Speech given on the unveiling of the plaque at the house where Jean Piaget was born

2nd September, 8 rue de l'Orangerie, Neuchâtel, at the invitation of the Foundation for the protection and development of Neuchâtel’s historical heritage, presided by Mr G. F. Bauer.

Anne-Nelly Perret-Clermont
Director of the Institute of Psychology and Education
University of Neuchâtel

Jean Piaget, who was born in Neuchâtel on 9 August 1896, was professor at the University of Neuchâtel from 1925 to 1929 where he taught philosophy, history, logic, psychology, pedagogy and even sociology before being permanently appointed by Geneva University as Professor of the Faculty of Science. First of all, before inviting you to celebrate the reputation of this citizen of Neuchâtel, for the sake and accuracy and fairness, I must not neglect to mention the important role that Geneva played in Jean Piaget’s scientific career, welcoming this young, inexperienced young man with his passions and plans … Neuchâtel would probably not have feted Piaget if Geneva had not, from 1921, provided him with the opportunity and the excellent conditions in which to carry out his research. But Piaget’s recognition rapidly extended beyond that accorded him by Geneva: he became Director of the International Bureau of Education, representing Switzerland at UNESCO; he was guest lecturer at other universities, including the Sorbonne in Paris and by the time he founded the International Centre of Genetic Epistemology in Geneva he had a worldwide reputation.

Jean Piaget would have as much of an impact on psychology as the older Sigmund Freud, but for different reasons. However, if, today, he is known throughout the world for his influence on psychology and pedagogy… it is, to a certain extent, in spite of himself. In truth, Piaget never sought to be either a psychologist or pedagogue and – to be frank – he wasn’t really! So where then does his influence come from? What is the reason for his reputation? The secret of the high regard in which Jean Piaget’s beliefs are held resides, undoubtedly, in his passion for knowledge and in his very original method of approach to epistemological problems. Today I will highlight two of the legacies left to us by Jean Piaget: that of the child and of the researcher.

The leagacy of the child

The path of Piaget, the child, invites us to cast a close and sympathetic eye on these small creatures and to watch them as they develop. So if we look at the young Piaget, what kind of a child was he?

- A child who was passionate about snails and, who already, at the age of 12, was proud to be helping Paul Godet, curator of the Natural History Museum who, in turn, taught him to examine, classify and describe his findings.

- A teenager who frequented a youth movement, the Young Friends of Nature club, founded by the philosopher Pierre Bovet; a youth who was interested in pedagogy and theology and who was influential in Grandchamp. With his friends from the Club, Jean Piaget experienced numerous adventures and stimulating scientific and philosophical discussions. Admittedly, adults provided assistance behind-the-scenes but it was the young people themselves who organized these activities. At work here, we can detect the same kind of creativity as that introduced by Baden Powell to the Boys Scouts movement. Furthermore, it was the same Pierre Bovet who, during this period, translated the writings of the founder of the Scouts into French, thus helping to introduce the movement to Switzerland.

- A young man who was active within those circles of the Protestant church concerned with social justice. Piaget was driven by a quasi-mystical quest for the truth, pursuing the notion of autonomy in faith and individual responsibility in society.

- A teenager not lacking in humour or party spirit within his circle of friends! His younger sister tells (not without a certain admiration for the advice given by her older brother on the subject) of how Jean returned home very late one night, and when asked by his irate father what time it was, simply replied “quarter to!”.

- A young man preoccupied by the existential and philosophical questions of the age: Jean was 18 when the First World War broke out. He attended workers’ struggles for greater social justice, particularly at La Chaux-de-Fonds and lived through the Russian revolution.

- A young man who met with leading scholars. Amongst them, in addition to Paul Godet, Arnold Reymond, the minister Paul Pettavel and his teachers from the Faculty of Science all took him seriously and invited him to debate and to publish.

- A young man who, from the time of his early writings – which, from the outset, were numerous - sought to discover how knowledge, peace and justice were possible. At the same time, Jean tried to understand the significance of a mind stimulated by life, creation, anguish, social injustice and which asks: what should I do with my life? How can I make sense of this reality?

