his previous concerns, Piaget turned his attention to elaborating the "equilibration model," an attempt to specify the actual mechanisms by which intellectual growth and change come about.
Alternative Theoretical Approaches
Throughout his life Piaget was interested in the contrast between his own theoretical approach and two others. He was quite drawn toward Gestalt psychology, especially its emphasis on holism and self-regulating systems; but in the end he rejected it as relying too heavily on the analogy between perception and thought, and being consequently nondevelop-mental. He was never drawn toward behaviorism (or its antecedent, associationism); he objected to the lack of any intrinsic structure in knowledge accrued as an arbitrary collection of chance associations. He summed all this up in a favorite aphorism: Gestalt psychology speaks of structure without development; behaviorism, of development without structure.
Piaget relied mainly on two related methods for the exploration of the child's intellect. For his trilogy on the origins of intellect in babies, and also for his earlier Language and Thought in the Child, he relied on naturalistic observation. For most of his work, however, he stuck to the "clinical method" of extended interaction between child and investigator, with searching analysis of the protocols (i.e., of what the child said and did in reaction to the problems posed by the adult). The clinical method evolved into something approaching naturalistic observation in problem-solving situations. The problems were not construed Page 528 | Top of Article as tasks having definite solutions to be sought by the child, but as occasions to provoke thought in the child, thus permitting the experimenter to observe the child's way of thinking.
Using different age groups, these methods permitted the study of the broad trajectory of cognitive development. By avoiding narrower experimental approaches, Piaget sacrificed the opportunity for what might be called microscopic analysis of the effects of specifiable variables on cognitive functioning. What he gained was a better picture of child mentality as a whole—first as a system of beliefs and later as a structured group of operations.
Development, Learning, and Structure
Although the development of cognition as depicted by Piaget resembles what other psychologists might call "learning," there are a number of important differences. First, changes in performance are seen as a function of developmental stage, not of repeated exposures and responses to the same stimulus. Second, the investigator analyzes broad strategic changes in approach rather than the correctness and incorrectness of solutions or memories. Third, what accrues over time is not a sum of associations but operative structures; thus, for Piaget the older subject does not necessarily know "more" than the younger but knows differently.
For Piaget a structure is not the momentarily given perceptual configuration of interest to Gestalt psychologists. A mental structure is a set of logicomathematical operations or mental acts, permitting the decomposition of wholes into parts and the recomposition of wholes from parts. To take a very simple example, the idea of the permanent object entails the recognition of the continued existence of an object as it moves around in space—the movements AB + BC → AC, the movements AB + BA → 0. Thus, the idea of the permanent object is an embodiment of the group of displacements.
Conservation of Matter
In a key and famous illustration of the mentality of the concrete operational child, Piaget discovered that the young child does not understand that a given amount of matter remains the same under transformations of shape; thus, if water is poured from a short, wide vessel into a long, thin tube, the child may believe that as the water level mounts higher and higher, the amount of water increases. The weight of experimental evidence shows that the child is relatively unaffected by repeated exposures to this event, because it can always map the results of direct observations onto the preexisting schema. The argument of reversibility—if the water is poured back into the first container, it regains the original level—will be a satisfying demonstration of conservation for the older child. The young child watching, or even pouring, the liquid can actually see the level mounting or falling but, because attention is centered on one dimension, does not yet grasp the idea of conservation that would lead to the coordination of changes of length and width.
In other words, direct teaching or learning is relatively ineffectual in modifying the growth of fundamental cognitive categories and operations, because these depend on the protracted, often slow, development of the knowing system as a whole through the self-regulated activity of that knowing system.
From 1921, when he published his first empirical study of child development, until the 1960s, Piaget did virtually no work on memory. A possible exception was his use of tasks involving memory but focusing on other problems. For example, in 1923, in Language and Thought of the Child, Piaget studied the way in which a child who has just been told a story repeats it to another child. This work could be considered a study of memory, but Piaget's interest was in the relation between the first child's comprehension of the story and the communication from the first child to the second. He was aware of the involvement of memory in this task but thought he could distinguish errors of memory from those of comprehension and communication. In his later work he took a very different tack, emphasizing the effect of changes in comprehension on memory.
