Publication 4651

Goodwin B. C. (2009) Genetic epistemology and constructionist biology. Biological Theory 4(2): 115–124. Fulltext at https://cepa.info/4651
Excerpt: Crossing the frontiers between conventional areas of study such as biology, psychology, and philosophy and seeking common themes that could unite them is a hazardous business. This is not only because of the absence of guidelines in the no-man’s-land between the occupied territories and the consequent danger of losing one’s way. More significantly, if the adventure has any consequences it will entail quite deep reorganizations of familiar patterns of thought within the separate disciplines, and such disturbance is always unpopular. However, a consistent reading of Piaget’s long, fruitful, and distinguished career sees all his scientific and intellectual endeavors stemming from a deeply-held conviction that the manifestation of intelligence is an inevitable logical consequence of the laws governing biological evolution, so that he inevitably found himself struggling to bring order to an unruly interdisciplinary domain. Thus, the articulation of transformation laws in the realm of developmental psychology (understood by Piaget as a particular aspect of biological process), which preoccupied him for much of his career, was no more than a necessary precursor to the more general task of describing the principles underlying the unifying generative foundations of biological and cognitive phenomena. This unification has the consequence that, under Piaget’s constructionist hypothesis whereby one realm of order arises out of another by a process of manifestation from a condition of latency or virtuality, the virtual domain for cognitive phenomena lies in organic life, in biology. This creative unfolding may be regarded as a part of the study he called genetic epistemology. The adjective “genetic” is not to be understood here in the narrow biological sense that connects it with genes, but in its proper sense relating to genesis, denoting both the problem of logical (necessary) origins as governed by law, and historical origins related to contingencies; i.e., it is the real problem of creation, or what Piaget preferred to call construction. This unites both structuralist and functionalist methods of analysis and description, Piaget steering boldly between what he saw as the Scylla of empiricist reductionism and the Charbydis of static, preformed idealist concepts, constructing a new world in his passage between these seductive polarities which have brought shipwreck to so much biological thought. To take on both these traditions and attempt a new synthesis and clarification over such a range of disciplines is not a modest endeavor; but then, Piaget was not a modest man.
Originally published in Revue Internationale de Philosophie 36: 527–548, 1982.

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