The Competitiveness of Nations

in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

Harry Hillman Chartrand

April 2002

Jean Piaget                                                        


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The social and human sciences have their own series of epistemological problems.  But there are two quite distinct types of question to be considered in this connexion: questions concerning the research worker as such, or, in other words, those that are proper to the epistemology of his branch of study as a particular form of scientific knowledge; and those that concern the subject of study himself, who, since he is a human being, is a source of knowledge and indeed the starting-point of all the knowledge - whether artless, technical, scientific, etc. - available to the various societies, which is the origin of the human sciences.  By grouping interdisciplinary problems around realities - structures or rules, values and meanings - that are common to them all, we have referred to the three great manifestations of the activity of this natural subject; it remains in conclusion for us to see how the human sciences regard this subject as a subject, for this is perhaps one of the most promising points of convergence to be kept in mind for the future, although it has not yet been sufficiently analysed.

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19. The development of knowledge and the epistemology of the human subject

All the social and human sciences are more or less closely concerned, in their diachronic aspects, with the development of knowledge.  The economic history of human societies would not be complete without a history of techniques, and the latter is of basic importance in relation to the growth of the sciences.  Pre-historical anthropology is an extension of these studies, and brings in all the problems of the transition from behaviour involving the use of tools (which has been studied closely among the Anthropoids) to techniques in the proper sense.  Social and cultural anthropology opens up extremely important questions concerning the formation of group pre-logic or logic, as related to social and


family organization, economic life, myths and language.  And this problem of logic in tribal civilizations has by no means been solved; indeed, it requires not only detailed psychological experimentation, which has not yet been developed in this comparative form, but also careful comparison, in each society, between practical or technical intelligence and discursive or merely verbal thought.  Linguistics provides us with basic material concerning the oral or written expression of cognitive structures such as numeration systems, classifications, systems of relations and so on.

The two main branches of science, in connexion with the formation of the tools of cognition - the sociology of knowledge and genetic psychology - are complementary.  The socio-genesis of knowledge shows us both the progressive, co-operative construction of movements of ideas as they are transmitted and developed, from one generation to another, and the effects of the numerous obstacles that slow down or divert the progress of ideas.  The historical sociology of knowledge, for instance, which is bound to depend increasingly on the history of ideas, sciences and techniques, should be able to throw light on phenomena as momentous as the Greek miracle or the decay of Greek knowledge in the time of Alexander, and it will at once be seen that this last problem, for which the human sciences should provide some solution, cannot be solved except by comparing economic and social factors with the inner evolution of concepts and principles whose initial imperatives might furnish reasons for their subsequent sterility.

Genetic psychology and comparative psychology (including ethology) are far from dealing with such central facts, but their great advantage is that they are concerned with series that are not so incomplete and, most important, can be reproduced at will.  An example of this is the construction of whole or ‘natural’ numbers.  All the data collected by the foregoing branches of knowledge show that the elaboration of such numbers is common in the different civilizations, and also that the levels reached differ widely, but none of these facts show us the construction itself; we know only its results.  On the other hand, although a young child is surrounded by adults who teach him to count, and although the form of expression he uses includes a system of numeration, yet one can easily, by means of carefully-planned experiments, go back to stages where the term ‘numbers’ cannot yet be used because numerical sets are not conserved (5 items are not 5 if their arrangement in space is changed, and so on), and by starting at such stages it is possible to observe the mechanism by which number is constituted through purely logical operations, yet by making a fresh synthesis of the operations of inclusion and arrangement in order.  Such information, therefore, throws light on ethnographic and historical data, which would be superfluous if we could go back to the mental activity of prehistoric man - but that, unhappily, is impossible in a sphere such as the origin of number.  On the other hand, information of this kind gives rise to fresh problems of logic, and not only has this genetic construction been formalized (J. B. Grize and U. Granger), but it has also been shown that, implicitly but necessarily, its essential aspects were found in all the models elaborated by logicians concerning the transition from classes or relations to numbers.  Thirdly, it is instructive to compare such

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facts with zoopsychological data as to the way in which animals learn about numbers (experiments carried out by W. Köhler and others).

