The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
Inquire about purchasing the book | Table of Contents | Annotated Bibliography | Class on Nature of Mind

These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"


In the 1930s the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget introduced an important framework to study the growth of mind.

The biological context of his ideas is that living beings are in constant interaction with their environment, and survival depends on maintaining a state of equilibrium between the organism and the environment. The organism has to regulate its own behavior in order to continuously adapt to the information flow from the environment. At the same time the behavior of the organism shapes the environment, and, of course, the aim of the organism is to shape the environment so as to maximize the chances of maintaining the vital equilibrium.

Cognition, therefore, is but self-regulation.

A dynamic exchange between organism and environment is also the basis of his theory of knowledge, which he labeled “genetic epistemology”. The cognitive process (the self-regulation) consists in a loop of assimilation and accomodation.

This process occurs in stages. The development of children's intellect proceeds from simple mental arrangements to progressively more complex ones not by gradual evolution but by sudden rearrangements of mental operations that produce qualitatively new forms of thought.

Cognitive faculties are not fixed at birth but evolve during the lifetime of the individual.

First a child lives a "literal" sensorymotor life, in which knowledge of the world is only due to her actions in it. Slowly, the mind creates "schemas" of behavior in the world. Autonomous, self-regulated functioning of "schemas" lead to “interiorized” action. The child begins to deal with internal symbols and introspection. Then the child learns to perform internal manipulations on symbols that represent real objects, i.e. internal action on top of external action. Finally,  the mental life extends to abstract objects, besides real objects. This four-step transition leads from a stage in which the dominant factor is perception, which is irreversible, to a stage in which the dominant factor is thought, which is reversible.

Language appears between the sensorymotor and the symbolic stages, and is but one of the elements of symbolic thought.

As opposed to Jerry Fodor's innate "language of thought", symbolic representation is constructed during the child’s development.

The mind’s growth is due to the need to maintain a balance between the mind and its knowledge of the world. Rationality is the overall way in which an organism adapts to its environment. Rational action occurs every time the organism needs to solve a problem, i.e. when the organism needs to reach a new form of balance with its environment. Once that balance has been achieved, the organism proceeds by instinct. Rationality will be needed only when the equilibrium is broken again.

In conclusion, Piaget did not recognize a major role for any innate knowledge. He only accepted a set of sensory reflexes and three processes: assimilation, accomodation and equilibration. These processes are very general, not specific to any domain. The same processes are supposed to operate on development of language, reasoning, physics, etc. Piaget’s child is a purely sensorymotor device.

Piaget's stance is almost behavioristic, except that he grants the child an inner growth.


Back to the beginning of the chapter "Memory" | Back to the index of all chapters