Volume 27, Number 4 
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Freud and Piaget: une fois de plus

Bonnie E. Litowitz, Ph.D.
180 North Michigan Avenue
Suite 2220, Chicago, Illinois 60601

A version of this paper, translated by Professor Remi Clignet, appeared in Bulletin de psychologie 51(5) 437, 1998.

Much has been written about Piaget's exposure to psychoanalysis and about his subsequent repudiation of certain aspects of Freudian theory. At the same time, many writers have taken a integrative approach, searching for rapprochements between Freudian and Piagetian theories or focusing on ways in which Piaget's conception of how intelligence develops during the childhood years might contribute to psychoanalytic theory.

In what follows I will not attempt an exhaustive review of this well traveled ground but will instead focus on convergences in the theories of these two pioneers in twentieth century psychology. I will argue that these similarities could be attributed to Piaget's well-documented personal history, but they could also be viewed as representative of a shifting Zeitgeist as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth. As the twentieth century progressed, however, the Zeitgeist shifted once again, yielding new theoretical conceptions: post-freudian psychoanalytic theories and post-piagetian views on child development. These new views share more in common with each other than with their predecessors (Litowitz, 1989). Finally, I will suggest that as this century draws to a close with 'the decade of the brain' we are witnessing a return to a biological view of mind and development once again more compatible with Freud and Piaget than with the theories that had supplanted them.

Freudian developmental theory

Every psychoanalytic theory from Freud's earliest models to the latest post-freudian versions is imbued with notions of development and depends on an explicit or implicit view of how the child changes during the course of his/her growth. With the possible exception of Studies on Hysteria (1893-1895) which he co-authored with Breuer, Freud laid out his subsequent models the topographic and the structural along a developmental sequence.

In the topographic model the mind is divided into two systems: the unconscious and the preconscious. Knowledge in the unconscious system is repressed and unavailable to consciousness without overcoming resistances (e.g., censorship, the defenses). Unconscious knowledge is never completely knowable but only interpretable through its derivatives dreams, parapraxes, actes manquéswhich overcome resistance by means of disguise and compromise. The contents of the preconscious system are potentially accessible to conscious awareness, although only a small portion is illuminated by the searchlight or eye of consciousness at any given moment. The eye of consciousness is described as looking inward, much as the perceptual eye looks outward. Unconscious thought is characterized by primary process thinking which lacks negation or logical connections and favors the over-inclusions and 'just-as' relationships evident in condensed dream images and displacements. Freud claimed that primary process thinking was phylogenetically, and continues to be ontogenetically, prior to secondary process or logical thought, acquired later in childhood and familiar to us in our waking life (1900, 1915a).

Freud replaced the systems of the topographic model with the tripartite agencies of the structural model when it became clear that some mental structures, such as the defenses, are unconscious but were never repressed (Arlow & Brenner, 1964). In the structural model the agency of the id is comparable to the earlier unconscious system, while the agency of the ego takes on the cognitive functions of consciousness as well as mechanisms of defense without their having to be conscious. Developmentally, the ego is described as emerging out of the undifferentiated matrices of id-ego and ego-other, with the agency of the superego developing as a consequence of relations with others during the oedipus complex later in childhood (at around 3-5 years) (1923).

Freud never treated any children directly; his one case history of a child, Little Hans, was an 'analysis' conducted by the boy's father, who was an acolyte of Freud's and husband of Freud's former patient, the boy's mother (1909). Freud based his theory of development on changes that occur (he hypothesized) in the sexual instinct or libido over the course of early childhood. This theory is best laid out in his Three essays on the theory of sexuality, (1905) but is recapitulated throughout his writing (1905, p.244-5). The hypothesized changes were twofold: (1) as development progressed the libido dominates different zones in a specific sequence of oral, anal, phallic, genital; and (2) the libido seeks satisfaction first in oneself (narcissism) and then from another (object love). Freud sought and found evidence for this theory in his clinical work with adult patients whose neuroses were described by him as fixations in or regressions to earlier points on these lines of development (Gedo & Goldberg, 1973).

Freud's structural theory reached its apotheosis in ego psychology which dominated psychoanalytic theorizing for decades, especially in America, under the guidance of Freud's daughter Anna. Anna Freud came to psychoanalysis through the avenue of the education of young children, whom she viewed as having an innate urge to complete development. In contrast to her father, Anna Freud worked with many children. Her father had articulated the foundation of his theory of neuroses as universal developmental stages, and Anna Freud sought to legitimize those stages through observation of normally functioning children, as well as through treatment of disturbed children (1965).

In her research Anna Freud described specific lines of developmental; and she viewed the goal of both education and treatment as strengthening the child's initially fragile ego and fostering autonomy. The ego is described as an organ of adaptation, both modulating the pressures from the other agencies within and dealing with external reality. A strong ego with mature defenses (e.g., sublimation) in place can navigate safely through life's stressors (e.g., separations, illnesses), while a weak ego with immature defenses (e.g., projection, introjection, isolation) will succumb to psychological illness (e.g., neuroses, depressions) (1946).

In England Melanie Klein was taking a different approach to development, although also based solidly in Freudian theory. Klein's theory was concerned with the vicissitudes of aggression, the other instinct that appeared later in Freud's theory as the death instinct. While Freud had delineated the course of the libido in normal development and in pathologies, Klein asked: How does the child learn to manage its aggressive impulses and their resultant states of anxiety? Her answer was, by projecting hate out onto the object and introjecting it into oneself in repeated cycles; but the child's problem is that the hated object is also the loved object (satisfier of libido). This dilemma necessitates two developmentally sequential "positions" as solutions to the problematic relationship between child and object: the paranoid-schizoid and the depressive. The first position solves the problem by splitting the object into two partsa good object and a bad objectthereby protecting and preserving the good from the bad. Such a solution, however, is ultimately unsuccessful since the child must learn to relate to a whole (unified) object that is both good and bad. The second position describes ways that the child seeks to heal the earlier split or part objects (Segal, 1964). Klein's emphasis was not on repression and sublimation as efforts to adapt to external reality but on the internal world of the child's unconscious phantasies, which are portrayed as filled with oral and anal destructiveness and primitive defensive mechanisms such as splitting and projection. Klein's evidence came from her treatment of children and adults, and the goal of her 'depth' analyses was to confront and articulate these archaic (both unconscious and early) phantasies.

