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"It is always against a background of the already begun that man is able to reflect on what may serve for him as origin. For man, then, origin is by no means the beginning--a sort of dawn of history from which his ulterior acquisitions would have accumulated. Origin, for man, is much more the way in which man in general, any man, articulates himself upon the already-begun of labour, life, and language; it must be sought for in that fold where man in all simplicity applies his labour to a world that has been worked for thousands of years, lives in the freshness of his unique, recent, and precarious existence a life that has its roots in the first organic formations, and composes into sentences which have never before been spoken (even though generation after generation has repeated them) words that are older than all memory."

Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences.Vintage Books, 1966/1973, p. 330

The discipline of developmental psychology has moved through four distinct paradigms since its inception at the end of the 19th century. Understanding these theoretical frameworks (I've borrowed Michael and Sheila Cole's terminology here) offers insights into the development of developmental psychology itself, countering any simple interpretation of the discipline as straightforwardly progressive, steadily building knowledge, and showing the shifting and contested ground upon which both theory and data can appear.

It becomes clear that the central concept of "development" has itself changed considerably over the history of the discipline. The conceptualization of how people change is undoubtedly central to any inquiry into that change. And it becomes evident that this concept is now problematic in its character, speaking to a shift in paradigm now taking place in developmental psychology.

The first of these theoretical frameworks was a biological-maturationist paradigm, where children's development was viewed as primarily the consequence of factors intrinsic to the organism. G. Stanley Hall and Arnold Gesell were figures central to this framework.

Second was behaviorism, placing emphasis on the role of the enviroment as a source of factors "shaping" the organism. John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner were key figures here. They insisted that a scientific psychology would attend only to observable behavior.

Third was the cognitive-developmentalism in which developmental psychology became swept up in the "cognitive revolution" of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The work of Jean Piaget was translated into English and began to influence developmentalists in the U.K. and the U.S. Information-processing theories became popular, and Noam Chomsky's "transformational linguistics" had a large impact on work in the new field of developmental psycholinguistics. Factors internal to the organism became viewed as important again, as the computer provided a model for "cognitive representations" that would be accessible to scientific investigation, thus avoiding the "mentalism" that behaviorism had excoriated.

Most recent is a cultural psychology paradigm. Cross-cultural research in the 1960s on the social influences on cognition found a language for conceptualizing findings and methodological problems in the newly translated Thought & Language (1962) by Lev Vygotsky. Subsequently at least three distinct formulations of a cultural psychology have been offered, including sociocultural and cultural-historical approaches.

Let's sketch an outline of each of these four in turn, with a focus on the way development was conceptualized in each. Ultimately we'll need to make some effort to place each paradigm in its historical and cultural context, though that is not attempted here. (And let's grant at the outset that these are the paradigms of developmental psychology in the United States. Of the United Kingdom, for instance, the story would be somewhat different.) And that these are rough notes, waiting to be polished when time permits.

1. Biological-Maturation Paradigm

G. Stanley Hall (1844 - 1924)

G. Stanley Hall was one of the more colorful people to work within the biological-maturation framework. He is often credited with initiating the systematic study of children's development. The founder of APA and its first president, Hall was born on the family farm in Ashfield, Massachusetts, and although he studied in and travelled extensively through Europe, taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins Universities, and became president of Clark University, one senses that part of him never left the farm.

Hall is somewhat notorious for a "recapitulation" view of development: an account in which each individual relives the cultural epochs of their racial history. The life habits, the codes of conduct, of our ancestors are the source of the temperamental dispositions, the "instinct-feelings," experienced. These, Hall maintained, are superior to any feeble rationality.

The preface to Hall’s two volumes on adolescence (1904) began with a harangue against "epistemologists" and the dry life of the typical academic. Hall viewed human development as operating on a level deeper than that of intellect. Yet Hall’s view of human nature was not essentialist. "Man is rapidly changing..." (vii) he wrote. "man is not a permanent type but an organism in a very active stage of evolution toward a more permanent form."


Current consciousness is "but a single stage and one type of mind: a late, partial, and perhaps essentially abnormal and remedial outcrop of the great underlying life of man-soul." Hall's evolutionism provided--or arose from--a historical sensitivity. We must search, he insisted, for traces, fossils, of the earlier form of our "soul life." This was surely Darwin’s method: to describe anatomical traces in living creatures (rather than/as well as fossils).

For "we know the soul best when we can best write its history in the world" (viii) "and... there are no finalities save formulae of development." That’s to say humans are not a finished product. The formulae that define the laws of our growth may be fixed, but we creatures governed by them are in continual flux. So there’s no sense here that white Protestant males are at some kind of pinnacle of human progress. (To the contrary, p. viii.)


The human species, in other words, is ‘still adolescent in soul,' as are those, Hall insisted, to whom his vision will appeal. This is "the twilight... of dawn and not of evening." Man’s "completion" is "always ideal and forever in the future" (ix). An element of Christian imagery will be evident here; Hall was a very religious man (cf. . Growth for Hall, then, was biological not in resembling the blossoming of a flower, but in the sense that the individual traces a pathway first defined by the evolution of the species. In his view "the child and the race are each keys to the other" - not the child and society.

But this was not a simple maturationism. Hall was quite aware of the interaction between organism and environment. He favored a search for opportunities for the person at each stage to "enter upon his full heritage, live out each stage of life to the fullest, and realize in himself all its manifold tendencies" (xi).

Early childhood.

Hall frequently wrote as though civilization represses and corrupts, never more so than when he considered the developmental period of early childhood. . The "best modern school" cannot provide the "more truly humanistic and liberal" conditions that "the country" can for the early childhood, to "revel in savagery...[etc.]" (x).These "murmerings" of the "vaster, richer life of the remote past of the race" can save us from "the omnipresent danger of precocity" (xi). Our "unbalanced, hot-house life... tends to ripen everything before its time" (xi). Indeed, society is at this stage at least not the means or medium of development, but an instrument of corruption. Hall sought "true norms against the tendencies to precocity..." (viii).

Middle Childhood: 8-12 years.

