Tag Archives: piaget

Haidt on rationalism, social intuitionism and morality

 

Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: a social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108(4), 814–834. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11699120

 

  1. Rationalism vs. intuitionism

Let me start by the end. This wonderful article closes with a beautiful sentence: “The time may be right, therefore, to take another look at Hume’s perverse thesis: that moral emotions and intuitions drive moral reasoning, just as surely as a dog wags its tail”.

This piece criticizes rationalist approaches in moral psychology and proposes an alternative: social intuitionism.

Rationalist approaches, according to the author, assume that moral knowledge and moral judgment are reached primarily by a process of reasoning and reflection. Intuitionist approaches, by way of contrast, claim that moral intuitions (including moral emotions) come first and directly cause moral judgments. Haidt believes that moral reasoning is usually an ex post facto process (a dog’s tail) used to influence the intuitions (and hence judgments) of other people (other dogs), and not to arrive at new moral truths.

Haidt begins by offering some affectively charged examples, such as incest and other taboo violations. For those cases, he says, an intuitionist model is more plausible than a rationalist model. He then tries to prove that the intuitionist model can handle the entire range of moral judgments.

Haidt relies on a schematic contrast between intuition and reason. Intuition, he says, occurs quickly, effortlessly, and automatically, such that the outcome but not the process is accessible to consciousness, whereas reasoning occurs more slowly, requires some effort, and involves at least some steps that are accessible to consciousness. When one uses intuition, “one sees or hears about a social event and one instantly feels approval or disapproval”.

He then suggests that research on moral development (for example, Kohlberg’s) is trapped in a vicious circle between theory and methods. Rationalist researchers assume that moral judgment results from conscious, verbal reasoning, and therefore they investigate it by using oral interviews that highlight rational discourse and obscure intuitive reactions. Standard moral judgment interviews distort our understanding of morality by boosting an unnaturally reasoned form of moral judgment, leading to the erroneous conclusion that moral judgment results from a reasoning process, and thus reinforcing the mistaken assumptions the researcher had at the very beginning of the study.

Haidt’s model posits that the intuitive process is the default process, handling everyday moral judgments in a rapid, easy, and holistic way. It is only when intuitions conflict, or when the social situation demands a thorough examination of all facets of a scenario, that the reasoning process is called upon.

  1. The social dimension

According to the social intuitionist model, moral intuitions and moral reasoning are partially shaped by culture. Given that people have no access to the processes behind their automatic evaluations, they provide justifications by consulting their a priori moral theories, i.e. culturally supplied norms for evaluating and criticizing the behavior of others. By the way, this point has been made many times in the past. Already Aristotle, in his treatise on rhetorics, describes how people use cultural commonplaces in persuasive speech to support pre-existing points of view. A priori moral theories provide acceptable reasons for praise and blame (e.g., “unprovoked harm is bad”; “people should strive to live up to God’s commandments”). The term “a priori moral theories” seems to cover roughly the aspect of culture that other scholars call social representations, ideology, background knowledge, topoi, etc.

The social intuitionist model acknowledges that moral reasoning can be effective in influencing other people. Words and ideas can make people see issues in a new way by reframing a problem and triggering new intuitions. Now, this is remarkable: Haidt refers to one of the paradigmatic rationalist philosophers–Plato!–to make the point that moral reasoning naturally occurs in social settings, for example in the context of a dialog between people who can challenge each other’s arguments and provoke new intuitions. This is an odd allusion because Plato embodies the very origin of the tradition that Haidt seems to be attacking, a tradition purporting that moral rules and beliefs ought to be established through rational discourse. When Haidt attacks this tradition, he depicts rationalists as people who think of morality as individual, internal and cognitive. So how can he refer to the same tradition to make the point that moral reasoning is social and interactive?

Haidt does not seem to acknowledge that sometimes rationalists themselves claim that morality develops through social processes and exchanges.  Piaget and Kohlberg, for example, give such social processes as much importance as Plato himself; and this is something that Haidt does not seem to recognize fully when treating Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s theories of moral development as cognitive.