These two views of developmentthe lighter one focused on progressive adaptation, the darker focused on regressive statesclashed when the Freuds, escaping the Nazi Anschluss, took up refuge and residency in England. These confrontations, well documented elsewhere, formed the historical matrix out of which later theories emerged in varied forms: ego-psychologies; object-relations theories; self-psychologies; relational theories; intersubjective theories (Greenberg & Mitchell, 1983). Ego psychology remained loyal to the Freud-A.Freud tradition: focusing on interagency conflict, and interpreting resistance and defense with the goal of increasing adaptation to reality. Object-relations theories, following M. Klein, focus on how psychic structures are built out of partial and conflictual internalizations of representations of early parental figures. Heinz Kohut (1977a) gradually broke away from the traditional Freudian position to articulate a psychology of the self, which develops capacities for self-regulation out of internalized functions of others. Relational theory, evolving out of a Sullivanian perspective, further turned away from instinctual drives towards explorations of dyadic, interactive relations with others (Mitchell, 1988). Intersubjective theory builds on Kohut's concept of empathy by focusing on the mutual influences of the separate, inner realities of self and other (Stolorow, Brandchaft & Atwood, 1987). In spite of these differences, however, all later theories share a joint A.Freud-M.Klein legacy: the need to address development more directly and more globally. That is, all later theories have had to situate a psychoanalytic theory of pathology squarely in terms of deviance from or delays in a normal developmental sequence.

As a consequence, increasingly psychoanalytic writers have felt the need to pay attention to what is already known about normal development, trying to incorporate those observational and experimental 'facts' into their theories of development, or minimally constraining their theories according to those 'facts'. The distinction between the 'clinical child', reconstructed from child or adult treatment data, and the 'observed child', constructed out of experimental psychological data, has become well established (Stern, 1985). Only very recently has this looking outside of psychoanalysis proper, for constraints or foundations, been questioned (Goldberg, 1990; Wolff, 1996).

In their search for other developmental models many psychoanalysts have turned to Piaget and found much that is familiar and compatible. The considerable overlap in conceptual base between Freudian and Piagetian theories is the focus of the remainder of this paper. I suggest that this theoretical convergence may arise from Piaget's personal history, as others have noted, and I will discuss this interpretation first. Then I will identify and briefly discuss aspects of Piagetian theory that especially converge with Freudian psychoanalytic theory, suggesting an alternate interpretation: both theorists were influenced by Darwin's evolutionary biological perspective that dominated late nineteenth and early twentieth century theorizing. In the last section I will describe the shared approach of post-freudian and post-piagetian theories, and the recent return to a biological view of development.

Piaget's psychoanalytic development

Piaget was born in 1896 when Freud and Breuer were publishing the first psychoanalytic writing, Studies on Hysteria. When Freud died in England in 1939, Piaget was in his early forties. Piaget lived 40 more years, dying in 1979 at the age of 83. In his writing he acknowledges an interest in, if not an early fascination for, the new discoveries that were emerging from Freud and his circle.

In an autobiographical account of his life, Piaget credits his mother's "neurotic temperament [that] made our family life somewhat troublesome" with both his interest in and his turning away from psychoanalysis:

...my mother's poor mental health. . .which at the beginning of my studies in psychology made me intensely interested in questions of psychoanalysis and pathological psychology. Though this interest helped me to achieve independence and to widen my cultural background, I have never since felt any desire to involve myself deeper in that particular direction, always much preferring the study of normality and of the workings of the intellect to that of the tricks of the unconscious (Evans, 1973, p.106).

Intimating a premature overexposure to his mother's unconscious, he noted a resulting aversion to anything that departed from reality and consequently an attraction early in his life to serious work. That serious work led him into natural science and particularly biology, interests shared by Freud (Kohut, 1977b).

After finishing his graduate studies in science, Piaget spent time in Zurich, Geneva and Paris. In Zurich he was exposed to Bleuler's work in his psychiatric clinic and to Freud's writings and the new psychoanalytic journal, Imago; and he attended lectures by Jung and Pfister (Evans, 1973). In Geneva Piaget undertook an eight month analysis with Sabina Spielrein, which he referred to as a 'didactic' or 'training' analysis; he briefly analyzed some patients, presumably as part of his training; and he joined the Swiss Psychoanalytic Society (Schepeler, 1993). Piaget has never given a uniform or complete account of these experiences in his various autobiographical accounts, but Schepeler (1993) reviews what scholars have garnered from written work and interviews (see also Vidal). Also at that time Piaget published a paper on "Psychoanalysis in its relations with child psychology" (1920, presented to the Alfred Binet Society), and he spoke on 'symbolic thought and the thought of the child' at the 1922 Congress of Psychoanalysis in Berlin (where Freud who was present completely captured, according to Piaget's remembrance, his audience's attention [Evans, 1973]). Whatever his motivations and feelings were at the time, Piaget later always portrayed his interests in psychoanalysis as academic, a phase of his continuing postgraduate education from which he moved on to his life's work on the growth of intelligence in children.

During this postgraduate period Piaget also spent two years in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne and working in Binet's laboratory for Dr. Simon where he began to work with children. Although Piaget ultimately would turn away from clinical studies in psychiatry and psychoanalysis, he nevertheless imported into his work with children during this period aspects of what he had observed in Zurich and Geneva: the unstructured questioning of psychiatric interviewing (la méthode clinique); and a sense that error reveals underlying structure (cf, parapraxes). These conversations in Binet's Paris laboratory formed the basis for Piaget's earliest books on the construction of intelligence in children (Le langage et la pensée chez l'enfant [ 1923]; Le jugement et le raisonnement chez l'enfant [ 1924]). Ultimately, however, he turned away from this method as well, in favor of more experimentally based investigations, and recommended that psychoanalysis do likewise; that is, psychoanalysis, like himself, had benefited early on from the clinical method but further advancement would need to be more solidly based in scientific methodology (Evans, 1973).

