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The attic of the Villa Piaget after most of the papers had been removed to the archives

History and theory of psychology

My main focus as an historian of (psychological) science is Jean Piaget, 1896-1980, who had an enormous impact on developmental psychology and education theory. And because I think that the value of history for science is to show us things we can’t see, from the vantage of the present, I am particularly interested in how his popularisation in American Psychology during the Cold War blinded audiences to his later works: what has been called, in the secondary literature, “Piaget’s new theory.”

I have written about this from the perspective especially of his changing appeals to logic and biology, and in the process moved the understood date of its emergence back from the mid-1970s to the early-1960s. In other words, the new theory is constituted by more than 20 books with his byline and supplemented by more than a dozen edited volumes; not including the unpublished books from the same period that I found at his home. It also began to emerge at the same time as the American popularisation began to take off: after Sputnik, but before Head Start.

I am presently working to complete several article-length manuscripts on this theme that use archival documents from Europe and the US, as well as a new forward-looking grant application. The envisioned project aims to delve into a “neglected foreign invisible” that I first noticed during the research for the unabridged version of my “Piaget’s neo-Gödelian turn” essay and then concluded was crucial during the research for my invited contribution to the Oxford Research Encyclopedia for the History of Psychology. If successful, it will support a new postdoc and several new PhD students. (For more on the method, see my “neglect of the foreign invisible” article.)

The core idea for this grant project coalesced around several separate discoveries after my editor, Wade Pickren, asked me to write the first archive-driven history of Piaget’s post-WWII research programme in “genetic epistemology” (the scientific study of how knowledge is constructed by children who sometimes become scientists and mathematicians). I used the Rockefeller Foundation’s documentation of their interactions related to his grants, spanning 1953-1963, to adopt the perspective of the time and avoid the common misunderstandings that usually result from his subsequent popularisation as a developmental psychologist of intelligence. (I was explicitly not interested in Piaget as a “stage theorist,” or in his contributions to the Cognitive Revolution.)

The experiments that constituted genetic epistemology were intended to examine how philosophical assumptions about knowledge could be examined scientifically through their actual development in children. In the process of digging into that, though, I also noticed a transatlantic conflict related to the different logics that might be used to theorise those experimental results. This can be personified by reference to W. V. Quine (new foundations and mathematical logic) in the US and L. E. J. Brouwer (intuitionistic logic and the Significa Group) in the Netherlands.

Locating Piaget’s experiments at the intersection between Quine and Brouwer places genetic epistemology at the scientific centre of what L. Apostel described in a letter to Rockefeller as a “crisis” in logic. Because Quine’s view then won out, and soon afterward became the basis for his “naturalized epistemology,” that in turn also helps to provide some of the broader intellectual context that I think explains Piaget’s choice to not publish his experiments from this period (the ones I found in his home) that describe how children learn physical causality: these made it clear that—considered from a developmental point of view, rather than computationally—the processes involved in human knowing cannot be treated “extensionally” using truth tables. And it seems to me that Piaget chose not to publish because he did not yet have the language or concepts to describe what his experiments had found. (This emerged afterward, in what I described as “Piaget’s neo-Gödelian turn,” following a collaboration with Brouwer’s younger colleague E. W. Beth.)

In short: my grant project locates the emergence of “Piaget’s new theory” in a conflict that has local connections (Brouwer and Beth), and which can only be examined using local resources in the Netherlands. To understand what Piaget came to believe after he “began to doubt the existence of stages” (as he put it in a published précis of the unpublished manuscripts), we must therefore delve deeply into an approach to theory-formation in psychology and epistemology that cannot be seen clearly in the light of the present (as a result of Quine’s influence). This will then have important implications for those areas that Piaget influenced, especially developmental psychology and education but also the history and philosophy of science. (See my new essay, published in History of the Human Sciences, on Piaget’s influence on Thomas Kuhn.)

Recent related Piaget scholarship

Burman, J. T. (in press). Meaning-change through the mistaken mirror: On the indeterminacy of “Wundt” and “Piaget” in translation. Review of General Psychology.

Burman, J. T. (in press). The genetic epistemology of Jean Piaget. In W. Pickren (Ed.), The Oxford Encyclopedia of the History of Modern Psychology. Oxford University Press.

