Name two other psychologists who studied with Piaget.


Jean Piaget is known for his theory of cognitive development, which focuses on the changes he observed in children of various ages. The impact of this theory forever changed education. Answer the following five questions:

What did Einstein say about Piaget’s theory?

How old was Piaget when he published an article on the sighting of an albino sparrow?

What was Piaget’s interested area of study?

Name two other psychologists who studied with Piaget.

Which aspect of Piaget’s theory has been challenged by recent research?


British Journal of Psychology (2009), 100, 225-228

© 2009 The British Psychohgicai Society


The British Psychological Society



Piaget on Piaget

Michael J. Chandler* University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

It is impossible – or at least it was impossible for me – to read Le Cozannet and Samson’s translation of La causalité chez l’enfant without being charmed, and without wondering anew what gift allowed Piaget to so consistently catch us unaware with previously unheard of ‘facts’ about childhood – facts that, once brought to light, suddenly seem to snap into focus and to become irrepressibly true. However, snappy or irrepressible, just how well these early facts have stood the test of time – not only in the judgment of his readers, but as measured against Piaget’s own evolving standards – is among the questions that need to be taken up in this short commentary. Another concerns the article’s status as a bona fide ‘classic’, and the legitimacy of its place in this celebratory 100th Volume of the British Journal of Psychology, Here, I will contend, that there is less room for serious doubt. Charming or not, or even true or not, it is simply the case that, since 1928, anyone wishing to report out on children’s understanding of causality has had no choice except to be, if not an unapologetic Piagetian, then at least a Piaget revisionist, or, otherwise, a more or less belligerent anti-Piagetian,

Perhaps, because careers are rarely made by honouring rather than killing the father, the more anti-Piagetian of these alternatives has come to be seen as holding out the greater promise. Consequently, and in the best military tradition of standard pincer movements, the obligatory attacks that followed have come from opposing quarters. One of these lines of attack has taken the form of insisting that, years before Piaget thought possible, youngish persons (infants in arms; children still in short pants; etc) already have a working, even adult like, understanding of what material causality is all about. The important work of Berzonsky (1971), BuUock (1984), Carey (1985), Gelman and Baillergeon (1983), Springer and KeU (1991), and White (1995), to name only a few early joiners to this scrum, have all contributed to the view that, from an especially tender age, children and infants-in-arms already know more about causality than Piaget supposedly dreamed possible. All of this is especially true if (perhaps, ‘if and only if’) one is prepared to venture down the slippery slope of foregoing any requirement that children display their knowledge of causality in words, and is ready instead to interpolate the existence of such understanding using procedures that only

* Correspondence should be addressed to Michael]. Chandler, Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, 2136 West Mali, Vancouver, BC V6T IZ4, Canada (e-mail:

DOI: 10.1348/000712609X414169

226 M. j. Chandler

require participants to somehow act out what can only be imagined to be their true understanding. |

In a flanking movement, the second and more scattered of these anti-Piagetian literatures has taken the contrapuntal form of insisting that, when it comes to animistic or artificialistic or otherwise transductive thoughts about causality, children and adults are effectively indistinguishable, all for the defamatory reason that grown ups themselves are said to be ñilly awash in ‘magical’ thoughts of their own. According to Woolley (1997), who has exhaustively reviewed this scattered literature, the evidence in hand supports the following broad if profligate conclusions:

‘a) that children’s magical thoughts ‘are not fundamentally different from adults;’ and that the residual differences that do still divide them are; b) ‘entirely due to the subculture in which children are immersed’; c) are ‘differences in content, and not in kind’; d) ‘reflect continuous rather than discontinuous development’; and e) can generally be laid off to ‘knowledge of particular mental and physical phenomena, not to a general fantasy-reality confusion” (Chandler 1997, p. 1021).

Given all of the alleged, but previously underappreciated insights now being attributed to the young, and all of the counterpart failings ascribed to adults, there are said to be good grounds for hope among Piaget’s detractors that the whole embarrassing ¿pecter of developmental émergents, and other such qualitative leaps so dear to the hearts of structuralists such as Piaget, are all at risk of collapsing on to the same dimensionless vanishing point. That is, given that children don’t get everything wrong and adult’s don’t get everything right, the opportunity presents itself to successñilly avoid the suspect necessity of cluttering what some prefer to envision as the featureless expanse of advancing age with anything as unseemly as developmental stages.

