The Structures of Pre-Causality and Pre-Relation: Piaget’s Central Insight By Joe E. Dees
The great child psychologist Jean Piaget wrote, during a long and fecund lifetime, many treatises upon different aspects of childish conception. These include, among others, explications of children’s conceptions of the world, physical causality, time, space, number, logic, and motion. In each of these treatises, however, a central ideal appears: the concept of bipolar structure. These poles are seen as correlatively interdependent opposites between which, at first, no synthesis is accomplished simply because no differentiation has been acknowledged between them. The development of childish conception is seen as the evolution, by means of the experience of the world and of others, of progressively more successful syntheses, and this evolution in turn is viewed as dependent upon the child’s understanding of the poles AS poles, or, in other words, childish cognition of a prior bifurcation to be overcome rather than a prior identity. Before any dialectic may be synthesized, it must first be apprehended as such. The explication of Piaget’s insight within this essay will be restricted to his study of the child’s conception of physical causality, which is the study of the evolution of the interaction between self and world. As Piaget himself states, we “…cannot know a priori whether man, nature, or both are the source of structure, and it is on the terrain of physics that they must come together” (1). What, however, is Piaget’s conception of structure? As elucidated in his book on the topic (Jean Piaget, Structuralism, eng. trans. 1970), it is as follows: “As a first approximation, we may say that a structure is a system of transformations. Inasmuch as it is a system and not a mere collection of elements and their properties, these transformations involve laws: the structure is preserved or enriched by the interplay of its transformation laws, which never yield results external to the system or employ elements that are external to it. In short, the notion of structure is comprised of three key ideas: the idea of wholeness, the idea of transformation, and the idea of self-regulation” (2). Furthermore, each of these ideas is strictly delineated. Wholeness is characterized by subservience to laws, and to the priority of the whole over the parts. This is “…not to deny, that structures have elements, but the elements of a structure are subordinated to laws, and it is in terms of these laws that the structure qua structure or system is defined” (3). Thus, …”the logical procedures or natural processes by which the whole is formed are primary, not the whole, which is consequent on the system’s laws of composition, or the elements” (4). Transformation is characterized by subservience to laws, and by the idea that the constitutive is the definitive, and vice versa. In Piaget’s words, “If the character of structured wholes depends on their laws of composition, these laws must of their very nature be structuring: it is the constant duality, or bipolarity, of always being simultaneously structuring and structured that accounts for the success of the notion of law or rule employed by structuralists…a structure’s laws of composition are defined ‘implicitly’, i.e., as governing the transformations of the system which they structure” (5). Self-regulation is characterized by perpetuation and isolation, or, as Piaget puts it, “…self-maintenance and closure…the transformations always engender elements that belong to it and preserve its laws” (6). The three basic mechanisms of self-regulation are rhythm, regulation and operation. Now that Piaget’s definition of structure has been provided, the next question concerns the genesis of this structure. How are structures formed? According to Piaget, this formation is accomplished by means of assimilation. Assimilation, for Piaget, is not itself a structure, but “...the functional aspects of structure-formation, inter-activity, but sooner or later leading to the mutual establishment of ever more intimate inter-structural connections” (7). For Piaget, assimilation is also the source of the activity “…which characterizes the early stages of intelligence” (. Another quote from Structuralism will perhaps more clearly define this activity. “Biologically considered, assimilation is the process whereby the organism in each of its interactions with the bodies or energies of its environment fit these in some manner to the requirements of its own physico-chemical structures while at the same time accommodating itself to them. Psychologically (behaviorally considered, assimilation is the process whereby a function, once exercised, presses toward repetition, and in ‘reproducing’ its own activity produces a schema into which the objects propitious to its exercise, whether familiar (‘recognitory assimilation’) or new (generalizing assimilation), become incorporated” (9). A structure, therefore, is a system of laws that is separate, complete, and internally evolving. It is formed and transformed by means of assimilations that, while preserving its integrity, increase its scope, depth and complexity. How is this structure present in a child’s conception of physical causality? This question of practical application will be addressed after we have dealt with a logically prior (because more general and theoretical) question: why is this structure, for Piaget, bipolar? Before the genesis of consciousness in any particular case there is only a meaningless absolute comprised solely of brute facticity totally devoid of significance: the World. This absolute, while existing in itself, cannot be present, or even exist, for an as-yet-nonexistent other Self. Once a being-in-the-world, or Self, begins, at the primordial genesis of existence, for an instant occupying no lived time, there is neither world nor self. This nothingness subsequently Becomes throughout its existence, and upon the cessation of its Becoming, that is, upon the end of its existence, it becomes Being, a Being distinct from the world and possessing a particular signification for Others, that is, for other Selves. This Becoming is impossible in an experiential vacuum; effortful, durational interaction between Self and World to which (s)he is tied is necessary for Becoming to take place. The infant begins in a state of ego-totality such that, for the infant, it itself is all that there is. Thought is not yet present, nor is will, for there are no apparent exigencies requiring action or appellation. However, will