More about this. Haidt makes the point that the intuitionist approach treats moral judgment style as an aspect of culture, and that educational interventions should aim at creating a culture that fosters a more balanced, reflective, and fair-minded style of judgment. At this point he says that the “just community” schools that Kohlberg created in the 1970s appear to do just that. How come this is not seen as a contradiction by Haidt?

Let me clarify. There are two important conceptual tensions to be noticed here. One is that Kohlberg is presented as the textbook moral rationalist and then as the proponent of a practical intervention that takes into account the social and cultural aspects of morality (same problem as with Plato). At this point Haidt should make clear what is going on. Either it is the case that there is an internal contradiction in Kohlberg’s system (so that he sometimes treats morality as an exclusively discursive, rational and cognitive matter, and at other times he understands it as a social and cultural process), or perhaps Kohlberg’s view of morality is subtler and more multi-layered that expected (and Haidt’s attacks are therefore aimed at a strawman). In my opinion, the second option is the case (see Donald Reed’s book on Kohlberg, “Liberalism and the practice of Democratic Community”).

The second conceptual tension comes to the fore in paragraphs such as the following: “By seeking out discourse partners who are respected for their wisdom and open-mindedness, and by talking about the evidence, justifications, and mitigating factors involved in a potential moral violation, people can help trigger a variety of conflicting intuitions in each other. If more conflicting intuitions are triggered, the final judgment is likely to be more nuanced and ultimately more reasonable.”

Here Haidt says that, even though in everyday settings morality is intuitive and automatic, in the long run it is desirable that people talk about evidence and justifications, that is, that they get involved in a rational argumentation. Most of the time, then, morality is intuitive and automatic, but it ought to be less emotional and intuitive and more rational and discursive. Now, in saying this Haidt is very close to the very tradition that he is criticizing: Plato, Piaget, Kohlberg, Rawls, etc. (but not cultural relativists like Shweder!) all say things in the same vein. Haidt seems to be close to the rationalist’s heart at this point.

The way in which Haidt articulates nature and culture, and sees innate cognitions and social modeling as complementary is interesting, and reminds me of other contemporary authors such as Michael Tomasello. I quote from Haidt’s paper:

“Morality, like language, is a major evolutionary adaptation for an intensely social species, built into multiple regions of the brain and body, that is better described as emergent than as learned yet that requires input and shaping from a particular culture.” And: “There is indeed a moral Rubicon that only Homo sapiens appears to have crossed: widespread third-party norm enforcement. Chimpanzee norms generally work at the level of private relationships, where the individual that has been harmed is the one that takes punitive action. Human societies, in contrast, are marked by a constant and vigorous discussion of norms and norm violators and by a willingness to expend individual or community resources to inflict punishment, even by those who were not harmed by the violator.”

We agree with Haidt that cognition in general and moral judgment in particular has been seen up to now as an overly intellectual matter. We agree with the turn towards embodied cognition and with the emphasis in the centrality of emotion. Also, Haidt is right in emphasizing the role of practice, repetition, and physical movement for the tuning up of cultural intuitions. “Social skills and judgmental processes that are learned gradually and implicitly then operate unconsciously, projecting their results into consciousness, where they are experienced as intuitions arising from nowhere”. “Moral development is primarily a matter of the maturation and cultural shaping of endogenous intuitions.” Perhaps he’s a bit shallow in his view of third-party norm enforcement as the mark of Homo Sapiens. Culture is certainly much more than that. Social organizations have developed explicit codes, laws, values and customs, complex representational systems, whole languages that allow humans to be aware of norms, to discuss about who is a criminal and who is virtuous, that take rule-following to a complete different level when compared even with the most advanced cases of animals’ social enforcement or punishment of anti-social behavior. But, in general, we agree with his vision of how morality operates in everyday settings.