Another instructive example is that of notions of space, for which we have ample ethnographic and historical data, but again insufficient information about the way in which they were arrived at.  But in this sphere we find a somewhat paradoxical situation as regards relations between history and theory.  For the history of geometry shows that the Greeks began by systematizing the properties of Euclidean space in a remarkable way.  They also had certain intuitions about projective space, but did not succeed in establishing an analogy or in evolving any really topological theory.  Projective geometry did not emerge as an independent branch of science until the seventeenth century, and topology finally came into its own in the nineteenth century - at the time when non-Euclidian geometries were being discovered.  But from the standpoint of theoretical construction, topology is the starting-point of the geometrical edifice, and from it proceed projective geometry on the one hand and general metrics on the other (whence the differentiation between Euclidian and non-Euclidian).  Now genetic psychology and studies of perception show that natural development is actually nearer to theory than to history, the latter having inverted the genetic order by starting with the results and only subsequently going back to the sources (a common proceeding, which of itself demonstrates the value of comparisons between psychological genesis and historical evolution).  For on the one hand the study of the formation of space structures in children shows that topological structures precede the two others and are the pre-requisite of their formation, whilst later on projective and Eucidian structures emerge concurrently.  On the other hand, Luneburg thought he could prove that elementary perceptive space was Riemannian and not Euclidian (perception of parallels, etc.), which is perhaps an exaggeration, but at least appears to show that there is an undifferentiated situation from which Euclidian structures are organized only secondarily.

Many other examples could be given concerning the notions of time, speed, causality and so on, and physicists have even been known to use the findings of psychogenesis as to the initial independence of ordinal ideas of speed as related to duration.  Thus the facts that have been ascertained, taken together, show that interdisciplinary collaboration is possible in the sphere of the epistemology of the human subject in general, and that this epistemology of natural thought links up with the great problems of the epistemology of scientific knowledge.  This is a special case of the study of structures (under it), but it has a very wide significance.


20. Re-combination through ‘hybridization’

The foregoing considerations show that the human sciences, in so far as they necessarily include in their field of study the subject of knowledge - the source of the logical and mathematical structures on which indeed they depend - do not merely maintain a set of interdisciplinary relations between one another, the need for which we attempted to demonstrate in Parts i—iv, but are part of an extensive circuit or network that really covers all the sciences (this was clear


in any case owing to their relations with biology; cf. section 2).  It was essential to recall this so as to be able to shape our conclusions in such a way that they might succeed in revealing the true significance of interdisciplinary relations.

For their significance far exceeds that of a mere tool for facilitating work, which is all they would amount to if used solely in a common exploration of the boundaries of knowledge.  This way of viewing collaboration between specialists in different branches of knowledge would be the only possible one if we admitted a thesis to which far too many research workers still unwittingly cling - that the frontiers of each branch of science are fixed once and for all, and that they will inevitably remain so in the future.  But the main object of a work such as this, a work that deals with trends and not with results, with the perspectives and the prospective study of the human sciences and not merely with their present state, is rather to make clear that in fact the object of any innovatory trend is to push back the frontiers horizontally and to challenge them transversally.  The true object of interdisciplinary research, therefore, is to reshape or reorganize the fields of knowledge by means of exchanges which are in fact constructive recombinations.

