The Unrecognised Genius of Jean Piaget

(4,482 words. Originally published on March 2 2016 on Perspectiva’s website http://www.systems-souls-society.com/)

“In Piaget, I believe we discover a genius who exceeded himself and found more than he was looking for.” — Robert Kegan (The Evolving Self, p26)

Jean Piaget

Overview: In my capacity as a Trustee of Climate Outreach I was at a climate change workshop in Oxfordshire at the weekend with many of UK’s leading climate campaigners, activists, researchers and communications specialists. We were asked to give single words that needed to be better understood to improve climate communication. In amongst ‘agency’, ‘consumerism’ and ‘denial’, and to widespread bemusement and incomprehension, I called out: ‘Piaget!’

I didn’t have time to unpack my case, but promised I would write something, so here I am. I make a few connections below, but you will have to bear with me until the next post before we get to the climate implications. Piaget is easily misunderstood, and undervalued when thought of as a simple set of ideas to grasp. However, for those willing to invest time in chewing over and digesting the insights and frameworks that emerge from his work, he offers up a whole worldview with enormous practical relevance. I came to think and feel this way while taking Robert Kegan’s class on Adult Development at Harvard in 2003. I know many people who say that class (still offered today) fundamentally changed their view of themselves and the world. I applied Kegan’s thinking (which builds on Piaget) in two policy papers at the RSA: Transforming Behaviour Change (2011) and Beyond the Big Society(2012) and I was honoured to host an event with ‘Bob’ at the RSA in 2015, when I also wrote about ‘Bob’s big idea’ about why we are living longer — here.

Piaget is known for his contribution to understanding child development and he has offered important guidance for educators, but in some ways this aspect of his work is relatively trivial compared to his relevance to everything else. The broader take on the Piagetian worldview, which I acquired mostly from Kegan’s writings and teachings, is that ‘how we know’ matters more than ‘what we know’. Piaget’s genius — not fully appreciated even by himself- was to link the structure and logic of living systems with the development of human perception and knowledge, which in turn shape human patterns of meaning-making with cultural evolution and expectations — the setting for modern policy and politics.

This post makes three points that are central to Perspectiva’s philosophy and the significance of Piaget for complex policy problems like climate change:

  1. Piaget’s core insight about how human cognition evolves and develops applies not just in childhood but throughout the lifespan. We vary not just in what we know, but in how we know — how we structure and interpret experience
  2. Piaget’s most profound contribution was showing the fundamental unity of open systems biology, human understanding and cultural evolution i.e. Piaget has a particularly powerful take on ‘life’.
  3. If we are going to make progress on particularly ‘wicked’ problems like climate change, we need the diversity of human capacities (and lack of capacities) for perspective-taking to be a much more prominent consideration in our interventions. (The fourth point, unpacking relevance to climate change in particular, will follow in a subsequent post, which won’t make much sense unless you read the following!)

Piaget

Piaget is not a household name, but his intellectual contribution was every bit as profound as Freud’s or Einstein’s; in terms of relevance to today’s world, perhaps even more so. Einstein himself said of Piaget that his main idea was “so simple, only a genius could have thought of it”. It takes one to know one.

For Piaget, children’s mistakes were to key to understanding the process of cognitive development, which he unpacks in stages or ‘balances’ from sensory motor (c0–2yrs) to pre operational (c2–7yrs) to concrete operational(c7–11yrs) to formal operational(c11+yrs). On approximately this formulation, Piaget’s work is included in most teacher training programmes and there is usually a paragraph or two about him in intellectual histories of the twentieth century.

Piaget is often thought of as a developmental psychologist, but it’s a far from trivial detail that he described himself as a ‘genetic epistemologist’. This forbidding expression probably didn’t help his name recognition, but it is the key to understanding Piaget’s unique contribution. Genetic epistemology means something like ‘origins of knowledge’ — a matter of no small importance…

The good, the deep and the shallow (Actually, it’s all good…)

There is a shallow way to grasp Piaget and a deep way, and it is testament to his brilliance that even a relatively shallow appreciation will change how you view the world.

