The Piaget Way

The Essential Piaget

edited by Howard E. Gruber, edited by J. Jacques Vonèche
Basic Books, 881 pp., $35.00

The Origins of Intelligence in Children

by Jean Piaget, translated by Margaret Cook
International Universities Press, 419 pp., $4.95 (paper)

The Construction of Reality in the Child

by Jean Piaget, translated by Margaret Cook
Basic Books, 386 pp., $11.95

Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood

by Jean Piaget, translated by C. Gattegno and F.M. Hodgson
Norton, 296 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Behavior and Evolution

by Jean Piaget, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith
Pantheon, 176 pp., $2.95 (paper)

Jean Piaget: The Man and His Ideas

by Richard I. Evans, translated by Eleanor Duckworth
Dutton, 214 pp., $8.95

Jean Piaget: Psychologist of the Real

by Brian Rotman
Harvester Press (London), 200 pp., £7.95

In a series of interviews with Jean Piaget carried out a few years ago, Piaget was asked about his attitude to Freud and psychoanalysis. 1 In 1922, he said, he had read a paper on children’s thought to the International Congress of Psychoanalysis (not included in The Essential Piaget, although there is a creditable summary of psychoanalytic theories that Piaget published in 1920). Freud had been present, surrounded by disciples and smoking his usual cigars, and all eyes had been on the master’s reactions to the paper rather than on the young psychologist presenting his work. It is rather a delightful picture, and spiced with more irony than Piaget has usually allowed himself in talking about psychoanalysis, toward which he is usually polite and rather uneasy. Two great system-builders of psychology were confronting each other—though it is only in the past ten years or so that it has seemed appropriate to place Piaget’s monumental oeuvre, so radically different, next to Freud’s.

Since 1924 Piaget has published some forty-five books, all of them—after the first dozen or so—of increasing complexity and aridity; the carefully selected extracts in The Essential Piaget represent a minute fraction of his output. “I could not think without writing,” he has said. Although it is possible to feel at times that in his books he is carrying out a “conservation experiment” with ideas—one of his most celebrated demonstrations has shown that children below a certain age cannot understand that liquid poured from a short fat bottle to a tall thin one remains the same in quantity, and he seems sometimes to be pouring identical theory from one thick book to another—in general Piaget has proceeded as steadily and inexorably from stage to stage in his work as the intellect itself, he believes, goes marching forward in distinct and unalterable stages from birth to adulthood.

Gruber and Vonèche admirably summarize his progress in the introductions to each group of extracts. Piaget started as a zoologist, with a good philosophical education in the background; he trained as a psychologist in both clinics and laboratories in Switzerland and France. In Paris he was asked by Simon (of the Binet-Simon intelligence test) to standardize English test material on French children. Unexpectedly, in view of the precise systematizer he was to become, Piaget at this stage found himself more interested in the thought processes that led the children to give wrong answers than in organizing the scores.

Basing his methods on his training in psychiatric clinics, he carried out innumerable informal interviews with the children; from these, and from his work at the Maison des Petits at the Institut Rousseau in Geneva, of which he was soon made director, came his first book, The Language and Thought of the Child; two further books followed in the same vein. These three are still the most enjoyable and human of his works. The children’s conversations and questions, their explanations of where their thoughts and their dreams came from, of how the sun and moon, earth and sea, came to exist, are in the tradition of earlier observational studies of childish thought, though much more detailed and inventive, and much influenced by Lévy-Bruhl’s concept of animistic thought in primitives. Two more books, on children’s ideas of causality and of moral judgment, followed in 1927 and 1932.

They are a long way from the books of thirty years later on logical thought, some of which require a knowledge of Boolean algebra to be properly understood, and Piaget came to consider them very jejune; yet he knew, as he says in an autobiographical essay, that

at last I had found my field of research…. My observations that logic is not inborn, but develops little by little, appeared to be consistent with my ideas on the formation of the equilibrium toward which the evolution of mental structures tends…. My aim of discovering a sort of embryology of intelligence fitted in with my biological training.

