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, by 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. 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 …

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Letters

Her Second Chance May 17, 1979