Piaget and consciousness: Retrospect and prospect



Publication Details

Pons, F., Harris, P. L. & de Rosnay, M. (2012). Piaget and consciousness: Retrospect and prospect. In E. Marti & C. Rodriguez (Eds.), After Piaget (pp. 95-122). New Brunswick, United States: Transaction Publishers.


The end of the behaviorist dogma nearly half a century ago was accompanied by a renewed interest in consciousness both as a method of investigation and as an object of study for scientific psychology. Introspection in the first person is again a legitimate method and conscious phenomena (subjective experiences of emotions, dreams, mental images, inner speech, meta cognition, attentional neglect, brain divided, altered states of consciousness, etc.) are objects of study to the same extent as observation in the third person of the impact of environmental or internal changes on the behavioral and physiological reactions of the individuaL Despite some resistance, psychology can again be considered as one of the sciences of consciousness. Renewed interest in consciousness has been bolstered by the emergence of new technologies for the measurement of brain activity (e.g., f-MRI, PET-SCAN, new generation of EEG). These innovations have made it possible to objectify the individual's introspective reports, thus adding some validity to introspective methods or insights, which in turn has to some extent validated the psychological interpretation of brain activity (e.g., Bayne et al., 2009; Blackmore, 2010; Block, 2007; Carter, 2010; Chalmers, 2010; Pons and Doudin, 2007; Velmans and Schneider, 2006, for recent reviews). Despite this revival, and also perhaps because of it, it is clear that it is still difficult today to have a coherent understanding of the realities to which consciousness refers to within psychological sciences. A reading of this literature sometimes gives the impression that every scholar has a different understanding; understandings that are sometimes difficult to grasp, even when they are explained, which is not always the case! Despite this conceptual confusion, in this chapter we ask whether it is possible today to present a coherent picture of the nature, origins, and functions of consciousness. In order to achieve this, we will attempt to answer the following three questions: "What is consciousness?" "What are the functional origins of consciousness?" "What are the functions of consciousness?" Our answers to these questions will always be presented in two stages. First, we analyze the answers provided in the work of Jean Piaget. Indeed, Piaget, along with Freud, is one of few scholars in psychology who provided a framework for understanding conscious experience as well as answers to these three questions. Second, we will discuss Piaget's answers in light of contemporary research on consciousness in the cognitive and affective sciences, including ours. Such an approach should allow us to present the relatively little-known conceptualization that Piaget had of consciousness, to assess its worth in light of contemporary investigations, and to measure its influence on contemporary research of consciousness including ours. The chapter is divided into five sections. We begin by briefly situating the concept of consciousness within Piaget's work. We then present Piaget's answers to the three questions concerning the nature, functional origins, and functions of consciousness, and we examine each time how these are treated in contemporary research. We conclude with a synthesis of our answers to these three questions and discuss implications for future research.

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