This was an age, Hall suggested, of peculiar endurance, vitality, and resistance to fatigue. The child's perception is very acute, but there is an immunity to exposure, accident, and temptation. Reason, morality, religion, sympathy and love are but very slightly developed. This developmental age corresponds to the age of maturity in the pigmoid stage of evolution. We can see "ripple-marks of an ancient pubic beach." The child revels in savagery, showing a proclivity for tribal, predatory activities such as hunting, fishing, fighting, roving, idleness and playing. The country is the proper environment for the child of this age, and "Books and reading are distasteful, for the very soul and body cry out for a more active, objective life, and to know nature and man first hand."

"Another remove from nature now seems to be made necessary by the manifold knowledge and skills of our highly complex civilization." Hall painted an astonishing picture of the pedagogy of middle childhood. Whereas early childhood is a time for leaping in the field and splashing in the stream, in middle childhood the child must be "broken," like a young horse. At eight, the "human sapling" must "I concede reluctantly," be "transplanted" to the schoolhouse (xi). Now, the "senses are keen and alert, reactions immediate and vigorous, and the memory is quick, sure, and lasting, and ideas of space, time, and physical causation, and of many a moral and social licit and non-licit, are rapidly unfolding."

Here, the "pedagogic art consists of breaking the child into" the necessities... This is not true teaching but, of necessity, drill, "external and mechanical training." The form of knowledge must be acquired, not its content. "the method should be mechanical, repetitive, authoritative, dogmatic" (xii). For "reading, writing, drawing, manual training, musical technic, foreign tongues... the manipulation of numbers and of geometrical elements... can never be acquired later without a heavy handicap.

Middle and early childhood differ as "work differs from play," or "as the virility of man... differs from feminitity which excells in persuasive, sympathetic insight..." (xiii)

The Period from 14 to 24 Years

Adolescence.Adolescence is "a marvelous new birth" (xv), when "the higher and more completely human traits" appear; (Hall, 1904, p. xiii). Development now is less gradual, and as a result "proportions are lost," "old harmonies are broken." Nature "arms youth for conflict," in adolescence we see the changes that make men aggressive and prepare women for maternity.

But this "great revolution" often ends in perversion, or arrest, as insufficient "momentum of heredity" leads to "wreckage of body, mind, and morals" (xvi). So the "elements of personality" become less cohesive, looser. Girls in particular need "moral periodicity" above all else; something Hall says feminists persistently ignore.

This is a time of "reconstruction" and changing relations of "psychic functions." Sex "asserts its mastery" and "works its havoc" (xv). The adolescent "carves more knowledge of body and mind"; he "wakes to a new world and understands neither it nor himself." These new powers must be "husbanded and directed" for "everything is plastic" (xv).

And certainly Hall had a sense of culture and of history. In Hall's view the United States is "in a very pregnant psychological sense... an unhistorical land," that lacks "a gradual indigenous growth." It is "a first nation" whose constitution and religion are "imported ready-made." The U.S. "had neither childhood nor youth" (xvi) and so it has "lost touch with these stages of life because we lack a normal developmental history." In Hall's view this is not too young a nation but on the contrary one that is "precociously old." Despite its idiosyncracies, Hall had here the basis for a social critique; a rejection of developmental growth and change is too rapid, unnatural, too much "storm and stress."

"Sex asserts its mastery... and works its havoc."

Hall was a romantic, in every sense of the term. He looked backwards towards a lost Eden, a "pigmoid" life on the plains, whose "echoes," and "murmerings," he insisted could still be heard by those willing and sensitive enough to listen. Hall rejected, as we've seen, an academic concern solely with reason and knowledge as narrow and lacking in life. In Hall's view even the adolescent, hungry for knowledge, is unconcerned "The youth craves more knowledge of body and mind... and if his intellect is normal he does not vex his soul overmuch about the logical character of the universe or the ultimate sanction of either truth or virtue". Hall valued his intuitions, and those of the children he described.

More information on G. Stanley Hall

"In academic isolation from the throbbing life of the great world, with but faint interest in or acquaintance with nature, afield or even in the laboratory, in habitual communion with the second-hand sources of knowledge found in books, in the solitude of the study, the sedentary and mentally pampered thinker has lost reality and devotes himself to a passionate quest of it as if it were a Golden Fleece or a Holy Grail to be rediscovered or a sacred sepulcher to be won from the paynim scientists" (Hall, 1904, p. v-vi).

Arnold Gesell (1880-1961)

Another significant figure in the biological-maturational paradigm, a generation later, was Arnold Gessel. Where Hall was romantic, Gesell, in contrast, was apollonion. For him, the link between psychology and biology was a scientific division of labor, not a source for the speculative imagination. The study of children's development was an appeal to current facts, not an invitation to conjure images of a distant life of the soul. (Not that he was entirely able to resist such conjuring on occasion.)

Gesell did write of child development throwing light on "the process of social organization itself," but it’s not clear that he appreciated the dialectical character of this process.

In an article on the topic of Child Psychology written for the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences (1930), Gesell equated "development" with "growth." He attributed the new term "child development"--"protean but useful"--to child psychology’s move to psychobiology. "Growth," he wrote, "is itself a unifying concept which removes undue distinctions between mind and body, between heredity and environment, between health and disease and also between separate scientific disciplines" (392-3). (Some of this might be read as directed against Hall.) The phenomena of growth "are subject to general and unifying laws which can be formulated only by coordinated contributions from several scientific domains" (392).

Gesell celebrated this, and the concommitant growth of the "psychotechnology" of testing and assessment. In time, he predicted, "the early span of human growth will come more fully under social control" (393). And "this is only the beginning of a policy of health supervision..." If mind and personality are subject to "the laws of growth," the goal of a scientific developmental psychology is to uncover these laws so as to achieve "a constructive and preventive supervision of human infancy" (393). Gesell considered this social control "justified by advancing scientific knowledge." Apparently, the more one knows, the more one is entitled to control.

Gesell also, noting that the infant "is a biological fragment of nature [but] he [sic] is also meshed in a web of human relationships" reasoned that "the system of child psychology which any culture achieves is an index of that culture." More convincingly, he wrote that it leads to "a deeper comprehension of the process of social organization itself."

