Leaving the Cave: Evolutionary Naturalism in Social-Scientific Thought

By Pat Duffy Hutcheon | Go to book overview
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Twenty-One
The Genetic Developmentalism of Jean Piaget

A Pantheist, not a solipsist, the child cooperates
With a universe of large and noisy feeling-states
Without troubling to place
Them anywhere special, for, to his eyes, Funny Face or Ele-phant as yet
Mean nothing. His distinction between Me and Us
Is a matter of taste; his seasons are Dry and Wet;
He thinks as his mouth does.
-- W.H. Auden, Mundus et Infans

T here were a number of thoughtful Europeans in the generation following Huxley who tried to make a stand against the twentieth-century tide of irrationalism. A powerful voice in support of the integrity of science was that of Jean Piaget of Switzerland. Building on the insights of Rousseau on education -- and consciously following in the footsteps of Spencer, Durkheim, Santayana and Dewey -- Jean Piaget set out to create a modern naturalistic philosophy of knowledge based on science rather than introspection and untestable absolutes. And he visualized an interdisciplinary social science, firmly grounded in biology, which would be capable of testing the questions posed by such a philosophy. A true eclectic, Piaget borrowed freely from Kant, Marx and Bergson as well as from the child psychologist J.M. Baldwin, whose work he considered to be a refinement of the insights of Spencer and Dewey. He was also strongly influenced by Einstein's theory of relativity and no doubt hoped to effect a corresponding revolution in the study of humanity.

From this intellectual base Piaget set out on a massive task. He sought to forge an updated Spencerian system of thought concerning (1) the development of the human being as a knowledge-builder; (2) the genetic evolution of the species; and (3) the relationship between the two. One measure of his success is the fact that the theory created by this lifelong effort has functioned as a

References for this chapter are on p. 379.

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