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The Genetic Epistemologist

Spring 1996

Vol. XXIV, No. 4 1996

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Suppose They Gave a Birthday Party
and 10,000 Scholars Showed Up?

By Michael J. Chandler

While psychology was blindly going to St. Ives (and other places now similarly lost in obscurity) it met a man whose centenary was just celebrated. Jean Piaget, as I hardly need tell you, was born on August 9th, 1896. As it turns out, this issue of the Genetic Epistemologist is all about births and deaths. Most of what follows, at least in these introductory remarks, is a happy lining out of the many celebrations held in honor of Piaget's birth.

On an altogether darker note, the last 12 months have also stood witness to the deaths of three colleagues, each of whom has played an important part in the history of our Society, and, more generally, to the advancement of constructivist approaches to the study of knowledge and development.

January 5, 1997, and then February 16, 1997 are the days of the deaths of first Hermina Sinclair, and then Bärbel Inhelder, both immediate colleagues and long-time collaborators of Piaget. On February 14th, Edward Reed, the Editor of the Genetic Epistemologist, and the author of a recent wealth of scholarly contributions to our understanding of human development, also died and left us bereft of a friend, an officer of the JPS, and a mind of uncommon depth and vision.

In shocked response to this cascade of losses, the organizers of the 27th Annual Symposium of the JPS chose to dedicate this year's meetings to the memory of these deceased colleagues. In addition, the bulk of this issue of the GE, and that to follow (the lateness of which we hope, under the circumstances, you will accept with a generous spirit), will be devoted to short tributes to these absent friends, and to the presentation of brief excerpts from their recent, and as yet unavailable, writings.

Although nothing is exactly fitting on such sad occasions, it was thought that, by way of a leavening ingredient, moods might be lifted to see, collected in one place, a short listing of all that has happened in this same last year to mark the occasion of Piaget's birth. Without imagining that, as yet, I have a complete roster of these events, this, at least, is some of what happened in 1996.

It is perhaps fair to say that the Jean Piaget Society was the progenitor and initial author of much that transpired to mark the occasion of Piaget's birth. Following upon an earlier and temporarily waylaid plan to hold its own meetings in Switzerland, we finally chose instead Philadelphia (the birthplace of JPS) as the most appropriate site for our own well-attended 26th Annual Symposium, entitled "Conceptual Development: A Piagetian Legacy." This conference, organized by Susan Gelman, Catherine Nelson, Patricia Miller and Ellin Scholnick, was structured primarily as an opportunity to draw attention to the growth edge of contemporary research and theory inspired by Piaget, and included three panels concerned with the nature, foundations, and sources of conceptual development. Each of these plenary sessions began with an overview of Piaget's position, followed by discussions provided by panels of psychologists, philosophers and biologists. A volume bearing the same name as this conference, and edited by its organizers, will be published shortly by LEA, and given as a benefit to all JPS members.

Elsewhere in North America the 14th Biennial Meetings of the International Society for the Study of Behavioural Development (convened in Quebec City from August 12-16) offered an Invited Address, a Special Events Panel, and a cluster of symposia (co-sponsored by JPS), all meant to mark the 100th anniversary of Piaget's birth. Finally, the Association of Constructivist Teaching (ACT), which met in St. Louis, November 7-9, also undertook to celebrate the occasion of Piaget's birth by including, among other things, an invited address by JPS representative Rheta DeVries.

Punctuating these North American events were three Latin American Homenaje. The first of these (April 24-26), entitled "La Epistemolog’a Genética y La Ciencia Contemporánea," was organized by Rolando Garc’a, sponsored by the Universidad Nacional Autónoma and the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana de México, and held at both the Centro de Investigación de Estudios Avanzado, and at the 16th century Palace of the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico City. The second, entitled "Constructivismo en Educación" was held in Brazil at the Universidad de San Paulo, and organized by Lindo de Macedo. The third, held in Buenos Aires on October 25-27, was organized by Antionio Castorina and entitled "Desarrollos en Psychología Genética."