Respectful criticisms and critical respect

Although he maintained a respectful attitude towards psychoanalysis in general, Piaget was nevertheless critical of specific concepts and ideas in both theory and method; and he lamented the separateness of psychoanalytic societies that isolated them from the discourses of other researchers (1962a, p. 184). As mentioned, he felt that psychoanalysis would never advance as a science without a change in methodology, and he applauded those (Rapaport, Wolfe [sic]) whom he saw as moving in that direction (Evans, 1973). Theoretically, he was most outspoken early on against what he termed Freud's "pansexualism"; that is, Freud's view that sexuality qua libido is the driving force in the development of psychic structure. For Freud, the sexual and aggressive instincts represent the biological bedrock on which his theory is erected. For Piaget, the biological foundations of his theory are both more pervasive and more abstract, with logical structures (resulting from the child's actions on the environment) developing according to biological principles. Thus, as will be discussed below, Freud and Piaget found different uses for biology in their theories.

In the third of a second series of books on children (La naissance de l'inte!ligence chez l'enfant [1936]; La construction du réel chez l'enfant [1937]; La formation du symbole [1945]) Piaget attempted to reconcile his emerging general theory of the growth of structures of intelligence in children with what he had learned from his postgraduate psychoanalytic experiences. From that experience he took the label of 'autism' for the earliest, prelogical period. Bleuler had used the term in his work with schizophrenics and Freud had 'normalized' this form of thought in his descriptions of primary process mentation, characteristic not only of pathology but also of everyday life (e.g., dreams and parapraxes). For Piaget, all thinking of the earliest period of life is autistic, assimilating reality to the child's own affective schemas. During the course of development cognitive structures change to accommodate reality, and thought becomes egocentric and then social. Yet, "autistic thought, creator of personal symbols, remains essential in each of us throughout his life. Later, reason develops at its expense, butand this is the real problemdoes it ever extricate itself entirely? Apparently not "(Gruber & Vonèche, 1977, p.59 [1920]). And this is where, Piaget allowed, psychoanalysis can make its contribution:

Now Freud and his disciples have shown that by the mere fact of its 'autism', this second way of thinking [vs. 'logical thought'] was bound to be confused, undirected, indifferent to truth, rich in visual and symbolic schemas, and above all, unconscious of itself and of the affecfive factors by which it was guided (Gruber & Vonèche, 1977, p.92).

Even so, Piaget had reservations about psychoanalysis' interpretation of affective life and its personal symbols as fundamental to thought (1962b). Piaget found Freud's notion of symbols, whether as compromise formations (i.e., substitutions due to censorship) or primitive language (i.e., an inherited archaic language), untenable (1962a, chapter vii). Piaget argued that early symbols that appear in play and dreams are characteristic of infant thinking in general. Such symbols are unconscious because all thought of this period is unconscious. There is no need for psychoanalysis to appropriate the unconscious "as a region" (1962a, p. 172) or symbol formation to itself, as these are simply aspects of a more general psychology, the structures of which Piaget was delineating through his research:

the difficulty of the Freudian doctrine does not lie in the facts of affectivity as such, but in the general framework which the theory claims in the field of general psychology: the nature of memory, the role of association, the conception of a lighting-consciousness of which intelligence is not the active nucleus, the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious... (1962a, p. 185)

For Piaget, "the emotional unconscious is. . .a special case of the unconscious in general" (Evans, 1973, p.4) and "unconscious symbolism, i.e., symbolism whose significance is not immediately recognized by the subject himself, is a particular case of symbolism in general and must be considered as such" (Piaget, 1962a, p. 198); "unconscious symbolic thought follows the same laws as thought in general" (1962a, p.212). Nor are the special psychoanalytic concepts of censorship or repression needed: the child does not have memories of this period because the type of memory necessary to evoke images has not sufficiently developed (1962a, chapter vii).

Thus, while appreciating psychoanalysis' interesting clinical methods (lying on the couch, free-floating associative imagery, open-ended inquiry), Piaget nevertheless questioned its claims as a general psychology of mind, insisting that most aspects could be subsumed under the overall theoretical edifice he was establishing through empirical research (1962a). In addition, he felt that his general theory of cognitive development could rein in over-zealous psychoanalytic theorizing. For example, Piaget pointed out that a universal phantasy such as the infant's hallucinating the breast, proposed by Freud as fundamental to infant mentation, is not possible before considerable prior cognitive development. Psychoanalytic writers have had to accept that the capacity to construct an image is not the origin but the culmination of a prior sequence of masteries: first, exteriorized imitation and then, delayed imitation; still later, interiorized imitation, resulting in images (Sandler, 1975). In another example, Piaget's work has raised questions about primary narcissism postulated by Freud (1914) as a stage of undifferentiated id-ego/self-other. On the one hand, Piaget has demonstrated that self-object differentiation must be present early in the infant's life as the infant begins to construct realityan ego function. On the other hand, he claims that the infant is egocentric, defining objects solely by means of his/her action on them. Piaget continued to discuss the differences in how the child relates to objects versus object-relations in the psychoanalytic sense (1962b), and psychoanalytic writers have been variously influenced by his studies (Stern, 1985; Fast, 1985).

Piaget was most involved early in his career in explicating these differences and in commenting on psychoanalytic writers. For example, he offered an alternate explanation for A. Freud's concept of identification with the aggressor; and he commented on the psychosocial sequences of E. Erikson and on the play therapies of M. Klein and S. Isaacs. Even at the end of his long and productive life, however, he remained willing to engage in dialogues with psychoanalysts (1962b, 1973).

