Jean Piaget: The Insights and Illusions of Philosophy

Jean Piaget in Ann Arbor.png

Lest one think my previous disparaging remarks (here, here, and here) were limited to theology, let me turn them toward my own field, philosophy. Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980) was one of the most important intellectuals of the twentieth century and a scholar of philosophy, psychology, and biology. In the mid-twentieth century, Piaget penned a wonderful little book entitled: Insights and Illusions of Philosophy.

Piaget’s lifelong interest—the reason he devoted decades to studying the intellectual development of children—was in articulating a biological epistemology. Piaget’s early intellectual experiences with Bergson and Spencer left him convinced that speculation uninformed by science was intellectually dishonest.  (This reminds me of Bertrand Russell saying: “A philosopher who uses his professional competence for anything other except a disinterested search for truth is guilty of a kind of treachery.”) Speculation, based on intuition and introspection, has no epistemological justification in making claims about empirical facts.  Needless to say, he saw such speculation as a hallmark of philosophy. He clearly expressed his disdain for philosophical speculation:

It was while teaching philosophy that I saw how easily one can say … what one wants to say … In fact, I became particularly aware of the dangers of speculation … It’s a natural tendency. It’s so much easier than digging out facts. You sit in your office and build a system. It’s wonderful. But with my training in biology, I felt this kind of undertaking was precarious.”1

Philosophical speculation can raise questions, but it cannot provide answers; answers are found only in testing and experimentation. Knowledge presupposes verification, and verification attains only by mutually agreed-upon controls. Unfortunately, philosophers do not usually have experience in inductive and experimental verification.

Young philosophers because they are made to specialize immediately on entering the university in a discipline which the greatest thinkers in the history of philosophy have entered only after years of scientific investigations, believe they have immediate access to the highest regions of knowledge, when neither they nor sometimes their teachers have the least experience of what it is to acquire and verify a specific piece of knowledge.2

But how did it happen that philosophy, which gave birth to the sciences, became so separate from the scientific method? Piaget traces this separation to the 19th century when philosophy came to believe that it possessed a “suprascientific” knowledge. This split was disastrous for philosophy, as it retreated into its own world, lost its hold on the intellectual imagination, and had its credibility questioned. For Piaget, philosophy is synonymous with science or reflection upon science, and philosophy uninformed by science cannot find truth; at most it provides subjective wisdom. Philosophy, Piaget concludes, is not even about truth; at most it is about meaning and values.

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1. Jean-Claude Bringuier, Conversations with Piaget (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 13.
2. Jean Piaget, Insights and Illusions of Philosophy, trans. W. Mays (New York: World Publishing Company, 1971) xiv.

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