Terrance Brown attended the Mexico City meetings as our JPS representative, and returned with tales of an exotic series of both private and public seminars (where "public" means that only 600 committed professionals could gain access) that mixed a rich diet of intellectual fare with crepes stuffed with corn smut, fried ant eggs, and worms from the maguey cactus, all capped off with talks by Emilia Ferrero ("The role of writing in the construction of scientific knowledge"), and an interdisciplinary assemblage of other scholars from Mexico and beyond. The Buenos Aires meetings, which I was privileged to attend, were held in the vaulted halls of the Faculty of Law and, as if to draw the contrast, shared this venue with a traveling exhibition of "European instruments of torture." Here too the program served up, not only a rich diet of scholarly presentations meant to celebrate Piaget's birth, but also what must have once been a mighty herd of pampas cattle. Like those in Argentina, the San Paulo meetings (to which a generous invitation to the JPS had to be reluctantly declined) were attended by well over a thousand registrants.

Meanwhile on the European continent, three conferences were held in Switzerland. The first of these (involving more than 200 scholars) was entitled "Mind and Time" (Chair: Jean-Marc Barrelet), and took place on September 8-10 at the Institut L'homme et Time in Neuchâtel, organized by a scientific committee chaired by A.-N. Perret-Clermont. The second and third, held between September 11-15 and 14-18 respectively, were convened as an overlapping multidisciplinary conference. The earlier of these, was organized by a scientific program committee chaired by Bernard Schneuwly, and convened by the Society for Social-Cultural Research as an homage to Piaget and Vygotsky-both of whom were born in 1896. The last, "The Growing Mind" conference (general chair: Anik de Ribaupierre) was organized by the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Science of the University of Geneva, in collaboration with the Archives Jean Piaget and the Archives de L'Insitute Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and was conceived "not as a commemoration of Piaget's work, but rather [as a way of] continuing his research enterprise." This moving conference, chaired by Jacques Montangero, and co-chaired by Pierre Mounoud and Laurence Rieben (like the earlier homage to both Piaget and Vygotsky) was attended by more than a thousand registrants.

Elsewhere in continental Europe other commemorations also took place including a November 15-16 meeting entitled "Piaget after Piaget," held at the Université la Sorbonne; a November 18-22 "Symposium Jean Piaget" at the Universidade compultense di Madrid; and a November 19-23 "Celebration of Piaget's Centenary" at the Insituto Piaget in Lisbonne.

Off the continent, an April 11-12 "Piaget-Vygotsky 1996 Centenary Conference" was held in Brighton, under the auspices of the British Psychological Society. This meeting, which drew some 120 attendees, will result in a book to appear as "Piaget, Vygotsky and Beyond" (Rouledge, 1997), with our own Leslie Smith as its first editor.

Still "bobbing the light" on matters not yet fully within the horizon of our understanding are events that happened yet further to the East. The Asian Piaget Society, for example, is known to have held its' own centenary celebration, as did the Association of Japanese Preschool Education, that not only invited as a key note speaker a former JPS president (George Forman), but also gifted to the city of Geneva a bust of Piaget that now stands in Geneva's Park des Bastions.

Although 1996 is now well spent, there remain mementos of its multiple celebrations. An as yet uncounted number of books will emerge to companion our own JPS volume. A special stamp for the centenary was issued by the Swiss Post office. In addition to the bust of Piaget gifted by the Association of Japanese Preschool Education, another now stands at the University of Geneva, in front of the auditorium that bears his name. A CD-ROM (available through the publisher Delachaux et Niestlé) edited by the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences at the University of Geneva is now also available. Two traveling exhibits (one organized in Neuchâtel and one in Geneva) were also produced. The Neuchâtel exhibit (scientific responsibility: Fernando Vidal) entitled "Piaget neuchâtelois," focusing on the years 1896-1918, was exhibited at the Library of the University of Neuchâtel from May 24 to October 5, 1996. The Geneva exhibition, entitled "Agir et Construire" was inaugurated September 14 in the Musée d'ethnographie de la Ville de Genève (Scientific responsibility: Daniel Hamline and Jacques Voneche), and is now on world wide tour.