For their part, psychoanalysts were respectful and open to Piaget in return (Wolff, 1960; Anthony, 1976; Kohut, 1977b). Considering ego psychology's emphasis on adaptation, many writers from that perspective looked to Piaget for a fuller description of the ego's many functions. As ego psychology sought to satisfy Freud's desire that psychoanalysis become a general psychology, it became clear that Piaget's extensive oeuvre could provide both a more complete and also a more correct (i.e., confirmed by research) description of how such ego functions as perception, memory, conceptualization, and logical thought develop during infancya period only available to psychoanalysts through reconstruction from adult analyses (Wolff, 1960; Greenspan, 1979). Freud's views on perception and memory, for example, were both adultomorphic and outdated; and psychoanalysts have looked to basic researchers such as Piaget (an early critic of Freud's views in these areas) to correct and expand their theories.

At the same time, psychoanalysts encounter in their clinical practice many phenomena for which Piaget's research findings could provide better explanations than those provided by Freud (Silverman, 1971; Sandler, 1975). For example, the imitation sequence described above, which enables the child to evoke the image of an absent object, makes more comprehensible the appearance of stranger and separation anxieties in the second half of the first year of life. Anxiety is a ubiquitous clinical phenomenon that Freud addressed often in his writing, finally viewing it as a signal of impending danger. He hypothesized a developmental hierarchy of such dangers, all of which involve separation and loss: e.g., separation from the mother's body in birth; separation.from a significant other; loss of love; loss of body part (castration). Consequently, psychoanalysts have been eager to know how cognitive constraints might influence these subjective experiences.

Still other theorists have found that Piaget's theory illuminates key clinical concepts such as transference: in what ways do the child's past experiences generalize onto present perceptions (Wachtel, 1980; Schlesinger-Vaccaro, 1983)? A psychoanalytic concept such as the superego deals with moral development, and clinicians are familiar with pathological conditions due to excessive or insufficient guilt or shame. They have looked to the extensive Piagetian research on moral development to better understand how the superego functions and develops (Nass, 1966). Lastly, there have been some authors who have tried to merge portions of both Freud's and Piaget's work into creative syntheses (Anthony, 1957; Dolle, 1977; Fast, 1985; Furth, 1987).

Inevitably, psychoanalytic writers who were critical of the motivational priority Piaget granted to cognitive structures (over the affective) were drawn to analyzing him; but understandably they trace this defensive disavowal back to his experiences with early parental (especially maternal) figures (Bögels, 1986; Schepeler, 1993). It is interesting to note that Freud has been similarly criticized for his focus on conflicts with his father, leading him to privilege the oedipus complex to the exclusion of earlier dyadic struggles with his mother. These latter, then, have become the focus of the post-freudians.

Convergent ideas

As much as Piaget must have been influenced by his early exposure to psychoanalysis, it is equally possible that both he and Freud were men of their times, with their theories expressing the Zeitgeist that was dominant at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. That Zeitgeist was infused with Darwin's view of the descent of man through gradual stages of adaptation to his environment by means of the processes of natural selectionvariation, selection, reproduction.

Ritvo (1990) has documented the profound influence of Darwin's writing on Freud's theorizing. For his part, Piaget has declared the influence of his own early beginnings as a biological scientist on all his later work, in which he sought the 'embryology of intelligence' through: biology in the explanation of all things and of the mind itself. . .it made me decide to consecrate my life to the biological explanation of knowledge (Evans, 1973, p. 111).

Both men tried to create psychological theories on biological foundations, unifying their views of the mind with principles laid down by Darwin's theory of evolution. For Piaget, intellectual operations proceed in terms of structures-of-the-whole. These structures denote the kind of equilibrium toward which evolution in its entirety is striving; at once organic, psychological, and social, their roots reach down as far as biological morphogenesis itself (Evans, 1973, p. 14).

Thus, a shared Darwinian legacy for both Freud and Piaget takes the form of a belief in biological explanation in all areas, at all levels, of human life.

Biological explanation describes an organism's adaptation to its environment through either accommodating to it or assimilating it to already existing schema, thereby building up organization that strives toward maintaining an equilibrium, as Piaget describes. Freud's two principles of mental functioningthe pleasure and reality principlesare obvious articulations of these modes of adaptation (1911). 1 For Freud primary process thinking obeys the pleasure principle (Lustprinzip) with its ready discharge of libidinal energy, just as for Piaget autistic thought assimilates everything to its affective schemas. Similarly, secondary process and operational thinking redress this imbalance by accommodating to reality.

Biological explanations address structures-of-the-whole. For Freud these are psychic structures, as in the agencies of the structural model, defined in relation to each other. For Piaget these are logical structures, cognitive structures of knowledge and intelligence. However, for Piaget structures and their properties constituted an object of study in their own right, and he was concerned with structural properties from his beginnings in biological taxonomy (Gruber & Vonèche, 1977, pp..3-22) through his book on Structuralism (1970) to the 'morphisms" of his last theorizing (Piaget, Henriques & Ascher, 1992). Thus, while both Freud and Piaget constructed structural theories, only Piaget was a 'self-conscious' structuralist.

Freud and Piaget have overlapping, rather than congruent, chronologies so that, while both were influenced by Darwin's writing, Piaget had also the influence of deSaussure's Course in General Linguistics (1959 [1906-1911]). DeSaussure opened the structuralist era by splitting off the structural (synchronic) from the historical (diachronic), creating an additional method of examination along with Darwin's evolutionary perspective. DeSaussure proposed that structure could be studied for itself, and not just as evidence of historical change. Piaget was a major force in the structuralist movement of the 1960s and 1970s which echoed his definition of structure: a systemic whole, greater than the sum of its parts, defined by the relationship of its parts, that is closed under transformation (i.e., self-regulating) (1970).

Structures are inherently unconscious and the question becomes how consciousness or awareness of structure arises, either in the life of the individual or the evolution of the species. For Freud unconscious structures are manifest only through their derivatives, which must be traced back inferentially through interpretation. An early therapeutic goal, therefore, was to make the unconscious conscious; but some structures remain forever unconscious. This issue was one of the major forces that impelled Freud to move from the first topographic model to the later structural model (Arlow & Brenner, 1964). In this later model, the therapeutic goal became, 'where id was there ego shall be', allowing some aspects of ego to be unconscious yet separate from the id. Nevertheless, Freud claimed that it was his failure to be able to explain the fact of consciousness that caused him to abandon his earliest goal of a scientific, i.e., neurological, basis for a psychology of mind and to focus instead on psychical meanings (Project for a Scientific Psychology, 1950 [1895], S.E. 1, p.293).

