Book Review

Working with Piaget: Essays in honour of Bärbel Inhelder

A. Tryphon and J. Voneche (Eds.) Hove: The Psychology Press. 2000. ISBN 0 86377 621 3 (hbk)

Reviewed by Leslie Smith
Department of Educational Research
Lancaster University
Lancaster LA1 4YL

Reproduced with permission from the European Society of Developmental Psychology

   This book is first-rate. It is a fine tribute to the contribution made by Bärbel Inhelder to developmental psychology. Her contribution is monumental. It is manifestly unfinished business which looks set for development. It has often gone unsufficiently unremarked in that her is neither their nor his.[1] The least that can be done is to set the record straight. The contributors to this book include distinguished developmentalists whose work continues to invite much more than passing interest. So it is intriguing to know what they thought of her work. In this regard they are first-rate guides to ways ahead. It also turns out that their papers are independently engaging and can be read with value in their own right, and even enjoyment. Finally, the editors have provided those (no doubt too many of us) who did not attend the Cours Avancé with a vicarious experience which really is instructive. So just in case you missed what I said, let me say it again. This book is first-rate.

   I plan to do two things. One is to report very briefly on each chapter. The other is to raise some questions, maybe for the editors, or for the contributors, or for you the reader. All replies are very welcome.

Individual Chapters: Summary Report

Jacques Vonèche and Anastasia Tryphon

Their edited book has two aims (i) to distinguish Inhelder's work in the context of the Genevan school; (ii) to have the various sites of her work revisited by contemporary scholars.

Chap. 1: Bärbel Inhelder's contribution to psychology
Jacques Vonèche

Inhelder came to Geneva from St. Gallen aged 19 years in 1932. She was to remain there for the most of the next 65 years as 'Piaget's student and chief collaborator (in a role which was) seminal and crucial (amounting to) independence in interdependence' (pp.1-2). It is, or ought to be, well known that Piaget's central problem was to explain development from the causal to the normative, for example the temporal construction of atemporal knowledge.[2] Inhelder's problem was the converse, namely the 'passage from (structural) atemporality to (procedural) temporality' (p.9). This involves the construction of any new procedure for use both in and beyond its specificity. Inhelder's methodological stance is implicated with a dual commitment both to Popperian falsifiability in science and to the art of experimenting which deliberately required the simultaneous interviewing of children on many different topics (pp.3, 9)

Chap. 2: From structural diagnosis to functional diagnosis of reasoning: a dynamic conception of mental retardation
Jean-Louis Paour

A functional perspective is incompatible with a structural dead-end by attesting the validity of the Piagetian model in psychiatric practice and by the further analysis of the developmental aspects of mental retardation (p.13). Inhelder's own study in 1943 anticipated later dynamic perspectives, such as Feuerstein's IE. It led Inhelder to propose new criteria of mental retardation in terms of the extent to which a subject has the capacity to make up any retardation of operatory construction (p.26). It involves such constructs as genetic viscosity or slowness in equilibration, reasoning oscillation, and "false equilibrium" (pp.30-31).

Chap 3: Perspective taking in the aftermath of the theory-theory and the collapse of the social role-taking literature
Michael Chandler

'History...once again threatens to come full circle, as 50 years of interim work now appears to be leading us back to a set of insights already more or less explicitly contained in Piaget and Inhelder's original text' (p.39). The text in question is The child's conception (représentation) of space. This development through substages is 'representational in character' (p.42).[3] What this advance is not, and is more or less explicitly so stated by Piaget and Inhelder, is 'some precise, singular, and salutary moment of onset when the scales of egocentrism fall abruptly and completely from young children's eyes' (p42). There is no "one miracle" advance here. Yet this insight has apparently been lost today, both in children's theory of mind research and in social perspective taking research (pp.50-51).