The highlight of my own birthday celebration was a popcicle stick and glitter glue collage from my 5-year-old son that I value very much. I won't ask about yours.

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Homage to Bärbel Inhelder

by Jacques Voneche

Bärbel Inhelder, a key figure in twentieth century psychology, departed (expired) on February 16. Along with Jean Piaget, she was the founder of the Swiss school of genetic psychology. Bärbel Inhelder was born on April 15, 1913 in Saint-Gallen, where she did all her schooling. Attracted by the enormous international fame of Pierre Bovet and Edouard Clapar¸de, she decided to study psychology at the University of Geneva. From the beginning she was interested in the clinical method, that particular form of investigation in which one explores children's minds by freely conversing with them. At first she worked mainly on the development of concepts of quantity, asking, for instance, what happens to sugar when it dissolves in water. Is the sugar still in the water once it has dissolved? The answer is not obvious to children, and even to some adults.

For a short period she worked as a school psychologist in the canton of Saint-Gallen, but then returned to Geneva in 1943, where she remained for the rest of her life, in spite of numerous invitations from prestigious foreign universities.

Mechanisms of thought

During the first part of her career she was interested in the psychogenesis of the notions of number, space and spontaneous geometry. But it is doubtless that her research on the growth of logical thinking from childhood to adolescence will remain in the history of psychology as one of her most outstanding contributions. She put together a youthful team of exceptional researchers to interview adolescents in Geneva. With Jean Piaget, she showed that adolescence is not just a period of turmoil and personal crisis, but also a culminating point in the development of human intelligence.

Bärbel had a great talent for team work. At first she collaborated only with Piaget, but then also with a succession of several hundred assistants, who she trained in the clinical method and showed the necessity to do many researches at the same time interviewing many children for each. For many years she questioned youngsters almost every day, with the conviction that such regular contact sharpens the mind, refines intuition, and allows one to formulate daring hypotheses that can be tested on the spot by clever questioning. She never believed in the collection of large quantities of punctual information, which became so popular in these times of industrialization of psychology.

Opening to the world

Bärbel Inhelder conducted several studies at once, and on a wide range of topics such as chance (she revealed that this notion is not constructed until adolescence), the early growth of logical structures, and the procedures and strategies in discovery and learning. She did not view learning as a form of training or conditioning, but as a process of bridge-building, linking and coordination between knowledge structures. She demonstrated the existence of interactive processes between cognitive sub-systems, which ensure equilibration and progression towards ever higher levels of knowledge and understanding of the world. From this perspective, as the mind gains in awareness of its own mechanisms of thought, intelligence penetrates the external world more and more effectively.

In spite of a dozen honoris causa doctorates and numerous scientific awards, Bärbel (everyone just called her "Bärbel") was the most modest of beings. Preferring to admire than to be admired, she created for Jean Piaget, who she venerated passionately, the Jean Piaget Archives Foundation. She had many friends throughout the world. And for Bärbel, an only child who never founded her own family, these friends were her kin, who she raised and looked over with tender and patient care.

Jacques Voneche
Professor, Director of the Jean Piaget Archives
reprinted with permission of the Journal de Geneve

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A tribute to Hermina Sinclair

by Ioanna Berthoud-Papandropoulou

Psycholinguistics in Geneva was founded by Hermina Sinclair. A specialist in Indo-Iranian languages, she devoted herself after the age of forty to research in child psychology, and with conviction and clear-sightedness set out to show what is all the more stimulating for seeming paradoxical, namely that Piaget's theory-at a time when Piaget himself was not centrally concerned with language-could greatly contribute to our understanding of language. While subscribing fully to the Piagetian contention that language is not a necessary tool for the development of coherent thought (Hans Furth convincingly demonstrated coherent reasoning powers in non-reeducated deaf children), Mimi Sinclair strongly maintained that language nevertheless deserves study, because it is an object of knowledge that for the learning subject is far from unimportant.

