Piaget: Philosophical Illusions

Jean Piaget in Ann Arbor.png

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 the book, Insights and Illusions of Philosophy, which offers a  critique of philosophy that is uninformed by science. Piaget has been accused of scientism, but his critique of philosophy is worth considering.

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 regarding empirical reality. Needless to say, he saw philosophical speculation as a hallmark of philosophy and he clearly expressed his disdain for it:

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, good philosophy is synonymous with science or reflection upon science, whereas philosophy uninformed by science cannot find truth; at most it provides subjective wisdom. Philosophy, Piaget concludes, is not even about truth at all; at most it is about meaning and values.


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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7 thoughts on “Piaget: Philosophical Illusions

  1. “Those who have learned precepts and nothing more are quick to vomit them up before digesting them, like men with weak stomachs–Slave you can not go about this in random and haphazard fashion, the proper observances must be performed— You have not lived as purely as him–You want to open a Doctor’s Office with only Drugs ” Epictetus Discourses

  2. I have been appreciative of Piaget for one reason. One reason, only. His work towards understanding childhood development. Anything other than this does not interest me.
    I need not elaborate what has already been alluded to. Other philosophers have also interested me. Cherry picking? Hardly. Even so-august a personage as Socrates said stupid things before dying. Then, as an insult to him, later ‘thinkers’ have characterized his death as aquiescent suicide—or notions of that nature. We all have interests, preferences and motives. If old $o-crates was so-worried about how he might remembered, seems ludicrous to me. He was far smarter than that, self-denial(?), notwithstanding. Clearly, history is continually revised. Question is, how long has this been going on?

  3. Much, if not most, of philosophy is illusory. It is inexact, opinionated. Not the best way to make a living. Or, an impact on reality, as we know it. Still, it is fun. And leads to other notions of, as Nagel said, ” how things probably are, not how they might possibly be”.
    Bergson also knew this. As have at least a dozen more, including Sellars.

  4. Very interesting points. They cause me to raise a hundred questions about everything. But I also believe that truth can also be FELT, even if I cannot prove it with scientific facts. This, of course, provided that some basis are in place, i.e. that I am not insane or religious (which amounts to be more or less the same thing). However, I can prove it by deliberating about several decades of human experience, from when I was very small (I saw and heard things, common things, that I did not understand then, but I do now) and by also observing many other people sharing these experiences. I think the problem is when we believe that just because “there’s no answers” to this or that question, then it must follow that any of these answers must be discarded.

    Let me try to make an example. A few years ago I saw an interesting research paper about what Schopenhauer had written in his Parerga (sorry if I always take out of the bag Schopenhauer, but it’s one of the very few subjects I have so far worked on over a few years. On one hand, my knowledge is limited, but on the other, I think it is more focused than if I had spread myself too thinly. I believe this can be done, but only through many, many years, etc).

    So, as I was writing, the basic conclusion of this research paper, which tried to prove or disprove what Schopenhauer had wrote about several things (mainly about the relationship between ourselves and others), was that Schopenhauer was wrong on the subject of marriage.

    This conclusion was reached after the researchers interviewed a number of married people after several years. The conclusion was that basically people are happier when married, and that it’s good for them. I am perhaps simplifying (I don’t remember all the details, but I do remember the essence of the whole thing).

    I thought this research was preposterous. First of all, how can we be sure that people are saying the brutal truth when asked about their marriage? My guess is that if my wife saw me as a loser, I wouldn’t readily admit this to strangers. So in the first place, since common people, “the crowd” (for lack of a better term) was being interviewed, and not people like Socrates or any philosophers, then I’d take what anyones says with not one, but TWO pinches of salt.

    Secondly, Schopenhauer never wrote that ALL marriages are doomed to failure. He wrote in GENERAL TERMS. Not only that, I have seen this very thought of him scattered through his writings, over and over, he clearly said that the philosopher can only speak in GENERAL TERMS (sorry about the capitals, I still can’t figure out where the cursive button. My conclusion is that it doesn’t exists at all on my keyboard.).

    Even in the Parerga, he clearly writes that everyone is different, has a different mentality, and that what applies to someone might NOT apply to someone else.

    And I think THIS is one of the problems in regard to the research paper: the researches tried to look for LAWS that apply virtually to everyone. It is obvious to me that they, as many others, don’t really know enough about Schopenhauer. I am not saying I am the world expert of the subject, just that it seems to me that many have a superficial grasp of what the man really meant in this or that writing of his.

    Of course, neither I am saying that he was absolutely correct about every single things, but about the main things, I think he was. Is that a belief? I don’t know what to call it. If I call it a belief, it feels wrong, for I see facts and proof before my eyes. If I call them laws, that also seems wrong, for I also see the exceptions to the very facts I mentioned. But here’s the rub: the facts are far numerous than the exceptions.

    For example, I never saw a “happily married couple” after ,say, 50 years of being married. Or even 15. So I think the researchers forgot to test this stuff only on people with an EXTENSIVE experience in marriage.

    Did I ever see, or hear, about old people who are still in LOVE? Oh yes. Of course. But to me this feels like the proverbial grain of gold inside a ton of mud.

    “Piaget traces this separation to the 19th century when philosophy came to believe that it possessed a “suprascientific” knowledge”.

    Would that be metaphysics? Of course, anything that tries to pass itself as science, when it’s not, must be baloney, or pseudoscience.