Gesell undertook a series of highly detailed studies of development. His was a tendency to make subtle distinctions: Of the preschool years, he wrote, "The first five years... are the most fundamental and most formative." But then he distinguished five age intervals in the first year alone. And "In the second year the transformations are so great, and from a cultural standpoint so important, that special consideration is given to the ages of 15 months and 18 months" (61). Then "In the third year the intermediate age of 30 months proves to be so significant that it needs separate discussion."


The 18-month old manifests "run-about compulsions," and shows a spontaneous interest in conclusions. A "practical action system" provides "elementary insights into time and space."

Preschool years.

"Five is a nodal age because it marks a transition from milk teeth to permanent molars. Physically and psychologically there are many suggestions that the child is reaching a stage of maturity which in a transfigured way corresponds to a very remote stage of life in the history of the race" (251).

The School Period.

In the years from 6 to 12, Gesell wrote, "Society some what formally introduces the American child to the tools and elements of its culture--reading, writing, and arithmetic, and the rudiments of literature, art, and science" (252). At this age the child is interested in the 'here and now,' fond of dramatics, but bound to the familiar. Ignorant of simple facts of life, she must acquire these facts. Vocabulary expands, as the child learns the names for qualities, differences and likenesses, not just for things and actions. Judgments are rather concrete, but they lay the foundation for abstractions and generalizations.

Early adolescence: 12-18 years.

The pre-adolescent, wrote Gesell, displays independence. He becomes a small business man, organizes gangs and clubs, competes with his fellows, often in inter-sexual antagonism. All this is "reminiscent of primitive tribal modes of behavior, greatly altered, of course, by the folkways of modern culture," (254) Gesell writes, and he cites G. Stanley Hall.

The pre-adolescent begins to think in terms of physical cause and effect, and shows insight into mechanisms and machines. He sours out of the here and now, and shows a self-detached interest in foreign people and distant lands. But "he has not yet come unto the organic inheritance of the most recent acquisitions of the racial nervous system. These await the teens" (255).

Later adolescence: 18-24 years.

Adolescence brings CNS and biochemical changes, and equally profound alterations of behavior patterns and emotional attitudes. Outlook upon self and upon culture undergo far-reaching reorientations. Gesell writes that "The higher human traits now make their appearance. They were acquired late in the history of the race; they naturally arrive late in the developmental cycle of the individual" (255). The adolescent is sensitive to adults'opinions, seeking models to imitate, heroes to worship. Extremely sensitized to cultural influences, a search is undertaken now for ideals. The adolescent shows "a strangely novel interest in abstract ideas. He pursues them in order to find himself" (256). As a result he moves hither and thither between ideas like a two and a half year old.



"With the employment of scientific method, however, errors are being steadily reduced and the manifold problems of child development are approached in a new spirit of rationalism" (Gesell, 1930, p. 391)


The Concept of Development in the Biological-Maturation Framework

Perhaps surprisingly, given the distinct stages he seems to place so much emphasis upon, Gesell insisted that development proceeds not "in a staircase manner or by installments. It is always fluent and continuous" (61). He wrote that "like the heavenly bodies the human life cycle is governed by natural laws. In surety and precision the laws of development are comparable to those of gravitation" (Gessel & Ilg, 59)

Surprisingly, there is a sophistication to both Hall’s and Gesell's conception of development that fails to confirm the stereotype of 'recapitulation.' Hall envisioned the past in constant tension with the present, as society either fosters or, more likely, thwarts the potential our heritage contains. One result of this constant exchange is that the future is open-ended: human nature is not fixed but constantly evolving, in a manner shaped by contemporary arrangements.

Hall viewed development as a recapitulation of past eons, but hardly as a simple matter of 'maturation.' Rather, the child and adolescent are plastic (especially the latter), open to the influence of social environment and its institutions of education and enculturation. In early childhood, to thrive the child needs the organic, objective world of nature; in middle childhood they require a rigid, mechanical training; in adolescence they awake to the need for a real education. In all of this Hall saw a normative timecourse: deviation from this in the form of delay or, worse, precocity can be produced by harmful influences.

This is clearly an account of the interaction between child and environment. The basic characteristics of each developmental stage are not given by an a priori biological nature, but are the product of a historical process, evolutionary in character--where qualities are acquired and then handed down. Nowdays we don't believe this possible (how could our species' prehistoric experiences on the savannah become encoded in the germ of a modern child?), and so our conception of human nature has become ahistorical, biological, and essential.



2. Behaviorist Framework

The behaviorist framework emphasized exogenous factors in development. Development or learning (for the two are not distinguished) was viewed as the "shaping" of behavior through rewards and punishment, conditioning; that is to say, through the arrangement of the external environment. Development was considered to be a gradual, continuous process---there are no stages in the behaviorist story of development.

The two main figures in this theoretical framework are John Watson and B. F. Skinner.

J. B. Watson (1878-1958)

More on John Watson

On 'The Psychological Care of Infant and Child'


In the 1920-1940s Watson conducted research on the phenomena of classical conditioning.
He started this research before he had read Pavlov’s work (salivation response a learned association to the sound of a bell), but the resemblances are several. In classical conditioning, an organism's reflex responses are conditioned to an environmental stimulus that hitherto elicited no response.

The behaviorists' view of the biological-maturation framework can be summed up in the remark made by J. B. Watson to Yerkes in 1909 (cited in O’Donnell, 159): “Damn Darwin!”

B. F. Skinner's work dealt with 'operant' conditioning, in contrast to classical or 'respondent' conditioning. Operants are emitted responses (as we've noted, respondents are reflex responses). For example, the bar pressing behavior of a rat is an operant that Skinner was able to modify in multiple and systematic ways.

Skinner's paper "The concept of the reflex in the description of behavior" was derived from two classics of logical positivism: Ernst Mach's "Science of mechanics" and from Percy Bridgman's "Logic of modern physics." Skinner was determined that behaviorism would be as revolutionary in psychology as modern positivist physics (Einstein's relativity was interpreted in positivist terms). The first step was to be the reexamination of the observational basis of certain important concepts (just as physics had reexamined “mass,” “velocity,” “duration” and so on). Soon "mentalist" psychology, with its "subjective concepts" was dropped entirely. A concept such as "consciousness" was, in Skinner's view, as unscientific, speculative and unnecessary as that of "phlogiston." "What was wanted [instead] was a fresh set of concepts derived from a direct analysis of the newly emphasized data" (292). Even Boring's proposal for a “methodological” behaviorism became viewed as a weak apology for fuzzy concepts: "‘experience' is [just] a derived construct" (293), not part of a “second realm” of empirical phenomena.

