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Piaget, Jean (1896–1980)


Jean Piaget, the psychologist and philosopher, was born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. He studied zoology at the university there and in 1918 received his doctorate for a thesis on the subject of land mollusks in the Valais Alps. He then studied psychology for a year at Zürich and, from 1919 to 1921, abnormal psychology, logic, and the philosophy of science at the Sorbonne. From 1921 to 1925, he was director of studies at the Institut J.-J. Rousseau (now the Institut des Sciences de l'Éducation) in Geneva; he was its assistant director from 1929 to 1932 and became codirector in 1932. In 1925 he was appointed professor of philosophy at the University of Neuchâtel; in 1929, professor of the history of scientific thought at the University of Geneva; and in 1940, professor of experimental psychology and director of the psychological laboratory at Geneva. He served as professor of child psychology at the Sorbonne from 1952 to 1963. From 1955 to 1980 he was director of the Centre International de l'Épistémologie Génétique at Geneva. Piaget also took an active interest in international educational projects. He was director of the Bureau International de l'Éducation from 1929 to 1967 and was associated with UNESCO as its assistant director general.


Although Piaget is usually considered a psychologist working in the field of child thought, his interests were always, broadly speaking, philosophical. As a young man he read widely in philosophy, and while in Paris he studied with André Lalande and Léon Brunschvicg. Even his earliest work, which appeared between 1925 and 1932, dealt with such topics as thought, causality, moral judgment, and the development of language. His logical and epistemological interests show themselves particularly in his later studies, starting about 1937. By means of simple, although highly ingenious experiments, Piaget set out to make a detailed investigation of the way in which logical, mathematical, and physical concepts develop in the individual. He thus studied experimentally many of the concepts and principles that philosophers had discussed in the past on a purely a priori level. Piaget would say that what he was really doing in this work was reexamining the whole question of the Kantian categories. This reexamination formed for him the basis of a new discipline that he called genetic epistemology.

In a series of studies Piaget examined in some detail the development not only of abstract concepts such as classes, relations, and numbers but also of physical concepts like space, time, speed, atomism, conservation, and chance, all of which he has regarded as constructed from our behavioral activities. In starting from the facts of observable child behavior rather than from adult introspections (or sensations), Piaget differed from such thinkers as Ernst Mach, Karl Pearson, and Bertrand Russell by the importance he attached to the part played by overt activities in building up the conceptual machinery of thought. Throughout his work Piaget placed considerable emphasis on the pragmatic aspect of logical and mathematical operations, as, for example, the way we actually handle symbols and formulas. From this point of view Piaget's account bears a marked resemblance to the views of Jules Henri Poincaré and the intuitionists; the construction of number, for example, had for Piaget a definite psychological aspect.

abstract concepts

Piaget believed that logical and mathematical notions first show themselves as overt activities on the part of the child and only at a later stage take on a conceptual character. They are to be conceived as internalized actions in which things are replaced by signs, and concrete actions by operations on these signs. Rational activity occurs in the child when his trial-and-error gropings attain a definite pattern of order that may be inverted in thought. At this rational stage, if the child makes a mistake in performing a task, he is able to return to his starting point. This characteristic of thought that enables us to reverse a train of ideas or actions Piaget calls "reversibility." It is the basis of our ability to perform mental experiments, as well as the psychological foundation of the deductive process.

Piaget contended that the more elementary forms of logical behavior in which the child compares, distinguishes, and orders the objects around him are largely concerned with the creation of concrete classificatory and relational systems. It is from these systems that we develop our later, more abstract, logical and mathematical modes of thinking. Piaget would rather not speak of the intuition of number before the child has developed logical concepts of invariance and has thereby grasped the operation of reversibility. The transition to number occurs in the child just when his activities of classifying and ordering objects take on the form of simple logical systems. What emerges from Piaget's experimental researches is that numerical concepts in their psychological development are ultimately based on simple logical notions. There is thus some resemblance between the way number comes to be constructed in a child's thought and the attempt on a purely normative plane by Russell and others to define number in logical terms.

physical concepts

Among the other concepts studied by Piaget, those of time and space are of particular philosophical relevance. Immanuel Kant, for example, believed that these concepts were objects of an a priori intuition. Piaget, however, found that the abstract notion of time arises at a relatively late stage; at first time is connected with space. For example, the child first confuses the notion of age with that of height or other visible signs of age. As far as space is concerned, his ability to make spatial judgments is initially fairly rudimentary. He can differentiate between open and closed figures but has difficulty in distinguishing one shape from another. He is also incapable of imagining a perspective other than his own. Only at a later stage is he able to take account of several relations at once (before and behind, right and left) and to coordinate them into a general system of perspectives.


For Piaget learning played an important part not only in the elaboration of intellectual structures but also in the field of perception. It is this that distinguishes his view from that of the Gestalt psychologists. For the latter, the perceptual constancies of shape and size belong directly to the perceived objects and are independent of age and ability. For Piaget, however, perception of figures is built up as a result of a series of random eye and other muscular movements, which are gradually corrected. The young child does not attribute a constant size or even identity to the objects around him. Piaget believed that the logical forms of activity that emerge in child behavior, namely classifying, relating, and so forth, arise as a result of his trial-and-error activities.