The study of language along Piagetian lines then led Genevan psycholinguists towards two complementary aims: on the one hand, to clarify how mastery of this complex object develops and, on the other, to illuminate the very nature of this curious object, of which Mimi Sinclair would underline the specificity, an object at once arbitrary and conventional, rule-bound though without logical coherence, necessarily linear but capable of expressing non-linear meanings.

As regards the first aim, Mimi Sinclair during the seventies, endowed the international psycholinguistic community with original interview methods for use with young children, such as the method which consists in telling the subject a little story and then asking him or her to show with the aid of representative figurines "What Happens." With this simple ingenious method and its easily understood directive that children are happy to carry out, it is possible to infer how a given language construction is understood. Other methods were later devised within the Genevan group, and little by little, by carefully detailed team work, it became possible to use the conversational side of the Piagetian clinical method to explore various types of sentences or rather various kinds of linguistic and metalinguistic abilities of children. While the overall method was important, Mimi Sinclair when analyzing results was invariably interested in intermediate phases as well as in children's "mistakes", which she delighted in qualifying as pertinent and constructive. Her friendship and collaboration with Bärbel Inhelder, the other great lady of psychology who also died recently, no doubt contributed to her interest in developmental transitions.

As regards the second aim, after having approached language as a linguist, Mimi Sinclair adopted the postulate of Piagetian constructivism according to which studying the stages of a knowledge construction in the child is an essential step towards understanding the nature of the knowledge being acquired. Children could thus teach us something about this fabulous tool that ordinarily is in our effortless, everyday command: "You all can speak, language is here, there and everywhere, but what does it really mean to know a language, any language?", Mimi would ask. Today, when emergence and access are all the fashion, her question retains its full value, for it places in the center the psychological subject and his/her relation to the object to be known. It was not only her epistemological preoccupation but also her exceptional teaching ability that brought Mimi Sinclair to ask questions rather than to answer them and to reformulate the questions in many ways until in her audience the suscitated answers, extensions and above all a desire to answer, to think more deeply, to find a better example or a counter-example, to undertake further research.

An indefatigable researcher and lecturer, Mimi Sinclair pursued international scientific relations in various branches of psychology, not only in the language domain, and succeeded in these activities without in any way relinquishing her teaching in Geneva or her administrative tasks (she twice occupied the Chair of the Psychology Section at Geneva University). Responsible for the academic side of speech-therapy teaching, which she helped to set up in 1980, Mimi Sinclair closely followed tens of students working for their relevant diplomas and, over twenty years, directed sixteen doctorate theses. Here again, Mimi Sinclair's productivity went with her capacity to enter into the problems and ways of working of each of her interlocutors. She sustained them in their efforts, participating in new ideas with enthusiasm or else opposing them with a resistance that at the same time was highly stimulating.

In the name of all those who knew her personally and those whom only her writings can henceforth inspire, let us render homage to this woman of exceptional ethical quality and intellectual ability.

Geneva, February 1997
Ioanna Berthoud-Papandropoulou
Geneva University

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Tribute to Edward Reed

by Richard Lehman

Prof. Edward S. Reed, of the Department of Psychology at Franklin & Marshall College, suffered a fatal heart attack at his home on Friday evening, February 14th.

Prof. Reed was an internationally known scholar in ecological psychology and the philosophy of science. He came to Franklin & Marshall in 1991, leaving a tenured position at a major university to join our liberal arts college, where he could pursue his dream of creating an enduring and intellectually fruitful bridge between studies of the humanities and the natural sciences. With support from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, Prof. Reed became the lead architect in designing F&M's innovative program in Scientific and Philosophical Studies of the Mind. Along with this extraordinary interdisciplinary synthesis, Prof. Reed brought a new dimension to our program in psychology, emphasizing the importance of natural history and everyday activity as guidelines in shaping the inquiries of behavioral and cognitive science. Ed Reed's work was far from complete. We will build on his legacy as best we can.