Chomsky's Review of Skinner

We can learn about both behaviorism and its cognitivist successor by reading Noam Chomsky’s (1959) review of Verbal Behavior (B. F. Skinner, 1957). This remains a fascinating document, capturing a moment of transition in the history of psychology.

Chomsky is critical of the way Skinner offers an explanation of behavior and learning and development
with no reference to the structure of the organism; purely in terms of environmental factors. Skinner looks at stimulus, reinforcement deprivation, and appeals to the state but not the structure of the organism. Internal factors are considered unimportant.
Skinner defines this task as a 'functional' analysis, but Chomsky argues that the function is very simple--too simple.

I.e. where Skinner wants to examine only connections of this kind: S -> R

Chomsky insists that the connections must be of this kind: S -> O -> R

In spelling out this central criticism--that Skinner's is a psychology that tries to ignore 'the organism'--in his review, Chomsky goes one by one through Skinner’s key concepts:

1. stimulus – According to Chomsky, Skinner cannot avoid circular reasoning in his 'operational' definition of the crucial concept of stimulus. In practice, Skinner is driven back into the organism to define a stimulus in terms of the way it is responded to; he cannot do it objectively. We cannot know what a stimulus is until a person responds; so we can’t define S separately from R. And we can’t predict which property of an object an individual will respond to—so we can’t in fact control behavior.

2. response- here too, Skinner offers no adequate answer to the question, what is the fundamental unit to human behavior?

3. reinforcement – again the word is used very loosely. It cannot be defined except circularly, in terms of response. An example of the difficulties Skinner gets into: How can verbal behavior be both (sometimes) reinforcing and (other times) not? And in Chomsky's view, Skinner's claim that reinforcement is needed for language learning is obviously false. Children learn to speak, and adults can learn new sentences without being taught them. There is no specificity to Skinner’s claims about reinforcement and language learning.


4. conditioning -- Skinner uses ‘control” when it would be more appropriate to use “denote” or “refer.” e.g. in what sense when I say “Einsenhower’ am I “under the control” of the corresponding object?

Skinner is trying to talk about a causal relationship between S and R. Chomsky argues that there is a semantic relationship between organism and response; something representational.
And representation is not causal. This implies that something within the organism must be attended to.

This doesn't mean a retreat to speculative mentalism or introspection: after all the computer, says Chomsky, is a machine that can employ representations. This being so, a scientific study of representations and representational systems must be possible. This, according to Chomsky, is what psychology ought to be. And of course his own analysis of language as a representational system provides a model.

5. learning -- Chomsky argues that the learning of language must involve the child's recognition of complex features of verbal behavior. It cannot follow from conditioning alone; we need to understand also how the child represents what they hear. And there must be a strongly innate basis for this, Chomsky asserts. The structure of the human brain is such that, if the 'input' consists of heard Chinese sentences, then through "induction" brain will produce rules of Chinese grammar. But equally if the input is English the same process of induction will generate the rules of English grammar. This must, Chomsky asserts, be largely innate.

The Language Acquisition Device (LAD) generates the rules of particular languages

6. Skinner’s system of describing verbal behavior:

mands – “a verbal operant in which the R is reinforced by a characteristic consequence and is therefore under the functional control of relevant conditions of deprivation or aversive stimulation” i.e., questions, commands. Skinner wants, in such a definition, to avoid any reference to the intention of the speaker; i.e., how a speaker represents their own speech.

tacts – “a verbal operant in which a response of given form is evoked (or at least strengthened) by a particular object or event or property of an object or event” i.e., evoked by demands, assertions

To Chomsky the problem with these definitions is that they require Skinner to invoke drives related to all the things people ask for, and talk about? Ultimately even Skinner has to appeal to the intention of the speaker.

For example, Skinner proposes that prediction and control are the goals of a parent.
For Chomsky, this is an underhand way of invoking what have been traditionally called reference and meaning; or denotation and connotation. For example, “vertebrate” denotes, refers to, the set of all vertebrate mammals; and it connotes the property of having a spine. This is the ‘meaning’ of the term. Skinner's attempt to avoid this kind of talk ultimately fails.

Chomsky points out that, just as Skinner’s theory has no place meaning, it has no place for truth value; for the concept of truth. “All swans are white” – Skinner can say nothing about the truth or falsity of this statement. What Skinner calls "autoclitics" are, Chomsky points out, better called assertion, negation, quantification, qualification, construction of sentences and “highly complex manipulations of verbal thinking” (p. 53).

“My purpose in discussing the concepts one by one was to show that in each case, if we take his terms in their literal meaning, the description covers almost no aspect of verbal behavior, and if we take them metaphorically, the description offers no improvement over various traditional formulations” (Chomsky, 1959, p. 54)




3. Cognitive-Developmental Paradigm

Two central exemplars can effectively define the cognitive theoretical framework. The first is that of Roger Brown, who virtually single-handedly invented developmental psycholinguistics. Brown was inspired by linguist Noam Chomsky, who in 1959 published a devastating critique of Skinner’s 1957 book “Verbal Behavior” [see above]. Chomsky had himself just published “Syntactic Structures” (1957), and his work was having an influence outside linguistics, in psychology, including developmental research. The second is the work of Jean Piaget.

Chomsky in 1957 published Syntactic Structures a monograph based on his dissertation. He argued that there is a deeper organization to sentence structure than linguists have generally noted, and consequently that deeper processes must be taken into account.

Why, for example, does (1) seem grammatical, while (2) does not?:

(1) friendly young dogs seem harmless
(2) furiously sleep ideas green colorless

Observable behavior is the data with which we work, but a grammar “must be inferred” “as a component in the behavior of the speaker and listener” (57). Our problem is to determine “the built-in structure of an information-processing (hypothesis-forming) system”

The enthusiastic reception of Chomsky’s work, and its impact on the new subdiscipline of developmental psycholinguistics was made possible by a broader shift in thinking. Howard Gardner considers the birth date of the “cognitive revolution” to be the Hixon Symposium. In 1948 the Hixon Fund sponsored a conference at the California Institute of Technology on “cerebral mechanisms in behavior.” John von Neumann spoke on parallels between the brain and the new electronic computer; Warren McCulloch spoke on logical devices; Karl Lashley spoke on the problem of “serial order” in behavior (how activities like playing tennis, playing a musical instrument, and speaking show advance planning and organization of behavioral sequences, presumably in a hierarchical manner). The proceedings of the symposium were published in 1951.