  1. The physiological analogy

The problem with previous, prevalent views of moral reasoning seems to be that they do not represent faithfully what most people do most of the time. Haidt thus appears to use a naturalist criterion to argue that his theory overcomes the limitations and distortions of previous ones. Psychological science should be concerned with facts; the relevant fact at hand is here how people really think (most people, most of the time). It is true, for example, that most of the time we don’t spell out all the intermediate steps in moral reasoning; that our gut reactions to moral phenomena are quite automatic. This is a naturalist approach: a good theory of digestion, for example, should explain how animals digest their food in normal conditions (most animals, most of the time). Then, if I eat an inedible plant and I suffer from stomach ache and vomiting, those events should be treated as deviating from the natural, expected digestive process, and should be explained by additional, special theories about poisoning. Moral intuition performs the normal digestion of the moral fact; excessive verbal reasoning is a kind of intoxication.

The comparison between intuition (fast, effortless, automatic, unintentional, inaccessible, metaphorical, holistic, etc.) and reasoning (slow, effortful, intentional, controllable, consciously accessible and viewable, analytical, etc.) is based on this kind of physiological, functional view of the human mind.

Now, the physiological analogy, in my opinion, has some limitations. Think about this: we humans also have mathematical intuitions. If I pay with a 100 bill for something that costs $23 and I’m given a five as change I know immediately that the change is wrong. When someone asks me why, then I can offer justifications, produce an explicit calculation, but that doesn’t mean that such explicit argument was present from the beginning. It’s a justification of my point of view that I produce ex post-facto. Just as in morals. Thus it might be the case that, in many knowledge domains (math, physics, theory of mind, morality), most people, most of the time, produce automatic responses that are intuitive, effortless, quick, etc. Yet that doesn’t mean that math as a knowledge domain is irrational or purely intuitive, because mathematical rules might have been constructed according to rational criteria in the context of protracted ontogenetic or phylogenetic processes. Yet, in everyday settings, we don’t need to spell out all the intermediate steps that take us to a conclusion. We feel immediately that some things don’t make sense or are just wrong.

Let me compare this with Piaget’s theory. Although Piaget did use some biological, even physiological metaphors to account for how our mind tries to make sense of phenomena (e.g. assimilation and accommodation), he complemented this view with an epistemological approach that allowed him to characterize the domain of morality (and other domains of cognition) in a richer way. He incorporated logical, philosophical, sociological and historical considerations into his theories. For example, there is a sociological theory embedded in his differentiation between autonomous and heteronomous moral judgments. This interdisciplinary approach gives him additional criteria to decide what constitutes an interesting, relevant judgment or relevant cognition, beyond the naturalistic criterion of what most people do, most of the time.

When an individual has to deal with a typical moral transgression (a robbery, an act of selfishness, an unnecessary insult against an innocent victim) from within an unquestioned paradigm, then her moral reaction is automatic, intuitive, quick, just as if someone were to ask her “how much is 2 + 2”? But when the situation is new, or when it awakens contradictory moral convictions, then it may trigger a more explicit thinking process, an inner dialogue that in some cases might take her to new insights. Piagetian theory, by the way, gives a precise account of the distinction between experiences that are easily assimilated to the individual’s current conceptual framework and those that trigger cognitive conflict and, eventually, favor conceptual change. This contrast between paradigm continuity and revolution (to use Kuhn’s terms) is familiar to Piagetian psychologists. Again, Piaget takes into account structural and normative aspects of cognition and goes beyond a pure functional, physiological view that is simply interested in what most people do most of the time. Conceptual change might be something that happens rarely, but it might be interesting and relevant once one adopts a richer view of knowledge processes.

Another metaphor: once the roads are built, yes, it is true that cars tend to travel the same roads over and over again, without thinking about the direction they must go. But sometimes psychologists need to take a step back and think about how new roads are constructed (or abandoned). That’s what constructivism focuses on.

  1. The legal analogy

Haidt says: “The reasoning process is more like a lawyer defending a client than a judge or scientist seeking truth”. He stresses that moral reasoning is not free, that it resembles a lawyer employed only to seek confirmation of preordained conclusions.

