“The child explains the man just as much, and often even more, than the man explains the child.”
Jean Piaget in Excenevex (France), July 1921
The rich intellectual biography of Jean Piaget is based on the work of many researchers, initiated more than half a century ago. From a brilliant teenage prodigy to a career that made him “the most famous citizen of Geneva in the world” (La Suisse, 17/09/1980), superlatives have been used to describe this ” most famous and influential Swiss scientist abroad” (L’Illustré, 07/08/1952). Here are a few glimpses of his biography.
Jean Piaget is born in 1896 in an affluent social environment. His mother Rebecca Jackson is descended from the great Protestant families linked to the French steel industry, while his father, Arthur, is a historian and professor of language and literature at the Academy of Neuchâtel and the State Archive. During his childhood he shows multiple interests and his vocation as a naturalist is consolidated during adolescence, when he appropriates the methods of zoology by applying them to the molluscs of the lakes. During his secondary studies, Jean is recognized as a malacologist for his skills as a naturalist and his involvement in networks of international specialists. His interest in biology moves from classification to the problem of the relationship between knowledge and evolution, nourished by numerous philosophical readings. At that time, he reads many books, including philosophy, science, sociology, theology and psychology. In addition, he was a member of many local associations, such as the “club of the friends of nature”, “Jeunesses Chrétiennes” and the socialist movements, a prelude to his later membership of many societies of science, philosophy and humanities.
After spending his youth in Neuchâtel, Jean Piaget moved to Geneva in 1921, the city where most of his life and academic career would take place. He will marry a modern woman, Valentine Châtenay, from a family with a philanthropic and socialist tradition. They met at the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute in Geneva and were married in 1923. From this marriage will be born three children, Jacqueline, in 1925, Lucienne, in 1927 and Laurent, in 1930. Jean and Valentine will document their observations of these children’s development, setting the foundation for the seminal works of developmental psychology. From these observations three of the most important works of scientific psychology of the 20th century, were born (The origins of intelligence in children, 1936, The construction of reality in the child, 1937, and Play, dreams and imitation in childhood, 1945).
Jean Piaget was introduced to the academic world at a very early age through his first works in malacology (1913-1916). After two study stays in Zurich and Paris, he joined the Rousseau Institute of Educational Sciences in 1921 as head of the psychology laboratory. The University of Neuchâtel appointed him as professor of psychology, philosophy and sociology in 1925, but he returned to Geneva in 1929 as co-director of the Institute and director of the International Bureau of Education. His reputation was recognised abroad with an Honorary Doctorate from Harvard in 1936. At the same time, he taught sociology in Geneva and then in Lausanne. In 1940, he was appointed Director of the Institute and Professor of Experimental Psychology. He took part in the reconstruction of Europe after the war and within UNESCO, where he was Director in 1949. In 1952, he was elected professor at the Sorbonne, a position he held until the early 1960s. He was called to lecture throughout Europe, the United States, South America and the USSR. In 1955 he founded the International Center for Genetic Epistemology, to which he would dedicate the rest of his life, since his retirement in 1971 did not change his research habits. He died in September 1980, considered an international celebrity.
Piaget, far from being an isolated and refractory erudite, considers friendship to be an unquestionable value, as attested by certain letters and testimonies. He cultivates close friendships from adolescence; intellectual friendships, often mixed with admiration and enthusiasm, forged during his many travels; as well as friendships with students from the Rousseau Institute, for whom, as Elisabeth de Miribel wrote, the greatest legacy is that of “learning to be free”. All these relationships are cultivated during discussions, parties or meals, as well as during group trips or during activities in the academic world. These friendships also have a Socratic aspect, as a former Piaget collaborator testifies. In these relationships the other of the interaction becomes “more intelligent”.
Grilling in the garden of a Piaget colleague on the occasion of her 75th birthday, 1971. Photo Jean-Rémy Berthoud
The 80th anniversary cake representing the books of Jean Piaget…, 1976. Photo Charles Brulhart
The 80th birthday party, 1976. Photo Charles Brulhart