almost immediately makes its appearance, as a reply to the primordial exigencies of discomfort and/or need. The will prompts action, such as crying when hungry or wet, for instance, and the lack is assuaged. This ameliorating ministration occurs via the agency of an external source, or other, usually a parent or nurse. Now the child has the perception of an external which ministers to it, but has not as of yet abstracted this perception into a conception. As such, this perception is a merely sentient, rather than an intellectual, realization. The child evolves from ego-totality to ego-centrism; although it no longer comprises, for itself, the universe in its entirety, (s)he still self-perceives him/herself as its center. The child learns signs first, as means of requesting or demanding the meeting of particular wants or needs, and shouts them out aloud without direction; the things signified by the signs are subsequently given by the undifferentiated and subservient universe to him/her. No bifurcation of external and internal has occurred as of yet; the universe is not yet separate, but dependent, for its existence, upon the existence of the child. However, wants and needs are sometimes left unsatisfied and unfulfilled, and demands (cookie!) are sometimes denied, rather than their object being provided. The child becomes aware of its dependence upon the world; this discovery leads to an awareness of interdependence. This awareness engenders the beginnings of socialized thought, the bifurcation of external and internal self, and the progressive gravitation of the perceived position of the child’s internal state from the center of it all to a relative point of view that must now answer as well as demand, must justify itself, and must both assimilate the world and accommodate itself to it, thereby altering both itself and its world. This is a bipolar structure that remains bipolar. Although at first self is all, and subsequently self is center, the surrounding world increasingly assumes greater significance. However, self and world are both present at hand throughout life; the dissolution of the “self” end of the bipolarity constitutes death. In a way, ego-centrism never entirely leaves us (how could we be ourselves without it?), even though it is modified (by world and others) into the center of our position in the world, rather than remaining, for us, the center of the world as a whole. The preceding is, I believe, a reasonable explication of the implications underlying Piaget’s position on the genesis and development of the self, considering his psychological and theoretical pronouncements, and serves as a justification for the bipolarity of his chosen structure. The ideas of ego-totality and primordial nothingness, although not part of his treatises, seem to me to be necessary to the position that he proffers within them, unless, that is, one would be willing to assert developments within the child towards the bifurcation of self and world, as well as perceptions of other-than-self, prior to lived experience. The progression of self-concept that logically underlies Piaget’s position is from totality through centrality (or necessity) towards contingency, and if ontogenesis recapitulates phylogenesis, the history of human thought is a corroboration of this stance, as is the history of the evolution of phenomenology (Husserl – phenomenologist of world, Heidegger – phenomenologist of self, Merleau-Ponty – phenomenologist of their nexus in perception and action). Now it is time to turn to the question of Piaget’s application of a bipolar structure to the child’s conception of physical causality. For Piaget, there are three complementary processes directing the evolution of the child’s conception of reality. These are “…1. from realism to objectivity, 2. from realism to reciprocity, and 3. from realism to relativity” (10). Notice that this realism of which Piaget speaks is characterized by an absence of differentiation between self and world, thus causing the child to confuse “…words and things, thought and the object of thought…” (11). From this psychophysical homogeny the child evolves to objectivity (bipolarity of subject and object), reciprocity (interaction between two viewpoints), and relativity (to other viewpoints, that is, to a shared world). Simultaneously, the child is evolving from egocentricity towards more socialized thought (which requires self-justification to others). Piaget maintains that “…the localization of the objects of thought is not inborn. It is through a progressive differentiation that the internal world comes into being and is contrasted with the external. Neither of these two terms is given at the start. The initial realism is not due simply to ignorance of the external world; it is due to confusion and absence of objectivity. Consequently, during the gradual and slow differentiation of the initial protoplasmic reality into objective and subjective reality, it is clear that each of the two terms in process of differentiation will evolve in accordance with its own structure” (12). There are adherences holding self and world together even after they are differentiated: “The world is still conscious and full of intentions, the self is still material…and only slightly interiorized” (13). The two are never entirely separate. The five types of adherences are all inhibiters of differentiation. They are dynamic participation (the belief that self and world are joined in an active consensus), animism (the belief that objects are self-consciously aware), artificialism (the belief that the world is organized for human benefit), finalism (the belief that everything is purposeful), and the child’s notion of force (the belief that things make efforts). Their prevalence diminishes with age. The world also progressively becomes desubstantialized (properties such as ‘heavy’ or ‘big’ become reconceived as relations such as ‘heavier’ or ‘bigger’ than), and desubjectified (one’s own viewpoints are accommodated to the viewpoints of others). Piaget flatly states that without others to stimulate the discovery of subjectivity in the child, (s)he could never hope to attain objectivity; all of one’s conceptions and perceptions would be taken as absolutes rather than as one’s own points of view. The child must progress through a period where (s)he is both closer to immediate observation and further removed from reality than the adult. Phenomenistic causality, on one hand, causes the child to adopt activity as presented in perception such that “…so long as two facts are given together in raw observation, the one may be considered the cause of the other” (14). However, “…phenomenistic relations themselves take place against a background of dynamism, either magical or animistic” (15). Does this interrelated paradox ring a bell? For Piaget, it does: “This paradoxical dualism of pure phenomenism on the one hand and of magical dynamism, animistic or artificialist on the other, is a new manifestation of that dualism of juxtaposition and syncretism which we examined in our earlier volumes (L.T. Chap. IV, and J.R. Chap. I)” (16). (L.T and J.R. stand for Piaget’s works The Language and Thought of the Child and The Judgment and Reasoning of the Child, respectively.) Childish perceptions of a world where everything causes everything else but each thing has its own separate consciousness form analogous conceptions. Phenomenistic causality is Humeian, but it is not the only childish conception noted by Piaget, but in fact, the third. There are sixteen others; they are, in ascending, that is, evolving, order, motivational causality (both causal and final, otherwise known as pre-causality), pure finalism, participation, magical causality, moral causality, artificialist causality, animistic causality, dynamic causality, explanation by reaction of the surrounding medium, mechanical causality, causality of generation, explanation by schemas of condensation and rarefaction, explanation by atomistic composition, and, finally, explanation by logical deduction (the principle of sufficient reason). But how does one fit seventeen different conceptions of physical causality into an evolving bipolar structure? Piaget accomplishes the task thusly: “Having distinguished these seventeen types, we can now lay down three main periods in the development of child causality. During the first, all the explanations given are psychological, phenomenistic, finalistic, and magical (Types I – VI). During the second stage, the explanations are artificialist, animistic, and dynamic (Types VII – IX), and the magical forms (III and IV) tend to diminish. Finally, during a third period, the preceding forms of explanation disappear progressively and give place to the more rational forms (X to XVII). Thus the first two periods are characterized by what we have called pre-causality (in the widest sense of the word), i.e. by the confusion of relations of a mechanical type, and true causality does not appear till about the age of 7-8 (third period). Three processes seem to us to characterize this evolution: the desubjectification of causality, the formation of series in time, and the progressive reversibility of the systems of cause and effect” (17). Laws of nature are understood at first as moral rather than as physical necessity, with generality nonexistent. During the second stage, physical and moral necessity are bifurcated and generality appears. During the third stage, generality is established and physical determinism is justified by logical necessity (the final stage in the evolution from moral necessity) (18). The child adapts both self to object (imitation) and object to self (assimilation) (19), but the assignation of the innate a priori presence of either tendency is a speculation unsupported by any experimental evidence. However, these opposed yet nevertheless syncretic processes both hinder and facilitate the differentiation and elaboration of self and world in the early years. Assimilation and imitation evolve until they become complementary. Each loses its deforming character; assimilation becomes deduction and imitation becomes intelligent adaptation (20). This progression comprises the development of thought from the egocentric (midway between autistic and logical thought) towards the logical. Autistic thought utilizes images and motor schemas, and logical thought employs concepts (21). A cild viewing the world as phenomenalistically causal would form a transductive chain of pseudologic with which to connect two unrelated perceptions. Transduction is opposed to deduction in three ways; it is purely a mental experiment (that is, not empirically valid), is carried on by predicative judgments (judgments of pre-relation, that is, false absolutes as foundations for reason), and does not deduce to or from a generality, but from particular to particular (abduction) (22). The child reasons in this manner because (s)he “…cannot handle the logic of relations” (23). These three fallacies in transduction are interdependent. Piaget states it best thusly: “…the process from childish transduction to adult deduction presupposes three complementary processes: 1. a progressive relativity of ideas, arising from the fact that the self gradually becomes conscious of the personal character of its own point of view and of the reciprocity between this point of view and other possible ones; 2. a progressive transformation of primitive mental experiments into constructions carried out by means of the logic of relations, 3. a progressive generalization, resulting from the fact that classes become rigid and well defined in the measure that they are conditioned by a substructure of relations” (24). Piaget summarizes by establishing a parallelism between the evolution of real categories in the child’s mind and the formal development of thought in the child. This is a parallelism between logic and ontology, the former evolving from pure autism through egocentric transduction to logical thought, and the latter evolving from psychological causality through pre-causality to causality be logical necessity (25). The bipolarity of Piaget’s causal structure is evident. In summation, Piaget states that structuralism is not meant to be a prescriptive position, but rather a descriptive tool, akin to phenomenology. I would go one step further, and label Piaget’s structuralism the phenomenology of relations.
1. Jean Piaget, Judgment and Reasoning in the Child, 1976 2. Jean Piaget, Structuralism, 1970 3.Jean Piaget, The Child’s Conception of Physical Causality, 1972
1. Structuralism, p. 37 2. ibid. p. 5 3. ibid. p. 7 4. ibid. p. 9 5. ibid. p. 10 6. ibid. pp. 13-14 7. ibid. pp. 71-72 8. ibid. p. 71 9. ibid. p. 71 10. The Child’s Conception of Physical Causality, p. 241 11. Judgment and Reasoning in the Child, p. 249 12. ibid. 10, pp. 243-244 13. ibid. p. 244 14. ibid. p. 253 15. ibid. p. 254 16. ibid. p. 254 17. ibid. p. 267 18. ibid. p. 273 19. ibid. p. 285 20. ibid. p. 290 21. ibid. p. 292 22. ibid. pp. 293-294 23. ibid. p. 295 24. ibid. p. 300 25. ibid. pp. 301-305