While Piaget is best known for investigating conceptual development in children, he also looked at conceptual development on the historical time scale. In both contexts he talked of reflective abstraction “in which the mechanisms of earlier ideas become objects manipulated by newer emerging ideas. In a series of studies published in the 1980s and 1990s the late David Hays and I developed similar ideas about the long-term cultural evolution of ideas” . I think lots of intellectual disciplines are undergoing such a process and that it’s been going on for some time.
It’s certainly what I think is going on in literary studies. The discipline initially constituted itself from in America philology and literary history; that happened in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century. Then interpretive criticism moved to center-stage after World War II and ran into problems in the 1960s. Interpretation wasn’t producing reliable results from one scholar to another? What to do?
The discipline became intensely self-conscious and reflected on its own methods, and then sort of gave up. In the process a number of distinctions collapsed and practical criticism, critical theory, and theory of literature became one thing, with new historicism trotting alongside. That’s the story I told in the early part of this working paper, but without reference to Piaget.
What I’m wondering is if “form” is the name of a CONCEPTUAL MECHANISM in the old/current regime that is in the process of becoming an OBJECT OF THOUGHT under a new emerging regime. Along these lines, I just barely have a conception of what philology is. It’s not something I studied, though some of my undergraduate teachers were certainly versed in it (I’m thinking particularly of Don Cameron Allen). But I’ve recently come across web conversations about it, have seen an article or two explaining it, and note that last year saw the publication of James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (Princeton), which one the 2015 Christian Gauss Award and is blurbed from here to Sunday. Until the middle of the 20th century, that’s what literary scholars did. But now it’s slid so deep into the past it has itself become an object of study.
Is this vague? Yes, thinking about thought is treacherously difficult. The point is, though, that there is a long-term historical process going on. And we’re not just slipping from one épistème to another. We’re moving to a new KIND of épistème.
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 The quote is from a relatively short working paper, Redefining the Coming Singularity – It’s not what you think: https://www.academia.edu/8847096/Redefining_the_Coming_Singularity_It_s_not_what_you_think
Here’s a somewhat fuller statement from that paper:
When the work of developmental psychologist Jean Piaget finally made its way into the American academy in the middle of the last century the developmental question became: Is the difference between children’s thought and adult thought simply a matter of accumulated facts or is it about fundamental conceptual structures? Piaget, of course, argued for the latter. In his view the mind was constructed in “layers” where the structures of higher layers were constructed over and presupposed those of lower layers. It’s not simply that 10-year olds knew more facts than 5-year olds, but that they reasoned about the world in a more sophisticated way. No matter how many specific facts a 5-year old masters, he or she cannot think like a 10-year old because he or she lacks the appropriate logical forms. Similarly, the thought of 5-year olds is more sophisticated than that of 2-year olds and that of 15-year olds is more sophisticated than that of 10-year olds.This is, by now, quite well known and not controversial in broad outline, though Piaget’s specific proposals have been modified in many ways. What’s not so well known is that Piaget extended his ideas to the development of scientific and mathematical ideas in history in the study of genetic epistemology. In his view later ideas developed over earlier ones through a process of reflective abstraction in which the mechanisms of earlier ideas become objects manipulated by newer emerging ideas. In a series of studies published in the 1980s and 1990s the late David Hays and I developed similar ideas about the long-term cultural evolution of ideas (see appendix for abstracts).