I have spent thirty years studying human intelligence. I studied psychology at university, and was struck by how very little (or at least, how very little that was plausible) academic psychologists had to say about any of the big questions about human beings. What is consciousness? What is reason? Are we different from other species, and if so in what sense and how has this break come about? What is history and how does it work?
They all struck me as quite sensible questions, but I soon learned that I would have to look elsewhere for answers.
But there was at least one very major exception to this dismal finding: Jean Piaget. At least on the individual plane he seemed to have view of intelligence:
- that was rigorous, that addressed the problem of rationality unsparingly but without caving into psychologism,
- that related itself quite naturally to other key problems such as development, language, emotion, sociality, the possibility of an artificial intelligence, and so on;
- that might support even the largest questions of consciousness and human history
If you don’t know very much about Piaget, this may seem an odd assessment – isn’t he the educational psychologist? Haven’t his ideas been refuted? Well, a decided No to both.
Piaget was a Grade A European intellectual of astonishing range and depth, and it is almost a pity that he ever wrote about education. His real value was to create a view of cognition and intelligence in general that is astonishingly rigorous and universal. That may be why he is neglected, of course: the academic disciplines that should be most affected by his massive research and countless writings are (I’m afraid to say) intellectually quite feeble. Where he should have been the Newton of his day, he was treated to a barrage of ill-informed exposition, analysis and ‘refutation’.
So what has this to do with my book? Well, having decided that Piaget could, in principle at least, provide the underpinning for a comprehensive model of human nature – including history, consciousness and everything in between – I started to think through the larger connections in human experience. Suddenly it struck me (while walking home from a second-year undergraduate seminar, as it happens) that there was a very close analogy between the general stages in Piaget’s stages of cognitive development and the general structures that define major historical systems – capitalism, feudalism, some aspects of tribal society and so on. In fact the resemblance was so close that they could be regarded as the same structures playing themselves out on different planes – the social and the psychic.