Tag Archives: genetic epistemology

Susan Gelman on children’s preference for unique owned objects

Gelman, S. A., & Davidson, N. S. (2016). Young children’s preference for unique owned objects. Cognition. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2016.06.016

This is an incredible and profound study on children’s attachment to objects, with implications both for cognitive and emotional development. It’s also a study that amazes me for the amount of work it required from researchers (who had to find brand-new replicas of more than 100 children’s attachment objects).

The experimental design is quite simple. Researchers asked 36 three-year-olds to choose between two toys for either themselves or the researcher: an old (visibly used) toy vs. a new (more attractive) toy matched in type and appearance (e.g., old vs brand-new blanket). Focal pairs contrasted an old toy that belonged to the child with a matched new object; control pairs contrasted toys the child had never seen before.

The conclusion of the study is that, by 3 years of age, young children place special value on unique owned objects. Children prefer their original objects to newer, better versions, but only in the case of the focal pairs (with their objects of attachment) and not with the control pairs (objects the child had never seen before). These findings are consistent with the view that possessions are extensions of the self.

In addition, these preferences hold for “sleep” objects (blanket, pillow) and toys representing an animated character (dolls, action figures) but not for inanimate objects (a car, a toy hammer, etc.) Uniqueness is valued for sleep objects and animate toys, but not for inanimate toys. Moreover, in 30 out of 31 cases, attachment objects had a proper name. Ownership, attachment and anthropomorphism (eyes, animated features, soft or furry texture) all combine to enhance children’s preferences for their own objects.

In addition, children seemed to understand that their special objects had value for them only in so far as they share a history with the object. That is, they did not attribute the researcher the same preference for the old (attachement) object. In this sense, they seem to understand the subjective nature of value.

The results are remarkable, among other things, because of the understanding of the abstract ownership relationships, the distinction between appearance and reality and the perspective-taking abilities involved in children’s responses. The authors also emphasize how attuned any child can be to minor features of an object that indicate that it is her unique object and not a substitute.

These findings also offer a different (experimental, cognitive) perspective on the phenomenon of “transitional objects,” first described by Donald Winnicott in the 1950s.

A remarkable study indeed.

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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

 

The normativity of human knowledge

I am now reading Prof. Castorina’s lectures on Genetic Epistemology. There he makes the case that human knowledge in general, and scientific knowledge in particular, involves a normative dimension that is often overlooked by naturalistic approaches to knowledge.

Let me explain this topic in my own words. Naturalized Epistemology is right in considering human knowledge as a fact of the world. Human beings are real, corporeal, natural entities. Human beings have (are) bodies; they have a physical existence. Any explanation of human knowledge must recognize that humans can know their world only insofar as they are equipped with wet computers (aka brains) that receive information from the world, process it, and respond to the world in a certain manner. There’s input, information processing and output. If your computer gets broken (in a serious car accident, for example), you might lose your ability to know the world.

Although I am already using a highly metaphorical language here (because the brain is different from a digital computer in many significant ways), I can buy the previous description up to this point. Human knowledge is a natural phenomenon and therefore it can be studied by using the methods of the natural sciences (for example, the neurosciences).

Yet when we look at actual human beings engaged in knowledge-related practices (human beings investigating, thinking, theorizing, teaching, learning and discussing about different issues) an important aspect of human knowledge comes to light. Not only do people know about certain things, they also know that what they know is true. For instance, they know that the sentence “dogs are mammals” is true; and they can defend the truth of such a claim through arguments. People can (and frequently do) justify most of their knowledge claims. They offer reasons why things are in a certain (and not in another) way. They argue for specific positions. They follow rules and shared criteria for adjudicating between rival hypotheses. They claim that some assertions are true and they also claim to know why they are true. In certain cases (two plus two equals four) most human beings would argue that the truth of this claim is universal and necessary. That is, they would say that they know not only that things are in a certain way, but also why they must be that way and couldn’t possibly be in any other way.

To put it differently: people care not only about the efficacy of their knowledge (whether what they know allows them to adapt effectively to the external reality) but also about the legitimacy of their knowledge. Any observation of actual human beings involved in knowledge-related practices makes this point self-evident. Any observation of naturalistic epistemologists giving talks in conferences or workshops or making arguments to convince others makes this point self-evident. They are not just blind mechanisms sputtering output; they try to be rational, sensible, persuasive.

There is a normative dimension to human knowledge. The problem with the naturalistic approach to human knowledge is that it cannot bridge the gap between the mechanistic – naturalistic level of explanation and the normative phenomena. What humans know is not just the result of some material mechanism (involving the interaction between the world and the wet computer) but is also the result of a complex socio-cultural normative process that requires to be addressed on a different level. The natural sciences by themselves cannot account for this normative component; norms and institutions must be included.

Epistemology, therefore (and this is Castorina’s point) should deal with the fundamental problem of how people and societies give themselves norms. Any relevant epistemology must start by recognizing the normativity of human knowledge.

 

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.