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Jean Piaget and Immanuel Kant:
The Concept of the A Priori

by John Eberts

What is knowledge? This is a basic question man has asked in his attempt to understand his rational being. Immanuel Kant and Jean Piaget have both approached this question in a specific manner.

For Kant, knowledge is based upon the nature of the 'a priori'. This a priori resides only in the knowing subject, and subjectivity constitutes all that is valid in the object of knowledge. Kant's a priori is the form of universality and necessity belonging to these objects. Kant states that even if space and time are the a priori of sensibility, they underlie the construction of the mathematical science; thus, all a priori are intellectual.

Jean Piaget has a different concept of the a priori. He agrees with Kant that knowledge is not derived only from experience, but goes on to state that the a priori contains a dull concept. It is a structure of objects which appears and expresses itself outside us, and yet is a knowledge of these structures which are rooted in the person. "On the one hand, knowledge is never derived exclusively from sensation of perceptions but also from schemes of action or from operatory schemes of various levels (vertical Decalogues) [1], both irreducible to perception alone, on the other hand, perception itself does not consist in a mere recording of sensorial data but includes an active organization which is due to the influence on perception as such of this schematism of actions operations"[2]. In other words, Piaget feels that there must be a combination of the Physical experience, (with the object itself), and a Logico-Mathematical knowledge, which forms equilibrium, thus creating true knowledge.

The Physical experience is one in which the person acts upon the object itself. This can be seen when little children learn that a bottle has concrete form. For example, until the child learns that a bottle has an opening at only one end (by handling the bottle), if a bottle is placed in front of him upside down, the child will try and drink out of the wrong end.

Logico-Mathematical Knowledge is accomplished not by the Physical handling of objects, but with abstractions of knowledge based on action. This action is given characteristics (not already apprehended in the object, yet not taking any away that are already present). The characteristics are given to an object by the subject (being subjective in nature). An example of this is when a child learns how to put objects into an ordered system, giving these objects a subjective characteristic, like counting rocks and giving them numbers to be able to determine the amount present.

Piaget's dual position has a number of consequences; above all, we should no longer refer to the a priori as a strictly formal or even as universal and necessary. The a priori becomes grasped in experience and Logico- Mathematical knowledge. From this, it must be realized that the universal imposes these meanings and here is where the original necessity is found. The meaning's in the object, but the meaning surpasses any single inclination. Therefore, it must be the possibility of correspondence that determines the domain of the various a priori which we apprehend in the object. "As human action is that of an organism which is part of the Physical universe, we understand also why when they encounter each other there is harmony between the (concept of adaptation/ assimilation-accommodation)[3] characteristics of the object and the operations of the subject."[4]

Given these descriptions, the basic problem is as follows: Kant feels that form is fixed for all experience. That is to say, it is one and the same in each and every experience, however simple or however complex. From this, he derives his concept of knowledge as being an analysis of duration, objectivity, and self-conscience, all being one and the same.

To deal with this point in depth would be an endless task. Yet the failure of Kant's theory can be shown by Piaget with one fairly simple example. If knowledge (is) and contains all that Kant states it does, then if one of its parts is not present the whole of the A Priori is faulty.

This is true because the a priori is the originator of knowledge, and if knowledge is not present, then it must follow that the a priori does not exist. {I would be inclined to agree as I construe knowledge to be an internal reality associated with external elements}. Piaget gives substantiated proof to this position when he developed the concept of child realism.

Child Realism consists of a confusion of the Inner and Outer, or the subject and object, in which children get early age experience. Everything the child sees or feels is common to the world and is only external. He has no concept of subjectivity. For example: If you ask a young child with what he thinks, he will say, "With my mouth". Even when you tell him to close his mouth and think of something, when you ask him what he thought with, he'll say his mouth. This example has been demonstrated and proved and shows that a child doesn't process self-consciousness or awareness at an early age. Therefore, Kant's theory must be in error.

Piaget, with his dual theory, takes this aspect of the child's development into account, showing that the Physical and Logico-Mathematical knowledge develop in sequence (Physical -> Logico).

With this development, true knowledge of reality develops and the child becomes aware of both subject and object. Although there may be fault in the system, it is at least more logical than Kant's.

Piaget's interest was not in knowledge, per se, but in the process of coming to know: the acquisition of knowledge. I believe that he believed that Logico-Mathematical knowledge comes about only after the individual moves through the prelinguistic and concrete operational stages to the formal operational level. Equilibrium must be accomplished through all stages, and the individual's knowledge on knowing comes to pass when the congruency, if you will, of his thoughts, words, and actions meld with external reality. This is evident as such in the case of conservation of discrete objects, etc. There is a need to develop the bridge between Kant's concern with knowledge and Piaget's concern how we come to know. One focuses on the process and the other on the end result.

I believe the example of thinking with the mouth may relate to the vertical Decalogue of which Piaget speaks. The child comes to know something at a prelinguistic level of development and later comes to know that very same thing at a verbal level. Unfortunately, we tend to encourage verbalization before the child comes to know that of which he speaks. Yet the child's words use the adult lexicon and we allow ourselves to think the child is with his own thoughts when he is merely replying with our words! (This may be applicable to adults as well.)



1. Parenthesis is author's
2. Jean Piaget 'Psychology and Epistemology'. New York: The Viking Press 1973 pp. 86, 87
3. Parenthesis is author's
4. Op. cit. p. 72

© John Eberts 2002