Copyright © 2004, James Fleming, Ph.D. _______ During this [early childhood] period magic, animism, and artificialism are completely merged. The world is a society of living beings controlled and directed by man. The self and the external world are not clearly delimited. Every action is both physical and psychical. –Jean Piaget1 ________
Piaget’s Place in the History of Psychology
A ranking of the most eminent psychologists of the 20th century by professionals in the field listed the top three names as B. F. Skinner, Jean Piaget, and Sigmund Freud (Haggbloom and others, 2002). These three names also occupy places of prominence in this textbook. But although Skinner’s impact on the field of psychology was enormous, interest in the kind of behaviorism he espoused has waned; and though many of Freud’s contributions still influence the theory and practice of psychology, many of his major ideas have been duly rejected by his successors. Of these three psychologists, Piaget’s ideas have probably fared the best over the years: they continue to influence research and theory in child development, and with some minor exceptions, his theories have stood the crucial test of time as well as any major theorist in psychology. Yet Piaget was not a psychologist by formal training. His two doctorates were in natural science (emphasizing biology; his early interests were in studying mollusks) and philosophy (emphasizing logic). But Piaget had many interests, including epistemology and the philosophy of science, both of which influenced his research. In 1920, Piaget had an opportunity to work with Theodore Simon (who was the co-creator of the first intelligence test, along with Alfred Binet; Binet & Simon, 1905). Piaget found his job of helping to standardize intelligence tests rather uninteresting, but he 4- 1
did become interested in studying the way that children reasoned when attempting to solve the problems presented to them by the tests. Often it was the child’s production of incorrect answers that intrigued Piaget, and in attempting to discover how the children arrived at their answers, he embarked on a lifelong journey of studying the stages and growth of cognition in children. He was primarily interested in how children think, and how their thinking about solving problems changes qualitatively at different stages of development. Although Piaget’s early writings received some attention in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, his influence waned with the rise of behaviorism. His research did not mesh well the methodological paradigms of his time, nor with the behavioristic ideas that were prevalent. Although Piaget did study behavior by direct observation, his ideas were perhaps too mentalistic for that that era – roughly the twenties through the fifties. Also, he often based his observations on very small and somewhat biased samples – including his own children! These factors raised questions about his objectivity: to American psychologists his methods were more like clinical observations or case studies than rigorous, scientific, laboratory kinds of procedures. Yet his observations have been verified in scientific research many times over. According to Wadsworth these criticisms of Piaget’s methodology “diminish in importance if one accepts the assumption implicit in Piaget’s theory: that the general course of development of intellectual structures is the same for all people” (1996, p. 9). But remember, Piaget was first a biologist; he believed that human behavior is adaptive; and further, that the general patterns of adaptation equally characterized all members of our species in the process of development. And why not? Except in the rarest of anomalies, a biologist studying the digestive system of one member of a species would expect that the anatomic and physiological principles would be the same in all other members of that species. Why shouldn’t the same be said of basic...