Piaget's background (1896-1980)

He built on Darwin, J. M. Baldwin, de Saussure? and was contemporary of Freud, Vygotsky, Watson and long outlived them. All but Baldwin had Lamarckian sympathies since the mechanisms of reproduction & inheritance were just becoming known, with the Weismann (1885) and Mendel's work rediscovered.

basic concepts in his concern with epistemology (his TGE)

Don't get confused by term "genetic" in his "Theory of Genetic Epistemology." (TGE) Genetic did not relate to DNA, etc. , wholly unknown at the time. It meant, simply, growth or development. This is not a technical term for Piaget.

biological/evolutionary origins of his concepts (doctorate on mollusks, 1918; worked in Binet's lab, 1919)

intelligence is a mechanism of adaptation

behavior mediated by schemes (schema).

these cognitive structures causally determine behavior and "define" reality for the organism. TGE is an effort to identify and explain the origins of those schemes.


This is the motivational component driving development of new schemes (cf. discrepancy, novelty, curiosity) Is it the basis of awareness of processes?


assimilation and accommodation

These are the processes of applying and developing schemes


Sucking is one scheme starting as reflex and quickly being coordinated with breathing and manipulation of breast nipple, assimilating bottle, and finger, too. Ultimately a set of schema all used in recognition of these different realities (accommodation).

stages of development (ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny?)

stages of development reflect the dominant schemes available and less directly, behaviors the schemes determine.

human development proceeds as existing schemes are transformed into more abstract (and adaptive) later ones.

Object permanence

Children assimilate diverse sensory experiences into the idea of a permanent object, independent of our current experience.

Egocentric to sociocentric

Using his "three mountain"problem and analysis of young children's language use, Piaget concluded children start out not taking others perspectives (point of view) into account.

This is the precursor to current interest in "theory of mind."


Somehow existing structures are reconstructed via conscious activity into new more adaptive, flexible ones. (Maybe related to disequilibrium?) Yet at the earliest stages, Piaget shows that children's reports of basic acts such as walking on all fours is NOT what they really do.

"cognizance (his consciousness) is not merely a sort of interior illumination, it constitutes a far more complex process involving conceptualization, Piaget, 1976, vii) ..insofar as it is desired to mark and conserve the differences between the unconcious and conscious, the passage from one to the other must require reconstructions and cannot be reduced simply to the process of illumination 332"

(A contemporary reconstruction of much of Piaget without some of the problems can be seen in Karmiloff-Smith's "Beyond Modularity" wherein she talks about "redescription" of structures.

Karmiloff-Smith, A. (1992). Beyond modularity. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Construction of knowledge of the physical world

Construction of objects

Notions of causality and trial and error learning and tool use.

Concepts of number, length, area, volume

modes (stages) of "thought" and necessity

Thinking in TGE begins in the hands, becomes internalized and shifts to the brain -- to caricature the process. Kids go from fully empiricists to rationalists.

the transitivity problem in 3 modes. (Fig 1)

four stages

upward development and redescription of knowledge into increasing abstract conceptions.


Symbolic or figurative

Concrete operations

(formal operations)

the place of language

verbal justification

Cognitive structures reflected in kids' explanations; must probe for basis of judgments as empirical generalizations or logically necessary.

transition to formal operations

The logical structures manifest themselves in language and become even more abstract structures themselves to be used in hypothetical, scientific thought.

acquisition just a reflection of cognitive structure

specific stages of human development (first 3 are universal)

sensorimotor (cf. Skinners"operant behavior")

figurative (cf Kohler's "insight)

concrete operational (his conservation of number, etc.)

formal operational (scientific thought, a product of formal schooling)

Problems with Piaget's TGE today

Less data available to him

This is no surprise; he stimulated lots of research and new findings emerge -- particularly due to new methods --behavioral, biochemical, mathematical, and brain imaging -- for studying younger, preverbal infants. (See social Brain video and notes.)

no realistic transition procedure from stage to stage

Piaget apparently wants to construct everything from basic sensory-motor reflexes and some general processes; accommodation & assimilation, etc.. No place for currently fashionable innate "modules."

sensorimotor intelligence and cerebral palsy

Movement is NOT necessary for development of advanced stages.

(Maybe stimulation of motor-neurons IS important; but this can be done perhaps directly from sensory input, via "mirror" neurons or other unknown means.)

language has no special structure; no specialization for language

It seems Piaget really didn't think much about the actual facts of language acquisition; he seemed to think general purpose "intelligence" would figure it out. This seems very wrong.

late cognitive function of language

See Vygosky, Luria for critique.

little social function for language

See Vygotsky.

He inherits all the problems of broad empiricism

While he differs radically from his USA contemporaries, the behaviorists, in the contents of the mind and in useful discoveries about children, he shares the idea that general purpose intelligence is sufficient to explain the development of sophisticated skills. (It probably isn't going to work for simpler ones, either!)

minimal social content in TGE

This is more a matter of emphasis, e.g. object permanence is a prerequisite to attachment, loss of egocentricism is a prerequisite for "other minds" perspectives.

Figure 1 Modes of thought in TGE (my (jl) interpretation)