These first five books made Piaget’s name and have probably been more widely read than anything he subsequently wrote.

The birth of his own children marked the second period in Piaget’s work. It made him aware, he has written, of how much happened in children’s lives before they even started to talk, and one of the main themes in all his work since then has been that intelligence can only grow through actual physical as well as mental engagement with the environment; the question of language no longer interested him very much. The Origins of Intelligence in Children and The Construction of Reality in the Child appeared in 1936 and 1937; they consist of hundreds of patiently recorded observations of the babies’ spontaneous behavior and their reactions to being shown or given various objects, under various conditions.

The great mass of Piaget’s work falls into his third period lasting from the 1940s until the late 1960s. His mighty project has been to trace, right into adulthood, the growth of all the major concepts that structure our world: time, space, causality, substance, number. Children in every age group have been tested, observed, and described by Piaget and his research team in Geneva; as the years have passed, and the more complex feats of logical and mathematical thinking in older children have been studied, the books have got more and more difficult, and more and more unread except by specialists—one distinguished professor of psychology is said to have lost his enthusiasm for Piaget when he found he could not reach the level of abstract thought ascribed to fourteen-year-olds. Piaget has eventually come to see mathematics as the truest form of reasoning—a far cry from the conversations with children about where they keep their thoughts and whether the moon is alive. Finally, in his last period, Piaget has concentrated on the philosophical and biological implications of his work and attempted a general rapprochement between psychology, epistemology, and evolution. His most recent book, Behavior and Evolution, a difficult and controversial reworking of evolutionary theory within the Piagetian frame of reference, looks back to his early biological and scientific interests and is too remote from child psychology to come within the scope of this review. Piaget attempts in it to bring the whole plant and animal world into his ambitious redefinition of the role of behavior in evolutionary change: “it is of the essence of behavior that it is forever attempting to transcend itself and that it thus supplies evolution with its principal motor.”

There is a consistent, indeed an extremely rigid structure of ideas behind the vast body of practical work; only the briefest indication of it can be suggested. Piaget’s guiding principle has always been the movement toward equilibrium, achieved through the two poles of adaptation he calls assimilation and accommodation. These are the basic terms in which he interprets all his findings; on this ground plan he has built up his theory of stages through which every type of concept-formation invariably passes. Though they are invariant, the stages can be slowed or hastened by circumstance; once attained, a new stage in children’s thinking brings a whole cluster of logical ploys into use.

Key Piagetian terms in the description of these stages are decentration (the ability to reason outside the egocentric stance), conservation (an object or a logical principle stays the same even in changed contexts), internalization (operations can be carried out mentally once they have been learned from physical experience), and reversibility (the opposite, and the complement, of a fact are intrinsic parts of it). And within the main stages of thought there is sub-stage succeeding sub-stage, like a perfectly proportioned set of Chinese boxes. The crown of the theory, as expressed in Behavior and Evolution and other late works, is that precisely as the individual’s thinking evolves from infancy, so do species themselves evolve: both are concerned in a process of constant re-equilibration, of balancing accommodation to the environment with assimilation of it.

Only a fraction of the system has filtered through to those most concerned with children’s reasoning, the teachers. Perhaps the strongest effect of what has actually been grasped of Piaget’s theory has been the realization of how little and how late logical understanding comes to the child. That children could really believe that liquid which is poured in front of their eyes from one vessel to another, or clay molded to a different shape, thereby changes in quantity, is a shock to the adult mind. Piaget’s work—the easier part of it—has figured largely in the curricula for training teachers in England and also in the US. The overall effect may have been no more than to reinforce the child-centered bias of primary education that already prevailed, reminding the teacher how archaic young children’s reasoning can be, and to add impetus to the “learning by doing” approach. In fact Piaget, who is very proud of being a “genetic epistemologist”—a discipline that he founded and organized single-handed—has written very little specifically about education. “I am not a pedagogue myself, and I don’t have any advice to give to educators,” he has said, though adding that he believes his work should be important for education. Its practical translation he leaves to others.

