Thursday, December 27, 2012

Whatever happened to Jean Piaget? And where’s the mind?

I learned about Piaget as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins. He had a profound influence on me. The idea of learning how the mind works by studying how it develops had intuitive appeal and Piaget’s systematic exploration and exposition of mental mechanisms gave a sense the mind was not just an inchoate box full of processes and miasmatic desires but that there was a complex and highly structured “device” at work.

Furthermore Piaget 1) considered himself a structuralist and wrote a little book about it, 2) and quite explicitly argued that the mind constructs reality. He even addressed himself to the history of the mind, under the heading of genetic epistemology through analysis of the historical development of mathematical and causal concepts.

Even then, it was apparent that, if he was a structuralist, is was a different kind of structuralist from, say, Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes. However much they were interested in the mind, Piaget had much more to say about it. He did not see it as a profusion of signs variously chasing, eluding, and opposing one another. And, alas, his ideas were not of much use for critique. And THAT, I suspect, is why he never really made the team for humanist discourse, though a large, ingenious, and industrious body of psychologists has been busily at work extending, amending, revising, and critiquing his work.

Not that I think that a knowledge of Piaget alone would plug the hole I see in Latour’s thinking and that of his students, the object-oriented philosophers. But such knowledge would at least give them a sense of “thickness” to the mind, a sense that there’s something more than a bunch of signs playing hide-and-go-seek.

Yes, Latour is right, there’s more to the idea of quarks than some thoughts in a mind and some marks on paper. There’s the whole apparatus needed to obtain evidence of their existence, the huge “atom smashers,” the photographic plates, the computers, the waste baskets, white boards, and post-it notes, not to mention the industrial establishment needed to build the atom smasher, and the houses of the scientists who direct the smashing, and the houses of the workers who smelt the iron to make the steel to make the beams to make the buildings that house the atom smasher. All that and more, much more, constitute the network on which quarks float.

But the whole thing is held together by a network of ideas, and that network of ideas is distributed across thousands of humans, none of whom is master of them all. Not the director of the atom-smashing facility, nor the chair of the facility’s board, nor the chief engineer, nor the many principle investigators who run experiments, nor the receptionist at the main entrance, nor vendor of hot pretzels, none of them is master of the skein of ideas necessary to make the network function. But of this there is nary a hint in Latour nor in the OOOists. It’s as though once upon a time some iron ore decided to go looking for quarks, so it recruited some coal, they became iron, and recruited…until finally some quarks went smashing into a photographic plate, from which they jumped onto a piece of paper and announced: “Here I am, a quark!”

Silly, isn’t it? So why not acknowledge that minds are involved and give them some presence, some thickness, in ones’ account of the world?

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