howard_gardner's picture
Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education; Author, A Synthesizing Mind
Wrestling with Jean Piaget, my Paragon

Like many other college students, I turned to the study of psychology for personal reasons. I wanted to understand myself better. And so I read the works of Freud; and I was privileged to have as my undergraduate tutor, the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, himself a sometime pupil of Freud. But once I learned about new trends in psychology, through contacts with another mentor Jerome Bruner, I turned my attention to the operation of the mind in a cognitive sense — and I've remained at that post ever since.

The giant at the time — the middle 1960s — was Jean Piaget. Though I met and interviewed him a few times, Piaget really functioned for me as a paragon. In the term of Dean Keith Simonton, a paragon is someone whom one does not know personally but who serves as a virtual teacher and point of reference. I thought that Piaget had identified the most important question in cognitive psychology — how does the mind develop; developed brilliant methods of observation and experimentation; and put forth a convincing picture of development — a set of general cognitive operations that unfold in the course of essentially lockstep, universally occurring stages. I wrote my first books about Piaget; saw myself as carrying on the Piagetian tradition in my own studies of artistic and symbolic development (two areas that he had not focused on); and even defended Piaget vigorously in print against those who would critique his approach and claims.

Yet, now forty years later, I have come to realize that the bulk of my scholarly career has been a critique of the principal claims that Piaget put forth. As to the specifics of how I changed my mind:

Piaget believed in general stages of development that cut across contents (Space, time, number); I now believe that each area of content has its own rules and operations and I am dubious about the existence of general stages and structures.

Piaget believed that intelligence was a single general capacity that developed pretty much in the same way across individuals: I now believe that humans posses a number of relatively independent intelligences and these can function and interact in idiosyncratic ways,

Piaget was not interested in individual differences; he studied the 'epistemic subject.' Most of my work has focused on individual differences, with particular attention to those with special talents or deficits, and unusual profiles of abilities and disabilities.

Piaget assumed that the newborn had a few basic biological capacities — like sucking and looking — and two major processes of acquiring knowledge, that he called assimilation and accommodation. Nowadays, with many others, I assume that human beings possess considerable innate or easily elicited cognitive capacities, and that Piaget way underestimated the power of this inborn cognitive architecture.

Piaget downplayed the importance of historical and cultural factors — cognitive development consisted of the growing child experimenting largely on his own with the physical (and, minimally, the social ) world. I see development as permeated from the first by contingent forces pervading the time and place of origin.

Finally, Piaget saw language and other symbols systems (graphic, musical, bodily etc) as manifestations, almost epiphenomena, of a single cognitive motor; I see each of these systems as having its own origins and being heavily colored by the particular uses to which a systems is put in one's own culture and one's own time.

Why I changed my mind is an issue principally of biography: some of the change has to do with my own choices (I worked for 20 years with brain damaged patients); and some with the Zeitgeist (I was strongly influenced by the ideas of Noam Chomsky and Jerry Fodor, on the one hand, and by empirical discoveries in psychology and biology on the other).

Still, I consider Piaget to be the giant of the field. He raised the right questions; he developed exquisite methods; and his observations of phenomena have turned out to be robust. It's a tribute to Piaget that we continue to ponder these questions, even as many of us are now far more critical than we once were. Any serious scientist or scholar will change his or her mind; put differently, we will come to agree with those with whom we used to disagree, and vice versa. We differ in whether we are open or secretive about such "changes of mind": and in whether we choose to attack, ignore, or continue to celebrate those with whose views we are no longer in agreement.