At the relatively shallow end, through a variety of fascinating experiments, Piaget showed that younger children systematically make mistakes in understanding of perception that older children don’t. These experiments showed for instance that younger children have difficulty in grasping that the quantity of liquid is conserved when it is poured into a differently shaped container, and such illustrations can be discovered and explored elsewhere online. In essence the experiments reveal a growing capacity to take critical distance from our ‘take’ on a given stimulus, and reflect on the difference between what seems to be the case, and what actually is the case. Piagetian theory includes a range of concepts like ‘schemas’, ‘assimilation and accommodation’, and ‘equilibration’ which are fascinating and important, that I will just briefly describe here, because they are reimagined by ‘Kegan’s Piaget’ in a way that has greater explanatory power in adulthood. (For a quick Piaget refresher, I found the following online resource helpful).

Schemas are basically concepts and categories we use to structure experience — you can see the importance of schemas to babies as they learn to point and say their first words — ‘tree!’, ‘choo choo!’ and so forth… out of what I think William James calls ‘a blooming buzzing confusion’ emerges stable objects and regular patterns. That works fine until experience get harder to classify, and you have to update and refine your classification system. The point here is that this process, which sounds like back office admin, is actually the defining feature of being human. What Piaget calls assimilation (broadly experience recognised according to existing schemas) and accommodation (refining schemas to better process and act upon experience) is a fundamental feature of how we make sense of the world, and we do it all the time without realising it.

When we learn in climate communication studies that people on the right of the political spectrum are more likely to deny or express scepticism towards anthropogenic climate change, in Piagetian terms that’s often because they can’t readily assimilate it within their existing schemas, and are not sufficiently motivated to accommodate the information by creating new ones. The tough thing to grasp about assimilation and accommodation is that it’s not a binary feature of one or the other happening; it’s more like a spectrum in which we always primarily assimilate, and the extent to which we accommodate is a function of how open we are to experience, how willing we are to learn, how attached we are to our identities, and so forth. Since we can only accommodate with the material we’ve already assimilated, human transformation tends to be a slow and sometimes painful process. Piaget calls this attempt to continue learning and growing by making sense of the unknown with the known as ‘equilibration’.

It is easy to get lost in Piagetian jargon, but it’s a necessary part of accommodation! That said, I think Kegan (The Evolving Self, 1982, chp 1) has a vignette that captures the heart of Piaget’s findings:

Two brothers are on the top of the Empire State Building. The two year old looks down and says: “Look at the people, they are tiny ants.” The eight year old replies: “Yes, the people look like tiny ants.” One of them thinks what he sees, while the other can think about what he sees. Were the eight year old to try to correct the two year old, it is unlikely he would be understood — that capacity to theorise about perception is precisely what his younger brother can’t yet do. As Kegan puts it (p29, ES): “He is not individuated from them; he is embedded in them. They define the very structure of his attention.”

The implication of this kind of case is that while we all have perceptions about what is going on, our relationship to our perceptions evolves — that evolution is what we need to unpack to establish what it means for an organism to transform, or for an individual to ‘grow’, ‘mature’ or ‘develop’. The same can be said for whole cultures — ‘the very structure of our attention’ is defined by notions like ‘left wing’ or ‘economic growth’ or ‘the environment’ and there are few public fora where we can speak about the legitimacy and value of those schemas rather than merely speaking with and about them.

There are certainly gaps in Piaget’s work, and many argue that he doesn’t adequately explain what happens between stages very well, that development is domain specific (affective, cognitive, social etc) rather than domain general, and that his theory does not explain individual differences in development very well. That’s all true, but in many ways this just highlights the fact that Piaget was not a developmental psychologist as such, and probably felt that such questions were peripheral to the broader goal of understanding life as such!

Adult Development

“Adulthood is not an end state but a vast evolutionary expanse encompassing a variety of capacities of mind.” — Robert Kegan (In Over our Heads)

The unfolding processes uncovered in childhood do not suddenly stop in mid to late adolesence. Various empirical research programmes and theoretical models have indicated that human development continues well into adulthood; moving through and between (and among) stages or balances. And for those who know how to look, our errors continue to disclose our limitations in fascinating ways.

So much, so uncontroversial, but there are several models of adult development partly because the idea of ‘mistake’ becomes increasingly complex as you move from cognitive matters to social and emotional (and political!) issues and try to examine how they manifest over the course of the lifespan. In this respect some models have a greater capacity to explain what it means to ‘grow’ beyond our ‘mistakes’ than others. In all cases there is some question of ‘fit’ — of how well our mental models of the world capture the underlying reality, which of course is very hard to judge when the reality in question is saturated with social and cultural signifiers. This perspective gives a whole new way of looking at the social darwinian idea of the ‘survival of the fittest’ — in many ways it is truer to speak of the survivial of the fit-est.

