Our Experience Is Structured Along Subject And Object Poles

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The Logic Of The Spontaneous Organization Of Activity In The Thought Of Piaget

“There seems to be little evidence that Cassirer, Mead, and Piaget ever had much direct influence on one another. This makes all the more interesting their convergence on a common point of view.” [Don Martindale, 1981, p.339] Indeed, whereas Cassirer found the origin and evolution of symbolic meaning to reside in the “work” of man, Piaget, in a like manner, put the origin of structure and the symbolic content that it generates, in the organisms capacity for action. Howard Gardner has this to say regarding the priority of the act in Piaget’s psychology:

“Piaget reached a crucial insight: the activity of an organism can be described or treated logically, and logic itself stems from a sort of spontaneous organization of activity. At this time he also formulated the notion that all organisms consist of structures–i.e., of parts related within a whole–and that all knowledge is an assimilation of a given external into the structures of the subject.” [Howard Gardner, The Quest for Mind, Piaget, Levi-Strauss, and the Structuralist Movement, 1973, p.54]

In addition to the similarity that occurs in Cassirer’s and Piaget’s concepts of “work” and “action” the thought of these two men converge in another respect also. Both men believed that the subject and object poles of experience are not simply “given.” Rather, for Cassirer and Piaget, the subject and object poles of experience are “products” of experience. As we have already seen, Cassirer came to this conclusion, at least in part, based on his studies of Pre-modern man’s mythology. Piaget, on the other hand, arrived at this conclusion as a result of his investigations into the language acquisition of young children. In a study of early two-word utterances (1951) Piaget “was able to show how the subject pole and object pole of a child’s experience remains undissociated in the early stages of language development.” [Edited by B.Z. Presseisen, Topics in Cognitive Development, 1978, p.7]

For Piaget, the long and active process that results in what we take to be the knowledge of our objective and subjective experience begins in the recognition and coordination of sensorimotor activity. By locating the source of cognitive structure in the sensorimotor activity of babies, Piaget opened up the possibility that “structure” was grounded in “nature” and not in “mind”. In his investigations Piaget inquired into the source of this structure. He asked the question, “Did structure lie in man, nature, or both? In an attempt to answer this question Piaget offers us his own “constructionist” structuralist method.

Structure Constitutes Something More Than Its Elements

Structure’s Boundary Conditions—Wholeness, Transformation And Self-Regulation

Piaget began his inquiries into structuralism by first isolating what was common to all structuralist thought. Number one on his list was the “affirmative ideal”; that is, the ideal of intelligibility aspired after by all structuralists. In addition to the definitions that are proffered by the various structuralists as part of the “affirmative ideal,” Piaget characterized three other attributes of structuralism. Structure, in its very inception, constitutes wholeness. In this sense structure may be understood as formed of elements but within the sum total of its elements structure constitutes something more than its elements.

Structuralism is also characterized by transformations e.g. 2=1+1, the synchronic/diachronic distinction, not, not A = A etc., and by self-regulation processes that tend to maintain and perpetuate the continued existence of structures. In so far as structuralism is characterized by transformations the laws that constitute structure must themselves be structuring. Piaget clarifies:

“Indeed, all known structures–from mathematical groups to kinship systems–are, without exception, systems of transformation. But transformation need not be a temporal process: 1+1 “make” 2; 3 “follows hard on” 2; clearly, the “making” and “following” here meant are not temporal processes. On the other hand, transformation can be a temporal process: getting married “takes time.” Were it not for the idea of transformation, structures would lose all explanatory import, since they would collapse into static forms.” [Jean Piaget, Structuralism, 1970, p.12]

In the characterization of the self-regulation aspect of structuralism, structuralism may be considered from a logical or mathematical point of view i.e. the rules defining structure, or, in the self-maintenance systems that define a healthy organism. Within the diverse range of the structuralist movement Piaget has located the boundary conditions for structuralism in the attributes — wholeness, transformation, and self-regulation.

Piaget places a great deal of emphasis on mathematical structure. In fact, to the extent that structure can be formalized, Piaget believes that it should be formalized. “To the extent that structure can be formalized” is a very important concept for Piaget for, I believe, the basis of his constructionist method rests on the notion of “the limits of structural formalization.” Because the significance of this concept is so important, I would like to digress into a brief account of this concept’s history.

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