Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2195
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 in biological morphogenesis, is a striving for the equilibrium of these structures of the whole.
Not only was Piaget director of the Rousseau Institute, a post he held until his death, but also, from 1925 to 1929, he taught classes in child psychology and the philosophy of science at the University of Neuchâtel. In 1929, he became director of the International Bureau of Education, a position he retained for almost forty years. This led to his becoming president of the Swiss Commission of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. At the bureau, he contributed to the improvement of pedagogical methods based on the mental development of the child. In 1929, he was also named professor of the history of scientific thought at the University of Geneva. Ten years later, he became professor of sociology and a year after that, professor of experimental psychology at that same institution. His special research interests between 1929 and 1939 were the study of scientific epistemology, both autogenetic and phylogenetic; the development of the concepts of numbers, space, and time in children ages four to eight; and the formation of the idea of preservation or constancy, which he labeled “concrete operations.”
The standardization of Burt’s reasoning tests with schoolchildren in Paris, the careful observation of his own children as infants, continued research at the Rousseau Institute, and numerous teaching duties resulted in Piaget’s recording voluminous amounts of information on the evolution of thought in the child. Piaget wrote that there are four major stages of cognitive development. These stages are invariant, hierarchical, and seen in children universally. Every normal child goes through the same sequence because every person is genetically programmed to do so. The first is a period of sensorimotor intelligence and takes place from birth to approximately two years of age. The newborn is provided with such reflexes as sucking, swallowing, and crying, the bases of later adaptation tasks. The infant understands the world only as he acts upon it and perceives the consequences of those acts. By the age of two, he begins to invent solutions by implicit as well as explicit trial and error. He can “think” as well as act.
The second stage occurs between the ages of two and seven and is called preconceptual or intuitive intelligence. The advent of language brings mental images of events. Yet the child understands these events only from his own perspective and experience and is therefore unable to take the viewpoint of others. Error is perceptual in nature in that the child is influenced by the way objects appear to him: If a sausage-shaped piece of clay appears to be more when it is broken into small pieces, then it is more. This faulty relation of parts to the whole disappears sometime during concrete operational intelligence, when the child is in elementary school. He now can compare classes and relationships, and thought no longer centers on one salient characteristic of an object. He discovers that things are not always what they appear to be. What he knows, however, is still tied to the concrete world. It is not until eleven years of age or older that he reaches the fourth stage of formal operational intelligence, in which hypothetico-deductive thinking is possible. The orientation is toward problem solving rather than toward concrete behavior. The adolescent is full of ideas that go beyond his present life and enable him to deal through logical deduction with possibilities and consequences.
From 1938 to 1951, Piaget was a professor of psychology and sociology at the University of Lausanne. This post, in addition to his teaching at the University of Geneva and his duties as coeditor of the Archives de psychologie and the Revue Suisse de psychologie, did not lessen his productivity in research and writing. In the 1940’s, his major concerns were the relationship of perception and intelligence and the testing of the claims of Gestalt psychology. By the 1950’s and through the 1960’s and 1970’s, Piaget was surrounded by an ever-increasing number of assistants and colleagues. His professorships, including one in child psychology at the Sorbonne in 1952, and his directorships, including that of director of the International Center for Genetic Epistemology at the University of Geneva funded by the Rockefeller Foundation in 1955, provided him with eager scholars who collaborated with him on his studies. Men and women from around the world and representing many disciplines—biology, psychology, philosophy, mathematics, and linguistics—gathered to learn from him and to engage in research.
Piaget wrote in his autobiography that solitude and contact with nature were as essential to his well-being as hard work. After a morning of interaction with academicians, he would take long walks, collect his thoughts, and then write for the remainder of the afternoon. Summertime found him in the mountains of Switzerland, hiking and writing. He remained physically and mentally active in his eighties.
Jean Piaget has been called a biologist, a logician, a sociologist, and a psychologist, but he is best known as a genetic epistemologist, for he spent a lifetime studying the origins of human knowledge. Over a seventy-year period, he wrote fifty books and monographs and hundreds of articles, as well as lecturing in French to audiences all over the world. Unlike B. F. Skinner, who focused on environmental influences, or Sigmund Freud, who emphasized emotions and instincts, Piaget selected for his topic the rational, perceiving child who has the capacity to make sense of the world about him. Knowledge is a process, not a product; it is dynamic, never static, self-regulatory rather than imposed from without. Even as mollusks taken from the lake of Neuchâtel and placed in an aquarium change very little after five or six generations, the human organism has a built-in blueprint that determines the course of cognitive evolution, a course not unlike that of the evolution of scientific thought.
Piaget’s later writings refined and helped to explain his previous studies, yet it is the earlier works that have received the greatest attention. From these writings, parents have been encouraged to provide a rich, supportive environment for the child’s natural propensity to grow and learn. Educators have been exposed to child-centered classrooms and “open education,” a direct application of Piaget’s views. Lawrence Kohlberg’s paradigm of moral reasoning, itself fostering hundreds of studies in moral cognition, has as its basis Piaget’s study of the moral judgment of the child. A child prodigy, Piaget used his superior intellect to examine the evolution of human thought from birth to adulthood, and the interdisciplinary nature of his work has, in turn, influenced many areas of inquiry.
Cohen, David. Piaget: Critique and Reassessment. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983. An outline of Piaget’s career and the main elements of his theory are given, including the moral development of the child. Several major criticisms are offered as well as studies that run counter to Piaget’s ideas.
Flavell, John H. The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1963. This volume is a groundbreaking attempt to organize, for the English-speaking world, Piaget’s ideas from the viewpoint of a developmental psychologist.
Furth, Hans G. Piaget and Knowledge: Theoretical Foundations. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981. This book deals with Piaget’s basic theoretical positions, including the biological, logical, and epistemological dimensions of human knowledge. Piaget’s final work in the area of equilibration is explained in the last chapter.
Piaget, Jean. The Essential Piaget, edited by Howard E. Gruber and J. Jacques Venèche. New York: Basic Books, 1977. An anthology of Piaget’s writings organized by time periods and topics. Essays published prior to 1922 were translated from the French especially for this volume. The editors’ introductory notes to each section are insightful and informative.
Piaget, Jean. “Jean Piaget.” In A History of Psychology in Autobiography, edited by Edwin G. Boring, Herbert S. Langfield, H. Werner, and Robert M. Yerkes, vol. 4. Worcester, Mass.: Clark University Press, 1952. A fascinating account of Piaget’s life and work until 1950. The variety and enormity of his interests and responsibilities come through in this autobiography.