As a teenager, Jean Piaget was not alone. He shared his existential, philosophical and scientific questions which others friends of his age. In a few months, Neuchâtel will celebrate the centenary of his dear friend, Maurice Zundel, recalling the spiritual message of this priest, writer and internationally known theologian. The Club of the Friends of Nature still has the travel diaries in which Jean and Maurice scribbled, teasing one another about their respective ambitions – or perhaps I should say – destinies! Jean made fun of Maurice and his “ecclesiastical appearance,” and Maurice used to write Jean’s nickname Tar-dieu (slow God or late God).

So what is the legacy of the child? Jean Piaget illustrates this by example: the child is an active being who opens his eyes, thinks, questions, is capable of taking a stance and of becoming involved in a responsible manner.

The legacy of the researcher

Piaget’s love affair with psychology undoubtedly started in Paris when he came up with the idea of talking to children as opposed to intellectuals!

It was then that Piaget enthusiastically discovered the otherness of the child and, over a period of years, he set about questioning thousands of students. He mulled ideas over with them … asking them questions that he had asked himself, and had fun with their answers. It was in Paris that Piaget made his first great discoveries; he revealed that children possessed their own peculiar logic and should no longer be viewed as ignorant or unformed. So, for Piaget, the child – any child – was an intellectual, although he or she was unaware of the fact. Not that the child knew a great deal (at this age, imagination triumphs over science) but Piaget marvelled to see a child - any child – endowed with this capacity to adapt that is called intelligence. We are referring here to a type of predisposition, a kind of psycho-biological process which results in knowledge but – and we need to be careful here! – only if the child is encouraged to use it. Piaget then launched a scientific and ethical appeal to teachers and psychologists.

I intended to outline Jean Piaget’s contribution to the study of the development of scientific thought. But the damp weather and this afternoon’s cold wind have curbed my enthusiasm. So, I’ll limit myself to detailing the four main periods of J. Piaget’s work, drawing on the analysis of Pierre Greco to help me. They all focus on the study of the epistemic behaviour of children and strive to answer the following question: How does the child learn? How does he develop his ability to understand?

  1. At first, Jean Piaget observed the child and compared him to “primitive” people, as they were known at the time. He believed that he could describe how thought developed from an early egocentrism though socialization and increasing complexity.
  2. But Piaget exhausted the limits of this approach which was still characterized by an emphasis on the inadequacies of the child. He developed the concept of decentration during the thirties, undoubtedly, thanks to his own children. In collaboration with his wife, Valentine, Piaget then discovered that children possessed a well developed sensory-motor intelligence which was already present in the first months of life and which continued to develop until the emergence of language and representation. The young parents were amazed by how much their babies could do. They revealed that there were early indications of the main thought categories (object, space, time, causality) already present in the rudimentary actions which develop during the first two years of growth.
  3. Around 1940, Piaget began his third stage along with Bärbel Inhelder, Alina Szeminska, Albert Morf, Marc Lambercier and many others. Piaget was then supported by an entire team which systematically studied the different domains of thought for children between the ages of 4 and 12. Piaget tried to formalize how these thought processes work. And we know the important contribution that our old Neuchâtel rector, Jean-Blaise Grize, made to this developmental stage, helping to advance the problems posed by Piaget.
  4. Then, with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, Piaget opened the International Centre for Genetic Epistemology, a place that encouraged interdisciplinary collaboration where, together with scholars from all over the world, he could address the fundamental question that consumed him: “How does knowledge grow?” He drew on ideas, facts, the Philosophy of Science and observation of children.

Jean Piaget, the researcher leaves us the legacy of a constructivist epistemology which shows that knowledge is only possible when the learner makes an effort to understand. Just as the kitten shapes his claws by scratching against the tree trunk, so the child fashions his intelligence, step by step, by trying to understand, question, discuss and reflect!

Instruction cannot plant knowledge inside the head of the student …Piaget shows that only an active and critical individual can usefully benefit from the knowledge of his elders. It was the act of faith of his youth, aptly illustrated by his work.