The constructivist epistemology in John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Cognitive developmental psychology
Gash H. (1974) The constructivist epistemology in John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Cognitive developmental psychology. In: Smock C. D. & Glasersfeld E. von (eds.) Epistemology and education. Follow Through Publications, Athens GA: 27–44. Available at http://cepa.info/2181
Table of Contents
John Dewey and the Constructivist Epistemology
Piaget and Dewey, Similarities and Differences
There are affinities in the descriptions of the acquisition and nature of knowledge which have been presented by Dewey and Piaget. Kohlberg (1969, 1971) and Kohlberg and Mayer (1972), who are developmental psychologists, have noted these similarities. However, their statements of this association neither explore the extent of the similarities or the nature of the differences between the theories of Dewey and Piaget; nor do they make clear the radical nature of the constructivist epistemology on which they rest. Since considerable attention is being given to cognitive developmental models at present, it is important to try to clarify these issues. This will be attempted by means of an analysis of the constructivist position in Dewey’s epistemology with emphases on the role of action and operations in the process of knowing. The similarities between the theories of Dewey and Piaget can
be described in terms of their pragmatist analyses of the role of activity in knowing, and their account of the process of knowing. The differences between the two theories will then be discussed since they have been underemphasized in cognitive developmental accounts of the similarities between these theories. At the end of the paper, a number of interpretive problems will be discussed.
John Dewey and the Constructivist Epistemology
Dewey (1960) argued that an analysis of the relation between ideas and action at the time of the Copernican revolution shows that a radical change had occurred in the implicit assumptions about the origins and nature of knowledge. This change pointed to the important role of action in the process of knowledge acquisition. The history of epistemology is a long one, and clearly beyond the scope of this paper. However, it will be helpful to describe the accounts of the origins of knowledge which were prior to the synthesis presented in Dewey’s analysis. Did knowledge come from sensation, or from thought, or from some combination of the two? Thus, one view held that knowledge derived from sense data which was recorded in a passive mind. Reality was outside, and we knew reality because our senses received data from it. An alternative view maintained that the world was a chaotic reflection of the pure forms of thought, which alone guaranteed truth. In this case, ideas were the structures of our picture of reality. One synthesis of these two positions was available in Kant’s philosophy which postulated that knowledge was possible because of the a priori conceptual organization of sensations. The constructivist account of knowledge and knowing differs from each of these positions in its emphasis on the role of the activity of the knower in his organization of and integration of his sensations and ideas. A second difference is the denial that the validity of knowledge can be verified by checking with “reality”; this is entailed because “reality” is itself a construction.
The following quote can serve as an introductory statement to the constructivist epistemology:
The scientific revolution came about when the material of direct and uncontrolled sense experience was taken as problematic; as supplying material to be transformed by reflexive operations in known objects. (Dewey 1960, p. 258).
The implication here is that what is known is the result of the organization of interactions between the individual’s ideas and his experience of his surroundings. Further, while Dewey was clearly referring to sense experience resulting from interactions with “material objects” in the quote just given, it is clear that this model of knowing was not to be restricted to such objects, but rather was intended as a general account of the process of knowledge acquisition. Another reason that this quote is useful in introducing the constructivist epistemology is the identification of the process of knowing with the process of science. In fact, Dewey (1960) described his epistemology as a theory of experimental knowing.
Dewey’s account of the relation between activities and ideas cuts across the separate status given these terms in both classical epistemology and ordinary language usage. As Dewey pointed out, the common usage of the words “ideas” and “activities” grew out of an epistemology which developed prior to the scientific revolution. Thus, the way in which we separate ideas and action in our everyday language affects our understanding of their interrelatedness. One way of understanding the problem is through an analysis of the early development of the child’s thought. Ceccato (1961), who is a cyberneticist, has argued that our understanding of what it is to know was distorted because the activities involved in observation are acquired early in infancy, so it is difficult for adults to observe these activities. Studies on the development of cognition and perception were needed to clarify the dynamic relation between action and knowledge. Another argument presented by Ceccato was that philosophy first began to ask questions about the nature of observation during a period when the tradition of speculative philosophy was firmly established. Under these conditions observation was studied as the observation of objects, which were naturally assumed to exist prior to their observation. Thus, it was not possible to question the independent existence of the reality which is known.