In 1956 a symposium on “information theory” was held at MIT. Alan Newell and Herbert Simon presented their Logic Theory Machine, a computer able to provide a proof of a logical theory; George Miller spoke on the “magical number seven plus or minus two,” conceiving of human attention and memory in computational terms; and Noam Chomsky spoke on “three models of language.”
Meanwhile Norbert Weiner was writing on “cybernetics”: the science of control and communication in animal and machine; Alan Turing was inventing binary code...

For our purposes, what is important is not the detail of Chomsky’s linguistic innovations, but the way in which they were taken up within developmental psychology. The developmental psycholinguistics of Roger Brown, at Harvard, offers central example of the adoption of Chomsky within the discipline.

As one recent review puts it:

“though there had been precedents for setting problems in the study of child language acquisition at a more abstract, cognitive level by continental scholars--most notably, Roman Jacobson (e.g., 1941/1968)--much of the research on child language acquisition at midcentury was influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the highly concrete, behaviorist orientation of B. F. Skinner and others. Two events were of major important in the change from behaviorist to cognitive thinking in research on child language. The first was Chomsky’s classic review (1959) of Verbal Behavior, Skinner’s major book-length work on the learning and use of language; the second was the detailed longitudinal study of the acquisition of English by three young children conducted over a 17-month period by Roger Brown and others in the early 1960s (1973).”

Ritchie, W. C., & Bhatia, T. K. (1999). Child language acquisition: Introduction, foundations, and overview. In W. C. Ritchie & T. K. Bhatia (Eds.), Handbook of child language acquisition, (pp. 3-30). San Diego: Academic Press, p. 3-4 note 2.

Roger Brown

In the collection of papers from 1954-1969 published in 1970 as Psycholinguistics, Brown included a preface (written in 1969) that summarized the influences on his work during the preceding two decades.
At a 1951 SSRC conference on Structuralist linguistics Bloomfield and Pike spoke...
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, transformationalists, led by Chomsky, attacked and discredited the linguistic structuralists. Brown recalls the first time he heard Chomsky speak at Yale in 1956.

In the 1969 paper The Child’s Grammar from I to III Brown offered an overview of his work with Eve (18m-26), Adam (27m-42), and Sarah (27m-48). Brown quotes his excitement at the notion that when child learn to speak, they are acquiring a grammar of precisely the kind Chomsky was describing.

Brown summarizes the elements of a transformation grammer, and in doing so gives a useful sketch of Chomsky’s views.

A grammar is (1) a system of rules [formal re-writing rules] that (2) derives [generates] (3) an infinite set of sentences [thus it is creative and open-ended] that are (4) well formed [grammatical, according to the intuitions of a native speaker], and it (5) assigns to each sentence a correct structural description [a phrase structure] through its (6) phase structural component [operating on hierarchical ‘tree’ structures, not just the surface sequence of words]. A complete grammar also contains a (7) lexical level [that replaces grammatical symbols with words], (8) the latter two comprising the grammar’s ‘base structure.’ In addition it contains a (9) transformational component [that permutes phrase-structure elements to generate related forms such as imperative, interrogative, etc.], and a (10) phonological component [operating on the morphophonemic level to replace lexical items with appropriate sounds].

In sum:

system of rules rewriting rules
‘mechanical’ procedures.
Rewriting rules.
derives ‘generates,’ logically not psychologically.
Pathway through rules
infinite series of sentences creativity, open-ended
well-formed grammatical
intuitions of native language-user
assigns correct structural descrtiptions phrase structure
underlying: not given in a simple direct way
matter of inference, not experimentation
phrase structure component sense of hierarchical grouping.
Not just surface structure.
S -> ... rewriting rules.
lexical level category symbols replaced by ‘appropriate’ lexical items [subcategorization rules]: terminal string
[above 2 make up ‘base structure’] yields a structured string of morphemes:
wh-[those dog]Nominal [Past-go]Vb-somewhere
transformational component to imperative
Delete, substitute & permute elements.
morphophonemic level
[phonological component]
[_]v+Past-> _+ -ed
produces goed

Brown’s A First language: The Early Stages was published in 1973. In the introduction Brown offered his answer to the question, What is this book about? “It is about knowledge; knowledge concerning grammar and the meanings coded by grammar.... The book primarily presents evidence that knowledge of the kind described develops in an approximately invariant form in all children, through at different rates. There is also evidence that the primary determinants of the order are the relative semantical and grammatical complexity” (58).

Brown described five major processes he considered to constitute the core of (English) sentence construction, described in both semantic and syntactic terms.

1. First are “semantic roles,” such as agent, patient, instrument, locative etc.. These are expressed (in simple sentences) by linear order, syntactic relations, prepositions or postpositions.

2. Second are “semantic modulations,” such as number, specificity, tense, aspect, mood. These are expressed by inflections or free forms of small closed classes

3. Third are the “modalities” of the simple sentence, such as yes-no interrogatives, question request, negation, imperative.

4. Fourth is the “embedding” of one simple sentence as a grammatical constituent or in a semantic role in another sentence.

5. Fifth is the “coordination” of sentences with connector words.

The Stages were numbered I-IV, and named “either for a process that is the major new development occurring in that interval or for an exceptionally elaborate development of a process at that stage” (59).
Brown declared that “There is one recurrent theme in all stages, that order of development, conceived in the right abstract terms[,] is invariant across both children and languages and is primarily determined by the relative semantic and grammatical complexity of constructions” (59)

In retrospect, it is easy to identify a number of problems in the approach to language and its acquisition that Brown and his associates adopted, under the influence of transformational (Chomskian) linguistics:

First, it is an approach that looks at the sentence in isolation, assuming that meaning is carried (coded) entirely in grammar. It is focused solely on syntactic ‘expression’: a ‘simple sentence,’ for example, is a declarative assertion. When Brown used the term ‘semantic’ he meant the semantics of propositions or assertions. (cf. p. 29).

