George Walford: The Construction of Reality

In his Domain of Ideologies, the foundation document of systematic ideology, Harold Walsby speaks of the work of Jean Piaget. Much of Piaget’s work has been done since Walsby wrote, and here we look at some of his later investigations. Piaget worked as a child psychologist, not an ideologist, and had doubtless never heard of Walsby or s.i., but his results do much to support the theory, and we shall find that in one respect at least some of his principal observations fit better into the schema it offers than into the interpretation he placed upon them himself. He wrote extensively, and his practice of using familiar terms in specialised senses (one commentator lists 32 of these with their definitions) [1] often makes him difficult to follow; I have only tried to pick out, from one of his books and two commentaries, some points on which his conclusions relate directly to the concerns of systematic ideology.

In studying the thinking of children too young to talk, Piaget’s method was to “read back” from action to belief. Hiding a toy, he would observe the child’s response to its disappearance, and frequent repetition of this with children of different ages enabled him to trace the development of beliefs about the nature of objects and the universe. He found that some beliefs affect not just one action but a series and, in particular, that many items of behaviour found in the first weeks of life are best understood by ascribing them to belief in an absence of distinction between self and not-self.

For the infant external world and self remain undissociated “to such a point that neither objects nor spatial, temporal, or causal objectifications are possible” [2] At birth, Piaget tells us, “the baby and the universe are one, they form an undifferentiated whole in which the polarities of I and not I, the self and other, internal and external, and subject and object, have no meaning.” [3] In the absence of distinction between self and not-self objects making up (what the adult regards as) the independent world are not merely affected by the subject; they depend upon it for their existence.

Piaget finds that up to about one month the child assumes objects to be coming into being, or ceasing to exist, as it sees them or not, its behaviour indicating that it takes changes in the world to be both real and also the result of its own acts. [4] The child shows itself to believe that objects it no longer perceives have ceased to exist, that they are made and unmade as it sees them or not. It sees the existence of the objects which make up the world as a consequence of its own actions. [5]

Piaget holds, as Kant did, that if there be any thing-in-itself we cannot know it, raw sensation becoming knowledge only as we organise it in accordance with our intuitions of time and space, and structure it by our intellectual categories of being, identity, difference, plurality, causality and the like. [6] “Children are not born with their Kantian categories and forms of intuition intact, but on the contrary, as (Piaget’s) studies show, construct them by a lengthy process of cognitive change.” [7] The familiar world, with its determinate qualities and objects and necessary connections, is something we construct. [8] He speaks of children forming their universe [9] and says: “we have tried… to understand how the real categories of sensorimotor intelligence are organized, that is, how the world is constructed by means of this instrument.” [10]

Piaget shows that up to about the age of nine months the infant largely maintains the belief that it alone carries responsibility for the existence of the world, displaying not more than partial recognition that objects possess permanency. At four months, if an object it has tried to grasp be hidden under a cloth the child will not continue trying to reach it but will act as if it had been absorbed; what it cannot see does not exist. Later it will lift the cloth, but if the object then be hidden again in a different place, even while the child watches, it will again lift the cloth, as if finding the object again depended not upon its position but upon repetition of the formerly successful action.

Even when submitting to the actions of someone else the young child treats them as consequences of its own behaviour. The nursling being got ready for a meal does not rely upon its mother but makes a fuss, grasping the bottle and becoming impatient, as though getting fed depended on nobody but itself. Only after the age of about a year does this change, the child coming to imply by its actions acceptance of causes external to itself, no longer acting only assertively but coming to pursue its ends by way of compliance with circumstances.” Summing up his argument to this point, Piaget says:

The successive study of concepts of object, space, causality and time has led us to the same conclusions: the elaboration of the universe by sensorimotor intelligence constitutes the transition from a state in which objects are centered about a self which believes it directs them, although completely unaware of itself as subject, to a state in which the self is placed, at least practically, in a stable world conceived as independent of personal activity” [12]

Here we turn from recounting selected parts of Piaget’s work to commenting upon them, and our first comment has to be that his selection of terms consistently ascribes an implausible degree of intellectuality to young children. When he says of a boy of six months that he “acknowledges the entireness – at least virtual – of the pencil when he sees three or more centimetres of it” [13] it is difficult not to feel that wording less suggestive of intellectual sophistication would be more appropriate. He speaks of “a stable world conceived as independent of personal activity,” and the alleged conceiver is a child of some nine months; a good many adults are incapable of thinking in such abstract terms. He also speaks of “a self which believes it directs (objects), although completely unaware of itself as subject,” and this comes uncomfortably dose to self-contradiction; it is hardly possible to believe you are doing something while remaining completely unaware of yourself as subject.

