Kitchener on Piaget as a sociologist

This post presupposes many others. Don’t start here.

I’ve just read Richard Kitchener’s excellent paper on Jean Piaget as a sociologist (Kitchener, 1991). He rightly emphasizes the normative aspect in Piaget’s approach to knowledge. Part of the unfair criticism that the Piagetian legacy endures these days comes from authors who neglect or just don’t understand such normative aspect (A. Gopnik’s publications are good examples of this intellectually shortsighted attitude). I’ve insisted on this topic in previous posts such as this one or this one or this one, and will be writing more about it in the future.

What do we mean when we say that epistemic knowledge and logic have an inescapable normative component? Our point is that individuals engaged in the construction of epistemic knowledge are different from animals in that they are not simply trying to solve problems posed by their environment (that is, they’re not just trying to be effectively adapted to the world) but they are trying to produce valid, legitimate knowledge that they can defend by means of reasons when questioned by interlocutors or adversaries. Ideally, these interlocutors challenge each other as equals, that is, they don’t use the argument from authority. “The need to justify one’s beliefs or actions emerges only under the particular social conditions of equality” (Kitchener, 1991, p. 433). Under conditions of equality people tend to cooperate with each other rather than to constrain or force each other to do certain things or to accept certain propositions. Rationality, in Piaget’s and Kitchener’s view, is a byproduct of peer interaction: cooperation generates reason (Kitchener, 1991, p. 430). Logic, to sum up, arises from interactions between individuals: “The Cartesian solitary knower, separate from social interaction with others, cannot construct an equilibrated logic” (Kitchener, 1991, p. 435).

Similarly, objectivity results from mutual exchanges of subjective perspectives between individuals: being objective “…requires an awareness that what one thinks may not coincide with what is true” (Kitchener, 1991, p. 429). This self-vigilance or, as Kitchener calls it, self-consciousness, is the psychological activity of an individual thinking and arguing with others, and subjecting herself to the normative rules of reasoning. “Rules of reasoning are thus normative obligations binding upon the individual (…) Reasoning in general requires normative principles of inference and the most adequate one is normative reciprocity” (Kitchener, 1991, pp. 425-426).

Kitchener illustrates this last point with a famous example from Piaget’s Études sociologiques: “two individuals, on opposite banks of a river, are each building a pillar of stones across which a plank will go as a bridge”. This creates a problem of action coordination between individuals that can be characterized in logical terms (correspondence, reciprocity, addition or subtraction of complementary actions). But the bridge example is an instance of what I call the technological approach to human action. That is, Piaget (and Kitchener) focus here not on the structure of social relations (the rules and institutions that organize life in common) but on the practical, effective coordination of actions that are a (more or less effective) means toward an end (building the bridge). The bridge example could have as well came out of the desk of a Vygotskian scholar, since it fits with the features of activity as defined by the socio-historical school: people organized in order to achieve a common goal and using tools available in their cultural context. The emphasis here, to say it again, is on technical action and not in the sense of justice inherent to social relations.

So I have two (external?) criticisms of Kitchener-Piaget: 1) to understand normativity (of social relations, and epistemic normativity as well) you need to pay attention to social institutions as they embody a sense of justice; a technical or technological view of human action won’t do; 2) institutions come with many flavors, reciprocity being a characteristic of one particular (albeit important) institution (contract). But there are other institutions (some of them based on authority) that are legitimate and can therefore be a source of valid statements. (There was rational argumentation before the emergence of Athenian democracy).

Kitchener, R. F. (1991). Jean Piaget: The Unknown Sociologist? The British Journal of Sociology, 42(3), 421–442. doi:10.2307/591188



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