Chap 4: Building a theory of formal operational thinking: Inhelder's psychology meets Piaget's epistemology
Trevor Bond

During the 1920s, Piaget had an account of formal thought. Some version of this account was used in his widely read text Psychology of intelligence (Piaget, 1947 in French; 1950 in English). Concurrent with Piaget's logical models in Traité de logique (1949) which were non-empirical was Inhelder's work on the development of inductive reasoning, which was empirical and based on a sample size n=1500 using fifteen tasks which have become bench-marks in subsequent research. This "coincidence" led to an account of formal operational thought which is (i) not dependent on actual objects, but is (ii) an operation on operations (iii) characterised by propositional logic. If Poincaré was right in denying that a pile of stones is a house, the good question remains about the authorship of 'a theory of formal operational reasoning' which Inhelder denied was due to her work (p.79)

Chap 5: The impact of social structure on development: an analysis of individual differences in cognition
Wolfgang Edelstein and Eberhard Schröder

This chapter and the next are linked through a longitudinal study, conducted in Iceland over 20 years. There was a joint focus on developmental universalism and socialisation (p.85). The study set out to incorporate "independent variables" in a constructivist perspective, including social class, school year/grade and educational competence in relation to reasoning tasks. One main finding was in terms of the overriding effect of educational competence and, to a lesser extent, social class (p.94). There were also implications about both intra- and inter-individual differences in cognitive growth.

Chap 6: The impact of developmental change and social constraints on cognition: the example of syllogistic reasoning
Eberhard Schröder and Wolfgang Edelstein

A central tenet of a constructivist model is the focus on both process and outcome. 'The construction of meaning is therefore necessarily an ever-changing process, as existing schemata are confronted again and again with new experiences' (p. 104) Using Hoffman's (sic) taxonomy of potential sources of invalidity in constructivist models, internal constraints relate to cognitive interactions, whilst external constraints are mediators/moderators of cognitive interaction (p.107). One main conclusion was that differences in cognitive development can be traced back to antecedent constructions in the ontogenesis of the subject. Another was that 'schooling leads to a developmental process of selective differentiation that reinforces dramatically the impact of previously acquired differences in individual resources' (p.118).

Chap 7: Mental imagery: from Inhelder's ideas to neuro-cognitive models
Jacques Vonèche

One claim is that 'for Piaget, there was primacy of operations upon imagery whereas , for Inhelder, mental imagery was the support of thought' (p.124). A second is that 'mental imagery is not residual perception but active imitation by the sensory-motoric organs' (p.124). A third is that, in neuro-cognitive models, 'mere recognition does not allow any grounded conclusion about the observer's sensitivity to perspective, rotation, or point of view' (p. 126). A fourth claim is the main conclusion in that 'consequently, cognitivistic psychologists have neither verified nor falsified the Genevan constructivistic theory' (p.127).

Chap 8: Learning in Geneva: the contribution of Bärbel Inhelder and her colleagues
Peter Bryant

Inhelder's work was conspicuously successful in several ways. One was the insight into cognitive development due to Inhelder's illuminating protocols. Another was the technique of 'confronting children with the failure of their own predictions' (p.138). A third was her principal focus on the nature, not the timing, of developmental advance. A fourth was the design of a major empirical study in Learning and the development of cognition (1974). Another three factors in the reckoning are argued to be less appealing. First, her work was located in its Genevan context. This means that 'it is desperately hard to embody disequilibrium or reflective abstraction as an experimental procedure' (p.130). Second, the 1974 study should have included an adequate control group to test the competing claims of "cognitive"-v-"linguistic" hypotheses, when this was not the case (p.131). Third, the conclusion to draw from a recent study is more in line with a "linguistic" hypothesis in that 'language plays an important and rather specific role in children's growing ability to understand and form ordinal series'(p. 138).

Chap 9: Scheme theory as a key to the learning paradox
Ernst von Glasersfeld

The learning paradox is 'the paradox of how one might know something one does not yet know' (p.143). According to Fodor, the only adequate solution available right now of this paradox is some version of nativism and empirical induction in hypothesis-testing (p.143). But this conclusion is vulnerable to a solution based on the logic of creative acts, where this logic is abduction. In abduction, a hypothetical rule is generated from a single case as follows (p.144):

  1. Fact C is observed
  2. If A were true, then C is normally the case


  3. There is some reason to suspect that A is true

The crucial move is in premise (2) which could be based on analogy or comparison or grounded belief (p.145). Action schemes have exactly this capacity in that an actual result of an action can be assimilated to an expected result along with augmentation in the scope of expectation (p. 146). One merit is that abductive logic is in a better position than inductive logic to explain the emergence of novel structures (p.148).

