A Foundational Thinker

By Schumaker, Richard | UNESCO Courier, November 1996 | Go to article overview

A Foundational Thinker


Schumaker, Richard, UNESCO Courier


This year educational institutions, professional journals and international organizations of all kinds are commemorating the centenary of Jean Piaget's birth. Born on 9 August 1896 at Neuchatel (Switzerland), this biologist, psychologist and philosopher altered and deepened our understanding of human life. Primarily known as a child psychologist, he used his research on young children as a springboard to a better understanding of the human personality. As our century comes to a close, not a single area of the human sciences can escape the influence - balanced, humane and original - of Jean Piaget.

The child as active agent

Piaget is probably best known for his writing on the early life of children. His importance in this field derives principally from his innovative methods and ambitious goals. Instead of applying adult preconceptions and social norms to the study of childhood, Piaget tried to describe and evaluate the point of view of the developing child. In essence, he attempted to reconstruct the daily life of the child in all its confusion, turmoil and anxiety. This methodological innovation resulted in discoveries that upset some of our most complacently held beliefs about childhood.

In hundreds of articles and books, Piaget showed that there is almost nothing absolute or static in a child's mental life. Even seemingly fundamental notions such as space, time, relation and causality are constructed through trial and error in the course of the child's early years. Moreover, the whole edifice of the adult personality - its rationality, its morality, its very perceptual stability - is founded on the physical processes of the child's early years. Piaget was very fond of the analogy of "grasping"; before one can grasp an idea, one must learn to grasp concrete objects. The infant's earliest, faltering movements prepare and foreshadow its later development.

Childhood as touchstone

Piaget also studied how this early landscape of the child evolves from year to year. Once again, he emphasized the tentative trial-and-error nature of the child's world. Although he charted an intricately structured course from birth to the assumption of the complex responsibilities of life, this evolution is discontinuous and constantly interrupted by conflicts with the child's surroundings. Thus, Piaget's account of the stages of early life is much more realistic and less tendentious than the accounts of Freud, Erikson or Maslow.

Piaget's firm grasp of the flux of early life allowed him to use his studies of childhood as a platform for something even deeper - the identification of the essential traits of life itself. The processes and structures of early life were used as clues to the nature of life in all its generality. At this level of study, Piaget was breaking new ground in Western thought.

Instead of rejecting childhood as beneath the dignity of serious philosophical study, Piaget, who after all read widely in philosophy all his life - insists that only a close study of infancy would allow us to slip beneath prejudice and habit and enable us to see life in something like it's true condition.

From Neuchatel to the international scene

From his earliest years, Piaget demonstrated both interest and talent in the natural sciences, sending a paper on albino sparrows to a Neuchatel journal at the age of ten. By 1916, he had published twenty papers on molluscs. These papers were valuable enough to bring him into consideration for a curator's position at the Museum of Natural History in Geneva. In an autobiographical sketch,(1) Piaget relates that it was necessary to refuse this prestigious position because "[he] still had two years to go before finishing [his] secondary education".

In his twenties, Piaget developed an interest in psychological problems and worked with Theodore Simon, a collaborator in the Binet scale of intelligence. It was during this time that he worked in Eugen Bleuler's psychiatric clinic in Zurich an d became acquainted with the clinical method he would later use in such an innovative fashion in his own research. …

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