QUESTION: What about the late Jean Piaget? Where do you stand on his theories of the child's mental development?
CHOMSKY: Piaget's position is different: it's more complex than Skinner's. Piaget held that the child passes through cognitive states. According to my understanding of the Piagetian literature, Piaget and his supporters were never really clear about what produced a new stage of cognitive development. What they could have said -- though they seemed to shy away from it -- is that cognitive development is a genetically determined maturational process like puberty, for example. That's what the Piagetians ought to say. They don't like this formulation but it seems right to me.
QUESTION: In other words, Piagetians place much more emphasis on the role of experience in cognitive development than you do. Are there other differences as well?
CHOMSKY: Yes. Piagetians maintain that the mind develops as a whole rather than as a modular structure with specific capacities developing in their own ways. This is a possible hypothesis but, in fact, it seems to be extremely wrong.
QUESTION: How do you mean?
CHOMSKY: Well, consider the properties that determine the reference of pronouns that we talked about earlier. Once you ferret out these rules for pronouns, they seem to have nothing in common with the logical operations that Piagetians single out as being typical of the early stages of the child's mental development.
QUESTION: In other words, a four-year-old who may not realize that the amount of water stays the same when you pour the contents of a low, wide glass into a tall, thin container nevertheless displays sophisticated logical abilities in his grasp of the complex rules of English grammar?
CHOMSKY: Yes. And these abilities are independent of the logical capacities measured by tests. There's just no resemblance between what a child does with blocks and the kind of knowledge he displays of English grammar at the same age. In fact, I think it's sort of quixotic to expect tight interconnections between language development and growth in other mental domains. By and large, body systems develop in their own ways at their own rates. They interact, but the circulatory system doesn't wait until the visual system reaches a certain stage of organization before proceeding to imitate the visual system's organizational complexity. Cognitive growth shouldn't be different in this respect either. As far as we know, it isn't.
QUESTION: That position does not suit contemporary "human sciences."
CHOMSKY: Especially not behaviorist psychology, or perhaps even Piaget, though his position seems to me obscure in crucial respects. Piaget considers himself to be an anti-empiricist; but some of his writings suggest to me that he is mistaken in this conclusion. Piaget develops a certain "constructive interactionism": new knowledge is constructed through interaction with the environment. But the fundamental question is evaded: How is this knowledge constructed, and why just this kind of knowledge and not some other? Piaget does not give any intelligible answer, as far as I can make out. The only answer that I can imagine is to suppose an innate genetic structure which determines the process of maturation. Insofar as he considers it wrong to give such an answer, he falls back into something like the empiricism that he wants to reject. What he postulates is nowhere near sufficient, it seems to me, to account for the specific course of cognitive development.
That is not to deny the very great importance of the research that has been conducted by Piaget and his group at Geneva; it has opened up entirely new perspectives in the study of human knowledge. It is primarily the interpretation of their results which seems extremely doubtful to me, in particular their attitude toward what Piaget calls "innéisme," which seems to me altogether wrong.
In philosophy, the same problems appear in some of the work of Quine, for example. At times, he asserts that theories are developed by induction, which he identifies with conditioning. At other times he says the opposite: theories are not determined solely by conditioning or induction, but involve abstract hypotheses ultimately originating from some innate capacity. In recent years he has oscillated between these two positions.
QUESTION: The tendency of thought which has fought hardest against the independence of grammar as a "mental organ" is without doubt functionalism. It tends to explain the form of language by attributing a determining role to its function. This function is presumed to be communication: everything in language must contribute to communication, to a better communication, and inversely, nothing is linguistic which does not contribute to communication. Isn't that a fairly accurate portrait?
CHOMSKY: Functionalism holds that the use of language influences its form. This might be understood as a variant of empiricist doctrine about language learning, one that makes very little sense, as far as I can see. But we might understand the fundamental ideas quite differently. For example, George Miller and I suggested about fifteen years ago that there may be a "functional explanation" for the organization of language with grammatical transformations, which would be a well-designed system corresponding to a certain organization of short- and long-term memory, for example.
If one could demonstrate that, it would be interesting. But what does that mean, basically? What would the analogous observation mean for some physical organ, say the heart? To be sure, the heart has a function: to pump blood. One may sensibly say that the structure of the heart is determined by that function. But suppose we ask the ontogenetic question: How does our heart become what it is? How does it grow in the individual from the embryo to its final form in the mature organism? The answer is not functional: the heart does not develop in the individual because it would be useful to carry out a certain function, but rather because the genetic program determines that it will develop as it does.
Every organ has certain functions, but these functions do not determine the ontogenetic development of the organism. Nobody would suggest that a group of cells decides that perhaps it would be a good idea to become a heart because such an organ is necessary to pump blood. If this group of cells becomes a heart, it is due to the information present in the genetic code, which determines the structure of the organism.
There is a place for functional explanation, but it is on the level of evolution. It is possible that a heart develops in the course of evolution in order to satisfy a certain function. Of course, I'm simplifying enormously. But this is a point that is useful to keep in mind: functional explanation does not relate to the way organs develop in the individual.
Let's go back to linguistics: here comparable remarks can be made. To my knowledge, no functional principle with very great plausibility has yet been proposed. But suppose that someone proposes a principle which says: The form of language is such-and-such because having that form permits a function to be fulfilled -- a proposal of this sort would be appropriate at the level of evolution (of the species, or of language), not at the level of acquisition of language by an individual, one would suppose.
Please see p325 in the pdf of the second quote. This summary explains how Piaget lost the debate set up between Chomsky and him and the watching scientists mainly biologists swung behind Chomsky’s theory. This was the start of the split between cognitive science and educational research. Piaget’s absolute belief in the failed evolutionary theory of Lamarckism which you can find more about why it is wrong simply here and in more detail here.