Chap 10: Culture and universals: a tribute to Bärbel Inhelder
Patricia Greenfield

At issue is the use of a 'small scale homogeneous society to introduce a large theory of development' (p.149). Whereas Inhelder - and Vygotsky too (p. 152) - took Western scientist as her developmental endpoint, other endpoints are valued in other societies where the value of cognition is only as a means to preferred social ends (p151). Thus Zinacantects do not value weaving as a technical skills; rather they value weaving for its social aspects (p. 163). This means that individualism, independence and autonomy have a lesser social value than social utility and cultural conservation. Even so, elements of individual constructivism are reflected in the social training of the skills of weaving (p.162). But this learning is socially value-laden, marked by the contrary prescriptions such as "Let her do it by herself" and "She doesn't know how to", so I must teach her to do in our way (p.170).

Chap 11: Bärbel Inhelder and the fall of Valhalla
Terrance Brown

Inhelder sought not to restore 'epistemology to philosophy as Brünhilde restored the Rhinegold to the Rhine. Her tack was, rather, to suggest a world in which the gods of Genevan epistemology and the gnomes of American cognitivism would, through some sort of union. give rise to a psychology that had the universal traits of Piagetian epistemology and the individual traits of real people with real histories living real lives' (p. 180). This quest has the consequence that, for Inhelder, the epistemic subject should be more broadly conceived and so endowed with value, intention, motivation, self and self-esteem' (p.183). Even so, this did not do away with equilibration theory 'applied both to causal and implicative domains' (p. 185). This is because 'the functioning of structures created new schemes and that coordination of the new schemes created new structures' (p. 186). This is interesting, if only because the uses made by different individuals of the self-same structure in the same situation are so different (p.188).

Chap 12: The experimental approach of children and adolescents
Bärbel Inhelder [paper published originally in French in 1954 and translated by Trevor Bond]

Two omisions in Genevan theory are the functional aspects of thought and adolescent reasoning. This leads to a third which is the evolution in reasoning from childhood to adolescence (p.193). Markers of this evolution are "there must be a relationship, but its necessary to experiment in order to know what sort" and "I want to see if what I think is correct", notably in a study of the 'free discovery of laws and causes' (p. 194). Fifteen tasks were used in four categories with subjects selected such that 'no subject knew in advance the laws to be discovered....But it is clear that the solution to each problem implies an undeniable cultural and educational contribution' (p.195). The quartet comprised: (i) discovery of physical invariants; (ii) notions of equilibrium of forces; (iii) proportional ratios; (iv) experimental verification. A functional analysis - i.e. analysis of the functioning of inductive reasoning (p. 202) - of the findings was based on differences in motives, strategy, interpretation and verification across three stages, namely (a) imaginative techniques, (b) concrete techniques, (c) scientific techniques. Taking motives as an example, this amounted to: (a) 'activity for effect, accompanied often by the pleasure of being the cause' (p. 202); (b) activity to find a new relationship (p. 203); (c) activity directed on the search for truth (p. 204). There was a fit between these findings and Piaget's structural analysis in terms of a group of four propositional transformations (p. 206). This structure is not consciously realised by any subject who nonetheless has the capacity to use it in his or her own activity, whether individual or social (p. 207). In short, the main question is "How is a child going to use an intellectual instrument in a context such that that child is going to experiment and so not merely respond to questions posed by an investigator?" (p. 193). The answer is in terms of a 'system which corresponds to the general structures of his or her formal reasoning' (p. 207). This in no way reduces the role of the socio-cultural milieu. It does throw light on the formation of a "game-plan" which Poincaré contrasted to the rules determining any particular move in a game of chess.

Questions for contributors and readers

  1. Functional perspective
    Any empirical perspective on intellectual development will take stock of what people do. What exactly is a functional perspective of intellectual development?