Although more could and needs to be said about both of these interesting patricidal prospects, there is also hopeftiUy room here to consider some of what Piaget himself came to think about his own fledgling efforts to characterize children’s understanding of causality, and to consider second and later thoughts he had concerning such matters in the last 50 productive years of his career. :

In order to take the measure of Piaget’s career-long efforts to understand matters of guided action (including causality) it is perhaps useful to ‘book-end’ his various commentaries by including, not only his beginning, but also some of his last weirds on the subject. Two years after having written the present target article Piaget published a related book, this time more careftiUy titled The child’s conception of physical causality (Piaget, 1930). He opens this volume, as he did his 1928 article, by setting out a contrast between Hume’s assertions that all of our thoughts about causality actually come ‘from the habits that we acquire through the pressure of things’, and those of Maine de Biran, who ‘supported the second possibility: causality is born out of volition and muscular effort’. While his stated ambition was to eventually find some rapprochement between these stark alternatives, in his 1930 volume Piaget works to make clear that his immediate intention is limited to an attempt to explicate when and how young children come to understand certain of the ‘mechanisms’ of mechanical causality at work in the physical world, and that his research was explicitly not intended as a way of examining the much broader question of how such children develop a grip upon the several ways in which things ‘come about’ more generally That, as it turned out, was a job that would require another five decades.

In 1979, a year before his death, Piaget published with Inhelder flnhelder & Piaget, 1979) an account of their still building distinction between ‘procedures’ and

Commentary 227

‘structures’. As interpreted by CeUérier (1983), and later Brown (1997), Inhelder and Piaget’s collaborative efforts re-focused on what they termed the ‘epistemic’ versus the ‘pragmatic’ transformation. As a way of giving ftirther voice to this complex distinction. Brown published a subsequent companion paper under the borrowed title Is teleonomy a category of understanding? This account describes how Piaget and his colleagues had wrestled with issues of reductionism and so-called life-matter problems – problems, as it turns out, that all hinge on the distinction between causes and reasons. On this view, we are asked to pay close attention to the irreducible disparity between ‘the causal and the conscious’. As Inhelder and Piaget worked to make clear, the whole point of their newly proposed structure-procedure distinction was to demonstrate that their earlier theory of structural attribution must be amended if it is to apply to teleonomically regulated (i.e. intentional or purposive) objects, including people. This follows, according to Inhelder and Piaget, because ‘consciousness cannot be reduced to cause’.

Among the implications that flow from these distinctions, according to Brown, is that it is impossible to explain the abstract functional design of teleonomic systems – whether organisms, psyches, or servomechanisms developed by the psyche – in terms of physics. Rather, at the psychological level, the attribution of anything other than reason-based principles is simply inappropriate. If, despite such cautions, levels continue to be confused, false explanations result – a corked problem that Brown illustrates with the following example.

‘Consider two scenarios. Both begin with a young woman asking her companion why he has opened another bottle of wine. In the first scenario, the companion confuses explanatory levels and responds: ‘Well, you see, there were electrical discharges occasioned by the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin into the inter-synaptic spaces of my limbic system. This resulted in transmission of neuro-electrical impulses to my thalamus and produced a cascade of activity in my motor cortex and down my spinal cord. The next thing I knew I was reaching for the corkscrew’. In the second scenario, the companion does not confuse explanatory levels and answers simply, ‘Because the night is young and you are beautiful” (Brown, 1997, pp. 311).

As Brown’s example helps to bring out, the broad notion of ’cause’ needs to be understood quite differently in the separate ‘domains’ of intentional and physical causation (White, 1995). In contrast to the changes that transpire in the ‘natural’ environment, where mechanisms of physical causation routinely apply, intentional actions demand being accounted for in the coinage of reasons, and to fail to properly grasp and hold on to these distinctions, and the different levels of abstraction they represent, results in various sorts of oddments and category mistakes.

While the distinction between reasons and causes is at least intuitively clear to most adults (see Davidson, 1963, on reasons and causes), there is a whole host of ‘reasons’ as to why all of us, but especially young children, may have difficulty in keeping our ideas about causes and reasons separate. For example, as Kalish (1997), points out, most English modals (e.g. can, will, may, must, and should) indicate both deontic obligation and epistemic possibility, opening up the prospect of ongoing confusions over whether certain acts of conformity are best understood as the result of human intentions or the operation of physical laws (e.g. you can’t travel faster than the speed of light). For similar reasons Piaget (1965/32) argued that, untU their middle-school years, young children tend to remain realists about both physical and moral laws, at least in terms of whether they imagine that it is possible to violate them.

In retrospect, a convincing case might be made that many, perhaps most, of the engaging mistakes that fill up Piaget’s 1928 account of young children’s conftisions over

228 M. j. Chandler

matters of causality can be useftilly understood as owed, not to some absolute failure to grasp the rudiments of either physical or intentional causality, but as due instead to early and persistent confusions over which explanatory framework best applies in a given situation. Without needing to imagine that children are born into the world with all of the particulars of these distinctive domains already in place, there is evidence to suggest that even infants may have already begun to keep separate some parts of their naive psychology and their naive physics (Spelke, Phillips, & Woodward, 1995). Perhaps, in this lies some part of the rapprochement between Hume and Maine de Biran that Piaget hoped to engineer, and some grounds for imagining that the! sands of time have not yet nm out on his ideas about how this might be accomplished.


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