James Mattea

Date of Award


Document Type

Dissertation - Restricted

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Francis J. Collingwood

Second Advisor

Beatrice H. Zedler

Third Advisor

A. Tallon

Fourth Advisor

Edward Rousseau


To common opinion, Jean Piaget is a well-known Swiss child psychologist who for over 50 years has studied how children learn. In his own opinion, Piaget is a "genetic epidemiologist" who baa during that time been trying to answer certain traditional epistemological problems by a study of the way in which knowledge is acquired both in individuals and in the history of science. No doubt the first view is due to the sheer amount of empirical studies which Piaget has published on children. Nonetheless, it is the contention of this dissertation that hidden in that mass of research are interesting answers to two traditional epistemological problems: What the nature and source is o! intellectual knowledge, and how one may be sure of a judgment.

To the first of these questions, Piaget's answer, a doctrine of abstraction similar to Aristotle's, is not novel. What is of interest however is the immense amount of evidence and argument which his research and theory lend to the Aristotelian solution. For there are many problems that have to be resolved in order to support any theory of intellect whether associationist, abstractionist, or innatist--such as whether intellectual activity is different from sensory knowing, whether the source of synthetic a priori knowledge can lie in experience at all, what the role of language is in the acquisition of logic, whether there is at all any experience from which logical and mathematical structures may be abstracted etc. To these and kindred questions Piaget has answers, which ought to be of interest to philosophers but which are little known. Or, if they are known at all, they are pronounced excessively obscure. No doubt there are reasons for this. Evolved over the course of fifty years, elaborated in multitudes of psychological experiments, enriched by considerations drawn from logic, mathematics, biology, sociology, physics, etc., based on a unique model, and expressed in a vast range of books and articles, Piaget's thought presents difficulties which count for its underassimilation. Further, one interested in the philosophical implications of Piaget's thought is faced with an unhappy trilemma: he can go to secondary sources where he will find general expositions directed at educators and psychologists but little of Piaget's philosophical views or he can go to Piaget's earlier works where he will find a multitude of detailed observations intermixed with a gradually evolving theoretical framework, or finally he can turn to more recent theoretical works where he can find Piaget's philosophical views, without however any good account of the origins of the foundation underpinning them, whose roots lie in the earlier works. Two years of research into ail three of these sources will give him a good start in coming to the core of Piaget's thought. By that time he will be able to see what is primary and what is secondary, what essential and what incidental However,such effort seems to demand rather more than is fair from the potential philosophic student of Piaget.

This dissertation is an attempt to amend this unhappy situation. It aims to present as straightforwardly as possible what is no doubt the central and most novel topic of Piaget's psychology, his doctrine of mental operations. It will do this by selecting from hie works those details needed to appreciate and understand this theory. The first two chapters will present Piaget's biological model for cognition, his holism, his use of mathematical structures as models for reasoning, and his account of developmental stages. Then a third chapter rill erect on this base the structure of Piaget's answer to the two previously mentioned questions, i.e., what the nature and source is of intellectual knowing, and how one may be sure about the truth of a judgment.



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