Many theoretical frameworks are models of adult development in disguise. For instance Maslow’s celebrated hierarchy of needs moves from physiological needs to the need for safety, then to belonging, to love, to esteem, to self-actualization and finally towards self-transcendence; it’s not just a way of saying you need shelter before you care about spiritual development, but a map offering a default trajectory of human growth or unfolding. Moreover Maslow’s theory informs the widely used ‘values modes’ which is a commercial segmentation tool, but also implicitly developmental in the sense that it has a direction, you move from Settler to Prospector to Pioneer and never the other way. Bill Torbert’s ‘Action Learning’ and ‘Action Logics’ are also developmental, and there are a range of contemporary and classic theories of adult development which often relate to ego, or psyche or how moral judgments evolve over the lifespan and sometimes differ between genders; including Jung, Eriksen, Levinson, Vaillant, Kohlberg, Gilligan and many others. Even Common Cause can be thought of as developmental (intrinsic values are arguably ‘higher’ than extrinsic) and initiatives like The New Citizenship Project can be viewed as an attempt to shift the population from Prospector to Pioneer; not passively living according to societal expectations but actively seeking to shape them.

Integral Theory, developed most fully by American Philosopher Ken Wilber, tends to be richer and more comprehensive than most models. Although he is sometimes dismissed or treated warily for being associated with ‘new age’ — Wilber is a fierce critic of facile spirituality and you only have to read a few pages of any of his books to feel deeply impressed by breadth and lucidity of his insight and his exceptional powers of analysis and synthesis.

Wilber’s work offers sophisticated qualifications to Spiral Dynamics, which represents development as changes in colour, and has recently been made popular by Frederic Laloux in his work on Reinventing Organisations (I watched Laloux live at the RSA and was very impressed). There are literally thousands of maps of spiral dynamics online, and I found this one useful for a relatively clear (if perhaps not fully developed) overview. I have to confess to being a little confused by the genesis and variability of spiral dynamic theory. Professor Clare Graves clearly had a central role in developing the framwork, and even Wilber refers to the colours of development, which are useful. However, at times the spiral dynamic model seems too simple, too commercialised and frankly too colourful! Still, it’s a useful and often shared reference point for human and cultural evolution as well as organisational change, so it’s important to keep such qualms in perspective.

In the context of these myriad theories (and many more!) what interests me is the claim that through unpacking human development we might understand some kind of ‘pattern that connects’ that applies not just to children or even adults, but to life as a whole. And I think — if we are discerning — we can. As indicated, Wilber’s theories of human development are often considered preeminent, and he seems to believe Robert Kegan’s interpertation of Piaget is the most helpful and generative. As he puts it in (The Eye of Spirit 2001, p216) “With Kegan, you become a ditto-head”.

The Evolving Self

I am not sufficiently familiar with the field to make this case categorically, especially because ‘bio-psycho-social’ models of development are now mainstream, but I think Kegan saw something *philosophical* in Piaget that is of much more profound significance than most of the field of adult development seems to realise- Piaget offers not just a new psychology but a new biology and a new epistemology — a view of ‘life’ that is as integrative as we might hope life as such to be!

The title of this blog post is borrowed from chapter one of Kegan’s first major statement of his theory in the 1982 book, The Evolving Self. To make my case, I’m going to quote from that chapter extensively and I hope Kegan and Harvard University Press will forgive me from copying from pages 43–45.

“In fact, Piaget’s vision derives from a model of open-systems evolutionary biology. Rather than locating the life force in the closed individual or environmental press, it locates a prior context which continually elaborates the distinction between the individual and the environment in the first place. This is a conception whose meaning and implications we will grow into gradually; it is admittedly complicated and unlike the way we are accustomed to thinking. But perhaps we can begin by saying that it does not place an energy system within us so much as it places us in a single energy system of all living things. Its primary attention, then, is not to shifts and changes in an internal equilibrium in the world, but to an equilibrium in the world, between the progressively individuated self and the bigger life field, an interaction sculpted by both and constitutive of reality itself.”