Having always been—since his stock soared in the 1960s—simultaneously idolized, attacked, and largely unread, his work is now under fire, however, for misleading the teachers. The grounds for attacking Piaget have changed with fashions in psychology. Earlier, and ironically in view of his devotion to mathematics, it was customary to be shocked at Piaget’s lack of scientific rigor in neglecting statistical proofs: psychological research that had not been quantified and subjected to significance tests was scarcely research. Nowadays this does not seem to bother anybody, perhaps because specialists in child development, Jerome Bruner in particular, have accustomed the profession to taking observational, natural-history-style studies for granted.

From not being hardheaded enough, Piaget is now beginning to be seen as too hardheaded, or at least hardheaded in the wrong way. In a recent book, Jean Piaget: Psychologist of the Real, Brian Rotman has criticized the conceptual basis of the experiments with children precisely because they isolate intellect from all the factors that interact with it: “individuals are immersed in…ideas, meanings, intentions, history, symbols, social influence and cooperation…. [Piaget] leaves culture, language, and social formations in a blurred penumbra.” Objectivity, never truly achieved except in mathematics, is seen by Piaget as the only goal, the child’s final victory over “the distortions of the subjective ego.” In another recent book, Children’s Minds, Margaret Donaldson has summed up a growing body of argument that Piaget’s questions are wrongly answered by children not because they are still in too early a stage of understanding but because the questions are unimaginatively put. Children, she argues, think in context rather than in a vacuum, and several experimenters have found that when the classical Piagetian tests were recast in situations more familiar to children, many more of them could give correct answers. (She does not mention the additional obvious facts that young children are accustomed to marvels happening in stories and on television, that adults tease them, straightfaced, with nonsensical statements, and so on.) A Piagetian experiment, she says, is

abstract in a psychologically very important sense: in the sense that it is abstracted from all basic human purposes and feelings and endeavors. It is totally cold-blooded. In the veins of three-year-olds, the blood still runs warm.

Even as adults, she adds, we seldom attend to the pure linguistic content of what we hear, separate from context. One experiment with university students showed that they nearly all failed a task presented to them in purely abstract terms and nearly all solved it when it was presented as a practical task. Perhaps Bertrand Russell was being characteristically accurate when he said that “if you had my brain you would find the world a very thin, colorless place.”

These criticisms of Piaget are reasonable when they concern school-teaching and the possible hampering effect of applying Piaget’s ideas too uncritically, especially since social differences in the home are crucial in determining a child’s ability to listen carefully to speech and thus to weigh it up rationally. But Piaget could reasonably defend his body of theory by saying that he has revealed the bare structure of the growth of logical thinking, and could only have done it by isolating it as a pure culture, uncontaminated by other influences. Abstract thinking, after all, is almost the definition of “intelligence”; we have other words—“shrewdness,” “wisdom,” “imaginativeness”—for different but closely related qualities. It may be useful for the teacher to know that the five-year-old can manage six-year-olds’ concepts under the right conditions, but the sequence of stages remains unaltered: by seven years the child will have reached and passed that particular level in any case.

Piaget has never been anxious to tie the stages of reasoning down to particular ages: individual variations happen, but they are not his concern. Neither has he (in theory) denied the influence of emotional and social factors. Asked in the interviews with Richard I. Evans about the influence of parental love on cognitive growth, he said, “I have no idea about love, but affectivity certainly is central. Affectivity is the motor of any conduct. But affectivity does not modify the cognitive structure.” He gives the example of one child who likes mathematics and another who dislikes it—the former would go faster than the latter, but the intellectual stages passed through would be the same.