Again, it is true that this is how most people reason, most of the time. This is how we think and interact with each other in everyday settings, while pursuing our particular goals. It was already noticed by Aristotle, in his treatise on Rhetoric, that people first offer conclusions and then search for supporting arguments (the opposite order to what we use when we try to present arguments according to logical standards.)

Yet: lawyers are not natural creatures, but they are necessary gears within a legal machine. Where there is a lawyer, there will also be a more complex legal ecosystem that includes other agents and roles. A lawyer, for example, presents her case to a judge, in order to prevail against an opposing party.

Think about it this way: even a scientist acts like a lawyer! When Haidt says: “… a judge or scientist seeking truth” a sociologist of science would disagree with the comparison. A scientist is not an objective judge, she’s an individual human being with particular interests. Yes, she wants to know the truth, but she also is fond of some particular hypothesis, intellectual traditions, lines of research, and tends to be partial, to favor some hypotheses over competing alternatives. And in her career, she has associated herself with such a hypothesis or line of work, and does not want to dilapidate her investment. She has a lot at stake. She’s closer to the lawyer than to the judge (ask Bourdieu, Kuhn, and many others…). It is only as a result of a whole adversarial process that a scientific community, in due time, can start recognizing one of the competing theories as closer to the truth, thus playing the role of judge. It takes lawyers, witnesses and judges to determine the truth within an adversarial system. This is what is called dialectics.

In other words: in thinking of the moral reasoner (or arguer) as a lawyer, Haidt does not distance himself from rationalism. On the contrary, he depicts the moral reasoner as part of a rational, intersubjective process. And he seems to acknowledge this:

“In the social intuitionist view, moral judgment is not just a single act that occurs in a single person’s mind but is an ongoing process, often spread out over time and over multiple people. Reasons and arguments can circulate and affect people, the fact that there are at least a few people among us who can reach such conclusions on their own and then argue for them eloquently (Link 3) means that pure moral reasoning can play a causal role in the moral life of a society.”

Now Haidt should make a decision here. He can either keep on insisting that the interesting, central part of moral judgments is the automatic, intuitive, moral reaction that takes place “inside” the individual, and that persuasion is a causal, lineal “link” by which an individual cognitive system impacts on another cognitive system (“causes” it to change a point of view). Or else, that there is a rational, intersubjective process of moral reflection that exceeds what an individual does at a particular moment, that is played out on the cultural stage, and that can be seen as rational from a larger perspective: social and historical processes of moral elaboration.

 

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Tartas, V., Baucal, A., & Perret-Clermont. (2010). Can you think with me? The social and cognitive conditions and the fruits of learning.

 

Paper #3

More about Perret-Clermont and argumentation. We briefly discuss here Tartas, V., Baucal, A., & Perret-Clermont. (2010). Can you think with me? The social and cognitive conditions and the fruits of learning. In C. Howe & K. Littletown (Eds.), Educational Dialogues: Understanding and Promoting Productive Interaction (pp. 64–82). Amsterdam: Elsevier.

This article tackles Perret-Clermont’s most typical and recurring question: how do socio-cognitive processes impact on learning? This question, once operationalized, becomes: How should one design experiments that detect and measure the impact of social interactions on learning? The authors then describe a set experiments structured in four phases: pre-test, adult training, joint activity (among two peers), post-test.

The results of these experiments seem to suggest that social interaction clearly affects learning, and that the defining factor that explains the amount and depth of progress is the quality of the interaction between participants during stage 2 and stage 3. Both interacting with an adult and interacting with a peer can produce progress; the child might benefit from interactions with an adult that scaffolds the situation for her, or from interactions with a peer that can be easily called into question and confronted with different points of view. In either case (child or adult) the key is whether the participants can express and exchange their opinions freely; more broadly, whether there is a secure environment that encourages children to explore the problem at hand as autonomous epistemic agents.  In consonance with Piaget’s early writings, the authors claim that a horizontal relationship between participants in which each agent shares her opinions and reasoning and respectfully questions the other’s points of view produces the best results in terms of knowledge acquisition.

