A valuable new article will appear in the December issue of New Ideas in Psychology: “The concept of egocentrism in the context of Piaget’s theory,” by Thomas Kesselring and Ulrich Müller. As a hybrid serving both historical and contemporary interests, it is very nearly perfect. And it makes some incredibly valuable contributions.
The gist: the term “egocentrism” is a hold-over from Jean Piaget’s postdoc in psychoanalysis. But what he meant by its use has been badly misunderstood. Really, it ought to be conceptualized in terms of a process of “decentering.” This claim is supported by appealing to an apology by Piaget—he explained that his choice of terms was “unfortunate”—and by a deep and thorough reading of the relevant primary sources (in both English and French).
We don’t know much, in English, about Piaget’s postdoctoral training (but in French see Ducret, 1984). The article lays out some of that background: “The roots of the concept of egocentrism can be traced back to Freud’s influence” (p. 328). This then situates what follows: the article’s focus is on how Piaget’s empirical work led him away from psychoanalysis toward something new. It also engages the subsequent misunderstandings that emerged as a result of the uneven translation of Piaget’s writings into English.
In this connection, I would like to draw particular attention to the article’s new translation of a short passage from a lecture delivered in 1920. This has never before been available in English:
Autistic thinking that forms personal symbols remains with us throughout our lives. However, its role changes with age. In the child, autism is everything. Later, reason develops at the expense of autism but can reason ever completely shed itself of autistic thinking? It does not appear this way. The task is therefore to create… a psychology in order to determine in each individual the exact relations between the level of intelligence and the level of autistic or unconscious life (Piaget, 1920, p. 57; trans by Kesselring & Müller, 2011, p. 328).
This paragraph provides the basis for everything that follows: egocentrism, as a concept, sits midway between self-focussed thought (autism) and self-transcendent thought (logical, scientific thinking). It is important to note, however, that this use of “autism” is different from what we mean today by applying that label. And the authors, quite helpfully, note this.
This leads Kesselring and Müller to reference some of Piaget’s early comments on the importance of social interaction in decentering the child from overly-narrow thinking: “Social interaction and the becoming aware of the self lead to a mediation of the child’s own point of view by other perspectives and, as a consequence, a universe of relations gradually replaces the universe of absolute substances” (p. 329; citing Piaget, 1927/1930, p. 250). These claims are critically important for a proper understanding of Piaget’s theory, but so often missed. Related ideas can also be found in Sociological Studies, which includes reprints of two articles from that period (1928 [pp. 184-214] & 1933 [pp. 215-247]).
There are lots of other wonderful insights (e.g., regarding the replacement of “imitation” with “accommodation” and his replies to Vygotsky), but my purpose here is not to provide highlights. The article is too valuable to allow it to be glossed over. It is, simply, an excellent example of a project that uses history to serve science.