Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was a Swiss biologist, psychologist, and philosopher known most prominently for his studies of the cognitive development of children. He was a voluminous writer in multiple fields whose publishing career began at age ten and continued unabated for about seventy years. He is one of the most important psychologists and cited intellectuals of the twentieth century.
The desire to find a bridge between biology and knowledge was Piaget’s lifelong goal, and evolution provided that bridge, since both life and mind evolve.[i] What Piaget discovered after decades of empirical study was that interactions between biological organisms and their physical environment were strikingly parallel to those found in the relation between minds and reality—in both domains evolution proceeds similarly.
The key concepts in Piaget’s thought were: organization, adaptation, assimilation, accommodation, and equilibration. An animal is an organization, a complex, physical structure. If a biological organism is in a state of disequilibrium—for example, it’s hungry—it is motivated to adapt to its environment—search for food. This process of adaptation comes about by assimilating from the environment—eating—and then accommodating to what’s been assimilation—undergoing the digestive process. The end result of the adaptive process is that the organism returns to a state of biological equilibrium—its hunger satisfied.
In a similar way, humans exist as organisms in a cognitive environment. If an organism is in a state of cognitive disequilibrium—say it’s unsure of a truth claim—it is motivated to adapt to its cognitive environment—say by taking a class about the topic. This process of adaptation consists of both the process of assimilating new knowledge—attending a lecture—as well as accommodating to what’s been assimilated—by reconciling the new information with previous cognitive structures. The end result of the adaptive process is that the organism achieves a higher level of cognitive equilibrium.
Together organization and adaptation constitute what Piaget calls the process of equilibration—essentially a biological drive to produce optimal states of equilibrium between organisms and their physical and cognitive environments. The result in biological evolution is organisms more adapted to or equilibrated with their physical environments, and in cognitive evolution organisms more adapted to or equilibrated with their cognitive environment.
The empirical evidence to support his view comes from multiple sources. For instance, the cognitive development of a child—the evolution of individual mind—and the development of better scientific theories—the evolution of the group mind—both provide overwhelming evidence for the progressive evolution of knowledge toward better theories about the world, contra Kuhn. The equilibration process drives both individuals and groups to higher levels of equilibrium between mind and reality. In other words, thought gradually adapts to reality.
While Piaget did not discuss whether the evolution of cognitive structures would construct or discover meaning, we might infer that meaning, if real, will be approached by the increasing power of mind—mind that is the product of the process of equilibration that moves mind closer and closer to truth.
Summary – Knowledge evolves in a progressive direction characterized by a better fit between mind and the real.
[i] For more see John G. Messerly, Piaget’s Conception of Evolution (Lanham Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996).