Category Archives: epistemology

Piaget and the logic of action

I’m reading Prof. Castorina’s lectures on Genetic Epistemology. They’re quite good.

One of the points he explains very clearly is that, for Jean Piaget, logic emerges out of the individual’s coordination of actions (or action schemata). Piaget considers that one of the basic features of all living forms is their tendency to self-organize. He thought that this principle or “functional invariant” applied to all levels of development, from basic organic forms to complex human behavior. It is an essential part of self-preservation that organisms produce complex and organized structures and that they maintain such organization actively throughout time in order to survive. Successful self-organization is thus the counter-part of successful adaptation; they are parallel processes, two sides of the same coin.

I buy it up to that point. But Piaget extends this biological framework further: intelligent life is manifestation of life as such; the same laws that apply to living forms also apply to intelligence and to cognitive development. Logic derives from action, and action is understood in biological terms. Logic reflects the inner organization of action. For example, the organized actions of babies that move, order and categorize objects are at the root of the (developmentally later) mental operations of classification, seriation, number, etc. The very logical principle of “conservation,” so central to Piaget’s theory, derives from the organism’s tendency to self-organize and self-preserve.

It is as if a logical instinct were inherent to human action. For Piaget, there’s a continuum that goes from biology, through action, up to logic and scientific knowledge.

In my opinion, Piaget underestimates the discontinuities between animal cognition and human knowledge. I consider the latter as an institutional phenomenon (I try to explain in other places). As I see it, the deontological nature of human knowledge is not reducible to biological action.

 

Misunderstanding Piaget

Re-reading Piaget and García’s Psychogenesis and the History of Science (Piaget & Garcia, 1988). I like the way they explain the Piagetian project in the introduction.

It is clear to me that many of Piaget’s critics misunderstand the object of study of genetic psychology (either purposely or by ignorance).They criticize Piaget as if he was talking about the child as a concrete, integral individual (involving emotional, biological, socio-cultural and cognitive aspects); that is, as if Piaget were talking about the same child that is studied by developmental psychology.

Yet Piaget makes it very clear that it is not such a concrete child he’s studying but, rather, he’s concerned with an abstraction: the epistemic subject, i.e., the child as embarked on the construction of justifiable, i.e., normative knowledge; the “child as scientist.” Thus in section 2 of the Introduction Piaget and García make it clear that they are not concerned with the psychophysiology of human behavior (actions as material events, consciousness, memory, mental images, etc.) Rather they’re only interested in the child’s construction of cognitive instruments insofar as they are (or become) normative, that is, insofar as they come to be organized according to norms that the individual either gives herself or accepts from others during the processes of knowledge acquisition. If A. Gopnik (to give just one example, among many possible others, of an author that puts forward a distorted version of Piaget’s theory, and keeps defeating the strawman over and over again) understood this distinction, half of her criticisms of Piaget would instantly become pointless.

Piaget, J., & Garcia, R. (1988). Psychogenesis and the History of Science. New York: Columbia University Press.