Significantly, the question of consciousness has reappeared as, perhaps, the major issue for recent theorists in cognitive neuroscience and the new philosophy of mind (e.g., Dennett, 1991; Edelman, 1992; Searle, 1992). Virtually every one of these writers feels compelled to address the issue of consciousness as they struggle to find an isomorphism between causality that explains physical, material relations and inference or implication involved in meanings. I think it is fair to say that the view of consciousness emerging from their writings is closer to the Piagetian than to the Freudian.

Piaget wrote often on the question of consciousness (e.g., La Prise de Conscience [1974]); how it arises and whether it can have a causative role in progressive stages of cognitive development (Gruber & Vonèche, 1977, p.763-6). For Piaget, consciousness is closer to reflective abstraction and self-awareness than to the Freudian repressed, 'dynamic' unconscious: "the difference between consciousness and the unconscious is only a matter of gradation or degree of reflection" ( 1962, p. 172; see also p. 189).

Another aspect of the Darwinian perspective shared by Freud and Piaget is the study of universal patterns as manifest in individual history. Just as an evolutionary biologist or paleontologist creates theory fossil by fossil, so Freud proposed a universal theory of mind, case by clinical case. Nor did Piaget explore topics by means of large statistical studies of children. Instead, like Darwin, both theorists sought sequential patterns of gradual change in structures as a consequence of an individual's (organism's) interaction with its environment.

Structural change must be gradual since natura non facit salturn (nature does not make leaps). All of Piaget's theoretical work is a testament to that premise, nowhere more eloquently illustrated than in the six sub stages of the sensorimotor period. Starting with reflexes (our inheritance) Piaget draws out the step-by-step progression that each individual child makes to arrive at systematic intelligence.2 At the representational level, again the steps in the semiotic function are carefully laid out: from signal to index to image to symbol to sign. In his theory there may be gapsdécalages-but there are no leaps! Throughout Piaget's work his interest in transitional stages and continuities is everywhere evident. All the major accomplishments of the childe.g., seriation, classification, conservation, moralityevolve gradually through transitional stages.

Freud exercised equal care in setting out his psychosexual stages, each building to the next, in an epigenetic sequence. The twists and turns of the libido during development are also carefully described: this sequence leading to neurosis; that sequence to perversion or to psychosis. Freud, like Darwin, was most interested in transitional forms in what might at first glance appear to be discontinuities but would turn out to be understandable using the same principles. As noted above, sexuality represented man's biological foundation for Freud so it was his sexual development that he charted. He made of the diphasic nature of sexuality a continuity: sexual life begins in infancy, only appears to disappear in 'latency', and reappears at puberty. Piaget greatly admired what he termed "the two fundamental facts discovered by Freud and his schoolthat infantile affectivity passes through well-defined stages and that there is an underlying continuity: [these are] completely in line with those of intellectual development" (1962, p. 185). Later, however, Piaget contrasted his stages of "successive integration" with Freud's psychosexual stages, each "characterized by a dominant feature" (1962b, p. 133).

Adherence to explanation by means of transitional forms becomes problematic for both Freud and Piaget around the issue of autistic thought. As Piaget pondered in 1920, does autistic thinking ever completely give way to later reason? His less than confident answer: "apparently not"! Vidal recently commented on this dilemma:

instead of limiting himself to postulating two discontinuous types of thought, autistic and logical, Piaget studied transitional forms, and thus placed them on a developmental continuum. Yet, the discovery of transitional forms between the two forms of thought did not mitigate their opposition (1997, p. 125; see also Harris, 1997).

The issue of the retention and functioning of earlier forms along side later forms within the same individual is a problem that continues to haunt models of the mind in psychoanalysis (Litowitz, 1998).3

The biological perspective assumes an active organism interacting with its environment to achieve homeostasisa balanced, steady-state. However, both Freud and Piaget did not require that the environment need be very specific for the universal stages of development to occur. Critics of both theorists attack this point directly. Although for Piaget the environment provides general aliments, other psychologists have demonstrated that altered environmentswhether material or socialradically change performance. A spate of studies during the post-piagetian period demonstrated that a change in material, examiner or instruction could produce effects that challenge Piaget's interpretations of underlying structures.

In psychoanalysis the impact of a real environment has had an interesting history. Freud turned away from his earlier belief in actual sexual seduction as causative of neuroses, instead privileging inner phantasy over external reality. As with Piaget, Freud claimed that he was describing universal developmental stages that did not depend upon specific environmental responses, either cultural or social. But post-freudians have argued that the nature of one's external reality, and especially the caretaker's actual response to the child, is a critical ingredient in how the child constructs an inner world. Their literature is replete with discussions of developmental arrests or deficits due to environmental failures: e.g., lack of 'good enough mothering', 'optimal responsiveness', or 'empathic attunement'. Freud (1915b) famously claimed that the object of discharge is the instinct's most variable aspect, thereby emphasizing both libidinal indiscriminateness and the importance of discharge for maintaining homeostasis. In contrast, for post-freudians the specific nature of that object tie and what is or is not really provided become the critical factors in determining healthy development or pathology (Greenberg & Mitchell, 1983). A state of equilibrium does not result from discharge alone but rather from the cooperative interaction of a self-other system.

In this respect, Freud and Piaget are more like each other, perhaps, than like evolutionary biologists for whom the organism and environment form one non-reducible whole. Those who come after Freud and Piaget ask: if regulation is a system-property, what is the self in 'self-regulating' system? For Freud and Piaget the self regulates itself through actions on the environment/other, seeking a neutral regulatory stasis as a biological given. For post-freudians and post-piagetians the self includes the other/environment, especially initially; and self-regulation may or may not be achieved, depending on the nature of prior self-other interactions.