    1. Vonèche (in his first paper) argued that Inhelder's perspective was functional, rather than structural in Piaget's sense. This distinction has an analytic basis, if only because these two perspectives were regarded as complementary by Inhelder and Piaget in their last joint paper in 1979/1980. But Vonèche also interpreted Inhelder's perspective in terms of the multiple use of a structure leading to new constructions.
      Inhelder, B. & Piaget, J. (1980). Procedures and structures. In D. Olson (ed). The social foundations of language. New York: Norton.
    2. Inhelder set out to investigate adolescent reasoning in novel contexts, i.e. in contexts where the youngsters were required to experiment and so create their own understanding of the world through their use of knowledge-structures. This seems to imply that functional requires participants to be creative in the context of investigations.
    3. The difference between a "game-plan" and the rules of a game. This could be interpreted in terms of the distinction between facts (I normally castle in my first five moves in a game of chess) and norms (each player should make one move in turn in a game of chess). But there is another interpretation in which "normative facts" (Piaget, 1995, p. 69) are implicated (in the context of this game, castling is something that I should not do). It is this second interpretation through "normative facts" which could demarcate Inhelder's functional perspective through (eg: Piagetian) constructivism.
      Piaget, J. (1995). Sociological Studies. London: Routledge.
  2. Method
    Was abductive logic presupposed by (i) Inhelder or (ii) Piaget in their accounts of a méthode critique (critical method)?


    1. This logic was not invoked by Inhelder et al. (1974), even though an overview of this method is included.
      Inhelder, B., Sinclair, H. & Bovet, M. (1974). Learning and the development of cognition. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
    2. Nor was it invoked by Piaget in his 1947 update (see Smith, 1993, sect.11) in view of the unavailability in English of this French text).
      Smith, L. (1993). Necessary knowledge. Hove: Erlbaum.
    3. Abduction was discussed by von Glasersfeld, though not in application to this method.

  3. Method
    Assuming that a commitment is made to Popperian falsifiability in scientific research, does this commitment require the use of an experimental method, or is Inhelder right in regarding a critical method as sufficient?


    1. Bryant's argument was that training studies are necessary for causal explanations, which in turn requires an experimental method based on standardisation and adequate control groups. This commitment is in line with Popper's principle of falsifiablity through a requirement for experimental methods.
    2. Inhelder (see the first paper by Vonèche and her own 1954 paper) was also committed to this same principle without accepting the requirement for an experimental method.

  4. Empirical account and principled theory
    What is the difference between an empirical account and a principled theory?


    1. Bond quoted Inhelder as denying that her 1954 work on formal operational thought amounted to a theory. But he also came close to denying that a theory of formal operational thought was due to Piaget.
    2. Inhelder in her 1954 paper specifically invoked Piaget's logical models in the interpretation of her empirical evidence
    3. In the natural sciences, a theory has three elements: a calculus or formal model; an interpretation or empirical model; correspondence rules (Nagel quoted in Smith, 1993, p. 100). Applied to formal operational thought, Piaget (1949) supplied the formal model; Piaget-Inhelder supplied the interpretation; Inhelder supplied the tasks or correspondence rules.
      Smith, L. (1993). Necessary knowledge. Hove: Erlbaum.
    4. At issue is whether Nagel's analysis fits developmental theory.

  5. Individual and society
    Is there a unitary model of value-laden intellectual exchange between the individual and society?


    1. Greenfield argued that the value which individuals impose on knowledge is due to their socio-cultural background. This is to assign importance to society.
    2. Schröder and Edelstein argued that social processes such as schooling do not compensate for inadequate intellectual development. This is to assign importance to individual autonomy.
    3. Is there an apparent or a real disagreement lurking here?

  6. Representation
    Is the concept of representation so ambiguous, or even so flawed, that it should not be used in empirical accounts of intellectual development?


    1. Chandler argued for a conclusion that recent research in two areas (theory of mind, social perspective taking) was slowly coming to a conclusion which he reckoned had been stated fifty years earlier by Piaget and Inhelder in their account of egocentrism.
    2. Vonèche argued that cognitive models of imagery (representation) amounted neither to the verification nor falsification of Genevan accounts. These research paradigms amount to so many "ships at sea passing each other by at night"
    3. What is going on here? One answer due to Wittgenstein on the last page of his Philosophical investigations is: conceptual confusion.

  7. Equilibration
    If there is an interaction between the nature and speed of development, is this indirect evidence in favour of equilibration as a developmental mechanism?


    1. Bryant pointed out that the timing of development is much less interesting than its nature. He also made a widely held claim that equilibration concepts are darned hard to test.
    2. Paour argued that if development is too slow, this can impact adversely on its nature. A comparable claim is made by Schröder and Edelstein about the relative ineffectiveness of schooling as a compensation for delayed development. Paour made allusive references to equilibration concepts, such as genetic viscosity, and false equilibrium, whilst Edelstein and Schröder invoked constructivist factors in their own model.
    3. For what it is worth, my view is that there currently is neither a formal nor a testable model of equilibration, but that, even so, this model is intelligible and shown to be so on at least ten counts (Smith, in press).
      Smith, L. (in press). Piaget's model. In U. Goswami (ed) Handbook of cognitive development. Oxford: Blackwell.