Piaget's views on perception have certain philosophical implications. In the past, he points out, philosophers have assumed a definite psychology of perception in their epistemologies. A good example of this is John Locke's sensationalism, in which it is assumed (1) that empirical facts are passively given in perception and (2) that they correspond to a certain range of linguistic expressions that designate them. For Piaget, however, even the notion of an object, one of the simplest forms of perceptual invariants, requires a definite learning process. Before the child is able to use linguistic expressions to refer unequivocally to definite objects, he must first have developed concrete classificatory and relational activities. Even the simple statement, "This is green," implies the acquisition of such skills and hence cannot be regarded as a reference to a simple perceptual datum. When we talk intelligently of green, this presupposes that we have learned to classify objects according to their color and to differentiate one color from another.

behavior and logic

Piaget's work might be dismissed as philosophically irrelevant by philosophers of a Platonic turn of mind. It might be said that philosophical discussions of conceptual thinking are largely concerned with questions of validity and not with questions of origin. Piaget does not deny that logical notions as they appear in purely formal discussions differ from those occurring in ordinary thought. However, he asserts (1) that even our simpler kinds of intellectual performance have a logical character about them, which we can study formally, and (2) that when the logician constructs logical systems, performs deductions, tests for validity, and so on, his logical behavior can be studied in the same direct way as that of the child or unsophisticated adult. Piaget also believed that it may be illuminating to compare the simpler logical structures inherent in our behavior with the purely formal systems constructed by the logician, as we may find some continuity between them.

See also Brunschvicg, Léon; Intuitionism and Intuitionistic Logic; Kant, Immanuel; Mach, Ernst; Number; Pearson, Karl; Perception; Poincaré, Jules Henri; Psychology; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William.


works by piaget

Piaget was a prolific writer, and among the numerous volumes he wrote, the following have a specifically logical or philosophical character:

Le jugement et le raisonnement chez l'enfant. Paris, 1924. Translated by M. Warden as Judgment and Reasoning in the Child. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1928.

Le langage et la pensée chez l'enfant. Paris, 1924. Translated by M. Warden as The Language and Thought of the Child. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1926. 2nd ed. translated by M. Gabain. London, 1932.

La représentation du monde chez l'enfant. Paris: Alcan, 1926. Translated by J. Tomlinson and A. Tomlinson as The Child's Conception of the World. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1929.

La causalité physique chez l'enfant. Paris, 1927. Translated by M. Gabain as The Child's Conception of Physical Causality. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1930.

Le jugement moral chez l'enfant. Paris: Alcan, 1932. Translated by M. Gabain as The Moral Judgment of the Child. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1932.

La genèse du nombre chez l'enfant. Paris, 1941. Written with A. Szeminska and translated by C. Gattegno and F. M. Hodgson as The Child's Conception of Number. New York: Humanities Press, 1952.

Le développement des quantités chez l'enfant. Paris, 1941. Written with B. Inhelder.

Le développement de la notion du temps chez l'enfant. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1946.

Les notions de mouvement et de vitesse chez l'enfant : Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1946.

La représentation de l'espace chez l'enfant. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1948. Written with B. Inhelder and translated by F. J. Langdon and J. L. Lunzer as The Child's Conception of Space. New York: Humanities Press, 1956.

La géometrie spontanée chez l'enfant. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1948. Written with B. Inhelder and A. Szeminska and translated by E. A. Lunzer as The Child's Conception of Geometry. New York: Basic, 1960.

La genèse de l'idée de hazard chez l'enfant. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1951.

De la logique de l'enfant à la logique de l'adolescent. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1955. Translated by Anne Parsons and Stanley Milgram as The Growth of Logical Thinking. New York: Basic, 1958.

La genèse des structures logiques elementaires. Paris, 1959. Written with B. Inhelder.

works on piaget

There have been few philosophical discussions of Piaget's work, but W. Mays, "The Epistemology of Professor Piaget," in PAS (London, 19531954) compares his epistemology with the views of contemporary philosophers. C. Parsons in "Inhelder and Piaget's 'The Growth of Logical Thinking: II.' A Logician's Viewpoint," in the British Journal of Psychology (1960), criticizes Piaget's logic from a theoretical standpoint.

John H. Flavell in The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget (Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1963) gives a good summary of Piaget's work from a psychological point of view. The book contains an excellent bibliography of primary and secondary sources. W. Mays, "How We Form Concepts," in Science News (1954) gives a simple introduction from a more philosophical viewpoint.

K. Lovell in The Growth of Basic Mathematical Concepts in Children (London, 1961) provides an introduction to Piaget's ideas from an educational standpoint. Z. P. Dienes in Building up Mathematics (London, 1960) shows how Piaget's work has influenced the introduction of new methods in the teaching of school mathematics.

other recommended works

Battro, Antonio M. Piaget: Dictionary of Terms. New York: Pergamon Press, 1973.

Boden, Margaret A. Jean Piaget. New York: Viking Press, 1980.

Bringuier, Jean Claude, and Jean Piaget. Conversations with Jean Piaget. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Elkind, David. Child Development and Education: A Piagetian Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Elkind, David, and John H. Flavell, eds. Studies in Cognitive Development: Essays in Honor of Jean Piaget. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Furth, Hans G. Piaget and Knowledge: Theoretical Foundations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969.

Ginsburg, Herbert, and Sylvia Opper. Piaget's Theory of Intellectual Development. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1988.

Kegan, Robert. The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Murray, Frank B., and Millie Corinne Almy. The Impact of Piagetian Theory: On Education, Philosophy, Psychiatry, and Psychology. Baltimore: University Park Press, 1979.

Piaget, Jean. The Essential Piaget, edited by Howard E. Gruber and J. Jacques Vonèche. Northvale, NJ: J. Aronson, 1977, 1995.

Piaget, Jean, and Bäbel Inhelder. The Child's Conception of Space. New York: W. W. Norton, 1967.

Piattelli-Palmarini, Massimo, ed. Language and Learning: The Debate between Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Wolfe Mays (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael J. Farmer (2005)

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