“Learning and thinking”, they claim, “will then appear more clearly as the collaborative result of  autonomous minds confronting viewpoints and cultural artefacts (tools, semiotic  mediations, tasks, division of roles, etc.) and trying to manage differences, feedback and conflicts to pursue their activities.”

Nice article.

Arcidiacono & Perret-Clermont (2010) – The Piagetian conservation-of-matter interview, revisited

Paper #1

In this paper, Arcidiacono & Perret-Clermont (2010) revisit the Piagetian conservation-of-matter interview in light of the theory of argumentation. The authors argue that children’s statements are co-constructed by them and their interviewers, within a specific institutional setting, i.e. the testing situation. While Piaget considered children’s statements as dependent on the cognitive level, Arcidiacono & Perret-Clermont describe children’s arguments as the result of a series of interactions with the tester and as a reaction to the tester’s framing of the interview. The authors claim that, during the Piagetian interview, adults’ interventions strongly influence the statements made by the child. Children’s thoughts do not show up as clear and distinct ideas; they are expressed in a specific social context.

This article contains a number of interesting reflections on the nature of children’s discourse within the Piagetian interview, but it leaves an important issue unresolved. Sometimes the authors seem simply to state that the specific interviewers that participated in the examples discussed did not meet the Piagetian standards for not interfering with children’s spontaneous thought and for not inducing the answers. Alternatively, they sometimes imply that the interviewers’ interference and suggestions are unavoidable because of the very nature of the Piagetian interview and of human communication in general. Which of these is the case for the authors is not clear. They claim, for example, that “the adult repeatedly diverged from the intentions of the Piagetian script and consequently induced answers to the child” and that Piaget’s intentions were “misunderstood” by the interviewers (which implies that the interviewers were not very good), and yet also claim that these diversions “might be an inevitable condition of the situation”.

In conclusion, the authors claim that, according to the Piagetian ideal, “the adult has to offer a real place for debating, so as to give epistemic agency to the child” yet they don’t make it clear whether this ideal can be achieved in the real world or not.

I’m sorry

My son is an adorable and smart kid. I have talked about him in this blog, especially to provide illustrations of developmental milestones. But, in order to put his achievements in context, it’s necessary to mention that he’s developmentally delayed. That is, he’s 4 years 1 month old now, and he’s mastering certain behaviors that are typical of 2- and 3-year-olds.

For example, he has recently learned how to say “I’m sorry.” There are several ways to perform this speech act (Austin, 1962; Searle, 1969) in Spanish; he uses “lo siento” instead of “perdón”, the latter being more common here in Argentina. I guess he picked up “lo siento” from TV shows such as Caillou or Go Diego Go, that are dubbed in Mexico or Spain.

The speech act of apologizing is a very peculiar and interesting one. It involves a) the recognition that one has done something wrong (something morally bad, or perhaps neglectful or careless), as well as b) the request that the person one is interacting with forgives (gives up feelings of anger and decides not to punish) this behavior. It also implies that the person apologizing is committed to avoid such wrongdoing in the future. There’s a whole conception of responsibility implicit in this apparently simple speech act.

As I have argued elsewhere, I support the Piagetian idea that action precedes thought (Piaget, 1976), which on the level of speech acts translates as: rhetorical moves precede explicit concepts. In other words, my son apologizes because he senses he can get certain pragmatic results by using this speech act. He performs the speech act pretty well, with the right tone in his voice and a cute expression on his face. So he convinces me and I capitulate: “ok, ok, but don’t do that again”.

Yet it’s easy to see he’s not mastered the rules of apology. For example, he tells me “I’m going to wash my hands”, and so I reply, “ok, but please be careful not to make a mess with the water,” and then he says “I am sorry”. Or, when he’s intentionally kicking a chair, I tell him “don’t do that again” and he says “I’m sorry” but continues kicking the chair just as before. So he’s contradicting two felicity conditions of the speech act of apologizing: in the former example he’s not committed the wrongdoing yet; in the latter, he’s not committed to avoid doing it again in the future.