From an evolutionary point of view, the organism is engaged in struggle vis à vis its environment, and conflict is a major element for Freud and Piaget, but less so (or nonexistent) in post-freudian and post-piagetian theories. Freud was very taken by the mythos of the 'primal horde', crediting Darwin in frequent references (Ritvo, 1990, Appendix A). In each individual life that struggle is replayed in the triadic oedipal struggle between child, mother and father; while within each individual psyche another triadic struggle is being waged between the agencies of id, ego and superego:

Peaceful relations between neighboring powers are at an end. The instinctual impulses continue to pursue their aims with their own peculiar tenacity and energy, and they make hostile incursions into the ego, in the hope of overthrowing it by a surprise-attack. The ego on its side becomes suspicious; it proceeds to counterattack and to invade the territory of the id. Its purpose is to put the instincts permanently out of action by means of appropriate defensive measures, designed to secure its own boundaries (A. Freud, 1946, p.7)

Conflict and struggle, both external and internal, permeate Freudian writing which is saturated with warring metaphors.

Only in the 1940s and 1950s, under the hegemony of ego-psychology, did conflict become somewhat less ubiquitous. In its effort to become a general psychology, accounting for normal as well as pathological development, ego psychologists proposed conflict-free and autonomous functions of the ego, such as perception, memory, language, and especially a 'synthetic' function (Hartmann, 1958 [1939]). In stressing the integrative function of the ego these theorists hearkened back to an instinct for self-preservation proposed but later dropped by Freud (1914). In this way, the ego does not have to draw on libido or aggression for its energy, but has its own independent source. Although conflict and defense around sex and aggression are seen as keys to unlocking pathology, in development emphasis is displaced onto "the organism's inherent tendency toward integration and synthesis" (Wolff, 1960, p. 173). In treatment the analyst seeks alliance with this part of the ego in efforts to strengthen and expand it. Significantly, most theorists who have tried to connect Piaget and psychoanalysis have seen the best fit with ego-psychology, which shares a sense of progressive adaptation (Greenspan, 1979, p. 126).4 Even though conflict and struggle are not as central for Piaget as for Freud, his theory does posit roles for external challenges from an other person and for internal struggles as the child sorts out conflicting beliefs and explanations. Developmental movement forward is most possible at times of decentration and dis-equilibrium as the organism seeks to right an imbalance (i.e., seek equilibrium once again).

In summary, Piaget and Freud shared a joint Darwinian legacy that includes: a belief in biological explanations for mental phenomena; a focus on structures that result from adaptation of organisms to their environments; a search for transitional forms of that gradual adaptation; the organism's goal of homeostasis; the study of individual cases to reveal universal or species patterns; and the impetus for change of conflict and struggle both between and within individuals.

Later developments

Since the 1970s and 1980s there has been a turning away from the view of development and of the mind presented by Piaget and Freud, such that one can legitimately refer to a post-piagetian and post-freudian period. I will not attempt to describe in detail all the manifestations of this newer perspective that some might call post-structural; others, post-modern (Toulmin, 1990). Briefly stated, it is characterized by an emphasis on interpersonal interaction, individuals working in cooperation in contexts of specific socio-cultural activities (Bruner, 1997). Function, not structure, is the focus; results are interpreted locally, not as universals; and semiotic systems mediate knowledge, not just represent it. Vygotsky is most often viewed as the paterfamilias of the developmentalists taking this approach, and Bowlby is most often cited as the progenitor of psychoanalysts with this new world view (Litowitz, 1989).

Bowlby claimed that what we seek is attachment to another person, not instinctual discharge; and subsequent theorists have elaborated many different versions of our relatedness to others (e.g., object relation theories, self-psychologies, intersubjectivism, relational theories) (Greenberg & Mitchell, 1983).5 For these theorists regulation is an attribute of the child-mother (self-other) system that becomes internalized within the child (self); the goal of development is for the child to be able to do for itself what he/she could originally only do with an other person (Schore, 1994). Similarly, Vygotsky's famous dictum is: "Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice, on two levelsfirst between people as an interpsychological category and then inside the child as an intrapsychological category" (1978, p. 128). Thus, self-regulation is not an inherent property of abstract structures but a function that constitutes a goal of a dyadic system; that is, that the self in a self-other system internalizes dyadic regulation to become self-regulating.

In summary, boundaries are not drawn (as before) around the child and around the environment, but around the child-environment as one unit; and importantly, the environment is not things-in-the-world or people as things, but people like oneself (Ricouer, 1992). Social and cultural constructivism, not biological adaptation, become the focus with emphases on narrative and interpretation, rather than logical structures and causal explanations (Bruner, 1986, 1997).

The last decade of this centurythe 1990sburst into this context of post-piagetian and post-freudian social constructivism with an explosion of post-DNA discoveries in genetics that has revitalized the biological perspective. Data made possible by new technologies for brain-imaging and advances in psychopharmacology have led the media to dub this the 'decade of the brain', when questions of the mind will be answered by discoveries of the brain. Both Freud and Piaget had hoped "to be able someday to demonstrate relationships between mental structures and stages of nervous development" (Piaget, in Evans, 1973, p. 142), but neither man lived to see this wish fulfilled.

Now, in recent conferences neuroscientists, cognitive scientists and evolutionary psychologists are picking up that program as their own under the banner of neo-darwinism. In search of mind, they are extending Darwinian principles 'downward' into the neural networks of the brain:

The phenomena of psychology depend on the species in which they are seen, and the properties of species depend on natural selection...Selection not only guarantees a common pattern in a species but also results in individual diversity at the level of the finest neural networks (Edelman, 1992, pp.40 & 64).

In their approach the neo-darwinians are part of a radical shift in scale taking place in many disciplines; for example, to the subatomic in physics and to the subsymbolic in neural network or connectionist computer architecture (Clark, 1989). In contrast, in Freud's time the structure of the neurone was only just being described, confining him to gross anatomy; nor did Piaget have access to recent developments in molecular biology or microbiology.