    Here’s another interesting thing about Schopenhauer. In one of his usual criticisms of Hegel, he writes: “First of all, anyone who says their philosophy to be absolutely correct at all times, in every case, raises red flags.”. (paraphrasing).

    I think that is very interesting about him, for it is natural to think: “Well, Mr Schopenhauer, then that would also apply to YOUR philosophy.”.

    And yet, it is not easy for me to easily dismiss his philosophy. I have read last week an extremely interesting book about him written by an Italian philosopher, Anacleto Verrecchia, who translated from German material about Schopenhauer that have never been translated in English (I never read in Italian, unless in these special cases, which are very few).

    In it, there’s a very interesting story told by someone who had met Schopenhauer (the book is a compilation what people who had met the philosopher, had written to other people in their letters).

    In this story, there’s a man (philosopher, student, or scholar, I can’t remember) who is conversing with Schopenhauer in his room. The man takes issue to what Schopenhauer had written about how life was doom and gloom, etc.

    Schopenhauer becomes devastating, without getting agitated or angry. The story is in Italian so I cannot translate it into English with the same effectiveness. (Let’s name the man with V for visitor, and S, well, you know who 🙂 )

    (this is the end of the debate between the two. )

    V: ….I do not know if there is such a….. as imagined by Leibniz, or if this is the best of all possible worlds. I simply do not know. I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic.

    S: Well, I am more advanced than you are, and less skeptical on these points, and I formally declare that our world is the worst one of all possible worlds.”.

    V: And the proof?

    S: Do you think you have me cornered? Absolutely not, I have irrefutable proof. Come with me, by the window. We see there all these middle class people, these laborers bent over their tools.

    You now tell me what they are mulling over, deep down. You think my question to be difficult, but it isn’t difficult at all. You know the answer as well as I: the thought that pushes these people and shackles them to their work, from dawn to dusk, is living and surviving. It is for a loaf of bread that everyone, or almost everyone, uses up their energies and vigor.

    Son, allow me to call you that, for I could be your grandad: this is the problem that constantly claws at humankind: “How will I eat, me and my family?”.

    Science, politics, industry, agricolture, all of it, more or less, leads back to that one question, vulgar and terrible at the same time, of how we are going to find a loaf of bread to eat. Nay, I’d say, how we are going to chew it, too.

    The whole of humankind, with its millions of arms, helped by it millions of devices, fights every hour, under every piece of sky, against rebellious Nature, to desperately grab what? Enough food that is barely sufficient for one half of us. And when it is found, we are all avidly and desperately scurrying around, using our claws to take it away for our neighbor: ”I must have this, because I must survive!”, shouts every nation, so we have war, daughter of need, and eternal like a plague. And if we don’t kill each other in war, we assassinate, so to speak, each other, by using each other, each for the same reasons. In the animal world we find the same terrible laws. The means for both the animal world and humankind to survive are so scarce, and are all so condemned by the will to live and the innumerable difficulties to do so, that every living being has to fight tooth and nail to keep living.

    And then? Humans die as well as animals, each is erased as something completely unimportant. Yet the species goes on, ad infinitum.”.

    So to return to Piaget (sorry about the extreme digression!), I agree about science being generally superior, but it seems to me that science tries to say, this must be either black, or white. I think philosophy goes beyond that. Of course, none of us (except maybe Piaget, I do not know) has established what philosophy or what science is being discussed, and what we are trying to prove.

    It seems to me that philosophy starts where science fails, but this is not to say that the former is superior. But in the case of the research paper the conclusions seem drawn frankly by simpletons, yet that is (according to the researchers) empirical research.

    I keep mentioning him for the points, not because he’s Schopenhauer. If each points I find striking or interesting would have been mentioned by 12 different philosophers, this would be completely fine with me….in other words, mine is not really a form of obsequiousness to him.

    Sorry if I went completely crazy on this one, and if you want to scream at me, feel free to. By the way, you don’t have to publish this on your blog, it might be too long. I just wanted to say this to someone like you, which are rare.

    Whew! Sorry, and thanks for reading! I wish you a great week end! 🙂

    PS. and to think that the Schopenhauer story I translated from Italian into bad English, is a first. I am both proud of this, as well as ashamed of it, ha ha.

  5. So much to say about all this Luigi. I share your love of Schopenhauer as I’ve said before. As for the relationship between science and philosophy that is long and complicated but we can say this—philosophy was the mother’s womb of science. I also believe that one can’t do good philosophy without familiarity with modern science, so I’m with Piaget on that one.

  6. I also am with Piaget, after all, for the most part. I am certainly on science’s side for the most part also. I think that certainty cannot be independent from limitations. On the whole, it’s about what is a sufficiently good answer, all considered, rather than expecting the “perfect” one but never finding it. As the proverb goes: “Better an egg today than a chicken tomorrow.”.

    Thank you so much for your essays!

  7. Today, there was a post on mimetics, or, mimicry. Of late, an emphasis on memes, or, maybe, memetics , which appears to be a perversion(?) of Richard Dawkins’ notion of things like beaver dams, termite castles and bower bird’s courtship parlors. Seems everyone has interests, preferences and motives. The Big Thing is illusive—eludes us. I have claimed philosophy is illusory, or, illusive. We think—some of us—we must find big things around who;what, we are. Be not deceived: if we have not found these before, we won’t find them. As with infinity, they are neither objective, nor destination.

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