Dewey’s analysis of the relation between ideas and action grew out of Peirce’s writings on the clarity of ideas. “It appears, then, that the rule for attaining the third grade of clearness of apprehension is as follows: Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object” Peirce (1923). Also, while considering the continual growth of knowledge and the emergence of new concepts, Dewey described ideas as tentative hypotheses. These hypotheses were anticipatory plans whose value was discovered in the consequences of testing these plans.
There are two types of operations involved in the actual testing out of ideas, physical operations and symbolic operations. Physical operations are required in order to ascertain the nature of the data received. Thus, activities such as looking, touching, and listening result in sensory consequences. Conceptual searchings through past experience yield ideas which can be used to assess the sensory data. This previous knowledge will also suggest new ideas and new experiments until the additional evidence supports one idea and the problem is solved (Dewey, 1960). The dynamic manner in which data and ideas interact is a central feature of the constructivist epistemology and one which distinguishes it from Kant’s epistemology. The following quotes are useful in understanding Dewey’s position:
Original objects of experience are produced by the natural interactions of organism and environment, ... The distinction between sense data and interpretive ideas is deliberately instituted by the process of inquiry, for the sake of carrying it forward to an adequately tested conclusion, ... Hence the material selected to serve as data and as regulative principles constantly check one another; any advance in one brings about a corresponding improvement in the other. The two are constantly working together to effect a rearrangement of a new object having the properties which make it understood or known. (Dewey, 1960, p. 173)
Dewey’s use of the term operations refers to Bridgman’s operationism. Bridgman was a physicist who was writing about the epistemological consequences of post-Heisenberg physics, and he made explicit the pragmatists’ account of the relation between activity and concepts. Operations were defined in the following way:
To find the length of an object, we have to perform certain physical operations. The concept of length is therefore fixed when the operations by which length is measured are fixed; that is, the concept of length involves as much as and nothing more than the set of operations by which length is determined. In general, we mean by any concept nothing more than a set of operations; the concept is synonymous with the corresponding set of operations. (Bridgman, 1964, p. 5) (Italics in original)
It is necessary to emphasize that Bridgman’s intention was to try to clarify the nature of the relation between activities, words, and experiences. This aspect of Bridgman’s operationism was emphasized by Dewey, but has been underemphasized by psychologists who have found the operational definition a useful tool ensuring methodological objectivity. It is important to clarify this latter point because otherwise the use of the word operation will consistently suggest the wrong meaning. For an example of this standard transformation of Bridgman, consider Stotland and Canon:
The thinking behind such an approach maintains that we mean by such a concept nothing more than a set or operations by which the concept is measured or manipulated in some fashion (Bridgman, 1928). Thus, the concept of intelligence would be defined as whatever it is that standard tests of I.Q. test or measure. (1972, p.2)
In this quote Stotland and Canon have used the operational definition to standardize method. This usage of the term operation is useful, though it is a usage which is not cognizant of the other technical usage of this term as it is found in Dewey’s as well as in Bridgman’s writings. Generally, psychologists have failed to understand the manner in which operations relate to concepts; in strong contrast, for Dewey concepts were definitions of the consequences of operations.
Bridgman’s concern with specifying operations grew out of his dissatisfaction with the manner in which words describe experiences. He felt that language descriptions make experiences appear static, in a manner which is not true to the experience. It is important to remember that our experience is not composed of static items and that it is for convenience that we talk as thought this were so. This convenience results from the correspondence between aspects of present experience and aspects of past experience. However, this convenience may present problems since one is dealing with a construction which doesn’t reproduce experience but only certain features of it. The only recourse which constructivists have is to test statements which purport to be knowledge-statements by translating them into testable operations, because meanings are determined by operations.
When concepts are defined in terms of operations, their adequacy can be assessed with reference to the consequences of these operations. When there is a problem in the data one tries to account for it, and whether it is a problem in psychology or in driving one’s car, the process of thought is the same. For example, in reflection one forms an idea about the problem and its solution, and then translates this idea into testable operations. The consequences of these operations either confirm or fail to confirm the idea on which they were based. In the case of well known operations, such as driving a car, the reflection will be quite automatic. The notion of testing ideas in terms of their consequences, as opposed to testing them with reference to an antecedent reality, was not possible without an understanding of the relation between purposive activity and knowing. Dewey (1929) maintained that this understanding was absent from epistemologies prior to that of Peirce (1881), whether they were realist or idealist, and irrespective of whether they assumed man to be a passive recipient of environmental information or an active synthesizer.