Diversity, selection and reproductionthese are the biological principles currently being taken from Darwin to explain both the evolution and the development of the human mind-brain. The new biologists of the mind-brain are applying these Darwinian concepts to populations of neurones, not populations of individuals. Competitive struggles at the neuronal levels are resolved through natural selection when some neural connections are strengthened and reproduced at the sacrifice of others. Examples of this approach include: Edelman's Neural Darwinism and his 'theory of neuronal group selection' (1987, 1992); Dawkin's 'selfish gene' (1976); and the evolutionary psychology of Barkow, Costaides & Tooby in their Adapted Mind (1992).

In his book, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire (1992), dedicated to Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud, Edelman credits Piaget with laying the "groundwork for modern studies of cognition in development" (p.40), although Edelman finds Piaget's "idiosyncratic and original" views expressed in Biology and Knowledge (1971) "somewhat metaphorical in its comparisons of embryology and psychology" (p.260). These writers, and others taking this current perspective, see themselves as completing what the pioneersFreud, Piaget and Darwinbegan.

It is interesting to speculate how Piaget would have responded, were he alive today, to these new overtures. He criticized what he termed neo-darwinists for their notion that change occurs by means of the process of natural selection acting on chance or random mutations. This, he felt, vitiated his belief in an active organism whose actions initiate change (Gruber & Vonèche, 1977, p.786). However, Barkow, Costaides & Tooby claim that "despite the fact that chance plays some role in evolution, organisms are not primarily chance agglomerations of stray properties" (1992, p.52); and Edelman stresses that the completion of Darwin's program also requires an understanding of the influence of behavior on natural selection (1992, p.46).

It seems reasonable, then, to assume that Piaget would be a welcome participant in dialogues with these new theorists whose interests in genetics and natural selection resonate with his own lifelong preoccupation with variation and distribution of mollusca populations (Schepeler, 1993). Perceptively, Piaget observed that a central question for development is the balance between permanence and variability; and he criticized Freud for overemphasizing the former at the expense of the latter: "In spite of appearance, Freud is much less of a geneticist than he is usually considered to be" (1962a, p. 185). Yet, one can only wonder how Piaget himself would respond to the post-structuralism of the new theories that stress stable states not as permanent structures-of-the-whole (stages) but as shifting moments of interaction in an ever-evolving, dynamic organism-environment system.

Current theorists turn to the mathematical modeling of chaos theory and nonlinear dynamical systems to illustrate how constantly shifting phenomena will necessarily produce emergent patterns.6 These mathematical theories are being used to model notoriously unpredictable phenomena such as the weather and evolution, and the hope is to use these nonlinear models to explain development as well. However, while evolution and development both address change over time, development is, in a sense, predictable: Navaho babies grow up to be Navaho adults; Bushman babies grow up to be Bushman adults; and so forth. In human development structural patterns do not have to emerge solely from random phenomena. It is less clear how the new theories will account for this fact (so much the focus of the preceding perspective), and perhaps this is why the new mathematical models offer thus far more promise than final solution.

One area of development where they have shown most promise is motor development. Esther Thelen's studies (1995) best exemplify this new approach which seeks to build on and extend Piaget's work:

We seek to restore the primacy of perception and action in the evolving mental and social life of the child. . .that repeated cycles of perception and action can give rise to emergent new forms of behavior without preexisting mental or genetic structures that is the link between the simple activities of the young infant and the growing life of the mind. What is new here is not that cognition grows from roots in perception and action. This was the fundamental assumption of Piaget. . .[but rather] the acceptance of growing humans as true dynamic systems (1995, pp. 80 & 93).

In drawing on new evolutionary biological models and using dynamic systems theory, these new developmental theorists are indebted to Piaget's construction of an active child whose increasingly complex organization emerges as a systems-property through interactions with environmental "affordances" (Gibson, 1979).

These models begin, as did Piaget, with as little as possible presupposed as innate or given, viewing growth as a consequence of the child's actions on its environment:

The assumption here is that infants are motivated by a taska desire to get a toy into the mouth or to cross the room to join the familyand that the task, not prespecified genetic instructions, is what constitute the driving force of change (1995, p.86).

This is a return to a view of the child and of mind built on a biological perspective rather than the social constructivist basis of later theorists. The physical/material, the social and the cultural are successive environments for the child to master. Motivation comes from within the child; tasks are not socially or culturally situated activities; other persons and social mediation cease to be factors (until, perhaps, later in development). What is lost in this view is that all three environments are saturated with social and cultural meanings, mediated through semiotic systems, that precede the child's birth. Furthermore, it is these systems that enable the idea of the child, and indeed of a specific child, to precede his/her own birth, in a sense, as he/she exists first in the networks of parents, family, and societal and cultural institutionsand only later in the material world. These are as profound an influence on development as any other environmental affordances but it is less clear how these affordances influence neuronal selection.

As for Freud, his use of biology to emphasis sexuality, competitive struggle and reproduction make him a natural ally in the new biological perspective, with its overarching rationale of the selective pressure of reproductive advantage (e.g., Barkow, Cosmides & Tooby 1992, p.619).7 However, one can imagine that he would still strive to explain die Spaltungen of the mind: why some patterns become fixed and cut off from future learning. In a letter to his friend in Berlin (Fliess) Freud complained of his frustration in working on his Project for a Scientific Psychology: "The 'Psychology' is really a cross to me... After all, I wanted to do no more than explain defence, but I was led from that into explaining something from the centre of nature. I have had to work through the problem of quality, sleep, memory in fact, the whole of psychology" (1950 [1895] SE1, p.284). Surely he would welcome the new discoveries on the brain's functioning, such as on memory and perception, and he could participate in those topics of his original interestdefense and consciousnessstill so poorly understood in the decade of the brain.

Concluding remarks

In the last years of his life Piaget attempted to modify and strengthen his theory of development in response to criticism from those who take a Vygotskian perspective. Interestingly, this "new theory" (Beilin, 1992) has not been received with enthusiasm by American scholars (Acredolo, 1997). Perhaps, the time has passed for that debate to be of interest here. So much of the Piaget-Vygotsky debate is characterized by time-warps that questions of timing (Zeitgeist) seem critical.