Piaget’s new critics, therefore, do not seem to have done more than dent the citadel. But their objections draw attention to the problems of a vertical, stratified model of development, of a psychological system that insulates one strand of human experience from the multifarious feelings and fantasies that in life are interwoven with it. Probably system-builders have to be one-sided: if Freud or Piaget had done their work with minds utterly open to every point of view they would either have been gods or gone mad; knowing what to exclude is essential. To say that Piaget’s work does not explain such behavior as hopes and fears, whims and fancies is not really relevant: it does not claim to. Pure, detached thought is the crown of human endeavor for him, and his project has been to classify the steps by which it is reached.

And yet there are those early books, so entertaining to those who can only coldly admire pure abstraction, in which children’s whims and fancies are precisely the subject; the books ask the question “why do we think magically?” It was by way of an interest in illogical thought that Piaget came to his study of logical thought, just as Freud built up his model of human nature from the starting point of pathological aberrations. It is interesting, and throws light on the balance of his whole work, to retrace Piaget’s progress in this respect. For that we must go back to the meeting in 1922 at the Psychoanalytical Congress.

The paper he presented, which Freud apparently found very interesting, was on the prelogical thought of the child, and its relation to Freud’s “primary process” thinking. Though it is not included in The Essential Piaget, the 1920 paper on “Psychoanalysis in Its Relations with Child Psychology” is, and shows something of the way Piaget was thinking at the time:

Now, autistic thought, creator of personal symbols, remains essential in each of us throughout his life. Its role changes with age. In the child, autism is everything. Later, reason develops at its expense, but—and this is the real problem—does it ever extricate itself entirely? Apparently not. There remains, therefore, an extremely instructive psychological task to be undertaken in order to determine in each individual the relations between the state of his intelligence and the state of his autistic or unconscious life. And certainly, psychoanalysis is already full of insights in this regard.

There is no question that Piaget from the beginning has been devoted to the idea of logical reasoning as the pinnacle of human achievement; but in these early days he seems to have been almost as fascinated by its opposite, “autistic” thought (the word—Bleuler’s—then denoted what we might now call fantasy). It was as though he had to exorcise, through his early books, the specter of autism, before he could proceed with his main work. By the time he was engaged with this he had almost ceased to ask “does reason ever extricate itself entirely?”—a failure which is one of the serious criticisms of the Piagetian scheme—and had ceased to pay attention to the “relations between the state of intelligence and the state of autistic or unconscious life.”

I have always detested any departure from reality,” Piaget has written in an autobiographical article; science was his “protection against the demon of philosophy.”2 In his early twenties, he relates in the same article, he was “haunted by the desire to create, and I yielded to that temptation”—by writing a voluminous, unread philosophical novel (summarized in The Essential Piaget)—until his acquaintance with Bleuler and the psychoanalysts made him “sense the danger of solitary meditation; I then decided to forget my [philosophical] system lest I should fall a victim to ‘autism.’ ” Undisciplined thinking seems to have haunted him as a terrible danger to be fought against at all costs; in the autobiographical essay he relates this to his mother’s “poor mental health,” which “made our family life somewhat troublesome.” It was, however, “this disturbing factor which at the beginning of my studies in psychology made me intensely interested in questions of psychoanalysis and pathological psychology.” His remark to Evans that he “has no idea about love,” in relation to child development, though “affectivity certainly is central” is rather typically severe (though it needs to be mentioned that in private life Piaget is most genial, as the engaging cover photograph of him with Gruber and Vonèche on his eightieth birthday shows).

Parallel with his fascination with the dangers of fantasy there was an equally vivid attachment to the reliability of solid scientific thought. In his childhood Piaget was something of a scientific prodigy. The earliest paper in The Essential Piaget, “An Albino Sparrow,” is signed “Neuchâtel, the 22nd of July 1907. Jean Piaget, élève du Collège Latin”; he was eleven. His essay was published in a local natural history journal; Piaget has said that he wrote it in order to make himself known and thus to get permission to work in the natural history museum out of hours. Earlier still, his interests (encouraged by his father, a methodical historian) had been in mechanics, seashells, and fossils “of secondary and tertiary layers”—an evocative phrase for those acquainted with the Piagetian intellectual stratifications. After having his paper published, Piaget worked after school hours for four years helping the museum director with classification. He became something of a specialist in molluscs and was embarrassed when, offered the job of curator of a mollusc collection, he had to decline because he was still at school.