The ideas which we know are no more than means by which we organize our experience of our environments. It is often difficult to remember that it is logically incorrect to assume that these ideas reflect an objective reality. For this reason Dewey warns against ’reifying’ ideas, and exhorts thinkers to try to remember that sense data are taken from our experience of the environment, noting how different the history of epistemology would have [Note 1] been if this had been noticed earlier. It is the directed or purposive nature of our knowing process which limits our descriptions of phenomena; since the ideas are constructed within the constraints of a particular problem, or particular problems, it is always possible that a change in the nature of the problem will entail a corresponding change in the ideas used to organize our experience of the phenomena. Another limitation to our ideas stems from the changing nature of our experience of the environment. This follows from what has been said about the nature of uncontrolled experience, and about the importance of controlling our experience in order to organize it into something known. So ideas may suddenly be found inadequate because of some aspect of our experience of which we are initially unaware. When our ideas are found to be inadequate, we must construct new ones by formulating hypotheses about the inadequacies and testing them operationally.
In the constructivist epistemology, knowledge of reality is recognized as being our organization of experience of reality. In this context the problem of the validity of concepts, which traditionally was one of discovering the relation between knowledge and reality, is replaced by the problem of discovering how to test our ideas and intuitions. Thus, within the constructivist epistemology ontological questions are unanswerable and all knowledge is considered tentative and not final.
The view that knowledge is not to be assessed by a comparison with an antecedent reality, but by the consequences of planned operations is the central theme of The Quest for Certainty. The irrelevance of ontological questions is apparent in Dewey’s (1929) discussion of Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty. From this Principle it followed that either we can decide to control the velocity of particles and incur inaccuracies with respect to mass, or we can control the mass of particles and incur inaccuracies with respect to velocity. In each case we have to recognize that our concepts slightly distort the phenomena described. This is a very serious problem if we have assumed that our concepts reflect reality in an objective sense. And it is the common sense view, and the view of most psychologists, that our concepts do reflect reality in this objective sense.
Dewey described the epistemological consequences of Heisenberg’s Principle in the following manner (consistent with the modern view of Capek, 1961):
Since either position or velocity may be fixed at choice, leaving the element of indeterminacy on the other side, both of them are shown to be conceptual in nature. That is, they belong to our intellectual apparatus for dealing with antecedent existence, not to fixed properties of that existence. An isolation of a particle for measurement is essentially a device for regulation of subsequent perceptual experience. (Dewey, 1929, pp. 202-203)
The notion of regulating subsequent perceptual experience for experimental purposes is similar to the theme of a recent book Behavior: The Control of Perception by Powers (1973). His contribution to this volume explicates more fully the constructivist orientation of his cybernetical analysis of behavior. (cf. also the contributions to this volume by von Glasersfeld and Silverman.)
Piaget and Dewey, Similarities and Differences
Similarities between the theories of Dewey and Piaget have been listed by Kohlberg (1969), and described as assumptions of the cognitive developmental model. First, it should be made clear that these assumptions have been derived from experiment and confirmed in experiment; they are not assumptions in the sense that they have been arbitrarily chosen. Second, before listing some of the similarities, I would like to call attention to the loose manner in which the word “environment” is used by Kohlberg (1969), a sense in which it is clearly possible to speak about the interaction between the organism’s structure and the structure of the environment. The philosophical laxity of many cognitive developmental psychologists, in this respect, is a matter for the next section.
Kohlberg’s list of similarities has been adapted to ’fit’ the position of this paper and included: 1) development involves transformations of structures which must be explained holistically; 2) development is the result of the processes of interaction between the organism’s structure and the structure of the experienced environment; 3) cognitive structures (schemata and schemes) are always action structures irrespective of whether the action is a physical or a cognitive operation; 4) the direction of development is always toward greater equilibrium in the interaction between the organism and its experience of its environment; 5) the apparent emphasis on cognition is resolved by maintaining that the affective domain is parallel to the cognitive.
The historical basis for Kohlberg’s list of similarities is clearly stated by Piaget (1970b), a portion of this book which was originally written in 1935.
On the one hand the work of the pragmatists had revealed the role of action in the constitution of all mental operations, and of thought in particular; on the other, the science of mental development, or genetic psychology, had increased considerably in scope, particularly with the work of Stanley Hall and J. M. Baldwin. These two trends found their exact point of intersection in John Dewey,.... Piaget (1970b).
