Jean Piaget PDF Print E-mail
Sunday, 02 November 2008 15:48


Jean Piaget

Born: August 9, 1896, Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

Died: September 16, 1980, Geneva, Switzerland.

Age: 84

Notable because: His work with Epistemology, seeking a biological explanation of knowledge, has inspired millions towards raising the human condition. One of the more influential brains of the 20th Century.


Jean Piaget was a Swiss philosopher, natural scientist and developmental theorist, well known for his work studying children, his theory of cognitive development and for his epistemological view called "genetic epistemology."

The very great importance he attached to the education of children made him declare in 1934 in his role as Director of the International Bureau of Education that ‘only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent, or gradual’.

In 1955 he created the International Centre for Genetic Epistemology in Geneva and directed it until 1980. According to Ernst von Glasersfeld, Jean Piaget is "the great pioneer of the constructivist theory of knowing."

Jean Piaget was born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, on August 9, 1896.  His father, Arthur Piaget, was a professor of medieval literature with an interest in local history.  His mother, Rebecca Jackson, was intelligent and energetic, but Jean found her a bit neurotic -- an impression that he said led to his interest in psychology, but away from pathology!  The oldest child, he was quite independent and took an early interest in nature, especially the collecting of shells.  He published his first “paper” when he was ten -- a one page account of his sighting of an albino sparrow.

He began publishing in earnest in high school on his favorite subject, mollusks.  He was particularly pleased to get a part time job with the director of Nuechâtel’s Museum of Natural History, Mr. Godel.  His work became well known among European students of mollusks, who assumed he was an adult!  All this early experience with science kept him away, he says, from “the demon of philosophy.”

Later in adolescence, he faced a bit a crisis of faith:  Encouraged by his mother to attend religious instruction, he found religious argument childish.  Studying various philosophers and the application of logic, he dedicated himself to finding a “biological explanation of knowledge.”  Ultimately, philosophy failed to assist him in his search, so he turned to psychology.

After high school, he went on to the University of Neuchâtel.  Constantly studying and writing, he became sickly, and had to retire to the mountains for a year to recuperate.  When he returned to Neuchâtel, he decided he would write down his philosophy.  A fundamental point became a centerpiece for his entire life’s work:  “In all fields of life (organic, mental, social) there exist ‘totalities’ qualitatively distinct from their parts and imposing on them an organization.” This principle forms the basis of his structuralist philosophy, as it would for the Gestaltists, Systems Theorists, and many others.

In 1918, Piaget received his Doctorate in Science from the University of Neuchâtel.  He worked for a year at psychology labs in Zurich and at Bleuler’s famous psychiatric clinic.  During this period, he was introduced to the works of Freud, Jung, and others.  In 1919, he taught psychology and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris.  Here he met Simon (of Simon-Binet fame) and did research on intelligence testing.  He didn’t care for the “right-or-wrong” style of the intelligent tests and started interviewing his subjects at a boys school instead, using the psychiatric interviewing techniques he had learned the year before.  In other words, he began asking how children reasoned.

In 1921, his first article on the psychology of intelligence was published in the Journal de Psychologie.  In the same year, he accepted a position at the Institut J. J. Rousseau in Geneva.  Here he began with his students to research the reasoning of elementary school children.  This research became his first five books on child psychology.  Although he considered this work highly preliminary, he was surprised by the strong positive public reaction to his work.

In 1923, he married one of his student coworkers, Valentine Châtenay.  In 1925, their first daughter was born; in 1927, their second daughter was born; and in 1931, their only son was born.  They immediately became the focus of intense observation by Piaget and his wife.  This research became three more books!

In 1929, Piaget began work as the director of the International Bureau of Education, a post he would hold until 1967.  He also began large scale research with A. Szeminska, E. Meyer, and especially Bärbel Inhelder, who would become his major collaborator.  Piaget, it should be noted, was particularly influential in bringing women into experimental psychology.  Some of this work, however, wouldn’t reach the world outside of Switzerland until World War II was over.

In 1940, He became chair of Experimental Psychology, the Director of the psychology laboratory, and the president of the Swiss Society of Psychology.  In 1942, he gave a series of lectures at the Collège de France, during the Nazi occupation of France.  These lectures became The Psychology of Intelligence.  At the end of the war, he was named President of the Swiss Commission of UNESCO.

Also during this period, he received a number of honorary degrees.  He received one  from the Sorbonne in 1946, the University of Brussels and the University of Brazil in 1949, on top of an earlier one from Harvard in 1936.  And, in 1949 and 1950, he published his synthesis, Introduction to Genetic Epistemology.

In 1952, he became a professor at the Sorbonne.  In 1955, he created the International Center for Genetic Epistemology, of which he served as director the rest of his life.  And, in 1956, he created the School of Sciences at the University of Geneva.

He continued working on a general theory of structures and tying his psychological work to biology for many more years.  Likewise, he continued his public service through UNESCO as a Swiss delegate.  By the end of his career, he had written over 60 books and many hundreds of articles.  He died in Geneva, September 16, 1980, one of the most significant psychologists of the twentieth century.




Last Updated on Tuesday, 10 February 2009 14:22

Add comment

Security code

Who's Online

We have 23 guests online