In his late adolescence the “autistic” imagination reared its head again and the young Piaget lived in a turmoil of religious and philosophical crises. Gruber and Vonèche reprint some early work (by which no doubt Piaget is as embarrassed as any of us would be at facing our adolescent effusions), which are clearly linked with his later lifework. “The Mission of the Idea” was a long prose poem written when he was twenty-one. “Everything is an Idea, comes from the Idea, returns to the Idea. The Idea is an organism, is born, grows, and dies like organisms, renews itself ceaselessly.” (He shows himself here an ardent feminist, incidentally: “It is from women’s suffrage that will come peace, the death of the politics of interest, patriotic idealism, humanitarian laws, social regeneration, the uplifting of the proletariat.”) In Recherche, the philosophical novel, we find the hero Sebastian outlining ideas which prefigure the themes of the later work. “Every living unit is considered as an organization governed by a principle of equilibrium between qualities of the parts and qualities of the whole.” “Metaphysics and mysticism are forms of autistic thought, for they function by displacement and condensation”; but

a true religion must realize an equilibrium between fanaticism, which is an excess of collective equilibrium, and mysticism, which is the opposite. Science will make a true and natural religion without contents and without metaphysics. [From a paraphrase by Gruber and Vonèche]

Grappling with the problem of fantasy versus reason, then, Piaget began, in the first five books, by concentrating on autistic—or, as he came to call it—egocentric thought. Egocentric thought is naïve, subjective (the thinker “confuses his self with the universe”), often animistic (he assumes the world to be alive, purposive, and revolving round himself—“organized exactly by whom he does not know, but organized with the help of adults and for the sake of the well-being of man, and particularly children”). Childhood is a long process of “decentering,” abandoning the egocentric position until gradually “the self is freed from itself and assigns itself a place as a thing among things, an event among events.” For Piaget this is noble: the great act of intellect, as central for the individual as when “Copernicus ceased to believe in geocentrism and Einstein in Newtonian absolutes.” Here we find the unacknowledged moral mainspring of all his work.

The early books, on the whole, are a study of the egocentric position, the later ones of intellectual progress: the one all fantasy, the other all reason, though the concept of decentering from egocentricity to reason is always important. But between the two comes a group of books, relatively neglected and underestimated, which are unique among Piaget’s books because they concern a period in childhood when fantasy and reason have not yet separately crystallized. There is a case for considering his two books on infancy Piaget’s most important achievement, or at least his most original. It is only in the past few years that the study of the first weeks and months of life has been taken seriously, though now it is mushrooming. When Piaget wrote it was entirely unfashionable, but, in his Swiss citadel, he has never been concerned with psychological fashions. The books are based on continuous and inventive study of his own children, they fuse, as it were, his interest in logic and in fantasy, and they make up the only coherent account we have of the human being’s experience in the first year of life.

He succeeds in showing in them how the child gradually comes to assume the permanence of the world he is in and makes the tremendous first steps in grasping time, space, and causality, assimilating his experience and at the same time realistically accommodating to it, step by step. The child learns to separate himself from not-himself: “it is to the extent that he discovers himself that he places himself in the universe and constructs it by virtue of that fact.” The thinking that goes on at this stage is an almost physical process; as the actual manual grasp of objects develops, so does intellectual grasp. Total egocentricity means omnipotence—“when the infant sees his limbs move at his own will, he must feel that he is commanding the world.” But as the belief in external objects solidifies, so does his sense of self, and his ability to manipulate things realistically rather than magically. All this Piaget is able to show through concrete and convincing detail rather than speculation.

It is the model for the process that is repeated throughout childhood development (and which indeed, though Piaget does not stress this, underlies adult mentality, and in psychosis is unwound back to its beginnings). All later progress, as he says, “reproduces and develops it on a large scale.”