In fact, as Ninio and Snow (1999) point out, the meaning of an uttered sentence depends on context, on speaker and hearer and circumstances of production, on surrounding linguistic context, on presuppositions and other tacit knowledge not part of the sentence (or even the utterance). Children surely learn to attend to and use these elements when they comprehend or produce spoken language.
Semantics is not a matter solely of propositional content. An important distinction can be drawn between a “truth-conditional” theory of meaning and a “use-conditional” theory of meaning (for examples, cf. Wittgenstein, Grice, Strawson). The latter gives “logical priority to utterance-meaning over sentence-meaning.... All boundaries between formal and contextual aspects of language are seen as artificial and ill conceived; the system as a whole is completely contextual and does not possess autonomous components. If it is agreed that the task of pragmatics is the study of language use in context, and if all language is inherently contextualized, then pragmatics is the most general discipline encompassing all aspects of language” (Ninio & Snow, 1999, p. 349-350)

Where Brown (following Chomsky) presumed that the syntactic level of language could be studied in isolation, or even that language is syntax, subsequent work in child language acquisition has moved further and further into the study of pragmatics--of how talk is used to interpersonal ends, in social situations. (For an early and controversial study of child language in terms of its multiple functions c.f. Halliday’s Learning How to Mean, 1965.)

Jean Piaget (1896-1980)

“Piaget’s theory of the development of cognition was known in North America in the 1920’s (Piaget, 1923a). It is unclear why his theory and research were generally ignored until the late 1950s (Flavell, 1963). Some observers have speculated that the reason may lie in the ‘clinical,’ nonexperimental nature of his research methods, his nonstatistical style of data analysis, or the abstract constructs with which he was concerned, all of which ran counter to predominant trends in the United States” (Dixon, R. A., & Lerner, R. M. (1992). A history of systems in developmental psychology. In M. H. Bornstein & M. E. Lamb (Eds.), Developmental psychology: An advanced textbook, (3rd ed., pp. 3-58). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, p. 23.)


Diana Kuhn (1983), looking back on this early reception, considers the most visible portion of Piaget’s work to have been the “doctrine of stages.” Developmentalists attended to Piaget’s descriptions of structure--with associated notions of discontinuity, sequence, and structural whole--but neglected his descriptions of process: of a construction, directed towards adaptation, the progressively greater equilibrium between organism and environment, motivated by an effort to understand self and world.

Early introductions to Piaget’s work included:
Berlyne, D. E. (1957). Recent developments in Piaget's work. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 27, 1-12.
Martin, W. (1959/1960). Rediscovery of the mind of the child. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 6, 67-76.
Flavell, J. H. (1963). The developmental psychology of Jean Piaget. Princeton, N. J.: Van Nostrand

The speed and extent of the U.S. reception of Piaget’s work is shown by the fact that in 1969 APA awarded him its Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award.

To get a sense of the way Piaget was taken up we’ll look at Flavell’s book. Flavell was a graduate student at Clark University (remember Hall?), and credits Heinz Werner (author of The Comparative Psychology of Mental Development). But in many respects Flavell was a behaviorist; certainly an experimentalist. Flavell writes that his book on Piaget grew out of classes he started teaching in 1955.

In the introduction, Piaget describes his own work in the following terms: “my most central concern has always been to determine the contributions of the person’s activities and the limiting aspects of the object in the process of acquiring knowledge” (vii). He pointed out that he is a naturalist and biologist, interested in epistemological problems; and that this often leaves readers of his writing confused, making a tremendous effort focusing and reinterpreting “to unearth what is original and easily overlooked in the child’s successive stages of evolution” (ix).

Flavell describes Piaget’s research on development as rooted in an interest in finding the mediator between biology and epistemology. What is it that makes it possible for the human organism, the new born child, a biological entity, to come to have an appetite for epistemology: for logic and abstract knowledge of the world? What links the biological to the logical?

Piaget’s answer, as Flavell sees it, is that logic stems from the spontaneous organization of the human organism’s acts. External actions (and in turn thought as well) have a logical organization. From this organization logic arises.

Piaget’s strategy, so to speak, is to find a totality, a structured whole, in action, and identify kinds of equilibrium operating in and on that totality. The property of forming a structured whole, albeit of qualitatively different kinds, is common to the logical considerations of the epistemologist and to the earliest activities of the newborn infant.

Flavell identifies the central notions in Piaget’s account of development as a distinction between content and structure, and a distinction between structure and function. The function is a process of adaptation, which in turn can be considered a combination of, or a dynamic tension between, assimilation and accommodation. The stages Piaget described involve structural changes, with both qualitative similiarities and differences. They form an invarient sequence that is the result not of age--and so not of maturation, something readers of Piaget still misunderstand--but of adaptation. There are hierarchical relations among the stages, and each stage forms an integrated whole--the “structure d’ensemble.” A stage is the product of the organism’s efforts to move from disequilibrium to equilibrium. Yet within each stage we see “decalage” of two kinds: horizontal decalage, such as when mass is conserved before weight; and vertical decalage, such as formal similarity across levels.

The basic properties of cognitive functioning that Flavell identifies in Piaget’s account are those of organization, adaptation (assimilation and accommodation), and the concept of schema. Schema tend to be applied (this is “reproductive assimilation”) and they tend to be repeated (this is why the schema of infancy are called “circular reactions”). They tend to generalize to new objects (this is “generalizing assimilation”) and also tend towards differentiation (this is “recognitory assimilation”). These “tendencies” show the functional side of the structures.

Let's quickly move, with Flavell, through each of the stages:

Sensori-Motor Stage

Here Piaget can already find a practical logic, albeit elementary and operational: that of the “group.” A group is a mathematical entity comprised of certain elements and specific operations, with four fundamental properties. It is “closed” (an operation on an element in the group yields another element, but one which is still a member of the group); it has the property of “associativity” (if A, B and C are operations, (AxB)xC = Ax(BxC)); the property of identity (there exists operation I such that AxI = I); and the property of reversibility (for every operation A there is an operation A’ such that AxA’=I).

Piaget finds these properties in the infant’s actions. At first these practical groups exist, of course, only from an observer’s viewpoint. But eventially they exist for the infant too.