Burman, J. T. (2020). On Kuhn’s case, and Piaget’s: A critical two-sited hauntology (or, on impact without reference). [In C. Millard & F. Callard, eds. of special issue dedicated to the memory of John Forrester.] History of the Human Sciences, 33(3-4). doi: 10.1177/0952695120911576

Burman, J. T. (2020). On the implications of object permanence: Microhistorical insights from Piaget’s new theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 43(e124). doi: 10.1017/S0140525X19002954

Burman, J. T. (2019). Development. In R. J. Sternberg & W. Pickren, eds, The Cambridge Handbook of the Intellectual History of Psychology (pp. 287-317). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Ratcliff, M. J. & Burman, J. T. (2017). The mobile frontiers of Piaget’s psychology: From academic tourism to interdisciplinary collaboration / Las fronteras móviles de la psicología de Piaget. Del turismo académico a la colaboración interdisciplinaria. [English original accompanied by a Spanish translation by Julia Fernández Treviño.]. Estudios de Psicología: Studies in Psychology, 38(1), 4-36. doi: 10.1080/02109395.2016.1268393

Burman, J. T. (2016). Piaget’s neo-Gödelian turn: Between biology and logic, origins of the New Theory. Theory & Psychology, 26(6), 751-772. doi:10.1177/0959354316672595

Ratcliff, M. J. & Burman, J. T. (2015). De la geste archivistique au geste de l’historien : comment une politique d’archivage proxémique permet de retrouver un inédit disséminé. [From archivist’s operation to historian’s action: How a ‘proxemic’ approach enabled the discovery of several unpublished books by Piaget.] In J.-F. Bert & M. J. Ratcliff (Eds.), Frontières d’archives : recherche, mémoire, savoirs. [Archival frontiers: Research, memory, knowledge] (pp. 131-144). Éditions des archives contemporaines.

Burman, J. T. (2015). Neglect of the foreign invisible: Historiography and the navigation of conflicting sensibilities. History of Psychology, 18(2), 146-169. doi: 10.1037/a0039194

In addition to my historical research on Piaget, I am also involved in several collaborations with others who are interested in extending my earlier work using digital methods to formalize the detection of meaning-change. I see these as ways of testing the epistemological ideas that I am excavating in my histories, but from a different point of view. My collaborators include:

  • Rémy Amouroux, PhD, Faculté des sciences sociales et politiques, University of Lausanne, Switzerland (with a grant from the Fonds National Suisse). Extending my investigations of how it might be possible to use digital methods for historical trend-tracking, specifically of the importation of American Behaviorism into French psychology.
  • Eric Fath-Kolmes, P.Eng, MBA, Centre for Sustainable Entrepreneurship, Campus Fryslân, University of Groningen. Extending my study of disciplinary structure to develop tools that could be used to automate the mapping of discourses (related, in his case, to sustainable business).
  • Wisnu Wiradhany, PhD, Bina Nusantara University, Indonesia. Following-up on my goal to include pragmatic meanings in semantic maps of psychological science, using semi-automated methods to reduce the workload.

Such projects are typically easier than histories for students to join. (I teach these methods in my 3rd-year Honours Seminar; see the Teaching section.) And I have been delighted by the impact. For example: the results of my 2015 article in Child Development were subsequently discussed on Canadian national television and informed a research-to-practice briefing published in both official languages (En / Fr).

Recent related digital scholarship

Burman, J. T. (2020). Reading fast and slow: The trust in databases problem. Mindwise-Groningen.NL.

Burman, J. T. (2018). Through the looking-glass: PsycINFO as an historical archive of trends in psychology. History of Psychology, 21(4), 302-333. doi:10.1037/hop0000082

Burman, J. T. (2018). What is History of Psychology? Network analysis of Journal Citation Reports, 2009-2015. Sage Open. doi: 10.1177/2158244018763005

Burman, J. T. (2018). Digital methods can help you…: if you’re careful, critical, and not historiographically-naïve. [Introduction to special section.] History of Psychology, 21(4), 297-301. doi:10.1037/hop0000112

Burman, J. T., Green, C. D., & Shanker, S. (2015). On the meanings of self-regulation: Digital humanities in service of conceptual clarity. Child Development, 86(5), 1507-1521. doi:10.1111/cdev.12395

Green, C. D., Feinerer, I., & Burman, J. T. (2015). Searching for the structure of early American psychology: Networking Psychological Review, 1909-1923. History of Psychology, 18(2), 196-204. doi:10.1037/a0039013

Green, C. D., Feinerer, I., & Burman, J. T. (2015). Searching for the structure of early American psychology: Networking Psychological Review, 1894-1908. History of Psychology, 18(1), 15-31. doi:10.1037/a0038406

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