Indeed, one of the most striking features of the scientific movements of recent years is the increased number of new branches of knowledge born precisely from the union of neighbouring fields of study, but in fact adopting new goals that impact upon the parent sciences and enrich them.  We might speak of a sort of ‘hybridization’ between two fields of study that were originally heterogeneous, but the metaphor is meaningless unless the term ‘hybrid’ is understood not in the meaning it had in classical biology fifty years ago, when hybrids were thought of as infertile, or at least impure, but as the ‘genetic re-combinations’ of contemporary biology, which prove more balanced and better adapted than pure genotypes, and which are gradually replacing mutations in our conceptions of the mechanism of evolution.  There are many fruitful hybridizations in the natural sciences, from topological algebra to biophysics, biochemistry and the young science of quantum biophysics.  A movement of much smaller scope but comparable in spirit has produced several new branches of study in the sciences of man and we may by way of conclusion describe these hybridizations, trying to bring out their productive significance for the parent sciences from which they sprang.

Those branches of knowledge which have come into being simply through the refinement of mathematical or statistical methods and through being more closely synthesized with experimentation should not be classified amongst these new branches of knowledge born of re-combinations.  Econometry, for instance, may in one sense enrich mathematics, but solely because of the problems it produces- for mathematics to solve.  The games theory was known to Emile Borel (1921—1927) quite apart from its applications to economics, and the mathematician Von Neumann’s general theorem (minimum maximorum) dates from 1928, whereas his collaboration with the economist Morgenstern dates from 1937.  Nevertheless, as we have seen, the study of economic behaviour has established valuable links with psychology and other sciences, and there is no need to mention the numerous other applications of the games theory.

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On the other hand, a genuine ‘hybridization’, with fruitful re-combinations, is that of psycholinguistics, for it enriches both psychology - obviously - and linguistics itself, inasmuch as only this new branch of science leads to systematic studies of the individual’s use of language, which, on the contrary, is institutionalized.  Doubtless much, too, may be expected from ‘sociolinguistics’, in which Greenberg and others have undertaken studies combining linguistics and sociology.

Social psychology is as useful to sociology as to psychology, on which it confers a new dimension; and while social psychologists sometimes display that kind of imperialism that is the mark of a science in its youth, it is also a sign of independence and an augury of syntheses to come.

Ethology, or zoopsychology, is today undertaken by professional zoologists as much as - indeed, more than - by psychologists, and it unquestionably enriches biology (especially with regard to the theory of selection, by showing that the animal chooses and fashions his environment as much as it is conditioned by the latter), while at the same time it makes a unique contribution to psychology, in particular in the analysis of the cognitive functions (instinct, learning and intelligence).

The author must be forgiven for laying equal stress on the experiment undertaken in genetic epistemology in the last ten years or so, or the study of the formation and building up of knowledge.  In the study of the development of logical, mathematical, kinematical and other structures, the international centre set up for this purpose in Geneva has always encouraged psychologists to collaborate with logicians, mathematicians, cyberneticians, physicists and so on.  Now, genetic epistemology is on the one hand a new branch of science, which results from the hybridization of epistemology (especially in its ‘historico-critical’ methods) and genetic psychology.  And it serves both at once, for, as the logician S. Papert has said, in order to understand man we must know something of epistemology, and in order to understand epistemology we must have a knowledge of man.

In a sense, therefore, the situation of these new and essentially interdisciplinary branches of science confirms what was said (in section I) about situations in which the link between a ‘higher’ (in the sense of ‘more complex’) and a ‘lower’ field results neither in a reduction of the first to the second nor in greater heterogeneity of the first, but in mutual assimilation such that the second explains the first, but does so by enriching itself with properties not previously perceived, which afford the necessary link.  In the case of the human sciences, in which there can be no question of growing complexity or of declining generality, because all aspects are to be found everywhere, and because delimitation of the different fields is a process of abstraction rather than a question of hierarchy, mutual assimilation is still more necessary and there is no danger of vitiating the specificity of phenomena.  The difficulties, however, are considerable.  But, apart from the difference between various forms of university training, which is undoubtedly the main obstacle to be overcome, the common logico-mathematical techniques that are gradually coming into general use are at once the best indication of the convergence that is called for and the best means of effecting a junction.


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