Commentary: This is deep. Kegan takes Piaget’s intellectual background as a biologist and naturalist seriously. He is interpreting Piaget as saying something like: It’s not that the world is comprised of things and contexts and they change each other; it’s that the fundamental thing is not a thing at all — it’s a process defined by the relationship between thing and context, and that relationship is primary and the relational process is always in motion. Such a viewpoint is of course axiomatic to much of eastern philosophy and systems theory.

“Central to Piaget’s framework- and often ignored even by those who count themselves as Piagetian-is this activity, equilibration. Whether in the study of the mollusk or the human child, Piaget’s principal loyalty was to the ongoing conversation between the individuating organism and the world, a process of adaptation shaped by the tension between the assimilation of new experience to the old “grammar” and the accommodation of the old grammar to the new experience. This eternal conversation is panorganic; it is central to the nature of all living things. Piaget’s work has demonstrated-and the work of many biologists in other areas confirms- that this conversation is not one of continuous augmentation, but is marked by periods of dynamic stability or balance followed by periods of instability and qualitiatively new balance. These periods of dynamic balance amount to a kind of evolutionary truce: further assimilation and accommodation will go on in the context of the established relationship struck between the organism and the world. The guiding principle of such a truce-the point that is always at issue and is renegoiated in the transition to each new balance- is what, from the point of view of the organism, is composed as “object” and what is “subject.” The question always is: “To what extent does the organism differentiate itself from (and so related itself to) the world?” …Seen only biologically, this process may seem to be pretty cold stuff — differentation and reintegration, assimilation and accommodation. It is the business of protozoa, coleus plants, and elephants as well as of human beings.”

Commentary: I can’t relate to the appeanace of my eyes until I see them reflected in the mirror — then I can see them rather than merely seeing with them. Kegan is saying that kind of capacity of any organism — not just humans- to shift from being something to being able to relate to that something is the perennial tension in the world- a tension that is resolved whenever we make that clear shift from ‘being had by’ something to ‘having it’, and such ‘balances’ are quite easily disturbed by changes in the world around us.

“…And yet…this evolutionary motion is the prior (or grounding) phenomenon in personality; that this process or activity, this adaptive conversation, is the very source of, and the unifying context for, thought and feeling; that this motion is observable, researchable, intersubjectively ascertainable; that this understanding is crucial to our being of help to people in pain; and that unlike other candidates for a grounding phenomenon, this one cannot be considered arbitrary or bound over to the partialities of sex, class, culture or historical period. It is an activity we have always shared and always will share. Seen “psychologically” this proces is about the development of “knowing” (each evolutionary truce, striking a subject-object balance, becomes a way of knowing the world); but at the same time we experience this activity. This experience…may well be the source of our emotions themselves. Loss and recovery, separation and attachment, anxiety and play, depression and transformation, disintegration and coherence-all may owe their origins to the felt experience of this activity, this motion to which the “emotion” refers. I use the word “meaning” to refer to this simultaneously epistemological and ontological activity; it is about knowing and being, about theory-making and investments and commitmens of the self.”

Commentary: There is a lot to unpack here but Kegan is claiming that the process and relationality Piaget uncovered across organisms is the primary feature of the world — it’s the engine and fuel (and purpose) of life. He is then making a pitch for ‘this motion’ being the source of ongoing disturbances in balance and the restorations of balance that characterise being human — and suggesting that this ongoing process of equilibration is the dynamic canvas upon which our emotional life plays out. In so far as the primary feature of being human is human emotions, Kegan is suggesting those emotions can be understood as expressions of life’s fundamental motion and tension and restlessness and balance.

“While this evolutionary process may be described in purely biological terms, it is as true that the same ongoing tension between self-preservation and self-transformation is descriptive of the very activity of hope itself, which Holmes calls “a dialectic of limit and possibility”. Were we all limit (all assimilation), there would be no hope; “all possibility” (all accommodation), no need of it. The “energy field” which to the evolutionary biologist may be about “adaptation”, is as much as anything about the very exercises of hope. Might we better understand others in their predicament if we could somehow know how their way of living reflects the state of their hoping at this depth? — not the hopes they have or the hoping they do, but the hopes and hoping they are?”

Commentary: Kegan is suggesting that the experience of hope, so central to human experience, is not so much something we have periodically- part of the plot of our lives; but more like something that shapes our dispostion towards the world — part of the setting. He is saying that we can connect to each other more deeply if we grasp that we are, each of us, always defined by our limits and our possibilities and that we carry these features (assimilation and accommodation) at all times because they are fundamental to the activity of being a person.