For the most part, during a very long period Piaget's interest lay primarily in the general operations and structures of mental activity rather than in the contents of experience or the stuff of thought. But in a wider perspective Piaget believed that growth comes about through interaction with the world, and that this world must somehow be represented in the child's mind (and consequently in Piaget's theory). About 1942, Piaget began a systematic study of what he called the "figurative" aspects of thought—perception, imagery, and memory—was contrasted with the "operative" aspects of mental activity. By far the largest part of this effort was centered on the study of perception: some sixty experimental papers, brought together in The Mechanisms of Perception (1969). But he also studied mental imagery, which resulted in yet another volume, Mental Imagery in the Child: A Study of the Development of Imaginal Representation (Piaget and Inhelder, 1971).
The work on imagery led on to work on memory, resulting in the book Memory and Intelligence (Piaget, Page 529 | Top of Article Inhelder, and Sinclair-De Zwart, 1973). Perhaps the most striking finding of this work is that rather than remaining stable or decaying, a memory can actually improve with time because its evolving structure depends on the child's maturing operativity. For example, a young child shown a series of rods arranged from short to long may remember them 1 week later as a dichotomy, short rods and long rods. But 6 months later, reflecting the child's growing mastery of the scheme of seriation, the child may remember the series as it was originally presented. In contrast with his position in the 1920s, when he tried to separate memory from understanding, Piaget now concluded, "The structure of memory appears to be partly dependent on the structure of the operations" (Piaget, 1970, p. 719).
The work we call Piaget's was really teamwork. Its scope and volume are so vast that it cannot be imagined without the skillful leadership necessary to generate enthusiasm and maintain a sense of direction. Piaget had many collaborators, ranging from student assistants to distinguished scientists and scholars in various fields. Besides psychologists there were mathematicians, logicians, philosophers and historians of science, biologists, physicists, and linguists. Almost everyone he worked with called him patron (boss). His longest collaboration (50 years), and the most important, was with Bärbel Inhelder, who began as his student and became a distinguished scientist in her own right, almost always working together or in close proximity—both spatially and intellectually—with Piaget.
Since about 1970 there have been numerous critical studies of Piaget's empirical findings and of his theoretical approach. By about 1990, much of the anti-Piagetian criticism had ebbed and had given way to neo-Piagetian efforts to assimilate Piaget's findings, correct some of his errors, and synthesize his work with newer developments in cognitive and social psychology. Most of his empirical findings have been verified by studies in many countries. Perhaps his most important contribution to developmental psychology was to reveal the child as a thinking being, and the child's intellect as growing through its own efforts in interaction with the physical and social world.
See also: OBJECT CONCEPT, DEVELOPMENT OF
Chapman, M. (1988). Constructive evolution, origins and development of Piaget's thought. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Gruber, H. E., and Vonèche, J. J. (1977). The essential Piaget. New York: Basic Books.
Inhelder, B., Sinclair, H., and Bovet, M. (1974). Learning and the development of cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kuhn, D., ed. (1989). Human Development 32 (6), 325-387.
Piaget, J. (1921). Essai sur quelques aspects du développement de la notion de partie chez l'enfant. Journal de psychologie normale et pathologique 18, 449-480.
—— (1961; reprint 1969). The mechanisms of perception, trans. G. N. Seagrim. New York: Basic Books.
—— (1970). Piaget's theory. In P. H. Mussen, ed., Carmichael's manual of child psychology. New York: Wiley.
—— (1967; reprint 1971). Biology and knowledge, trans. B. Walsh. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Piaget, J., and Inhelder, B. (1966; reprint 1969). The psychology of the child, trans. H. Weaver. New York: Basic Books.
—— (1966; reprint 1971). Mental imagery in the child: A study of the development of imaginal representation, trans. P. A. Chilton. New York: Basic Books.
Piaget, J., Inhelder, B., and Sinclair-De Zwart, H. (1968; reprint 1973). Memory and intelligence, trans. A. J. Pomerans. New York: Basic Books.
Howard E. Gruber
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3407100185