Preoperational Stage

The development of the capacity for representation, the appearance of the symbolic function, leads, for Piaget, to the new ability for mental action at the end of infancy, action that is interiorized, operating on signifiers rather than objects.

Accommodation, in the form of imitation, provides the first signifiers, images of objects that are internal, in thought. For example, when Lucienne opens and closes her mouth in imitation of the opening and closing match box, before opening the box to retrieve a hidden object, the signifiers is not yet fully covert and internalized, but it will soon become so.

The symbolic function has, Flavell points out, a four-fold potential. The potential to simultaneously grasp a series of events; the potential to engage in contemplation and reflection, not simply action; the potential to deal with non-tangible elements, ones that are abstract or hypothetical; and the potential to be socialized in the public medium of symbols and signs.

But as yet these potentials are far from being fulfilled. For example, considering the fourth potential, the first signifiers are, for Piaget, private symbols, not public signs. Verbal signs such as words are for Piaget not the basis of thought, but a later acquisition. (This was, of course, a point of debate and disagreement between Piaget and Vygotsky.)

As Piaget views it, the major limitation of preoperational thought is that the balance between assimilation and accomodation is not yet secure. We see this in the vascillations in early childhood between play (assimilation) and adapted intelligence. And this absense of a stable equilibrium is the source of the various deficits Piaget describes in preoperational thought: the child’s egocentrism (an inability to take other’s roles, no sense of a need to justify reasoning, no ability to think about one’s own thoughts), centration (the tendency to focus on one aspect of an object or situation), failure to conserve, thinking that is static and irreversible (since it represents only states, not the transitions between them), immobile (turgid and slow-paced, says Flavell), and concrete (running on lines of action, hence its realism). All these are properties of sensori-motor action, but now they are found on a new, mental plane.Such reasoning can be called “transductive.” The child is now capable of mental actions, but these actions are not “operations” in the technical sense in which Piaget uses this term. Hence the naming of this stage: intelligence in early childhood is “preoperational.”

Concrete Operations

The child’s reasoning now forms a coherent and integrated system of thought. Assimilation and accomodation are now in balance. Cognitive actions are now true operations: each forms part of an organized network of related acts. Intellectual development is a process of organization. What’s organized are active, intellectual operations, and they are progressively organized into systems with a definable structure. A system is like a “field of force” (169). An “actualized” operation presupposes a whole system of “potential” operations (167), i.e. properties of reversibility and associativity, which we found above on the practical level of the sensori-motor child.

Logical operations include adding, subtracting, numbering, classifying.

Infralogical operations include measurement and others dealing with quantity, space, and time.

Piaget describes this new cognitive system in terms of the logical structure called a “grouping.” Technically, a grouping has properties of both a “group” (see above) and a “lattice.” A lattice is a set of elements plus a relation defined between two or more elements. (For example, class inclusion is a lattice.) Concrete operations can be described in terms of two groups, one lattice (?), and nine groupings. Flavell describes each of these in detail.

But still this form of cognition deals mainly with what is immediately present; with the real, not with the possible.

And the system is not fully integrated. In terms of content, we see this in phenomena like horizontal decalage. In terms of structure, we see that the systems do not interlock, for example, negation and reciprocity are not coordinated.

Formal Operations

In this final stage of intellectual development there is a fundamental reorganization and reorientation. What is real is now subordinate to what is possible. This entails a reversal: the empirical becomes viewed as merely one possibility among many; the real becomes a subset, albeit a special one, of what is possible.

This makes possible reasoning that is hypothetico-deductive, that deals with hypothetical entities and states of affairs. Reasoning that is combinatorial, able to generate all the possibilities. Reasoning that is propositional, that operates not on objects and events or their properties, but on propositions (that’s to say, statements or assertions). We can say that such propositions were the results of concrete operations; reasoning can now operate on the results, the products, of its earlier forms.

The adolescent is now able to solve tasks in which several factors are varied at once: such as the four liquids task and the pizza problem.

Formally, such reasoning now forms a fully integrated complete lattice and complete group. Its substructure is formed by formal operational schemas: The adolescent can reason about such matters as proportions, probability, conservation (frictionless medium), mechanical equilibrium.

The lattice is a network of hypothetical possibilities; a logic of propositions rather than sinply class properties. (Technically, it is a combination of three concrete operational groupings: III, I and II.)

The group is a four-group, the INRC group, whose elements are four transformations: Identity, negation,reciprocity, and correlativity.

A double reversibility is now possible: compensation (reciprocal) as well as literal undoing (negation).

Flavell’s Assimilation of Piaget

A sense of how Piaget’s work was assimilated by Flavell can be gained by looking at Flavell’s critique: what he calls “idiosyncracies of the system” (33). He finds a great deal of vagueness, of imprecision, of instability of concept definition... (427). In short, he is critical of Piaget's:

  • holism
  • the "saturation" of math & logic: as both topic& explanation
  • saturation of physics: ditto; systems in equilibrium
  • saturation of biology: as theory, model of org. env interaction
  • Piaget provides description & explanation, but not prediction
  • experiments demonstrate theory, rather than test its validity
  • ‘loose’ v ‘tight’ concepts
  • the over-large ratio of discussion to data
  • the symmetry & neatness, penchant for - Hegel?
  • logical-analytical approach
  • data viewed in philosophical context
  • relative isolation from other work

The basis of these criticisms is that Flavell misunderstands the relationshipship between theory and data in Piaget’s work. Despite his grasp of the theoretical complexities and mathematical formalism of Piaget’s analysis, Flavell continues to view it through the lenses of an experimentalist, hypothesis-testing conception of psychological research. He organizes his book into sections titled The Theory and The Experiments, as though the theoretical and empirical components of Piaget’s work are separable. (Cf. an exchange between Stuart Hamlyn and Stephen Toulmin in Walter Mischel’s 1971 edited collection, Cognitive Development and Epistemology, New York: Academic Press. Hamlyn complains that Piaget doesn’t sufficently separate theory and empirical data; Toulmin--who studied with Wittgenstein at Cambridge--patiently explains how data are theory-laden, apparently a new idea at the time.)