Vygotsky's 1934 response to Piaget's early books resulting from his Paris period (1919-1921) only appeared in English in 1962. By then Piaget had moved on to a different methodology and had created an elaborate theoretical perspective. The 1962 English translation of Thought and Language arrived as Piaget was being discovered in America. He would go on to build a considerable following here at a timeduring the Cold Warwhen it was hard to find an audience for Vygotsky, a Marxist psychologist. During the 1970s when "anti-Piagetian claims were a primary career path" (Bickhard, 1997, p.239), Soviet activity theory became increasingly popular. Now, that perspective on the socio-cultural constructivism of subjectivity is becoming marginalized by the rediscovery of the biological perspective on mind and development.

I have tried to show how timing has been a factor: in similarities between Freudian and Piagetian theories; in subsequent theories that have arisen in critical response; and lastly, in a rediscovery of Freud and Piaget by cognitive neuroscientists, evolutionary psychologists, and others. Will the neo-darwinians succeed in completing Freud's and Piaget's program? What will happen to the post-freudians' and post-piagetians' agendas? Will they proceed side by side as two "competing and incommensurate approaches"; or will it be possible to integrate 'explanation' and 'interpretation' (Bruner, 1997)? Only time will tell, une fois de plus.


  1. Freud, but not Piaget, hypothesized also an affective dichotomy influencing subject-object relations, further elaborated on by M. Klein: what is taken in is good; what is ejected out is bad.

  2. The question of our inheritance is more problematic for Freud (cf, reflexes for Piaget). He wrote often about the "complemental series" (also, "aetiological equation"), meaning that each individual brings to development a particular biological constitution (e.g., more or less aggressive) (1895 SE3;1905 SE7; 1916-1917 SE 15 & 16). However, what is most often associated with Freud is his Lamarkian propensities and his seeming endorsement of an ontogeny-phylogeny recapitulation, knotty topics that Ritvo (1990) goes a long way towards untangling.

  3. How some thought or affect becomes split off, sequestered from integration into later development, yet influences current behavior, is the central question for all psychoanalytic theories. The mind's capacity for 'self-deception' continues to challenge the new biologists of the mind (Schacter, 1996; Barkow, Cosmides & Tooby, 1992).

  4. Psychoanalysis in France has had a different history under the influence of Lacan's rereading of Freud (particularly the earlier topographic model) through the prism of Saussurean structural linguistics. This perspective would seem to make Lacan's writing naturally compatible with Piaget's. However, Lacan rejected ego psychology, deemed by psychoanalysts most compatible with Piaget (as noted); and the two men made different uses of structural linguistics. Lacan insisted that language is fundamental to Freud's System Unconscious, thereby preserving for psychoanalysis the importance of language in Freud's writingan aspect that has been lost to all other post-freudian schools. In contrast, Piaget abstracted from de Saussure general principles of structural organization, as he abstracted general principles of adaptation from biology. For him, language, like all figurative or representational intelligence, depends upon operational intelligence (logical structures) and, therefore, could never be fundamental.

    Both Piaget and Lacan utilize Saussurean terminology for the sign, but again to different ends. For Piaget, the increasing distance between signifier and signified, accomplished as the semiotic function develops during the sensorimotor stages, enables signs to represent concepts already established through the child's actions. Only later in development can language facilitate manipulation of concepts. For Lacan, the distance between signifier and signified is necessary for one's entrance into culture (the symbolic order) but that distance also establishes a fundamental gap or rupture that keeps one's desires constantly in search of satisfaction. In this, Lacan's embrace of sexual motivation and the oedipus complex as formative of psychic structure puts him squarely at odds with both Piaget and the post-freudians. (Although this is clearly an interesting topic I am not aware of any published material on the interface of these two scholars, Lacan and Piaget.)

  5. When asked for his thoughts on the importance of love, stressed by contemporary psychoanalytic theorists such as Bowlby, Piaget responded: "I have no idea about love, but affectivity certainly is central. Affectivity is the motor of any conduct. But affectivity does not modify the cognitive structure...Two and two are still four" (Evans, 1973, p.7). [See also Piaget, 1962b]

  6. Presumably, Piaget would be as interested in the new nonlinear mathematics that support dynamical systems modeling as he was in earlier mathematical structures (1970).

  7. One can recall that Freud (1920) conceptualized the all important sexual instinct (libido) as itself dependent on a more basic instinct for self-preservation, thereby stressing the organism's primary task of self and species survival.


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Hans Furth passes away

Hans Furth died of a heart attack while hiking in the hills of Virginia on Sunday, Nov. 7, 1999. Hans was never one to dwell on death, certainly his own, but if he had thought about the best way for his life to come to an end, it would have been while he was energetically engaged, probably in mid sentence. For us, it could have been better had it been at the end of a sentence at the end of another book rich with ideas yet unimagined by most of us. A service celebrating Hans' life was held at the Human Development Center, Catholic University of American, Washington DC.

Peter Pufall


30th Annual Meeting

June 1 - 3, 2000, Montréal Québec Canada

Situated on the cusp of a new millennium, this 30th Annual Meeting of the Jean Piaget Society takes as its transitional object the question of how persons, located in different times or places or moments in their own intellectual history, come to hold different beliefs about the nature of mind and personal identity. A panel of distinguished plenary speakers (anthropologists, developmentalists, intellectual historians, and philosophers of mind) will work to bring out how alternative understandings of selfhood and distinctive conceptions of mental life have cohered in history, culture, and development.

Plenary speakers who will address the conference theme include:

In addition, a set of invited symposia are planned. Proposed speakers to date include:

The meeting will be held in the Hôtel Gouverneurs Place Dupuis near the Université du Québec à Montréal. The address of the hotel is:

Hôtel Gouverneurs Place Dupuis
1415 Saint-Hubert Street
Montréal, Québec, Canada H2L 3Y9
Tel: (514) 842-4881, Fax: (514) 842-1584
Toll free: 1-888-910-1111

Information concerning conference registraton and hotel rates will be published on the JPS web site <www.piaget.org>

For those who submitted proposals for presentation at the conference, letters of acceptance will be mailed in February.

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