  8. Psychology and Epistemology
    What is the relation between psychology and epistemology?


    1. An entrenched distinction due to Logical Positivism is between the "two contexts", the context of discovery which is psychological and non-logical, and the context of justification which is logical and non-psychological. This distinction is both exclusive and exhaustive (see Smith, 1993, pp.17, 33).
      Smith, L. (1993). Necessary knowledge. Hove: Erlbaum.
    2. I have argued for a distinction which is exclusive but not exhaustive (Smith, 1999) based on a mediator in developmental epistemology which is empirical. This mediator has a unit of analysis which is an act of judgment. Any act has psychological causes; any judgment has normative implications.
      Smith, L. (1999). Epistemological principles for developmental psychology in Frege and Piaget. New Ideas in Psychology, 17, 83-117, 137-47.
    3. Several contributors (Brown, von Glasersfeld) have invoked some relation between psychology and epistemology, but it is not clear what they envisage that this relation amounts to. Following the example set by Oliver Twist, some hungry readers may well be wanting something more here.


  • the footnotes on p10 should be reversed
  • for conceptual in character read representational in character on p42
  • for compliment read complement on p57
  • for Hofmann read Hoffman on p106

  1. A special issue of the Archives de Psychologie (1998) acts as a companion tribute to the work of Bärbel Inhelder. I plead guilty in Smith (1998):

    "I first met Bärbel Inhelder in 1991 on my visit to the Archives in Geneva which she founded. Before this visit, I was well aware of her work with Piaget since I had already placed one of her papers (Inhelder, 1962) as the first chapter in my (Smith, 1992a) critique of Piaget's work. Even so my own belief about her work at that time was wide of the mark. Perhaps this belief was due to plain ignorance. Perhaps also it was not merely autobiographical since it reflected a common view generally. Under that belief, her role was variously rapporteur of his work, for example in the elegant remark that Piaget 'a zoologist by training, an epistemologist by vocation and a logician by method employs a terminology as yet not much used in psychology ' (Inhelder, 1956, p.75); or collaborator in a sequence of classic studies (such as Piaget and Inhelder, 1974); or eventual successor of "the" Genevan school (Inhelder & Piaget, 1980). This original belief really was an over-simplification but this dawning realisation took its time. It started when at the Archives I read Bärbel Inhelder's autobiography with its majestic portrait of its author and this stunning remark about the classic text known as The growth of logical thinking (Inhelder & Piaget, 1958):

    "one of us was engaged in an empirical study of the transition in thinking from childhood to adolescence, the other worked out the academic tools needed to interpret these results. It was after we had compared notes and were making final interpretations that we saw the striking convergence between the empirical and the analytic results. (Though readers may find it difficult to believe) the total absence of prior agreement before our respective enterprises were started, I can assure them of the strict truth of this account" (Inhelder, 1989a, p.223).

    All became clearer for me when I challenged Bärbel Inhelder on this point in several conversations. This encounter was decisive: my original belief was plain wrong. The least I could do was to try to make amends and read her work, not so as to start again ex nihilo and from nothing at all, but rather to set out to disengage her contribution in its Genevan context. This has proved to be for me at least a worthwhile experience, an example in fact of development as differentiation and a better grasp of that which was initially confounded (Inhelder, 1943, p.14)."

  2. See Smith (1999): "the emergence of logical necessity constitutes the central problem in the psychogenesis of logical structures (Piaget, 1967, p.391)." In the light of (1), what Smith (1999) should have have pointed out is what Vonèche here actually does point out, namely that the use of an available (already constructed) structure is not the end of the story. This is because a structure which is not used dies a death. It is also because a structure which is used requires further construction for it to be put to good use.

  3. Re-translating line 3 on p.43 as 'representational in character'. My thanks to Popilé and the Jean Piaget Archives for a photocopy of the relevant pages of the French text of Piaget and Inhelder (1956)

About the reviewer

Les Smith is Reader in Psychology and Epistemology of Development at the Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University. Further details of his interests can be found at his departmental webpage