In an introduction to Flavell’s book, written in 1962, Piaget politely complains “It seems clear that Prof. Flavell is more interested in the experiments than in the theory, which sometimes gives me the impression--perhaps not of having been misunderstood, but, if you will, of having been understood on certain issues more from without than from within” (vii).

And, in turn, Flavell complains that Piaget doesn’t really understand his book!.

The flavor of Flavell’s interpretation of Piaget is indicated by the fact that there is no mention of ‘structuralism’ in the index of the book (or of Chomsky, or de Saussure, for that matter). And Piaget was of course a structuralist. Structuralism assumes quite a different relationship between theory and data than does hypothesis-testing (positivist) experimentalism. The structuralist seeks abstractions that are imputed to the organism: the posited abstractions have a psychological reality (Cf. John Broughton’s papers, cited below). The structure is presumed to be an abstract competence that ‘underlies’ performance, not a theory to be ‘tested’ against the data. The point is subtle, but important. [It would be interesting to explore whether Chomsky--also a structuralist--was misunderstood in a similar way by psycholinguists.]

Piaget’s logic is not a hypothetical model, it is both abstract and reality. It is an abstraction from what is empirically given, and at the same time it is proposed as what generates the phenomenon.

Chronology of Piaget’s work and publications:

(Original date/English publication)

a. Early work: 1921 - 1925.

Questioning children: led to notions such as animism and realism.
The Language and Thought of the Child (1926)
Judgment and Reasoning in the Child (1928)
The Child's Conception of the World (/1929)
The Child's Conception of Physical Causality (/1930)
The Moral Judgment of the Child (1932/1965)

b. Infancy work: 1923-1929.

With his own three children: led to notions of assimilation and accommodation.
The Construction of Reality in the Child (1937/1955)
The Origins of Intelligence (1936/1954)

c. Explorations of pedagogy: 1929-1939.

Reflections leading to Introduction to Genetic Epistemology (3 vols) (1950/)
Resumption of studies on number & quantity in middle childhood. led to structural model of grouping; logico-mathematical models, esp 1937 on.
The Child’s Conception of Number (1941/1952)
The Development of Quantities in the Child (Piaget & Inhelder) (1941/)
Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood [La formation du symbole chez l'enfant; imitation, jeu et rÍve, image et reprÈsentation.](1945/1962)
La reprÈsentation de l'espace chez l'enfant (1948)
La reprÈsentation du monde chez l'enfant (1947)

d. Geneva Lab, 1940-1963.

Lectures in Manchester during WWII:
The Psychology of Intelligence (1950)
Logic and Psychology (1953??1957)

i. Studies of space, time, probability, movement

Including studies of adolescence:
The Growth of Logical Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence (Piaget & Inhelder) (1958)

ii. Perception studies (v. intellectual structures)

iii. Problems in genetic epistemology.

Annual student visitors.
Introduction to Genetic Epistemology 3 vols. (1950)
The Origins of Intelligence in Children (1952)
Structuralism (1968/1988)
The Principles of Genetic Epistemology (1970/1972)

Further Reading:

Broughton, J. M. (1981). Piaget's structural developmental psychology: I. Piaget and structuralism.

Human Development, 24, 78-109.
Broughton, J. M. (1981). Piaget's structural developmental psychology: II. Logic and psychology. Human Development, 24, 195-224.
Broughton, J. M. (1981). Piaget's structural developmental psychology. III. Function and the problem of knowledge. Human Development, 24, 257-285.

It is helpful to summarize each stage as involving interesting 'errors' (viewed from an adult point of view) and novel constructions. Piaget seeks to reconstruct the underlying logic of each stage, and what we might call its central developmental issues.

Stage Interesting errors Constructions Underlying Logic Issues



Origins of Intelligence

Construction of Reality

A-not-B error

construction of reality

e.g. object permanence

The two sides...

Origins of Intelligence: structure

Construction of Reality: interpretation

Space, Time, Causality, Object

practical groups(subjective objective)

Structure & function.



Kant's categories: Trans analytic

Group logic...

Structuralism: Levi-Strauss

Discovery of self=discovery of world



Play, Dreams & Imitation

Early books:


Play-doh task:


lack of conservation



egocentrism, centration, static & immobile,

concrete, irreversible, transductive reasoning

4 potentials [see above]

Slow evolution of the symbolic function

But (PDI) schema & object not differentiated

Mental action, but absence of stable equilibrium.

Primacy of assimilation=play

Primacy of accommodation= imitation

signifier [recall absent objects to mind]/signified [provided by thought]

Conditions for possibility of representation [not language]

reworked on a new level

private symbols-> public signs

socialization of thought by language

concrete operational.

All the content books

New quality of thought; "solid cognitive bedrock, something flexible and plastic and yet consistent and enduring" (Flavell, 165).

But doesn't deal with the potential





Quantity, measurement, S, T.

Number, addn, sub., classification

A system of thought, with permanent equil.

Now operations.

"Grouping"=group+ lattice

Infralogical ops


Logical ops






9 Groupings... class, relations

2 groups...arithmetic


Structural homologues

formal operations

4 liquids task.


Pizza problem.


Balance beam. 

Abstract reasoning.


hypothetico-deductive, propositional, combinatorial.

Mental action not on objects, events, properties, but on propositions, assertions, statements.

INRC group;

2 kinds of negation.

Full reflexivity: see Levi-Strauss on structuralism [ below]


Individual as subject of knowledge, and object of knowledge.


Formal Operational Intelligence

Levi-Strauss writes in Totemism:

“The method we adopt... consists in the following operations:
1. define the phenomenon under study as a relation between two or more terms, real or supposed:
2) construct a table of possible permutations between these terms;
3) take this table as the general object of analysis which, at this level only, can yield necessary connections, the empirical phenomenon considered at the beginning being only one possible combination among others, the complete system of which must be constructed beforehand” (Totemism, cited in Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982, p. xvi).

This of course sounds exactly like formal operational thinking! We're seeing here another reflexivity to Piaget’s work. It’s often said that Piaget was interested in the child’s becoming a scientist; it would be more accurate to say that his interest was the child’s becoming a structuralist.



4. Cultural context framework

  The fourth, and most recent, theoretical framework in the history of psychology is the topic of a separate section of these web pages, to which the link above will transport you!

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Cultural Psychology
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