Subject-Object Relationships

If that crash course in Piaget and Kegan’s take on Piaget felt strenuous, it was necessary to make sense of ‘subject-object relationships’ that we need as an anlytical tool to address complex policy problems. Subject-object relationships (SORs) are implicit in Piaget and explicit in Kegan, who makes his fundamental claim as follows:

“What we take as subject and object are not necessarily fixed for us. They are not permament. They can change. In fact, transforming our epistemologies, making what was subject into object so that we can ‘have it’ rather ‘be had’ by it-this is the most powerful way I know of conceptualising the growth of the mind that is as faithful to the self-psychology of the West as to the ‘wisdom literature’ of the East.” (Robert Kegan, In Over our Heads, p34)

So when I, like many others, say that humanity has to ‘grow’ in order to deal with issues like climate change this perspective helps to give that idea traction. Individually and collectively we need to recognise how we are currently getting in our own way, and, as far as possible, seek to disembed ourselves from those ideas we urgently need not so much to have, but to relate to. When the climate marchers in New York chanted “To change everything, we need everybody”, they may have been right. But what adult development tells us is that ‘everybody’ contains enormous developmental diversity. Many are completely ‘had’ by the idea that climate change is a left win conspiracy to increase governmental intereference in personal liberty. Others are completely ‘had’ by particular ideas of ‘climate justice’, for instance that we must tie climate mitigation to every other issue, not least reducing wealth and income inequality within and between countries. And many others are ‘had’ not by particular views but by particular worldviews, for instance thinking that the solution is always in reducing market regulation, or increasing regulation, or in solidaristic campaigning. These competing approaches to policy are brilliantly analysed in the context of ‘cultural theory’ (excellent book on this here) but what is not often appreciated is that appreciating the need for cultural theory is already quite a high developmental achievement! Those subject to a particular view or worldview cannot always grasp why other views or worldviews need to be accommodated (!). Similarly, in my own work on the seven dimensions of climate change I found many did not grasp the need to view climate change from such a broad diversity of theories and issues and modalities — it is only when you can take different aspects of climate policy as object relative to an open appreciation for the broader contested system, rather than be subject to them as the answer to your particualar take on the system, that you can grow out of a limited understanding of the problem, and solutions that will lack efficacy.

Mental Complexity in the 21st Century

(This section borrows from Beyond the Big Society, Rowson et al RSA 2012)

Finally, to show that such thoughts are by no means deviant, It is useful to consider Kegan and Piaget from the perspective of a major 5-year international cross-disciplinary research programme by the OECD, including scholars and international organisations such as UNESCO, the World Bank, the ILO and the UN Development Programme — in order to agree upon the key competencies needed for countries to thrive in the 21st century. The Project’s final report — Key Competencies for a Successful Life and a Well-functioning Society — articulated three top-level categories of competence related to demands that were found to be common across OECD countries. They are: acting autonomously, interacting in socially heterogeneous groups, and using tools (including language) interactively.

The OECD report takes great care to define its core ideas of competence, what makes a competence ‘key’ and how these competencies relate to what is desirable in life. The report’s authors agreed that each of the competencies tacitly entailed a higher level of ‘mental complexity’ than was widely available at present. In a contributing paper to this body of research, Kegan argues:

“The expectations upon us…demand something more than mere behaviour, the acquisition of specific skills, or the mastery of particular knowledge. They make demands on our minds, on how we know, on the complexity of our consciousness.”

The notion of ‘mental complexity’ is a distilled description of the theoretical views unpacked above, and it is worth reiterating that it does not mean intelligence, knowledge or educational level, but something closer to relational know-how, our varied capacity to understand competing motivations and values in ourselves and others, to ‘get things in perspective’, and to act appropriately in uncertain or ambiguous situations. In psychometric terms, mental complexity has been defined as “an individual difference variable associated with a broad range of communication skills and related abilities … (which) indexes the degree of differentiation, articulation, and integration within a cognitive system”.

These ‘demands on our minds’, for instance to differentiate, articulate and integrate multiple perspectives present ongoing challenges, but in light of what Piaget and teach us about life’s ‘fundamental motion’, such challenges are surely of central importance to addressing 21st century challenges, and they are a major motivation for Perspectiva’s work.

  • @Jonathan_Rowson is Founding Director of Perspectiva.
  • If you enjoyed this post, please like it to help others find it on the platform.