All posts by Jeremy Burman

About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Egocentrism in Piaget’s theory

New Ideas in Psychology

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.

Essay: “‘Foolishness’ needs closer examination”

“‘Foolishness’ needs closer examination,” wrote Christopher Goodey (2004) in Medical History, 48(3). Why, yes, I thought. It does. And it seems especially apropos to revisit this topic today: through his delving into the past, we may well find a more interesting interpretation of contemporary pranksters’ April tomfoolery.

As Goodey points out, “foolishness” is often equated with a kind of “mental deficiency.” (Early texts describing it are now read by doctors as having anticipated modern diagnoses.) And the origins of April Fools’ Day could be read in this way too: on the earliest appearance of the day in English literature — as the 32nd of March — Chaucer’s (1392) cockerel Chanticleer was tricked into being eaten by a sly fox, who was then in turn tricked into letting his dinner escape (in the Canterbury Tales).

But did the origins of April Fools’ Day, in the Middle Ages, reflect this contemporary understanding? Has “foolishness” always been the opposite of “intelligence”?

Goodey suggests that the answer to this question is, simply, “no.” It is misleading, he shows, to reduce one to the other.

The idea of an intelligence peculiar to the human species… arrived only after logic-based methods started to be used to define essences of species, i.e. with the birth of modern biological classification in the eighteenth century. An ability for abstract thinking was perceived as universally human only when political and ecclesiastical élites were challenged over their divine right to prescribe the abstract principles known as “common ideas” to the rest of the population, and individuals started getting ideas by themselves. (p. 290)

In other words, the notion of intelligence as we think of it today is a relatively modern invention. As a result, we cannot read its meaning — or its opposite — into the texts of earlier writers.

Yet, it is the case that many contemporary April Fools’ Day pranks assume the mental deficiency of their targets (i.e., they assume their audience is “stupid”). Having accepted Goodey’s invitation to examine the notion more closely, however, I now suggest that this need not be the case.

Instead, I suggest that “stupid” pranks can be understood as reflecting a fundamental presentism. Recognizing this, and applying Hacking‘s notion of “the looping effect,” there then also seems to be a way out: contemporary pranksters have been led, by this misunderstanding of historical sources, to act differently than they might have otherwise.

Delving still more deeply, it seems that historicist readings of “foolishness” — and thus also of April Fools’ Day — may well be more subversive (and more interesting) than is usually thought at present. As Goodey points out:

Erasmus’s Praise of folly and Brant’s Ship of fools both use foolishness allegorically to attack political and ecclesiastical élites. (p. 292)

We are thus led to wonder: Were Chanticleer and the fox both actually stupid? Or did Chaucer use their foolishness to afford a commentary on a larger issue?

Thus, to close: if you pranked someone today, did your prank assume they were stupid? Or were you subverting something larger?

CFP for funded neuroskeptic workshop in Berlin

MPI-BerlinThe Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science is hosting a “neuro-reality check” workshop to be held in Berlin in December. Their purpose is to scrutinize “the ‘neuro-turn’ in the humanities and natural sciences.” But they also aim to look beyond the usual pro and con.

Our ambition is to take problematisations of the neurosciences to another level. While numerous new scholarly projects in the social sciences and humanities have recently emerged to analyze the growth of ‘neuromania’, our workshop aims to bring together scholars from a diversity of disciplinary backgrounds in order to step back a little, and to probe deeper into the alleged effects and actual causes of the ongoing neurohype. This will include exploring the extent to which discourses engendering neuroscience in fact do match neuroscience’s real world (social) effects; but it will also include interrogating the anatomy of the neuro-discourses themselves, and to locate the immense attractions and functions of the ‘neuro’ in the broader scheme of — intellectual and political — things: the promise and attractions of ‘interdisciplinarity’ within contemporary humanities; the surge of underlabouring specialities such as neuroethics; or the rise and growing acceptance, within recent years, of a new (neuro) ‘biologism’ in a great many academic disciplines and popular culture at large, as well as the opposition this engenders.

For successful applicants, MPI will cover the cost of travel and accommodation in Berlin. Continue reading CFP for funded neuroskeptic workshop in Berlin

CFP for funded neurohistory workshop in Munich

Smail's bookThe Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society is sponsoring a workshop on neurohistory to be held in Munich in June. Broadly speaking, they are calling for papers to engage the following theme: “How can neuroscience help us understand the past?”

This interest follows Daniel Lord Smail‘s book of 2008, On deep history and the brain, which asked questions about when “history” ought to be conceived as having begun and also appealed to the brain as a way to reach behind the texts that typically inform historical research. This new workshop follows his lead:

  1. What ideas and methods have neuroscientists developed that historians can use to shed a new light on the past (and vice versa)?
  2. What new research questions can neuroscience suggest for historians (and vice versa)?
  3. What are the biggest challenges in developing neurohistory as a field, and how can they be overcome?
  4. How might neurohistory shed light on the interaction between people and their environment, in both the past and the present?

For those interested, the organizers are asking for participants to pre-circulate a short (1000 word) position paper, participate in a two-day workshop (6-7 June 2011), and then revise their paper for publication (in Rachel Carson Center Perspectives). Continue reading CFP for funded neurohistory workshop in Munich