These books are imaginative as well as intellectually rigorous; Piaget is here at his most “decentered” in putting himself into the mind of the baby. It is this part of his work too that most closely approaches Freudian theory: psycho-analysis assumes a similar growth of the sense of self and object, and a similar “omnipotence of thought” that gradually accommodates to reality. In an interesting article James Anthony has compared Freud’s and Piaget’s accounts of a similar occasion: Freud’s well-known anecdote about his grandson “playing gone” with a cotton-spool that he repeatedly threw over the side of the cot, and Piaget’s account of his daughter playing the same game. 3 Piaget sees it as part of the progress toward grasping the permanence of objects, their position in space and time, and their causal relations; Freud as a symbolic game of loss and return helping the child cope with his anxiety over his mother’s absence. Both, of course, can be true.

It is the symbolic significance which Freud was the more quick to see. Piaget has, however, tackled the growth of symbolic usage in a very rich and difficult book that is probably so neglected because it is hard to fit it neatly into the Piagetian scheme (Gruber and Vonèche only give it a précis). It is based on his own children and belongs with the two books on infancy. La formation du symbole chez l’enfant (translated as Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood) covers an age-span between a few weeks old and six or seven years, but concentrates on the child between six months and three years old. In it Piaget tackles the origin of symbol-using and shows it to be one of the earliest abilities to appear. But he somehow falters in carrying through the issues raised. He shows the two-month-old in the cradle imitating what he is shown, the four-month-old “interiorizing” imitations and playing them through out of context, the six-month-old ritualizing them into his play, and the year-old child using the “true ludic symbol”:

She saw a cloth whose fringed edges vaguely recalled those of her pillow; she seized it, held a fold of it in her right hand, sucked the thumb of the same hand and lay down on her side, laughing hard. She kept her eyes open, but blinked from time to time as if she were alluding to closed eyes. Finally, laughing more and more, she cried “Néné” [baby word for sleep].

This game of “going to sleep” is the beginning of make-believe, of play, drama, and imaginative invention both good and bad. (Piaget quotes Pierre Janet’s remark that the discovery of lying marked one of the turning-points in the intellectual development of humanity.) It is especially marked by the laugh, the expression that says “this is play”—just as the conventions of art do. At seven years the same child had constructed a whole imaginary village, peopled it, invented a language for it, and drawn maps of it.

But although in this book, in a critique of psychoanalysis, Piaget argues that symbols are a primary form of expression rather than a result of censorship or repression, he fails to do them justice. What happens later to the free-associative symbol-making function, which is “implied in the beginnings of all the child’s conceptual thought”? “It operates only in certain exceptional situations, such as children’s play, the dreams of both children and adults, and sometimes in states of completely relaxed thought.” It is as though Piaget had never read a poem, watched a play, or looked at a picture. By completely dissociating logical symbols from imaginative ones he misses the fact that sensory material is perpetually being made into symbols, which are our most elementary ideas; that some of these are deliberately used in the way we call logical, others condensed into dreams, and others used to build artistic and religious structures.

This is a basically reductionist view of metaphoric thought, and the two great system-builders share it. They also share a mighty self-confidence, a nourishing dogmatism, a proud one-sidedness. Above all, both conceal behind their systems a deeply moral commitment to the value of reason, and a profound fascination with unreason. If, as Piaget said In 1920, it is “an extremely instructive task…to determine in each individual the relations between the state of his intelligence and the state of his autistic or unconscious life,” then we need them both.


Her Second Chance May 17, 1979

  1. 1

    In Jean Piaget: The Man and His Ideas, by Richard I. Evans.

  2. 2

    In A History of Psychology in Autobiography, Vol. 4, edited by Edwin G. Boring et al. (Russell, reprint of Greenwood edition, 1952), pp. 237-265.

  3. 3

    James Anthony, “The System Makers: Piaget and Freud,” British Journal of Medical Psychology, 1957, Vol. 30, no. 4, pp. 255-269.