Radical Constructivism: A Way of Knowing and Learning

By Ernst Von Glasersfeld | Go to book overview

Chapter 3

Piaget’s Constructivist Theory of Knowing

It is a difficult task to glean a coherent theory of cognitive development from Piaget’s enormous body of work. Over a period of seventy years, Piaget published eighty-eight books, hundreds of articles, and edited countless reports of research that had been carried out under his supervision. 1 His thinking and his ideas never ceased to develop, to branch out, and to spiral into new formulations which, in his mind, continuously expanded and modified what he had expressed in earlier writings. As a result, it requires considerable effort to sort out what seems to have remained the same and what was modified in the course of those decades. Those who venture to summarize Piaget’s ideas on the basis of two or three of his books have a limited perspective. They inevitably remain unaware of implications that cannot be grasped except from other parts of his work. Unfortunately, there are countless psychology textbooks and critical journal articles that fail in this respect. At best they provide an incomplete view of Piaget’s theory, at worst they perpetuate distortions of his key concepts. Many summarizers and critics, moreover, seem to have missed, or simply disregarded, the revolutionary approach to epistemology that Piaget developed as the basis of his investigations. This second failing is the more serious. Without the understanding that Piaget quite deliberately stepped out of the western philosophical tradition, it is impossible to come to a comprehensive view of his theory of knowing and the model he built to explain how children acquire knowledge.

Piaget is not easy reading. Although he never ceased to praise the virtue of ‘decentration’—the ability to shift one’s perspective—, he himself, as a writer, did not always try to put himself into his reader’s shoes. I feel that writing often was for him, as for many original thinkers, part of working out his ideas for himself. His untiring efforts to express his thoughts in the greatest possible detail do not always help the reader’s understanding. Yet, I never doubted that it was worth trying to overcome those difficulties, for the effort has led me to a view of human knowing that no other source could have provided.

For six or seven years I concentrated almost exclusively on Piaget; and I have sporadically returned to his writings for almost two decades since then. Yet I want to emphasize that what I lay out here is the sense that one rather

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