Piaget runs up against the difficulty which bedevils other rationalistic interpretations of behaviour: people act as if they believed this or that when information from other sources makes the presence of any such belief highly unlikely. His young children provide an outstanding example of this, for acquaintance with infants less than a year old makes it extremely difficult to credit them with the abstract and sophisticated beliefs his theory requires. A way out of the difficulty lies in Walsby’s use of the term “assumption”; in the passages brought forward above “assuming” can be substituted for “believing” and “conceiving” without doing violence to Piaget’s observations and their implications or to the intellectual capacities of young children, and the change renders his conclusions more readily acceptable.

Piaget and s.i. both deal with purposeful behaviour and this consistently involves what he calls beliefs while s.i. terms them assumptions. To quote Beyond Politics:

When acting with purpose, whether in groups or independently, we have to take the circumstances into account but we never know, with complete precision and absolute certainty, what these may be. They commonly include both things and people; we do not know, exactly, the fundamental nature of matter and people are constantly responding in unexpected ways. If we wait for exhaustive knowledge before moving we shall not act at all; purposeful action becomes possible only when (perhaps after close examination) we assume circumstances to be thus or thus, and different assumptions produce different actions. [14]

Introspection apart, knowledge of assumptions comes as an inference from observed actions, and even in such a trivial example as reaching for a tea-cup the effects of assumption upon behaviour appear, for (as everybody knows who has ever read a book at tea-time), it is only too easy to upset the cup by reaching for it in slightly the wrong direction. It is not the position of the cup but its assumed position that governs the action. Assumptions often remain unperceived by the person making them, their presence being indicated to an observer by behaviour, so we can sensibly speak of a self which (acts in such a way as to indicate that it) assumes itself to be directing objects while remaining completely unaware of itself as subject, and similarly of a nine-month-old child assuming the world to be stable and independent. In each case the existence of the assumption is an inference drawn by the observer; it may or may not be present to the awareness of the actor, and there is good reason for thinking that young children remain for the most part unaware of the assumptions implied by their behaviour.

This does not, however, exhaust the connection between the two studies; that extends into the substance of Piaget’s work. So long as, or to the extent that, the infant sees the world of objects as its own creation it assumes itself free of external determination. But when the world has been accepted as stable and enduring this change; the child begins to take account of the powers of resistance the world now possesses. It starts to adapt its behaviour to circumstances, to act expediently. Piaget’s work covers a great deal of ground that I have not tried to touch here, but the process he describes in the passages brought forward relates closely to the genesis of the expedient ideology.

Beard M. 1967 An Outline of Piaget’s Developmental Psychology for Students and Teachers. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Flavel J. H. 1964 The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget. Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Company Inc.
Piaget J. 1955 The Child’s Construction of Reality. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Rotman B. 1978 Jean Piaget: Psychologist of the real. Hassocks, Sussex: Harvester.
Walford G. 1990 Beyond Politics; an outline of systematic ideology. London: Calabria Press.
Walsby H. 1947 The Domain of Ideologies; a study of the origin, development and structure of ideologies. Glasgow: Wm.McLellan.

[1] Beard 39.
[2] Piaget 353.
[3] Rotman 176.
[4] Piaget 7.
[5] Piaget 31, 34, 22.
[6] Rotman 28.
[7] Rotman 29.
[8] Rotman 21.
[9] Piaget 350.
[10] Piaget 350, emphasis added.
[11] Piaget 291.
[12] Piaget 350.
[13] Piaget 28.
[14] Walford 112.

– – –

SYSTEMATIC ideology suggests an underlying connection between science and nonconformist religion. Each of them, in its search for precision, disregards the authority so important to the orthodox, and this goes to show that they both express the one major ideology. The religious beliefs of some of the more important scientists tend to confirm this. Newton had his own religious ideas (though he kept them pretty quiet) and Joseph Priestley belonged to the Unitarians. Now Michael Faraday has to be added as a member of the tiny sect of Sandemanians. (Observer 12 May 91)

from Ideological Commentary 52, Summer 1991.