Prof. Reed is survived by his wife, Rebecca Jones, Ph.D., M.D., and two young children, Emma and Aaron.

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JPS Web Site has New Address

by Chris Lalonde

The JPS web site has a new address: http://www.piaget.org

The web site contains up-to-date information on the society and links to other resources on the Internet that are of interest to JPS members. If you have comments about the web site, or suggestions regarding new items or links that should be added to the site, send them to webmaster@piaget.org.

This address change does not affect the JPS mailing list. To join the e-mail discussion list, send a message to "majordomo@unixg.ubc.ca" that contains the following text in the body of the message: subscribe piaget-list (Your Name).

The JPS web site and the e-mail discussion list are open to members and non-members alike-anyone with an interest in the development of knowledge.

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Piaget on Social Values

Wolfe Mays

In his sociological writing Piaget develops a general theory of social values in which he tries to show how such values originate through our interpersonal relations with others, namely, through social exchange. Unlike Levi-Strauss' collectivist approach to social exchange, Piaget's account has more in common with economic exchange, specifically that postulated by the somewhat unfashionable marginal utility theory of Walrus and Pareto. He claims that economic exchange is a sub-species of social exchange. But in view of the strong analogies he finds between them the reverse seems to be true. For example, he compares economic preference scales with scales of social values and thereby gives the latter a precision which they do not have. As a consequence, Piaget's attempt to formalize social values becomes somewhat problematic.

On Piaget's theory, instead of their being an exchange of tangible goods, we deal instead with an exchange of intangible ones - services, feelings and ideas. We move form what is in pure economics a perfect market, where the subject's personal characteristics and his feelings are assumed not to affect the final outcome of the exchange, to an imperfect one in which individual sentiments and idiosyncrasies play a major role.

Piaget gives a cost-benefit analysis of our social reactions to others in terms of the gain or loss of emotional energy, and on this level it seems essentially to be a form of utilitarianism. Nevertheless, people do react spontaneously to each other without calculating how they ought to act so as to maximize their gains and minimize their losses. In his account of moral or normative exchange, Piaget does depict human behaviour in more altruistic terms. But such a sharp division between spontaneous and moral action cannot be sustained. One can discover others.

A Marxist faced with Piaget's theory of social exchange might criticize it on the ground that it foists the abstract commodity principle on to our spontaneous interpersonal relations. And by doing so it distorts these relations seeing them in terms of the buying and selling of commodities, where each party endeavours to maximize his own satisfaction. On such a view, it could be argued, nothing is of value for itself but only as a means to satisfy our selfish desires.

To this Piaget might reply that insofar as social exchange implies the principle of reciprocity, i.e. the exchange of like for like, it has a much wider significance than the commodity principle, which is itself ultimately based on that of reciprocity. He could go on to argue that reciprocity forms the basis for social cooperation and distributive justice. However, in taking the principle of reciprocity as basic to social behaviour one gives the latter a rationality which it does not always have in practice. Our immediate reactions to others often occur on a non-reflective affective level. And we do not always act because we hope we will get an equivalent service in return.

Piaget believes, as we have seen, that our moral behaviour has an altruistic character, as manifested, for example, in the giving of gifts and in the making of sacrifices. But the reciprocity principle is only applicable here if it is assumed that gifts and sacrifices are made in the hope of some future return, and then these actions would no longer be altruistic. To believe, as Piaget does, that to act altruistically is necessarily to act morally, overlooks the implication that to satisfy the needs and desires of other is not a good in itself, especially if these needs and desires are morally objectionable. Ought we, for example, satisfy the needs and desires of a pedophile or a racist.

A fuller version may be had from Wolfe Mays, Department of Politics and Philosophy, Manchester Metropolitan University. Manchester M15 6LL, England. (E-mail: W.Mays@mmu.ac.uk)

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