The Genetic Epistemology of Jean Piaget

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Jean Piaget (1896–1980) is known for his contributions to developmental psychology and educational theory. His name is associated especially with Stage Theory. That we believe him to have focused solely on cognitive development, however, is not because he did. This is instead the result of the popularization of his writings in the United States during the Cold War. (A period of crisis and subsequent education reform.) The overpowering influence of those interests blinded us to his larger framework, which he called “genetic epistemology,” and of which his stages were just a part. To address the resulting and continuing misunderstandings, this entry essay presents original historical scholarship—distilling over a thousand pages of archival documents (correspondence, diary entries, budgets, and reports)—to provide an insider’s look at Piaget’s research program from the perspective of the Rockefeller Foundation: genetic epistemology’s primary funding agency in the United States from the mid-1950s through the early-1960s. The result is therefore an examination of how a group of interested Americans came to understand Piaget’s writings in French in the period just prior to their wider popularization in English, as well as of how Piaget presented himself and his ideas during the reconstruction of Europe after World War II. My goal, however, is not to summarize the whole of this misunderstood program. Instead, I aim to provide a source of archivally-grounded perspective that will allow for new insights about the Genevan School that are unrelated to American Cold War interests. In the process, we also derive new means to see how Piaget’s experimental examinations of the development of individual knowledge served to inform his team’s investigations of the evolution of science (and vice versa).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOxford Research Encyclopedia of the History of Modern Psychology
EditorsWade Pickren, Peter Hegarty, Cheryl Logan, Wahbie Long, Petteri Pettikainen, Alexandra Rutherford
PublisherOxford University Press
Publication statusPublished - 25-Mar-2021

Publication series

NameThe Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology
PublisherOxford University Press


  • Jean Piaget
  • Rockefeller Foundation
  • stage theory of cognitive development
  • experimental philosophy
  • developmental epistemology
  • naturalized epistemology before Quine
  • analyticity debate
  • Cold War history of human science

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