The Grasp of Consciousness

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Old age has not interfered with the work of Jean Piaget in the slightest way. Assisted by many able collaborators, the famed Swiss psychologist continues to add to his vast body of work on the development of human intelligence. Over sixty years of dedicated study, research, and observation have resulted in a comprehensive, unified theory of cognitive growth that is so extensive that the full impact of his efforts cannot yet be assessed. It is not inordinate to believe that his theories of intellectual development may someday be as famous and influential as Freud’s ideas on emotional development. The recently translated The Grasp of Consciousness: Action and Concept in the Young Child is still another worthy addition to the author’s legacy, which continues to grow despite his eighty-plus years.

To Piaget, intelligence is a dynamic process continuously evolving through the interaction of the organism and his environment. His experimental methods of studying this process have always centered on young children and adolescents and the way they learn to deal with the outside world. His subjects are confronted with questions or tasks, and their active and/or verbal responses carefully observed. The manner in which the children approach the situation, manipulate the objects, and develop strategies to achieve the goal is of primary importance to Piaget. In particular, errors or incorrect replies and actions give invaluable insight into how the child perceives his surroundings. It must be stressed that the successful attainment of the solution or performance of the task is only of secondary import when compared to the observation of the means employed. This preoccupation with observation plus his relative disregard for the traditional scientific methodology with its statistical analyses, sample sizes, control groups, and the like, has caused Piaget a considerable amount of controversy throughout his lifetime. Nevertheless, his belief that intensive work with a few children is more revealing than brief experimentation with masses of subjects has been generally substantiated by rigorous duplications of his experiments by others.

The Grasp of Consciousness consists primarily of fifteen or so experiments which follow Piaget’s traditional pattern of question and observation, but with a fresh twist that accounts for much of the work’s originality. When the child is finished with his response, whether successful or not, he is asked to provide a step-by-step accounting of his actions. In other words, Piaget seeks to determine how aware the child was of what he was doing. When the same experiment is repeated with children of varying ages, a pattern emerges in which awareness is directly related to the child’s age. This conclusion should surprise no one, particularly those already familiar with Piaget’s work, but it is in the analysis of the inaccurate descriptions that his most rewarding talents are revealed. What does it mean when a child can attain a goal with an imprecise or inaccurate awareness of the means he used? Is he really conscious of his actions? How does this awareness expand until the knowledge of the action coincides with its reality as observed? The Grasp of Consciousness is a significant work for the answers it proposes to questions like these. However, like much of his writings, this study cannot be adequately comprehended without a strong foundation in Piagetian principles, concepts, and theories.

Piaget began as a biologist and was in fact a child prodigy who published his first scientific paper at the age of eleven. This early training in biology, coupled with an intense, almost religious, personal interest in the philosophical issue of epistemology, led him to seek the mechanism by which the human mind, which is part of the body and subject to the laws of heredity, comes to knowledge about objects and concepts. Eventually this led to his founding the discipline of “genetic epistemology.” Initially, however, he turned to the study of children, particularly his own three children, and how they developed knowledge, a study he viewed as temporary at the time but which was to consume the rest of his life. Several general principles emerged from this work as well as a model for cognitive development.

Cognition is all mental activity, including thought, knowledge, perception, recognition, memory, abstraction, and generalization. It develops inevitably and systematically from interaction with the physical world. Piaget believes that the mental elements or concepts of life, called “schemata,” form an organization which becomes increasingly intricate as new and more complex schemata are integrated into it. Contact with the physical environment insures that these previously unknown schemata are presented to the child, who must “adapt.” Just as biological functioning is maximized through adaptation in the Darwinian sense, intellectual functioning must also adapt in order to grow and mature. Two complementary processes act simultaneously to produce this adaptive exchange between organism and environment. “Assimilation” is the absorption of external influences and stimulation, such as sensations, nourishment, and experience, and their eventual integration into the organism’s normal functioning. There is the tendency for assimilation to act as a barrier to growth by rejecting the unknown. The countervailing process of “accommodation” opposes this tendency by forcing persistent stimuli to modify existing schemata or create new ones.

The relationship between assimilation and accommodation...

(The entire section is 2284 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Choice. XIV, March, 1977, p. 124.

Contemporary Psychology. XXII, March, 1977, p. 163.

Instructor. LXXXVI, April, 1977, p. 162.

Library Journal. CI, November 15, 1976, p. 2379.

New York Times Book Review. August 1, 1976, p. 1.