Some of Kohlberg’s similarities will be familiar from the preceding account of Dewey’s epistemology, and they are not independent as they all refer to the origins and nature of knowledge. Both Dewey and Piaget describe “knowledge of reality” as a personally constructed organization of the sense data attended to; an organization which is tested each time it is used and which becomes more adequate as a result of modification after such use. We have seen that there is a denial that this knowledge can be correctly described as a reflection of the reality outside the organism in Dewey’s case, and that this position came about as the result of his reflections on the implications of operationism, Peirce’s pragmatism, and the Principle of Uncertainty. In Piaget’s case there is a corresponding denial that knowledge is a reflection of reality; and an assertion that knowledge results from the organism’s activities. The limited nature of the concepts which we construct to relate to our environment, in Piaget’s theory, is held to be vindicated by Gödel’s theorem. This theorem states that formal systems, which are at least as complex as arithmetic, are necessarily incomplete. Completeness is proven when it can be shown within the system that no logically incompatible statements can coexist within the system. What Otters theorem implied, and Gentzen later proved, was that in order to demonstrate completeness in any formal system one had to use principles of reasoning from a more complex formal system (Piaget, 1970c, p. 32). Piaget’s inference is that knowledge itself can no longer be considered complete, since each new refinement will require justification at a newer and higher level. Smock (1973) has noted that, in part, this incompleteness stems from Piaget’s recognition of the implications which the Theory of Relativity holds for psychological theory.
However, the recognition of this type of limitation does not impede the continuing construction of more adequate concepts, with which to relate to our environments, through the systematic application of the scientific method. This notion is as thoroughly Piagetian as it is characteristic of Dewey. In Piaget’s theory conceptual development comes about through the equilibration process, which is adaptive, self-regulated, and dialectical.
In other terms what is implied is that one’s understanding of an experienced situation is limited by one’s current understanding; new events are assimilated by existing structures. Aspects of these environmental situations which are different from current understandings of them, but within a match- mismatch range (Hunt, 1961) will be recorded by means of accommodations to the existing structures. The parallel with Dewey’s account of experiencing is striking, especially the dialectical nature of experiencing in both theories.
Dewey (e.g., 1958) described experiences in terms of interactions between any live creature and its experience of its environment. These interactions consist of doing something and in consequence undergoing something. What is done and undergone will vary depending on the content of the experience, whether it is lifting a stone and assessing its suitability for some purpose, or selecting an appropriate statistical technique and checking that the assumptions aren’t being violated, given the nature of the data. In this context the function of intelligence is defined by Dewey to be that of perceiving the relation between what is done and what is undergone as a result of a particular action. This action process of doing and undergoing continues until there is a mutual adaptation of the conceived ideas and the perceived object, and the experience comes to a close. Thus, when something is finished in a satisfying way we are prone to say that we have had “an experience” because what has been done and undergone has been completed and the result has coherence.
A consideration of the levels of possible operations in the two theories shows that Piaget’s sensorimotor, concrete, and formal operations have parallels in Dewey’s theorizing. Dewey’s (1958) discussion of formal logic as a system of operations which act on other symbolic operations (p. 154) is clearly identical to one way of describing Piaget’s distinction between formal and concrete operations; and Dewey’s discussion of eye-hand coordinations (1958, p. 206) is a good outline of the carefully detailed developmental- observational studies of this phenomenon which were performed by Piaget. Other parallels which could be mentioned are Dewey’s separation of thought and language, stressing the primacy of operations (1933, p. 183); and Dewey’s analysis of play as activity pursued for its own sake (1933, p. 212; first published in 1910).
There are two aspects of Piaget’s theory which are different from Dewey’s theory: (a) the distinctiveness of figurative and operative processes, and (b) Piaget’s structuralism. In reference to structuralism, Dewey made no attempt to try to discover an underlying logic of the process of coordination of the cognitive operations. In Piaget’s theory, figurative and operative structures have different origins and coordinate experienced sense
data at different levels. Figurative structures originate in sensorimotor schemata; and operative structures, which originate in the schemes of the concrete operational period, coordinate the figurative structures. Piaget (1969, 1970a) has discussed the difference between the two types of structures in terms of the intentional transformational quality of operative coordinations. Thus, figurative cognitive functioning, which includes per-ception, imitation, and imagery, does not transform or seek to transform sense experience actively. The function of figurative operations being to represent “reality” by means of past organization of sense experience.