To sum up: my son is pragmatically effective but he’s still not conceptually clear about what “I’m sorry” means. He doesn’t get responsibility, pardon, commitment, etc. Conceptual clarity about the meaning of apologies will arrive later, as a result of reflection on this interaction with the world, favored by social instruction, social representations and symbolic interaction in general.

 

Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.2307/3326622

Piaget, J. (1976). The grasp of consciousness (S. Wedgwood, Trans.). Cambridge Massachusettes Harvard University PressOriginal Work Published 1974.

Searle, J. R. (1969). Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (p. 203). Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/Speech-Acts-Essay-Philosophy-Language/dp/052109626X

 

 

Alison Gopnik as a child

Shamelessly, Gopnik starts her seminal article on The Scientist as Child (Gopnik, 1996) by claiming that “recently, cognitive and developmental psychologists have invoked the analogy of science itself” (p. 485). Recently! That analogy is at the core of the Piagetian enterprise. Indeed, Piaget founded the field of cognitive development some 80 years ago by appealing to that very analogy, i.e., by claiming that the fields of epistemology (or philosophy of science) and developmental psychology can illuminate each other because there are functional similarities between the processes of knowledge acquisition in children and in scientists. The insight that the scientific investigation of children’s cognitive development sheds light on the history of science and vice versa is 100% Piagetian. Yet Gopnik discusses it as if it were a new idea.

Gopnik knows that Piaget already said this. In other writings she’s honest enough to admit she knows about Piaget’s systematic comparison between children and scientists, although she also claims that she means it in a different way; i.e., she affirms that the relationships she establishes between the fields of child psychology and epistemology are not the same as in Piaget’s. Yet in this particular paper (Gopnik, 1996) and in many other places (most notably, her lectures to undergraduates, of which I will speak some day) she pretends that it’s she and her theory-theory colleagues who have coined this famous analogy. In this particular article, Piaget’s name is not even mentioned.

There are many other ideas that are originally Piagetian and for which the Swiss researcher gets no credit at all. For example: that theory change is a process that goes through different stages: disregard or denial of uncomfortable evidence, compromise solutions, generalized crisis and substitution by a new theory. And, of course, the basic contention that children have theories in a sense comparable to scientists. She also claims: “Theory change proceeds more uniformly and quickly in children than in scientists, and so is considerably easier to observe, and we can even experimentally determine what kinds of evidence lead to change. In children, we may actually be able to see “the logic of discovery” in action” (Gopnik, 1996, p. 509). This is Piaget talking! Yet she presents these ideas as if they were completely her own.

This is not my main criticism of Gopnik’s work, of course. The central problem, in my opinion, is the way she understands science (as result of a mere ability to investigate and “find truths” rather than as a normative practice). I’ll talk about it in a different post.

Gopnik, A. (1996). The scientist as child. Philosophy of Science, 63, 485–514. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/188064

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

 

“Let’s trade” and “my turn”

My son L. is 3y 1m old. He’s started recently to use the expression “let’s trade” (“te cambio”). That is: he produces speech acts aimed at swapping objects with another person. For instance, he gives away his glass of milk in order to obtain a yoghurt cup I have. We exchange goods. He seems to understand that the proto- contract we thus celebrate involves the mutual surrender and handing over of possessions. The rules of reciprocity are no doubt regulating this interaction. Which doesn’t mean that the child can understand conceptually, let alone articulate, such rules.

In addition, when playing with other children, L. knows how to claim his turn to use a toy (shouts “¡Turno mío!”). He also uses this expression in other contexts; for instance, to demand his turn to drink mate (in a mate round shared with adults). Again: his understanding of the reciprocity rules involved is perhaps incipient. But L. is clearly starting to master the rhetorical forms that allow efficient access to the desired objects.

My hypothesis: the child first masters the rhetorical forms, and only later the conceptual content. Piaget’s prise de conscience (the conceptual, explicit insight) is the final product of a process that starts with immediate, un-reflected action. The process goes from the periphery of action to the center of explicit, conceptual thinking. Differently from Piaget, however, in the periphery I do not see the actions of an organism but the utterances of a retor.