Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: Piaget was awarded an honorary degree from Harvard University in 1936, the Sorbonne in 1946, and the University of Brussels in 1949 for his work on the evolution of intelligence in the human young. He found in developmental psychology a link between the biological adaptation of organisms to the environment and the philosophical quest for the source of knowledge.
Jean Piaget was born the first of three children and only son of Arthur and Rachel Piaget. Arthur was devoted to medieval literature, and Rachel, although energetic and intelligent, suffered from poor mental health. As a young child, Piaget was interested in mechanics, birds, sea shells, and fossils. At the age of ten, he went to Latin School and after school hours helped the director of the Natural History Museum put labels on collections in exchange for rare species, which he added to his own collection. Piaget began writing when he was seven, and a short essay on an albino sparrow was published when he was eleven. By the age of fifteen, he was writing a series of articles in the Swiss Review of Zoology and was receiving letters from foreign scholars who expressed a desire to meet him. They did not, of course, realize how young he was.
Piaget might have pursued his career as a naturalist had it not been for several events that occurred when he was between fifteen and twenty years of age. His mother insisted that he take religious instruction, and, by doing so, he became interested in philosophy. His godfather, a philosopher, believing that Piaget’s education needed to be broadened, invited him to spend time with him. While Piaget looked for mollusks along a lake, his godfather talked with him about the teachings of Henri Bergson. It was through this experience that Piaget decided to devote his life to a biological explanation of knowledge. Even though he received the doctor’s degree in his early twenties in the natural sciences with a thesis on mollusks, Piaget was more interested in the relationship of biology and philosophy. He decided that if he obtained work in a psychological laboratory, he could better research this epistemological problem.
Piaget’s first experience in a laboratory was in 1918 in Zurich, where he was introduced to psychoanalysis by Eugen Bleuler and Carl Jung. He pursued psychoanalysis diligently, partly in an effort to understand his mother’s illness and partly to use the therapeutic approach with mental patients. In 1919, he went to Paris, where for two years he adapted the clinical technique to questioning schoolchildren at the Alfred Binet Institute. His assignment at the institute, given to him by Theodore Simon, was to standardize Sir Cyril Burt’s reasoning tests. By listening to the verbal responses of the children, he was able to probe such areas as the child’s understanding of space, time, numbers, physical causality, and moral judgment. He became fascinated with the question of why children up to the age of eleven or twelve have great difficulty with certain intellectual tasks that adults assume children should be able to do. He noticed that the difficulty seemed to be the child’s inability to relate adequately the parts of the problem to the whole. Logic apparently is not inborn but develops little by little with time and experience. Here was the embryology of intelligence fitting in with his biological training.
Piaget came to believe that knowledge is not a subjective copy of an external world but rather is invented or constructed by the developing human organism. The child assimilates meaningful information from the environment and actively accommodates to that information by adapting to new situations. A person’s intellectual or cognitive understanding determines other aspects of life as well: emotions, humor, moral development, and social interaction. Thinking precedes language and derives from human action upon the environment, so, in order to understand the origins of intelligence, it is necessary to study the behaviors of the young child rather than to ask questions of children already in school.
The opportunity to observe infants presented itself when he became the father of three children: two girls and a boy. He and his wife, a young woman he had met at the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute in Geneva, where he was named director in 1921, spent considerable time observing the behaviors of their babies and submitting them to various tasks. Three volumes were published dealing with the genesis of intellectual conduct based on these experiments. Other books written during this time are entitled Le Langage et la pensée chez l’enfant (1923; The Language and Thought of the Child, 1926), Le Jugement et le raisonnement chez l’enfant (1924; Judgement and Reasoning in the Child, 1928), La Représentation du monde chez l’enfant (1926; The Child’s Conception of the World, 1929), and La Causalité physique chez l’enfant (1927; The Child’s Conception of Physical Causality, 1930). The central theme running through all this work is that in every area of life—organic, mental, or social—there exist totalities qualitatively distinct from their parts and imposing upon the parts a particular organization. Growth or development, with roots...
(The entire section is 2195 words.)
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