It is very difficult to eliminate the possibility of misinterpretation; perhaps it is impossible. The ambiguity with which Piaget obscures his epistemology has been pointed out by von Glasersfeld (1974) and is very clearly ambiguous in the discussion of figurative cognitive functioning (Piaget, 1970a, p. 717). When Piaget addresses representation of reality in figurative operations, it is very easy to understand him to mean that the structure of the environment matches the structure of cognition (cf. Smock’s contribution to this volume). This position would imply an empiricist epis-temology, and as such would be quite inconsistent with other parts of his theory. The constructivist epistemology, in both Piaget’s theory and Dewey’s philosophy, implies that what one knows about reality ’out there’ is a personal construction. It is a personal construction which we can communicate effectively with other members of our species. However, it is a personal organization which cannot be described as an objective reflection of reality.
The potential for misinterpreting, or not being aware of, the implications of the constructivist epistemology is obvious; and such misinterpretations are, I believe, quite general. One example mentioned earlier is Kohlberg (1969) who described development as the result of processes of interaction between the organism’s structure and the structure of the environment. Similar laxity is found in a recent cognitive developmental account of the literature on imitation theory and research, Kuhn (1973). Kuhn referred to and adopted Kohlberg’s (1969) idea of the environment. Again, Riegel (1973a) argued for an extension of Piaget’s theory to include the historico-cultural context of development. Riegel’s position was that Piaget’s theory, at least in the 50’s, overemphasizes the individual’s role in cognitive development and underemphasizes the social context of development. For example, Riegel stated: “Development procedes through dialectical interactions between psychic activities and their biological and outer sociological interactions” Riegel (1973a). In each of these cases, the environment is interpreted as, or referred to as having an organization independent of the subject. However, psychologists are in good company when being loose philosophically because Piaget himself is treacherously ambiguous in his usage of the term “environment.” For another example of this ambiguity, consider the following recent statement by Piaget (1972) on the relation between the subject and the object:
In short, these pages contain an account of an epistemology that is naturalist without being positivist; that draws attention to the activity of the subject without being idealist; that equally bases itself on the object, which it considers as a limit (therefore existing independently of us, but never completely reached); and that above all sees knowledge as a continuous construction:... (Piaget, 1972, p. 17). (my italics)
This unqualified reference to the “object” is confusing; however, I think that it is important to note that this quote is consistent with the view that while the “object” is independent of us, our knowledge of the object can, only be described as the result of our intentional interactions with our experience with it.
Another important interpretive issue concerns the need for a final period of dialectical operations (Riegel, 1973b). This argument finds in the development of increasingly adequate logical competence a corresponding alienation from dialectical experience. Riegel qualified this interpretation as being true for Piaget’s “middle period,” that is his theory as represented by The Psychology of Intelligence. This present paper has emphasized the identity of cognitive process in Dewey’s philosophy and Piaget’s theory. Therefore, it is most important to point out that the dialectical nature of the theory derives from the dialectical nature of the equilibration process. So development is described in terms of reaching ever more adequate forms of equilibrium between cognitive structure and the individual’s experience (which assimilates this experience in terms of existing structure). To argue that the dialectical nature of experience fades away as the structures become more logical is misleading. For example, Piaget (1968) described the equilibrium of the developing structures in middle and late childhood as more logical in the sense that they are more mobile. That is, these structures (of concrete and formal operations) emerge because they are better at resolving the dialectical interpenetration between the ongoing experience of the child and the existing cognitive structures. It is important to note that this discussion (the first article in Six Psychological Studies) was originally published in 1940 and so is representative of Piaget’s “middle period.”
In summary, a recent paper by Wohlwill (1973) has stressed the importance of recognizing, and taking steps to correct, the loose usage of the words “environment” and “experience” by psychologists. It is hoped that this present paper will contribute to a more general recognition of the peculiar status of “the world” within the constructivist epistemology, because it is this odd status which is the major contribution of this theory to epistemology. Within this present context, it is only possible to refer to knowledge of the environment, or experience of the environment, in the context of any particular individual’s experience. To neglect this emphasis is to miss a crucial aspect of the constructivist position. That it seems so easy to neglect is perhaps due to current psychology’s relative neglect of Dewey, who did emphasize this, and relative preoccupation with Piaget who seems unwilling to emphasize this.
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It should be noted that Berkeley, the Irish ’British Empiricist,’ recognized this (e.g., Of the Principles of Human Knowledge, section 38).
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